This section is based on an article entitled “Highlights of Human Embryology in the Koran and Hadith” by Dr. Keith Moore, Professor of Anatomy and Chairman of the department, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 1982.
Human beings have always been intrigued by questions such as: Where they came from? How they developed before birth. We know from the earliest records that primitive peoples realized that the birth of a baby was the result of sexual union or intercourse. However, for many centuries the idea of human prenatal development was based on speculation and mysticism. Aristotle wrote the first embryology book in the fourth century BC. In it he recorded some observations on comparative embryology, especially on the general progress of the developing chick. He promoted, however, the incorrect idea that the human embryo developed from a formless mass that resulted from the union of semen with menstrual blood.
Scientific knowledge of embryology did not progress significantly for nearly 2000 years. It was not until near the end of the 17th century, when the microscope was invented, that the early stages of human development could be effectively studied. After it was possible to examine cells under the microscope, it was reasoned in the 18th century that embryonic development resulted from the growth and differentiation of embryonic cells.
The realization that the embryo develops in stages in the uterus was not discussed or proven until the 15th century, although Galen mentioned the placenta and fetal membranes in his book “On the Formation of the Fetus” written in the second century AD. Galen must have known about the uterus. After the microscope was developed in the 17th century, descriptions of the early stages of the developing chick were made as observed with simple lenses. The staging of human embryos was not proposed until the 1942 by Streeter, and the stages as we know them now were not adopted worldwide until a few decades ago. The Glorious Quran refers to the embryonic stages and the uterus as follows:
Surah 39, Ayah 6 “…He creates you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness. Such is Allah, your Lord and Cherisher. To Him belongs (all) dominion. There is no God but He: Then how are ye turned away (from your true Lord)?”
It is realistic to interpret the three veils of darkness in the above Ayah as follows:
1. The mother’s abdominal wall.
2. The uterus wall.
3. The surroundings of the fetus (placenta, embryonic membranes, amniotic fluid).
The above three anatomical layers protect the embryo from external injury. The above Ayah refers to the stages of embryonic development without giving any details about these stages.
Before proceeding in describing the embryonic stages as narrated in the Quran, it is important to define the following Arabic words that are used in the Quran:
Nutfah: a drop of sperm; zygote.
Alakah: something that clings; leech-like structure; blood clot.
Mudgah: piece of flesh; bead-like segmental masses of flesh; like chewed gum with teeth marks.
It is interesting to note that B. Sproul translates “Nutfah” into “moist germ” in his book “Primal Myths”! This distorted translation implicates that the Holy Quran fades in its validity.
A human being develops from a single cell, the zygote, which forms when an ovum (Latin for egg) is fertilized by a sperm (Greek for seed). The Quran refers to this process as follows:
Surah 32, Ayah 8 “And made his progeny from the quintessence of a despised liquid”
Surah 75, Ayah 37 “Was he (Man) not a drop of sperm emitted (in lowly form)?
Surah 76, Ayah 2 “Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm”
The above Ayat make it clear that the sperms are derived from a very small part of the fluid or the semen that is ejaculated from the penis. They are expelled from the urethra via the same route followed by the urine that is sometimes referred to as a “despised fluid.” There are other references in the Quran to the origin of man from a small quantity of “mingled fluids”, undoubtedly the male and female sexual secretions. The resulting mixture (drop) composed of the ovum and the penetrating sperm, becomes a zygote.
A popular idea in the 17th century among scientists was that sperm contained a miniature human being that simply enlarged inside the sperm. Another equally strong idea was that the ovum contained a miniature human being that was stimulated to grow by the semen. It was not until the 18th century that Spallanzani experimentally demonstrated that the initiation of development required sex products from male and female. From his experiments, including artificial insemination in dogs, he concluded that sperm was the fertilizing agent. The mixture of the male and female fluids was discovered recently though it was known in the Quran for fourteen centuries. There are some theories that the female fluid acts as an agent to prevent the rejection of the sperms, which are foreign bodies in the uterus.
In the following Ayah, more details are given about the staging process:
Surah 23, Ayah 12-14 “Man We did create from a quintessence (of clay), (Arabic, sulalah); Then We placed him as (a drop of) sperm (Arabic, nutfah) in a place of rest, firmly fixed; Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood (Arabic, alakah); then of that clot We made a (fetus) lump (Arabic, mudgah); then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then we developed out of it another creature. So blessed be Allah, the best to create!”
This Ayah states that God made human from a drop into a thing that clings in the mother’s womb, then to a leech-like form that soon changed to a shape that looks like a piece of chewed gum. The “mudgah” then took the shape of bone and was clothed with flesh.
During the embryonic period, the embryo acquires distinctive human characteristics as bones and muscles begin to form. By the end of the embryonic period, the blossoming of all the main organ systems is established. The external appearance of the embryo is greatly affected by the formation of the brain, heart, liver, bones, limbs, ears, nose, and eyes. As these structures develop, they affect the appearance of the embryo as unquestionably human.
The second major stage of prenatal development is the fetus stage. This is a period of rapid growth and differentiation. At that time the fetus is capable of survival if born prematurely.
The idea that development results from a genetic plan contained in the chromosomes of the zygote was not discovered until the end of the 19th century. The Quran say:
Surah 80, Ayah 19 “From a sperm-drop, He has created him (man), then (right away) mouldeth him in due proportions.”
This Ayah from the Quran clearly implies that the “nutfah” contained the blueprint for the future characteristics and the features of the developing human being. It is reasonable to interpret the drop (Arabic, nutfah) as the small sample of sperms which are extracted from the ejaculated semen, because it is well established that only a few hundred of the several million sperms in the semen are able to pass through the uterus and surround the ovum in the uterine tube. The Arabic conjunction used to join the two sentences in the above Ayah is “fa” which means a rapid succession. So immediately after insemination, the genetic future is determined. The realization that sex is determined at the moment of fertilization was established about 60 years ago when the sex chromosomes were discovered.
The blastocyst, or the early embryo implant, subsides in the uterus about 10 days after fertilization. The embryo assumes human appearance during the eighth week, i.e. 40 to 50 nights after its implantation in the uterus. Before that, there is no difference between human and animal embryos. The Prophet said:
“The angel will come to the “nutfah” 40 to 50 nights after it settles in the uterus.”
The Prophet did not study embryology; he was unlettered! He did not have a microscope to examine the embryo. He did not conduct experiments on chicks or animals of other sorts. Yet, he said the above Hadith that is recorded in the authentic Hadith’s book. The similarity of the leech and the human embryo at 24 days is astounding. A human embryo at 28 days shows pairs of bead-like segmental masses that make the appearance of the embryo similar to the chewed gum with teeth marks! Another reference to this stage is given as:
Surah 22, Ayah 5 “O mankind! If you have a doubt about resurrection, (consider) that We created you out of dust, then out of sperms (Arabic nutfah), then out of leech-like clot (Arabic, alakah), then out of morsel of flesh (Arabic, mudgah) partly formed (differentiated) and partly unformed (undifferentiated)….”
Allah addresses mankind and their doubts about life, death, and resurrection by providing a simple and logical answer; He is the Creator of all mankind. Then, Allah proceeds by stating overwhelming facts about their physical growth from lifeless matter, to seed, fertilized ovum, embryo, fetus, child, youth, old age and then death! How can there be any doubt about the Author of all these wonderful stages of life? How can there be any doubt about the ability of the Creator of life to create another life and cause resurrection of all mankind?
In the above Ayah, Allah states that during the chewed stage, the embryo has both differentiated and undifferentiated parts. It is now well established that the brain and the heart are only partially differentiated at the end of the fourth week when the embryo resembles a chewed substance. After the chewed-like appearance, bones develop, which are soon clothed with muscles. The bones begin to form in the sixth week and muscles attach to them shortly thereafter. By the beginning of the seventh week, the bones give human shape to the embryo’s body. The ears and the eyes begin to form in the fourth week and are clearly visible at the sixth week, 42 days after the zygote or “nutfah” forms. Sex is not distinguishable at this stage. The Prophet said:
“After 42 nights of forming the zygote “nutfah” God sends an angel to it to make its features, hearing, vision, skin, flesh, and bones. ‘Oh God’, the angel asks, “male or female.”
In the above Surah 80, Ayah 19, the sex of the child is determined immediately after insemination. The inquiry of the Angel about the sexual differentiation of the embryo indicates that Angels do not know the future. Because the Angel is shaping the organs of the zygote and all that is common between male and female, he asks Allah about the sex to form the sex organs. The external genitalia are not distinctly male or female until the 12th week.
There are many other Ayat and sayings in the Hadith about embryology. Some Ayat we understand now, and others we may understand in the future, God’s willing. The meaning, of some of the Ayat that we understand, became clear to us only few decades ago. These Ayat are an overwhelming challenge from God to those who do not believe in Him and to the non-Muslims. There is no other holy book that has such information about embryology. There is no other explanation except that the Quran is a revelation from God to the Prophet. All the above-mentioned Ayat are stated not as stand-alone scientific facts, but rather in context of encouraging mankind to think and to believe in The Creator.