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Qur'anic Science

A Brief Look into the History of Embryology

In order to evaluate the Embryological data in the Holy Quran, we have first to look into the human knowledge of this subject at the time when the Holy Quran was revealed to Mohammed (PBUH) 14 centuries ago, down to our time.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) wrote the first known treatise on embryology, in which he described the development of the chick and other embryos.

At this time there were already two theories concerning the development of embryos. Vis:

a) Preformed in the male semen, or the female secretion in which they exist as miniature creatures which tend to grow inside the womb.

b) Actual formation and creation from the menstrual blood.

Aristotle took sides with the second theory. The role of a male's semen in reproduction was limited to the role of a catalyst in which the menstrual blood coagulated. He actually said that it resembles the curdling of milk into cheese.

So great was the effect of Aristotle that nobody dared to challenge his views for many centuries. Redi in 1668 dealt a blow to this theory, and Pasteur 1864 wrote the final obituary to the doctrine of Spontaneous generation.

However, the Holy Quran and the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) challenged Aristotle, exactly 1100 years before Redi dared to put forward his theory.

In Sura 76 Verse 2 the Quran says: "Verify we have created man from a drop of mingled liquids" (of both male and the female).

The Prophet was asked by a Jew: "O Mohammed, tell me from what thing man is created". He replied, "O Jew. Man is created from both the fluids of male and female."

Ibn Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet, when asked to explain the above verse (Sure 76/2) said: "the word Nutfatul Amshaq is the fluid of male and female intermingled and then it passes into many evolutionary stages." (Tafsir Ibn Garir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

None of the exegetes (interpreters of the Holy Quran) differ on this point. All agree to the above explanation. However, the effect of Aristotle was so great in the medieval era that even Muslim philosophers and men of science end medicine took his views.

This lead to the squabble between the Ulema ('clergy men' though in Islam there is no such clergy as in other religions), and the Muslim physicians.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani who lived in the 14th century say, "Many of the anatomists claim that the semen of the male has no role in creation of the baby. Its role, they claim, is limited to curdling the menstrual blood from which man is born. The sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) deny what they say. The semen of the male actually participates equally to that of female in formation of the embryo."

We find the same discussion brought forward by Ibn Al-Qaim who lived in the 13th century.

Galen (the 2nd century A.D.) was probably the first man to write a book on the subject of embryology. His book was titled 'On the Formation of the Foetus'. Nevertheless he stuck to Aristotle's view (just explained).

In the Middle Ages the Holy Quran and the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) (570-632 A.D.), revealed many astonishing facts about the creation of man, especially in the field of embryology. These will be dealt with later in some detail.

Keith Moore in his book 'The Developing Human', 3rd Edition, mentioned few of these astonishing revelations as revealed in the Holy Quran.

Until the 18th century it was generally believed that a fully formed animal exists in miniature in the egg needing only the stimulus of the sperm to initiate growth and unfolding, or that similarly pre-formed organisms, male and female, constitute the sperms end these merely enlarge when they get inside the womb.

The original pre-formation theory was virtually destroyed by Wolff (1759-69) who described globules (cells) in the egg from which the embryo was built gradually, step by step, starting from the shapeless globules to the more complex human embryo. This phenomenon was called epigenesis.

Many years elapsed before Wolff's views were accepted. The final blow to the original pre-formation doctrine was dealt by Driesch (1900) who separated daughter cells of a fertilized egg and allowed them to grow into complete embryos.

Pander in 1817 demonstrated the three primary germ layers in the chick embryo. Von Baer (1829-37) broadened this concept to all animals, and identified the human egg (150 years after Leeuwenhoek first discovered the human sperm). Von Baer was called the "Father of modern Embryology".

Cleavage, i.e. subdivision of the egg into building units of the embryo, was first described by Prevost and Dumas in 1824. However, its true meaning was not understood until Schwann and Schleiden (1839) put forward the doctrine of cells as being the biological units from which the whole body of animal or plant is built. Twenty years later the eggs and sperms were recognized as cells.

Hertwig in 1875 was the first to describe scientifically the fertilization of an egg by a sperm.

Von Benden 1883 proved that male and female cells contribute the same number of chromosomes to the embryo.

It is quite astonishing to find that the Holy Quran and the Prophet Mohammed (570-632) (PBUH) has stated emphatically that:

1) Both male and female contribute equally to the formation of human embryo.
2) That the human embryo is created in stages.

These facts are stated in the following verses and Hadith.

"Verily we have created man from a drop of mingled fluids." (Quran Sura 76/2)

The Prophet said: "O Jew. Man is created from a drop of male semen and a drop of female secretion."

"What is amiss with you that you cannot look forward to God's Majesty. He has created (every one of) you in successive stages." (Quran Sura 71/13-14)

"We created man from the quintessence of mud. Thereafter we cause him to remain as a drop of sperm in a firm lodging (i.e. the womb). Thereafter we fashioned the sperm into something that clings (Alaqa), which we fashioned into a chewed lump (Modgha). The chewed lump is fashioned into bones which are then covered with flesh. Then we nurse him unto another act of creation. Blessed is God, the best of artisans." (Quran Sura 23/12-14)

"O Men! If you are in doubt as to the resurrection, remember that, We have created (everyone of) you out of dust, then out of a drop a semen, then from something that clings (Alaqa) then from a chewed like lump (Modgha), which differentiates (and either abort or complete its growth). We rest whatever We want in the womb to the time We decide to bring you forth as Infants." (Quran Sura 22/5)

These stages viz:

1) Nutfa: 'a drop of fluid'
2) Alaqa: 'something that clings or attaches itself'
3) Modgha: "a chewed lump"

will be discussed later.

The emphasis here is on the Quranic expression of the human embryo being formed in many successive stages expressed as Nutfa, Alaqa, Modgha, and each stage is further subdivided and explained in different verses of the Holy Quran, the Hadith of Prophet (peace be upon him) and the exegesis of the different commentators of the Holy Quran.

These astonishing revelations were not known until recently. The epigenesis doctrine i.e. creation of human embryo in successive stages were first put forward by Wolff (1759-69) and only became recognized and accepted late in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The accuracy of the descriptive terms used in the Holy Quran will be dealt with later. Here we emphasize that these details were never known until the 20th century.


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

December 1994
Rajab 1415
The Wisdom in Islam
Letters to the Editor
Islam in Europe is
on the Rise
Do You Knock
on Wood?
Benefits of Honey
Women in Islam
Why I Embraced Islam
The Kid's Corner
The Miracles of
the Quran
Stories of the Sahabah
Qur'anic Science