One of the “miracles” claimed to be in the Quran is the miracle of embryology. It’s often stated that the Quran describes embryology in a way that was not possible to be known in the 7th century. When I started reading more into this claim, I was really disappointed to find out that just like every other claim made about scientific miracles in the Quran, this one was also not true. Instead what we see is the Quran is describing the birth process in a way that was commonly understood at the time.
Embryology as Described in the Quran
We should note that it was probably never the intention of the Quran to describe embryology as a way of “wowing” listeners. It was simply bringing attention to something that is amazing and asking the reader to attribute this miracle to Allah and to thank Allah for it.
ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا النُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْمُضْغَةَ عِظَامًا فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقًا آخَرَ ۚ فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ
Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah , the best of creators. (23:14)
Issues with the Quranic embryology description
I think there are 3 main problems with the Quranic description of embryology.
- Firstly there is the nutfah stage. This word means literally a small amount of liquid in Arabic and refers to the semen. In the Qur’an, and hadith, it indicates that this nutfah (small amount of semen) is gestated in a safe place (understood in tafsirs and hadith to mean the womb) for a period of time. By strange coincidence, this was also the prevalent idea at that time popularised by the Greek physician Galen as well as in the Jewish Talmud. (See Greek and Jewish Ideas about Embryology for more details (See Greek and Jewish Ideas about Embryology for more details)
- Another is the ‘alaqah stage. The word meant thick or clotted blood (also leech and other similar ‘clinging’ things), and there are dozens of classical tafsirs that say it means blood (al dam) or congealed blood (al dam al jamid). Now whatever the alternative interpretations for the word, how sensible is it if you have true knowledge to use a word that has as one of its main usages a specific biological meaning (thick or clotted blood) when you’re describing a biological process (formation of a baby), but that meaning is incorrect? The embryo is at no point a clot of blood. No non-Muslim doctor would say your baby was a clot of blood at this stage. It would just look like he’d made an error and the listeners would rightly doubt him. It doesn’t exactly help the credibility of the Qur’an either that the prevalent idea popularised by Galen was that the embryo material was made from a mixing of semen and menstral blood.
- The 3rd one (though it’s very vague) is ” then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh”. Cartilage models of the bones form at the same time as muscles even ignoring the other flesh that exists already (there’s even a classical Arabic word for cartilage), and gradually the cartilage gets replaced with bone. Trying to turn it into the sequence like the Qur’an doesn’t really reflect the real process where things are developing together.
Muhammad on gender prediction
When the news of the arrival of the Prophet (ﷺ) at Medina reached `Abdullah bin Salam, he went to him to ask him about certain things, He said, “I am going to ask you about three things which only a Prophet can answer: What is the first sign of The Hour? What is the first food which the people of Paradise will eat? Why does a child attract the similarity to his father or to his mother?”…
The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “As for the child, if the man’s discharge proceeds the woman’s discharge, the child attracts the similarity to the man, and if the woman’s discharge proceeds the man’s, then the child attracts the similarity to the woman.” (Bukhari)
We can see that Prophet Muhammad did not understand how the gender of a child is determined. From this we can conclude that Prophet Muhammad was a normal man who claimed prophethood but did not receive any divine inspiration from God. He spoke many untrue things that remained uncorrected. He was making it up as he went along, using whatever knowledge was available at the time.
As cleverly demonstrated in this cartoon, the Quranic description is not very impressive at all:
Ancient claims about embryology
We often underestimate just how much knowledge about embryology ancient people had.
Charaka Samhita (1000BC-500CE)
Charaka Samhita which was written well before the Quran describes the month by month development of the fetus:
Charaka Samhita, a treatise of Ayurveda, was used for teaching of Ayurvedic Sciences in the ancient Indian universities of Takshshila and Nalanda and continues to provide guidelines for treatment even in today’s world of Modern Medicine. A section of Charaka Samhita deals with the ‘in-utero’ foetal development, various signs and symptoms in the mother, and treatment guidelines at various stages of pregnancy. (Internet Scientific Publications)
The book was written by an Indian Surgeon named Sushrutha. This shows how capable human beings are and how much we underestimate ancient knowledge. [ref]Sushruta: father of plastic surgery.[/ref]
Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Aristotle studied and dissected chick embryos and was able to write about embryology of a develop organism through a series of stages. His theories were useful well until we developed microscopes! (Source)
Keith Moore’s claims
The entire embryology claim is based on statements of a Professor Keith Moore who was invited to Saudi to speak about science in the Quran.[ref]
Where is the female egg?
When we look at the Quran, the Quran continually refers to the mixed male and female liquids, as if the female liquid has something to do with the baby. If the Quran was truly from God, it only had to say one thing, that the female has an egg, because nobody knew that back in the 7th century. This would have been a clear miracle because the female egg is not visible to the naked eye.
أَلَا يَعْلَمُ مَنْ خَلَقَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ
Does He who created not know, while He is the Subtle, the Acquainted? (67:14)
Its funny that Muslims can only mention 1 embryologist who made such a claim. It’s always the same name repeated over and over again. What do other embryologists think about this? PZ Meyers actually disputed the fact that the Quran describes embryology accurately here in this video, saying that the order described is wrong:
The Quran is wrong about embryology because it is not from God. It uses well known ideas from the era that it originated and does not bring any new information that was unknown at the time, like the existence of the female egg.
As Victor Stenger said,
If the statements it the Quran contains concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extraquranic records, by ancient documents recovered through archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth, then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. In other words, if the Quranic record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. (original quote refers to Bible)
Our observations, in this case our reading of biblical and Qur’anic statements about the natural world, look exactly as you would expect them to look if there was no new knowledge being revealed—just what was the human understanding of the day. That is, they look as if there is no God who speaks to humanity through scriptures or other revelations.
If a person undergoes a religious experience that truly places her in communication with some reality from beyond the material world, then we may reasonably expect that person to have gained some deep, new knowledge about the world that can be checked against the empirical facts.
It could have been different. The scriptures might have contained revelations that, while incomprehensible to people at the time of the revelation, may have still been recorded as mysterious, esoteric knowledge. That knowledge then might have become less esoteric as science and the other knowledge arts, such as history, developed higher levels of sophistication.
Quotes from Victor Stenger, God the failed hypothesis.
- Sherif Gaber’s video on embryology (arabic with subtitles)
- Greek and Jewish ideas about reproduction in the Qur’an and hadith – fantastic read about how Hadith and Quran contain the same wrong information that existed in Greek and Jewish texts.
- Embryology in the Quran, Much Ado About Nothing eBook – Excellent ebook that illustrates the problem with trying to prove scientific miracles in the Quran.
- Western Scholars Play Key Role In Touting ‘Science’ of the Quran, By Daniel Golden, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal. This article talks about how Zindani invited scientists from all over the world in order to propogate that the Quran was scientificly accurate and to spread Islam. This conference was quite successful but now people are starting to see the deception for what it is.