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Verses from Surah Al-Hajj (1-5)

  1. The textual “mudgha” is explained by the linguist Zamakhshari as a piece of flesh of chewable size.
  2. Mujahid and Abu al-`Aliyyah have said that this refers to stillborn fetus which may take form (in the womb) or may not. However, Ibn Jarir believes that by “formed” the allusion is to what remains in the womb, acquiring its final shape while by “unformed” the allusion is to what is aborted and thrown out of the womb.

On the same subject, Ibn Mas`ud has reported the Prophet (the hadith is in the Sahihyan: Ibn Kathir), “That which is to be created of you is collected together in his mother’s womb for forty days. Then it takes similar number of days to become a clinging clot, then like a chewed flesh in similar number of days, then Allah sends down an angel to write four things. He is ordered to write: his deeds, his sustenance, life-span, and whether he will be the lucky one or the wretched. Thereafter he blows the soul into him. Then the spirit is blown (Ibn Jarir).

  1. Others are aborted (Ibn Jarir).
  2. The Prophet used to seek Allah’s refuge from extreme old age. His words were: “O Allah I seek Your refuge from powerlessness, indolence, cowardliness, and extreme old age and I seek Your refuge from the trials of life and death, and of the grave” (Qurtubi).

The above report is found in several collections, with varying words, including Bukhari (Au.).

The Qur’anic verse under discussion, and a few others are amazing description of the developments in the womb. A few details could be presented at this point. The following verses of Surah al-Mu’minun may also be kept in mind through and through the discussion (23: 12-14):  “Surely, We created man from the quintessence of clay. Then We placed him as a sperm drop in a safe lodging. Then We fashioned the sperm drop into a leech like structure, then of that leech-like structure We made a chewed like substance. Then out of the chewed like substance We created the bones. Then We clothed the bones with flesh. Then We developed him into a new creation. So, blessed is Allah, the Best of creators.”

Embryonic Development

Until the development of powerful lenses, a couple of centuries ago, the common notion, in ancient Greece, as well modern Europe was that the male sperm carries a little child, which, when deposited into the womb develops into an adult. Women were thought to play no other role. A woman-Companion of the Prophet was surprised, therefore, when he told her that they too (that is, women) discharged other than the periodical blood. Prophetic sayings also confirm that both the discharges, male and female, play their roles in conception and creation of a new being. Probably, the Rabbis knew this prior to the Prophetic statement, for, it was they who had inquired how different sexes emerged. When the Prophet explained that women also discharged as men did, the Rabbis acknowledged that his answer was correct.

According to another report, a Jew asked the Prophet: “(Answer me) O Muhammad, what is man created from?” He answered, “O Jew! He is created from every drop: from man’s drop as well as woman’s” (Musnad Ahmad).

The Qur’an of course was clear and unambiguous about it. It said (Al-Insan, 2), “Verily, We created Man from a mixture of germinal drop..”

Science however, had to wait for the modern age to admit women’s role in conception.

Every human female is born with enough fully developed eggs (ovum) already deposited in the ovary before birth. When puberty is attained, one ovum is discharged every month, at about the middle of each menstrual period. (Surprisingly, menstrual periods follow the moon cycle and not the solar cycle). The ovum waits for about two days in the oviduct (the Fallopian tube, outside the womb) for the sperm to arrive, and then withers off. Male ejaculation consists of 200 to 500 millions of spermatozoa. [A female egg is thousands of times larger than a sperm]. As against the egg, the male sperm is highly mobile and after discharge begins to swim inward. However, its own motility is not enough for its movement. Several kinds of vaginal fluid help it through, and in fact pull it up. It is possible that the Prophet was referring to this role of the female’s fluids when he said that women’s secretions, in addition to man’s ejaculation, play their roles in the creation and formation of a new human being. Or maybe he was referring to the role played by the female discharges, which activate processes that the embryologists refer to as “capacitation” – a process that takes about 7 hours. Without this process the sperm is incapable of penetrating the ovum wall.

The process of human conception and later development is highly complex and it is difficult to say for certain what the language of religion is alluding to, from among a host of processes taking place at any time during, before, and after conception.

In any case, the sperms swim through with the help of vaginal and other fluids to advance towards the waiting ovum. Only some make it to it and only one of them succeeds in penetrating through the ovum’s outer wall. Hence the Prophetic statement: “Not from all the fluid is the offspring created” (Muslim).

The fertilized ovum is closed for any other sperm, and begins to divide (replicate) while, at the same time, it starts moving backward. The first division into mother and daughter cells takes place in about 30 hours after the fertilization. The inward moving fertilized ovum (now referred to as a Zygote) leaves the Fallopian tube and enters into the womb (uterus) in about 5 days time. Once in, it clings to the wall of the uterus continuing to divide itself. All this goes on while the woman herself is unaware of what’s going on in her lower abdomen. It takes another week or so after the entry of the fertilized ovum into the womb to determine through tests a woman’s pregnancy, that is, roughly two weeks after fertilization. Until then, nobody – not even the woman herself – can know by any means whether she is pregnant. Hence the Qur’anic statement (31: 34): He (alone) knows what is in the wombs.”

With the entry of the fertilized egg the mouth of the uterus closes off tightly. The developing human is now in a safe haven about which the Qur’an said (23: 13), “Then We made him a drop in a place of settlement firmly fixed.”

The newly fertilized fast developing Zygote lies protected behind three walls: (a) the abdominal wall, (b) uterine wall, and (c) the placenta. The Qur’an said about this (Al-Zumar, 6): “He creates you in the wombs of your mothers from one stage to another and all along within three veils of darkness.”

The major sex-determining factor takes place right at the moment of fertilization. Every human cell contains in the nucleus 46 chemical strands known as chromosome. They carry in coded form the data for construction of the entire human body. Before any cell of the body divides, it first doubles up its number of chromosomes to 46 and then divides up with each daughter cell containing exact replicates of 46 chromosomes. In theory therefore, it should be possible for a complete human to develop out of any given cell. However, there is an exception. It is in the reproductive cells. Both the male sperm and female ovum, which combine at fertilization, contain in their nucleus only 23 chromosome each. Both these cells are insufficient to build a human being. So, each contributes 23 chromosomes and fertilization results in completing the number to 46, and the progeny inherits traits of both parents.

Now, the male sperm consists of two types of sex chromosomes. They are known as X and Y chromosome, while the female ovum carries only X type of sex chromosome. Now, if X chromosome sperm penetrates into the ovum and combines with the X chromosome present in it, the result is XX sex chromosome. The embryo will normally be a female. But if a sperm containing a Y chromosome fertilizes with the ovum, it combines with its X chromosome resulting in a Zygote containing in its nucleus XY chromosome. The embryo will normally be a male. Perhaps the hadith that speaks of sex determination alludes to this process. It says that the Prophet was asked about how sex was determined. He answered that if man’s fluid overcame woman’s, it will be male. But if woman’s fluid overcame man’s, the child will be female.

Although the presence of X or Y chromosome in the sperm accepted by the female ovum is the primary factor in the determination of future sex of the fetus, it is in the seventh week that the Gonads lose their ‘indefinite’ character and begin to develop either into male testes or female ovaries depending on whether the combination is XX or XY. XX sex chromosome means the indifferent Gonad will, from the seventh week onwards develop into ovaries, and an XY into testis. Perhaps it is to this seventh week development that another hadith is referring to which says (Muslim), “Man’s liquid is thick, white while woman’s is thin, yellowish. So whichever overcomes the other, or outpaced, will be like it.” (That is, perhaps in external features).

It is from this point onward that any defect in sex determination will start revealing itself. For, as said above, an XX means a female, and XY a male. But, in a few cases it can be XXY. This will result in certain sexual disorders. Or it may be XXXX. This too results in sexual disorder. Or, all being correct, that is, the sex chromosome could be plain XX or XY, but hormonal effects before the seventh week can cause the appearance of hermaphrodites. One such condition is known as female pseudohermaphroditism, another as hypospadias, and another as epispadias. In these cases, the person fails to develop into either fully functional male, or fully functional female. The hadith then, about the determination of sex when the fetus is 42 (or 40) days old could be referring to the post-Gonad developments. For, whatever the combination, even if is normal XX or XY, any defect could appear at the post-Gonadal stage. The hadith says, “When forty-two nights have passed over the mixed drop, Allah sends an angel to it who shapes it and makes its ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones. The he asks, ‘O Lord! Should it be male or female?’ And your Lord decides what He wishes and the angel records it” (Muslim).

(The development however, of the male or female external genitalia [the phallus or vagina] takes place later. That also happens in two stages. First distinguishing sexual characteristics begin to appear during the ninth week, and then, fully formed genital organs appear by the twelfth week).

Anyway, to go back to the trail of fetus development, the Zygote travels back to enter into the womb. However, at least 15% of Zygotes are lost during this first week of development commonly as a result of chromosomal abnormalities. The Qur’an could be referring to this when it said (Al-Ra`d, 8), Allah knows what every female bears and what the wombs lose (tagheedh).”

That is, the allusion could be to successful pregnancy, but the loss of Zygotes due to chromosomal abnormality. Neither the female involved, nor any one ever comes to know of the fertilization or failure of conception. Every fertilization does not result in conception.

A hadith says: “No one knows what the wombs lose but Allah” (Bukhari).

To continue, having entered into the safety of the womb, the Zygote clings to its wall. At this stage – in its second and third week – it looks like a leech and acts like a leech, for it begins to draw blood from the wall it attaches itself to. With this it begins to make the first muscles for itself and the cardiovascular system begins to appear. If abortion takes place at this stage, the aborted embryo will look like a blood clot. Hence the Qur’anic verse (Al-`Alaq, 1-2):  “Read in the name of thy Lord who created: created man out of a leech like (blood clot).”

And (Al-Mu’minun, 14), “Thereafter We made the semen drop into a leech-like (thing).”

In fact, in Arabic, `alaqah is used for “the thing that clings”, as also for a “leech” since it clings and thrives on blood sucking.

Within about 3-4 weeks, the embryo looks like a little lump of chewed flesh. A few body parts start taking shape while others are yet to form. Perhaps it is to this that the Qur’an alluded when it said in the present verse (5 of surah al-Hajj), “then from (what resembles) chewed flesh, formed and unformed.”

By the fourth week, and although less than a centimeter long, rudiments of the heart are already in place in the embryo. Soon the newly developed heart begins to beat. By the seventh week, various developing organs are clearly visible: head, eye, hand and foot plates, nasal and oral cavities, fingers and even lips. Distinguishable sexual characteristics appear in the ninth week, although, the male fetus is distinguishable from the female (the external genitalia, visible to the naked eye – only by the 12th week). By the 7th week the embryo is a little less than a centimeter and a half. A hadith refers to these stages in words of Muslim, “When forty-two nights have passed over the drop, Allah sends an angel to it. He shapes it and makes its ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones. They he asks, ‘O Lord! Should it be male or female?’ Your Lord decides and the angel records it.”

There is another hadith, also in Muslim, which apparently speaks of changes taking place every forty days. It is as follows: “The creation of one of you is collected together in his mother’s womb for forty days. Then it will be like a clinging leech for a like number of days. Then it will be like a chewed flesh for a like number of days.”

The terms of this report are, however, unclear. Therefore, following the rules set up by the Fiqh scholars, it has to be interpreted in terms of the clear hadith stated earlier. That is, the primary “formation” is complete by the end of 42 days, including the “final” decision about the sex: male, female, hermaphrodite, or one suffering from some sex disorder rendering it neither a successful male, nor a successful female. Zindani has pointed out that as early as 651 A.H. this is how a Muslim scientist Ibn Az-Zamlakani had understood the above two reports.

In any case, it is the eighth week, (when the structure is there, the muscles has taken shape and the skin has appeared) when the embryo enters into a new and markedly different phase of development. In fact, by the end of the eighth week embryologists stop referring to it as an embryo, replacing the term with a new one: a fetus. The Qur’an said (Al-Mu’minun, 14): “Then We clothed the bones and flesh; then We developed out of him another creature. So, blessed be Allah, the best of the Creators.”

Note the use of the word “another creature” in the above verse. That is, the allusion could be to the fetus.

By the 25th week, the fetus acquires full human form although it has a very lean body, wrinkled skin (for want of fat), and eyes just beginning to open. A fetus of this stage might survive if born prematurely, hence it is referred to as “a viable fetus.” The Qur’an confirms that successful birth and survival can take place in the sixth month. It said (Al-Ahqaf, 15), “The duration of pregnancy and weaning is thirty months.”

At another place it said (Luqman, 14), “His weaning is at the end of two years.”

Thus, thirty months minus twenty-four of breast-feeding is six months of productive pregnancy.

Birth is of course a miracle. When a child is born, on a particular day, at a particular time, the doctors do not know why it emerged at that moment. It could have been earlier or later. There is no explanation to the sudden contractions of the abdominal muscles, accompanied by the burst of several bags of fluids that lubricate the passage. The passage in fact is so constricted that normally one would think it impossible for the child to emerge. Of course, for the mother it is extremely painful – for a few it can be a matter of life and death – but it happens, and to millions every day. Allah referred to the otherwise impossible emergence through this tight passage (`Abasa, 20), “Then He made the passage (through the birth canal) easy.”

The above details are by now common knowledge but it was first comprehensively presented (though not exactly as we have presented) along with Qur’an and hadith quotations in a medical book called “The Developing Human” by Keith Moore with “Islamic Additions” by Abdul-Majeed A. Azzindani (Dar al-Qiblah publications, 1983). The Qur’anic verse inspired the above mentioned embryologist to say in his Foreword to the book “At first I was astonished by the accuracy of the statements that were recorded in the 7th century AD, before the science of embryology was established.”

Another scientist expressed similar sentiments. Dr. T.V. Persaud, Professor of Anatomy, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, and Child Health and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada said, “.. It seems to me that Muhammad is a very ordinary man. He could not read, did not know [how] to write… And we are talking about fourteen hundred years ago. You have someone .. making profound pronouncements and statements that are amazingly accurate about scientific nature. I personally cannot see how this could be a mere chance.”

(To be continued)

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