Embryology in the Quran (and Sunnah)

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.

The Quran states

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
 In summary, the Quran uses highly inaccurate wording to describe the growth of embryos, and also incorrectly describes the creation as based on a “mixed fluid” which is a Galenic idea and not unique to the Quran.

Muhammad on gender prediction

In the following hadith reference, Muhammad explained completely inaccurately how gender is determined:
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:

Embryology by MoCartoons

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]

As a side note, most of the other speakers invited to this conference actually claimed that their words were misconstrued and they were manipulated or wined and dined into saying things that were later used out of context.  A fellow actually found them and had a discussion on Skype with them, you can see these interviews here.[/ref]
Professor Keith Moore said is that the description in the Quran is amazing yet refused to become Muslim.  To me, this is the first issue with accepting his claim.  Secondly, the claim he makes in his book is not very grand nor original -it mimics Galen and the Talmud.
embryology1 embryology2
Book references above from The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology  By Keith L. Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, Mark G. Torchia 10th edition, obtained online (Google Books).  Book reference above quoted under academic purposes and fair use guidelines.
If you also read the other descriptions made by others early on, you will see that even Aristotle in 300BC (much before Prophet Muhammad) actually described embryology.  Does this make him a prophet too?

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)

Other embryologists

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:

In Conclusion

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.

Further resources:


12 thoughts on “Embryology in the Quran (and Sunnah)

  1. Monotheism is that..i copy the other religion..it s comes also from Galien 123 after j.c
    B. Musallam (Cambridge, 1983) Sex and Society in Islam. p. 54

  2. Sameer,you are not being through and open.You are reaching conclusions by looking at some of the data and not all.Before his claim of prophethood he was never known to lie.He bore so much hardship as a result of his mission and refuse to compromise his mission for the huge promises of money,women,status and kingdom.He taught some of the most proudest of humane and ethical standards when he declared that God will complain that He was not fed,clothed or visited become some needy humans were not so treated.

    He corrected a misunderstanding that eclipse happened because of the death of his son and many more.He publicly announced for all his eternity that God censored him for frowning at a blind man.He reported that he is not allowed to have anymore wives “even if he desires it”.He must pray the extra night prayer.He and his family are not entitled to zakkah,only khums.He must not be inherited but his inheritance is for his community.He could fast 3-days non-stop but followers not allowed that.He refused his beloved daughter in abject poverty a labor any slave but rather suggested words of prayers.He was in the fore-front of the battles but scarcely use his sword on others because such would be most tortured on judgement day.He predicted regarding individuals,groups and powerful nations and those happened.He lived and died simply even passing three months without food to cook.His mission ultimately succeeded and his enemies routed though they had the material circumstances and resources in their favor compared to him and his followers from all backgrounds.He left this world while there was no oil is his lamp.

    The Sameer this cannot be one “making stuffs up”.Wake up and retrace your steps.You may not understand everything but that would not change the reality.Muhammad-sallallaahu ‘alayhi wasallam-is Allaah’s genuine Messenger and don’t insist upon error.Honest people too do make sincere blatant mistakes but as honorable people they repent from their errors and get back on the track.The Prophet says:

    “All children of Adam err,and the best of those who err are those who repent(soon afterwards)”.Please Abdullaah Sameer,come back completely.Can you e-mail me,please?

    1. not true. Muhammed himself admitted to lying.. “I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken.” (Al-Tabari 6:11)
      furthermore, if he admitted it once, how do we know what else he lied about? a true Prophet would never say such a thing, in fact he would never lie to begin with.

    2. You are indeed delusional for believing the lies of false prophet mo. Do you think you can still convince Sameer to comeback to the world of insanity?

  3. “Sameer,you are not being through and open.You are reaching conclusions by looking at some of the data and not all.Before his claim of prophethood he was never known to lie.He bore so much hardship as a result of his mission and refuse to compromise his mission for the huge promises of money,women,status and kingdom.He taught some of the most profound of humane and ethical standards when he declared that God will complain that He was not fed,clothed or visited because some needy humans were not so treated.”

  4. TruthSeeker – Can you please let me know the references for all the good things he did. Also why there are many references on bad things he did ? Lieing, stoning, adultery, murder, etc..

  5. To be precise, egg cell is indeed visible to the naked eye. It’s about 100 microns, which is the thickness of a strand of hair. But it would still be a clear miracle, as you have said, to have it (the egg) mentioned in the Koran because nobody knew at that time about this cell as thick as a strand of hair.


  6. Please look at the conjunctions used in this Ayah. “Thumma” means “Then”. But in the Ayah, “fa” is used for the stages, which means “and”. So, the Quran doesn’t say “formed the bones… THEN the flesh” it says “formed the bones and the flesh” which can mean it is a simultaneous process.

    Also, the claim that the Quran says fluids of male and female are mingled is just an assumption because the 76:2 expression can also mean “sperm-drop mixture” which is accurate because semen is a mixture of sperm and other things like potassium, calcium, protein, etc.. and other materials

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