The development and stages of the human embryo is quite spectacular. People were always intrigued by how we were developed in the womb of our mothers. For centuries, people’s understanding of the prenatal human was based on speculations and superstition.
There are numerous accurate accounts regarding the biological creation of the human being relayed in the Qur’an. Dr. Keith L. Moore, a Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Toronto in Canada is a world renowned scientist and a distinguished researcher in the fields of anatomy and embryology. His opinion on the scientific statements in the Qur’an regarding embryology: “At first I was astonished by the accuracy of the statements that were recorded in the seventh century AD, before the science of embryology was established. Although I was aware of the glorious history of Muslim scientists in the 10th century AD, and of some of their contributions to Medicine, I knew nothing about the religious facts and beliefs contained in the Qur’an and Sunnah. It is important for Islamic and other students to understand the meaning of these Qur’anic statements about human development, based on current scientific knowledge.”
Accurate details and information about the development and stages of the human embryo from a mere sperm drop to a fully formed human being were communicated to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, through revelation centuries before the discovery of the microscope or any technological tools that would reveal the amazing world inside the womb of a mother after conception. Today, amazing moments of creation can be observed through advanced tools of technology. “So let man observe from what he was created” (al-Tariq, 86:5), the Divine voice suggests.
Through modern scientific advances, we can now appreciate and better understand the verses that deal with embryological development. God for instance informed us, “He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness” (al-Zummar, 39:6). The realization that the human embryo develops in stages was not discussed and illustrated until the 15th century. Furthermore, the staging of human embryos was not described until the 20th century. The “three veils of darkness” may refer to: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane.
Reflecting on the verses quoted in part two, “And indeed We created man from an extract of clay…”(al-Mu’minoon, 23:12-14), indicates that our very origin is from clay, water and dirt. As mentioned elsewhere in the Qur’an, “From it (earth) we created you, into it We shall return you, and from it We shall raise you once again” (Ta Ha, 20:55).
“Then We placed him as a Nutfah in a firm resting place.” The nutfah has been interpreted as the sperm or spermatozoon, but a more meaningful interpretation would be the zygote which is implanted in the uterus or “a place of rest.” It is both the fluid of the male and the female that commence the creation of man. The Qur’an explains, “We created man from a drop of mingled fluid (Amshaj)” (al-Insan, 76:2). Amshaj is a mixed drop or zygote. The zygote forms from the union of a mixture of the sperm and the ovum. Once fertilized the remaining stages occur.
“Then We made the drop into an alaqah (leech-like structure).” The word “alaqah” refers to a leech or bloodsucker. This is an accurate description of the human embryo from days 7-24 when it clings unto the uterus, in the same way that a leech clings to the skin. Just as the leech sucks blood from the host, the human embryo gets its nutrients from the uterus. It is amazing how much the embryo of 23-24 days resembles a leech when viewed under a microscope.
“Then of that leech-like structure, We made a mudghah (chewed-like lump).” The Arabic word “mudghah” means “chewed substance or chewed lump.” Toward the end of the fourth week, the human embryo looks somewhat like a chewed lump of flesh. The chewed appearance results from somites which resemble teeth marks. The somites represent the beginnings or primordia of the vertebral column.
In another verse we are informed, “Then out of a piece of chewed-like flesh (mudghah), partly formed and partly unformed, in order that We may manifest (Our power) to you, and We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term” (al-Hajj, 22:5). The partly formed and partly unformed flesh seem to indicate that the embryo is composed of both differentiated and undifferentiated tissues. For example, when the cartilage bones are differentiated, the embryonic connective tissue around them is undifferentiated. It later differentiates into the muscles and ligaments attached to the bones.
With regards to, “We cause whom We will to rest in the wombs for an appointed term,” it implies that God determines which embryos will remain in the uterus for a full term. It has also been interpreted to mean that God determines whether the embryo will develop into a male or female.
“Then We made out of the chewed-like lump, bones, and clothed the bones in flesh.” Bones and muscles are formed immediately after the chewed-like lump stage. This is in accordance with the scientific embryological development. First the bones form as cartilage models and then the muscles (flesh) develop around them from the somatic mesoderm.
“Then We developed him into another creation.” It is believed that this may refer to the human-like embryo that forms by the end of the eighth week. The scientific explanation is “At this stage it has distinctive human characteristics and possesses the primordia of all the internal and external organs and parts. After the eighth week, the human embryo is called a fetus. This is the scientific explanation.”
The early interpreters of the Qur’an like Ibn Abbas among others gave a different interpretation. The statement, “Then We developed him into another creation,” refers to the blowing of the spirit into the fetus. In an authentic narration, the Prophet Muhammad said, “Verily, the creation of each one of you is brought together in his mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid. Then it is a clinging object for a similar (period). Thereafter, it is a chewed-like lump for a similar (period). The angel is then sent to him and he breathes into him the spirit.”
Humans are the only creatures that are distinctly different from any other creation of God. What makes them different is the divine spark, the spirit that is infused in humans. Only revelation gives us this understanding. Scientific tools are of great help to understand the world of matter. However, it is beyond the scope of science and technology to penetrate into the spiritual realm. The verse ends with, “So blessed be God, the best of creators.” (al-Mu’minoon, 23:12-14)Indeed, blessed be HE, the best of creators.