Friday, July 22, 2011

Embryology in the Qur'an - Letter Pt 3

In a later part of the first letter to X, I tackle the thorny question of the apparent miraculous knowledge of embryology in the Qur'an.
For those new to this debate, Muslims claim that the Qur'an contains references to embryology that it would have been impossible for a 7th century illiterate desert nomad to have known. Maurice Bucaille (see the image on the right) was the first to suggest this in his book. Here is my first attempt to counter these suggestions. (This develops into quite a saga as you will see in later posts...)
EmbryologyYou said in your letter in introducing this subject that you were saving the best ‘til last. From that, I take it you were pleased with the evidence you had found to support the notion that the revelations regarding conception and the early stages of life in the womb in the Qur’an were miraculous or divinely inspired. If this is the case, I am intrigued that you felt the need to add clarification to the surah you first quote in defence of your argument:
The Qur’anic description of human embryology highlights a number of stages in foetal development. These include conception itself in Surah 86:5-7 which states: “Let man, then, observe out of what he has been created. He has been created out of a seminal fluid issuing from between the loins (of man) and the pelvic arch (of woman).”I found the surah you quote in five different translations. None of them had the additions in brackets. Can you explain the justification for adding your clarification?

YUSUFALI: He is created from a drop emitted-
PICKTHAL: He is created from a gushing fluid
SHAKIR: He is created of water pouring forth,
KHAN:He is created from a fluid poured forth,
HAMIDULLAH: Il a été créé d'une giclée d'eau
YUSUFALI: Proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs.
PICKTHAL: That issued from between the loins and ribs.
SHAKIR: Coming from between the back and the ribs.
 KHAN: Which issues forth from between the loins and the breastbones.
 HAMIDULLAH: Sortie d'entre lombes et côtes
Without the additions, it seems clear that the verses mean the semen (or gushing liquid, or water, or drop or...) originates from somewhere between the back and the ribs. You seem, by implication, to be suggesting that God needs a bit of help to explain what he means.
 I think that it is more likely therefore (and remember I am going on balance of probabilities), that these surah refer to the site of semen production as wrongly taught by Hippocrates, inter alia, who believed semen originated from the brain down the spinal cord, before passing through the kidneys and finally out of the body. (Hippocratic Writings, Penguin Classics, 1983, p. 317) Is this not an example of an incorrect ancient Greek idea re-emerging in the Qur'an? You also say we must ask why, if the ideas about embryology were copied from other sources, as I and numerous others suggest, the Qur’an should have chosen only the accurate ones. I think the above (without the helpful human additions in brackets!) suggests that it did not.
You also make great play of the word alaqa which you say translates as a “leech-like structure”. Qamus al-Muheet, one of the most important Arabic dictionaries ever compiled, by Muhammed Ibn-Yaqub al-Firuzabadi (AD 1329-1415) says that alaqa has the same meaning as a clot of blood. Doesn’t it seem more likely that a language should have a word for a clot of blood rather than a “leech-like structure”? Again, I’m just going on balance of probabilities here.
You refute in your letter the argument that a lot of the material in the Qur’an on embryology seems to have been taken from Galen. I could refer you to early Muslim doctors, including Ibn-Qayyim, who first spotted the similarity. But it’s perhaps more appropriate to quote Basim Musallam, Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge :
"The stages of development which the Qur'an and Hadith established for believers agreed perfectly with Galen's scientific account ... There is no doubt that medieval thought appreciated this agreement between the Qur'an and Galen, for Arabic science employed the same Qur'anic terms to describe the Galenic stages" (I'll get the reference, I promise!)
In summary, there is nothing in the surahs referring to embryology that strike me as miraculous. If it was God’s intention in these verses to make manifest His superhuman knowledge of the early stages of life, it seems once more that the very vague (“dust , clay, chewed flesh, blood clot, gushing fluid, ribs” etc. etc.) references leave too much open to human, and thus fallible, interpretation.
I am reminded of your claims for the apparent miraculous references to cosmology and astronomy in the Qur’an. We can perhaps save that one until another time, but just in passing, has it never struck you that God could have made reference to the speed of light, the distance from the earth to the sun, the diameter of the earth, quasars, black holes, red giants, dark matter... a whole host of recently discovered phenomena if He had wished to provide signs of divinity for “those who care to look”?  Instead, we have strange references to mountains being like tent pegs and the sun setting in a muddy pond. Why should we believe when such opportunities are spurned?

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