So completely do Muslims believe that that their revelation is the perfect word of God, unchanged and unchanging, that they cannot conceive of any error being possible.
And yet there are many statements in the Qur'an that seem to contradict common sense and run counter to what we know about the world, the animal kingdom and our own bodies. I have listed some of the more glaring examples in previous posts in this series, but there is one error that leaves Muslims grasping at semantic straws and inventing imaginative interpretations that, quite frankly, beggar belief.
Here is the offending ayat (86:5-7) in Pickthall's translation:
So let man consider from what he is created. He is created from a gushing fluid that issued from between the loins and ribs. Transliteration: Falyanthuri al-insanu mimma khuliqa Khuliqa min ma-in dafiqin Yakhruju min bayni alssulbi waalttara-ibi
Picture showing testes and prostate - anyone spot the ribs?
For the sake of completeness, let us examine some other translations, lest Muslims accuse us of cherry picking...
Yusuf Ali: proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs.
Pickthal: that issued from between the loins and ribs.
Arberry: issuing between the loins and the breast-bones.
Shakir: coming from between the back and the ribs.
Sarwar: which comes out of the loins and ribs.
Khalifa: from between the spine and the viscera.
Hilali/Khan: proceeding from between the back-bone and the ribs.
Malik: that is produced from between the loins and the ribs.
QXP: that issued from between tough rocks and mingled dust.????????
Maulana Ali: coming from between the back and the ribs.
Free Minds: it comes out from between the spine and the testicles.!!!!!!!!
(The reason for giving multiple translations becomes clear when one tries to debate issues such as the above with Muslims, for one of the favourite ways of muddying the waters when presented with a clear error in the Qur'an is the old "Ah, but Arabic is such a difficult language - you cannot hope to understand its myriad complexities")
Not only is the above statement about semen being produced from a region between the backbone and the ribs patently incorrect, it also bears a striking similarity with the teachings of the Greek physician, Hippocrates, who believed that semen was produced throughout the body before being collected in the kidneys (located between the ribs and the backbone) and thence to the penis. Given that we know such writings were available to Muhammad's followers (see here for a fuller examination of this) it seems that not only do we have a clear error in the Qur'an but also a fair idea how and why the author might have made such a mistake.
So how do Muslims try to explain away this apparent gibberish? Shaykh `Abd al-Wahhâb al-Turayrî of IslamToday.com is typical of the Islamic apologists. He writes:
The words translated as “backbone” (sulb) and “ribs” (tarâ’ib) are not understood in Arabic to belong to the same person. Arabs understand the “sulb” to refer to a part of the male body and the “tarâ’ib” to a part of the female. Ibn Kathîr states: “It refers to the ‘sulb’ of the man and the ‘tarâ’ib’ of the woman…” He then quotes this interpretation on the authority of the Prophet’s companion Ibn `Abbâs. This same understanding is given in all the major classical works of Qur’anic commentary.
Many non-Arabs misinterpret this verse because they think that sulb and tara’ib refer to different body parts of the male. In reality, tara’ib is feminine, and refers to the female’s body part. For fourteen hundred years, all of the scholars have held this belief, and not a single classical scholar has ever differed on this point. The reason is that the Arabic makes it clear that tara’ib refers to a feminine body part, and not a male one.
Lane’s Lexicon says:
Tara’ib: … most of the authors on strange words affirm decidedly that it (tara’ib) is peculiar to women. (Lane’s Lexicon, p.301)
So let's have a look to see what Lane's Lexicon p 301 actually says. This is the definition of tara'ib we find before the quoted section above: The part of the breast which is the place of the collar, the bones of the breast which are between the collarbone and the pap, the part of the breast or chest that is next to the two collar bones, the four ribs on the right side of the chest and the four on the left thereof.
So if I understand things correctly, we have, according to Shaykh `Abd al-Wahhâb al-Turayrî, the Qur'an stating that man is created from a gushing fluid coming from an area between the backbone/loins (take your pick) and the chest area of a woman. That's so much clearer.
And let us not forget that the Qur'an claims for itself a clarity beyond criticism: a book in clear Arabic speech (16:103) He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves. (3:7)
Does it not seem strange to educated Muslims that their holy book should on the one hand claim to be written in clear language and on the other be so opaque as to lead to whole books of contradictory interpretations?
Perhaps we should turn to the iERA (Islamic Education and Research Association) for some help
This is a reply an acquaintance received when he put my qualms regarding this verse to the "scholars" at iERA:
The statement “sperm produced from between ribs and backbone?” is inaccurate. The most correct interpretation and translation (see Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an) states that it is not the sperm that is produced from the ribs and the backbone but rather that the baby comes from there (in other words the womb). This is the view of the classical scholar al-Razi in his al-Tafsir al-Kabir. The pronoun refers back to man and not to the gushing fluid:
86. THE NIGHT-COMER
5) Man should reflect on what he was created from.
6) He is created from spurting fluid,
7) then he * emerges from between the backbone and breastbone **
*= The Pronoun here is taken to refer to the person rather than the fluid.
**=Of the mother, where she carries the baby.
Ah, so now it's not the terms for backbone or ribs that are being debated, but in fact the grammar and, more specifically, the difference between a personal and a relative pronoun. I'm afraid I do find it difficult to summon up the requisite awe for God's wondrous prose and a concomitant willingness to suspend my critical faculties and believe this is divine revelation, when even expert speakers in the language of Allah can't agree on what the bloody thing means.
Let us turn to a world expert, the translator of the above verse quoted above by the iERA, and ask him why he chose this new interpretation which is so blatantly at odds with all the others that have gone before. In an email (which I'd be happy to show to anyone who requests it) Professor Abdel Haleem explains the reasons for his interpretation thus:
My interpretation is that this issuing /emerging refers to man, not the fluid, which does not violate the scheme of imagery that runs through this compact sura, or our knowledge of biology: the spurting fluid from which man is created has little to do with bones.
Let me just underline that for you, in case you missed it. We have here a leading academic, expert in the field of Qur'anic interpretation and translation, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, an OBE no less, and editor of the Journal of Qur'anic Studies stating that he chose his translation of this ayat because "it doesn't violate ... our knowledge of biology".
Can anyone think of any other academic discipline in the world where the experts are happy to admit that they have chosen a particular interpretation of a text (which runs counter to all other previous ones) because otherwise it risks suggesting that the author is fallible?
No - I thought not.