I have a rather urgent question to ask with regard to Quran and Science. A good many Muslims claim that everything in Quran is correctly in accordance with well established scientific data. In this regard, there is a web site at http://www.It-is-truth.com. While discussing this website with an atheist, he pointed out ayah 86:6-7 which has been variously translated as:
YUSUFALI: He is created from a drop emitted-
PICKTHAL: He is created from a gushing fluid
SHAKIR: He is created of water pouring forth,
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.
His claim is that Quran here is scientifically incorrect as [he claims] that the semen [nutfah] is all manufactured only in the pelvic region and definitely not between the ribs [or the backbone]. He further claims that this ideology was prevelent among the Greeks at the time of [Quranic] revelation and that Mohammad (P) has borrowed it from them. Regardless of the “borrowed from Greeks” theory, is it possible for you to elaborate on the correct interpretation of the ayah 86:6-7 and if possible a correct [scientific] account of where the seminal liquid is produced.
A quick answer would be greatly appreciated as the atheist is hung up on this issue.
Your Brother in Islam
Before presenting my understanding of the referred verses of the Qur’an, I would like to stress a few points that would not only help in understanding the verses under consideration, but may also provide some guidelines in understanding other such verses of the Qur’an, which entail references to some scientific knowledge (or knowledge that was, apparently, hidden from the first addressees of the Qur’an).
- The first point to remember is that the Qur’an is not a book of scientific information. It has never claimed to be so. This is to say that there is not a single instance in the Qur’an where it has unfolded any information about the physical (or biological or embryological) world, just for the sake of giving information to its addressees, as a book of science, generally, does.
- The Qur’an, at most of the places where it has referred to some physical laws (like, for example, reference to the stages in the development of an embryo inside the mother’s womb), has made these references to evidence one or the other of its ‘claims’. For instance, in Surah Al-Hajj 22: 5 or in Surah Al-Mu’minoon 23: 14 – 15, where the Qur’an has referred to the stages in the development of the human embryo in the mother’s womb, the reason for this reference, as is quite clear from the verses themselves, is to remove any doubts that may exist in a mind regarding the possibility of the resurrection. Man, as we know, has generally expressed doubts about the life hereafter by saying that ‘how can we be raised again, when our bodies would have scattered away as dust and ashes?’. The referred verses are a response to such doubts. In this response, God has brought to attention the process of development, which a fertilized egg goes through and which finally results in the creation of man. The implication in this response, obviously, is that if a being can bring man into existence through the stated process, then why would it, suddenly, become impossible (or even difficult) for the same being to bring man back to life after his death?In the same way, a close look at such instances where the Qur’an has referred to any of the physical (or scientific) laws would show that such laws have been referred to, not to give any information about the physical laws of this world, but as evidence and signs or arguments in support of the point that the Qur’an wants to establish.
- Keeping the above two points in perspective, it seems more likely that most of the physical laws referred to by the Qur’an are such, which were generally, known by the Arabs of the times of the Prophet (pbuh). We know that a supportive argument is likely to be more effective only when it is mutually known as well as agreed upon by the speaker and the addressee. Something, which is not known (at least vaguely) by the addressee or not believed or agreed by him, is less likely to be effective as a supportive argument. For instance, when I say: “Because man needs a stable social environment for his sound socio-psychological development, therefore sexual relations should be restricted to marriage”, the result statement (i.e. ‘therefore sexual … marriage’) is only likely to be accepted by those who agree or ascribe to the premise statement (i.e. ‘Because man… development’). It is important to remember that the statements entailing any reference to physical (or scientific) facts in the Qur’an are generally, not mere ‘information statements’. On the contrary, they are ‘premise statements’. This fact makes it all the more likely that the physical (or scientific) facts referred to by the Qur’an in these statements were generally known and adhered to by the addressees of the Qur’an.
In view of the above explanation, it may be derived that the Qur’an has, generally, referred to only such physical (or scientific) facts, which were known as well as adhered to by the Arabs. However, it may be added that of the many beliefs (regarding the physical and/or scientific facts) ascribed to by the Arabs, the Qur’an has only used such beliefs, which were correct. The Qur’an has not used reference to any incorrect beliefs of the Arabs to support its arguments. Moreover, it is also possible that such ‘evidence’ or ‘premise’ statements of the Qur’an may be phrased in such a way that they not only serve their primary purpose of being an evidence for an argument, for the first addressees of the Qur’an, on the one hand, but may also point to a deep (and at that time unknown) scientific reality. Nevertheless, in such verses, the actual message of the Qur’an, in my opinion, shall be the real ‘evidence’ (which was intended for the first addressees of the Qur’an).
After having considered the above points regarding the understanding and interpretation of the Qur’anic verses, which entail references to physical (scientific, biological or embryological) facts, let us now turn to the specific verses of the Qur’an about which you have requested clarification. Al-Tariq 86: 6 -7 may be translated into simple English as:
Man should consider what it is that he has been created from. He is created from water (fluid) spurting forth, emanating from a place between the (lower) back and the (lower) ribs.
The latter part of this verse, i.e. “emanating from a place between the (lower) back and the (lower) ribs”, has generally been taken to imply the part of the abdomen that lies between these points. In Figure 1, this part has been roughly marked by the triangle ABC. This implication, obviously, has led the Muslims to believe that the sperm itself or its basic ingredients are made within the (roughly) marked area. I, being a novice in the related fields, asked a few of my doctor friends about the making of the male sperm and the supply of its ingredients to the ultimate place of its making. In response, among a few other things, I was told that although the male sperm is formed in the testes, yet the blood supply which, obviously, is integral to the making of the sperm comes from between the ribs and the back. I was also told by one of my doctor friends that the cells that form the sperm originate from between the ribs and the back. If this is true, then the words of the Qur’an are not scientifically incorrect, as the words “emanating from a place between the (lower) back and the (lower) ribs”, do not necessarily imply “emanating in its final shape” only, but can also cover “initial emanation”.
However, predictable as it was, the explanation that my doctor friends provided was completely Greek to me. After giving close thought to this medical explanation, the following questions came to my mind: Why has the Qur’an referred to the biological origin of the sperm? Is it only to inform the Arabs about the basic origin of the sperm (or its blood supply or cell supply)? How does this origin support any of the Qur’anic points? What difference would it make on the message of the Qur’an, if the origin of the sperm was ‘between the ribs and the back’, or if it was between, for instance, ‘the neck and the chest’? These questions forced me to adopt a more common sense based approach to understanding the verses. The questions that needed to be answered were:
- What is the context of these verses?
- What is the basic point that the Qur’an wants to convey or evidence through its reference to the place of emanation of the sperm? Is it merely some biological information or does it, in any way, relate to the overall message of the Qur’an?
- Can the words “Bayen al-Sulb wa al-Taraayib” (i.e. ‘between the ribs and the back’) imply anything besides the (roughly) marked triangle in Figure 1? If yes, then could such usage of the phrase “Bayena shayin wa shayin” (i.e. between one thing and another) be evidenced by the Arabic language?
My findings, while searching for the answers to the above-mentioned questions are summarized below:
As far as the context of the verses is concerned, it is visibly clear that the verses under consideration are actually a response to the doubts, regarding the possibility of the promised resurrection, expressed by the rejecters. When the Prophet (pbuh) told people that after they die, they shall be raised again and shall then have to face the consequences (good as well as bad) of their deeds that they do during the life of this world, they would normally, arrogantly turn away from the sincere admonitions of the Prophet (pbuh) rejecting the whole idea of resurrection and the life hereafter as impossible. In response to the call of the Prophet (pbuh), they would normally say that how can man be brought back to life after he has become dust and bones. In the verses under consideration, besides a number of other instances1, the Qur’an has, generally, responded to this doubt expressed by the rejecters, regarding the possibility of the Day of Judgment, in such a way that it not only answers the question regarding the possibility of resurrection but also entails an eloquent ridicule on the arrogance of the rejecters in turning away from the call of the Prophet (pbuh). In this response, the Qur’an has pointed out the fact that if it was possible for God to create man from a drop of emitted fluid, then why would it suddenly become difficult for Him to recreate man after his death? In this response of the Qur’an, man is also reminded of the fact that he did not originate from a material of high rank and grandeur but from a drop of ‘despicable’ fluid2, a drop of ‘semen’3 and a drop of ‘sperm’. Arrogance and haughtiness do not suit a creation that has actually originated from such lowly and despicable material.
A close look at the verse under consideration shall show that the implication of the verse under consideration is also the same as explained above. The Qur’an (Al-Tariq 86: 6 – 8) says:
Man should consider what it is that he has been created from. He is created from water (fluid) spurting forth, emanating from a place between the (lower) back and the (lower) ribs. Indeed He [i.e. God] is fully capable of returning him [to life].
Verse 8, “Indeed He is fully capable of returning him to life” is a clear indication of the fact that the reference to man’s creation is in response to his doubts about the possibility of the promised resurrection.
As far as the second question (i.e. what is the basic point that the Qur’an wants to convey or evidence through its reference to the place of emanation of the sperm? Is it merely some biological information or does it, in any way, relate to the overall message of the Qur’an?) is concerned, it seems to me that the place of emanation of the human sperm has been mentioned to remind man of the same basic reality, which has been conveyed at other places by the words ‘despicable’ fluid, a drop of ‘semen’ and a drop of ‘sperm’ (i.e. arrogance and haughtiness do not suit a creation that has actually originated from such lowly and despicable material). The only difference in the style of the two kinds of phrases is that in one the actual material has been mentioned (i.e. despicable fluid, sperm or semen) to remind man of his matter of origination, while in the verse under consideration it is the place (or the organ) from which this despicable fluid spurts out that man is reminded of.
The words: “emanating from a place between the back and the ribs” actually imply the male sex organ, from which the gushing fluid finally comes out. It is as if to say:
Man arrogantly rejects the call of the messenger and says that how is it possible for the dead to be raised again? Man should observe what he was created from in the first place. He was created from a fluid gushing forth, emanating from a place, which is not even worth mentioning, between the ribs and the back. And yet man behaves arrogantly and expresses doubts about the Day of Judgment. Indeed, God, Who created him the first time, is fully capable of returning him back to life, after his death.
As shown in Figure 2, if we were to join the sulb (i.e. the back) and the taraayib (i.e. the ribs), by means of an external line, it would pass through our lower abdomen, to our hips, to the testes, to the sex organ on to our groin, and then join our ribs. The line would roughly look like the red curve ABCD. Obviously, the ultimate point of emanation of the male sperm lies within the points A and D. This, in my opinion, is what the statement “Yakhrujo min bayen al-Sulb Wa al-Taraayib” (i.e. ‘which emanates from a place between the back and the ribs’) means. The meaning and the implication of the verse, as well as the message entailed in it, was as clear to the unlettered Arabs as it is for the scientists of the modern day. If seen in the light of this explanation, it would be clear that the verse does not refer to any scientific reality, but to an obvious physical reality. Thus, the very objection of a scientific error, in this case, is misplaced.
Nevertheless, a few questions may arise in one’s mind regarding the above explanation.
Firstly, one may ask why has the Qur’an used the phrase ‘between the back and the ribs’ and, thereby, created confusion regarding the implication of the verse. The Qur’an, on the contrary, could have saved us from all confusion simply by naming the organ from which semen spurts out. Furthermore, one may also ask whether such usage of the phrase ‘bayena shayin wa shayin‘ (i.e. ‘between one thing and another’) as it has been interpreted in the above explanation, is supported in the Arabic language or not.
As far as the first question is concerned, it is obvious that the Qur’an, as any decent and sober literature would do, has only avoided direct reference (in words) to the male sexual organ. Through the words that it has used, the Qur’an has made a complete euphemistic reference to the point of emanation of the sperm, while successfully avoiding naming it. Naming it would definitely have negatively affected the literary value of the Qur’an. As far as the objection that the euphemistic style of the Qur’an, in this case, has negatively affected the clarity of the message and has resulted in confusion regarding the implication of the verse is concerned, in my opinion, it seems quite out of place. The mere fact that the previous verse had referred to ‘the fluid gushing forth’ (semen), which is followed by the words ‘which emanates from…’, brings to mind the source of the ‘gushing forth’ of the fluid, without much difficulty. Furthermore, one should not forget that even if the male sperm was actually formed within the two stipulated points, the mention of this source of formation of the male sperm had absolutely no pertinence with the message of the Qur’an and the information would have been of absolutely no relevance to the Arabs of old – the direct addressees of the Qur’an. The mere realization of the point that the Qur’an does not refer to any such information, even if it is true, that has no relevance to its basic message, guides one to the simple physical (non-scientific and uncomplicated) interpretation of the verse under consideration.
Finally, let us take the question whether such usage of the phrase ‘bayena shayin wa shayin‘ (i.e. ‘between one thing and another’) as it has been interpreted in the above explanation, is supported in the Arabic language or not. The Qur’an itself has used the same style of phrase (once again euphemistically) in an implication that, due to its close resemblance with the style of the verse under consideration, clearly supports the explanation given above.
In Al-Mumtahinah 60: 12 the Qur’an says: “And [the newly converted] Muslim women should pledge that they shall not slander a lie regarding portions between their hands and legs”4. It is obvious that the verse does not refer to what lies between the hands (AB) and the legs (CD) as given in Figure 3 (to the left). On the contrary, the part that is being euphemistically alluded to in the verse is what lies between the hands (A to B to C) and the feet (D to E to F) as in Figure 4 (to the right). Thus, in Al-Mumtahinah 60: 12, it is actually a euphemistic allusion to the upper and the lower organs of sexual attraction in a woman. The usage of the phrase ‘bayena shayin wa shayin‘ in Al-Tariq 86: 7, as explained above, is quite similar to its usage in Al-Mumtahinah 60: 12.
I hope this helps.
- For instance, see Al-Sajadah 22:7 – 10, Faatir 35:11, Yaa Seen 36:77 – 81, Ghaafir 40:67 – 68, Al-Qiyaamah 75: 36 – 40, Al-Insaan 76:2, Al-Mursalaat 77:20 – 23, `Abasa 80:17 – 22. [↩]
- Al-Sajadah 22:8, Al-Mursalaat 77:20. [↩]
- Al-Qiyamah 75:37. [↩]
- The Arabic words used in this verse are ‘bayena aiydeehinna wa arjulihinna‘. [↩]