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Human Embryonic Development
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّنَ الْبَعْثِ فَإِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ مِنْ عَلَقَةٍ ثُمَّ مِن مُّضْغَةٍ مُّخَلَّقَةٍ وَغَيْرِ مُخَلَّقَةٍ لِّنُبَيِّنَ لَكُمْ ۚ وَنُقِرُّ فِي الْأَرْحَامِ مَا نَشَاءُ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى ثُمَّ نُخْرِجُكُمْ طِفْلًا ثُمَّ لِتَبْلُغُوا أَشُدَّكُمْ ۖ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّىٰ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُرَدُّ إِلَىٰ أَرْذَلِ الْعُمُرِ لِكَيْلَا يَعْلَمَ مِن بَعْدِ عِلْمٍ شَيْئًا ۚ وَتَرَى الْأَرْضَ هَامِدَةً فَإِذَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْهَا الْمَاءَ اهْتَزَّتْ وَرَبَتْ وَأَنبَتَتْ مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍ بَهِيجٍ "O People, if you should be in doubt about the Resurrection, then [consider that] indeed, We created you from dust, then from a sperm-drop, then from a clinging clot, and then from a lump of flesh, formed and unformed - that We may show you. And We settle in the wombs whom We will for a specified term, then We bring you out as a child, and then [We develop you] that you may reach your [time of] maturity. And among you is he who is taken in [early] death, and among you is he who is returned to the most decrepit [old] age so that he knows, after [once having] knowledge, nothing. And you see the earth barren, but when We send down upon it rain, it quivers and swells and grows [something] of every beautiful kind." (22:5)
Western physicians, during the 16th century, believed that a human being’s origin began entirely in the male’s semen. They envisaged that inside the male semen was a miniscule, fully formed human being who grew larger once implanted into the womb of the mother.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the previously held view was replaced by the opinion that the ‘minuscule’ human instead formed out of the woman’s menstrual blood coagulating [thickening] and that the male semen was merely an activating agent. It was not until 1775, that Italian scientist Spallanzi established that both the male semen and female ovum were required to form the human embryo.
It was also not until modern times, with the help of the electron microscope, that scientists discovered the existence of chromosomes and genes and that human embryonic development takes place in successive distinct stages.
The terminology used to describe human development in the Qur’ān is characterized by descriptiveness and accuracy. Until recently these statements were not fully appreciated, since they referred to details in human development which were scientifically unknown in earlier times.
Stage 1: The Nutfah
The Nutfah literally means ‘a [single] drop’ of fluid whereas Manii means ‘semen.’ God says, “Had he not been a sperm [nutfah] from semen [manii] emitted?” [Qur’ān 75:36]
In the Qur’ān and Hadith, Nutfah is used in three different but related contexts:
1. The Male Nutfah [Qur’ān 75:36]
2. The Female Nutfah
3. Nutfah Amshaj – mixed or mingled Male and Female Nutfah [Qur’ān 76:2]
The Male Nutfah
The word Nutfah was mentioned twelve different times in the Qur’ān and the word Manii was mentioned thrice. In the male context, the Nutfah is a single particle from the Manii when it is ejaculated – i.e. a single cell [sperm] from amongst the 200-300 million sperm cells. Before the 16th century, writings on embryonic development did not distinguish the constituent parts of the semen in its role of fertilisation.
In Ayaat (75:36-40) and (53:45-46), there are a lot of facts that require careful consideration. We know the sex of the newborn is determined by the sperm - it is definitively stated that the male and female are fashioned from a sperm-drop from the semen that has been ejaculated. If a sperm carrying an X chromosome fertilises an ovum [which always contains an X chromosome], the offspring will be a girl, while if the fertilising sperm contains a Y chromosome, the offspring will be a boy.
The Qur’ān has stated this fact 1,400 years ago, before anybody knew anything about X and Y chromosomes.
The Female Nutfah
The Female Nutfah [ovum] per se is not mentioned explicitly in the Qur’ān, but is inferred in the term Nutfah Amshaj – i.e. mingled from both male and female [refer to Qur’ān 76:2]. However, it is clearly stated in the Hadith from the Prophet. A Jew came to the Prophet and asked, ‘O Muhammad. Tell me from what thing man is created.’ The Prophet said, ‘O Jew, from both Male and Female Nutfah, man is created.’
This is a very astonishing revelation, as it is only recently that we came to know that both male and female cells [sperm and ovum] join together to form the human zygote – a fact not known before the 19th century.
Stage 2: The ‘Alaqah Stage
According to many Arabic dictionaries, the word ‘alaqah includes the following meanings:
1. Attached and hanging to something,
2. Blood clot,
1. ‘Alaqah as ‘attached and hanging’
The embryo [which is represented by the bilaminar embryonic disc] is attached to the placenta and is hanging or suspended in the chorionic cavity by the connecting stalk. This is in agreement with the meaning of the word ‘alaqah as “attached and hanging to something”.
During this stage we find that the external appearance of the embryo and its sacs is similar to that of a blood clot.
“Implantation begins at about the 6th to 7th day after fertilization. The part of the blastocyst projecting into the uterine cavity remains relatively thin. The syntrophoblast contains a proteolytic enzyme which causes destruction of the endometrial cells so that that the blastocyst sinks deeper and deeper into the uterine mucosa…The final deficiency in the endometrium is sealed off by a blood or fibrin clot, overlying the blastocyst. This cover is called the operculum. By about 10 to 12 days after fertilization, the blastocyst is completely encased in the endometrium and thus, implantation is complete.”
The blood, though fluid, does not circulate until the end of the third week. On the 21st day, the heart of the embryo connects with the blood vessels in the embryo, the connecting stalk, the chorion and the umbilical vesicle [yolk sac], and the blood starts to circulate and the heart begins to beat. Thus, the embryo takes the appearance of a blood clot even though its blood is fluid.
3. ‘Alaqah as ‘leech’
Scholars, linguists and dictionaries have all mentioned one of the meanings of ‘alaqah as a leech . The fourteenth century dictionary Lisān al-‘Arab states that “ ‘alaqah refers to a worm living in the water that sucks blood, the plural of which is ‘alaq” and in the dictionary of al-Qāmūs al-Muhit that ‘alaq is “a small creature of water that sucks blood [a leech].” The word ͑alaqah also occurs in several languages related to Arabic. In Hebrew there is עֲלוּקָה ͑alûqāh [or alukah] , the generic name for any blood-sucking worm or leech. And in Aramaic and Syriac there are words with apparently similar meanings. In Ad-Damīrī's Arabic zoological lexicon, Hayāt al-Hayawān [The Life of the Animals, 1372 C.E.], there is an article on the leech [‘alaq] and in Ibn Wahshīya’s Kitāb al-Sumūm [The Book on Poisons, c. 950 C.E.] there is the treatment for the one who has swallowed a leech [‘alaq].
A popular ninth century Christian polemic against Islam claims that Muslims believe that “God created man from a leech” based on the work of Nicetas of Byzantium. Nicetas, who wrote between 842 and 867 C.E., had a copy of the Qur’ān in Greek translation which he made use of to identify the tenets of Islam. His Greek translation renders both ‘alaq and ‘alaqah as bdella [βδελλα], meaning “leech”.
The classic Qur’ānic commentator, Ibn Kathīr [b. 1302 C.E.], mentions the meaning of “elongated like the shape of a leech - فصارت علقة حمراء على شكل العلقة مستطيلة” . Finally, The Qur’ān: an Encyclopedia has an entry for ‘alaq that also mentions the same meanings: “The linguistic definition of ͑alaq [singular ͑alaqa] is ‘leech’, ‘medicinal leech’, ‘[coagulated] blood’, ‘blood clot’, or ‘the early stage of the embryo’.
A leech is an apt description of the early human embryo. The embryo clings to the endometrium or lining of the uterus [day 7] just as a leech clings to the skin. The embryo is also surrounded by amniotic fluid just as the leech is surrounded by water. If we consider the literal meaning of “leech” for ‘alaqah, we find that during the third week, the embryo loses its round shape and elongates until it takes the shape of a leech.
In the BBC television series, The Human Body: The Incredible Journey from Birth to Death, Professor Robert Winston also describes the embryo in a similar way. Prof. Winston demonstrates how the embryo obtains nourishment from the blood of the mother by comparing it with a leech which feeds on the blood of others,
“[The leech] takes whatever it needs to live by sucking the blood of whatever it can latch onto; in this case that’s me! As it sucks my blood, it takes from it all that it needs to live, it literally lives off me and the whole of pregnancy is shaped by a similar kind of parasitic relationship...it does raid her blood for the raw materials it needs to grow. From the word go, both leech and embryo are out for themselves.”
Similarly, in Anatomy Demystified, the early embryo is described as worm-like in appearance which is nourished by the mother’s maternal blood supply, “Another membrane becomes the yolk sac, which provides nourishment for the early embryo. By 24 days, a connecting stalk appears in the middle of the now worm-like body.”
A segmented body like a leech - The body of the leech is divided into a number of segments which gives rise to a ringed appearance of the body, hence the name “ringed worms.” The human embryo is also segmented just like a leech or worm as Professor Peter Nathanielsz describes in A Time to be Born: The Life of the Unborn Child, “By the end of the third week the embryo has undergone segmentation, rather like an earth worm, and now consists of zones like stacked circular tires.”
These layers curl to form a tube-like structure which Anthony Smith, in The Human Body, also likens to a worm, “the early embryo is like a worm, with a gut running from one end to the other, an outer covering also running from end to end and a central layer filling the space between the two.” Ted Zerucha in Human Development also describes the gut of the embryo as a tube, “Running through the body, along the anterior-posterior axis, is the gut. The gut is essentially a tube that runs from the mouth, through the digestive system, to the anus.” The tube-like depiction of the embryo’s gut is not unlike that of an annelid as described in The Columbia Encyclopedia, “The digestive system of annelids consists of an unsegmented gut that runs through the middle of the body from the mouth, located on the underside of the head, to the anus, which is on the pygidium [the posterior terminal region].”
Prevention of blood-clotting
A striking similarity between the leech and the embryo is the way in which enzymes are released to facilitate easy blood-flow and the prevention of the clotting of blood. As the embryo draws nourishment [leech-like] from the mother’s blood, the anticoagulant enzyme, Thrombomodulin, [TM] prevents the blood clotting. In the leech, the protein that serves the same function is called Hirudin.
Summary of ‘Alaqah stage
The Qur’ānic term ͑alaqah is a comprehensive expression for the second stage of embryonic development that descriptively encompasses the primary external and internal features. In this one word, the general shape of the embryo as a leech is described, the internal events such as the formation of blood and closed vessels are described, and the attachment of the embryo to the placenta is also brought to mind.
The similarity between the embryo and leech is remarkable:
The Qur’ānic term ͑alaqah refers to the embryo when it is extremely small. The ‘alaqah is just 0.7-3.0mm in length. Due to the small sizes involved, scientists could not have recognised the detailed features of the ͑alaqah stage until the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Prof. Keith L. Moore concludes that it is, “remarkable how much the embryo of 23-24 days resembles a leech. As there were no microscopes or lenses available in the 7th century, doctors would not have known that the human embryo had this leech-like appearance. In the early part of the fourth week, the embryo is just visible to the unaided eye because it is smaller than a kernel of wheat.”
Stage 3: Mudghah stage
The embryo at 24-25 days is finishing the ‘alaqah stage. It changes into the mudghah stage at 26-27 days. The transformation from ‘alaqah to mudghah is in fact very rapid, and during the last day or two of the ‘alaqah stage, the embryo is beginning to develop some of the characteristics of the mudghah, e.g. the somites begin to appear and become a distinct feature of this stage.
One of the meanings of the word mudghah is “something that is chewed by teeth.” If one were to take a piece of gum and chew it in his or her mouth and then compare it with an embryo at the mudghah stage, we would conclude that the embryo at the mudghah stage acquires the appearance of a chewed substance. This is because of the somites at the back of the embryo that “somewhat resemble teeth-marks in a chewed substance.”
The appearance of the somites or “imprints” changes continuously, just as the teeth imprint changes on a chewed substance with each act of chewing. The embryo changes its overall shape, but the structures derived from the somites remain. Just as a substance acquires furrows, swellings and a corrugated surface as it is being chewed, so does the appearance of the embryo. The embryo turns in its position due to the modifications in its centre of gravity with new tissue formation, similar to the turning of a substance with chewing.
the embryo looks somewhat like a chewed lump. The chewed appearance results from the somites which resemble teeth marks. The somites [cuboidal blocks of mesodermal tissue] represent the beginnings or primordia of the vertebrae. By the 3rd week of human embryonic development, about 38 pairs somites form. By the 5th week there are 42-44 pairs of somites. Most of the axial skeleton [skull, vertebral column, ribs, and sternum] and skeletal muscles will be derived from these somites.
As there were no microscopes available in the 7th century C.E., people would not have known that the human embryo had this chewed-like appearance. Professor Marshall Johnson states: “You have to be really careful on what is the definition of ‘seeing’. I can see a piece of dandruff on this tabletop; I can just barely make it out because this is a nice black surface [but] I can see no detail in it. If I want to see detail in it then I need some sort of visual aid, something to aid my vision, I need a magnifying glass, I need a microscope. So I might be able to see a piece of dandruff, but to see any detail in it as is described in the Qur’ān, I need an instrument that wasn’t developed until the 1700s.”
Stage 4: Bone Formation [Idham]
God continues, “...and We made [from] the lump [mudghah], bones, and We covered the bones with flesh” (23:14). The mudghah or somite embryo is fashioned into bones which are clothed with flesh.
Hamilton, Boyd and Mossman write that “the somites are the bases from which the greater part of the axial skeleton and musculature develop.”
The timing of this phase has been mentioned in the following statement of the Prophet Muhammad, “When 42 nights [i.e. 6 weeks] have passed from the time of the nutfah [time of conception], God sends an angel to it, who shapes it and makes its ears, eyes, skin, muscles and bones…”
“Before the 42nd day, it is difficult to distinguish the human embryo from the embryos of many animals, but at this time it becomes clearly distinguishable in its appearance.” The formation of the skeleton gives the embryo its human shape.
In the 6th week the cartilaginous skeleton begins to form and the embryo acquires a soft skeleton: “Formation of bone does not begin uniformly throughout the body. Rather, there is a sequential appearance of bony tissue. However, in the 7th week the spreading development of the skeleton occurs. Bone development in the limbs commences in the limb buds from mesochymal cells. Primary ossification centres appear in the femur during week 7 and in the sternum [breast bone] and the maxilla [upper jaw] in weeks 8-9.”
Stage 5: Clothing the Bones with Flesh [Lahm]
God says, فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا “...We covered the bones with [lahm] flesh” [23:14]. In the Fundamentals of Human Embryology, it is noted that, “Soon after the cartilaginous models of the bones have been established, the myogenic cells, which have now become myoblasts, aggregate to form muscle masses on the ventral [front] and dorsal [back or posterior] aspects of the limbs.” Although precursor cells [myoblasts, or primitive muscle cells] are present adjacent to developing bone, “differentiation into skeletal muscle attachments occur after the ossification process in the shaft and ends of the bones has begun.”
It is clear from the preceding pages that God, in the Qur’ān, gives a detailed account of the development of the human embryo. Firstly, it accurately describes the main stages of development. Each word describes the characteristic of a specific stage and its morphological and physiological identity. Secondly, it describes the sequence of these events in the same chronological order as discovered by the electron microscope.