From: The Journal of the Islamic Medical Association, Vol.18, Jan-June 1986, pp.15-16
A Scientist's Interpretation of References to Embryology in the Qur'an
Keith L. Moore, Ph.D., F.I.A.C.
The Department of Anatomy, University of Toronto, Canada.
Address all correspondence to:
Keith L. Moore, Ph.D, F.I.A.C., Professor of Anatomy and Associate Dean Basic Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M55 IAB, Canada
Statements referring to human reproduction and development are scattered throughout the Qur'an. It is only recently that the scientific meaning of some of these verses has been appreciated fully. The long delay in interpreting these verses correctly resulted mainly from inaccurate translations and commentaries and from a lack of awareness of scientific knowledge.
Interest in explanations of the verses of the Qur'an is not new. People used to ask the prophet Muhammad all sorts of questions about the meaning of verses referring to human reproduction. The Apostle's answers form the basis of the Hadith literature.
The translations(*) of the verses from the Qur'an which are interpreted in this paper were provided by Sheik Abdul Majid Zendani, a Professor of Islamic Studies in King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness."
This statement is from Sura 39:6. We do not know when it was realized that human beings underwent development in the uterus (womb), but the first known illustration of a fetus in the uterus was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. In the 2nd century A.D., Galen described the placenta and fetal membranes in his book "On The Formation of the Foetus." Consequently, doctors in the 7th century A.D. likely knew that the human embryo developed in the uterus. It is unlikely that they knew that it developed in stages, even though Aristotle had described the stages of development of the chick embryo in the 4th century B.C. The realization that the human embryo develops in stages was not discussed and illustrated until the 15th century.
After the microscope was discovered in the 17th century by Leeuwenhoek descriptions were made of the early stages of the chick embryo. The staging of human embryos was not described until the 20th century. Streeter (1941) developed the first system of staging which has now been replaced by a more accurate system proposed by O'Rahilly (1972).
"The three veils of darkness" may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane (Fig. 1). Although there are other interpretations of this statement, the one presented here seems the most logical from an embryological point of view.