Numerous verses describing the origins of life have been assembled in this chapter, along with certain aspects of the vegetable kingdom and general or specific topics relating to the animal kingdom. The grouping of verses scattered throughout the Book affords a general view of the data the Quran contains on these subjects.
In the case of the subject of this and the following chapter, the examination of the Quranic text has sometimes been particularly delicate on account of certain difficulties inherent in the vocabulary. These have only been overcome through the fact that scientific data which have a bearing on the subject have been taken into consideration. It is particularly so in the case of living beings, i.e. animal, vegetable and human, where a confrontation with the teachings of science is shown to be indispensable in the search for the meaning of certain statements on these topics contained in the Quran.
It will become clear that numerous translations of these passages in the Quran, made by men of letters, must be deemed inaccurate by the scientist. The same holds true for commentaries made by those who do not possess the scientific knowledge necessary for an understanding of the text.
This question has always preoccupied man, both for himself and for the living things around him. It will be examined here from a general point of view. The case of man, whose appearance on Earth and reproduction processes are the subject of lengthy exposés, will be dealt with in the next chapter.
When the Quran describes the origins of life on a very broad basis, it is extremely concise. It does so in a verse that also mentions the process of the formation of the Universe, already quoted and commented on:
--sura 21, verse 30:
"Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together, then We clove them asunder and We got every living thing out of the water. Will they then not believe?"
The notion of 'getting something out of something' does not give rise to any doubts. The phrase can equally mean that every living thing was made of water (as its essential component) or that every living thing originated in water. The two possible meanings are strictly in accordance with scientific data. Life is in fact of aquatic origin and water is the major component of all living cells. Without water, life is not possible. When the possibility of life on another planet is discussed, the first question is always: does it contain a sufficient quantity of water to support life?
Modern data lead us to think that the oldest living being must have belonged to the vegetable kingdom: algae have been found that date from the pre-Cambrian period, i.e. the time of the oldest known lands. Organisms belonging to the animal kingdom probably appeared slightly later. they too came from the sea.
What has been translated here by 'water' is the word ma' which means both water in the sky and water in the sea, plus any kind of liquid. In the first meaning, water is the element necessary to all vegetable life:
--sura 20, verse 53.
This is the first reference to the notion of a pair in the vegetable kingdom. We shall return to this later.
In the second meaning, a liquid without any further indication of what kind, the word is used in its indeterminate form to designate what is at the basis of the formation of all animal life:
-sura 24, verse 45:
We shall see further on how this word may also be applied to seminal fluid [ It is secreted by the reproductive glands and contains spermatozoons.].
Whether it deals therefore with the origins of life in general, or the element that gives birth to plants in the soil, or the seed of animals, all the statements contained in the Quran on the origin of life are strictly in accordance with modern scientific data. None of the myths on the origins of life that abounded at the time the Quran appeared are mentioned in the text.
It is not possible to quote in their entirety all the numerous passages in the Quran in which divine Beneficence is referred to concerning the salutary effect of the rain which makes vegetation grow. Here are just three verses on this subject:
--sura 16, verses 10 and 11:
--sura 6, verse 99:
--sura 50, verses 9-11:
The Quran adds to these general data others that refer to more specialized subjects:
--sura 15, verse 19:
--sura 13, verse 4:
It is interesting to note the existence of these verses because they show the sober quality of the terms used, and the absence of any description that might highlight the beliefs of the times, rather than fundamental truths. What particularly attracts our attention however, are the statements in the Quran concerning reproduction in the vegetable kingdom.
One must bear in mind that there are two methods of reproduction in the vegetable kingdom: one sexual, the other asexual. It is only the first which in fact deserves the term 'reproduction', because this defines a biological process whose purpose is the appearance of a new individual identical to the one that gave it birth.
Asexual reproduction is quite simply multiplication. It is the result of the fragmentation of an organism which has separated from the main plant and developed in such a way as to resemble the plant from which it came. It is considered by Guilliermond and Mangenot to be a 'special case of growth'. A very simple example of this is the cutting. a cutting taken from a plant is placed in suitably watered soil and regenerated by the growth of new roots. Some plants have organs specially designed for this, while others give off spores that behave like seeds, as it were, (it should be remembered that seeds are the results of a process of sexual reproduction).
Sexual reproduction in the vegetable kingdom is carried out by the coupling of the male and female parts of the generic formations united on a same plant or located on separate plants.
This is the only form that is mentioned in the Quran.
-aura 20, verse 53:
'One of a pair' is the translation of zauj (plural azwaj) whose original meaning is: 'that which, in the company of another, forms a pair'; the word is used just as readily for a married couple as for a pair of shoes.
--sura 22, verse 5:
--sura 31, verse 10:
--sura 13, verse 3:
We know that fruit is the end-product of the reproduction process of superior plants which have the most highly developed and complex organization. The stage preceding fruit is the flower, which has male and female organs (stamens and ovules). The latter, once pollen has been carried to them, bear fruit which in turn matures and frees it seeds. All fruit therefore implies the existence of male and female organs. This is the meaning of the verse in the Quran.
It must be noted that for certain species, fruit can come from non-fertilized flowers (parthenocarpic fruit), e.g. bananas, certain types of pineapple, fig, orange, and vine. They can nevertheless also come from plants that have definite sexual characteristics.
The culmination of the reproductive process comes with the germination of the seed once its outside casing is opened (sometimes it is compacted into a fruit-stone). This opening allows roots to emerge which draw from the soil all that is necessary for the plant's slowed-down life as a seed while it grows and produces a new plant.
A verse in the Quran refers to this process of germination:
--sura 6, verse 95:
The Quran often restates the existence of these components of a pair in the vegetable kingdom and brings the notion of a couple into a more general context, without set limits:
--sura 36, Verse 36:
One could form many hypotheses concerning the meaning of the 'things men did not know' in Muhammad's day. Today we can distinguish structures or coupled functions for them, going from the infinitesimally small to the infinitely large, in the living as well as the non-living world. The point is to remember these clearly expressed ideas and note, once again, that they are in perfect agreement with modern science.
There are several questions in the Quran concerning the animal kingdom which are the subject of comments that call for a confrontation with modern scientific knowledge. Here again, however, one would gain an incomplete view of all that the Quran contains on this subject if one were to leave out a passage such as the extract which follows. In this passage, the creation of certain elements in the animal kingdom is described with the purpose of making man reflect upon the divine Beneficence extended to him. It is quoted basically to provide an example of the way in which the Quran describes the harmonious adaptation of Creation to man's needs; it relates in particular the case of those people who live in a rural setting, since there is nothing that could be examined from a different point of view.
-sura 16, verses 5 to 8:
Alongside these general remarks, the Quran sets out
certain data on highly diversified subjects:
This is very summarily dealt with in verses 45 and 46,
The 'pair' is the same expression that we have already encountered in the verses which deal with reproduction in the vegetable kingdom. Here, the sexes are given. The detail which is absolutely remarkable is the precision with which it is stated that a small quantity of liquid is required for reproduction. The word itself signifying 'sperm' is used. The relevance of this remark will be commented upon in the next chapter.
--sura 6, Verse 38:
There are several points in this verse which require comment. Firstly, it would seem that there is a description of what happens to animals after their death: Islam does not apparently, have any doctrine on this point. Then there is predestination in general [ We saw in the Introduction to the third part of this book what one was expected to believe about predestination in its application to man himself.] which would seem to be mentioned here. It could be conceived as absolute predestination or relative, i.e. limited to structures and a functional organization that condition modes of behaviour: the animal acts upon various exterior impulses in terms of a particular conditioning.
Blachère states that an older commentator, such as Razi, thought that this verse only referred to instinctive actions whereby animals worship God. Sheik Si Boubakeur Hamza, in the commentary to his translation of the Koran, speaks of "the instinct which, according to Divine Wisdom, pushes all beings to group together, so that they demand that the work of each member serve the whole group."
Animal behaviour has been closely investigated in recent decades, with the result that genuine animal communities have been shown to exist. Of course, for a long time now the results of a group or community's work have been examined and this has led to the acceptance of a community organization. It has only been recently however, that the mechanisms which preside over this kind of organization have been discovered for certain species. The most studied and best known case is undoubtedly that of bees, to whose behaviour the name von Frisch is linked. Von Frisch, Lorenz and Tinbergen received the 1973 Nobel Prize for their work in this field.
When specialists on the nervous system wish to provide striking examples of the prodigious organization directing animal behaviour, possibly the animals referred to most frequently are bees, spiders and birds (especially migratory birds). Whatever the case, there is no doubt that these three groups constitute a model of highly evolved organization.
The fact that the text of the Quran refers to this exemplary trio in the animal kingdom is in absolute keeping with the exceptionally interesting character that each of these animals has from a scientific point of view.
In the Quran, bees are the subject of the longest commentary:
--Sura 16, verses 68 and 69: [ One might note in passing, that this last verse is
the only one in the Quran that refers to the possibility
of a remedy for man. Honey can indeed be useful for
certain diseases. Nowhere else in the Quran is a
reference made to any remedial arts, contrary to what may
have been said about this subject.]
It is difficult to know what exactly is meant by the order to follow the ways of the Lord in humility, unless it is to be seen in general terms. All that may be said, with regard to the knowledge that has been gained of their behaviour, is that here-as in each of the three animal eases mentioned as examples in the Quran-there is a remarkable nervous organization supporting their behaviour. It is known that the pattern of a bee's dance is a means of communication to other bees; in this way, bees are able to convey to their own species the direction and distance of flowers from which nectar is to be gathered. The famous experiment performed by von Frisch has shown the meaning of this insect's movement which is intented to transmit information between worker bees.
Spiders are mentioned in the Quran to stress the flimsiness of their dwelling which is the most fragile of all. They have a refuge that is as precarious, according to the Quran, as the dwelling of those who have chosen masters other than God.
--sura 29, verse 41:
A spider's web is indeed constituted of silken threads secreted by the animal's glands and their calibre is infinitely fine. Its fragility cannot be imitated by man. Naturalists are intrigued by the extraordinary pattern of work recorded by the animal's nervous cells, which allows it to produce a geometrically perfect web.
Birds are frequently mentioned in the Quran. They appear in episodes in the life of Abraham, Joseph, David, Solomon and Jesus. These references do not however have any bearing on the subject in hand.
The verse concerning the existence of animal communities on the ground and bird communities in the sky has been noted above:
--sura 6 verse 38:
Two other verses highlight the birds' strict submission to God's Power.
--sura 16, verse 79:
--sura 67, verse 19:
"Have they not looked at the birds above them spreading their wings out and folding them? None can hold them up (in his Power) except the Beneficent." The translation of one single word in each of these verses is a very delicate matter. The translation given here expresses the idea that God holds the birds up in His Power. The Arabic verb in question is amsaka, whose original meaning is 'to put one's hand on, seize, hold, hold someone back'.
An illuminating comparison can be made between these verses, which stress the extremely close dependence of the birds' behavior on divine order, to modern data showing the degree of perfection attained by certain species of bird with regard to the programming of their movements. It is only the existence of a migratory programme in the genetic code of birds that can account for the extremely long and complicated journeys which very young birds, without any prior experience and without any guide, are able to accomplish. This is in addition to their ability to return to their departure point on a prescribed date. Professor Hamburger in his book, Power and Fragility (La Puissance et la Fragilité) [ Pub. Flammarion, 1972, Paris.], gives as an example the well-known case of the 'mutton-bird' that lives in the Pacific, with its journey of over 16,500 miles in the shape of the figure 8 [ It makes this journey over a period of six months, and comes back to its departure point with a maximum delay of one week.]. It must be acknowledged that the highly complicated instructions for a journey of this kind simply have to be contained in the bird's nervous cells. They are most definitely programmed, but who is the programmer?
This is defined in the Quran in strict accordance with the data of modern knowledge (sura 16, verse 66). The translation and interpretation of this verse given here is my own because even modern translations habitually give it a meaning which is, in my opinion, hardly acceptable. Here are two examples:
--R. Blachère's translation: [ Pub. G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1966, Paris,]
--Professor Hamidullah's translation: [ Pub. Club Français du
Livre, 1971, Paris.]
If these texts were shown to a physiologist, he would reply that they were extremely obscure, the reason being that there hardly appears to be much agreement between them and modern notions, even on a very elementary level. These translations are the work of highly eminent Arabists. It is a well known fact however, that a translator, even an expert, is liable to make mistakes in the translation of scientific statements, unless he happens to be a specialist in the discipline in question.
The most valid translation seems to me to be the
This interpretation is very close to the one given in the Muntakab, 1973, edited by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Cairo, which relies for its support on modern physiology.
From the point of view of its vocabulary, the proposed translation may be justified as follows:
I have translated «inside their bodies' and not, as R. Blachère and Professor Hamidullah have done, 'inside their bellies'. This is because the word batn also means 'middle', «interior of something', as well as 'belly'. The word does not here have a meaning that is anatomically precise. 'Inside their bodies' seems to concur perfectly with the context.
The notion of a 'primary origin' of the constituents of milk is expressed by the word min (in English 'from') and the idea of a conjunction by the word baini. The latter not only signifies «among' but also 'between' in the other translations quoted. It is however also used to express the idea that two things or two people are brought together.
From a scientific point of view, physiological notions must be called upon to grasp the meaning of this verse.
The substances that ensure the general nutrition of the body come from chemical transformations which occur along the length of the digestive tract. These substances come from the contents of the intestine. On arrival in the intestine at the appropriate stage of chemical transformation, they pass through its wall and towards the systemic circulation. This passage is effected in two ways: either directly, by what are called the 'lymphatic vessels', or indirectly, by the portal circulation. This conducts them first to the liver, where they undergo alterations, and from here they then emerge to join the systemic circulation. In this way everything passes through the bloodstream.
The constituents of milk are secreted by the mammary glands. These are nourished, as it were, by the product of food digestion brought to them via the bloodstream. Blood therefore plays the role of collector and conductor of what has been extracted from food, and it brings nutrition to the mammary glands, the producers of milk, as it does to any other organ.
Here the initial process which sets everything else in motion is the bringing together of the contents of the intestine and blood at the level of the intestinal wall itself. This very precise concept is the result of the discoveries made in the chemistry and physiology of the digestive system. It was totally unknown at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and has been understood only in recent times. The discovery of the circulation of the blood, was made by Harvey roughly ten centuries after the Quranic Rev elation.
I consider that the existence in the Quran of the verse referring to these concepts can have no human explanation on account of the period in which they were formulated.