From the moment ancient human writings enter into detail (however slight) on the subject of reproduction, they inevitably make statements that are inaccurate. In the Middle Ages-and even in more recent time-reproduction was surrounded by all sorts of myths and superstitions. How could it have been otherwise, considering the fact that to understand its complex mechanisms, man first had to possess a knowledge of anatomy, the discovery of the microscope had to be made, and the so-called basic sciences had to be founded which were to nurture physiology, embryology, obstetrics, etc.
The situation is quite different in the Quran. The Book mentions precise mechanisms in many places and describes clearly-defined stages in reproduction, without providing a single statement marred by inaccuracy. Everything in the Quran is explained in simple terms which are easily understandable to man and in strict accordance with what was to be discovered much later on.
Human reproduction is referred to in several dozen verses of the Quran, in various contexts. It is explained through statements which deal with one or more specific points. They must be assembled to give a general idea of the verses as a whole, and here, as for the other subjects already examined, the commentary is in this way made easier.
It is imperative to recall certain basic concepts which were unknown at the time of the Quranic Revelation and the centuries that followed.
Human reproduction is effected by a series of processes which we share in common with mammals. The starting point is the fertilization of an ovule which has detached itself from the ovary.
It takes place in the Fallopian tubes half-way through the menstrual cycle. The fertilizing agent is the male sperm, or more exactly, the spermatozoon, a single fertilizing cell being all that is needed. To ensure fertilization therefore, an infinitely small quantity of spermatic liquid containing a large number of spermatozoons (tens of millions at a time) is .required. This liquid is produced by the testicles and temporarily stored in a system of reservoirs and canals that finally lead into the urinary tract; other glands are situated along the latter which contribute their own additional secretions to the sperm itself.
The implantation of the egg fertilized by this process takes place at a precise spot in the female reproductive system: it descends into the uterus via a Fallopian tube and lodges in the body of the uterus where it soon literally implants itself by insertion into the thickness of the mucosa and of the muscle, once the placenta has been formed and with the aid of the latter. If the implantation of the fertilized egg takes place, for example, in the Fallopian tubes instead of in the uterus, pregnancy will be interrupted.
Once the embryo begins to be observable to the naked eye, it looks like a small mass of flesh at the centre of which the appearance of a human being is at first indistinguishable. It grows there in progressive stages which are very well known today; they lead to the bone structure, the muscles, the nervous system, the circulation, and the viscerae, etc.
These notions will serve as the terms of reference against which the statements in the Quran on reproduction are to be compared.
It is not easy to gain an idea of what the Quran contains on this subject. The first difficulty arises from the fact already mentioned, i.e. that the statements dealing with this subject are scattered throughout the Book. This is not however a major difficulty. What is more likely to mislead the inquiring reader is, once again, the problem of vocabulary.
In fact there are still many translations and commentaries in circulation today that can give a completely false idea of the Quranic Revelation on this subject to the scientist who reads them. The majority of translations describe, for example, man's formation from a 'blood clot' or an 'adhesion'. A statement of this kind is totally unacceptable to scientists specializing in this field. In the paragraph dealing with the implantation of the egg in the maternal uterus, we shall see the reasons why distinguished Arabists who lack a scientific background have made such blunders.
This observation implies how great the importance of an association between linguistic and scientific knowledge is when it comes to grasping the meaning of Quranic statements on reproduction.
The Quran sets out by stressing the successive transformations the embryo undergoes before reaching its destination in the maternal uterus.
--sura 82, verses 6 to 8:
--sura 71, verse 14:
Along with this very general observation, the text of the Quran draws attention to several points concerning reproduction which might be listed as follows:
The Quran repeats this concept eleven times using the following expression:
--sura 16, verse 4:
The Arabic word nutfa has been translated by the words 'small quantity (of sperm)' because we do not have the terms that are strictly appropriate. This word comes from a verb signifying 'to dribble, to trickle'; it is used to describe what remains at the bottom of a bucket that has been emptied out. It therefore indicates a very small quantity of liquid. Here it is sperm because the word is associated in another verse with the word sperm.
--sura 75, verse 37:
Here the Arabic word mani signifies sperm.
--sura 23, verse 13. God is speaking:
It must be added that the adjective which in this text refers to the 'firmly established lodging' makin is, I think, hardly translatable. It expresses the idea of a firmly established and respected place. However this may be, it refers to the spot where man grows in the maternal organism. It IS important to stress the concept of a very small quantity of liquid needed in the fertilization process, which is strictly in agreement with what we know on this subject today.
The Quran describes the liquid enabling fertilization to take place in terms which it is interesting to examine:
Many commentators, like professor Hamidullah, consider these liquids to be the male and female agents. The same view was shared by older commentators, who could not have had any idea of the physiology of fertilization, especially its biological conditions in the case of the woman. They thought that the word simply meant the unification of the two elements.
Modern authors however, like the commentator of the Muntakab edited by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Cairo, have corrected this view and note here that the 'small quantity of sperm' is made up of various component parts. The commentator in the Muntakab does not go into detail, but in my opinion it is a very judicious observation.
What are the components parts of sperm?
These are the origins of the 'mingled liquids' which
the Quran would appear to refer to.
This is the meaning of verse 8, sura 32:
The Arabic word, translated here by the word 'quintessence', is sulala. It signifies 'something which is extracted, the issue of something else, the best part of a thing'. In whatever way it is translated, it refers to a part of a whole.
Fertilization of the egg and reproduction are produced by a cell that is very elongated: its dimensions are measured in ten thousandths of a millimetre. In normal conditions [ It is estimated that in one cubic centinletre of sperm there are 25 million spermatozoons with, under normal conditions, an ejaculation of several cubic centimetres.], only one single cell among several tens of millions produced by a man will actually penetrate the ovule; a large number of them are left behind and never complete the journey which leads from the vagina to the ovule, passing through the uterus and Fallopian tubes. It is therefore an infinitesimally small part of the extract from a liquid whose composition is highly complex which actually fulfills its function.
In consequence, it is difficult not to be struck by the agreement between the text of the Quran and the scientific knowledge we possess today of these phenomena.
Once the egg has been fertilized in the Fallopian tube it descends to lodge inside the uterus; this is called the 'implantation of the egg'. The Quran names the lodging of the fertilized egg womb:
-sura 22, verse 5:
The implantation of the egg in the uterus (womb) is the result of the development of villosities, veritable elongations of the egg, which, like roots in the soil, draw nourishment from the thickness of the uterus necessary to the egg's growth. These formations make the egg literally cling to the uterus. This is a discovery of modern times.
The act of clinging is described five different times
in the Quran. Firstly in verses 1 and 2 of sura 96:
'Something which clings' is the translation of the word 'alaq. It is the original meaning of the word. A meaning derived from it, 'blood clot', often figures in translation; it is a mistake against which one should guard: man has never passed through the stage of being a 'blood clot'. The same is true for another translation of this term, 'adhesion' which is equally inappropriate. The original sense of 'something which clings' corresponds exactly to today's firmly established reality.
This concept is recalled in four other verses which describe successive transformations from the small quantity of sperm through to the end:
--sura 22, verse 5:
--sura 23, verse 14:
--sura 40, verse 67:
-sura 75, verse 37-38:
The organ which harbours the pregnancy is qualified in the Quran by a word which, as we have seen, is still used in Arabic to signify the uterus. In some suras, it is called a 'lodging firmly established' (sura 23, verse 13, quoted above and sura 77, verse 21) [ In another verse (sura 6, verse 98) a place of sojourn is mentioned. It is expressed in a term very similar to the preceding one and would also seem to signify the maternal uterus. Personally, I believe this to be the meaning of the verse, but a detailed interpretation would involve much lengthier explanation which is beyond the scope of this book.].
The Quranic description of certain stages in the development of the embryo corresponds exactly to what we today know about it, and the Quran does not contain a single statement that is open to criticism from modern science.
After 'the thing which clings' (an expression which is well-founded, as we have seen) the Quran informs us that the embryo passes through the stage of 'chewed flesh', then osseous tissue appears and is clad in flesh (defined by a different word from the preceding which signifies 'intact flesh').
--sura 23, verse 14:
'Chewed flesh' is the translation of the word mudga; 'intact flesh' is lahm. This distinction needs to be stressed. The embryo is initially a small mass. At a certain stage in its development, it looks to the naked eye like chewed flesh. The bone structure develops inside this mass in what is called the mesenchyma. The bones that are formed are covered in muscle; the word lahm applies to them.
Another verse which requires extremely delicate interpretation is the following:
--sura 39, verse 6:
Modern intrepreters of the Quran see in this verse
the three anatomical layers that protect the infant
during gestation: the abdominal wall, the uterus itself,
and the surroundings of the foetus (placenta, embryonic
membranes, amniotic fluid).
It is known how certain parts appear to be completely out of proportion during embryonic development with what is later to become the individual, while others remain in proportion.
This is surely the meaning of the word mukallaq which signifies 'shaped in proportion' as used in verse 5, sura 22 to describe this phenomenon.
"We fashioned . . . into something which clings . . . into a lump of flesh in proportion and out of proportion."
The Quran also describes the appearance of the senses and the viscerae:
--sura 32, verse 9:
It refers to the formation of the sexual organs:
--sura 53, verses 45-46:
The formation of the sexual organs is described in two sura of the Quran:
--sura 35, verse 11:
--sura 75, verse 39:
"And, (God) made of him a pair, the male and female."
As has already been noted, all statements in the Quran must be compared with today's firmly established concepts: the agreement between them is very clear. It is however very important to compare them with the general beliefs On this subject that were held at the time of the Quranic Revelation in order to realize just how far people were in those days from having views on these problems similar to those expressed here in the Quran. There can be no doubt that they would have been unable to interpret the Revelation in the way we can today because we are helped by the data modern knowledge affords us. It was, in fact, only during the Nineteenth century that people had a slightly clearer view of this question.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the most diversified doctrines originated in unfounded myths and speculations: they persisted for several centuries after this period. The most fundamental stage in the history of embryology was Harvey's statement (1651) that "all life initially comes from an egg". At this time however, when nascent science had nevertheless benefited greatly (for the subject in hand) from the invention of the microscope, people were still talking about the respective roles of the egg and the spermatozoon. Buffon, the great naturalist, was one of those in favor of the egg theory, but Bonnet supported the theory of the seeds being 'packed together'. the ovaries of Eve, the mother of the human race, were supposed to have contained the seeds of all human beings, packed together one inside the other. This hypothesis came into favor in the Eighteenth century.
More than a thousand years before our time, at a period when whimsical doctrines still prevailed, men had a knowledge of the Quran. The statements it contains express in simple terms truths of primordial importance which man has taken centuries to discover.
Our epoch believes that it has made manifold discoveries in all possible fields. It is thought that great innovations have been made in the field of sex education, and the knowledge of the facts of life which has been opened up to young people is regarded as an achievement of the modern world. Previous centuries were noted for their deliberate obscurity on this point and many people say that religion-without stating which religion-is the cause of it.
The information set out above is proof however that fourteen centuries ago theoretical questions (as it were) on human reproduction were brought to man's attention. This was done as far as was possible, taking into account the fact that the anatomical and physiological data needed for further explanations were lacking. One should also remember that, to be understood, it was necessary to use simple language suited to the level of comprehension of those who listened to the Preaching.
Practical considerations have not been silently ignored. There are many details in the Quran on the practical side of life in general, and the way man should behave in the many situations of his existence. His sex life is no exception.
Two verses in the Quran deal with sexual relations themselves. They are described in terms which unite the need for precision with that of decency. When translations and explanatory commentaries are consulted however, one is struck by the divergences between them. I have pondered for a long time on the translation of such verses, and am indebted to Doctor A. K. Giraud, Former Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, Beirut, for the following:
--sura 86, verse 6 and 7:
"(Man) was fashioned from a liquid poured out. It issued (as a result) of the conjunction of the sexual area of the man and the sexual area of the woman." The sexual area of the man is indicated in the text of the Quran by the world sulb (singular). The sexual areas of the woman are designated in the Quran by the word tara'ib (plural).
This is the translation which appears to be most satisfactory. It is different from the one that is often given by English and French translators, i.e. " (Man) has been created by a liquid poured out which issues from between the vertebral column and the bones of the breast." This would seem more to be an interpretation than a translation. It is hardly comprehensible.
The behavior of a man in his intimate relationships with his wife is stated explicitly.
There is the order concerning the menstruation period contained in verses 222 and 223, sura 2; God gives the following command to the Prophet:
--sura 2, verses 222 and 223:
The beginning of this passage is very clear in meaning: it formally forbids a man to have sexual contact with a woman who has her period. The second part describes the process of tilling which the sower performs before sowing the seed which is to germinate and produce a new plant. Through this image therefore, stress is indirectly laid on the importance of bearing in mind the final purpose of sexual contact, i.e. reproduction. The translation of the final phrase is by R. Blachère: it contains an order which seems to refer to the preliminaries before sexual contact.
The orders given here are of a very general kind. The
problem of contraception has been raised with regard to
these verses: neither here, nor anywhere else, is
reference made to this subject.
Sexual relations are permitted at night during the Fast in the month of Ramadan. The verse concerning Ramadan is as follows:
--sura 2, verse 187:
In contrast to this, no exception to the rule is made for pilgrims in Makka during the celebration days of the Pilgrimage.
--sura 2, verse 197:
This prohibition is formal, as is the fact that other
activities are forbidden, e.g. hunting, fighting, etc.
--sura 65, verse 4:
The waiting period referred to here is the time between the announcement of the divorce and the time it comes into effect. Those women of whom it is said 'they despair of menstruation' have reached the menopause. A precautionary period of three months is envisaged for them. Once this period is completed, divorced women who have reached the menopause may remarry.
For those who have not yet menstruated, the pregnancy period has to be awaited. For pregnant women, divorce only comes into effect once the child is born.
All these laws are in perfect agreement with physiological data. One can, furthermore, find in the Quran the same judicious legal provision in the texts dealing with widowhood.
Thus, the theoretical statements dealing with reproduction, and the practical instructions on the sex life of couples, do not contradict and cannot be placed in opposition to the data we have from modern knowledge, nor with anything that can be logically derived from it.