Religion and Spirituality

A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam: A Review and some Embryology

Recently I went to Egypt (!!) which was a joy and a delight, and outside several mosques people were distributing literature about Islam. Since I normally spend my time making fun of Christian Tracts, let’s have a change of pace and critique Muslim tracts instead. We will start with A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam, which is conveniently also online at

We start right out with chapter one “Some Evidence for the Truth of Islam.”  Yay, evidence, I love evidence! What is their compelling evidence?  First of all, “The Qu’ran, which was revealed 14 centuries ago, mentions facts only recently discovered or proven by scientists.This proves without doubt that the Qur’an must be the literal word of God…It is beyond reason that anyone fourteen hundred years ago would have known these facts discovered or proven only recently with advanced equipment and sophisticated scientific methods.”

Right off the top, I have skepticism. I am not sure that it logically follows that if ancient people knew stuff -> there must exist a god telling them about it. Maybe I am weirdly optimistic about humanity but we knew a surprising amount of things in ancient times. Like plumbing and trigonometry. Fortunately the guide has some illustrative examples about what we couldn’t possibly have known.

Example the first:

We created man from an extract of clay. Then We made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into an alaqah (leach, suspended thing, and blood clot), then We made the alaqah into a mudghah (chewed substance)… Qur’an 23:12-14

The argument presented is that this described how an embryo is suspended and kinda looks like a leech and then a chewed piece of gum. The part about the extract of clay we are glossing over. One might be tempted to dismiss this as poetical rather than a literal description of embryology.  However, assuming it is in fact literal, let us consider some contextual data.

I have a question, and it is what was the state of embryological knowledge around the 600s CE?  5 minutes on google brings me to Arizona State University’s embryology project encyclopedia, part of which contains exactly what I was looking for, which is a discussion of a book on the history of embryology  I see here things like “the early Egyptians also discovered that chick eggs could be removed from nests and artificially incubated in ovens. This important finding allowed for observation of chick embryos during different periods of development” and “Aristotle studied embryos of different organisms by opening up bird eggs at different stages of development and dissecting mammalian and cold-blooded embryos. Needham argues that Aristotle may have even observed a human embryo–an extraordinary feat for a scientist at the time given that aborted embryos were not that easy to come by.”

So here we have examples of people doing some direct observation of embryos, well before the Qur’an was a thing, so the idea that embryos look kinda like leaches and then kinda like chewed things is something one can simply look at, and in fact, people had been doing such things.  The guide even acknowledges this by pointing out that Aristotle described embryos and their development in stages but “he did not give details about these stages.” Therefore the Qur’an’s description must be from god. I don’t see much detail in the passage above, and while the guide is doing a LOT of heavy lifting for you with saying that the whole leach and suspended thing and blood clot all mean lots and lots, but honestly the quoted passage itself doesn’t seem to support it. Also, Aristotle doesn’t provide details? Really?  I started skimming through an online copy of On the Generation of Animals and the dude is describing umbilical cords and what happens when an egg has a double yolk.  It reminds me of being told in Sunday School that obviously the Biblical flood story is not a ripoff of Gilgamesh because the version in the Bible is so much more sophisticated textually, however we are quantifying that. No one ever read from the Gilgamesh to demonstrate that point. I am not a fan of Aristotle but accusing him of failing to describe stages of embryonic development when he seems to have meticulously recorded what embryos looked like at various stages, particularly as demonstrated by this site from Purdue university, seems dishonest.

More examples will follow. I am not impressed, but tell me, dear readers, am I being harsh and overly skeptical? Is an embryo looking like a drop and a leach and a blood clot and a bit of chewed gum really such a hugely impressive leap of embryonic knowledge that humans would not have gotten to it by dissecting things and looking?

featured image via flickr

Previous post

Reality Checks: New Dark Energy Theory, Fossil Parenting, the Apollo 11 Control Room, and Book Recap of 2019

Next post

Reality Checks: NATO Reviewing Iraq Mission, Howler Monkey Testicals, Where there is no GPS, and Weinstein Trial



Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

No Comment

Leave a reply