Embryology in the Qur’ān: A description of the Alaqah stage
By Elias Kareem
Last updated: 27 March 2014, version 1.90 revision 79 September 2000, February 2012, March 2012
© Elias Kareem 2014. All rights reserved
All images reproduced in this paper from the stated sources are under the provisions of the copyright law. No part of this publication may be reproduced for commercial purposes.
The Qur’ān is the holy book or scripture of Islam revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by God through the Archangel Gabriel over a 23-year period from 610 to 632 CE. The language of the Qur’ān is Arabic; its style “is neither prose nor poetry, but a unique fusion of both.”1 The text is divided into 114 surahs or chapters with each chapter consisting of individual ayahs or verses. There are in total 6,348 verses in the Qur’ān.
The Qur’ān describes itself as a “Book of Guidance”2 and addresses its message to all humanity. The Qur’ān deals with many issues and topics such as wisdom, doctrine, worship and law. It provides guiding principles for society, human conduct and commerce. The Qur’ān also contains numerous references to natural phenomena such as astronomy, embryology and geology.
The word “Qur’ān” means “recitation” and the first verse of the Qur’ān to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad was a command to read:
Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from ‘alaq (clinging form). Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by [means of] the pen, who taught man what he did not know.
Surah Al-‘Alaq (The Clinging Form) 96:1-5
Alaq (علق) is a stage in the development of the embryo. The Qur’ān mentions that human development passes through a number of distinct stages.3 These stages are descriptive of the embryo’s external appearance and have been assigned the following names:
And We (God) created man4 from a quintessence (gentle extraction) of clay.
We then placed him as a nuṭfah (drop) in a place of settlement, firmly fixed (i.e. the womb). alaqah (clinging form), and then We changed the clinging form into a mudghah (chewed-like form), then We made out of that chewed-like form, ‘iẓām (skeleton, bones), then We clothed the bones with laḥm (muscles, flesh); then We (ansha’ nahu), caused him to grow and come into being and attain the definitive (human) form. Blessed be God, the Perfect creator.
Then you will surely die .and then, on the Day of Resurrection, you will be raised up again.
Surah Al-Mu’minoon (The Believers) 23: 12-16
Until recently these statements were not fully appreciated, since they referred to details in human development which were scientifically unknown in earlier times. The Qur’ān reminds the reader that it is God who created man and while human life consists of a number of stages, life will one day come to an end. All human beings will then be resurrected and it is on the Day of Resurrection that every individual will account for their lives and be justly rewarded or punished for their deeds.
1 Arberry (1998, p. x).
2 Qur’ān 2:185.
3 Qur’ān 39:6 and 71:14.
4 This is a reference to the creation of the first man Adam.
Figure 1 Timetable of human development during weeks 1 to 4 (day 1 to 28) (Modified from Moore and Persaud (2007)). The Qur’ānic term ʿalaqah may be used to refer to the embryo of between 15 to 26 days.
This paper focuses on the term alaqah, the second stage of human development according to the Qur’ān. The paper begins by defining the meaning of the term alaqah before going on to show how the different meanings of this term could be used to describe an embryo of between 15 to 26 days (Figure 1). Although the term alaqah is discussed in some detail, with particular emphasis on the outer appearance of the embryo and its internal structures, the reader should note that this paper is nevertheless limited in its scope and should not be considered as a complete exposition of the alaqah.
2. THE MEANING OF THE TERM ALAQAH
The Qur’ān mentions the term alaqah علقة as the second stage of human prenatal development. The word alaqah according to many linguistic Arabic dictionaries has several meanings. It is a derivative of alaqa which means attached and hanging to something Alaqah is a leech that li es in ponds and thri es on the blood of animals to which it attaches itself Additionally alaq is “the red blood in general” or “the thick clotted blood ”5 Alaqah also denotes “the wet blood ”6
5 Ibn Manẓūr, in Lisān al-‘Arab, Dār Ṣādir Beirut n d ol 10 pp 261-268; Al-Jawharī Aṣ-Ṣ ḥāḥ, vol. 4, p 1529; Ibn Fāris Mu‛j M qāyīs l-Lughah Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah Iran n d ol 4 pp 125-128; Al-Fayrūzabādī Al-Qā ūs al-Muḥīṭ, vol. 3, p 275; and Al-Isfahanī Al-Muf ā , p 343. As cited in Zindani, Ahmed, Tobin, and Persaud (1994, p. .)68
6 Al-Biqā‛i, Naẓm ad-Durar fī Tanāsub al-Ᾱyāt was-Suwar, vol. 13, p 115; Ibn Al-Jawzī, Zād Al-Masīr fi ‘Ilm at-Tafsīr, ol 5 p 406; Al Khāzin Majmūah min at-Tafāsī , vol. 4, p 336; Al-Alusī, Rūḥ al-Ma‛ānī fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Azīm was-Sab‛ al-Mathāni, vol. 30, p 180; Ash-Shawkānī, Fatḥ al-Qadīr al-Jāmi‛ Bayna Fannay ar-Riwāyah wad-Dirāyah min ‛Ilm at-Tafsīr, 3rd edition Dār al-Fikr, Beiruit, 1393 AH, 1973 CE, vol. 5, p 468; Al-Baḥr Al-Muḥīṭ; vol. 6, p 468;
3. DESCRIPTION OF ALAQAH AS “ATTACHED AND HANGING TO SOMETHING”
Figure 2 Diagram showing Ovulation, Fertilization, and Migration Down the Uterine Tube. A zygote forms when the sperm and egg unite. Cell division results in two-, four-, and eight-cell stages in the uterine tube. By 3 to 4 days, a tight ball of cells termed the morula is ready to enter the uterine cavity. Near the end of the first week, the morula becomes the fluid-filled blastocyst with an inner cell mass (embryoblast) and outer trophoblast. The blastocyst adheres to the uterus and sinks within it during implantation. (From Cochard, L. R., & Netter, F. H.: Netter’s Atlas of Human Embryology, Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2012).
Human development begins when a sperm fuses with the ovum to create a unique single cell called the zygote (Figure 2). The zygote contains all of the genetic information (DNA) needed to become a baby. The zygote travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus. As it travels the cells of the zygote divide repeatedly to form a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. The blastocyst attaches to the endometrium or lining of the uterus on about the 6th day and continues to implant itself in the uterus wall with cells which eventually form the placenta. This process takes more than a week until cell differentiation7 occurs, developing the embryo and placenta from the blastocyst. The embryo is now attached to the primitive placenta is and hanging via the ‘connecting stalk’ that will eventually become the umbilical cord:
Day 12: The endodermal germ layer produces additional cells which form a new cavity, known as the secondary or definitive yolk sac. The extraembryonic coelom expands to form a large chorionic cavity, within which the embryo and the attached amniotic and yolk sac are suspended by the connecting stalk.8
By around 14 days 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 as we see in Figure 3 The Qur’ān describes this attachment as alaqah. This is in agreement with the meaning of the word alaqah as “attached and hanging to something”
and Al-Qurṭubī, Al-Jāmi‛ li-Aḥkām al-Qu ’ān, Dār Iḥyā at-Turāth al-‘Arabī Beirut n d vol. 10, p 119. As cited in Zindani et al. (1994, p. 68).
7 “As a result of a process called differentiation, the cells become specialized—for example, some become nerve cells, some become muscle cells, and some become skin cells. As this collection of cells takes form, they position themselves to reflect their eventual roles in the body ” Zerucha (2009, p. 10)
8 Saraga-Babic and Sapunar (n.d.). See also Allan and Kramer (2010, p. 27) and Drews (1995, p. 58).
4. DESCRIPTION OF ALAQAH AS A “BLOOD CLOT”
Figure 3 Photomicrographs of longitudinal sections of an implanted embryo at approximately 14 days. High-power view (Ã—95). The embryo is represented by the bilaminar embryonic disc composed of epiblast and hypoblast. (From Nishimura H [ed]: Atlas of Human Prenatal Histology. Tokyo, Igaku- Shoin, 1983). The embryo is now attached to the primitive placenta and is suspended or hanging via the ‘connecting stalk’.
Figure 4 Diagram of the embryonic cardiovascular system during the fourth week (approximately 26 days), viewed from the left side during the ʿalaqah stage. The external appearance of the embryo and its sacs is similar to that of a blood clot, due to the presence of relatively large amounts of blood present in the embryo and the chorion. The umbilical vein carries well- oxygenated blood and
oxygenated blood and waste products from the embryo to the chorionic sac. (From Moore and Persaud (2007)).
Another meaning mentioned for alaqah in classical commentaries is “blood clot” or “similar to a blood clot”. The meaning of “a blood clot” accurately reflects the external appearance of the embryo and its sacs for at this stage blood forms in the blood vessels in the form of isolated islands. The blood, though fluid, does not circulate until the end of the third week. The heart joins with blood vessels in the embryo, connecting stalk, chorion, and umbilical vesicle to form a primitive cardiovascular system.
from the sac to the The umbilical
Figure 5 Embryo in the fourth week (about 22-24 days) shows the clear rudiments of brain and backbone. Its heart pumps blood to the liver and into the aorta. (A Child is Born, Lennart Nilsson, 1990, p. 79).
The meaning of “a blood clot” describes the most prominent internal structure that affects the external appearance, for in the ʿalaqah stage, blood forms in the blood vessels in the form of isolated islands. The vessels resemble coagulated blood since the blood is circulating very slowly.9
By the end of the third week the blood starts to circulate and the heart begins to beat at 22 to 23 days (Figure 4). Although the embryo’s blood is fluid10, it nevertheless takes on the appearance of a blood clot (see Figure 4 and Figure 5)11. These features incorporate the meanings of “a blood clot” and “wet blood” for alaqah as given above.
9 For animated video footage of the embryo at this stage see http://web.tt.se/lennart_nilsson_video/video9.html and http://web.tt.se/lennart_nilsson_video/video10.html (accessed 22 December 2013). Footage by Lennart Nilsson.
10 “The blood is kept from clotting by an anticoagulant produced by the chorion ” Sherwood and Learning (2011, p. 778) “It secretes some anticoagulant substance which prevents coagulation of blood in the intervillous space ” Daftary and Chakravarty (2011)
11 An implanted blastocyst would also resemble 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.” Allan and Kramer (2010, p. 23).
5. THE DESCRIPTION OF ALAQAH AS A “LEECH”
5.1 Meaning of alaqah as a “Leech”
Scholars, linguists and dictionaries have all mentioned one of the meanings of alaqah as a leech. The fourteen century dictionary L sā l-‘A b states that “alaqah refers to a worm living in the water that sucks blood, the plural of which is alaq”12 and in the dictionary of l-Qā ūs l- Muḥīṭ alaq is “a small creature of water that sucks blood [a leech] ”13
The word alaqah also occurs in several languages related to Arabic. In Hebrew there is lûqā (or alukah)14, the generic name for any blood-sucking worm or leech. And in Aramaic ֲעל ָקה and Syriac there are words with apparently similar meanings:
The first word ‘alûqāh is a typical hapax legomenon15, though it does occur in the post- Biblical literature in meanings apparently similar to an Aramaic and Syriac word.
The word ‘alûqāh or ‘alûqā in Aramaic and ‘alqā or ‘alûqā in Syriac, means a “leech” particularly the tiny variety which is swallowed when drinking water and which sucks blood inside the body. The Tal. Bab. [Babylonian Talmud] describes it as a dangerous affliction; therefore we should perhaps understand this word [in Proverbs 30:15] as the name for a disease, one of its symptoms being the swelling of the belly...
The word ‘alaq also exists in Arabic where it means “a clot of blood” and, as a verb, “to stick, cling, hang onto, etc.” hence ‘alaqah = leech. In Arabic, however, it essentially indicates the worm itself, and not necessarily the disease. The word is also known in Amharic and also in the dialect of Tigrē, as ‘alaqětě = leech.16
In Ad-Damīrī's Arabic zoological lexicon Hayāt al-Hayawān (The Life of the Animals, 1372 CE), there is an article on the leech alaq)17 and in Ibn Wahshīya’s Kitāb al-Sumūm (The Book on Poisons, c. 950 CE) there is the treatment for the one who has swallowed a leech alaq).18
In Qur’ānic translations, Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1934 CE) translates alaqah as a “leech-like clot”19, Saheeh International (1997 CE) has a “clinging substance” and “clinging clot”20 while Professor Abdul Haleem (2005 CE) has “clinging form ”21
12 Ibn Manẓūr, in Lisān al-‘Arab, Dār Ṣādir Beirut n d ol 10 pp 261-268; as cited in Zindani et al. (1994, p. 68) . The Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب, “The Tongue of the Arabs”) was compiled by Ibn Manẓūr (1232-1311CE). It is a monumental work of immense importance that continues until the present day to be the major reference work for the Arabic language.
13 Al-Qā ūs l-Muḥīṭ, vol. 3, p 275 as cited in Zindani et al. (1994, p. 68). Al-Qā ūs l-Muḥīṭ (القاموس المحيط “The Surrounding Ocean”) by Al-Fayrūzabādī (1326-1414 CE) is another major reference work of classical Arabic.
14 “The leech (ֲעל ָקה lûqā ) has two daughters: Gi e and Gi e ” Pro erbs 30:15 (ESV) Hebrew ֲעל ָקה lûqā meaning a leech (Blue Letter Bible). Although the Hebrew word is translated leech in most versions of the Bible, there has been much dispute whether this is the proper meaning. Recourse is therefore had to the Arabic language. See Kaltner (1996, pp. 86-87).
15 “Words or forms of words that occur once only. There are about 1,500 of these in the Old Testament; but only 400 are, strictly, "hapax legomena"; i.e., are either absolutely new coinages of roots, or cannot be derived in their formation or in their specific meaning from other occurring stems.” Hirsch, Casanowicz, Jacobs, and Schloessinger (1906).
16 Gluck (1964, pp. 368-369) Gluck’s opinion of lûqā as used in Proverbs 30:15 is that it does not appear to have been used in the context of a leech and proposes the translation “erotic passion” but this interpretation cannot be supported by the Arabic sources, see Kaltner (1996, pp. 86-87).
17 K āb Ḥayā al-ḥayawān (The Book of the Lives of the Animals) finished in 1372 CE as mentioned in De Somogyi (1950, p. 42).
18 Ibn Wahshīya’s Book on Poisons c.950 CE. Known under various titles: Kitāb al-Shānāq fī al-Sumūm wa’al-tiryaq, Kitāb al-Sumūm wa’al-tiryāqāt, and al-Sumū wadaf‘ madārrhā. Levey (1966, p. 84).
19 Qur’ān 40:67. Ali (1938).
20 Qur’ān 96:2 and 75:38. Saheeh International (1997).
A popular ninth century Christian polemic against Islam charges that Muslims belie e that “God created man from a leech” based on the work of Nicetas of Byzantium. Nicetas, who wrote between 842 and 867 CE, 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” 22
And in Qur’ānic commentaries, Aṣ-Ṣābūnī (b. 1930 CE) mentions a “leech-like clot”23 while Ibn Kathīr (b. 1302 CE) also mentions the meaning of “elongated like the shape of a leech ”24
Sikandar Hussain (1980 CE) in his essay l l-Alaq) gives one of the meanings of alaqah as a leech25 and Qu ’ : E cycl entry for alaq also mentions the same meanings:
The linguistic definition of alaq (singular alaqah) is ‘leech’, ‘medicinal leech’, ‘(coagulated) blood’, ‘blood clot’, or ‘the early stage of the embryo’.26
5.2 The Leech worm
Leeches are bloodsucking worms that belong to the classification phylum Annelida (which includes earthworms, leeches and bristleworms) and are in the subclass Hirudinea.27 The most distinguishing characteristic of Annelida is body segmentation and the body structure of the leech is composed of a series of modular, repeating segments:
[A]ll annelids are segmented. Segments, also called metameres, are structures that occur repeatedly along the body of the animal.28
Leeches have a fixed number of segments, usually 34. They have a small sucker at the anterior (front) end containing the mouth, and a large, often circular sucker at the posterior (rear) end. Leeches feed by ingesting blood through their anterior sucker. Leeches produce an enzyme in their saliva called hirudin, a powerful anticoagulant which prevents the host’s blood from clotting whilst the leech feeds. The Latin name for the well-known blood sucking leech is Hirudo medicinalis. Leeches were once widely used by physicians and barbers for bloodletting practices.
Despite their close association with medieval medicine, leeches today are used for a variety of medical purposes including providing useful treatments for arthritis, blood- clotting disorders, varicose veins and other circulatory disorders and are also used in modern plastic and reconstructive surgery.29
Also of interest to this study is the gut which is described as “a straight tube ”30
21 “[Alaq is a] stage in the development of a foetus (cf. 22: 5), i.e. embryo. Alaq can also mean anything that clings: a clot of blood, a leech, even a lump of mud. All these meanings involve the basic idea of clinging or sticking.” Abdel Haleem (2005, p. 428).
22 “Nicetas accuses the Qur’ān of teaching that man comes from a leech (Confutatio1, lines 90–92): (he says that man is created from a leech). The phrase is then picked up by
Zigabenos, who finds it absurd.. ” Simelidis (2011, pp. 900-902).
23 Aṣ-Ṣābūnī (1980 p 281).
فصارت علقة حمراء على شكل العلقة مستطيلة :)242 Ibn Kathīr (1980 p 24 25 Hussain (1980, pp. 107-110).
26 Sahin (2006, p. 27).
27 Yeh (2002).
28 Yeh (2002).
29 Govedich and Bain (2005, p. 1).
30 "Annelid", Funk & Wagnalls New Encylopedia (1995).
5.3 External appearance of the embryo as a Leech
Figure 6 Drawings illustrating the similarities in appearance between a human embryo and a leech (ʿalaqah). A, shows a lateral view of an embryo (size 2.5-3.0mm) at days 24 to 25 during folding, showing the large forebrain and the ventral position of the heart (from Moore & Persaud: The Developing Human 8th Edition). B, shows a drawing of a leech. Note the leech-like appearance of the human embryo at this stage.
A leech seems to be an appropriate 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.31 The embryo is attached to the wall of the chorion – the chorionic sac – which has chorionic villi which are attached to the lining of the uterus. The embryo is also surrounded by amniotic fluid just as the leech is surrounded by water.
If we take 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. Figure 6 and Figure 7 clearly indicate that the shape of the embryo does in fact resemble a leech. Internally, the embryo acquires a primitive cardiovascular system and the embryo is now dependent upon the maternal blood for its nutrition like a leech which feeds on the blood of others.32
31 Moore (1986, pp. 15-16).
32 As we see in Figure 4 (page 4) the umbilical vein carries well-oxygenated blood and nutrients from the chorionic sac to the embryo. The arteries carry poorly oxygenated blood and waste products to the chorionic villi for transfer to the mother’s blood.
A. Embryo at 24-25 days
B. Medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis)
C. Embryo at 26-30 days
Figure 7 A, shows a lateral view of an embryo (size 2.5-3.0mm) at days 24 to 25 during folding. (Modified from Moore & Persaud: The Developing Human 8th Edition) B, Medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis (modified from The Human Body. The Incredible Journey from Birth to Death, © BBC Worldwide Ltd, 1998) C, Scanning electron micrograph of an embryo at Week 4, 26 - 30 days. (Professor Kathy Sulik, The University of North Carolina). Note the leech-like appearance of the human embryos at this stage.
In The Human Body: The Incredible Journey from Birth to Death, Professor Lord Robert Winston33 also describes the embryo in a similar way. Lord Winston demonstrates how the embryo obtains nourishment from the blood of the mother which is similar to a leech which feeds on the blood of others (Figure 8):
33 Lord Winston is Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, London. http://www.robertwinston.org.uk/.
Figure 8 Presenter Professor Lord Robert Winston with a blood sucking leech (ʿalaqah) attached to his forearm. Professor Winston shows how the embryo obtains nourishment from the blood of the mother, similar to the leech which feeds on the blood of others. (The Human Body. The Incredible Journey from Birth to Death, © BBC Worldwide Ltd, 1998).
This is Hirudo medicinalis, better known to you and me as a leech. It’s a parasite. It 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. Unlike the leech, the developing embryo doesn’t suck the mother’s blood but 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.34
And in Anatomy Demystified the early embryo is also described as worm-like in appearance which is nourished by the mother’s maternal blood supply:
By 24 days, a connecting stalk appears in the middle of the now worm-like body. The yolk sac hangs off to one side of this connecting stalk. Both attach to the primitive placenta (plah-SEN-tah), a “flat cake” (placent) of highly vascular (blood vessel-rich) tissue that nourishes the developing embryo and later, the fetus.35
It takes about a week from the beginning of implantation (day 6) for the connecting stalk to form (day 14 or 15) such that the embryo becomes “attached and hanging” It takes about 10 days for the notochord36 to begin development (day 16) in order for the embryo to take on the appearance of a leech.37 The word alaqah accurately describes and reflects the external appearance of the embryo during this stage of development.
34 Lord Winston in BBC Woldwide (1998).
35 Layman (2004, p. 366).
36 A rod-like column of cells. It is the first indication of the future vertebrae of the spinal column.
37 The embryo undergoes craniocaudal folding and lateral folding which changes the shape of the embryo from a two- dimensional disk to a three-dimensional cylinder.
5.4 A segmented body like a Leech
A leech’s body is organised into repeating units called segments which gives rise to a ringed appearance of the body hence the name “ringed worms ”38
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. Each segment will give rise to a different part of the body's long axis. The repetition of structures in segments is best seen in the chest. There, each vertebra and the attached rib is produced from one embryonic segment.39
The segments of the embryo consist of somites (Figure 9), cell masses which develop into ribs, vertebrae and back muscles:
Somites are bilaterally paired blocks of mesoderm that give the embryo a segmented appearance... Somites begin to appear by day 20, and number 42-44 pairs by day 35. Beginning in week 4, each somite subdivides into three tissue masses: a sclerotome, which surrounds the neural tube and gives rise to bone tissue of the vertebral column; a myotome, which gives rise to muscles of the trunk; and a dermatome, which gives rise to the dermis of the skin and to its associated subcutaneous tissue.40
5.5 The gut like a “straight tube”
The third week is characterized by the development of the three germ layers followed by the formation of three important structures (the primitive streak, the notochord, and the neural tube).
During development, cells form three germ layers: the ectoderm is the outer most layer, the mesoderm is the middle layer, and the endoderm is the innermost layer.
38 Garwood and Campbell (2007).
39 Nathanielsz (1994, p. 22). Peter W. Nathanielsz is a Professor at the Laboratory for Pregnancy and Newborn Research, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA. “Professor Nathanielsz was amongst the handful of pioneers who assisted at the birth about thirty years ago of the new discipline of fetology and has remained at the forefront of what is now an enormous field. His laboratory has contributed many of the technical advances that now allow the most intimate details of fetal life to be examined with a precision equal to that of a cosmologists’ radio-telescope.” (ibid, vii).
40 Saladin (2007, p. 114).
Figure 9 Human embryos during the fourth week, approx. 21-25 days. Note the segments or somites and the leech-like appearance of the embryos. (From Larsen, William J., Human Embryology, 2nd ed., Churchill Livingstone, Inc., 1997, p. 75).
Figure 10 A diagrammatic representation showing the relative positions of the three germ layers and their derivatives. The enteron and coelom form the gut and body cavities, respectively. The ectoderm forms the central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as skin cells (epidermis). The mesoderm forms many essential organs, including bone, blood, heart, spleen, and kidneys. The endoderm forms the remaining organs, as well as the digestive and respiratory tracts. (From Ted Zerucha, Human Development, 1999, page 53).
These three germ layers give rise to all the tissues and organs of the embryo (Figure 10). These layers curl to form a tube-like structure which Anthony Smith, in The Human Body, also likens to a worm:
There are three layers much like a cake with filling in the middle. These three layers then curl to form a tube. 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.41
Ted Zerucha in Human Development also describes the gut of the embryo as a tube:
If one imagines what a cross section through a human body looks like in a very general sense, it would likely resemble something similar to that shown in [Figure 10]. 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.42
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]. 43
41 Smith (1998, p. 38).
42 Zerucha (2009, p. 52).
43 “Annelida” in The Columbia Encyclopedia (2008).
5.6 The head of the embryo resembles a Leech’s sucker
Figure 11 A, Coloured scanning electron micrograph of the head of an embryo at 22 days. (Footage by Lennart Nilsson)44 B, Coloured scanning electron micrograph of a freshwater leech’s rear sucker. (Photograph by Steve Gschmeissner)45
In Figure 11 A we see a scanning electron micrograph of an embryo with its head still open. As yet the embryo has no face, and we can see right into the brain. The heart is shown in red. Figure 11 B shows a scanning electron micrograph of the rear sucker of a leech. Note the similarity in appearance between the embryo’s head and the leech’s sucker Leeches have a small sucker at the front end containing the mouth, and a large, often circular sucker at the rear (Figure 12).
Figure 12 A, Photograph of the front sucker of a medicinal leech.46 B, Light micrograph of the rear sucker of a leech from Movile Cave, Romania.47
44 http://web.tt.se/lennart_nilsson_video/video22.html (accessed 28 August 2013). 45 Freshwater leech’s rear sucker. Photograph by Steve Gschmeissner
http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/366747/enlarge (accessed 28 August 2013).
46 Field Studies Council: http://www.lifeinfreshwater.org.uk/Species%20Pages/Leech%20sucker.jpg.html (accessed 28
47 Leech from Movile Cave, Romania. www.sciencephoto.com/media/406218/enlarge (accessed 28 August 2013).
5.7 Internal anatomical structure like a Leech
Figure 13 A, Ventral dissection showing the internal anatomical structure of a leech. (From J.G. Nicholls and D. Van Essen. The nervous system of the leech, 1974, Scientific American 230:38-48.) B, Dorsal view of a 13-somite embryo at approximately 24 days, actual size 3.0mm. (From Professor Hideo Nishimura, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan). Note the remarkable similarity in appearance between the human embryo and the internal structure of the leech.
If we examine the anatomy of the leech we find that the appearance of its internal structures is also similar to that of the human embryo:
Figure 13 A shows a photograph of dissected medicinal leech. Note how the body is made up of a series of repeating segments which resemble the somites in human embryos as seen in Figure 13 B above. The actual size of the embryo at this stage is just 3.0mm.
Figure 14 A–C shows photographs of embryos during the third and fourth weeks (approximately 22-26 days) where the internal organs can be observed through the skin. Figure 14 D shows two illustrations depicting the internal structures of a leech.
Note the remarkable similarity in appearance between the anatomy of the embryos and the leech. The word alaqah accurately describes and reflects the internal features of the embryo at this stage. Due to the small sizes of the embryos involved, scientists could not have recognised the detailed features of the alaqah stage as there were no microscopes or lenses available in the seventh century.
Figure 14 Dorsal views of embryos during the third and fourth weeks (about 22-26 days). A, Dorsal view of a 5-somite embryo, actual size 2.5mm. B, Dorsal view of an older eight-somite embryo, actual size 3.0mm. C, Dorsal view of a 13-somite embryo at approximately 24 days, actual size 3.0mm. (Photographs from Professor Hideo Nishimura, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan.) D, The anatomical structure of the leech. (Illustrated by James Rawlins Johnson, A Treatise on the Medicinal Leech, London, 1816. (Rare – In process) UCLA Biomedical Library: History and Special Collection ns for the Sciences).
The Qur’ān mentions the term alaqah علقة as the second stage of human prenatal development. The word alaqah has several meanings. It is a derivative of alaqa which means attached and hanging to something. Alaqah is a leech that lives in ponds and thrives on the blood of animals to which it attaches itself. Additionally, alaq is “the red blood in general” or “the thick clotted blood ” Alaqah also denotes “the wet blood ”
This paper correlated the various lexical meanings of the term alaqah with the stages of human prenatal development. The term alaqah is found to be a comprehensive expression that accurately describes the primary external as well as internal features of the developing embryo of around 15 to 26 days. In this one word the general shape of the embryo and its internal anatomy as a leech are described, internal events such as the formation of blood and closed vessels are depicted, and the attachment of the embryo to the placenta is also brought to mind:
the embryo is attached to the placenta and is hanging or suspended in the chorionic cavity by the connecting stalk (Figure 3)
the external appearance of the embryo and its sacs is similar to that of a blood clot, due to the presence of relatively large amounts of blood present in the embryo and the chorion (Figure 4 and Figure 5)
the external shape of the embryo at 22-25 days resembles a leech (Figure 6 and Figure 7)
the embryo obtains nourishment from the blood of the mother (Figure 4) similar to the leech
which feeds on the blood of others (Figure 8)
the appearance of the internal anatomy of the leech resembles the anatomy of the embryo of 22-26 days (Figure 13 and Figure 14)
the embryo has a segmented body like a leech (Figure 9)
the early embryo further resembles a leech in that it has a tube-like gut running from one
end to the other (Figure 10)
The similarities between the embryo and leech are truly remarkable. The Qur’ānic term alaqah refers to the embryo when it is extremely small, measuring 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:
“Even as recently as the nineteen-thirties... the details of human conception and reproduction were largely a scientific mystery, an inaccessible series of poorly understood events that took place deep in a mother’s womb.”48
“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.”49
The terminology used in the Qur’ān to describe human development during this stage is characterized by descriptiveness, accuracy and ease of comprehension. When one takes into
48 Edwards (1989, Forward). Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards, who devised the fertility treatment IVF. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2010/edwards.html (accessed 12 January 2014).
49 Moore (1986, p. 16).
consideration both the said similarities between the embryo and leech along with all the meanings of the word alaqah as presented in this paper, then the inevitable question one faces is how could anyone have chosen a more comprehensive word in the Arabic language that describes a particular stage of the embryological cycle in such detail? If anything, one is certainly challenged to offer any credible naturalistic explanation that sounds plausible.
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