Allah says in Surah Tariq:
So let man observe from what he was created.
He was created from a fluid, ejected,
Emerging from between the backbone and the ribs. (86:5-7)
Many anti-Islam apologists have tried to use this verse to claim the Quran misunderstands human reproduction. Some Muslims have become confused over this verse as a result. I hope this article will explain why this verse is not problematic with the permission of Allah.
Firstly, I dislike going into science to deal with these “scientific accusations” against the Quran. Some people go into the science of where this or that fluid is made to try and explain the verse. I do not deny the possibility of that being correct.
However, what I like to do is emphasize the fact that the Quran is not meant as a book that gives very clear statements about science. So, in this article, I will show that the verses are, in fact, vague enough that they retain plausible alternative interpretations even if we accept wholeheartedly the science of these anti-Islam apologists.
The reason the verses are vague is not because of a limitation Allah had. Rather, they are vague because these verses were not revealed for people to learn science or anatomy from them. They were revealed to remind people of their creation. This does not need detailed anatomy.
In this article, I will grant the assumption that sperm is not created anywhere close to either the backbone or the ribs and show that there are possible interpretations of the verse that do not contradict this assumption.
First, I will go through each phrase in the verse and elaborate on what they can mean.
The word يَخْرُجُ (translated as “emerging”) does not specify what or who it refers to. It is grammatically possible for it to either refer to “man” from the first verse or “fluid” from the second verse.
Ibn Atiyyah (546 AH) comments in his tafsir of this verse:
والضَمِيرُ في “يَخْرُجُ” يُحْتَمَلُ أنْ يَكُونَ لِلْإنْسانِ، ويُحْتَمَلُ أنْ يَكُونَ لِلْماءِ
The pronoun in “emerging” could refer to “man” or could refer to “fluid”
I quote him to emphasize that this isn’t made up by me but a fact from Arabic grammar.
Although it referring to “fluid” is more likely, that doesn’t make it definitive.
If it refers to “man”, the verses say: Let man observe from what he was created. He was created from a fluid ejected. And he emerged from between the backbone and the ribs.
From between the backbone and the ribs can have a couple of meanings in this interpretation. One of them is that this is a euphemistic way of referring to the part of his mother a baby is born from.
The phrase “in between” can be taken in a physical sense or it can be taken in a figurative sense. The previously mentioned interpretation that it refers to the place of birth used it in a physical sense because the place of birth is between the ribs and backbone on the lateral plane.
But, in Arabic, the phrase “from between two things” is also used to simply mean “from both of them.” This is mentioned by Tabari (310 AH), one of the earliest exegetes of the Quran:
يقول: يخرج من بين ذلك، ومعنى الكلام: منهما، كما يقال: سيخرج من بين هذين الشيئين خير كثير، بمعنى: يخرج منهما.
He says: Emerging from between that. The meaning of the phrase is: from both of them. It is like how people say “A lot of good will come from between these two things” when they mean “from the two of them.”
This usage of “between” is surprisingly also in English. See one of the definitions of “between” by Merriam Webster:
6. taking together the combined effect of
E.g. between work and family life, they have no time for hobbies
So, the verse can mean “from both the backbone and the ribs.”
“The Backbone and the Ribs”
The majority interpretation of these two words is that the backbone refers to the backbone of the man and the ribs refer to the ribs of the woman. The reason is that the word used for “ribs” is usually used to refer to the ribs of women. This can be found in all the major tafasir including Tabari.
Another possible interpretation of this is to say both the backbone and the ribs refer to the same person, either the man or the woman.
However, even granted backbone means backbone of the man and ribs mean ribs of the woman, what does it mean for the man or fluid to emerge from both of these things?
Either it can be taken physically or it can be taken in a figurative sense. It is a common figure of speech in the Quran and Arabic to use a part of someone to refer to the whole of that person. (This also exists in English. It is called synecdoche.)
For example, you could say “faces are happy” (75:22) to mean “people are happy.”
In this same way, it is possible that Allah simply uses these parts of the man and woman to refer to the man or woman as a whole. So, “emerging from both the backbone and the ribs” could simply mean “emerging from both the man and the woman.”
Meaning of the Verse
After going through the phrases in the verse, we can see how many understandings of this verse are possible that do not contradict any science.
Some of them I already mentioned. But, I will list them here explicitly:
- Man was created from ejected fluid, and he emerged from between the backbone and ribs of the woman during childbirth.
- Man was created from ejected fluid, and he emerged from the man and woman i.e. people are born from both a father and mother.
- Man was created from ejected fluid, and the fluid (combination of sperm and ovum) comes from both man and woman.
A possible interpretation I did not mention because it supposedly contradicts science:
- Man was created from ejected fluid, and the fluid is formed from the man’s backbone and ribs.
Question: Isn’t the last interpretation the most obvious according to the words?
Answer: Firstly, I do not grant that it is the most obvious. If it were most obvious, why do you think the majority of the past commentators said the ribs refers to the ribs of the woman?
Secondly, even if it were most obvious, it isn’t necessary that the obvious interpretation be the correct one.
Question: Why is the Quran so unclear in what it means?
Answer: The Quran was never revealed to teach people science. It is only unclear because you are looking for the wrong information in it. The actual message of this passage is quite clear and it is not affected by the interpretation. The message of this passage is to make humans realize the fragility of how they were created, and this is intended to show how Allah can easily create humans again for resurrection.
Complaining the Quran is unclear about where sperm comes from is like complaining the Quran is unclear how many people slept in the cave in Surah Kahf. You are missing the whole point of the verses then complaining the verses don’t give you information they never wanted to give you!
Question: How to know whether the Quran contradicts science?
Answer: The evidence for why we believe in the Quran is highly certain and clear, ranging from miracles to prophecies. Thus, if someone wants to bring evidence against the Quran, it has to be equally certain and clear. It cannot be based on a passage that can have multiple valid interpretations.
Question: Why does the Quran use “backbone” to refer to men as you claim in interpretations 2 and 3? Why does it use “ribs” to refer to women?
Answer: The wisdom of why Allah would use this specific part of the man and woman is interesting but wouldn’t affect the overall understanding of the verse. It doesn’t change the fact that Arabic does allow using a part of someone to refer to the whole.
Question: In interpretation 3, you claim the fluid refers to both the sperm and ovum. However, the ovum is not ejected, and the previous verse describes the fluid as ejected. So, what is the solution?
Answer: It is possible to refer to a mixture in Arabic with the quality of one of its constituents. So, it is possible to refer to the fluid as ejected even though one constituent of it is ejected, and the reason Allah highlighted this quality of being ejected should be obvious. It shows how humiliating or lowly the origin of humans was.
And Allah knows best what is correct.