Islamic embryology is my curse now

I dread finding email in my inbox from someone with a Muslim name nowadays, because I know exactly what it’s going to about. Apparently I am notorious among Islamic fundamentalists because I said that the prophet Mohammed’s account of developmental biology is not accurate, and not at all substantial, so every once in a while someone gets it in their head to prove me wrong, that the Quran is precise, accurate, and complete. It is not, of course.

Here we go again.

Dear Professor PZ Myers,

I hope you are doing well. I am a Muslim medical student, and I recently watched your debate on embryology in Islam from 12 years ago. Unfortunately, the brothers debating you lacked in-depth knowledge of embryology[That’s a poor description to narrow it down. They were all bad, every one. Maybe this one with the appropiately named Nadir?], but I am here to offer a more informed perspective[Doubtful.]

I have written an entire book about embryology in Islam, detailing its basis and nuances. I noticed you are seeking detailed embryological descriptions in the Quran[No, I’m not. The Quran has a pitifully short description, I don’t need a whole book making excuses for it], and I believe you may have overlooked the significant details present in the verses of Surah Al-Muminun or other surah. While I understand you are an atheist and do not believe in God, I hope to provide you with some insights before it is too late[Too late…for what?].

I am willing to share passages from my book with you, completely free of charge, in the spirit of honest inquiry and the pursuit of truth. The first passages I will provide cover:

1. The formation of bones and flesh.
2. The claim that the Quran copied from the works of Galen and Aristotle.

Additionally, my book includes other topics such as:

3. Embryology classification at the microscopic level and its correlation with the Quran.
4. Sex determination in the Hadiths of the Prophet and the Quran.
5. Correcting misinterpretations of verses in Chapter 86 of the Quran: Surah At-Tariq (regarding the ejaculated fluid coming from between the backbone and ribs).

To start, I will send you the first two topics. All you need to do is read these to conclude that the knowledge contained in the Quran is not primitive and could not have been known by everyone at that time[I’ve read a complete translation of that section — it’s very short — and it’s primitive]. If you continue to claim otherwise, I would appreciate evidence that someone made similar statements as the Prophet did at that time[I feel no obligation to correspond further].

I apologize for not being able to share the entire book now, as it has not yet been released. However, I am happy to provide the first two passages, and if you are interested in more, please let me know and I will see what I can do.

Have a good day.

Best regards,

Are you ready for this? OK, let’s take a look at the excerpt about “bones and flesh”. The Quran claims Allah makes bones first, then clothes them with flesh. Is that what happens?

What comes after this is
ع ِ ظ َ ام ً ا
الْع ِ ظ َ ام َ ف َ ك َ س َ و ْ نَا
” لَح ْ م ً ا
which means “We made [from] the chewed substance, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh.” So, after this, we have bones, and many atheists claim that this is a contradiction because the flesh is formed before bones (or it is a simultaneous step). I will respond to this right now from many credible sources of embryology, such as “Medical Embryology” by Thomas W. Sadler. You can find this book in libraries. On page 134, under the topic of limb development, it states:

Oh joy. Commence the quote mining from medical textooks.

-‘’At the end of the fourth week of development limb buds become visible’’.
-’’Initially, the limb buds consist of a mesenchymal core…that will form the bones and connective tissues of the limb’’.
-’’By the sixth week of development, the first hyaline cartilage models, foreshadowing the bones of the extremities, are formed by these chondrocytes (figs. 9.15 and 9.16). Joints are formed in the cartilaginous condensations….’’
Here is another source, Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy, published by Oxford
University Press:
-‘’The ossification centers in the bodies of the long bones (primary ossification centers) appear at approximately 8 weeks’’
Back to Sadler:
‘’Primary ossification centers are present in all long bones of the limbs by the 12th week of development’’
‘’ the first indication of limb musculature is observed in the seventh week of development as a condensation of mesenchyme ’’

That’s all fine. The key point is that limbs start as a mass of undifferentiated tissue (mesenchyme) that progressively forms muscle and bone. But let’s see how the medical student interprets it:

Mesenchyme refers to a population of undifferentiated cells. It’s important to note that these cells are in their initial stage and have not yet formed any specific structures. At this early stage of development, the bones are the first solid structures to appear, with bone cells emerging by the end of the fourth week. Conversely, the appearance of the mesenchyme occurs around the seventh week of gestation.

Nothing in his quoted material says anything close to that. Limb buds becoming visible at the end of the fourth week is not synonymous with bone cells emerging by the end of the fourth week Those limb buds are bags of mesenchyme. Likewise, it doesn’t say that mesenchyme doesn’t show up until the seventh week. It says it’s there in the 4th week! It’s like he read those excerpts and didn’t understand a thing that they said.

But don’t worry! He’s going to go fishing in another textbook.

You don’t believe me? It’s okay. Here is another source, which is the Atlas of Human Embryology by Frank H. Netter, an American surgeon:

At the 5th week: Mesenchymal precartilage condensations appear for the axial skeleton.
At the 6th week: Mesenchymal condensation for appendicular skeleton bones, and after this
somite myotomes (simply means the early building blocks of muscles in our body.)
After two months (8 weeks): individual muscles develop.

That says nothing about bones. It says “mesenchyme”. He must know what mesenchyme is, since he defined it correctly up above, but then he goes on to misinterpret every preconception he’s got.

Conclusion: The passages consistently indicate that bone formation begins before muscle formation. Mesenchymal cells form the initial structures for bones by the fourth week, cartilage models form by the sixth week, and ossification centers appear by the eighth week. Muscle formation, indicated by mesenchymal condensation, starts around the seventh week, and individual muscles develop after eight weeks. Thus, bones form before muscles, not simultaneously.

Wait, wait, wait. He doesn’t understand his own words! He says there that ossification starts in the eighth week, and muscle formation around the seventh week, so muscles before bones? I hope he understands that 7 comes before 8.

Look, this is all nonsense that is a consequence of trying to force developmental processes into a simple sequence. They’re gradual, progressive, and they occur in parallel. The medical student is replicating Mohammed’s error in trying to force a slow incremental series of events into two binary categories that happen discretely, one after the other, when they simply don’t. It’s all more complicated than that.

Hold unto your seat. Here comes an amazing claim.

Even the latest studies cannot compare to the descriptions found in the Quran. Just two lines in the Quran summarize many books. So, ask yourself, if you don’t believe in religion, how could an illiterate man speak such words? La wallah (No, by Allah), this is the word of God.

So now he claims that the linesWe made [from] the chewed substance, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh summarizes all of our modern biology texts. I guess developmental biology research is all done, covered by a few words of poetry written in the 7th century.

Remember, I am not saying that the Quran is a scientific book.

Good, because it definitely isn’t. It’s more like a children’s book. So why try to defend its science with such obnoxious persistence?

No, it is a book that demonstrates the power of Allah, completes people’s religion, and answers their questions. Moreover, the Quran does not stop at describing an embryo. I encourage you to read more and learn more about Islam and the Quran if you seek to discover the truth. I am not suggesting only reading the Quran; you can read all books, including the Bible. You will notice many contradictions in them because they are not the word of God anymore; they are authored by anonymous people. And this is my challenge for you: if you find just one contradiction in the Quran, I will leave Islam.

I don’t think it demonstrates much of anything, other than the gullibility of its followers, and the willingness of the more deluded to pester me with their comical efforts to defend it with bullshit. If its description of embryonic development is any example, I have zero efforts in reading further.

I am amused that he tells me it’s OK to read all those other holy books, but only the Quran is flawless and perfect. How about if we just treat the Quran as another human-written text, just like all the others?

The excerpt from his book continues on for seven more pages, and, to quote his own words back at him:

We are tired of you, wallah. Try something else, please.

Unless there’s popular acclaim that I should address his nonsense further, I’ll stop here.


  1. imback says

    If a single verse in a large sacred text turning out not to be exactly true would cause one to leave one’s faith, that does not seem like a strongly held faith in the first place.

  2. nomdeplume says

    Oh this nonsense is so sad, yet another example of how mich damage religion does to the human intellect.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    I don’t know how to adress this without sounding like an islamophobe.
    I blame the imams, who tell the believers the koran is perfect, free from inconsistencies, never altered and should be interpreted literally.
    And the book itself states it should be interpreted literally.
    (The Caliphate of Cordoba had a brief intellectual golden age [very important for the renaissance], but the mutazili muslims who dominated that dynasty were later condemned for apostasy. They claimed the koran was literally the word of god but that was not enough.

    The current majority view is that the book is ‘uncreated’ and existed before creation, in a heavenly edition!
    When facing this kind of supertaliban thinking, it is easy to think “I give up!” )

  4. awomanofnoimportance says

    No 3, I am an equal opportunity all-religion-phobe who does not see that Islam should be a special case different from any other superstition, especially in light of the violence that some of its followers are willing to use to cow the rest of the world. It’s an evil belief system and I view resisting it as a duty on the part of all thoughtful people. And I would say the same thing about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or indigenous religions if we were talking about any of them.

  5. raven says

    I’ve only read the xian bible but it gets everything equally wrong.
    The bible specializes in astronomy.

    The moon is a glow in the dark disk, self illuminated.
    The stars are just lights stuck on a dome, which has gates so the gods can pour water on us when they are mildly annoyed.
    The sun is the center of the solar system, Geocentrism.
    The earth is flat and 6,000 years old.

    A few fundie xians dutifully repeat those mistakes, not caring that they are obviously wrong guesses by ancient writers.

  6. raven says

    The sun is the center of the solar system, Geocentrism.


    It’s early here.
    That should be, the earth is the center of the solar system, Geocentrism.

    Which means, the fundie xians can’t diagram the planets of the solar system, a task I learned in the first grade. There are only 9 planets (or 8 these days for some people plus a dwarf planet, Pluto), so how hard can it be.

  7. larpar says

    “… if you find just one contradiction in the Quran, I will leave Islam.”
    Trick question. There’s more than one.

  8. says

    “We made [from] the chewed substance, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh.”

    To say a little context is needed here is a HUGE understatement. Just for starters, who are this “we” the Koran speaks of here? That passage really doesn’t sound like it’s describing a natural process; it sounds like it’s describing some entities (“we”) building people like they’d build a house — load-bearing skeleton first, then fix everything else to the load-bearing skeleton. And if people see dead humans decomposing flesh-first, leaving the most durable parts to go last, then it’s perfectly understandable for those people to think of the creation of humans as a reverse of the decomposing process.

  9. Stevko says

    I know, that commenting before reading the whole thing is not good, but I saw that bunch of disconnected Arabic letters in the text and… Arabic is not written like that. You do not write ع ظ م but connect it so that it is عظم (means “bone”). If anyone wants to check the context, that part is in Quran at 23:14 (surely you can find that somewhere on the internets) and that bunch of letters here is just this part: “bones, and We covered the bones with flesh”.

  10. Doc Bill says

    “Too late … for what?”

    Too right, PZ! I’m sure Old Nick has a nice spot on the beach at the Lake o’ Fire for your scruffy soul! Save a spot for me, K?

  11. johnk83776 says

    Seems there is a bigger problem here than just the same old argument about the Koran. This person claims to be a medical student. Could you imagine being their patient?

    Fortunately a major component of medical education is continuous evaluation to weed out those students who managed to get into medical school but have not sufficiently benefitted from their education to not pose an obvious threat to their unsuspecting patients.

  12. rwiess says

    John @12: A military recruiter told me that the Army has a similar process to weed out pathological killers as a danger to the organization. My own profession – law – only tends to exclude convicted felons at the admission to the bar phase. Any other professions that try to exclude specific risks to the group? And what makes a would-be doctor unfit?

  13. StevoR says

    @5. raven : Is the astronomy any better in the Quaran?

    (Seriously asking, no idea personally.).

  14. moarscienceplz says

    ” I am not suggesting only reading the Quran; you can read all books, including the Bible”
    Oh, good! So we are not yet at the stage of, “This book agrees with the Quran, so it is redundant and may be burned, and this book disagrees with the Quran, so it is blasphemous and MUST be burned.” That comes later, I assume.

  15. bcw bcw says

    I think you should write him back claiming the spiritual “Dem Bones” is divinely inspired and shows how Christ predated Mohamed in revealing the secrets of embryology.

    One awful moment for me one day was when a woman up the street in the Jehovah’s witnesses dragged her 10? year-old daughter to my door to have the daughter point at some old Testament line as proof that the Bible contained a scientific understanding of astronomy.

    After hesitating, I gently pointed about that the Bible also refers to the four corners of a flat earth and they left in the certain knowledge I was going to hell and a no-doubt reinforced sense in the girl of being part of a special and threatened group. Child abuse.

  16. robro says

    birgerjohansson @ #3 — There was also an intellectual flowering around Baghdad in the 9th century under the Abbasid califs. Much of these “intellectual” pursuits were about the Quran, of course, but it’s also the time of Al-Khwarizmi who is credited with inventing algebra (from his treatise Al-Jabr) based on his knowledge of Indian mathematics. Astronomy a la astrology was something of a deal and many objects in our sky still bear Arabic-derived names. The caliphate was rich and the rich collected works of literature and Greek scientific writings for their libraries. Of course, this flowering didn’t last too long.

  17. Akira MacKenzie says

    I just saw the words “Islamic embryology” and my immediate thought was: THIS shit again?

    Get some new material, you stupid hacks!

  18. says

    The Gospel of Me says “stuff happened” and since stuff has incontrovertibly happened, that proves that I’m the one and only true prophet of the one and only true god.

    Now, send me your money!

  19. KG says

    Seems there is a bigger problem here than just the same old argument about the Koran. This person claims to be a medical student. Could you imagine being their patient? – johnk83776@12

    Not being a foetus or able to become pregnant, I would be unlikely to be his patient, but in any case, in all likelhood, he simply compartmentalises, and in medical practice would use real embryology, if he’s in a specialty that needs it. Plenty of competent scientists and medics have batshit-stupid views outside their professional area of expertise.

  20. says

    There was nothing in his email to suggest that he’s going to be an obstetrician, gynecologist, or geneticist. To the contrary, everything he wrote suggests a deep ignorance of those topics.
    He can probably still do an appendectomy or colonoscopy or prescribe pills just fine.

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