Can Islamic Texts Help to Resolve the Problem of the Moral Status of the Prenate?

- Sahin Aksoy M.D.
Manchester University, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy,
Oxford Rd, Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 76-79.

With improving technologies, humanity is faced with many new dilemmas, and most of these are in the medical field. Medicine, being one of the most popular subjects, problems in this field have interested people extensively. Among these, In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), genetic engineering, Intra Uterine Surgeries (IUS), Prenatal Diagnosis (PND) techniques and Fetal transplants are the best known. Although there are many others, I have mentioned especially these, because central to all of them is the moral status of the prenate (1). There is not much disagreement on the fact that prenate is a living being, and if allowed it will be nothing but a human individual. However there are different arguments on when actual human individual life begins.

Many philosophers, theologians and scientists have argued about the time for the beginning of a human individual's life, however an acceptable explanation has not yet been provided. I have argued elsewhere, since the question of defining a human person is a matter of moral decisions not of scientific facts, the relevant arguments are therefore primarily based on some moral, philosophical and theological hypothesis (2). In that occasion I have argued that it is highly problematic to explain our existence with only our physical entity and concluded, there must be something beyond mere physical existence that makes us, us (3). And so I mentioned the necessity of considering the existence of the spiritual side of human persons.

Although there are many philosophical arguments about the spiritual side of human persons, from Pythagoras (c. 580-497 BC) (4) and Aristotle (d. 322 BC) (5) onwards, it is essential to refer to the authority of metaphysical and transcendental knowledge. And the religions are among these sources. In this article I will examine the divinely revealed religions with special reference to Islam to find out whether Islamic texts can resolve the problem of the moral status of the prenate.


Among major monotheistic religions, Judaism has a quite different approach to this issue. In Jewish mysticism, Kabala, there is a belief in soul. However in Judaism on one fundamental principle, regarding the moral status of a prenate, there is complete agreement: full human status is not acquired until birth. And in Jewish law an unborn foetus is not considered as a person (Hebrew nefesh, literally 'soul') until it has been born (7). However still some of the Jewish authorities mention some special times in prenatal period. For example great Jewish scholar of twelfth century Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote that, "The time for complete formation of the foetus is thirty-five or forty-five days, and in twice that many days movement is created. In three times the (amount of) time from the onset of (fetal) movement, birth occurs" (8). Leavitt said in his commentary to one of my articles that, "Maimonides was an Aristotelian and accepted Aristotle's doctrine of soul (9) for the most part. And many rabbis rejected both Aristotle and Maimonides" (10), but not only Maimonides but also some other authorities in the Talmud also deem the embryo during the first forty days following conception 'as mere water', and as such an early zygote has no status at all, is not a person or nefesh (11). I believe, this kind of a distinction is an indication of an admission that embryo after forty days have a different moral status. Precisely we can say that forty days and the formation of a foetus has some significance in Jewish understanding.


According to Christian theology the 'immediate animation' or 'ensoulment' is the point at which our humanity is determined. But, the question of 'When the ensoulment take place?' is not answered yet. Mahoney sums up the current Christian understanding regarding the beginning of life with the following suggestions: "In point of fact, current Roman Catholic teaching on the time of human ensoulment is one of uncertainty. Official Roman Catholic teaching, is that we cannot be absolutely certain when animation takes place, or when the conceptus or the foetus is a human person; but it may well be precisely at the moment of conception" (12).

It is argued that, if one looks at the Christian tradition, one can see that present very firm position held by some of the Christian churches is not the position they have always held. The idea of ensoulment, or the embryo becoming human in the full sense happening at a later stage in development, was very widely and respectably held, not just by theologians (13). Dyson examined this change in Christian understanding and wrote, "From early in Tradition, a distinction was drawn between an 'unformed' or 'formed' foetus. This distinction was based on whether or not the foetus could be recognized as 'human'. The foetus was regarded as 'formed' when it was physically developed enough to be the recipient of a human 'soul'"(14). And he said, from the seventeenth century the opinion began to gain ground that the soul was present from conception (15).

In the early ages of Christianity, obviously also using Hebrew texts and the New Testament, formation of the foetus had been extensively used, without any special reference to Aristotle or other ancient philosophers. Dunstan examined this issue and came to the same conclusion and said, "the claim to absolute protection for the human embryo 'from the beginning' is a novelty in the western, Christian and specifically Roman Catholic moral traditions. It is virtually a creation of the later nineteenth century; and that is a novelty indeed as traditions go" (16). Dunstan referred to Thomas of Chobham and wrote, "For feticide it is written in the law of Moses 'If anyone should strike a pregnant woman and she should miscarry, if the foetus has been formed let him give life for life; if, however, it is unformed, let him be amerced in money'. From this it is clear that it is a much graver sin to dislodge a formed foetus than an unformed one" (17). In early times of Christianity to determine the penal tariffs formation of foetus had been widely used. The Bigotian canons, and the Canones Hibernenses (circa 665) prescribes three and a half years on bread and water respectively for the destruction of 'the liquid matter of the infant in the womb' (18); but seven and a half and fourteen years respectively for the destruction of 'flesh and soul' (carnis et animae) (19). The Old Irish Canons had three stages as well; 'after it has become established in the womb (three and a half years); 'if the flesh has formed' (seven years); 'if the soul has entered it' (fourteen years)" (20). Christian theologian and surgeon Thomas Vicary describes the development of the 'Embruon' into the 'Fettus' in four stages, of which; "The fourth and laste, as when al other members be perfectly shapen, then it receyeth the soule wyth life and breath; and then it beginneth to moue it-selfe alone....So is there xlvj dayes from the day of conception ynto the day of ful perfection and receyuing of the soule, as God best knoweth" (21). It appears therefore that Christianity, to determine the moral status of an unborn the 'physical formation' is important.

Apparently, in monotheistic religions, in order to discuss some topics knowledgeably Divine guidance or Revelation is needed. Without such Revelation men -even Prophets- would be unable to talk about these subjects. Without doubt, man's ensoulment and creation fit into this category. Ibn Qayyim, a 14th century Muslim thinker from Damascus, identifies an area where only religions, and not sciences, has meaning. He says, "While ensoulment is a normal part of God's ways in the generation of human beings, its understanding is not open to the methods of science. Ensoulment belongs to a different realm of meaning, outside science but at the centre of religion", and adds, "This -time of ensoulment, can only be known through revelation, for there is nothing in nature as such requires it" (22). However this information is not disclosed in the Jewish and Christian Bible. For this reason there is uncertainty regarding this issue among Christian and Jewish authorities.

Islam, embryology and ensoulment

In the case of Islam, the situation is quite different. The creation of human individual, and fetal development are referred to in several dozen verses of the Qur'an in various contexts (23). Moore wrote that: "It is cited in the Qur'an, The Holy Book of Muslims, that human beings are produced from a mixture of secretions from the male and female. Several references are made to the creation of a human being from a droplet, and it is also suggested that the resulting organism settles in the woman like a seed, six days after its beginning. (The human blastocyst begins to implant in the lining or endometrium of the uterus about six days after fertilization.) References is also made to the leech-like appearance of the early embryo. (The embryo of 22 to 24 days resembles a leech, or bloodsucker.) The embryo is also said to resemble a chewed substance like gum or wood. (The somites of the embryos resemble teethmarks in a chewed substance.)" (24). It is worth mentioning that the very first verse, that were revealed to Prophet Muhammad, were related from an embryological perspective. In His first revelation God said to Prophet Muhammad; "Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created. Has created man from `alaqa (something which clings)"(25).

While any details about physical development and the time of ensoulment of embryo cannot be found in the Bible, there are two verses in particular in the Qur'an that are worthy of consideration as they offer clues regarding the time of ensoulment. The first of these is: "He Who created all things in the best way and He began the creation of man from clay. Then made his progeny from a quintessence of despised liquid. Then He created him in due proportion, and breathed into him of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and hearts. Little thanks do ye give!"(26). The second is: "And indeed We created man from a quintessence of clay. Then We placed him as a small quantity of liquid (nutfa) in a safe lodging firmly established. Then We have fashioned the nutfa into something which clings (`alaqa), then We made `alaq into a chewed lump of flesh (mudgha) and We made out of that chewed lump of flesh into bones, and clothed the bones with flesh. And then We brought it forth as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best to create" (27).

The beginning parts of both verses are about the creation of the first man (Adam). The remaining parts refer to the physical development and spiritual side of human. To interpret these verses accurately, it is worthwhile to break down and analyze them in the light of modern embryological knowledge.

"Then made his progeny from a quintessence of despised liquid".

In this verse, precisely, semen and sperm is meant. It was argued that, the adjective 'despised' would be interpreted not so much on account of the nature of the liquid itself, as more the fact that it is emitted through the outlet of the urinary tract, using the channels that are employed for passing urine. The Arabic word, translated here by the word 'quintessence', is sulale. 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 (28),-which is sperm-.

"Then We placed him as a small quantity of liquid (nutfa) in a safe lodging firmly established".

The Arabic word 'nutfa' is repeated 11 times in various chapters of Qur'an in different contexts. It has been mainly understood two different ways (29). One is sperm or semen, and the other is zygote. Qur'an says "Was (man) not a small quantity of nutfa which has been poured out?" (30). In this context, interpreters understood 'nutfa' as semen. However, it should be interpreted in the verse that is examined here, as zygote and 'firmly established lodging', refers to the spot where man grows in the maternal organism. Today, it is embryologically known that, zygote -that is called blastocyst at this stage-is like a jelly ball which is full of liquid. It comes to the endometrium -inner layer of uterus- and penetrates the endometrial epithelium and induces the endometrial stroma. The 10-day conceptus (the embryo and its membranes) is completely embedded in the endometrium, and it is defined in the verse as " a safe lodging firmly established".

"Then We have fashioned 'nutfa' into ''alaqa'".

'Alaqa has two meanings in Arabic, one is 'blood clot' and the other is 'something which clings'. Recent findings in embryology indicated that, it should be understood in this context as 'something which clings'. Since the embryo of 22-24 days resembles a leech, or bloodsucker (31).

"Then We made the thing which clings ('alaqa) into a chewed lump of flesh (mudgha)".

For many centuries the scholars could not fully comprehend the meaning of this verse, however later embryological investigations indicated that the somites of the embryo, in day 24-25, somewhat resemble teethmarks in a chewed substance-like flesh (32).

"And We fashioned that chewed lump of flesh into bones and clothed the bones with flesh".

This part of the verse refers to the development of the bones and the muscles. Today, embryologically it is known that ossification centres occurs before myotome -which give rise to skeletal muscle-. The cartilaginous or membranous skeleton is ossified when discrete centres of ossification appear. The first centre occurs in the clavicule at week 6 (day 36-38), in the jaws and palate at week 7 (day 42-44). ...At week 7, some of the neck and trunk muscles begin to contract spontaneously, arm and leg movements then occur and are detectable by ultrasound methods (33).

"Then He created him in due proportion".

Moore's suggestions can be helpful to understand this verse. He said: "..until the fifth week, human embryos resemble the embryos of several other species because of common characteristics (e.g. large head, branchial arches, and tail), but thereafter embryos acquire characteristics that are distinctly human (e.g., loss of the tail and the human appearance of the face and limbs). My personal view is that the embryo becomes a human being during the eighth week when it acquires distinctive human characteristics" (34).

Up to now, the verses detail about the physical development of human embryo. The remaining parts of both verses are about spiritual side of human. Whereas the first verse (As-Sajdah 32:9) states very clearly that: "and breathed into him of His spirit", the second verse (Al-Mu'minun 23:14) is not as open as the first one. In this verse God says: "And We brought it forth as another creation". However many interpreters (35) have said that, this verse also refers to ensoulment, and the ensoulment takes place at this stage.

This proposal seems accurate, because in both chapters (As-Sajdah and Al-Mu'minun) the verses that I have mentioned above are followed by the verses regarding death. In As-Sajdah 32:11 God says: "Say (Muhammad): 'The Angel of death, put in charge of you, will (duly) take your soul, then shall you be brought back to your Lord'", and in Al-Mu'minun 23:15, God says: "After that, surely, you will die". These verses manifest that after this stage, a human embryo becomes someone who 'can die' and 'can be brought back to his Lord'. Since the definition of death in divinely revealed religions is the departure of soul from the body, it is feasible to presume that soul meets with body at this moment. However, although it seems possible, some more 'divine' knowledge is required to be sure.

In Islam, the first source of knowledge is Qur'an. And the second source is hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). The hadith have also been relied upon because God says in the Qur'an that "By the star when it goes down. Your companion (Muhammad) is neither astray nor being misled. Nor does he speak of (his own) desire. It is no less than Inspiration sent down to him"(36).

There are a couple of hadith related to the creation of man and ensoulment. In one hadith Prophet Muhammad said: "Verily your creation is on this wise. The constituents of one of you are collected for forty days in his mother's womb; it becomes 'alaqa (something that clings) in that period, than it becomes mudgha (a chewed lump of flesh) in the same period. And the angel is sent to him with instructions concerning four things, so the angel writes down his provision (sustenance), his death, his deeds, and whether he will be wretched or fortunate. Then the soul is breathed into him"(37). In another hadith Prophet Muhammad said: "When nutfa (zygote) has been established in the womb for forty or forty-five nights, the angel comes and says: 'My Lord, will he be wretched or fortunate?' And both these things would be written. Then the angel says: 'My Lord, would he be male or female?' And both these things are written. And his deeds and actions, his death, his livelihood; these are also recorded. Then his document of destiny is rolled and there is no addition to and subtraction from it"(38). In the last hadith to be mentioned here Prophet Muhammad said: "When forty nights pass after the nutfa (zygote) gets into womb, God sends the angel and gives him the shape. Then He creates his sense of hearing, sense of sight, his skin, his flesh, his bones and then says: 'My Lord, would he be male or female?' And your Lord decides as He desires and the angel then puts down that also and then says: 'My Lord, what about his age?' And your Lord decides as He likes it and the angel puts it down. Then he says: 'My Lord, what about his livelihood?' And then the Lord decides as He likes and the angel writes it down, and then the angel gets out with his scroll of destiny in his hand and nothing is added to it and nothing is subtracted from it"(39).

Before beginning to give the interpretation of these hadith, it should be beneficial to provide some background, to remove some doubts. It is known that the gender of the fetus is determined in the very beginning of conception by the chromosomal structure. However, in Islamic belief, the information about the future of the fetus, -like death, deeds, sustenance, livelihood- are also in the knowledge of God. But, hadith states in here, the time which of these knowledge are revealed to angel. So, it does not necessarily mean that sex of fetus are determined at this time; Beside this, although the genetic sex of an embryo is determined at fertilization by the kind of sperm that fertilizes the ovum, there is no morphological indication of a sex difference until the seventh week, when the gonads (future ovaries and testicles) begin to acquire sexual characteristics (40), and hadith might mean this occasion.

In all three hadith the common points are the certain physical formation of the prenate and the day 40. It can be understood from these verses and hadith that, in order to receive the soul, that means to be a full human individual person, a prenate must pass the stages of conception, zygote (nutfa), implantation ('alaqa), somites occurrence (mudgha), and beginning of ossification and musculation. This means that ensoulment can not take place before 7 weeks after conception.

When the hadith no. 6392 and 6393 are examined, it appears that they express very clearly that (41) the angel comes -obviously to give soul- after nutfa (zygote) has been established in the womb for 40 or 45 days -or nights-. Since the implantation process is completed within nine to ten days of conception (42), ensoulment takes place sometime between 49-55 days after conception.

One of the aims of this article is to provide information about the beginning of a human individual person by using the Islamic texts in order to help to resolve the problem of the moral status of the prenate. It has appeared that from the Islamic texts perspective the individual life of a human being begins before birth and after seven weeks of conception. Since then, prenate gains some rights including the right to life and the right not to be exploited.

Notes and References
1. 'Prenate' is used throughout the article as a general term to cover all prenatal stages of development, namely zygote, embryo and fetus.
2. Aksoy, S. "Personhood: A Matter of Moral Decisions", Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics, 7(1997), pp.3-4.
3. ibid. p.4.
4. cited in, Carrick, P. Medical Ethics in Antiquity, D. Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht, 1985, p.110.
5. Aristotle, On the Soul (De Anima), tr. W.S. Hett, London and Cambridge, Mass. : W. Heinemann, 1957, p.415b
6. Leavitt, F.J. 'Commentary on Aksoy', Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics, 7:(January)1997,
p. 5.
7. Rosner, F. Modern Medicine and Jewish Ethics, Yeshiva University Press, New York, 1986, p. 142. Jakobovits, op. cit. p. 62.
8. Rosner, F. and Muntner, S. (eds. and trs.) The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides Vol.1-2, Yeshiva University Press, New York, 1971, p. 39(Vol.1)
9. Aristotle's concept about the soul is, 'being the cause and the first principle of the living body'.
10. Leavitt, op. cit. p. 5.
11. Jakobovits, op. cit. p. 63. Rosner, op. cit. p. 150-1.
12. Mahoney, J. Bio-ethics and Belief, Sheed & Ward, London, 1984, pp. 67-9.
13. Marshall, op. cit. pp. 59-60.
14. Dyson, A. 'At Heaven's Command?: The Churches, Theology, and Experiments on Embryos' in Dyson and Harris (eds.) op. cit. pp.82-105.
15. ibid. p. 98.
16. Dunstan, G.R. 'The Human Embryo in the Western Moral Tradition' in Dunstan and Seller (eds.) op. cit.
p. 40.
17. ibid. p. 42.
18. Same terminology is used in the Qur'an and referred as nutfa.
19. This is referred in the Qur'an as mudgha.
20. Dunstan, op. cit. p. 45. The similarity between Islamic understanding and these penal tariffs will be apparent when we discuss Islamic understanding.
21. cited in ibid. p. 49.
22. Ibn Qayyim. Al-Tibyan fi aqsam al-Qur'an, 1st ed., Cairo, 1933, p. 337.
23. As-Sajdah 32:8-9, Al-Mu'minun 23:13-4, Nuh 71:14, An-Nahl 16:4, Al-Qiyamah 75:37-9, At-Tariq 86:6, Al-Mursalat 77:20-1, Al-Insan 76:2, Al-Hajj 22:5, Al-'Alaq 96:1-2, Ghafir 40:67, Az-Zumer 39:6, An-Najm 53:45-6, Fatir 35:11, Al-'Imran 3:6, Al-Infitar 82:68.
24. Moore, K.L. Before We Are Born, Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1989, p. 7.
25. Al-'Alaq 96:1-2
26. As-Sajdah 32:7-9.
27. Al-Mu'minun 23:12-4.
28. Bucaille, M. The Bible, The Qur'an and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge, Paris: Seghers, 1993, p. 215.
29. Albar, M.A. Human Development, As Revealed in the Holy Qur'an and Hadith, Jeddah: Saudi Publishing House, 1992, pp.57-62. Duman, M.Z. Kur'an-i Kerim ve Tibba Gore Insanin Yaratilisi ve Tup Bebek Hadisesi, Izmir: Nil Yayinlari, 1990, pp. 8-20. (In Turkish)
30. Al-Qiyamah 75:37.
31. Moore, op. cit. p.18.
32. ibid.
33. England, M.A. A Colour Atlas of Life Before Birth, London: Wolfe Medical Publications Ltd., 1983,
pp. 188, 200.
34. Moore, op cit., p. 71-72.
35. Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Tabari, Vol. 18, Egypt: Matbaatu Mustafa Al-Babi, 1954, p. 9. Fakhr ar-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir, Vol. 6, (no publication place and date), p. 275. Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, Bahr al-Muheet, Vol. 6, Riyad: Maktabat al-Nasr, (no publication date), p. 398.
36. An-Najm 53:1-4.
37. Al-Nawawi, Sahih-i Muslim bi-Sharh-i Nawawi, Kitab Al Qadar. Vol. 16, Hadith no.6390. Egypt: Matbaa-i Misri, 1965, p. 189.
38. Al-Nawawi, op cit., Hadith no. 6392. p.193.
39. Al-Nawawi, op cit., Hadith no.6393. p. 193.
40. Moore, op. cit., p. 187.
41. no. 6392: "When nutfa (zygote) has been established in the womb..." no. 6393: "When...the nutfa (zygote) gets into womb..."
42. Moore, op. cit., p. 33.
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