In this paper I argue that many pillars of embryological models based on Qur’an and Hadith took several centuries in Islamic History to develop. This relates to two aspects: a) which passages were linked to each other in order to derive the model and b) the ways how these passages were interpreted. The ensuing discussions lasted well into the 15th or 16th century the least. This is important to keep in mind when we look at contemporary debates in Islamic bioethics relating to the beginnings of human life. In these debates “Qur’anic embryology” is often portrayed as something that can be derived from foundational texts without any ambiguity. In addition I caution to read the discussions about embryological concepts based on Qur’an and Hadith in a simple “science vs. / and religion” binary. Rather I try to point out that several sorts of discussions can be detected in the sources. First, a discussion which I would label as “intra-hadith” which aimed at solving perceived tensions between statements made in different hadiths. This hermeneutical exercise largely aimed at showing the inherent consistency of hadiths included in the collections of the 9th century which eventually gained canonical status. Therefore the discussions about embryological developments as portrayed in different hadiths were to a certain extent linked to the larger movement of canonizing certain hadith collections. Second, there were discussions which aimed at solving perceived tensions between hadith statements and legal axioms. The third form of discussion evolved out of hadith and concepts of Greek antiquity.

I argue that one major topical issue under discussion were two competing models how the embryo developed: a static, fixed model and a relational model. The question was whether all embryos develop according to the same scheme or whether this development can vary individually. This issue could be linked to all three forms of discussions mentioned above, i.e. it was not necessarily linked only to the third and therefore the outcome of the meeting of two different systems of knowledge with entirely different forms of authorization such as “science vs. / and religion” or “Greek antiquity’s medical knowledge vs. /and hadith / Qur’an concept”. In addition it can be shown how the way reference is being made to medical knowledge in certain sources of the 15th and 16th centuries is an example of religious scholars mustering the authority of the medical field in order to bolster their arguments. This shows that such reference is far from exclusive for the modern or contemporary period where it is very common, although the difference of social context should not be glossed over.

On a final note I reflect on the implicitly normative aspects of functionalist framings of traditional legal concepts relating to embryological developments.


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  • Received: 01 March 2014
  • Accepted: 01 March 2014
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