Muslim apologists argue that the Qur’an offers a scientifically accurate description of the production of semen. This, the apologist argues, is proof of the miraculous status of the Qur’an as divine revelation. He argues that there is no way Muhammad (or the author) could have known such an accurate detail 1400 years ago.
But critics object. They argue that the Qur’an is mistaken based on what we know of modern anatomy. The Qur’an teaches that semen emerges from between the backbone and ribs: “He is created from a gushing fluid stemming from between the backbone and the ribcage” (86:6-7).
On the surface, this appears incorrect. From an anatomical point of view, semen, a fluid containing spermatozoa secreted by the gonads (sexual glands), is stored (and created) in the scrotum within a system of tubes called the seminiferous tubules. These tubules also contain germ cells that hormones cause to turn into sperm. The germ cells divide and change until they resemble tadpoles with a head and short tail. The tails propel the sperm into the epididymis, a tube behind the testes. For about five weeks, the sperm travel through the epididymis and once out of the epididymis move to the vas deferens.
Based on this scientific description, the critic sees little support for the Qur’anic statement that semen emerges from between the backbone and the ribs. But since it seems obvious that semen emerges from the testes, which are not located between the backbone and the ribs, the Muslim apologist will defend the Qur’anic statement by maintaining that it speaks of the embryological development of the testicles before their subsequent descent into the scrotum. This view is defended by apologist Zakir Naik in The Qur’an & Modern Science: Compatible or Incompatible? (2012),
“Now let man but think From what he is created! He is created from A drop emitted – Proceeding from between The back bone and the ribs.” [Al-Qur’an Surah al-Burooj 86:5-7] In embryonic stages, the reproductive organs of the male and female, i.e. the testicles and the ovaries, begin their development near the kidney between the spinal column and the eleventh and twelfth ribs. Later they descend; the female gonads (ovaries) stop in the pelvis while the male gonads (testicles) continue their descent before birth to reach the scrotum through the inguinal canal. Even in the adult after the descent of the reproductive organ, these organs receive their nerve supply and blood supply from the Abdominal Aorta, which is in the area between the backbone (spinal column) and the ribs. Even the lymphatic drainage and the venous return goes to the same area.”
But critics argue that for several reasons Naik’s defense appears an incorrect and strained reading of the Qur’anic verse. First, apologetic defenses like Naik’s are anachronistic. Such interpretations impose upon ancient texts a modern scientific knowledge of anatomy that was not shared by writers of the period. The Qur’an’s statement that semen emerges from between the backbone and rib appears obvious proof of this.
Second, the text says that humans are created from a spurting fluid. Spurting fluid, the critic argues, implies a fully developed and functional testes, rather than an embryonic structure. After all, embryonic testes do not spirt, emit, ejaculate, or gush forth any substance; only peri- and post-pubertal testes do. The verse can not therefore be used as proof of the “scientific accuracy” of the Qur’an. Rather, the critic argues that it shows the Qur’an to be scientifically erroneous.
Yet suppose the critic grants Naik’s view that this Qur’anic verse is speaking of embryonic structures. The problem is that the testes were never between the ribs and the backbone either in the embryonic or adult stage.
But can the verse be salvaged by referring to the circulation of blood? As Naik states, “Even in the adult after the descent of the reproductive organ, these organs receive their nerve supply and blood supply from the Abdominal Aorta, which is in the area between the backbone (spinal column) and the rib”.
Naik’s explanation concerning blood from the abdominal aorta is not relevant to the phenomenon being discussed. Q86:6 speaks of a spurting fluid, namely semen, which is directly responsible for human reproduction, something which cannot be claimed for nerve signals or blood. Further, circulation and nerve supply also do not correlate with embryonic origin. Blood supply, lymphatics, and nerve supply of the lower limbs originate in the abdomen and pelvis.
An apologetic defense also hinges on the definition of “sulb”. The Qur’anic verse states that semen comes from between the sulb (“backbone”) and tara’ib (“ribs”). But some apologists have translated sulb to mean “loins”, which would then refer to the reproductive organs of a male. But the critic responds that this view contradicts other important Islamic texts regarded as authoritative by the majority of Muslims. These include hadith such as Sahih Bukhari (8:76:562) and Jami` at-Tirmidhi (5:44:3103). Ibn Kathir, arguably the most authoritative Muslim theologian and historian and who composed a 14-volume history of Islam, viewed the meaning of the term sulb as “backbone”. Thus, the translation of sulb to mean loins or to refer to the penis appears modern and revisionary to make the Qur’an cohere with modern scientific knowledge.
Another defense is that the word tara’ib (“rib”) actually refers to the vagina. But there is no case in which tara’ib means “vagina”.
Critics point out is that Q86:6-7 is not metaphorical or poetic. The surrounding verses list various natural wonders as a “sign” of God’s for all men to see. There is the “sky” and “heaven” that give “rain”, the “earth” that “sprouts plants”, and so on. In this context, the detail that semen emerges from between the backbone and rib cannot be defended as metaphorical.
A final challenge critics raise is that the Qur’an often refers to itself as clear and easy to understand (2:2; 4:174; 5:44, 46). But modern apologetic defenses of this controversial verse strike many as hermeneutical acrobatics that imposes an interpretation on the text that is revisionary and not clear at all.