ʿAlaqa, defined as “a thing that clings”, a derivative of the root ʿ-l-q, is mentioned six times in the Qurʾān as a stage during embryogenesis. It occurs five times in its singular form, ʿalaqa (Q 22:5; 23:14 twice; 40:67; 75:38) and once as genitive masculine indefinite noun ʿalaq (Q 96:2). The feminine passive participle of its second form, muʿallaqa, not dealt with in this entry, occurs once in Q 4:129 where it refers to a wife unjustly treated by her husband, treatment that leaves her, as it were, suspended (kaʾl-muʿallaqa; see Marriage and Divorce).
Definitions and Usage
The plural of ʿalaqa, al-ʿalaq, is also the title of the ninety-sixth sura of the Qurʾān (also known as Sūrat Iqraʾ after its first word) where the word ʿalaq appears in the second verse. According to the most common opinion (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 65:1; Bukhārī, Tafsīr, Sūrat al-ʿAlaq), the first five verses of this sura constitute the first revelation that came to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, while he was in the Cave of Ḥirāʾ (see Cave), at the top of Jabal al-Nūr (the Mountain of Light) some ten kilometers northeast of Makka (see Revelation).
Other meanings of ʿ-l-q cognates include: to cling; to adhere; to love; to be suspended; to be attached; leech; anything hung or suspended; individual parts of a well’s pulley as well as the apparatus in its entirety (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj; Rāghib, Mufradāt). According to Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004), the basic meaning of this root, common to all derivatives, is to attach or link one thing to another that is superior to it (Maqāyīs). According to Ibn Manẓūr (630-711/1233-1312), ʿalaq is blood generically and specifically dark red blood that has not yet dried (Lisān).
Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/ca.1108) lists the following meanings of the root ʿ-l-q, and clarifies which one is intended in the Qurʾānic description of the creation of human beings:
to be trapped in something, as it is said ‘the prey is caught in the net’ (ʿaliq al-ṣayd fī-l-ḥubāla); coagulated or congealed blood (al-dam al-jāmid) from which is al-ʿalaqa—congealed blood from which a child is created, as Allah Most High said: He created human being from an aggregate of congealed blood (Q 65:2); and He said: And indeed We created man out of an extract of clay; then We made him into a drop of sperm (nuṭfa) in a safe depository; then We made this drop into congealed blood (ʿalaqa), then We made this congealed blood into an embryonic lump (muḍgha, lit. “a thing like chewed flesh”), then We made the embryonic lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then We made him into another kind of creation; so Most Blessed is Allah, the Best of all those who create (Q 23:12-14). (Mufradāt)
In classical exegetical literature, all six Qurʾānic references to ʿalaqa have been understood as referring to a form of blood that comes into existence as the second stage in embryogenesis. The early commentator Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767) called ʿalaqa “blood which forms from the transformation of water” (that is, of nuṭfa); al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) called it “a clot of blood” (qiṭaʿat al-dam); al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) and al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286) both said it is “a clot of congealed blood” (qiṭʿat al-dam al-jāmida); al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273), referred to it as “congealed blood” (al-dam al-jāmid), further explaining it as “fresh blood (al-dam al-ʿabīṭ), intense red in color”; Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) similarly stated that it is red in color and is formed when the nuṭfa develops for forty days (see their Tafsirs, sub Q 22:5). These exegetes contextualized stages of creation mentioned in Q 22:5 and Q 23:12-14 by referring to the creation of the first human being, Ādam, upon him peace. Thus dust (turāb) in Q 22:5 and extract or essence of clay (sulālatin min ṭīn) in Q 23:12 are taken as specific to the creation of the first human being, whose progeny thereafter are created through the biological process in which the appearance of ʿalaqa, glossed by them as congealed blood, is preceded by a drop of sperm mixed with an ovum, and followed by the formation of an embryonic lump (muḍgha), which develops bones (ʿiẓām)that are then covered with flesh (laḥm) (cf. Tafsirs of Ṭabarī, Qurṭūbī, and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 22:5 and Q 23:12-14).
In Q 22:5, ʿalaqa appears in an embryological sequence similar to Q 23:14, but the context here is resurrection, which the disbelievers doubt. ʿAlaqa is mentioned in Q 75:38 in a similar manner, where
the purpose is to affirm resurrection (ithbāt al-maʿād) and refute those from among the ignorant, obstinate, and misguided who deny it; that is why it is said as an argument: was he (man) not once a [mere] drop of fluid which gushed forth? That is, man was a weak drop of sperm in a lowly fluid, which was dropped from the loins into the womb, then he became congealed blood which [Allah] shaped and fashioned. That is, it became ʿalaqa, then a lump of flesh (muḍgha); then it was given a shape and spirit was infused into it, and it became another kind of creation, with sound organs, man or woman, by the decree of Allah and [according to] its destiny; and that is why it is said, And made of him a pair, the male and female. [The next verse states:] Is not He able of bringing the dead [back] to life?—that is to say, is the One who began this perfect creation from this weak drop of sperm not capable of recreating as He began [creation]? Indeed, it is easier to re-create than to create for the first time. (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 75:37-40)
A similar ontogenetic sequence is repeated in Q 40:67 as a reminder of the Omnipotence, Grandeur, Oneness, Majesty, and Might of the Creator Who grants life and death and Who, when He wills to bring a thing into existence, merely says “Be”—and it is (Q 40:67-68).
Taken together, all references to ʿalaqa are thematically linked to two fundamental themes of the Qurʾān:
- Allah’s creative power, for He is the Best of Creators (aḥsan al-khāliqīn) (Q 23:14), Who brings human beings into existence from seemingly worthless fluids; and
- human arrogance and heedlessness, arising from forgetting one’s lowly origins and expressed in rejecting the Creator’s guidance and denying the essential realities of life and the afterlife (see Hereafter; Resurrection).
In Sūrat al-ʿAlaq, mention of ʿalaqa is preceded by the command to Recite, in the name of thy Lord, and followed by a verse stating that Allah taught mankind by the pen. Ibn Kathīr regarded these verses, constituting the first revelation, the first of the countless blessings of Allah Most High upon humanity, and “in this is a point for reflection: the beginning of human creation is merely from a drop of congealed blood, and then the Most High taught man what he knew not, honored him, and ennobled him with knowledge—a characteristic which distinguished the father of humanity, Ādam, upon him peace, from the angels ” (Tafsīr, sub Q 96:4-5).
Classical commentators, thus, understood ʿalaqa as congealed blood that appears in the process of human procreation within the context of Divine power, and as indicative of His Majesty and Might. Most English translations, however, render ʿalaqa as “blood clot”, whereas commentaries and books written in the light of modern scientific data recognize that there is no stage of embryogenesis in which blood clots appear. Thus Maurice Bucaille (1920-1998), a French physician and author of several popular books on the Qurʾān and science (q.v.), warned that to translate ʿalaqa as ‘blood clot’ “is a mistake against which one should guard; man has never passed through the stage of being a ‘blood clot’…the original sense of [ʿalaqa as] ‘something which clings’ corresponds exactly to today’s firmly established reality” (Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur’an and Science p. 224-225). Already in the nineteenth century, another medical doctor, Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Iskandarānī (d. 1888 or 1889), who was one of the first Muslims to attempt a scientific explanation of certain verses of the Qurʾān, had tried to understand ʿalaqa in the light of scientific data of his time: he described the formation of ʿalaqa as the third stage in creation (after dust (turāb) and nuṭfa), which emerges through transformation of nuṭfa into ʿalaqa, which is “a small speck, floating in a transparent fluid, which enters the womb at an undetermined time, and which scientists can see as clinging to the membrane” (Kashf al-asrār 1:38). He goes on to describe the development of ʿalaqa as it passes through stages of being “a small speck to that of becoming like a short line bulging in the middle, until it starts to resemble a circle” and is finally transformed into a muḍgha (a lump of flesh)” (Kashf al-asrār 1:39).
ʿAlaqa in Classical and Contemporary Discussions
Several rigorously authenticated Prophetic sayings mention these stages in the process of birth as being separated by a duration of forty days:
The components of creation of each one of you are collected in the womb of his mother for forty days; they then turn into ʿalaqa for an equal duration [of forty days]; then into a lump of flesh (muḍgha) for a similar period [of forty days]. Then an angel is sent, who breathes its spirit into it and who is enjoined to inscribe four things: his provisions, his lifespan, (variant in Muslim includes: his works,) and whether he will be of the wretched (shaqī) or of the blessed (saʿīd). And by Allah, save Whom there is no deity, one amongst you may act like the people deserving Paradise until between him and Paradise there remains but the distance of a cubit, when suddenly the writ of destiny overcomes him and he begins to act like the denizens of the Fire and thus enters it; and another one may act in the way of the denizens of Fire until there remains between him and the Fire only the distance of a cubit, when the writ overcomes him such that he begins to act like the people of Paradise, and enters it. (Bukhārī, Qadar, fī-l-qadar; Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat al-khalq al-ādamī fī baṭn ummih wa-kitābat rizqih wa-ajalih wa-ʿamalih wa-shiqāwatih wa-saʿādatih; Tirmidhī, Abwāb al-qadar, mā jāʾa anna al-aʿmāl bil-khawātim; Aḥmad, Musnad ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd; Bayhaqī, Sunan, ʿAdad, al-marʾa taḍaʿ saqṭa)
The three Qurʾānic terms (nuṭfa, ʿalaqa, and muḍgha) can be understood as embryological stages, beginning with the fertilization and ending with what resembles a lump of chewed flesh, each stage lasting forty days. The middle stage—denoted by the term ʿalaqa in the Qurʾān and the Prophetic traditions—is the entire sequence of changes in the developing human between day 41 and day 80 after fertilization. This duration does not correspond to any named stage in modern embryology, which takes the end of the eighth week (56th day) as the completion of the “embryonic period” during which all major organs and systems of the body form from the three germ layers, and the beginning of the ninth week as the commencement of the “fetal period” which ends at birth and which has no formal staging system. Thus, according to the modern understanding, the period covered by the stage of ʿalaqa (41st to 80th days) involves the following successive stages:
- regional differentiation of the upper limbs as elbows and large hand plates developing around day 42;
- spontaneous movements of the embryo such as twitching of the trunk and limbs (42-48 days after fertilization);
- development of all regions of the limbs, separation of the lengthened digits, and the first appearance of purposeful limb movements (49-56 days);
- rapid body growth, visibly separated eyes, fused eyelids, low-set ears, appearance of primary ossification centers in the skeleton, especially in the skull and long bones, and the near-completion of the process by which the upper limbs grow to their final relative lengths (80th day). (Moore, The Developing Human p. 104, 110)
More recently, popular works have extended the discourse on the Qurʾān and modern science to arguments for a scientific validation of the Qurʾān itself. Such scientism was wide-spread in the Arab world during the last two decades of the twentieth century. The World Commission on Scientific Miracles of the Holy Qurʾān and Sunna, established in Jeddah in 1984, held amny conferences in various parts of the world on the subject of human creation in the Qurʾān. One of its sponsored publication is Keith Moore’s The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology with Islamic Additions, an expanded version of his 1986 article, “Reference to Embryology in the Qur’an.” In this publication, Moore translates ʿalaqa as “leech-like structure” and then states that “interpretation of the verses in the Qur’an referring to human development would not have been possible in the 7th century A.D., or even a hundred years ago. We can interpret them now because the science of modern embryology affords us new understanding. Undoubtedly there are other verses in the Qur’an related to human development that will be understood in the future as our knowledge increases” (Moore, “Reference to Embryology in the Qur’an” p. 16). In the non-Arab countries, Turkey was once the hub of such attempts. For instance, Harun Yahya claims: "The word ‘alaq’ in Arabic means ‘something that clings, a leech-like substance’. The Qur’an came down to us 1400 years ago, and the fact that God uses this word to describe the development of the embryo in the mother’s womb is one of its wonders. The fact that this knowledge, which could not have been discovered by the science of that period, was revealed centuries ago in the Qur’an confirms once again that it is a revelation from God, the Lord of all the worlds” (Yahya, The Miracle of the Human Creation p. 93).
Bucaille, Maurice. The Bible, the Qur’an and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge. Trans. Alastair D. Pannell and Maurice Bucaille. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1979.
Ibn Fāris. Maqāyīs.
Ibn Kathīr. Tafsīr.
Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.
al-Iskandarānī al-Ṭabīb, Muḥammad b. Aḥmad. Kashf al-asrār al-nūrāniyya al-Qurʾāniyya fī-mā yataʿallaq bil-ajrām al-samāwiyya wal-arḍiyya wal-ḥayawānāt wal-nabātāt wal-jawāhir al-maʿdaniyya. 3 vols. Cairo, 1880. Repr. ed. Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazyadī. 2 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2010.
Moore, Keith. “A Scientist’s Interpretation of the References to Embryology in the Qur’an.” The Journal of the Islamic Medical Association. Vol. 18 (January-June 1986):15-16.
Moore, Keith and T.V.N. Persaud. The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. 6th ed. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998.
——. The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology with Islamic Additions. 3rd ed. Jeddah: Abul Qasim Publishing House, n.d.
Yahya, Harun. The Miracle of the Human Creation. Trans. Ron Evans. New Delhi: Goodword Books, 2003.