Gibril Fouad Haddad

Birth, the act of bringing forth offspring or of being brought forth, is mentioned in the Qurʾān with cognates of the two verbs waḍaʿa and walada (nine times each), both in the literal sense—as in the verses when she gave birth to her (fa-lammā waḍaʿat-hā) (Q 3:36) and peace be upon him the day he was born (wulida) (Q 19:15)—and as a key trope of other themes such as the suddenness of Resurrection (Q 22:1-2); the Divine knowledge of minutiae (Q 35:11; 41:47); the miraculous working of Divine power in the births of Isḥāq (Q 11:72-73; 51:28-30), ʿĪsā ( Q 3:47; 19:24-34), Yaḥyā (Q 3:38-41; 19:3-10), and Maryam (Q 3:36-37), upon them be peace; and the gravity of the Divine purpose in the creation of mankind (Q 90:1-4). Furthermore, all of these constitute Divine signs and lessons for humanity, and illustrate the exemplary reliance of Prophets and other Believers on Allah Most High and their supplication to Him. Birth is also mentioned in connection with legal rulings (aḥkām) such as the financial support due pregnant divorcees (Q 65:4 and 6) and the condemnation of the ẓihār oath of divorce (Q 58:2; see Marriage and Divorce).

Definitions and Usage

The triliteral transitive verb waḍaʿa (aorist yaḍaʿu, infinitive noun waḍʿ, active participle wāḍiʿ, passive participles mawḍūʿ and waḍīʿ) means “laying something down” (khafḍ, ḥaṭṭ) such as a physical object or burden, including birthgiving and disrobing; humiliation; decrease; grazing; and marching fast (Saraqusṭī, Afʿāl 4:242 and 219; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs, sub w-ḍ-ʿ), while the intransitive triliteral verb walada (aorist yalidu, infinitive nouns wild and wilād(a), active participle wālid, passive participles mawlūd, w/talīd, walad and wuld) means “to give birth” or “to produce profit” (Afʿāl 4:230; Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Ibn Durayd, Jamhara, all sub w-l-d).

Themes, Context, and Meanings

The Qurʾān mentions birth invariably in the sense of begetting, but to denote a variety of themes. Child delivery at the conclusion of strain and labor commands respect for mothers: His mother carried him with hardship and gave birth to him (waḍaʿat-hu) with hardship (Q 46:15). This event inaugurates a biographical narrative of weakness followed by strength followed by weakness and hoariness (Q 30:54). Those verses use the theme of birth as a sign of human beings’ feebleness and dependency, while sudden birth or miscarriage is mentioned as a sign of the suddenness and terror of the Day of Resurrection reflecting its gravity: Truly the earthquake of the Hour is a tremendous thing. On the day when you behold it, every nursing mother will forget her nursling and every pregnant one will be delivered of her burden (wa-taḍaʿu kullu dhāti ḥamlin ḥamlahā)... (Q 22:1-2). This is glossed as follows by the Prophet himself, upon him blessings and peace (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, wa-tarā al-nāsa sukārā) and the exegetes: “The nursing woman will be stupefied and distracted from her child before its weaning and the pregnant woman will lay down her fetus before its completion” (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Zamakhsharī, Māwardī, Nasafī, Ibn ʿAjība, Ālūsī), “either that or after its completion” (Rāzī), “from the immense fear she will experience.” (Tafsīrs of Baghawī, Samarqandī, Ibn Kathīr, Shinqīṭī)

Birth is also a trope for the all-encompassing, precise knowledge of Allah Most High and His creation of minutiae and hidden matters: No female bears or brings forth (taḍaʿu) save with His knowledge (Q 35:11; 41:47); this with-ness not only denotes a complement of state (ḥāl)—that is, “except He also knows it at the time” (cf. Jalālayn; Samīn, Durr)—but also an act of Divine will (mashīʾa: Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 35:11).

Birth is highlighted (i) as the first of three biographical and eschatological markers—birth, death, and resurrection—cited for the Prophets Yaḥyā and ʿĪsā, upon them be peace (Q 19:15 and 33); and (ii) as an oath emphasizing the momentousness of the subject at hand in the verse and by the begetter, and what he begot! (wa-wālidin wa-mā walad) (Q 90:3), which follows a prior oath by Makka the Magnificent: Nay, I swear by this land—and you [O Prophet] are free of restriction in this land (Q 90:1-2). Several early scholars said that the begetter is Ādam and what he begot is his offspring (Mujāhid, Qatāda, Abū Ṣāliḥ, al-Ḍaḥḥāk, Sufyān al-Thawrī as cited by Ṭabarī, Tafsīr), “such a meaning being congruent with this land since it is the Mother of Cities (Umm al-Qurā) while he is the father of mankind; so it is as if He had sworn by the origins of all things in existence and their offshoots” (Ibn Kathīr, cf. al-Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 90:3). The father in that verse was also said to be Ibrāhīm or Ismāʿīl; the progeny was said to be Muḥammad—upon all of them be blessings and peace—represented by indefinite nouns for magnification (taʿẓīm) and by “what” () rather than “him whom” (man) for wonderment (taʿajjub), as in Allah knew very well what she had given birth to (Q 3:36) (Tafsīrs of Bayḍāwī; Rāzī; Ibn ʿAjība, sub Q 90:3). At the opposite end of the scale of worth, birth perpetuates the succeeding generations of unbelievers (see Disbelievers) which the Prophet Nūḥ—upon him peace—was facing in his mission: they will lead Your servants astray, and will beget none (wa-lā yalidū) but every depraved unbeliever (Q 71:27).

In the context of specific legal rulings, birth is mentioned (i) as the conclusion of the timeframe for the financial support due pregnant divorcees: And those who are with child, their term is when they deliver their burden (Q 65:4 and 6) (See Spending); and (ii) as a reaffirmation of the literal status of biological mothers in condemnation of the oath of divorce (see Marriage and Divorce) practiced in the Time of Ignorance (known as ẓihār (from ẓahr or “back”) that consisted in saying: “You are to me as my mother’s back:” Such of you as put away your wives (by saying they are as their mothers’ backs)—they are not their mothers; none are their mothers except those who gave birth to them (waladnahum) (Q 58:2). To pronounce such an oath constitutes a sin that is to be formally erased through the payment of an expiation (kaffāra).

Condemnation of the Attribution of Birth to Allah Most High

The denial that Allah ever begets is an important theme of the Qurʾān (i) within the denunciation of Makkan paganism (see Polytheism and Polytheists): Truly it is of their falsehood that they dare to say “Allah has begotten (walada Allāh).” Verily they lie! (Q 37:151-152; cf. Q 6:101; 21:26; etc.); and (ii) within the denunciation of Christian belief: He begets not (lam yalid) nor was begotten (wa-lam yūlad) (Q 112:3; cf. Q 2:116, 19:88-89). The first condemnation includes those who attributed to Allah the paternity of jinns and angels while the latter rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.

Special Births

The Qurʾān makes special mention of five extraordinary births, or of events accompanying them: the birth of Isḥāq to Ibrāhīm and his wife in old age (Q 11:72; cf. 51:28-30); the similar birth of Yaḥyā to Zakariyyā and his wife (Q 3:38-41; 19:3-10); the birth of ʿĪsā to Maryam without father (Q 3:47); the speech of ʿĪsā at birth (Q 19:24-34), and the special protection of Maryam bint ʿImrān from Satan upon her birth as well as her offspring (Q 3:36). The birth of ʿĪsā is compared to the creation of Ādam, upon them be peace, which is a greater miracle yet, since Ādam came into existence without either father or mother: Truly the likeness of ʿĪsā, in the sight of Allah, is as Ādam’s likeness; He created him of dust, then said unto him “Be!” and he was (Q 3:59). This argument is characterized as a rhetorical emphatic device of “comparison of what is strange to what is stranger yet” (tashbīh al-gharīb bil-aghrab) for increased persuasiveness (Jalālayn, sub Q 3:59) (see Ādam). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, stated that the miracle of speaking from birth had been granted to three of the friends of Allah among the Israelites: ʿĪsā, Jurayj, and a third infant (Bukhārī, Aḥādīth al-Anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fīl-Kitābi Maryam idh intabadhat min ahlihā (Q 19:16); Muslim, al-Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, taqdīm birr al-wālidayn ʿalā al-taṭawwuʿ bil-ṣalāt wa-ghayrihā). Several other narrations of lesser strength bring the total number to over seven including Ibrāhīm and the Prophet Muḥammad himself, upon them blessings and peace (Fatḥ al-Bārī, Aḥādīth al-Anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fīl-Kitābi Maryam).

The supplication of ʿImrān’s wife that her child Maryam and her offspring be granted protection from Satan is elucidated by the hadith “No infant is born but the Satan touches it at the time of birth so that it cries out due to his touch, except Maryam and her son” (Bukhārī, Aḥādīth al-Anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-dhkur fīl-Kitābi Maryam idh intabadhat min ahlihā; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍāʾil ʿĪsā ʿalayhi al-salām). “It means that the Devil aims to misguide every newborn by bringing it under his influence, except––thanks to [her mother’s] supplication for protection–– for Maryam and her son; and this is true of all the Prophets: he cannot touch them, thanks to their immunity (ʿiṣma)” (Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr, sub Q 3:36).

The Decree, Resurrection, and Embryogenesis

Birth and the sequences of attending events that precede and follow it collectively constitute a major Qurʾānic trope for the lowliness of the human condition, the Divine Decree and the resurrection of the dead:

Does man think he will be left neglected? Was he not a sperm-drop spilled? Then he was a thing that clings, after which He created and proportioned, and He made of him two kinds, male and female. Is not that [Creator] able to give life to the dead? (Q 75:36-40)

The Qurʾān often underlines the lowly origins of human life by citing Man’s origin from a mere droplet (nuṭfa) (Q 16:4, 18:38, 22:5, 23:13, 35:10, etc.) described elsewhere as “vile water” (Q 32:8, 77:20), a gushing fluid that comes out from between the backbone and the ribs (Q 86:6-7), and euphemized in the verse Nay! Truly We created them from what they know full well (Q 70:39), “which denotes extreme contempt (ghāyat taḥqīr) for the original material from which a human being is created, and thus conveys the greatest deterrence and most emphatic admonition against arrogance and self-aggrandizement” (Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 70:39). Yet human birth is meaningful because human life is meaningful: And in the earth are great signs for those whose faith is sure, and in yourselves. Can you not see? (Q 51:20-21). The Qurʾān excoriates the materialist mindset that asserts that such life is fortuitous and death an ultimate end,

a [false] creed built on the idea that the Lord of the worlds exists purely in the mind. . . and that it is all nothing but nine celestial spheres and ten intellects, four orbs and spheres that turn, stars that run, wombs that push, earth that swallows, and There is nothing but our present life; we die, and we live, and nothing but Time destroys us! (Q 45:24). (Ibn al-Qayyim, Hidāya p. 25-26, introduction)

The Qurʾān responds that, on the contrary, humankind realizes that existence is by Divine design and that, furthermore, death is only the beginning and birth is the fore-sign of rebirth: You have known the first growth (al-nashʾat al-ūlā), so why will you not take heed? (Q 56:62), “meaning, you have realized the inception of your creation when We created you in the bellies of your mothers; yet you deny the raising of the dead” (Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 56:62). This multi-tiered design makes the entire earthly lifespan of a human being but the second of multiple existences one is destined to live: "There are four stages: the first is in the wombs of mothers; the second, in the lower world; the third, in the barzakh until mortal remains are reassembled and the dead are resurrected; and the fourth in the abode of permanency, without end." (Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Bayān p. 36-37)

In actuality there are five stages. The first is the pre-existence of all souls in the loins of Ādam (upon him peace), as the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) explicitly said in exegesis of the verse And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yea, we bear witness”—lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, “Truly of this we were unaware” (Q 7:172):

Allah took the Covenant from the loins of Adam in Naʿmān, which means ʿArafa, by bringing out from his loins every single seed he sired; He strewed them before Him like ants and addressed them saying: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, verily. We testify. [That was] lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: Truly we were unaware of this; or lest you should say: It was our forefathers who ascribed partners to Allah of old and we were their seed after them. Will You destroy us on account of that which those who follow falsehood did? (Q 7:172-173) (Aḥmad 4:267 §2455; Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim; Suyūṭī, Durr, sub Q 7:172)

The Qurʾān further emphasizes the gradual sequence of human embryogeny and birth—after initial creation of the father of humanity from dust (turāb) (see Clay)—followed by maturity and death, and compares this process to a lifeless earth becoming verdant again after the rain as part of a conclusive argument for resurrection:

O mankind, if you are in doubt as to being raised again, surely We created you of dust (turāb); then of a (sperm-and-ovum) droplet (nuṭfa); then of a thing that clings (ʿalaqa); then of a lump of flesh (muḍgha), fully formed or unfinished (mukhallaqatin wa-ghayri mukhallaqatin), that We may make clear to you. And We establish in the wombs what We will, till a stated term. Then We deliver you as infants, that you may reach maturity; and some of you die, and some of you are brought back unto the vilest state of life, that after knowing somewhat, they may know nothing. And you behold the earth lifeless; then, when We send down water upon it, it quivers and swells and puts forth herbs of every joyous kind. (Q 22:5; cf. 23:12-16)

The absence of a direct object for the transitive “that We may make clear to you” (li-nubayyina lakum) is an ellipsis of magnification, intended to emphasize the limitless extent of Divine knowledge and power; the meaning is “We created you of dust, then of those various stages, to make manifest to you Our power to resurrect you” (Tafsīrs of al-Zamakhsharī and al-Shinqīṭī, sub Q 22:5). The general address to human beings as being created out of dust here and elsewhere (cf. Q 18:37; 20:55; 30:19; 35:10; etc.) is by extension of their being the progeny of Ādam, upon him peace, who was literally created so (Q 3:59).

The Sunna specifies that the period in which the nuṭfa, ʿalaqa, and muḍgha evolve is the first 45 days after fertilization, concluding with gendering:

The angel is sent to the sperm-and-ovum droplet after it has settled in the uterus for forty or forty-five nights and says, “Lord, is it to be wretched [in Hell] or felicitous [in Paradise]?” Then this is inscribed. Then he says, “Lord, is it to be male or female?” This is then inscribed, together with its deeds, its progeny, its term of life, and its sustenance. Then the records are folded up and nothing more is added nor subtracted. Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-Ādamī

When forty-two nights have passed with the sperm-and-ovum droplet [in the uterus], Allah sends it an angel that gives it form and fashions its hearing, sight, skin, flesh, and skeleton. (Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-Ādamī)

Allah Most High has appointed an angel over the uterus who says, “Lord, it is now a droplet (nuṭfa). Lord, it is now a thing that clings (ʿalaqa). Lord, it is now a lump of flesh (muḍgha).” Then, when he is about to complete its fashioning, he asks, “Male or female? Felicitous or wretched? What is its share of sustenance? What is its term of life?” All this is inscribed [while it is] in his mother’s belly. (Bukhārī, Qadar, fīl-qadar; Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-Ādamī)

Thus the tripartite staging described in Q 22:5 corresponds to the following embryogenic sequence in the Hadiths:

  • first, the “droplet,” corresponding to the zygote formed by the combined spermatozoid and ovum; then
  • the “thing that clings” which is the blastocyst latching onto and feeding off the wall of the uterus (“Approximately six days after fertilization, the blastocyst attaches to the endometrial epithelium… By the end of the first week, the blastocyst is superficially implanted in the compact layer of the endometrium and is deriving its nourishment from the eroded maternal tissues,” Moore and Persaud, Developing Human, 2: First Week, Formation of the Blastocyst); and finally
  • the “lump of flesh” which is the fetus, whose fashioning (takhalluq) shows a recognizably human form: “At the end of the eighth week [final week of the embryonic period], the embryo has distinct human characteristics…. Although there are sex differences in the appearance of the external genitalia, they are not distinctive enough to permit accurate sexual identification” (Developing Human, 5: Organogenetic Period, Highlights of the Fourth to Eighth Week).

Stillbirth and Abortion

The Qurʾān alludes to stillbirth as part of the Divine foreknowledge and apportionment in the creation of all things, even when they are incomplete: Allah knows what every female carries and what the wombs fall short of (taghīḍ) and what they grow (tazdād). With Him everything is in due measure (Q 13:8). “Falling short” means “short of the usual nine months” (Farrāʾ, Maʿānī) or miscarriage according to Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Qatāda (d.117/735), al-Ḍaḥḥāk (d. 102/721), and al-Ḥasan (21-110/642-728) (see Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ibn Qutayba, Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, and others, sub Q 13:8). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, referred to loss of a child and miscarriages as tests, in which patient endurance carries immense reward:

Allah Glorious and Mighty says, “My believing servant, when I seize his dearly beloved among the people of this world and he bears it expecting no compensation, shall have no [lesser] reward] than Paradise.” (Bukhārī, Riqāq, al-ʿamal al-ladhī yubtaghā bihi wajhu Allāh)

By the One in Whose hand is my soul, truly the miscarried child (siqṭ) will certainly draw its mother to Paradise by its umbilical cord, provided one bears patiently, expecting reward. (Ibn Mājah, with a weak chain: see al-Būṣīrī, Miṣbāḥ al-zujāja, Mā jāʾa fīl-janāʾiz, mā jāʾa fī-man uṣība bi-siqṭ)

The Qurʾān prohibits infanticide (see Children; Burial) and abortion, the deliberate removal of an embryo or fetus before it is sufficiently developed to survive: When the believing women come to you, pledging to you that they will ascribe nothing as partner unto Allah, and will neither steal nor commit adultery nor kill their children... (Q 60:12); and Kill not your children because of penury: We provide for you and for them (Q 6:151; 17:31; cf. 81:8). The meaning of “killing children” in those verses is twofold:

the burial of living female infants and children (waʾd) practiced in the Time of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya) by their own parents out of fear of shame (ʿār) (Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 17:31), as mentioned in the glosses on the verses If one of them receives tidings of the birth of a female, his face remains darkened and he dissimulates his anger, withdrawing from people because of the evil of that whereof he has bad tidings, (asking himself): shall he keep it in contempt, or bury it beneath the dust? (Q 16:58-59):

That is because [the tribes of] Muḍar, Khuzāʿa, and Tamīm used to bury daughters alive, claiming fear of destitution for them and the potential designs of inappropriate marriage matches for them. Whenever Ṣaʿṣaʿa, the paternal uncle of al-Farazdaq, got wind of any such intent he would confront the girl’s father and spur him to [feel] guilt on her account. (Thaʿlabī, Kashf, sub Q 16:59). Waʾd has also been said to include the killing of male infants for fear of poverty (faqr, ʿayla) (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 6:137); abortion (ijhāḍ) (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 60:12).

In addition to waʾd, the Sunna also uses the terms imlāṣ, milāṣ, and ijhāḍ with identical or similar meanings:

ʿUmar asked about a woman who does imlāṣ/milāṣ: that is, strikes her own belly until her fetus falls out...  (Bukhārī, Diyāt, janīn al-marʾa; Muslim, al-Qasāma wal-muḥāribīn wal-qiṣāṣ wal-diyāt, diyat al-janīn)

A woman’s misconduct was reported to ʿUmar, who sent for her whereupon she aborted (ajhaḍat) what she carried in her womb... (Ibn Ḥajar, Talkhīṣ al-ḥabīr 4:69 §1968, Diyāt, ḥadīth ʿUmar: annahu arsala ilā imraʾatin dhukirat ʿindahu bi-sūʾ)

Daughters were considered a shame and financial burden, reference to which is made in two verses mentioning the slaying of children: They are losers who have slain their children out of ignorance, and have forbidden that which Allah bestowed upon them, inventing a lie against Allah. They indeed have gone astray and are not guided (Q 6:140) and And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin (khiṭʾan kabīran) (Q 17:31) (see Enormities; Failure and Loss). Although the term “children” embraces sons and daughters both (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar), most exegetes consider the verse to be a reference to the live burial of infant daughters due to shame and financial burden (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Ālūsī; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām). Al-Rāzī explains that parents should rely on Allah for the sustenance of their children, whether male or female, because sustenance is in the Hand of Allah Most High; just as He opens the gates of provision for men, so too does He open the gates of provision for women (Tafsīr). Along similar lines, Abū Ḥayyān (d. 745/1344) states that one must not kill one’s children from fear of poverty, just as one does not commit suicide for fear of poverty (Baḥr).

The prohibition of infanticide reinforces the general emphasis of the Qurʾān on the sanctity of human life: If anyone slays a human being unless it is (in punishment) for murder or for spreading corruption on earth, it shall be as if he had slain the whole of mankind (Q 5:32). The ruling serves as the main basis for the prohibition of abortion in the sacred law, except in case of medical emergency such as danger of death, once the gestative threshold is passed; the latter varies among the schools from the very start of conception (Mālikīs) to 40 days (Shāfiʿīs) or 120 days (Ḥanafīs, Ḥanbalīs, and Jaʿfarī Shīʿīs) after conception. The last two figures correspond respectively to the time by which the blood-like embryo has become a recognizably human fetus and the time of its ensoulment (nafkh al-rūḥ). All of these schools, as well as Zaydīs and Ibāḍīs, categorically prohibit abortion after the 120-day limit (al-Mawsūʿat al-fiqhiyya 2:56-58; al-Zuḥaylī, al-Fiqh al-Islāmī 3:556-558).


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—— and al-Maḥallī. Tafsīr al-Jalālayn. See al-Ṣāwī, Ḥāshiya ʿalā al-Jalālayn.

Ṭabarī. Tafsīr.

Thaʿlabī. Kashf.

Zamakhsharī. Kashshāf.

al-Zuḥaylī, Wahba. al-Fiqh al-Islāmī wa-adillatuh. 2nd ed. 8 vols. Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1405/1995.


See also

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