Gibril Fouad Haddad, Muzaffar Iqbal, Naseer Ahmad

The Qurʾān mentions bones in the context of affirmation of Resurrection, Divine Power and Wisdom, Sacred Law, and strength of faith and hope.

Bones (ʿaẓm, plural ʿiẓām) are lexically defined as “the flesh-covered skeletal parts of a living being” (al-ladhī ʿalayhi al-laḥm min qaṣab al-ḥayawān: Ibn Sīda, Muḥkamsub ʿ-ẓ-m), “which bone-setters are required to know number 248 bones in a human being” (al-Maqdisī, Badhl al-naṣāʾiḥ, 2:465-466, al-Ḥisba ʿalā kull wāḥid min kull ḥirfa wa-ṣināʿa, al-mujbirūn). The Qurʾāic nnouns for bones are ʿiẓām (used 14 times) and aẓm (used once, Q 19:4); in addition five other nouns refer to specific bones: the plural tarāqī (clavicles, Q 75:26), the singular ṣulb (spine, Q 4:23, 86:7), the plural tarāʾib (sternum, Q 86:7), the dual kaʿbayn (ankle-bones, Q 5:6), and the singular sinn (tooth) in the verse on the talion penalties (see Blood-moneyLegal PunishmentsRetaliation) enjoined on the Israelites for homicide and bodily injuries (Q 5:45; see below on sinn).

Two additional body parts that denote both bone and flesh are mentioned: the plural anāmil (fingertips, Q 3:119) and the singular anf (nose) in the talion verse just mentioned. The verse also mentions al-udhun (the ear) which is equally liable and which comprises three tiny bones, the auditory ossicles (Gray’s Anatomy, pp. 631, 635-637); however, lexicons and the Sacred Law call them cartilage (ghuḍrūf, plural ghaḍārīf: Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥsub gh-r-ḍ-f; ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 39, Dhikr al-udhunayn; Kirmānī, Gharāʾib; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Māwardī, Ḥāwī, 12:183, Qatl, qiṣāṣ, faṣl: an tuqṭaʿ udhunuh; Ibn Nujaym, Baḥr, 8:345, Jināyāt, al-qiṣāṣ fīmā dūn al-nafs).

Definitions and Usage

ʿIẓām (sing. ʿaẓm), from the root ʿ-ẓ-m which points to “bulk and strength” (kibar wa-quwwa), is the name for bones “because of their strength and rigidity” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs). “It was originally used to indicate that something became big-boned, then it was borrowed to refer to all things great, whether sensory or intellective, concrete or abstract” (Rāghib, Mufradāt). It has three plural forms: aʿẓum, ʿiẓām, and ʿiẓāma (Fayrūzābādī, Baṣāʾir, 4:79, baṣīra fī ʿ-ṭ-l, ʿ-ṭ-w, ʿ-ẓ-m). The Qurʾān uses ʿaẓm and ʿiẓām fifteen times in fourteen verses covering five thematic contexts:

  1. ten times in the plural (Q 17:49, 98; 23:35, 82; 36:78; 37:16, 53; 56:47; 75:3; 79:11) in reference to the unbelievers’ denial of Resurrection after bones have crumbled to dust;
  2. once in the plural in a fundamental verse on Resurrection, creation and time (Q 2:259, see next section);
  3. once in the singular (Q 19:4) in the supplication of the Prophet Zakariyyā, upon him peace for an heir (see section further below);
  4. twice in the plural (Q 23:14 x2) as a stage in the development of the fetus in the womb;
  5. once in the singular (Q 6:146) in reference to a Jewish dietary prohibition, whereby fat of oxen and sheep is forbidden to them except that which is upon their backs or their entrails or that which is mingled with bone (see Children of Isrāʾīl; Food and Drink; Lawful and Unlawful)

Tarāqī (sing. tarquwa), from the root t-r-q, on the pattern of faʿluwa (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, qāf, faṣl al-tāʾ), is identified as the two clavicles known as the collar-bone, “the bone that connects the suprasternal notch (thughrat al-naḥr) to the shoulder (ʿātiq) on each side” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn, sub q-t-r; Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub t-r-q), “the two prominent bones at the top of the chest” (ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 64, fī dhikr al-ṣadr). The usage of tarāqī appears in an evocative description of the departure of the soul of the unbeliever: Nay, but when it reaches the clavicles and it is said: “Who can cure him?” and he knows for certain that it is parting, and the legs shift one on top of another; to your Lord that Day is the conveyance (Q 75:26-30). The mention of that particular spot of the body in such a context implies the gharghara or death rattle that occurs in the respiration of the dying, as confirmed by a similarly-worded verse that mentions the ḥulqūm (throat) in lieu of the collar-bone, when the soul reaches the throat (Q 56:83; Ibn Rajab, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr, sub Q 4:17-18; Burūsawī, Rūḥ; Athyūbī, Tafsīr, sub Q 75:26-27).

Ṣulb (plurals aṣlub, aṣlāb and ṣilba) is derived from the root ṣ-l-b, which signifies hardness (shidda) and strength (quwwa); “this is why the backbone is called ṣulb” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs), namely, “the bone that starts at the atlas (kāhil) down to the tailbone (ʿajb)” (Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 62, fī dhikr al-ẓahr), also glossed as “the spine or vertebral column (al-ʿamūd al-ʿaẓmī) down the middle of the back that comprises vertebrae (faqarāt)” (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 86:7). As a euphemism for procreation the term is exclusive to men in contradistinction to “womb” (raḥim), as reflected in al-ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib’s (56bh-32/567-653) panegyric poetry describing the Prophet’s soul before his birth as transported from loins to wombs (tunqal min ṣālib ilā raḥim) in the succession of worlds and centuries (Ḥākim, 3:326-327; Ṭabarānī, Kabīr, 4:213 §4167; ʿIyāḍ, Shifā, p. 216 §393 I.iii.1) and in exegesis (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Tafsīrs of Jalālayn and Athyūbī, all sub Q 86:7; see also next paragraph). It is used twice in the Qurʾān: once as the plural noun aṣlāb in Q 4:23, which lists several categories of female relatives that are forbidden as wives, including the wives of your sons who are from your loins (aṣlābikum, most often translated as “[male] loins”), and once in the description of the conception of the child in the womb which occurs from a gushing fluid, issuing from between the ṣulb (“loins,” “backbone”) and the tarāʾib (Q 86:7).

Tarāʾib (sing. tarība) is derived from the root t-r-b, which has two semantic fields: dust (turāb) and the chest bones (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs). It is identified as “where the necklace is worn” (majāl al-qilāda: Ibn Durayd, Jamhara), “the bones of the chest” (Fārābī, Dīwān), “the straight and smooth part of the chest” (ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 64, fī dhikr al-ṣadr) “next to the clavicles or between the breasts and the clavicles” (Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 86:7)—specifically a woman’s breasts (Ibn ʿAbbās in Naḥḥās, Maʿānī)—and “chest bones and the tongue-bone (ʿiẓām al-ṣadr wal-naḥr)” (Wāḥidī, Wajīz; Tafsīrs of Baghawī, Zamakhsharī, Qurṭubī, Nasafī, Ibn ʿĀdil). In the poetic verse describing horses on a battlefield littered with enemies, they passed over them without flinching, trampling, as we rode, skulls and tarība, the two skeletal parts mentioned are tropes for the heads and chests of the enemy (Wāḥidī, Sharḥ al-Mutanabbī, p. 292). All the above meanings match the sense of the sternum, a large three-tiered bone at the front center of the chest, especially in light of the observation that “tarāʾib is a plural used for a singular, namely the tarība” (Ibn al-Rāzī, Laṭāʾif al-Qurʾān, p. 74). Other glosses include “the ribs of the chest” (Rāghib, Mufradāt), “four ribs on the right side of the chest and four on the left thereof,” and “the arms, legs and eyes” (Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam). The word occurs in Q 86:7 (see previous paragraph), whose most frequent gloss is “from the man’s ṣulb and the woman’ tarāʾib” (Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Shāfiʿī, ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Zamanīn, Thaʿlabī, etc.), attaching tarāʾib to the female just as ṣulb is reserved for the male. It is understood “progeny can only be from both of them together” (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt).

Kaʿbayn, singular kaʿb, plural kuʿūb, from the root k-ʿ-b which indicates “protuberance and elevation” (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs), is defined as the two ankle-bones on each foot as mentioned in the majority reading of the verse wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows, wipe your heads, and then [wash] your feet (wa-arjulakum) up to the ankle-bones (Q 5:6), namely, “what juts out above the ankle at the human foot” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn), “the (two) protruding bone(s) where the leg and the foot meet” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Naḥḥās, Maʿānī; Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām; Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 72, dhikr al-sāq; Rāghib, Mufradāt; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr). A minority view glosses kaʿb as “the prominent bone on the surface of the foot” (i.e. the first cuneiform bone), a gloss rejected as aberrant (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar) and as typifying Shīʿīs and those who read the verse as wipe your heads and your feet (wa-arjulikum) (Rāzī, Tafsīr; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr).

Sinn, the singular noun for teeth, plural asnān, occurs once in Q 5:45, and We prescribed for them [Israelites] therein [the Torah]: a life for the life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds retaliation [likewise]. Teeth are explicitly defined as bones in the hadith, “Truly the tooth is a bone in human beings (inna al-sinn ʿaẓmun min al-insān)” (Shāfiʿī, Musnad, 3:246-247, §1531; Bukhārī, Dhabāʾiḥ, idhā nadda baʿīr li-qawm fa-ramāh baʿḍuhum bi-sahm fa-qatalah fa-arād iṣlāḥahum fa-huwa jāʾiz) and understood as such by lexicographers in the discussion of “luster (ẓalm), the glitter (māʾ, lit. ‘water’) and sparkle (barīq) of teeth, like a dark streak inside the bone of the tooth due to the intensity of its whiteness, like the brilliance of a fine sword” (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ; cf. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj, sub s-n-n). This definition is the basis of the early juristic rule, “There is no talion penalty (qiṣāṣ) for bones except for teeth or the head” (al-Shaʿbī and al-Ḥasan in Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, Diyāt, al-rajul yuṣīb min al-rajul; Abū Ḥanīfa, Yūsuf and Muḥammad in Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Istidhkār, Ashriba, al-qiṣāṣ fīl-jirāḥ), “because teeth are bones…. al-Shāfiʿī, al-Layth and the Ḥanafīs said that there is no talion penalty for bones except teeth” (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, 12:224, Diyāt, qawluh “Bāb al-sinn bil-sinn”).

Anf, the nose, is similarly defined as formed of bone with respect to the bridge (qaṣaba); cartilage (ghuḍrūf) described as “between bone and flesh” such as the septum (watara); and soft parts (mārin) including the nosetip (arnaba) (ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, p. 49, fī dhikr al-anf; cf. Samarqandī, Tuḥfa, 3:105, Diyāt), any and all of which is meant in the verse a nose for a nose (Q 5:45). However, in crimes (jināyāt) and legal punishments, “when the mārin, namely, the soft part of the nose, is lopped while the qaṣaba is intact, there is talion punishment (qiṣāṣ, see Retaliation); but when the nose is lopped from the root there is no qiṣāṣ because it is impossible to calibrate the qiṣāṣ” (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād) for lack of a known boundary for the qaṣaba as opposed to the mārin (al-Mawsūʿat al-fiqhiyya, 36:30, al-Mārin, al-qiṣāṣ fīl-mārin). In the latter case, “the qiṣāṣ must be in the mārin together with a [monetary] ruling for the qaṣaba” (Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī, Jirāḥ, qawad, masʾalat al-anf bil-anf) and blood-money(arsh) exacted (Māwardī, Ḥāwī, 12:187, Qatl, al-qiṣāṣ fīl-shijāj wal-jirāḥ wal-asnān; cf. ʿImrānī, Bayān, 11:367, Jināyāt, al-qiṣāṣ fīl-jurūḥ wal-aʿḍāʾ, masʾalat al-anf bil-anf), although “Abū Yūsuf relatedly stipulated that there is compensatory talion when the whole nose is lopped” (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām; Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ, 7:308, Jināyāt, wujūb al-diya, faṣl fī aḥkām kull nawʿ min anwāʿ al-jināya fīmā dūn al-nafs).

Anāmil, singular anmala, anmula and unmula, literally fingertips and toetips (ʿAskarī, Talkhīṣ, pp. 60-61, Dhikr al-kaff)—or, contextually, the ungual phalanxes of the hand as in the verse they bite their fingertips in their rage (Q 3:119)—signify “tiny bones” in the sense used by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, in the hadith “Alsmgiving is due for every distal phalanx (sulāmā) of yours every day the sun rises” (Bukhārī, Ṣulḥ, faḍl al-iṣlāḥ bayn al-nās wal-ʿadl baynahum; Muslim, Zakāt, bayān anna ism al-ṣadaqa yaqaʿ ʿalā kull nawʿ min al-maʿrūf), i.e. a fortiori for the more than 200 larger bones of the human body. “Sulāmā is the plural of sulāmiya, namely the unmula or fingertip… it was said that the sulāmā are every hollow, tiny bone. The sense is that for every single bone of a human being, almsgiving is due” (Ibn al-Athīr, Nihāya, sub s-l-ā). In the same way, the term banānah (his digits) in the verses do people reckon We will not gather up their bones? Yes, [We will,] and We are able to reshape (nusawwiya) their digits (Q 75:3-4) is glossed as two powerful tropes, both of them a fortiori logical arguments (see three sections down, Aristotle) illustrating the Divine attributes of power and creation. The first argument is that the perfectly integral gathering and reviving of the minutest and most elusive of bones would be even more difficult to do than the regathering of bones (Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Ibn Qutayba, Taʾwīl; Samarqandī, Baḥr; Athyūbī, Tafsīr; Bint al-Shāṭiʾ, Iʿjāz, p. 565, §171, kulla banān); the second is that the even reshaping of human digits into something like a camel’s feet or the hooves of cattle or asses is equally more more difficult (Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt), “and the latter is the interpretation of most exegetes” (Baghawī, Tafsīr).

Bones as a Trope for the Process of Resurrection in Q 2:259

One of the most important verses on Resurrection mentioning bones is Q 2:259, which comprises two words with near-synonymous, alternate readings, both of them canonical (Khaṭīb, Muʿjam; ʿUmar and Makram, Muʿjam; see Readings of the Qurʾān):

Or consider such as the one who passed by a town that had fallen into ruin. He said, “How shall Allah give life to this now that it is dead?” Allah then caused him to die for a hundred years then He resurrected him and asked him, “How long have you remained thus?” He said, “I have remained a day or part of a day.” He said, “Rather, you have remained one hundred years. Look at your food and drink which have not spoiled, and look at your donkey. We have made you [, also,] a great sign for human beings. And look at the bones (al-ʿiẓām), how We remount them (nunshizuhā) / resurrect them (nunshiruhā) and clothe them with flesh.” When it became clear to him he said, “I know (aʿlamu) / He said, “Know (iʿlam) that Allah has power over all things.”

The unnamed passer-by is variously identified as Uzayr b. Sharkhiyā or Sharḥiyā (Ezra, Esdras), who is considered either a scholar (Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Baghawī, Rāzī; Thaʿlabī, Qaṣaṣ) or a Prophet (Samarqandī, Baḥr; Makkī, Mushkil; Qushayrī, Tafsīr; Jurjānī, Darj; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād); or the Prophet Irmiyā b. Ḥalqiyā (Jeremiah) (Tafsīrs of Mujāhid, Ṭabarī; Thaʿlabī, Qaṣaṣ), also identified as al-Khiḍr (Tafsīrs of Ibn Isḥāq, Ṭabarī, Thaʿlabī); or the Prophet Ḥizqīl b. Būzī (Ezekiel) (Tafsīrs of Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn ʿĀshūr). “The majority of exegetes said it is ʿUzayr” (Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Wāḥidī, Wasīṭ; Kirmānī, Gharāʾib; cf. Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr), “whose eyes were recreated before anything else of his, so that he beheld his own bones being gathered to his frame and his flesh” (ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in the Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq and Ibn Abī Ḥātim; al-Ḥākim, Mustadrak, 2:282; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; cf. Thaʿlabī, Qaṣaṣ), who “died aged 40 years and, when he was resurrected, his son was 120, his grandson 90, and they were both hoary with old age” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr).

The major early Sufi exegete Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Hawāzin b. ʿAbd al-Malik al-Qushayrī (376-465/986-1073), gave the following explanation:

The Prophet ʿUzayr, upon him peace, asked a question full of wonder and wanted thereby to increase his certainty, so Allah showed him this through his own experience [of death], then resurrected him, then raised his donkey before his very eyes. This added certainty on top of the certainty he already had. Then he said I know that Allah has power over all things concerning giving life and death, that is, “my knowledge of that has increased, and He has shown me, of tremendous signs, that whereby my certitude would increase.” For his food and drink did not spoil during all this time while his donkey died, with no bones [left]—whereas food and drink were apter to undergo change (Qushayrī, Tafsīr).

The above interpretation, apart from the issue of the questioner’s identity, is that of the majority (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn Abī Zamanīn, Thaʿlabī, Baghawī, Rāzī, Ibn Kathīr, etc.). Another interpretation of the reference to the donkey is that, like the food, it had not changed at all, including its brand new halter, while it was ʿUzayr himself who had become extremely famelic and whose bones were miraculously restored and covered anew with hale flesh (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Baghawī). Both interpretations are possible, “but the first is more indicative of the context and more congruent with what follows” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr).

Also among the notable aspects of the above verse are the creation of time by Allah, its subjection to His command, and the resuscitants’ misconstruing of its suspension, as they typically imagine only a little time has passed such as one moment of one day (Q 46:35), or an evening or the morning that followed it (Q 79:46), or, as here and for the Seven Sleepers (see People of the Cave), a day or part thereof (Q 2:259, 18:19, 23:112-113). Alternately, reality dawns on them and they dismiss the time they passed on earth as very little (Q 17:52) in the face of eternity (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 23:112-113). All of the above points are markers of the Day of Resurrection (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:259) and the hidden nature of its exact time (Athyūbī, Tafsīr, sub Q 72:25).

The Hadith of the Tailbone-Tip as a Gloss for Q 2:259

The lexicographers define the tailbone-tip, ʿajb, as “the point in every beast where the two haunches meet to form the root of the tail at the end of the posterior” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs, sub ʿ-j-b) which, as already discussed in the section on ṣulb, is at the same spot in human beings as well. It is often glossed as the same as ʿuṣʿuṣ (also ʿaṣʿaṣ), “coccyx” (Fārābī, Dīwān, 3:102, sub fuʿlul; Azharī, Tahdhīb, 1:61 sub ʿ-ṣ; etc.), however, Prophetic hadiths describe it as millimetric-sized (see below). A more accurate translation would therefore be “the apex of the coccyx” (raʾs al-ʿuṣʿuṣ)—as proposed by the 2nd/8th-century Bedouin anatomical linguist Abū Mālik ʿAmr b. Kirkira (or b. Bakr) al-Aʿrābī (in Māzarī, Muʿlim, 3:380) and taken up in later glosses (Nawawī, Sharḥ, Fitan, mā bayn al-nafkhatayn; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, Q 39:68; Kafawī, Kulliyyāt, p. 658, ʿĀyn, ʿajb al-dhanab)—namely, in modern anatomical terms, the last coccygeal vertebra rather than the whole coccyx.

The hadiths specify it as an indestructible primal constituent of the human body in organogenesis as well as resurrection:

Everything in a human being perishes except one bone, ʿajb al-dhanab, from which each person is created and out of which each is reconstituted on the Day of Resurrection (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, Q 78:18; Muslim, Fitan wa-ashrāṭ al-sāʿa, mā bayn al-nafkhatayn; Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Janāʾiz, jāmiʿ al-janāʾiz).

Dust eats up every part of a human being except the tailbone. It is identical [in size] with a mustard seed, and from it you shall be grown again (Aḥmad, 17:332 §11230/3, rated ḥasan: Haythamī, Majmaʿ, 10:332; Ḥākim, 4:609; Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ, 7:409 §3140).

It is argued that the reason the bones of ʿUzayr’s donkey remained and that it was recreated from them can be explained by analogy with the Prophetic hadiths that specify the ʿajb al-dhanab. The Sufi Ḥanbalī theologian, jurist, Hadith master and preacher of Baghdad, Abū al-Wafāʾ ʿAlī b. ʿAqīl b. Muḥammad al-Baghdādī, known as Ibn ʿAqīl (431-513/1040-1119), author of the largest Islamic work ever produced—a 200 to 800-volume encyclopedia of the sciences of his time entitled al-Funūn (reputedly abridged by Ibn al-Jawzī into the twenty-volume Mukhtaṣar funūn Ibn ʿAqīl), now lost except for a single manuscript of a single volume (Paris Fonds arabe 787)—said to that effect:

If one were to ask, “What is the benefit of causing this bone [the tailbone] to endure as opposed to the rest of the body?” the reply would be that the secret in this belongs to Allah and that we do not know it. For He Who carves out existence from nothingness is in no need for His act to have something to build on. If [the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace] mentioned such causality, it may be that the Almighty Creator made that a sign for the angels that each human being be given back life with their own respective individual essences; and there will be no knowledge of that for the angels except if the bone of each person is made to perdure, making it known that He wants the return of souls to the precise individuals of which they are part. Likewise, when He caused ʿUzayr and his donkey to die, He let the bones of the donkey remain and He clothed them so that it can be known that this resurrecting (al-manshaʾ) concerns that donkey and no other. If nothing remained, the angels might consider it possible to return the souls to merely similar bodies rather than to the exact same ones. (Ibn ʿAqīl in Ibn al-Jawzī, Kashf al-mushkil, 3:454)

Bones as a Trope for the Deniers of Resurrection

The most frequent Qurʾānic reference to bones addresses the unbelievers’ refusal to accept Resurrection, as they contend it is impossible that bones can be revived after they have crumbled to dust: He draws up a parable for Us and forgets how he was created; he says, “Who can give life to bones once they are dust?” (Q 36:78). The unnamed disputant (see Anonymous Mentions) in the above verse is identified by “most of the exegetes” (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; cf. Wāḥidī, Asbāb) as the Makkan polytheist Ubay b. Khalaf al-Jumaḥī (d. 3/625)—in some reports as his friend al-ʿĀṣ b. Wāʾil al-Sahmī (d. before 1/622)—who had come to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, carrying a decrepit bone (ʿaẓmin ḥāʾil) which he proceeded to reduce to crumbs (yufattituh) as he asked, “Do you still claim that your Lord shall bring this back to life after what you see?” whereupon the verse was revealed. Some versions mention that the Prophet replied, “Yes, and He shall resurrect you and cast you into Hellfire” (Ḥākim, 2:429, rated ṣaḥīḥ; Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Naḥḥās, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Māwardī, Samʿānī, Ibn Kathīr, Balansī, etc.).

There is bone-related irony in the mention of Ubay b. Khalaf in this context in light of the circumstances of his death at the hand of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, who both predicted it and said “The anger of Allah is severest for whomever the Messenger of Allah kills by his own hand in the way of Allah” (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, mā aṣāb al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam min al-jirāḥ yawma Uḥud; Muslim, al-Jihād wal-siyar, ishtidād ghaḍab Allāh ʿalā man qatalah Rasūl Allāh). After being captured at Badr then set free for a ransom, Ubay swore a solemn oath that he would “feed his horse every day a portion of corn and kill Muhammad riding it.” When news of this reached the Prophet , upon him blessings and peace, he said: “No; I will kill him if Allah wills.” Ubay entered into the Battle of Uḥud ( 3/625) in his armor on top of his horse, shouting, “May I not survive if Muḥammad survives” and charged the Prophet. The latter grabbed a spear, sighted Ubay’s clavicle (tarquwa) showing through a gap between the helmet and the breastplate, and nicked him (khadashah) there. Ubay fell off his horse but no blood came out. It was said he broke a rib. His friends came and found him drooping like a tired bull. They said: “What ails you? It is only a scratch.” He replied, “he said he would kill me” and died on his way back to Makka (Ḥākim, 2:327, rated ṣaḥīḥ; Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, 2:454 §2086, sub Q 25:27; Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 8:17). “Whether it is Ubay b. Khalaf or al-ʿĀṣ b. Wāʾil, the verse is universal and addresses every belier and denier of Resurrection” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr).

The Qurʾānic response to their incredulity, already implied in the subordinate clause and forgets how he was created, is restated explicitly as He Who brought them to life in the first instance will bring them back to life again (Q 36:79). It is further elaborated in verses which follow the mention of the denial of Resurrection by the unbelievers by highlighting the infinite Power of the Creator evinced in the creation of heavens and earth (Q 17:99; 36:81), in the unique characteristic of a green tree from which fire can be kindled (Q 36:80), and in the fashioning of the perfect fingers and toes of human beings (Q 75:4) along with everything else in their admirably proportioned bodies (Q 18:37, 32:9, 40:64, 55:4, 64:3, 76:2, 82:7, 95:4).

Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī (450-504/1058-1110) points out the logical argument in Q 36:79: bringing something into existence in the first place is more difficult than bringing it back to existence, and He Who is able to accomplish what is more difficult can without doubt effect what is easier (Aḥkām, sub Q 36:79). The exegete and linguist Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Khafājī (977-1069/1569-1659) quotes the philosopher Abū Naṣr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Ṭarkhān al-Fārābī (ca. 258-339/870-951) as saying:

I would have loved for Aristotle to behold the manifest analogy (al-qiyās al-jalī) in Say: He who brought them to life in the first instance shall bring them back to life again (Q 36:79). Allah, may He be exalted, brought bones into existence and gave them life in the first instance; and anyone who has brought something into existence a first time is capable of bringing it into existence and giving it life a second time, the necessary implication of which is that Allah is capable of bringing them into existence and giving them life with all their faculties a second time (Ḥāshiya).

The unbelievers are twice rebutted for their repeated scoffing after they ask, in their usual style of rhetorical questions, when we are bones and powder, are we really raised up again as a new form of creation? in two different places (Q 17:49, 17:98), where they follow up the mention of “bones” (ʿiẓāman) with that of “pulverized bones” (rufātan, ay ḥuṭāman: Abū ʿUbayda, Majāz, sub Q 17:49) to mark their incredulity (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 17:49). In the first rebuttal the Prophet is commanded to Say: “Be you stones, iron, or some other form of the creations that loom enormous in your minds” (Q 17:50-51) such as death itself (Farrāʾ, Maʿānī) as well as heavens, earth, and mountains (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). “It means that Allah Most High can surely bring them back to life by His Power (bi-qudratih): after all, bones once had life—rather, they are the foundation upon which other parts of the body are built—but even if the unbelievers were to conceive of something most incompatible with life and most remote from the material of which the human being is created, such as stones or iron with their inherent hardness and rigidity, even then Allah can create life in them” (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). In the second rebuttal Allah reiterates the a fortiori universal-creation argument: Do they not see that Allah, Who created heavens and earth, is capable of creating the like thereof? And He has set an end-term for them in which there is no doubt; but the wrongdoers refuse anything but disbelief (Q 17:99).

Ibn ʿAqīl, the foremost khaṭīb of Baghdad in his time, infers a vibrant exhortation from the questioning of resurrection in the Qurʾān and the Sīra:

One says of a decrepit bone, “This shall live again?” Then Allah reveals, He draws up a parable for Us and forgets how he was created (Q 36:78). Another says, “How shall Allah give life to this now that it is dead?” (Q 2:259), so Allah causes him to die a hundred years and resurrects him. If you think to yourself How shall Allah give life, the rainclouds in the sky are all tongues rebuking you, by which earth’s greenery and its springs and rivers are revived. You need reflect no further than on yourself! What He causes to live and die in you of limbs, attributes, faculties and traits of character is enough. You go to bed of one description and rise of another in the morning. You rise endowed with a certain character and go to bed having lost it. Behold Him Who causes individuals to die, disperses the parts, annihilates the attributes! He Himself is the One Who brings back to life what He causes to die, and resupplies what He caused to be lost. (Ibn ʿAqīl, Funūn, 1:285-286 §280)

Ageing Bone as Qurʾānic Eloquence, Appeal to Mercy, and Paradigm for Supplication

In an exceedingly concise verse, indicative of the strength of his faith, the Prophet Zakariyyā, upon him peace, mentions the decline of his “bone” in the singular (al-ʿaẓm) within a self-referential mention while supplicating Allah Most High for an heir:

He said, “My Lord, verily the bone in me has all waxed feeble (wahana al-ʿaẓmu minnī), the head is ablaze with white hair, and I have never been wretched in calling on You, O my Lord! I greatly fear paternal relatives after me but my wife has been barren; bestow on me from Yourself a kinsman to be my inheritor and the inheritor of the House of Yaʿqūb, and make him, my Lord, well-favored!” (Q 19:4-6).

The above verse has an abundance of glosses from many perspectives, among which the following are of greater relevance here:

  1. The mention of the bone is the apex of pithiness due to the use of a singular in the sense of the plural with a word (ʿaẓm) that is shorter than its plural form (ʿiẓām) together with use of the definite article “the” (al-) which denotes “totality” (istighrāq). Enfolded in a simple word and its article, these are three rhetorical devices that powerfully illustrate the inimitability of the Qurʾān since “the istighrāq of a singular is more comprehensive (ashmal) than that of the plural while wahana al-ʿaẓmu minnī also achieves, with a briefer vocable, greater copiousness (iṭnāb) in meaning” (Sakkākī, Miftāḥ, p. 216, III.1.1.iii: Fī ʿilmay al-maʿānī wal-bayān, ḍabṭ maʿāqid ʿilm al-maʿānī, fīmā yataʿallaq bil-khabar, al-fann al-thālith; cf. Ṭībī, Futūḥ; Qummī, Gharāʾib; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr).
  2. The mention of the enfeeblement of the bones signifies their weakening (ḍaʿufa) and thinning (naḥala, raqqa) (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Māturīdī) or, alternately, tooth loss (Qatāda in Wāḥidī, Wasīṭ; Samʿānī, Tafsīr; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād).
  3. The reason the bone is specified is because it is “the prop of the body, the foundation of its frame, and the hardest thing in it; so when it becomes feeble, everything else is even feebler; its being left in the singular is because it denotes the whole genus (al-jins)” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr), namely, the sense of totality mentioned above, as jins intimates istighrāq (Burūsawī, Rūḥ, sub Q 103:2; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:177).
  4. The hair ablaze is “an expression the Arabs say when white hair (shayb) abounds, and this is the most beautiful metonymy (istiʿāra) because it blazes there the way fire blazes in logs” (Samʿānī, Tafsīr), “metonymy being more powerful than literal expression” (Sakkākī, Miftāḥ, p. 286, III.1.1.iv, al-fann al-rābiʿ). Like the bone in me, the terms hair ablaze and with white hair are both left in the indefinite (instead of saying “my”), not only because the ascription is clear from the word minnī (in me, of me) but also for overall intensifying effect (ifādat al-mubālagha) of the assertion of weakness (Sakkākī, pp. 286-287).
  5. Thus, feeble bones and white hair are also compound synecdoches (kināya ʿan wahn al-jasad kullih) and associative assimilations (istiʿāra takhyīliyya), both for Zakariyyā’s entire body and for its weakening (Khafājī, Ḥāshiya) due to old age—relatedly 70, or between 60 and 85 (Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ṭabarī; Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr);
  6. They are brought up, furthermore, “in the context of divulging great sadness” (maqām al-mubāththa: Sakkākī, Miftāḥ, p. 285, III.1.1.iv, al-fann al-rābiʿ).
  7. The verses relate an appeal to Divine mercy which is already known as successful since it is preceded by the verse, the mention of the mercy of your Lord towards His servant Zakariyyā (Q 19:2), “meaning, ‘the mention, by your Lord, of His servant Zakariyyā with His mercy’ as a postposition (taqdīm wa-taʾkhīr: Tafsīrs of Samarqandī, Thaʿlabī, Samʿānī, Baghawī, etc.).
  8. The mention of the feeble state echoes the softness of the supplicant’s voice in the next verse, with a secret supplication (Q 19:3), both of them “meant to intimate weakness and brokenness (inkisār), as the core of supplication is brokenness and the renouncing of self-reliance and personal power… hence every supplicant should start by mentioning helplessness, as in Q 19:4” (Rāzī, Tafsīr).
  9. To this assertion of utter dependency is added an intercessory (q.v., tawassul) stance in the form of the mention of past Divine acceptance of similar supplications, and I have never been wretched in calling on You (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Tafsīrs of Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī) in the wake of all that is meant to movitate mercy and pity such as old age and debility (Abū al-Suʿūd, Irshād).

His supplication was granted and he was given the glad tidings of a son, Yaḥyā (q.v., Q 19:7).

Bones as a Stage of Human Prenatal Development in Qurʾān and Hadith

In the Qurʾānic description of conception and embryogenesis, bones appear as one of several stages in prenatal development:

Indeed We created the human being from an extract of clay. Then We made him a [sperm-and-ovum] drop in a firm and secure place. Then We turned the drop into a thing that clings, then We turned the thing that clings into a thing like chewed flesh, then We turned the thing like chewed flesh into bones (ʿiẓāman); then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We brought him into being as another creation. Blessed be Allah, the best of Creators! (Q 23:12-14; see Birth).

The indefinite plural noun ʿiẓāman in the verse denotes “all the bones” (jamāʿat al-ʿiẓām; Ibn Abī Zamanīn; Rāzī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 23:14). It is read ʿaẓman in the non-canonical reading of ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd (d. 32/652)—another singular denoting the plural (Farrāʾ, Maʿānī; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; ʿUmar and Makram, Muʿjam, sub Q 23:14; see Readings of the Qurʾān).

The exegete and polymath Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) enumerates seven consecutive stages of the development of the fetus in the womb on the basis of the above verses, of which the fifth and the sixth include bones. The sixth stage, We clothed the bones with flesh, is so described “because the flesh hides the bones, so, He made it like a garment (kiswa) for them.” The seventh stage is the bringing forth of another creation, “fundamentally different from the first creation, for He made him a living being (ḥayawānan), though before he was inanimate (wa-kāna jamādan). He gave him the ability to speak though earlier he was dumb; He made him a hearer, whereas before he was deaf; He made him the one who sees, earlier he was blind; then He honored his inner and outer being (bāṭinahu wa-ẓāhirah), or rather all his organs and parts, with wonders of unique design (ʿajāʾib fiṭra) and peculiarities of wisdom (gharāʾib ḥikma), which no one is able to describe or explain in full (Tafsīr, sub Q 23:14).

A Prophetic hadith mentions the embryonic formation of bones within a similar sequence that refers to the timing of the appearance of human form in the womb together with the organogenesis of the senses and limbs:

After the sperm-and-ovum drop (nuṭfa) has been [in the uterus] forty-two days, Allah sends it an angel that gives it form and fashions its hear­ing, sight, skin, flesh, and skeleton (Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-ādamī fī baṭni ummih).

The sequences and time frames cited in Rāzī’s commentary and in the above-cited hadith are in conformity with modern embryology, which times the appearance of bones at the end of the organogenetic period (fourth to eighth week) before the fetal period (ninth week to birth). Exactly after 42 days, “osteogenesis of long bones begins in the seventh week… Ossification begins in the long bones by the eighth week” (Moore, Developing Human, Limbs, final stages of limb development; Skeletal system, development of appendicular skeleton). The embryo reaches 42 days barely show­ing the sem­blance of human form but “the limbs undergo considerable change during the seventh week” then, as it grows from 18 to 30mm in size, the semblance becomes pronounced in the formation of the sensory organs and grown bone tissue, visible ears and eyes, differentiated genitalia, fingers and toes distinct but webbed, knees, upper limbs longer and bent at elbows (Moore, Developing Human, Highlights of the fourth to eighth weeks; Timetable of human prenatal development, 7-38 weeks).

The transition state from inanimate to animate which Rāzī associates with the phase then We brought him into being as another creation is the ensoulment (nafkh al-rūḥ) referred to in another hadith which dates that event after the conclusion of three 40-day periods and similarly describes it as the work of an angel specifically entrusted with it (Bukhārī, Badʾ al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-ādamī fī baṭn ummih).

Mentions of Bones in Selected Prophetic Reports

Many Prophetic hadiths mention bones in addition to the ones already cited. Among them:

(i)               The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, instructed that one should prostrate in worship on seven bones: the forehead, the palms, the knees and the feet on toe-tips (aṭrāf al-qadamayn) (Bukhārī, Adhān, al-sujūd ʿalā sabʿat aʿẓum; Muslim, Ṣalāt, aʿḍāʾ al-sujūd) (see Bowing and Prostrating).

(ii)            He said, “Every human being among the children of Ādam is created with 360 joints (mifṣal); whoever magnifies Allah Almighty, glorifies Allah Almighty, declares the Oneness of Allah Almighty, sanctifies Allah Almighty, and asks forgiveness of Allah Almighty; removes a rock from people’s pathways, or thorns, or a bone; commands good or forbids wrong, [all] to the number of those 360 joints: on that day one walks the earth having displaced oneself far from Hellfire” (Muslim, Zakāt, bayān anna al-ṣadaqa yaqaʿ ʿalā kull nawʿ min al-maʿrūf).

(iii)         He revealed that bones were the food of the Jinn (q.v.) (Bukhārī, Manāqib, dhikr al-jinn), and were therefore not to be used for cleaning oneself (Bukhārī, Wudūʾ, al-istinjāʾ bi-ḥijāra; Muslim, Ṭahāra, al-istiṭāba; Tirmidhī, Sunan, Ṭahāra, mā jāʾa fī karāhiyyat mā yustanjā bih; see Ritual Purity and Impurity).

(iv)          He also said, “Whoever can guarantee for me what is between their jawbones and what is between their legs, I guarantee for them Paradise” (Bukhārī, Riqāq, ḥifẓ al-lisān), in reference to the scrupulous avoidance of major verbal and sexual transgressions (see Enormities; Sin).

(v)            When he bowed during his night prayers, his supplications mentioned submission of his bones: “O Allah, to You have I bowed. I affirm my faith in You, submit to You, and submit humbly before You my hearing, my sight, my marrow, my bones, my sinews…” (Muslim, Ṣalāt al-musāfirīn wa-qaṣrihā, al-duʿā fī ṣalāt al-layl wa-qiyāmih).

(vi)          After performing ablution (q.v.) he would say, “O Allah, cast light into my heart, light in my sight, light in my hearing, light on my right hand, light on my left hand, light above me, light below me, light before me, light behind me, and light in my bones” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, Daʿawāt, mā yaqūlu idhā qāma min al-layl lil-ṣalāt, bāb minh; rated gharīb).

(vii)       He also said, “Whoever frees one male Muslim from slavery, the freedman is his own deliverance from hellfire: every bone of the freedman pays for one of his; whoever frees two female Muslims, they are his own deliverance from Hellfire: every two bones of theirs pay for one of his” (Aḥmad, 29:602-603 §18061, 29:606 §18064; Abū Dāwūd, ʿItq, ayy al-riqāb afḍal; Ibn Mājah, ʿItq, al-ʿitq).


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See also

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