Milk, Blood, Human Anatomy… and Qur’an Exegesis?

Last term I worked through a fairly prodigious stack of Qur’an commentaries (tafsir) dealing with vv. 66-69 of Surah al-Nahl (Q. 16):

66 And verily, you have a sign in the cattle: We give you to drink from what is in their bellies, from between stomach-refuse (farth) and blood, milk pure, palatable for the drinkers. 67 And from the fruits of the palm and the grape you take an intoxicant and wholesome sustenance; verily, in that is a sign for people who think. 68 And your Lord revealed to the bee: take from among the mountains houses, and from among the trees and from what [people] erect as trellises, 69 then eat from all the fruits, then travel on the easily treadable paths of your Lord. One takes from their bellies a drink, variegated of colour; in it is a medicine for the people. Verily, in that is a sign for people who understand.

I wrote some about my project here and here; I’m now working on a couple of new projects, one dealing with constructions and uses of the ideology/doctrine of futuwwa– literally, ‘youngmanliness,’ sometimes translated as ‘Islamic chivalry,’ a probably inapt term from what I know so far of futuwwa. My other project deals with mostly tenth and eleventh century Sufi approaches and embodiments of the doctrine/practice of tawakkul– also a difficult term to translate into English! It literally means ‘trust,’ but it conveys a very absolute trust in God, which can entail a sort of quietism and almost Dao or Zen-like avoidance of doing and being, in some ways.

Anyway, I realized that I have a great deal of translated material left over from last term, and some of it is really fun stuff (though, granted, I’ve an odd idea of fun I suppose). Some of it is in a more polished, presentable form than other passages. The one below, by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (b. 543/1149, d. 606/1210) on part of the first verse in this passage, is definitely one of the more accessible for those not accustomed to the rather esoteric genre of tafsir, and was much easier to translate into a comprehensible form in English. Plus, al-Razi’s idea of how to do scripture exegesis is pretty entertaining- he pulls in material from all over the place, including, for this passage, long discussions of human and animal anatomy, which draw upon the conventions of good Galenic, Hellenistic medical theory and description. Al-Razi was obviously conversant in the science of his day, and draws upon in explicating the Qur’an- a process which also ties science into the Islamic scriptures, legitimizing both in a fashion. In so doing, he does come into conflict with previous exegetes- their description of the relation of the stomach-contents, blood, and milk in the stomach does not stand up to the test of science, so it has to be replaced something than does not contradict investigative observation (by which al-Razi likely has in mind the established Galenic tradition more than anything).

Besides helping to explain the verse- which task, one might argue, could have been done with rather less ink spilled!- al-Razi also induces in the reader a Qur’anically-keyed but scientifically developed appreciation for the wonders of God’s creative power and providence. Plus, I suspect, al-Razi enjoys these things and enjoys showing off his knowledge of them- a small vice, perhaps, but if so, one I and probably most of you, dear readers, are guilty of… Al-Razi concludes the passage with an interesting analogy between God’s creative transformation of food into blood into milk, and His creative transformation of the dead on the Day of Resurrection. This question of how the dead are raised is of course a very old question, going all the way back to St. Paul and his querying Corinthians. It becomes all the more pertinent for Muslims- and Christians and Jews- with the reception and valorization of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, which tended to cause difficulties for the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Al-Razi is aware of these problems, having been educated in philosophy and kalam (dialectical theology is one way to translate this term); his linking of scientific description and philosophical problems with bodily resurrection is, I think, quite clever. All in all, I found this a charming passage, and very revealing of how a well-educated, albeit pretty exceptional, thirteenth century Muslim could imagine both the physical world of creation and its intersection with the textual world of the Qur’an.


… [W]e say: The commentators say: the intention of His words: from between stomach-contents (farth) and blood: is that these three are produced in one place, the stomach-contents at the bottom of the stomach, the blood in the top, and the milk in the middle; we have indicated about that saying in regards to the difference of perception and investigative trial, because the blood, if it were produced in the top of the stomach (and in the ruminating-stomach [as well]) then it is necessary that whenever one vomits one would vomit blood- and that is certainly false! As for us, we say: The intended meaning in this verse is that milk is produced from a portion of the blood, and the blood is produced from a portion of the subtle stuff in the stomach-contents, which is the eaten stuff operative in the ruminating-stomach, and this milk is begotten from the portions which are produced in what is between the stomach-contents first, then produced from what is between the blood second, and God has clarified these thick, fatty portions, and created in them the attributes which are in view of becoming milk, beneficial for the body of the child, and this is what we have brought about on this matter, and God knows best.

The fourth issue: Know that the happening of milk in the breast and its attribution with attributes which are, in consideration of it, befitting for the nourishment of the child, consisting of wondrous wisdom and marvelous secrets, the soundness of the intellect seeing that it does not occur except by the direction of the Wise Doer, the Merciful Director, and He makes it clear in certain aspects:

First: that God created in the bottom of the stomach a ‘deliverer’ [so the literal meaning- I suppose this is some valve that I ought to recall from my undergraduate freshman year anatomy class but don’t…] from which departs the heavy stuff of food. When the person takes food or thin drink which is suitable to that ‘deliverer’ there does not depart from it a thing from that food and drink, so that its digestion is completed in the stomach, and it attracts what is made limpid in it to the liver, and the heavy stuff remains here. Then that ‘deliverer’ opens and expels the heavy stuff, and this is among the wonders which are not possible except by the direction of the Wise Doer, because whenever there is need of the retention of food in the stomach there is an occurrence which suits that ‘deliverer,’ and when the need to eject that matter from the body arises, it opens, and the happening of the application is one time, and the voiding another, by the reckoning of need, and the regulation of the ‘deliverer,’ from what does not arise except by the direction of the Wise Doer.

The second: That God placed in the liver a power [qūwat] which attracts the subtle portions occurring in that food or drink, and which does not attract the condensed portions, and He created in the bowel a power which attracts those condensed portions which are heavy, and which absolutely never attracts the subtle portions. And if the occasion on the contrary was for the differentiating of the wellbeing of the body then the order of the arrangement would be corrupt.

The third: that God placed in the liver a digestive power, so that these subtle portions would digest in the liver and turn into blood, then He placed in the gallbladder an attractive power towards yellow bile, and in the spleen an attractive power towards black bile, and in the kidney an attractive power for the increase of water, so that the blood remains limpid, befitting for the nourishment of the body. And He specified each one from among these members with that power and special quality, impossible but for the direction (tadbīr) of the Wise, the Knowing.

The fourth: that in the time in which the fetus is in the womb of the mother, there is directed from that blood a plentiful portion to [the womb], until raw matter becomes through growth members of that child and he increases in size, and when the fetus separates from the womb of the mother that portion is directed to the flank of the breast for the production of milk from it which is nourishment for the child. And when the child grows larger that portion is no longer directed to either the womb or to the breast; on the contrary, it is directed generally into the body of nourishment, and that blood flows, at all times, into other members beneficently for wellbeing- and the wisdom [of this] is not attributable except to the direction of the Free, the Wise Doer.

And the fifth: That at the production of milk in the teat, God has caused to occur in the nipple of the teat a slight keenness and a narrow pore, and for what is this pore is very narrow? For when there does not exit from it except what has the goal of purity and subtlety, and as for the condensed portions, it is not possible that they exit from this narrow regulator, so they remain inside, and the purpose in the occurrence of this slight keenness, and the narrow regulator in the head of the nipple of the breast is that, like [in the operation of] the strainer, everything that is subtle leaves, and everything that is thick remains inside and does not exit, and by this means the milk becomes pure, befitting for the body of the child, ‘palatable for the drinkers.’

The sixth: that God inspired the child to suckle; then verily the mother, whenever she feeds, bit by bit, the nipple of the breast in the mouth of the child, that child is in the state he takes in suckling, and if the Merciful, Free Doer did not inspire that small child that special state, then the sating of thirst would not occur by the production of that milk in the breast.

The seventh: we have made clear that God, however, created the milk from the remnant of the blood, and He created blood from the nourishment which the animal receives. The sheep, when it takes herbage and water, God creates blood from the subtle stuff of those portions, then He creates milk from some of the portions of that blood, then verily milk occurs in three states regarding differing natures: what is in it of oil is hot and wet, and what is in it of water is cold and wet, and what is in it of cheesiness is cold and dry, and these natures are what are potential in the herbage which the sheep eats. It is evident from this that these bodies do not cease transforming from attribute to attribute, from state to state, with some of them being incongruous with others, and some of them not resembling others, and in this you see that these states occur through the direction of a wise, merciful Doer who regulates the state of the world with regard to the suitable beneficence of the servants. So glory to Him who witnesses all of the minute particles of the world high and low in the perfection of His power and the ends of His wisdom and mercy, to Him is creating and command, God, the Blessed, Lord of the worlds!

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mafatih al-Ghayb (al-Tafsir al-Kabir)