“On the authority of Abu Abdul Rahmaan Abdullah ibn Masood (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) and he is the truthful, the believed, narrated to us: Verily, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid. Then it is a clinging object for a similar [period]. Thereafter, it is a lump looking like it has been chewed for a similar [period]. The angel is then sent to him and he breathes into him the spirit. He is also commanded to issue four decrees: to record his sustenance, his life span, his deeds and [whether he will be] unhappy [by entering Hell] or happy [by entering Paradise]. I swear by Allah, other than whom there is no God, certainly one of you will perform the deeds of the people of Paradise until there is between him and Paradise except an arm’s length, and then what has been recorded will overtake him and he shall perform the deeds of the people of Hell and enter it. And, certainly, one of you will definitely perform the acts of the people of Hell until there is not between him and Hell except an arm’s length and then what has been recorded for him will overtake him and he shall perform the deeds of the people of Paradise and enter it.” (Recorded in Bukhari and Muslim)
We now begin to look at the fourth hadith, recorded in the collection of Forty Hadith by Imam Al-Nawawi, and explained in further detail by Jamal al-Din M. Zarabozo in his work ‘Commentary on the Forty Hadith of Al-Nawawi’. What follows is a concise summary of this commentary.
The author begins by pointing out what appears to be a mistake made by Al-Nawawi in his original recording of the hadith in Arabic. Al-Nawawi wrote what translates as, “Surely, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid (nutfah).” The last word, ‘nutfah‘ is not recorded in this hadith in any of the sources of the sunnah. It seems, and Allah knows best, that it was included to make the sentence clearer. This has some serious implications that will be discussed in turn as we move through the hadith.
The Narrator: Abdullah ibn Masood
In an effort to help us familiarise ourselves with the companions of the Prophet (s) who narrated hadith, I will provide a little bit of a background about the narrator of this hadith Abu Abdul Rahman Abdullah ibn Masood (r). He was from a very poor family, and was the sixth person to embrace Islam. He (r) was the first person to publicly recite the Qur’an in Makkah and he participated in all the battles with the Prophet (s). He (r) narrated 848 hadith, but was best known for his knowledge of the Qur’an. Whenever he narrated hadith he would tremble and perspire out of fear of making any mistakes in the Prophet’s (s) words.
“The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) and he is the truthful , the believed, narrated to us:”
The one who is truthful in everything he says is known as Al-Saadiq, the truthful. This was a characteristic of the Prophet (s) that was well-known amongst his people before he received revelation. Al-Masdooq, the believed, means that he (s) was a person who was believed in what he (s) said and what he did. Ibn Masood (s) perhaps mentioned both of these characteristics of the Prophet (s) here, and Allah knows best, as a kind of emphasis and reminder. This hadith contained startling facts that were unheard of at that time, and contradicted the common belief about the development of the baby in the womb. From the time of Aristotle, it was thought that the baby was already fully formed at the earliest moment and simply grew larger in the womb. The idea of stages of the development of the fetus was not recorded until 1839. Indeed this hadith is one of the many scientific ‘miracles’ that one can find in the narrations of hadith.
“Verily, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid. Then it is a clinging object for a similar [period]. Thereafter, it is a lump looking like it has been chewed for a similar [period].”
Before we begin the explanation of this hadith concerning the creation of the human being inside the womb, which you can find listed in full here, we are reminded that the author of this book of commentary, pointed out that Imam Al-Nawawi included the addition of, ‘in the form of a drop of fluid (nutfah)’ to the end of the sentence, ‘Verily, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days.’
Whilst there are other texts that record the first stage of development as nutfah, this hadith is not one of them. There are at least four references to this hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari, in The Book of the Beginning of Creation; The Book of the Prophets; The Book of Divine Will (Al-Qadr); and The Book of the Oneness and Uniqueness of Allah (Tawheed) and none of them include this addition of ‘nutfah‘ to the sentence.
The author illustrates that with this word removed, the meaning of the hadith is substantially changed. The generality of the statement, “Verily each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days.”, could, from this wording, be understood to apply to all of the stages of foetal development that are subsequently mentioned. This would imply that these first three stages of development take placewithin forty days, not take forty days each as some interpretations imply. He outlines that this part of the hadith would therefore actually best be translated as:
“Surely each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days. It is therein a clinging object during this period. Thereafter, it is a lump looking like has been chewed in this period. The angel is then sent to him…” (This wording can be found in Bukhari)
This interpretation is consistent with other narrations on this topic, such as the following from Sahih Muslim in the section entitled Kitab al-Qadar:
“After the drop (nutfah) is in the womb for forty or forty-five nights, the angel comes to it and says: ‘O Lord, will it be fortunate or unfortunate?’ And these matters shall be written. Then he says: ‘O Lord, will it be male or female?” (Sahih Muslim)
“When the drop (nutfah) passes forty-two nights in the womb, God sends to it an angel who shapes it and creates its hearing, seeing, skin, flesh, and bones. Then he says: ‘O Lord, is it a male or a female?’ Then your Lord decrees whatever He wills.” (Sahih Muslim)
“The drop (nutfah) remains in the womb for forty nights. Then the angel appears to it.”(Sahih Muslim)
These hadith, as well as many others, all state that the angel comes to the womb bringing the ruh, or soul, to the human being, after about forty days. It must be mentioned that there is a difference of opinion, and this is not the majority opinion. The majority of scholars and commentators of hadith understand this hadith to mean that these three stages of foetal development take place over one hundred and twenty days, with each stage taking forty days. This leads them to the conclusion that the soul is breathed into the child after one hundred and twenty days.
The Qur’an does not give any timeframe to the development, neither forty days nor one hundred and twenty days. The authentic hadith do not state one hundred and twenty days anywhere, though some scholars have understood this by implication. There are however, authentic hadith which clearly give a total time frame of foetal development before the soul is delivered as around forty days, as listed above.
And Allah knows best.
“Surely, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days. It is then therein a clinging object during this period. Thereafter it is therein a lump looking like it has been chewed during this period.”
Continuing the explanation in this hadith concerning creation in the mother’s womb, and taking into account the issues about wording outlined in the last post, we can see that there are three stages in this part of human foetal development. Allah (swt) outlines these in the Qur’an:
“O Mankind! If you are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then verily, We have created you from dust [that is, Adam], then from a nutfah, then from an alaqah, then from a mudhghah, some formed and some unformed (miscarriage), that We make it clear for you [that Allah has the ability to create and resurrect].” (Surah al-Hajj:5)
Nutfah, literally means a drop of fluid, alaqah is the clinging object and mudhghah is the chewed lump. These terms correspond to changes occurring within the foetus during these early stages.
The first stage of development of a human being is the stage of being a nutfah. The termnutfah is used in different ways in the Qur’an including to describe male sperm, female sexual fluid, and the mixture of male and female sexual fluid. The commentators of this hadith state that the expression ‘brought together’ here applies both to the bringing together of the male and female sexual fluid, as well as the guarding or preserving of it.
“in the mother’s abdomen”
The word used in Arabic in this hadith is ‘batn‘ which translates as ‘abdomen’, but in other narrations the word ‘rahim‘ or ‘womb’ is used. The word for womb is closely related to the word for mercy ‘rahmah‘, illustrating the association of mercy towards kin. The Prophet (s) said:
“Verily, the womb (al-rahim) has taken its name from al-Rahman (the All-Merciful). Allah has said, ‘Whoever keeps your ties, I shall keep his ties. Whoever cuts you off, I shall cut him off.” (Recorded in al-Bukhari)
“for forty days”
As was stated previously, due to the nature of the wording of the hadith, it is understood by the author of this commentary that the use of the term forty days here applies to these three stages of foetal development combined.
“Then it is a clinging object (alaqah) during that same period”
The next stage of development mentioned by the Prophet (s) is alaqah, which literally means ‘something that clings’. The word can also mean ‘a leech’, or ‘a clot’ or ‘congealed blood’.
“Then it is a lump looking like it has been chewed during that similar period”
The next stage is called mudghah, which means ‘chewed lump’. This could be paralleled with the foetal development of skeletal indentations that appear like equally spaced bumps, or teeth marks in flesh, and Allah knows best. This process takes place and is finished by the sixth week, or 42 days after conception.
SubhanAllah, it is amazing to reflect that our bodies were created like this, from something microscopic. In many ways this should show us our insignificance. It also reflects clearly and magnificently the glory of our Creator, Allah (swt), for Whom all things are possible.
“The angel is then sent to him and breathes into him the spirit.”
The next part of this hadith concerning the creation of the child in the womb, which you can find listed in full here, relates to the angel bringing the spirit to the child. We can see that the Prophet (s) mentioned ‘the angel’ rather than ‘an angel’, implying that this role is performed by a specific angel appointed for the task.
The angel then ‘breathes into him the spirit’. The ‘spirit’ or, in Arabic ‘rooh‘, is essentially the life force of the individual. The consensus of evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah and the opinion of the Companions (r) is that the spirit is a different entity from the physical body. It is a body from light and a higher source which is living and drives our physical body’s feelings and movements. And yet the spirit is something that we actually know very little about. As Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an,
“And they ask you [O Muhammad] concerning the rooh (the spirit). Say, ‘As for the rooh, its knowledge is with my Lord.’ And of knowledge, you [mankind] have very little.”(Surah al-Israa:85)
If we reflect on this, it a truly amazing fact that with all the advances in science, mankind still has very little knowledge concerning the workings of our own inner selves. We are each unique individuals, no two of us are alike. Even amongst identical twins who share the same external physical features, we find the inner selves to be very different. Where does this uniqueness come from? It is truly one of the signs of the magnificence of Allah (swt).
“He is also commanded to issue four decrees: to record his sustenance, his life span, his deeds and [whether he will be] unhappy [by entering Hell] or happy [by entering Paradise].”
After the angel has come to the foetus in the womb and breathed the spirit into it, this hadith tells us that, by the Will of Allah (swt), the angel issues four decrees about the life of that individual: his sustenance, his life span, his deeds, and whether he will be happy by entering Paradise or unhappy from entering Hellfire.
This is a reminder for us about Allah’s pre-knowledge of everything that occurs in the universe. As we discussed in the Hadith of Jibreel under the topic of Qadr, or Divine Decree, everything that will happen to us in our lives is already written, by the command of Allah, and recorded in the Preserved Tablet (al-Lauh al-Mahfoodh).
Before the baby is born, its destiny is known to Allah (swt). Every mouthful of food that it will take, every item of clothing it will wear, is already recorded by Allah (swt). The deeds that it will perform in its life are decreed, and as we can see from this hadith, the ultimate outcome of them is also predetermined. As Allah says:
“As for those who are miserable, they will be in the Fire, sighing in a high and low tone. They will dwell therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except as your Lord will. Verily, your Lord is the doer of what he will. And for those who are fortunate and happy, they will be in Paradise, abiding therein for all the time that the heavens and the earth endure, except as your Lord will, a gift without end.” (Surah Hood 106-108)
The fact that these decrees are issued, does not mean that we do not have any responsibility for our actions, as was discussed previously. Rather, it means that we have the free will to act, and will be tested on how we act, but Allah (swt) in His infinite knowledge already knows how well we will do, just like a teacher is able to predict the test outcome of a student by knowing their ability. In this context, we should also remember the astonishing fact that dua (supplication) has the power to change what is predestined. The Prophet (s) said:
“Caution will not be of any benefit against predestination, but dua benefits (matters) that have occurred and are (yet) to occur. And indeed, dua meets with a calamity, and fights it until the Day of Judgement.” (Recorded in al-Tabarani)
Finally, it is important to note from this hadith that the life span of the individual is also decreed at this time. That is, the time of OUR OWN death, is also decreed. Imagine for a moment if we could know this for ourselves. If we had a label on us with the date of our deaths. Would this make us live our lives differently? Would it make us feel that ‘time is short’? We know the label is there, it’s just that we can’t see it. Yet in many ways we live each day like we have forever.
“I swear by Allah, other than Whom there is no God, certainly, one of you will definitely perform the deeds of the people of Paradise until there is not between him and Paradise except an arm’s length and then what has been recorded will overtake him and he shall perform the deeds of the people of Hell and enter it. And certainly, one of you will definitely perform the acts of the people of Hell until there is not between him and Hell except an arm’s length and then what has been recorded will overtake him and he shall perform the deeds of the people of Paradise and enter it.”
We now come to the last part of this hadith concerning creation in the womb, which you can find listed in full here. This section begins with the Prophet (s) swearing by Allah (swt). This serves to emphasise the truthfulness and significance of what he is about to convey. It may also be, and Allah knows best, a way of trying to remove doubt from people’s minds about what is a very remarkable and unexpected fact that is about to be revealed.
This statement of the Prophet (s) shows us that one may perform righteous deeds for nearly their whole life, but, if they do not continue to strive and patiently do the acts of the people of Paradise until their death, they could become one of the people of Hellfire. This really is stark reminder that we must we be on guard at all times and be sure not to allow ourselves to stray from the straight path and the practice of Islam. We can’t look at our current deeds and be assured that everything will be OK. We must always pursue avenues to strengthen our faith no matter how old we are, and we should be careful to stay away from avenues that could weaken and faith and take us away from remembrance of Allah.
It’s interesting to note here that the Prophet (s) did not mention the most common examples of people that perform good deeds all their life or bad deeds all their life and what the outcome will be. It seems that the Prophet (s) was not intending to mention everyone in this hadith, rather, he (s) sought to emphasise that no matter what a person’s deeds may be, he will do the acts that correspond to what has been recorded for him at this time in the womb.
We can also see from this example what a simple thing it is for a person’s heart to change. The Arabic word for heart, ‘qalb‘, comes from the fact that it can change completely from one direction to another. The Prophet (s) said:
“It is only called the qalb (heart) because of how it can change. The similitude of the heart is like a leaf hanging by the trunk of a tree that is being blown upside down by the wind.” (Recorded in Ahmad)
Like a leaf blowing in the wind, our hearts can change, SubhanAllah. This works both ways, as the last part of this hadith illustrates. We could be living a life heedless of Allah seemingly destined for the Hellfire, and with a brief turn, we could become His devoted servants. Many of us who are reverts to Islam can relate to this, and the stories of the great sahabah, the Companions of the Prophet (s) are a testimony to this fact.
Let’s remember the dua (supplication) of the Prophet (s):
Ya muqallib al Quloob, thabbit qalbee alaa deenik
O changer of the hearts, make my heart firm upon Your religion.
Extracted from Commentary on the Forty Hadith of Al-Nawawi (Vol 1) by Jamaal al-Din M. Zarabozo Pages 387-433