Qur’an on the knowledge of unborn child’s sex and rain forecast


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There are many who seek to prove portions of the Qur’an or Sunnah wrong by presenting “logical” evidence as to why certain statements cannot be correct. However, they have often failed to understand the context of the statements; let alone the actual statements themselves! In order to truly understand what a verse from the Qur’an means, it must be approached by understanding the reason for its revelation and the actual language used in the verse. We cannot act like every verse is stand-alone and is meant to be read without any other supporting information. This article explores a commonly misunderstood verse that talks of Allah’s exclusive knowledge about what is in the womb and timing of rain among things and explains how claims about it failing in view of modern science are baseless.

1. Introduction

One of the most common questions about the Qur’an is related to the following verse:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ عِنْدَهُ عِلْمُ السَّاعَةِ وَيُنَزِّلُ الْغَيْثَ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْأَرْحَامِ وَمَا تَدْرِي نَفْسٌ مَاذَا تَكْسِبُ غَدًا وَمَا تَدْرِي نَفْسٌ بِأَيِّ أَرْضٍ تَمُوتُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

“Indeed, Allah [alone] possesses the knowledge of the Hour and sends down the rain and knows what is in the wombs. And no soul perceives what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul perceives in what land it will die. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Qur’an 31:34)

Since weather forecasting is possible and gender of the child to be born can be known while it is still in the womb, it is alleged that the verse fails against the scientific advancement.

In order to understand the verse, we need to consider the background and actual subject of the discussion as in what kind of knowledge is mentioned here.

2. The verse is about the knowledge of the unseen only

The verse is about the knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) only and not knowledge as such. In Surat al-An’am, Allah says:

وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ

“And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea.” (Qur’an 6:59)

Explaining this, a Companion of the Prophet, Ibn ‘Abbas said:

عن ابن عباس:”وعنده مفاتح الغيب”، قال: هن خمس: إِنَّ اللَّهَ عِنْدَهُ عِلْمُ السَّاعَةِ وَيُنزلُ الْغَيْثَ إلى إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ [سورة لقمان: 34]

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: As to the verse “And with Him are the keys of the unseen,” the keys are five, “Indeed, Allah [alone] possesses the knowledge of the Hour and sends down the rain and knows what is in the wombs. And no soul perceives what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul perceives in what land it will die. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Qur’an 31:34)[1]

3. What is the “knowledge of the unseen”?

It is important to first understand the meanings of the “unseen.” The well-known classical Hanafi scholar an-Nasafi (d. 710 AH) writes:

والغيب وهو ما لم يقم عليه دليل

“And the unseen (ghayb) is that upon which there is no proof.”[2]

Hence, that knowledge acquired through revelation or based upon observation is not the knowledge of the unseen and therefore does not fall under the purview of this verse.

4. The background to the revelation

The verse does not state that only these five things are in absolute knowledge of Allah but these five have been mentioned as a response to the five questions and has a context behind it as shown below.

Warith ibn ‘Amr, a Bedouin, came to the noble Prophet – may Allah bless him and grant him peace – and asked about the Hour and its timing. He further asked, “Our lands are dry, so when will it rain? I left my wife while she was pregnant, so what will she give birth to? I know what I earned today, so what will I earn tomorrow? I know in what land I was born, so in what land will I die?” The verse was revealed in reply to his questions, clarifying that these five things are known only by Allah.[3]

Maududi clarifies:

“Here, another thing also should be understood well, and it is this: This verse does not give a list of the unseen and hidden things, which are known to no one but Allah. Here only some of the most apparent things have been pointed out only to serve as an illustration. These are the things with which man is most deeply and intimately concerned, yet he is unaware of them. From this it would be wrong to conclude that these are the only five unseen and hidden things which are known to no one but Allah. As a matter of fact, the unseen applies to every such thing which is hidden from the creation but is in the knowledge of Allah, and such things are countless and limitless.”[4]

5. What is meant by knowledge in the verse under discussion?

It is clear that knowledge here does not refer to knowledge as such because even guesswork requires some degree of knowledge. Such knowledge can be achieved through a number of means – through dreams, equipment, intellect etc. – and such knowledge is not exclusive to Allah. In fact, it is not even befitting for Allah. For example, a person may judge by the clouds that it would rain. Therefore, this type of knowledge is not meant by the addressed verse. The knowledge has to be of the type that is worthy of the majesty of Allah Almighty and specially attributed to Him alone and belongs to Him alone. Therefore, that knowledge will also be attributed to Allah that is known to everyone and all that combined knowledge held with everyone is known to Allah.

To put it short, we can broadly classify the knowledge of Allah into two categories:

i.      The knowledge that is not acquired through any means (‘ilm al-ghayb)

ii.     The knowledge that encompasses anything and everything in every detail (‘ilm al-muheet)

The verse below makes this clear:

وَعِنْدَهُ مَفَاتِحُ الْغَيْبِ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا إِلَّا هُوَ وَيَعْلَمُ مَا فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ

“And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea.” (Qur’an 6:59)

Besides the knowledge of the unseen the verse relates to total and all-encompassing knowledge as clear from the word مَا which here signifies everything.

6. Human knowledge is from neither of the two categories

Human knowledge is neither independent nor absolute. A doctor may look at the pulse of a person and reach a number of conclusions. This is knowledge acquired through some means. Similarly, a person may see rising smoke from a distance and understand that there is a fire. Since that person obtained the knowledge of fire due to the rising smoke, it would not be classified as knowledge of the unseen (‘ilm al-ghayb). We already know that granted knowledge cannot be termed ‘ilm al-ghayb. In short, any knowledge that is dependent on a source is not ‘ilm al-ghayb. If, for example, a doctor is asked about what is in the womb of a pregnant woman without the woman being present, the doctor would not be able to inform on this matter because his knowledge is dependent, and hence, not the subject of the verse under consideration.

Similarly, scientific knowledge is not absolute terms. It may be easy to find out about rain but not possible to predict the rain in absolute terms all over the world in each and every place as well as the exact time it will rain. Likewise, the angels responsible for carrying out this task of rain carry only the knowledge of a particular area assigned to them. The absolute knowledge is only with Allah.

7. Knowledge of what is in the womb can be granted to other than Allah

When Qur’an 31:34 says that Allah alone possesses the knowledge, the word عند (‘ind) is used for possession of knowledge. The same word is used for reward (thawab) as well and it does not entail that it cannot be granted to others.

Well before this advancement in science of finding out the gender of the child in the womb, the scholars had mentioned that others besides Allah can be granted this knowledge:

أنه عزّ وجلّ إذا أمر بالغيث وسوقه إلى ما شاء من الأماكن علمته الملائكة الموكلون به ومن شاء سبحانه من خلقه عزّ وجلّ، وكذا إذا أراد تبارك تعالى خلق شخص في رحم يعلم سبحانه الملك الموكل بالرحم بما يريد جلّ وعلا كما يدل عليه ما أخرجه البخاري عن أنس بن مالك عن النبي صلّى الله عليه وسلم قال: «إن الله تعالى وكل بالرحم ملكا يقول: يا رب نطفة يا رب علقة يا رب مضغة فإذا أراد الله تعالى أن يقضي خلقه قال: أذكر أم أنثى شقي أم سعيد فما الرزق والأجل؟ فيكتب في بطن أمه فحينئذ يعلم بذلك الملك ومن شاء الله تعالى من خلقه عزّ وجلّ

“When Allah Almighty orders for rain to fall and for pouring it where He wills, He makes it known to the angels to whom this task is assigned and likewise anyone from the creation who He wishes. And similarly, when Allah Almighty wills to create someone in the womb, He informs the angel responsible for this task. Therefore, we find with Bukhari that the Messenger of Allah – peace be upon him – said that at every womb Allah appoints an angel who says, ‘O Lord! A drop of semen, O Lord, A clot! O Lord, A little lump of flesh!’ Then if Allah wishes (to complete) its creation, the angel asks, ‘(O Lord!) Will it be a male or female, a wretched or a blessed, and how much will his provision be? And what will his age be?’ All this is written while the child is still in the mother’s womb while the angel gets to know about these questions and all those from the creation whom Allah wishes to inform.”[5]

Furthermore, we find scholars even further back in history stating the same that Allah can make others aware of these things:

هذه مفاتيح الغيب التي استأثر الله تعالى بعلمها، فلا يعلمها أحد إلا بعد إعلامه تعالى بها؛ فعلم وقت الساعة لا يعلمه نبي مرسل ولا ملك مقرب، {لا يجليها لوقتها إلا هو} [الأعراف: 187] ، وكذلك إنزال الغيث لا يعلمه إلا الله، ولكن إذا أمر به علمته الملائكة الموكلون بذلك ومن شاء الله من خلقه. وكذلك لا يعلم ما في الأرحام مما يريد أن يخلقه [الله] (5) تعالى سواه، ولكن إذا أمر بكونه ذكرا أو أنثى، أو شقيا أو سعيدا علم الملائكة الموكلون بذلك، ومن شاء الله من خلقه. وكذلك لا تدري نفس ماذا تكسب غدا في دنياها وأخراها، {وما تدري نفس بأي أرض تموت} في بلدها أو غيره من أي بلاد الله كان، لا علم لأحد بذلك

“These are the keys of the unseen, whose knowledge Allah alone has kept for Himself, and no one else knows them unless Allah tells him about them. The knowledge of ‘when the Hour will occur’ is not known to any prophet who was sent or any angel who is close to Allah. “None can reveal its time but He” (7:187) Similarly, no one but Allah knows when rain will fall, but when He issues the commands, the angels who are entrusted with the task of bringing rain know about it, as do those among His creation whom He wills should know. No one but He knows what is in the wombs of what He wants to create, but when He decrees whether it is to be male or female, and whether it is to be blessed or doomed, the angels who are entrusted with that know about it, as do those among His creation whom He wills should know. No one knows what he will earn tomorrow with regard to this world or the Hereafter. “And no person knows in what land he will die,” in his own land or elsewhere, in some other land. No one knows this.”[6]

These explanations have come from great scholars well before the recent advancement in science. The knowledge of the angel is dependent and hence not ‘ilm al-ghayb. Therefore, if someone gets to know the position of the womb, it does not go against the Qur’anic verse. Islam stands the test of time.

8. Other meanings of ‘what is in the womb’

Some scholars have stated that this means the gender of the child while others have also mentioned that the knowledge of the womb comprises more than just the gender and also includes the color of the child, whether that child would be happy or not, that child’s means of livelihood, etc. This view is also valid based on the hadith about the angel on the womb quoted earlier. This way (i.e. knowledge being more than just the gender), any chance for further questioning does not arise. However, since the gender of the child in the womb is also a valid point based on the questions posed by the Bedouin, it is more reasonable to assume that the knowledge of what is in the womb includes not just the latter points but also the gender of the child.

9. Conclusion

The knowledge of what is in the womb is from the two categories of knowledge (that of unseen and absolute knowledge), whereas the finding out of the gender of the child by the doctors and weather prediction based on study of natural phenomenon does not fall under either of these categories. Besides, the Qur’an itself and the great scholars have mentioned that the knowledge of these five things may be granted to some by Allah either through revelation or blessing of ability to make empirical observation.


References & Notes:

[1] at-Tabari, Ibn Jareer, Jami’ al-Bayan fee Ta’weel al-Qur’an, (Beirut: ar-Risalah Publications, 2000) Vol.11, 402 No. 13307

[2] an-Nasafi, Abdullah bin Ahmad, Madarik at-Tanzeel wa Haqa’iq at-Ta’weel, (Beirut: Dar al-Kalam at-Tayyib, 1998) Vol.2, 617

[3]ash-Shawkani, Fath al-Qadeer, (Damascus: Dar Ibn Katheer, 1414 AH) Vol.4, 283-284

[4] Maududi, Abu al-Ala, Tafheem al-Qur’an, (Lahore: Idara Tarjuman al-Qur’an, n.d.) Vol.4, 29

[5]al-Alusi, Mahmood, Rooh al-Ma’ani, (Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1415 AH) Vol.11, 109

[6] Ibn Katheer, ‘Imad ad-Deen,, Tafseer al- Qur’an al-‘Azeem, (Beirut; Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyah, 1419 AH) Vol.6, 315

About the author

Waqar Akbar Cheema