Question: How do you explain hadiths that contradict modern science, such as a hadith that states that the gender of the child is determined by whichever of the couple reaches climax first?
Wa alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your important question.
Everything the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said was true. That said, not everything narrated from him is completely accurate, and not every interpretation of the language used is completely accurate.
If we find a hadith at odds with known and established science, we must first ascertain whether the hadith is authentic (sahih) or not; next, we must look at the various interpretive possibilities, taking a tough look at the various wordings of the hadith.
If there is still really no way to marry the hadith with known and established science after this, then we can safely say that the hadith is a mistake, and the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) never said it. I doubt very much, however, that you will ever find a hadith like this.
Science vs. scientism
It is effortless to put science on a pedestal and give it absolute credence in an age of great and well-appreciated scientific and technological advancement. This emotional and philosophic leap pulls us away from healthy scientific study to solve problems that science cannot solve. This is scientism.
To reject everything in religious literature that cannot be proved empirically leads very decidedly to disbelief. There is, of course, no empirical evidence of Paradise, Hell, miracles, or the scientific possibility of corporeal resurrection. Indeed, Muslim scholars will even define miracles as unscientific (khariq lil ada).
How then has the Islamic tradition dealt with the alleged conflict between science and religion?
Fact, strong evidence, and stories
The scholars of Islam very carefully organized Islamic epistemology: how we know how we can know things and distinguish between knowledge (ilm) and mere confidence (dhann).
When dealing with science, we are told that the five senses can ascertain objective knowledge of scientific facts. We can observe fire burning and state objectively that the fire just burnt something. Our inferences from that, however, may not be objective. For example, we cannot infer that fire will necessarily burn again. This is where Islamic epistemology would differ from scientism and thus allow room for miracles.
The inferences and judgments based on empirical fact may then be categorical or probabilistic. The former would give us further objective knowledge of the world around us (e.g., the process of combustion and reduced energy levels). In contrast, the latter would give us mere confidence about the world around us (e.g., carbon dating, prescribing certain medicines, and other such processes based on various reasonable assumptions).
Thus when Muslim scholars refer to scientific fact, they are much more conservative than some of us might be today, and a lot of what we deem scientific fact is most likely probabilistic. Now that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant; it just means it is not fact.
A similar dissection of fact and fiction is made for historical information (akhbar). This is particularly important to Muslim scholars because the final revelation was over a millennium ago, so critiquing the historical recording of this revelation was and is of utmost importance.
Factual information based on the five senses (i.e., not opinions) can either be reported to us through mass narration (khabar mutawatir) or by a limited number of individuals (khabar ahad).
The first is the fact that Muhammad ibn Abdullah existed over 1,400 years ago in Saudi Arabia, claimed prophethood and established religion, that he told people to pray five times a day, that he recited a book called the Qur’an, and that, for example, the book began with a chapter called al Fatiha, and ended with a chapter called al Nas. Given that its sources are so varied and independent, such information cannot possibly be false and gives us objective knowledge (ilm).
Whether or not he (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was actually a Prophet cannot be claimed to be proven by mass narration (khabar mutawatir) because it is an inference and not sensory data per se. Its proof is a logical one.
The second is factual information (not opinions and judgments) that reaches us through limited sources, for example, most hadiths. Such reports give us great confidence and not a certainty. Now, this great confidence is contingent upon several factors, primarily the reliability of the sources and the subsequent chain of sources (sanad) that conveys the quote or event to us. Hence the science of hadith criticism.
When a hadith passes the test of hadith criticism and is deemed “authentic” (sahih), we have great confidence that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did indeed say these words or did this deed, and we have very little reason to doubt it. That said, it is not fair or true to say that we know as an objective fact that he said or did whatever has been reported from him. Only a mass narrated report can do that.
For example, the hadith ‘Actions are only by intentions.’ has been narrated with a sound chain of transmission and is therefore “authentic” (sahih). (Bukhari and Muslim) We can say that we believe with great confidence that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did indeed say these words, but we can’t say that we know that he said these words.
By contrast, the hadith, ‘Whosoever intentionally lies about me should take his seat in the Hell-Fire.’ has reached us from many, many independent sources and is as such mass (mutawatir). (al Azhar al Mutanathira, Suyuti) We can say that we know objectively that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) did indeed say these words.
With a merely sahih hadith, we may reject the report based on stronger information. With a mass narrated hadith, there is no question of rejecting the report because it is a fact. The only room for investigation is what the hadith means and what may be extrapolated from it.
The case of contagion
There is a hadith in Sahih al Bukhari that says that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said that there was no such thing as a contagion, that is to say, that diseases are never contagious and do not spread from one carrier to another. This is clearly at odds with well-known and established science.
Interestingly, this hadith is that the Prophetic Companions themselves noticed this apparent conflict between science and religion. When they objected to what seemed blatantly wrong, Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) replied, ‘Well, who made the first one sick?’ (Bukhari)
This means that the initially apparent meaning that we all assumed when we first heard the hadith was not what was actually intended. There is no real conflict between science and religion in this hadith. Rather, what was being said was that Allah is the ultimate cause of every effect we see, and so subsequent effects (contagion) are also caused by Allah and not by the sick person or animal.
The methodological lesson we take from this is that when we read a hadith that seems to go against science, we must be willing to investigate other possible interpretations of the words we are reading. This is why the scholars of legal theory (usul al-fiqh) spend so much time on hermeneutics (mabahith al alfadh).
Critiquing hadith based on history
Sometimes we find hadiths that do not make historical sense. In Sahih al Bukhari, a hadith quotes the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) saying, ‘Indeed the righteous slave (mamluk) has two rewards. And I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, were it not for fighting in Allah’s way, performing Hajj, and serving my mother, I would love to die as a slave (mamluk).’
Now when we read this hadith at face value, we understand that there is a two-fold reward for someone who is owned by someone else and is righteous and that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would have loved to die in bondage were it not that being a slave would prevent him from fighting in Jihad and from having the time to serve his mother.
But despite the beauty and truth of the message, there is a historical anachronism. We all know that his mother passed away when he was very young, so this hadith doesn’t make historical sense.
Commentating on this, Imam al Suyuti said, ‘The words ‘And I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul …’ are obviously the words of [the sub-narrator] Abu Hurayra because it is inconceivable that he (Allah bless him and give him peace) could wish to die in bondage…because his mother wasn’t even alive.’ (Tadrib al Rawi, Suyuti)
So this tells us that the great confidence we have in the content of a sound hadith could be called into question when it conflicts with something we know as a historical fact.
(Critiquing it based on a mere alternative historical possibility is another kettle of fish. Please see: https://seekersguidance.org/answers/aqida/war-booty/
This not an issue of religion vs. history, rather of weighing up two historical accounts against each other because of their respective strength.
Critiquing hadith based on archeology
Because a merely authentic hadith (sahih) that is not mass narrated (mutawatir) only gives us great confidence (dhann) and not objective knowledge (ilm), it is also valid to critique a hadith based on factual archeological evidence.
One example of this can be seen by how Ibn Hajar al Asqalani, a 15th-century traditional hadith scholar, critiqued a hadith referring to Prophet Adam’s gigantic form.
In Sahih al Bukhari, a hadith quotes the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) saying, ‘When Adam was created he was sixty cubits tall … and people (khalq) have continued to shrink until now.’
After confirming the meaning of the hadith, and that words of the hadith did indeed indicate that Prophet Adam (upon whom be peace) was about 90 ft tall, Ibn Hajar adds the following:
‘What is problematic here is what is observable today of the archeological remains of previous nations, such as those of Thamud, since the size of their houses does not give the impression that they were exceptionally tall, as this would imply. Furthermore, it is obvious that they lived a long, long time ago, and the time between them and Adam was less than the time between them and those at the beginning of this nation. To date, I have not been able to explain this problem.’ (Fath al Bari, Ibn Hajar al Asqalani)
So Ibn Hajar is basically saying that 500 hundred years ago, archeology does not seem to add up with a giant human race proposed by the hadith. And at the same time, he is unwilling to write off the hadith as a fabrication completely.
We learn from this that there is room to critique an authentic (sahih) hadith if there is stronger evidence than it. Whether we agree with Ibn Hajar’s conclusion or whether his use of archeology was valid is irrelevant. The point is that in our Islamic heritage, we have the openness and the philosophical apparatus to tackle such problems, and we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater as most post-Darwinian Western thinkers did with the Bible.
The gender of the child
Let us now turn to the hadith in question, armed as we are now with a methodology to tackle the problem meaningfully.
To my knowledge, there are three separate hadiths on this issue.
The first is in Sahih al Bukhari and mentions that a convert from Judaism asked the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) about three issues to verify whether or not he was a true prophet. In it mentions that ‘as for which parent the child will resemble, when a man sleeps with a woman and his water/sperm comes before her[s], then the [child] will resemble him, and if her water/sexual fluid comes first, then the [child] will resemble her.’
Another version of the same hadith in Tabarani mentions ‘overcoming (ghalaba)’ in place of ‘coming first [sabaqa].
The second hadith is in Musnad al-Bazzar and is related by Ibn Abbas and states, ‘The resemblance goes to whichever of them overcomes (ghalaba) the other. If they join (ijtama’a), [the resemblance] will be from both.
The third hadith is in Sahih Muslim and mentions that Umm Sulaim asked about women having wet dreams, and it mentions the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) saying, ‘Men’s water/semen is thick and white, and women’s water/sexual fluid is thin and pale/yellow/black. Whichever of them comes over or precedes the other, that will determine the resemblance.’
So we now need to critique these hadiths in the way explained above. First, we need to ask whether hadiths are mass transmitted (mutawatir) or merely authentic (sahih); then, we need to look at the scientific facts they seem to be at odds with and see if they are facts or merely likelihoods.
To answer the first question, we see that the hadiths are narrated in Bukhari and Muslim and are authentic but are definitely not mass narrated. This means that we are confident that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said these words, but we are not 100% certain.
Regarding science, I think we can say quite categorically that we know that female sexual fluid/ejaculate has nothing to do with the resultant gene makeup of the child. Women’s sexual fluid/ejaculate is definitely not black. It may, however, be yellow. (https://bjui-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1464-410X.2012.11562.x)
Now looking at the words used, the real conflict here is which of the two reaches climax. When looking at the different wordings of the hadiths (‘overcoming’ and ‘preceding’), I think it is not far-fetched that the narrations reflect the general meaning of dominance. It wouldn’t be wrong to argue that ‘overcome’ was the actual wording while ‘preceding’ was just a paraphrasing by one of the sub-narrators.
The question then remains of the water. What is most apparent when reading the hadith is that water means semen or sexual excretion. That said, although far-fetched in itself, I don’t think it impossible that it has more than a general sense of any sexual contribution to the fertilization process.
So now we can come to one of several conclusions:
The first possibility is that we have misread the hadith, and there is no conflict whatsoever. This assumes that ‘water’ doesn’t mean semen or sexual excretion; it is not impossible but arguably far-fetched.
The second is that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) never said these words to begin and was just misquoted. This assumes the narrators, who were all very accurate and bonafide hadith scholars, made a mistake. This is also not impossible but also far-fetched.
The third is that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said these words, beginning with and correctly interpreted, and he made a mistake. This would mean that he was not a Prophet. This is an invalid conclusion because we are saying that he definitely said something that is definitely false. As we have already said, we do not know that he definitely said these words because they are not mass narrated (mutawatir).
What remains is to weigh up which of the first two possibilities is most likely. (I let someone more clever and more knowledgeable than myself do that.)
Any non-mass transmitted hadith (sahih) can be called into question when it contradicts other authentic hadiths, verses of the Qur’an, or clear and unquestionable historical and scientific facts. The scholars of Islam have always recognized that and built a solid methodology with which to critique hadiths.
The hadiths in question mention things that are not completely irreconcilable with well-known and established science and are not mass narrated, to begin with.
The issue at hand then is the proper criticism and understanding of the hadiths, and there is absolutely no reason to question one’s faith when reading hadiths of this nature.
I pray this helps.
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years, he has developed a masterful ability to craft lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language.