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Verses from Surah al-Hajj (65 -73)

124. Although literally yastuuna means to attack or seize hard, the translation as “strike” or, alternatively, “seize by the hand” reflects the understanding of the first few generation scholars as in Ibn Jarir.

Why do the unbelievers behave in this manner? Sayyid asks. It is because they lack proofs and evidences for what they are doing. So, they must meet the truthful statements with physical force to annihilate it.

125. The fly has been chosen for this example, for four reasons: its worthlessness, its weakness, its repugnance, and its abundance (Qurtubi).

The beauty of the similitude apart, the Qur’anic statement throws a challenge that can never be answered.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Bible of the Western world, offers four definitions for life. This should tell us something about the confusion among the scientists over the issue. The problem is that life is not something that can be isolated: say in a test tube. It can only be seen in action, operating from behind living systems. What is it in reality, whether of the higher type as in humans, or of the lower type as in other biological organisms – after the soul has been denied existence – is something no scientist knows and will never know.

The central character of life is that it continues, or in the language of the biologists, replicates. But why, no one has any clue. Atoms, after all, which are life’s basic constituents, do not replicate (i.e., reproduce itself) under any circumstance. But cells replicate: from one to two, two to four, four to eight, and so on. In so doing, they defy the law of conservation. Living systems defy another law of nature: that of entropy. This law demands greater and greater disorder with the passage of time. But, in complete contrast, and against all odds, living systems get better organized with time.

For the biologists, the clue to life is in the arrangement of atoms within the cells. They arrange themselves in a certain order within it, all by themselves, to continue with their functions and to replicate themselves, that is, produce a true copy of themselves. And that arrangement is extremely complicated. But, outside of a living organism, the same atoms, placed in a test tube, in same proportions, do not arrange themselves in the same order. Why not? Because, as the biologists would say, the command is missing. So where is the command centre? The search for an answer has put the scientists on a trail that gives no sign of termination. Indeed, so many pathways are opening up that all men on earth might have to turn biologists, to follow all the pathways to find out what, if anything is there, at the end of the trail. As a scientist points out, “Where one gene carried out a particular function ten years ago, now there are a hundred. Where once, not so long ago, there was one cell type in the retina, now there are fifty. Where there was once one neurotransmitter in the brain, now there are hundreds. Biology is caught up in an ongoing complexity revolution, which is surely one of the most extraordinary events in the history of modern science. The phenomenal nature of the complexity revolution that currently pervades every field of biology is an increasing source of comment among researchers in various fields. The general reaction is one of amazement at the ever-greater depths of complexity revealed as biological knowledge advances.” (Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny, The Free Press, New York, 1998, p. 343).

Another unresolved question is, how did life begin? A chicken is out of an egg (a pack of living cells). The egg was from a chicken. That chicken was from an egg. It goes on backward for ever. A tree is from a seed (a pack of living cells). The seed was from a tree. And that tree was from a seed. It goes on backward endlessly. How did it begin? If, it began by chance, then, the question is, why does it not come into existence again? Why is it now only replication of a previously existing life? Why do we not observe a spontaneous generation of life anywhere on the planet anymore? There are no answers. A recent book (A.G. Cairns-Smith, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) which deals with this question is titled, “Seven Clues to the Origin of Life.” Needless to mention that none of the seven clues gives any clue about how life started. Another scientific work on the topic (Paul Davies, Touchstone pub. 1999) clearly admits the miraculous nature of life by calling his book “The 5th Miracle – the Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life.” Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickrmasinghe, leading scientist of the twentieth century, speculated, and provided plentiful evidences, though not conclusive, that life could not have originated on the earth at all. They argued that the first living organism must have arrived from deep space! (Our Place in the Cosmos, Phoenix, 1993).

But most scientists are not looking deep into space for clues to the origin of life. They are looking at biological organism right here on the earth. From the external organs, they went into the internal, e.g., heart, brain, kidneys and so forth. They found that they consisted of the primary unit, the cell. When the cell was opened up under the microscopes it was found to be an industry, that would spread over several miles on earth, if the same functions were required to be performed by the kinds of machinery that man uses. From the cell they went into the nucleus because the machinery seemed to be working automatically, independent of the brain. Now, since automatic work by molecules is unimaginable, the command must be coming from some place. Perhaps, the nucleus. So the nucleus was opened up to discover that it was the DNA strands that issued the commands, if not for all cell activity, then at least for the manufacture of proteins. Subsequently it was found that the DNA consisted of tiny molecules called nucleotides (3 to 4 billions of them). They assembled themselves following a certain pattern, and which made up the DNA. However, neither the DNA nor the nucleotides issued the commands for the construction of the large biological body. That was done by genes which were few nucleotides here, few there, spread all over the DNA strand, that somehow coordinated between themselves to issue the commands. What are nucleotides, the basic unit of the genes, made up of? They are averagely some thirty atoms of different elements grouped in a certain way. So, now the scientists stare at the life-less atoms dancing before them, and do not know where to go next. Meanwhile, life goes on, without a definition.

Let alone a fly, which is made up of hundreds of millions of cells, man cannot create even a single cell. Indeed, the project cannot take off. Why? Because, man will need to isolate atoms before he can assemble them. But ordinarily, atoms cannot be isolated. So there ends the matter How pertinent therefore, the following hadith of the Sahihayn (as noted by Ibn Kathir) which says, “Allah said, ‘Who can do greater wrong than one attempting to create like My creation. So, let them then create an atom, or a grain, or a grain of barley” (Au.).

 126. Ibn `Abbas has said that the allusion by the seeker is to the idols and the sought after is the fly, which if it snatches away something from the idols, they cannot retrieve it. Others have thought that the allusion is to worshippers of idols and the idols themselves respectively (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).


The Fly

The fly’s mention in the Qur’an in this context is simply amazing. For, although the plain meaning was always there, namely, if a fly takes away something, it is almost impossible to identify and seize it to regain what it took away; but modern science adds to our amazement that a fly does not take away anything whole. When it sits on a food particle, it first drops its saliva on to the material to be consumed, dissolves it with its enzymes, and then sucks up the liquid through the long trunk-like proboscis into its abdomen. Thus, there is no way anyone can retrieve, even in laboratory conditions, what a fly takes away.

Our amazement is however doubled when we learn that fly is the pet animal of the biologists. For a hundred years they have depended on it to conduct genetic research. In fact, no biology book in general, and a genetic book in particular, can go without the mention of the fruit fly. Biologically known as Drosophila, it is as ubiquitous in biology books as it is in the gardens. More is known about the fruit fly than is known about any other animal. At the genetic level, humans know more about the fly than about the humans, because of the research conducted at hundreds of research centers over the globe. Scientists have received prizes and awards for working on the fly. In 1993, Thomas Hunt Morgan, American biologist and geneticist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of “hereditary transmission mechanisms in Drosophila”. Again, in 1995 Edward B. Lewis of the California Institute of Technology, Eric F. Wieschaus of Princeton University, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard of the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, shared the Nobel Prize for research into the genetic basis of embryonic development in the fruit fly. The results, according to the Nobel committee, “achieved a breakthrough that will help explain congenital malformations in man.”

There are several reasons why the fruit fly has been so popular with the biologists. These are ubiquitous insects that collect together in large numbers on the fruits. There are some 90,000 species of them. They breed very rapidly. Another advantage with them is that for some unknown reason they have giant-sized and, therefore, readily visible chromosome (DNA) making it easy to examine their structure during cell division. A biologist writes:

“This insect turned out to be ideal for many genetic studies and has been widely used in laboratories all over the world throughout the twentieth century.. The first reason they were chosen for study is that they are easy to keep and breed. Each fly is only an eighth of an inch long (3mm), and they produce a new generation in two weeks, each female laying hundreds of eggs at a time. A colony of Drosophila can be kept alive and well in almost any old glass container” (John Gribbin, In Search of the Double Helix, Penguin books, 1995, p.57-58).

Another factor that favored the fly was that it has only four Chromosome strands (as against 23 for human), which rendered research studies much easier to conduct. Two of these DNA strands are truly massive, with no similar example from any other biological organism. Its sperms are 6 cm/2.4 inch long (1,200 times longer than human sperm and 4 times its total body length). Its testes take up 50% of its abdominal cavity and it produces fewer than 20 sperm cells at a time. Without this amazing characteristic, the fly would never have been chosen for research. This is the reason why the entire genome sequence for the fly was produced before it could be produced for any other animal. Accordingly,

“More data have been collected concerning the genetics of the vinegar fly than have been obtained for any other animal. Drosophila chromosomes, especially the giant ones in the salivary glands of mature larvae, are used in studies involving heritable characteristics and are the basis for gene action” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, art., Vinegar Fly).

In short, a challenge flies directly into the faces of the modern scientist: “Here is something you have been working on for a hundred years, and which you understand scientifically better than any other living body. How about producing something similar to what you know so well, and, especially at the genetic level, which happens to be the key to life and activity?”

They could also consider: is it simply coincidence that the fly was chosen for the challenge. Could Prophet Muhammad have written these Qur’anic lines? (Au.)

(To be continued)

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