How studying medicine increased my conviction in God

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Last Updated on 3rd December 2021

Hamaad Muin Ahmad, Medical Student, Czech Republic 

For many students, approaching the months of December or January holds grim connotations with two dreaded words: “exam season”.

During these months, in the northern hemisphere, dusk approaches much faster (which doesn’t help uplift the mood). To prevent our eyes from closing owing to sleep deprivation, this is often accompanied by the bittersweet increase of caffeine intake. The daunting approach of exams is never easy. However, for a Muslim student, occasionally, it is something to look forward to. Why? Because for Muslim students, there is a chance for us to pray to Allah for the success of our exams and becoming ever closer to Him. 

Approaching the halfway mark of my fifth year in medical school has made me ponder: “After deeply studying Allah’s creation, has my faith in Him increased?” The answer, without a shadow of a doubt, is a resounding “yes”. 

The following anecdotes are humble findings I have experienced as a medical student for evidence regarding the existence of God.

The human body is a collection of cells that make up tissues that subsequently form organ systems, which all work together to create us the way we are. Its functions heavily rely on gradients (concentration gradients, pressure gradients and ionic gradients) – the movement of salts, ions, water etc., from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. In brief, this is the crux of how our bodies function.

In 2018, a younger, 19-year-old version of me sat in a library struggling to understand the histology (the study of the cells and tissues) of the eye. After seeing a histological image of the layers of the retina (a layer inside the eye that takes incoming light and sends images to your brain), I was perplexed. The meticulous organisation of the retina left me with a wave of thankfulness to God. Generally, humans are notoriously ungrateful towards Allah:

خَلَقَ‭ ‬الۡاِنۡسَانَ‭ ‬مِنۡ‭ ‬نُّطۡفَةٍ‭ ‬فَاِذَا‭ ‬هُوَ‭ ‬خَصِيۡمٌ‭ ‬مُّبِيۡنٌ‭ ‬

“He has created man from a [mere] drop of fluid, but lo! he is an open disputer.” (Surah al-Nahl, Ch.16: V.5)

Yet here is an intricate magnificent design of the eye being witnessed by my own eyes. If this 10-layered structure, measuring 0.15mm thick, was in the slightest bit out of order or missing one layer of cells, our vision would cease to exist. I pondered. With this evidence in front of me, how could the mere existence of human beings be the consequence of a coincidence? 

Image showing the layers of the retina | Department of Histology and Embryology, Palacky University Olomouc Czech Republic

That same year, I was studying embryology (the study of the development of embryos into foetuses). One morning, while studying chapter 23 of the Holy Quran, I came across verses 13-15:

وَ‭ ‬لَقَدۡ‭ ‬خَلَقۡنَا‭ ‬الۡاِنۡسَانَ‭ ‬مِنۡ‭ ‬سُلٰلَةٍ‭ ‬مِّنۡ‭ ‬طِيۡنٍ‭ ‬

“Verily, We created man from an extract of clay;

ثُمَّ‭ ‬جَعَلۡنٰهُ‭ ‬نُطۡفَةً‭ ‬فِيۡ‭ ‬قَرَارٍ‭ ‬مَّكِيۡنٍ‭ ‬

“Then We placed him as a drop of sperm in a safe depository;

ثُمَّ خَلَقۡنَا النُّطۡفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقۡنَا الۡعَلَقَةَ مُضۡغَةً فَخَلَقۡنَا الۡمُضۡغَةَ عِظٰمًا فَكَسَوۡنَا الۡعِظٰمَ لَحۡمًا ٭ ثُمَّ اَنۡشَاۡنٰهُ خَلۡقًا اٰخَرَ ؕ فَتَبٰرَكَ اللّٰهُ اَحۡسَنُ الۡخٰلِقِيۡنَ

“Then We fashioned the sperm into a clot; then We fashioned the clot into a [shapeless] lump; then We fashioned bones out of this [shapeless] lump; then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed it into another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators.”

I wondered, what is this safe depository which God is explaining? قرار is a noun derived from قر .قرر means, a state of rest, permanence or continuance. It also means a resting place or a place or time of rest (Lane & Aqrab). I concluded that this must be the epididymis (a long, coiled tube in males storing sperm cells). Its prime function is to store immature sperm cells here until they gain the ability to fertilise an egg. This fertilised egg eventually becomes a foetus and nine months later, a baby is born. It is widely agreed that the words of the Quran have not been changed or abrogated since the Quran was revealed. 

I thought to myself, “A 1500-year-old book revealed by Allah to the Holy Prophetsa – an unlettered man – reigning from a small tribe in the severely underdeveloped deserts of Mecca had this minute detail about embryology?” I refused to deny that this Quranic fact was indeed revealed directly by Allah. There is no other possibility!

Verse 15 touches on small details about the early development of the embryo. The Quran uses the word علقة which means “clotted blood”. On day six, after conception (fertilisation of the egg), the blastocyst (fertilised egg) attaches itself to the inner lining of the womb. It implants itself by projecting small blood vessels from its synctiotrophoblast (outer layer of the blastocyst) into the inner lining of the mother’s womb. علقة not only means clotted blood but also signifies an attachment or connection with something else. Thus, this single word describes an entire process which takes effect within the first week of embryonic development. 

Next, this verse mentions مضغة which means a “lump of flesh”. In the third week of gestational development, a structure called the trilaminar disc forms, which as the Quran clearly explains it evidently, is a “lump of flesh”. 

Image showing the implantation site at the end of the second week. The bilaminar disc (eventually developing into the trilaminar disc) is in between the amniotic cavity and yolk sac | Langmans Medical Embryology Thirteeth Edition

To make the next point a bit clearer for the common reader, a germ layer is one of the three primary cell layers leading up to the development of humans. The trilaminar disc is a three-layered structure consisting of three germ layers: ectoderm (which gives rise to the future brain, spinal cord and skin), mesoderm (gives rise to the future muscles, blood vessels, cartilage and bone) and endoderm (gives rise to the future digestive system, respiratory system, liver and thyroid glands). Any modern scientific illustration depicting the trilaminar disc resembles a “lump of flesh”. Hence, the Holy Quran uses this one word from which stem all the necessary cellular provisions for human life. 

Lastly, after mentioning the steps to clothe the human with flesh during development, the Holy Quran says, “Then We developed it into another creation”This sentence is mentioning the soul. These blessed words signify that the soul does not descend from outside, after birth, but grows internally during development. The future processes of gestation also accompany the development of the soul. This point is extremely pertinent because, from the time of Aristotle and Plato to the present, there has been an ongoing scientific debate as to where the soul is in the human body. Some say the heart, others say the brain and others even say it does not exist and it is all in our imagination. Perhaps the Quran here gives us the answer.

During a typical exam season, much of the day is taken up by studying. Consequently, a normal study day is accompanied by two or three prayer times. Over the previous four years of medical school, I have developed my own personal schedule where I study and typically use Zuhr, Asr and Maghrib times for a short break – followed by a guilty pleasure of either a cup of coffee or chocolate. Nevertheless, recently, I began to realise that my mind was noticeably fresher after praying than it would be after a normal break, for example after watching a short witty YouTube video.

I reflected on this notion and then thought about the various actions during prayer and the recent social trend of mindfulness – a type of meditation – or in my case, a more powerful way of “mindfulness”: praying to Allah, without any distraction from worldly pursuits or sensory overload from technology. 

Taking a “brain break” – learning how to slow down and reflect on yourself – has become increasingly popular in modern and popular science. One study, recorded from 2012 to 2017, showed that regular meditation practice by adults had tripled. According to Psychology Today,meditation practices have been proven to increase focus, calmness and reduce stress. 

Present-day society is constantly struck with new causes for anxiety. Therefore, one study showed evidence over the course of eight weeks of mindfulness-based therapy that participants’ mental health scores significantly improved. Highly important conclusions were drawn from this such as relief of anxiety. (www.askthescientists.com/brain-meditation/#toggle-id-1)

What if someone was to tell you that you could be young forever? British comedian, Bob Hope who lived to 100, once said, “I don’t feel old. I don’t feel anything until noon. Then it’s time for my nap.” Ageing is never pleasant. Some say that your brain begins to deteriorate in your 20s if not properly maintained. Meditation has been shown to effectively thicken the pre-frontal cortex. Often referred to as the CEO of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex is one of the most important parts of the brain. Candidly, despite its praised importance, it is the last part of the brain to fully develop. It also happens to be the least understood part of the human brain. The pre-frontal cortex completes myelination and development up to the age of 25. Furthermore, MRI studies have shown that the brain develops in a back to front pattern, hence why the prefrontal cortex develops last.

In relation to the prefrontal cortex, Dr Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, found that consistently meditating was the key to maintaining a healthy brain. 

Muslims pray five times a day – a practise we have performed for over 1,400 years. In any case, Dr Lazar performed a study and discovered that experienced meditators aged 40-50 years old had the same amount of grey matter (component of the brain containing neuronal cell bodies) as an average 20-30-year-old. This suggests that there is less deterioration in those who regularly practice meditation (or in our case pray). Additionally, in the older group, the health of the prefrontal cortex was also maintained. It should be noted that the act of prostration (sajdah) increases blood flow to the brain, consequently providing more oxygen and nutrients to neurons, aiding brain development and strength. (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3927233/)

The five daily prayers not only bring spiritual benefits – which is its main purpose – but give Muslims an extremely effective tool for brain and body benefits. 

There are countless more biological benefits of praying regularly that one is left stunned. Islam is a truly magnificent religion. Thus, the greatness and marvel of God’s power and infinite knowledge is manifested through every Muslim via the five daily prayers.

Contrary to popular belief, Islam complements and agrees with science rather than colliding with it. 

Over the course of more than four years of studying the human body – the creation of Allah – I can safely say that my conviction in Him has become resolute and, insha-Allah, will continue to be in the future as I practice medicine as a qualified doctor in the coming years.

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