Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte to form a single cell-a zygote. This highly specialized cell marks the beginning of each human being as a unique individual. The zygote, just visible to the unaided eye as a tiny speck, contains chromosomes and genes (units of genetic information) that are derived from the mother and father. The unicellular zygote divides many times and becomes progressively transformed into a multicellular human being through cell division, migration, growth, and differentiation1 With respect to sex chromosome constitution, there are two kinds of normal sperm: 23,X and 23,Y, whereas there is only one kind normal oocyte: 23,X. The difference in the sex chromosome complement of sperms forms the basis of primary sex determination. The embryo’s chromosomal sex is determined at fertilization by the kind of sperm (X or Y) that fertilizes the oocyte. Fertilization by an X-bearing sperm produces a 46,XX zygote, which normally develops into a female, whereas fertilization by a Y-bearing sperm produces a 46,XY zygote, which normally develops into a male2
Most Christian faith groups teach that Jesus was conceived by his mother Mary while she was still a virgin. This is believed to have been accomplished without an act of sexual intercourse. This doctrine is usually called the “virgin birth,” although the term “virgin conception” would be much more accurate. Biblical references commonly cited about the virgin birth are Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Various polls have found that about 80% of American adults believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. This exceeds the total number of American adults who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim. The Qur’an, the direct words of God, dictated by an angel to Prophet Muhammad, has two main references to Mary’s virginal status at the conception of Jesus: 19:16 to 22 contains a birth narrative, while 21:91 confirms her virginity. Almost 100% of Muslim adults in the world believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.
The question that frequently comes up in the minds of many is the same: How did Mary conceive? There have been different ways of explaining this. For some people, the natural phenomenon of parthenogenesis provides such an explanation. Some animal species can reproduce from an unfertilized oocyte, in a process called parthenogenesis. Although this phenomenon is quite common in plants and insects, it does not appear in any creature above the level of the amphibians. No verified case of parthenogenesis has occurred in humans, and it is considered impossible for species as complex as the higher apes or humans3 An additional complexity would be that Jesus would have been female after the parthenogenetic division of an XX oocyte, since he would have lacked the Y chromosome normally contributed by a human father. Parthenogenesis is not, therefore, a logical explanation to account for the virgin birth of Jesus.
The birth of Jesus without a biological father, in fact, should be viewed as a supernatural event-a miracle, to be more accurate. It would be useful to define here what we mean by miracle. Although a miracle is a supernatural phenomenon, there is a minimal natural cause for the miracle, which is then caused to happen by God, as appropriate. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, touched a small portion of food with his blessed hands; and this food became sufficient for an entire army. Likewise, he poured water from a flask onto his hands, and the water was made enough to satisfy hundreds of people. Even though God Almighty assigns a duty to natural causes-even if the influence of the natural cause is not more than 1-3%-we should accept that in miracles it may not always be possible to have a materialistic interpretation for everything. By definition, miracles are extraordinary events that God Almighty grants to His messengers to prove their prophethood and strengthen the believers’ faith. To insist on their essential rationality is to deny their existence as miracles, and hence an objection to the revelation at some level. The universe operates according to God’s fixed laws, which allow us to discover the divine laws of nature and make scientific progress. However, God has determined these laws and therefore He is not bound by them. He may sometimes annul a law or change the ordinary flow of events to allow a Prophet to perform what we call a miracle4
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi comments on the miracles in his magnum opus, The Words, as follows:
By relating the prophets’ spiritual and moral perfections, the Qur’an encourages people to benefit from them. By presenting their miracles, the Qur’an urges people to achieve something similar through science. It may even be said that, like spiritual and moral attainments, material attainments and wonders were first given to humanity as gifts through prophetic miracles. . . . [Miracles] comprise numerous indications of guidance. By relating these miracles, the Qur’an shows the ultimate goal of scientific and technological developments, and specifies their final aims, toward which it urges humanity5
So what else can we learn from the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus? Does it indicate any specific scientific discovery? In this respect, we may refer to at least one other explanation by which a virgin conception could have been occurred, turning again to the Qur’an for an answer, as there is no contradiction between the Qur’an, the Word of God, and laws of nature, which have been designed by God. In verse 3:37 “… her Lord accepted her with gracious favor and enabled to her a good growth” the word nabat is used to describe Mary’s growth, literally meaning “plant” in Arabic. Alongside the miracle of Mary’s sustenance, could this verse be encouraging us to study the plant world to observe how plants reproduce?
Many flowering plants can reproduce by self-fertilization because a single flower produces both eggs and sperm cells. Flowers contain two sets of structures that are important for fertilization. The first is an organ that contains pollen grains, each of which contains two male sperm cells. The second is an organ that contains one or more ovaries, each of which contains egg cells (oocytes) (Fig.1). At fertilization, the pollen delivers two sperm cells to the ovary, where one sperm cell fuses with the egg cell, and the fertilized egg grows to form an embryo6 A question naturally arises at this point. Could a human being have two different reproductive cell types (both oocyte and sperm) at the same time? The simple answer is “yes.”
In some persons, both ovarian and testicular tissues are present, either in the same or in opposite gonads7 About 13% of these persons are derived from more than one zygote and are known as chimeras (chi 46,XX/46,XY)8 Cases with normal male and normal female phenotypes have been ascertained as an incidental finding9 Chimeras are the result of the fusion of two zygotes to form a single embryo and they contain cells from two separate zygotes in a single organism10 The fusion of two zygotes may occur soon after fertilization, producing an individual with genetically different kinds of tissue. If the fused zygotes are of different sexes, then the individual develops both ovarian and testicular tissues11 The majority of these people are best reared as females and many pregnancies with living offspring have been reported in persons reared as females;12 in contrast, only one person has apparently fathered a child13 The wisdom of the Qur’an is no doubt beyond the current level of scientific development and the human mind, and what we may deduce from verse 3:37 and scientific research, in fact, is little more than mere speculation. We certainly do not mean to suggest that Mary was a hermaphrodite; the Qur’an clearly states that she was a woman (5:75). Rather, it may be possible that she could have been a woman who had been derived from the fusion of two different embryos; i.e. a chimera.
The statement in the Qur’an (3:37) may demonstrate that Mary could have been a chimera of XX/XY type, and she might have been created by the fusion of two embryos to become one. Of course, God Almighty knows best. And whatever our limited explanation may be, it is clear that Mary co-operated in the formation of Jesus’ body just as every other mother co-operates in the formation of the body of her child. In the end, whether one looks to science or not for an understanding of the deeper mysteries of life, there is consensus among the great majority of Christians and Muslims that Jesus came to earth by means of a virgin birth. And the virgin birth of Jesus was a miracle.
- Moore KL, Persaud TVN, The Developing Human, Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed. Saunders, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 16.
- M.Fethullah Gulen, The Essentials of the Islamic Faith, The Light, Inc., NJ:2005, pp. 193-4.
- Said Nursi, The Words, The Twentieth Word, The Light, Inc. NJ: 2005, p. 267.
- Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, Raff M, Roberts K, Walter P. Molecular Biology of the Cell, ed Gibbs S. 4th ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group; 2002, pp. 1243-1246.
- Behrman RE, Kliegman RM, Jenson HB. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics 17th ed. Saunders, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 1945.
- Tanaka Y, Fujiwara K, Yamauchi H, Mikami Y, Kohno I. Pregnancy in a woman with a Y chromosome after removal of an ovarian dysgerminoma. Gynecol Oncol. 2000; 79: 519-521.
- Strachan T, Read AP. Human Molecular Genetics. 3rd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group; 2004, p. 110.
- Haqq CM, Donahoe PK. Regulation of sexual dimorphism in mammals. Physiol Rev. 1998; 78: 1-33.
- Krob G, Braun A, Kuhnle U. True hermaphroditism: geographical distribution, clinical findings, chromosomes and gonadal histology. Eur J Pediatr. 1994; 153: 2-10.