'Every human being is created upon 360…(joints?)'
  • Tue, 05/13/2008
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The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Every human being from Adam's descendants was created upon 360 mafsil. So whoever magnifies Allah, praises Him, declares Allah's oneness, glorifies Him, seeks His forgiveness, (and likewise whoever) removes a stone, thorns, or a bone from a footpath, or calls to what is right, or forbids what is wrong, will have it counted for him to the number of those 360 digitals. Indeed, he walks that day and removes himself away from Hell." [Sahîh Muslim (1675)]

This hadîth has been causing a lot of unnecessary confusion and debate in recent years. This has been the case ever since the Arabic word mafsil was defined in Arabic medical books as corresponding precisely with the English word "joint" as it is defined in the field of anatomy.

As a consequence, people began to seek anatomical lessons from the hadîth. Some people argued that we need to believe the human being has 360 joints – as defined by modern medical terminology – regardless of what empirical observations might tell us. Other people sought to find a "scientific miracle" in the hadîth by "proving" that the human body does indeed contain 360 joints as defined by the field of anatomy or some tailor-made definition.

Even the enemies of Islam have gotten into the act. They set about trying to cast doubt on Islam through demonstrating that the body does not have 360 joints – again according to some particular, contemporary definition of the word "joint".

What we all must realize is that when an anatomist determines that a human being has a certain number of "joints" in her body, she is using a term that has a particular definition in her field of expertise. This definition may not necessarily coincide with the meaning intended by the Arabic word mafsil in a hadîth text of 1400 years ago.

This is further complicated by the fact that the same concept is referred to later in the hadîth as "those 360 digitals". The Arabic word here is sulâmâ, which usually refers to the digital bones of the hand and foot. This implies the number of bones more that it does the number of joints. What it tells us for certain is that the intended meaning of mafsil in the hadîth is clearly different from how the English word "joint" is defined in contemporary anatomy.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that the intended meaning of the word mafsil in the hadîth would just happen to coincide with the definition of "joint" in a modern medical textbook. It is wrong to impose this or any other particular, terminological meaning upon the Arabic word in the hadîth. There are many ways that the word mafsil can be understood in the hadîth while still taking the hadîth on its literal, apparent meaning.

This kind of textual uncertainty is one of the major reasons why the popular tendency today of interpreting the Qur'ân and Sunnah in so-called "scientific" terms is ill-advised.

The English word "joint", as an anatomical term, is the location at which two or more bones come together.

Joints, furthermore, are classified anatomically into simple and compound, depending on the number of bones involved, and into complex and combination joints:
1. Simple joint: 2 articulation surfaces (shoulder joint, hip joint…)

2. Compound joint: 3 or more articulation surfaces (radiocarpal joint…)

3. Complex joint: 2 or more articulation surfaces and an articular disc or meniscus (knee joint…)
From this brief exposition, it should be clear that the number of joints in a skeleton does not correlate with the number of articulation surfaces. The number of articulation surfaces would usually be much higher, and this would differ depending on the animal in question.

This shows us one possible ambiguity into the meaning of the hadîth. The Arabic word mafsil can be used linguistically to mean "articulation" in a very loose sense, even though today its usage has been normalized in the field of anatomy to specifically mean "the location at which two or more bones come together ". It was not restricted to that narrow meaning 1400 years ago.

There are other possibilities for the meaning of mafsil in the hadîth. For instance, it might refer to the number of ranges of motion the human body is capable of. This dynamic understanding of the word is a perfectly sensible one in the context of the hadîth, since the topic of the hadîth is our actions and how Allah rewards us for our good deeds. The hadîth is not discussing a topic of anatomy, but rather one of worship.

This leads to a totally different calculation, since some joints are immovable, others are slightly movable, whole still others are freely movable. Understandably, calculating the number of possible motions would be highly subjective, depending on the criteria used to define a motion.

What matters, with respect to our understanding of the hadîth, is that Allah rewards us for our deeds many times over, and this correlates in some way to an aspect of how He created our functioning bodies. The hadîth is telling us about a matter of the Unseen – Allah's great generosity, mercy, and reward – and not a matter of anatomy.

And Allah knows best.