All praise be to Allah, and may His blessings and peace be upon His messenger,
Ensoulment, which is sometimes referred to as personhood, is an event that takes place at a particular time in the womb, according to the confirmed consensus of all Muslim scholars. According to another consensus reported by some scholars, the soul is breathed into the body after one hundred and twenty days. However, the latter consensus is not as credible as the earlier, and some of the contemporary scholars claim it is not verifiable.
I would like to begin the discussion of the above by stating that ensoulment does not have to coincide with the completion of embryogenesis (takhalluq).
The advances in medical sciences supported an earlier understanding by some scholars, such as Ibn az-Zamlakani (may Allah bestow mercy on him), from the seventh century AH, that embryogenesis is almost completed by the fortieth or forty second day of conception. The other opinion, which was traditionally more popular, is that it ends by the one hundred and twentieth day.
The basis of the earlier disagreement is a hadeeth of Ibn Mas’ood (may Allah be pleased with him) that was reported in variant wordings. In the version of al-Bukhari, the hadeeth goes as follows:
«إن خَلْقَ أَحَدِكُمْ يُجْمَعُ في بَطْنِ أُمِّهِ أَرْبَعِينَ يَوْمًا وأربعين لَيْلَةً، ثُمَّ يَكُونُ عَلَقَةً مثله، ثُمَّ يَكُونُ مُضْغَةً مثله، ثُمَّ يُبْعَثُ إليه الْمَلَكُ، فَيُؤْذَنُ بِأَرْبَعِ كَلِمَاتٍ، فَيَكْتُبُ رِزْقَهُ وَأَجَلَهُ وَعَمَلَهُ وَشَقِيٌّ أَمْ سَعِيدٌ، ثُمَّ يَنْفُخُ فيه الرُّوحَ…».
“Each of you is gathered in his mother’s womb for forty days; then he becomes a clot of blood (‘alaqah) for the same period; then he becomes a clump of flesh (mudghah) for the same period. Then the angel will be sent to him, and will be commanded regarding four things, he will write his livelihood, his span of life, and his felicity or damnation [in the afterlife]. Then he will breathe the spirit into it …”
In Muslim’s report of this hadeeth, it says, “then he becomes a clot in this for an equal period.” The added phrase “in this” should refer here to the forty day period itself, because it was the last mention before the article “this”. This leads to the understanding that all of the three stages of: a drop (nutfah), clot of blood (‘alaqah), and clump of flesh (mudghah) do occur in that very period of forty days.
It is thus clear that embryogenesis (takhalluq), or most of it, is a process that takes place in the first forty days from conception. Would that lead us to an inevitable conclusion that the ensoulment happens after the forty days directly? Although that is the position of many contemporary scholars, I find it not necessarily an inevitable conclusion from the above, because the Arabic article thumma (then), used in the hadeeth above to separate between the stages of development and ensoulment, means in Arabic succession with delay. Moreover, Allah said,
“ثُمَّ خَلَقْنَا النُّطْفَةَ عَلَقَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْعَلَقَةَ مُضْغَةً فَخَلَقْنَا الْمُضْغَةَ عِظَامًا فَكَسَوْنَا الْعِظَامَ لَحْمًا ثُمَّ أَنشَأْنَاهُ خَلْقًا آخَرَ فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ.”
Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh],and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah , the best of creators. [Qur’an, Sahih International, 23:12-14.]
Again, the Arabic article thumma (then) is used in the verses above to separate between the stages of embryogenesis and the development into another creation, reported by Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) and believed widely to be a reference to the ensoulment. In addition, in the verse here above, the formation of bones and their enclosure with flesh is mentioned between the first stages of development and the reference to the ensoulment.
From this discussion, one may unhesitatingly confirm that the blowing of the soul into the fetus occurs indeed sometime after the completion of the embryogenesis, which is also logical, for then the body will be in a shape that is apt to receive the soul.
The above does not mean that the fetus is not sacred before the one hundred and twenty days or even the forty days, and although not always clear in individual books, it is generally understood from the inductive examination of Islamic fiqh that in all of those cases where abortion is deemed permissible, a good reason must be present to justify it. Such reason may not be, for instance, the fear of poverty. Some scholars embarked on listing the reasons, obviously with varying results. The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) condemned and fined a woman who caused another to abort, and there was no mention of the duration of her pregnancy. However, the one hundred and twenty day mark from conception engenders the most widespread agreement amongst the scholars in this debate as a significant mark indicating the greater gravity of the sin of abortion after it, and though, they may have variant positions on the ruling of abortion before it, they unanimously agree on its categorical prohibition thereafter, with the one exception of the pregnancy being a threat to the mother’s life.
Allah knows best