The Role of Atomism in the View of the Groups of Kalaam

The following was a required essay provided by Yasir Qadhi under the requirements of a PHD at Yale.

Introduction of the Concept
The concept of all matter being composed of small, indivisible particles called atoms most likely goes back to the fifth century B.C., when a young contemporary of Socrates, known as Democritus, first formally introduced the idea (most likely under the influence of his teacher Leucippus). He claimed that if one continually kept dividing matter, eventually a particle would be reached that could not be divided anymore: an a-tom, i.e., ‘not divisible’. He also posited the existence of empty spaces between these atoms within which they could move – a pure ‘void’. He believed that all of the workings of the universe were the result of the vibrations of these atoms through voids and their collisions with one another.
Plato, and in particular his student Aristotle, strongly disagreed. The latter, in his Physics, wrote quite extensively against the existence of both the ‘atom’ and the ‘void’, claiming that not only were Democritus’ evidences lacking, but also that the existence of atoms and voids violated physical principles. In turn, Plato posited the ‘four natural elements’ theory: fire, air, earth and water form the basis of all else.[1]
These Greek philosophers – both the atomists and antiatomists – were attempting to explain natural occurrences and daily phenomenon without the need of resorting to supernatural explanations and believing in heavenly (or earthly) deities.[2] It is, therefore, rather ironic that this tool was then adopted by a faction of a monotheistic faith (i.e., the mutakallimūn) in their attempt to prove the all encompassing efficacy of an omnipotent God.[3] However, in their adoption of this cosmological view, they ensured that they sufficiently modified it so as to conform with and eventually support their theological positions.[4]

Kalām Atomism
From its earliest inception in the second century of the hijra, kalām has always been fascinated with the theory of atoms. A cursory look at the relevant sections in al-Ash’arī’s (d. 324/935) Maqālāt shows the center stage this issue took.[5] And although the mutakallimūn disagreed about certain secondary issues regarding atomism (such as the minimum quantity of atoms required for a ‘body’, the quantity of atoms that a single atom is allowed to touch, and so forth), the broad theory was generally upheld by both the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites.[6]
The mutakallimūn posited that all matter is composed of identical, miniscule, indivisible particles (i.e., atoms), that are devoid of any quantitative or qualitative properties. They only acquire quantitative properties of width, height, and breadth when two or more of them unite (at which point it becomes a ‘body’), and they only acquire qualitative properties when an ‘accident’ is created within it. An accident is something that exists above and beyond the actual body. It is an accident that gives each atom (and, thereby, each body) its specific qualities that separates it from other atoms (and bodies); qualities such as color, temperature, speed or rest, life, knowledge, power, and so forth. Such accidents must reside in the atom itself, in fact by definition an accident cannot exist except within an atom.
Broadly speaking, the Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites were in agreement with regards to the affirmation of atomism, the most prominent exception being the eccentric al-Naẓẓām (d. 230/845), who was influenced by Aristotle’s denial of atomism. Due to this view, al-Naẓẓām was forced to invent the concept of the ‘leap’ (ṭufrah).[7] Also, in contrast to the Greek philosophers (and also the falāsifa), the mutakallimūn strongly affirmed the belief that both atoms and accidents were created, and that matter was not eternal.[8]
One of the most profound and unique contributions of the Ash’arites to the atomism debate was their proposition that ‘No accident can last two successive instances of time.’[9] In other words, as soon as an accident is created, it immediately ceases to exist. There is no continuity or connection between one moment in time and another. This means that if an object were to, say, remain in a state of rest, the accident of ‘rest’ must be continually created and re-created at each successive instant in time for the object to remain so. And, of course, it is only God who could create each and every accident on each and every body in each and every instance of time. The entire universe and all that transpires in it, according to the Ash’arites, must be directly controlled by God at each specific instance.
Another philosophical (albeit not original) contribution was the idea that time itself is composed of discrete and successive units, a type of ‘atomic-time’. This was derived not only from Aristotle’s notion that space, time and movement are all existentially equivalent, but also from the problem of trying to solve Zeno’s paradox as applied to time.[10]
These two positions necessarily leads to a denial of causality, meaning that the Ash’arites completely negated a cause-and-effect relationship between any two occurrences. Everything that occurred was disconnected, time and space, from anything preceding or following it. Even a body that remained a certain color did so because God continually re-created the accident of color in all of its atoms, at each instance in time (i.e., at each ‘atomic-time’ unit). A rock thrown at a window could not cause the window to shatter; an arm lifting a cup was not the cause of its lifting; the ingestion of food was not the cause of satiation; the proximity of fire to wool did not cause the wool to alight; and so forth.
With such a radical view of the world, the Ash’arites were then forced to explain not only the continuity of the universe around us (materials did not typically vanish, or transform into another substance, or change color, or inexplicably move from one instance to the next), but also the very clear causal connections upon which the livelihood of men rests. It is only because man eats that he does not starve to death, it is only because a fire is lit that food can be cooked, and so forth. Pressed with such factual realities, the Ash’arites (and in particular al-Ghazālī) developed the theory of ‘God’s habitual character’ or ‘ādah, meaning that God had ordained upon Himself to act within certain norms.[11] Thus, an object that is at rest is recreated by God at the second instance still at rest, an object that is brought close to fire and is flammable shall be set alight by God not due to the fire, but because God’s custom dictates so, and so on..
This theory safeguarded the permanent order of the universe, and also explained the apparent ‘causal’ relationship in daily life. What man perceives as ‘permanent’ is merely God’s habit (‘ādah) manifesting itself, at each successive instant. Contingent events, which man perceives as having been subject to natural physical causes, are in fact the direct result of God’s constant intervention.

Other Theological Implications of Atomism
The concept of atomism was deployed by the Ash’arites in many different fields. In what can only be described as a pun on ideas, it is true to state that the concept of atomism itself became the fundamental building block of all other aspects of Ash’arite theology.
So, for example, based upon this cosmological view, the Ash’arites formalized more than one elaborate proof for the existence of God, the most common one being the ‘dalīl al-’a’rāḍ wa ḥudūth al-ajsām’, or the ‘Proof from accidents and temporality of bodies.’ This proof relies upon the fact that (i) existence is divided into bodies (composed of multiple atoms), and accidents; (ii) bodies are inherently composed of temporal accidents and cannot exist without them, and so: (iii) ‘that which is composed of temporal elements and does not precede it must also be temporal.’ Some of the Ash’arites sought to prove this method from the story of Abraham as he ‘searched’ for God via the celestial objects (Q. 6:71-79). They claimed that Abraham understood that the star, moon and Sun could not be gods because they were moving, and movement was an accident, hence Abraham realized that any body that carried within it an accident must be created and not a God.[12]
Furthermore, based upon this atomic conception, they proved that God is One, and cannot be more than one. This proof is known as dalīl al-tamānu’, or the ‘Proof from mutual exclusion’. A summary of this is as follows: suppose that the universe had two gods, and one of them wished to create the accident of motion within an atom, while the other wished to create the accident of rest. Logically, there are only three possibilities: (i) both of them fail; (ii) both are successful; (iii) one of them is successful while the other fails. The first two logical possibilities are actually impossible, as the two are mutually exclusive, and the object has to be characterized with one of these opposing accidents. This only leaves the third option. And by definition, the one whose will is overpowering all else must be a God, and the one whose will was overpowered cannot be a god.
The Ash’arites and Mu’tazilites also propounded a theory of understanding God’s Attributes based upon their respective understandings of atomism. The primary issue at stake for them was that God could not be a place (maḥall) where accidents exist, as that would imply that He was a body composed of atoms (since accidents by definition need atoms to subside in), and hence created. So, for the Ash’arites, who defined an ‘accident’ as that which cannot last two successive instances, to posit any ‘change’ in God or from God would constitute an accident. And since all accidents must by definition reside in bodies, any accident posited of God would imply that God was a body. It was based upon this definition of ‘accidents’ that the Ash’arites could affirm God’s never-changing attributes of Life, Power, Knowledge, Hearing, Seeing, Will, and Speech, and interpret other Attributes figuratively, especially those that implied any type of motion (such as istiwā and nuzūl).
For the Mu’tazilites, on the other hand, an ‘accident’ was defined as ‘that which is superfluous to the essence (dhāt) of a substance.’[13] For them, any meaning that was not inherent to a being and extraneous to its essence (zā’id ‘alā al-dhāt) constituted an accident. Al-Qāḍī ‘Abd al-Jabbār expounded on this when he said that if God actually had power, this would imply that He were a body, as power can only be potentialized when it resides in a body.[14] Hence, to affirm any characteristic to God would imply that an accident resided within God, which would necessitate God being a body, which would in turn entail that God was created. This helps explain why Mu’tazilite doctrine concerned itself with how best to phrase some of God’s capabilities, (e.g., ‘God knows with His essence’, or ‘God knows with a knowing that is Himself’, or ‘God’s knowing implies that He is not ignorant’, and so forth) as they could not explicitly affirm any meaning within God, yet at the same time could not deny that God, for example, knows everything.[15]
Yet another theological tangent that atomism provided a basis for was that of predestination. In particular, the Ash’arite understanding of qadr was directly linked to their conceptualization of matter.

Atomism and Predestination
The Ash’arite position on predestination is that God creates the actions of the servant directly without the servant himself causing that act, and that the servant then ‘acquires’ the reward or punishment of that deed. Hence, there is only an illusion of free-will, for in the end all actions are a direct result of God’s will and action. This theory, propounded by al-Ash’arī himself, is known as the theory of ‘acquisition’, or kasb. It is, of course, based directly on Ash’arite belief of God re-creating accidents within atoms at each and every second. Man, being merely the agency upon which these accidents are created, cannot actually be the cause of any of his own ‘actions’.[16] Hence, atomism was the key factor that led Ash’arites to deny both natural causality and human free-will.
This understanding led to another ethical dilemma, and that was the accusation of God doing something evil.[17] How was it possible, the Mu’tazilites charged, that God would Himself create the actions of His servant and then punish them for it? This was the essence of evil.
In response to this charge, or perhaps pre-empting it, al-Ash’arī developed his doctrine of what constitutes ‘evil’. For al-Ash’arī, evil was merely what God had prohibited, and good was what He had commanded.[18] Therefore, according to him, no act is inherently judged as good or evil – human intellect and rationality play no role in this regard. Later Ash’arite authorities concurred.[19] Hence, for the Ash’arites, unless God explicitly states so, there is nothing that is ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in the first place! God does not punish or reward based upon a deed – God’s rewards are a gift from him, and His punishment an indication of his Justice, and nothing is required or obligatory on God.[20]
Therefore, for the Ash’arites, based on their definition of evil, the charge that it is evil to deprive man of free-will and then subsequently punish him for actions which God created holds no weight. Man does not have the capacity, or even right, to say what is evil and what is good.
The Mu’tazilites took the exact opposite view. Before explaining their position on free-will, it is interesting to note that, unlike the Ash’arites, the Mu’tazilites did not reduce the concept of causality to a simple and wholly unequivocal scheme, hence it is rather difficult to piece together the relationship between their version of atomism and their position on qadr; for this response, some general observations will be made.[21]
The Mu’tazilites were, of course strong proponents of free-will, hence they denied that God created man’s actions. Instead, they supported the doctrine that man created his own actions with the power that God had given him.[22]
This led to a detailed discussion of the concept of tawallud amongst them: whether (and to what extent) a human action could cause other actions. As an example, suppose a man shoots an arrow, and another person diverts it, and an innocent person is killed, who is morally responsible for his death?[23] Despite the differences that the Mu’tazilite had amongst themselves, as a whole they affirmed causality and believed that substances posses properties that have the capacity to affect other properties.
In contrast to the Ash’arites, they viewed that it was rationally possible to judge actions as evil or good (the issue of al-tahsīn al-’aqlī). This basic premise played a profound role in their understanding of qadr. For the Mu’tazilites, if God were to directly create man’s actions and then punish him for those actions, while man himself has been deprived of free-will, this would be the height of tyranny and injustice. Therefore, God cannot be the creator of man’s deeds. For the Mu’tazilites, the Sacred Law only confirms what the intellect has already judged; it does not play any extra role in this decision.[24]

Atomism was accepted by all factions of kalām and incorporated into their theological models. Even though it was the Mu’tazilites who began the discussion, it was the Ash’arites who took it to a whole new level, and relied upon it even more than the Mu’tazilites.
For the Ash’arites, the only perpetual object is the atom. The atom itself is created at a specific point in time, but after that time, it remains in creation until God wills otherwise. Everything else in the world besides the atom is ‘accidental,’ meaning something that lasts for only a fleeting instant. And time itself is composed of discrete, successive units that are not directly connected to each other. It is God who must create and re-create each accident, on each atom, at each instance of time. Based upon this understanding, they extracted proofs for God’s existence, His Unity, His Attributes, and His all-encompassing power (i.e., predestination). Additionally, they denied natural causality.
For the Mu’tazilites, although they did use their understanding of atomism to derive similar proofs for God’s existence, since they defined ‘accidents’ in a manner different to that of the Ash’arites, their understanding of God’s attributes differed as well. Additionally, they did not elaborate upon the relationship of atomism with free-will as much as the Ash’arites did.
Other issues, not directly related to atomism, also played a role in conceptualizing their respective positions on predestination versus free-will. For the Mu’tazilites, if God demanded obedience from man yet simultaneously created his actions and deprived him of any free-will, it would be the height if injustice and contradict Divine Wisdom. All of this is clear and incontrovertible, according to them, because the intellect is capable of deciding what is praiseworthy and what is not. For the Ash’arites, since the intellect plays no role in deciding good from evil, it was not possible to judge any of God’s actions. Therefore, if God requires us to do something and, at the same time, does not grant us an independent will to execute it, that is permissible, for God can commit no injustice, and we cannot judge the actions of God.

The debate of whether this elusive ‘smallest indivisible object’ actually exists remains alive up until today. The belief in such objects survived, even as it adapted and modified itself through many controversies, via medieval Christianity, Jewish philosophy, and the Renaissance. Finally, in the post-Enlightenment period, John Dalton (d. 1844) formulated his concept of the atomic theory, which was then developed and held sway for much of the 19th and early 20th century. For the first time, atoms were discovered to be of different types, and molecules to be combinations of atoms. Daltonian physics still considered the atom to be the smallest indivisible unit, but claimed (unlike kalām) that atoms of different substances were different from one another. From the early part of the 20th century, physicists, starting with Rutherford (d. 1937), discovered smaller sub-atomic particles from which atoms were made, namely, electrons, protons and neutrons. This then gave way (largely due to the efforts of Max Planck (d. 1947) and Albert Einstein (d. 1955)) to quantum mechanics, and later to the discovery of even smaller sub-atomic particles, such as quarks and leptons, which are currently believed to combine in specific ways to form protons and neutrons. Research is still being done in this field, and daily discoveries and experiments continue to shape and challenge current theories.
For those theologians who based aspects of their theology on atomism, it is interesting to posit how these new scientific discoveries might possibly affect their theological models and positions.

[1] See: John McDonnell, The Concept of an Atom from Democritus to John Dalton (New York: 1991) p. 1-4, 21-25.
[2] Bernard Pullman, The Atom in the History of Human Thought (Oxford University Press: 1998), p. 17.
[3] Wolfson, Philosophy of the Kalām, p. 468.
[4] It should be noted that there is a very strong possibility of Indian atomism heavily influencing the mutakallimūn as well, as Pines (p. 117) and Wolfson (p. 473) show.
[5] Al-Ash’arī, Maqālāt, p. 314-321.
[6] Much has been written on this. The standard introduction is that of Shlomo Pines, Studies in Islamic Atomism (Jerusalem: 1997). Also see Richard M. Frank, “Bodies and Atoms: The Ash’arite Analysis;” Bernard Pullman, The History of the Atom, p. 107-114; Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalām, p. 466-518; EI2, s.v., ‘Djuz’. It is interesting to note that the most accessible and elaborate explanation of kalām atomism has been written by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed. D. Macdonald has translated and analyzed these passages in his article “Continuous Recreation and Atomic Time,” Isis, v. 9 (1927).
[7] Wolfson, Philosophy, p. 495. The ṭufrah is the belief that an object has the capacity to move from point A to point C without traveling through the intermediate point B but rather ‘leaping’ over it. This belief was needed in order to explain how a body could traverse from point A to point C when, according to al-Naẓẓām, there were an infinite amout of points between them.
[8] Ibid, p. 471.
[9] See, for example, al-Ash’arī, Maqālāt, p. 358; al-Baghdādī, Uṣūl al-Dīn, p. 50, al-Ghazālī, Tahāfut, p. 88.
[10] Macdonald, ‘Continuous Re-Creation,’ p. 320.
[11] See al-Ghazāli’s Seventeenth Discussion in his Incoherence (tr. Marmura), p.171-3.
[12] Al-Bāqillāni, al-Inṣāf, p. 44. I have written a paper on this specific issue elsewhere. Also see: Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalām, p. 386-390; Herbert Davidson, Proofs for eternity, creation, and the existence of God in medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy.
[13] Al-Ash’arī, Maqālāt, p. 369; Frank, “Bodies and Atoms,” p. 42.
[14] Sharḥ Uṣūl al-Khamsah, p. 162.
[15] It goes without saying that both the Ash’arites and Mu’tazilites had other concerns as well, all of which led them to formulate their respective doctrines regarding the Attributes of God; the point here is to stress how their theory of atomism directly affected their conceptualization of God’s Attributes.
[16] Watt, The Formative Period, p. 315.
[17] It also led them to develop a unique understanding of God’s justice: for the Ash’arites, God was never unjust, not because He chose not do show injustice (the Mu’tazilite position), but rather because whatever He did was always just. Hence, if He rewarded a sinner or punished a just man, that recompense in and of itself would constitute Justice on God’s part. This of course solved the conundrum of how God could (from the Mu’tazilite perspective) ‘force’ someone to do something and then punish him for it.
[18] Al-Ash’arī, Risālah īlā Ahl al-Thaghr, p. 74.
[19] See, for example, ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Bahdādī, Uṣūl al-Dīn, p. 149; ‘Aḍad al-Dīn al-Ījī, al-Mawāqif, p. 323.
[20] See, for example, al-Bāqillānī’s description of this in his al-Inṣāf p. 48.
[21] See Pines discussion of this in his Studies, p. 32-34. I believe this issue certainly warrants further study.
[22] al-Qāḍī Abd al-Jabbār, al-Mughnī, v 2, p. 340.
[23] Pines, p. 37-8; al-Ash’arī, Maqālāt, p. 408-10.
[24] See al-Qāḍī Abd al-Jabbār, al-Mughnī, v. 6, p. 26, 30 – 34. Also, it should be borne in mind that the Mu’tazilite authorities differed amongst themselves on some of the finer details of this issue. In particular, is an act inherently good or evil, or is it due to external consequences that such a description can be made? The former view is held by the Baghdadian authorities, while the Basrians held the latter view.