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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2015

Alnoor Dhanani*
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University6 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA


Kalām atomism stood in opposition to the Aristotelian natural philosophy of the falāsifa. In the Physics of the Shifā', Ibn Sīnā undertook a detailed refutation of kalām atomism through several arguments. These arguments elicited a muted response from al-Ghazālī, whose commitment to kalām was minimal at best. A more forceful response seems to have been offered by al-Shahrastānī but its details remain sketchy due to the lack of surviving sources. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, whose intellectual development went through a phase of commitment to Avicennism and thereby a vigorous endorsement of Ibn Sīnā's anti-atomist arguments followed by a phase of a critical engagement with Avicennism, provides a detailed rebuttal to Ibn Sīnā's arguments in addition to constructing novel arguments in defense of kalām atomism.


L'atomisme du kalām s'est constitué en opposition à la philosophie naturelle aristotélicienne des falāsifa. Dans la Physique du Shifā', Avicenne s'en est livré à une réfutation détaillée et fondée sur de nombreux arguments. Ces derniers ont donné lieu à une réponse fort discrète chez al-Ghazālī, dont l'obédience au kalām était au mieux évanescente. Une réponse plus développée semble avoir été le fait d'al-Shahrastānī, encore qu'on n'en puisse retracer que les grandes lignes en raison du manque de sources transmises. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, qui est passé dans son développement intellectuel par une phase avicennienne, donc par une adoption vigoureuse des arguments anti-atomistes d'Avicenne, suivie d'une phrase critique à l'égard de la philosophie du maître, ne se borne pas à fournir une réponse détaillée aux arguments d'Ibn Sīnā, mais construit de nouveaux arguments en faveur de l'atomisme du kalām.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 An earlier and shorter version of this paper was presented at the Avicenna Conference on the Occasion of the Publication of the Physics of the Healing, Park City, Utah, June 8–12, 2010. I thank the organizers for inviting me to this conference and to participating colleagues for their comments.

2 As I will discuss below, al-Shahrastānī's commitment to Ashʿarism, particularly during the later period of his life, has been questioned in light of evidence which suggests a commitment to views associated with the Ismāʿīlīs (see Mayer's, Toby introduction in his Keys to the Arcana: Shahrastānī's Esoteric Commentary on the Qur'ān [Oxford, 2009], pp. 319Google Scholar).

3 Bostock, D., “Aristotle on continuity in Physics VI”, in Judson, L. (ed.), Aristotle's Physics: A Collection of Essays (Oxford, 1995), pp. 179212Google Scholar; Pyle, A., Atomism and its Critics (Bristol, 1995), pp. 25–7Google Scholar.

4 Avicenna, , The Physics of the Healing, trans. by McGinnis, J. (Provo, UT, 2009), vol. 2, p. 262Google Scholar. I have modified McGinnis' translations in some places.

5 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 273.

6 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 274.

7 Ibid.

8 He calls them “Epicurus's foreign imitators” (al-khārijīn) (ibid., vol. 2, p. 280).

9 Marmura, M., “Avicenna and the kalām”, Zeitschrift für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften, 7 (1991–1992): 183–94Google Scholar.

10 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 275. This is equivalent to Ibn Mattawayh's first argument (Dhanani, A., The Physical Theory of Kalām [Leiden, 1994], pp. 153–9Google Scholar).

11 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 276. This is equivalent to Ibn Mattawayh's second argument (Dhanani, Physical, pp. 160–2). For an analysis of the discussion of the half-distances argument deriving from Zeno, see Pyle, Atomism, pp. 1–19.

12 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 276. This is equivalent to Ibn Mattawayh's fourth argument (Dhanani, Physical, pp. 163–5).

13 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 276.

14 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 276; al-Juwaynī, , al-Shāmil fī uṣūl al-dīn, ed. by al-Nashshār, ʿA. et al. (Alexandria, 1969), p. 143Google Scholar.

15 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 277; Dhanani, Physical, pp. 148–50.

16 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 277.

17 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 279. See also Sorabji, R., “Chapter twenty-five: atoms and divisible leaps in Islamic thought”, in Time, Creation, and the Continuum: Theories in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, New York, 1983), pp. 384402Google Scholar.

18 Avicenna, vol. 2, p. 280; Dhanani, Physical, pp. 176–80.

19 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 282–4. I have used Jon McGinnis' numbering of the atom and his diagram. The argument hinges on is what it means to be a minimal part or atom, which is not also a body. For the atomist mutakallimūn, atoms have minimal magnitude despite being non-bodies. They therefore claimed that their aggregation results in bodies whose magnitude is dependent on the quantity of atoms that constituted them (Dhanani, Physical, pp. 106–13).

20 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 284.

21 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 286.

22 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 284–91. McGinnis translates mudarrasa as “successively indented layers” but cf. Lane, E., An Arabic-English Lexicon (Beirut, 1968), vol. 5, p. 255 col. 5Google Scholar. For the kalām treatment of “geometrical difficulties” see Dhanani, Physical, pp. 172–6.

23 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 291–2. Ibn Sīnā's argument relies on a continuous conception of space and its occupation. For the kalām discussion see Dhanani, Physical, p. 126.

24 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 293–4. Ibn Mattawayh also discusses the gnomon and its shadow (Dhanani, Physical, p. 129).

25 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 295.

26 Ibid. For the kalām discussion see Dhanani, Physical, pp. 178–80.

27 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 296–7. For the kalām discussion see Dhanani, Physical, 138–9 and Dhanani, , “Problems in kalām physics,” Bulletin of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, 4 (2002): 7396Google Scholar.

28 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 298–9. This is because, in the discrete or atomic theory of space, the meaning of motion is the complete instantaneous transfer of a moving atom from its originating discrete spatial cell (or space-atom) to a neighboring spatial cell. As a result, two atoms in motion across adjacent paths may cross each other without ever being opposite each other.

29 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 299–300. For Ibn Mattawayh's discussion of this “difficulty” see Dhanani, Physical, p. 128. A similar argument is found in Sextus Empiricus' Against the Physicists (Pyle, Atomism, p. 33).

30 We do not have precise information regarding Ibn Mattawayh's dates. It is evident that he studied with ʿAbd al-Jabbār, probably when the latter was advanced in age. We know that ʿAbd al-Jabbār died in 414/1023 or 415/1024 when he was a little over ninety years old. Some scholars have suggested 468/1075 or 469/1076 as Ibn Mattawayh's death date (Murād, R., Ibn Mattawayh wa-ārāʾuh al-kalāmiyya wa-al-falsafiyya [Cairo, 1991], pp. 98–9Google Scholar; Heemskerk, M., Suffering in Muʿtazilite Theology [Leiden, 2000], p. 65Google Scholar).

31 For the “encounter” between Ibn Sīnā and ʿAbd al-Jabbār, see Dhanani, A., “Rocks in the Heavens!? The encounter between ʿAbd al-Jabbar and Ibn Sina”, in Reisman, D. (ed.), Before and After Avicenna (Leiden, 2003), pp. 127–44Google Scholar.

32 Wisnovsky, R., “One aspect of the Avicennan turn in Sunni theology”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 14 (2004): 65100Google Scholar, p. 90. However, the term wājib al-wujūd may have kalām antecedants. The term appears in the Ziyādāt Sharḥ al-uṣūl by the Zaydī imām al-Nāṭiq bi-l-ḥaqq Abū Ṭālib Yaḥyā b. al-Ḥusayn b. al-Hārūn al-Buthānī (d. 424/1033) in the rescension of his student Abū al-Qāsim Aḥmad b. Mahdī al-Ḥasanī. Since this is a composite text whose layers are not distinguishable, it is unclear whether the usage of wājib al-wujūd is to be ascribed to Ibn Khallād (fl. c. 330/941), the author of the Kitāb al-Uṣūl, or to his commentator al-Nāṭiq bi-l-ḥaqq or to the latter's student Abū al-Qāsim (Adang, C., Madelung, W., Schmidtke, S., Baṣran Muʿtazilite Theology: Abū ʿAlī Muḥammad ibn Khallād's Kitāb al-Uṣūl and its Reception [Leiden, 2011], pp. 45Google Scholar, 44, 249).

33 Al-Juwaynī, al-Shāmil, p. 143.

34 Ibid., pp. 143–7. These are equivalent to the first, second, and fourth arguments of the Basrian Muʿtazila (Dhanani, Physical, pp. 152–65).

35 Frank, R., Al-Ghazālī and the Ashʿarite School (Durham and London, 1994), pp. 127Google Scholar, 80–5.

36 Al-Ghazālī, , Maqāṣid al-falāsifa, ed. by Kurdī, M. (Cairo, 1936), vol. 1, p. 3Google Scholar; al-Ghazālī, , The Incoherence of the Philosophers, trans. by Marmura, M. (Provo, UT, 1997), p. 11Google Scholar.

37 Al-Ghazālī, Maqāṣid, vol. 2, pp. 12–16; Sīnā, Ibn, Kitāb al-Najāt, ed. by Fakhry, M. (Beirut, 1985), pp. 139–41Google Scholar.

38 Frank characterizes the Maqāsid as “a completely neutral work” (Frank, Al-Ghazālī, p. 93).

39 Al-Ghazālī, Incoherence, p. 186. Frank (Al-Ghazālī, pp. 58–67) illustrates al-Ghazālī's use of terms arising from Ashʿarī atomism for the “rational soul” in the Iḥyāʾ, for example, al-juzʾ … alladhī lā yatajazzaʾ wa-lā yanqasim, juzʾ, and juzʾ lā yatajazzaʾ. In his view “Used of the soul by al-Ghazālī, however, juzʾ plainly means an indivisible entity which, as such, is a discrete element of the living human composite” (Frank, Al-Ghazālī, p. 66). For a critique of Frank's position see Gianotti, T., Al-Ghazālī's Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul (Leiden, 2001), pp. 6887CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Al-Ghazālī, Incoherence, p. 187.

41 Ibid., p. 191.

42 Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī further adds: This is what Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī has stated in his book titled al-Jawhar al-fard (Sīnā, Ibn, al-Ishārāt wa-al-tanbīhāt, ed. by Dunya, S. [Cairo, 1957–1960], vol. 2, p. 151Google Scholar).

43 Ibn Sīnā, al-Ishārāt, vol. 2, p. 151. See also al-Rāzī, Fakhr, al-Mabāḥith al-mashriqiyya, ed. by al-Baghdādī, M. (Beirut, 1990), vol. 2, pp. 1517Google Scholar.

44 Al-Shahrastānī, Struggling with the Philosopher: a Refutation of Avicenna's Metaphysics. A new Arabic edition and English translation of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Aḥmad al-Shahrastānī's Kitāb al-Muṣāraʿa, ed. and trans. by Madelung, W. and Mayer, T. (London, 2001)Google Scholar, p. 20 of the English translation and ٣ of the Arabic text.

45 See the index in al-Shahrastānī's, Niḥāyat al-aqdām, ed. Guillaume, A. (London, 1934)Google Scholar, p. 170 of the English pagination.

46 Al-Shahrastānī, al-Muṣāraʿa, p. 22 of the English translation and ٧ of the Arabic text.

47 This is presumably the same as al-Manāhij wa-al-ayāt listed by Bayhaqī (G. Monnot, Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, s.v. “al-Shahrastānī”; Bayhaqī, , Tatimmat ṣiwān al-ḥikma, ed. al-ʿAjām, R. [Beirut, 1994], p. 120Google Scholar).

48 Baffioni, C., Atomismo et antiatomismo nel pensiero islamico (Naples, 1982), p. 179Google Scholar.

49 Ibid. However Monnot lists it as one of al-Shahrastānī's works even though it is not mentioned by al-Bayhaqī in his admittedly incomplete list of works by al-Shahrastānī (Monnot, “al-Shahrastānī”; Bayhaqī, Tatimmat, pp. 119–21).

50 Al-Zarkān, , Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī wa-ārāʾuh al-kalāmiyya wa-al-falsafiyya (Cairo, 1963), pp. 80Google Scholar, 82, 106, 124. Al-Zarkān mentions that the Qānūn commentary is perhaps only on the Kulliyāt section and the commentary on the Shifāʾ is perhaps only on the Metaphysics section. He also expresses doubts regarding the authenticity of commentaries on the Shifāʾ and the Najāt.

51 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, p. 70; Baffioni, Atomismo, p. 212. This text is also mentioned by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī in his Ishārāṭ commentary (Ibn Sīnā, Ishārāt, vol. 2, p. 151).

52 Baffioni, Atomismo, pp. 211–75.

53 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, pp. 419–38; Setia, A., “Atomism versus hylomorphism in the kalam of al-Fakhr al-Din al-Razi: a preliminary survey of the Matalib al-ʿAliyyah”, Islam and Science, 4 (2006): 113–40Google Scholar.

54 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, pp. 67–98.

55 Ibid., p. 69. The text of the Ishāra has recently been published (al-Rāzī, Fakhr al-Dīn, al-Ishāra fī ʿilm al-kalām, ed. by Muḥammad, H. [Cairo, 2009]Google Scholar). While al-Zarkān is correct in his assessment of al-Rāzī's deference to al-Ashʿarī, there is no discussion of atomism per se in the Ishāra. Rather, its subject matter is primarily theological, namely, God, His attributes, prophecy, revelation, resurrection etc. al-Rāzī uses the term jawhar, which in the kalām context signifies the atom and in the falsafa context signifies substance. But al-Rāzī does not unambiguously equate jawhar to al-juzʾ alladhī lā yatajazzaʾ or al-jawhar al-fard both of which refer to the atom. For example, in the discussion of how knowledge (ʿilm) arises through reflection (naẓar), al-Rāzī states “Some say, ‘reflection engenders (yuwallid) knowledge’, others say, ‘it necessitates it (yuwajjibuh)’, and still others say, ‘it requires the inseparable qualities (yulāzimuh mulāzima) of al-jawāhir and accidents” (F. al-Rāzī, al-Ishāra, p. 45). Moreover, al-Rāzī prefers to use body (jism) where his kalām predecessors had instead used atom (jawhar or juzʾ). For example, in the chapter “The existence of bodies (al-ajsām) has a temporal beginning” he states “bodies are not devoid of temporal entities (ḥawādith). That which is not devoid of temporal entities must be temporal (ḥādith). Therefore bodies are temporally created (muḥdatha)” (ibid., p. 53) or “bodies are homogenous (al-ajsām kulluh mutamāthila)” (ibid., p. 61).

56 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, pp. 80–1, 84–5. Muḥammad al-Baghdādī, the editor of the Mabāḥith adds that the Mabāḥith and the Mulakhkhāṣ were also written before 582 AH (F. al-Rāzī, Mabāḥith, vol. 1, p. 72).

57 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, p. 426.

58 Ibid. quoting from Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, vol. 2, p. 144 of the MS Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya, Tawḥīd 748.

59 Al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, pp. 92–6, 427. Al-Zarkān considers al-Muḥaṣṣal al-afkār al-mutaqaddimīn wa-al-mutaʾkhkhirīn to be the other work in the category of a synthesis between kalām and falsafa (ibid., p. 93).

60 Setia, “The physical theory of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī,” PhD diss. (International Islamic University Malaysia, 2005) and “Atomism versus hylomorphism.”

61 Baffioni, Atomismo, p. 211.

62 Ibid., p. 260. According to al-Zarkān (Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, p. 67), al-Rāzī wrote the Arbaʿīn for his son Muḥammad. Al-Zarkān is unable to provide information on the date of its composition, but his analysis of inter-textual references suggests that it is a relatively later work.

63 Baffioni has two references to the Maṭālib in the course of her discussion of the atomism of Muḥammad Abū Zakariyyāʾ al-Rāzī. Both references rely on Paul Kraus' collection of fragments related to the views of this earlier al-Rāzī, and in this case the fragments are taken from Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī's Maṭālib (Baffioni, Atomismo, pp. 130, 133).

64 F. al-Rāzī, al-Mabāḥith, vol. 2, pp. 19–22.

65 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 23.

66 Ibid. However, al-Rāzī's configuration is different. Like Ibn Sīnā, he has a row of four atoms (a, b, c, d). Then there is an atom (y) on top of the rightmost atom in the row, that is d, and an atom (z) beneath the leftmost atom in the row, that is a. Now y and z begin to move to the ends of the atoms in the row. Even though, in the course of their motion, they will be opposite each of the atoms in the row, they will never be opposite each other.

67 Ibid. The earlier extensive discussion of motion is at vol. 1, pp. 593–681.

68 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 23–4. Hence Themistius' remark that for Epicurean atomism one cannot say that an atom is in motion but only that it “has moved” (Furley, D., Two Studies in the Greek Atomists [Princeton, 1967], pp. 113–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

69 F. al-Rāzī, al-Mabāḥith, vol. 2, p. 24.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 25–6.

72 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 26.

73 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 26–9.

74 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 29.

75 Dhanani, Physical, pp. 180–1.

76 F. al-Rāzī, al-Mabāḥith, vol. 2, p. 30.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 33.

79 Al-Rāzī notes in the Maṭālib that he had devoted a monograph titled Jawhar al-fard to atomism (ibid., vol. 6, p. 32). This text has not survived (al-Zarkān, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, p. 70).

80 F. al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib, vol. 6, pp. 29–30, 45–46. Ibn Sīnā discusses the interrelation of space, time and motion in 3.6 of the Physics of the Shifāʾ (Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 311–19). Of course this interrelationship had been mentioned earlier by Aristotle.

81 F. al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib, vol. 6, pp. 30–4.

82 Ibid., vol. 6, pp. 43–4.

83 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 47.

84 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 54.

85 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 61.

86 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 62.

87 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 71.

88 Ibid., vol. 6, pp. 69–71.

89 Avicenna, Physics, vol. 2, p. 304.

90 F. al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib, vol. 6, p. 71.

91 Al-Rāzī's version of this argument is more colorful than that of Ibn Sīnā for the resulting parts of the division are said to cover “the Throne, the Footstool, the heavens, and the earths, not only once, but a thousand times” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 75).

92 Ibid. This is not a direct quotation but al-Rāzī's summary of Ibn Sīnā's response to the kalām argument (Ibn Sīnā, Physics, vol. 2, p. 305).

93 Ibid., vol. 6, pp. 71–2.

94 Ibn Sīnā, Physics, vol. 2, pp. 308–9.

95 F. al-Rāzī, al-Maṭālib, vol. 6, p. 71.

96 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 73.

97 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 88.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 93.

100 F. al-Rāzī, al-Arbaʿīn, vol. 2, pp. 6–11. Al-Rāzī lists the arguments from motion, time, principles of geometry, and finitude of the magnitude of bodies.

101 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 11–16.

102 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 17.

103 However Baffioni's conclusion is that while al-Rāzī's was critical of Peripatetic arguments against atomism, he was not a proponent of kalām atomism, primarily because of the geometric difficulties it raised (Atomismo, p. 275).