Academic journal article Islam & Science

Atomism versus Hylomorphism in the Kalam of Al-Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi: A Preliminary Survey of the Matalib Al-'Aliyyah

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Atomism versus Hylomorphism in the Kalam of Al-Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi: A Preliminary Survey of the Matalib Al-'Aliyyah

Article excerpt

Hylomorphism (theory of matter and form) and atomism (theory of atoms and accidents) have been the two main Islamic physical theories attempting to account for the structure of the world, the former defended by the philosophers (falasifah) and the other by the theologians (mutakallimun). Among the most articulate, erudite and effective defender of atomism is the formidable, 6th/12th century mutakallim, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. Here, his geometrical arguments for atomism are presented along with an explanation as to why the mutakallimun as a whole, even until today, are so committed to atomism and occasionalism.

Keywords: Atomism; hylomorphism; physical theories; falisifah; mutakallimun; Fakhr al-Din al-Razi; Ibn Sina; al-Matalib al-'Aliyyah.


In the long history of Islamic philosophical thought, two contrasting theories of the fundamental structure of the physical world came to be predominant. These were the Aristotelian-Avicennan theory of form and matter (surah wa maddah = hylomorphism) of the great majority of the falasifah, (1) and the kalam theory of atoms and accidents (jawahir wa a'rad = atomism) of the great majority of the Mu'tazilite and Ash'arite-Maturidite mutakallimun. (2) The falasifah's theory of bodies as constituted of matter and form tends to ascribe a degree of ontic and causal autonomy to nature or rather to matter that is viewed as very problematic (from both the physical and theological viewpoints) by the mutakallimun, for whom the world, including matter, is totally dependent on God for every spatio-temporal instant of its existence. Also, the notion, implicit in hylomorphism, of a more or less autonomous nature operating on the basis of inherent causal principles entails a necessary connection between physical causes and effects, thus putting an external restriction on the freedom of the divine will and power.

In contrast, for the mutakallimun, God is not only the ultimate transcendent inceptor (mujid, muhdith) and motivator (muharrik) of the world (al-'alam), He is also the proximate, immanent sustainer (mubqi) and administrator (mudabbir) of the world, directly involved through His knowledge, will and power in each and every particular aspects of the structures, processes and ends of nature. As Endress puts it, "The affirmation of atomism had been one of the solutions found by Muslim theologians for the apories of their theology--apories concerning the omnipotence and omniscience of God." (3)

Endress's study of the works of Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 363/974), for instance, draws a valuable picture of the atomist-antiatomist polemics between an accomplished faylasuf and his contemporaries from among the mutakallimin, especially the newly assertive Ash'arites. (4) About a generation later Ibn Sina (d. 1037), in the Shifa, (5) Najat, (6) and 'Uyun al-Hikmah (7) is also drawn to a critical engagement with aspects of Greek and kalam physical theories including atomism. (8) An aspect of this engagement is his wide-ranging debate through correspondence with the great polymath, al-Biruni (d. ca 1051), who also happens to be sympathetic to kalam atomism and criticises Ibn Sina for rejecting it. (9)

As is so often the case, critical engagement also brings about in its wake positive influences upon the critic from the one being criticised. Traces of these positive influences can be found in Ibn Sina's psychology of knowledge and his theories of causality and demonstration. (10) A much earlier philosopher, Abu Bakr Muhammad Zakariyya al-Razi (d. 925 or 935) is a staunch atomist, though his atoms are eternal entities totally at odds with the incepted, dimensionless atoms of the mutakallimin whose thought he criticizes. (11) Al-Biruni's contemporary in the Islamic far west, the great Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), rejects both atomism and hylomorphism, and proffers his own version of creatio ex nihilo. (12) Much earlier, right at the very dawn of Arabo-Islamic philosophy, al-Kindi (d. …

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