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The Asharite school and the Formulation of the Occasionalist Metaphysics of Atoms and accidents

II The Asharite school and the Formulation of the Occasionalist Metaphysics of Atoms and accidents

The elaboration of the implication of al-Ashari's new theological outlook was left chiefly to his successors in the tenth and the eleventh centuries. Apart from the substance of their anti-Mutazilite creed, their attention was now centered on two fundamental questions: (1) the nature and limits of rational knowledge in relation to religious truth (aql AS. Sam), and (2) the metaphysical framework in which the concept of God's sovereignty and omnipotence should be expressed. Neither of these questions appears to have been discussed with any thoroughness by the founder of Asharite movement himself.

The first major figure in the history of Asharite school was Abu Bakr al-Baqalani (d. 1013), who belongs to the second generation of Asharite doctors. This theologian, who is credited by later authors with refining the methods of Kalam,[15] gives in his al-Tamhid the first systematic statement of the Asharite doctrine and its metaphysical framework.

The book opens with a discussion of the nature of knowledge or science (ilm), in a manner which sets the pattern for similar Asharite treatises such as al-Baghdadi's Usul al-Din and al-Juwayni's al-Irshad, but it has a distinctly modern ring. Thus, ilm is defined by the author as "the knowledge of the object, as it really is."[16] The object in question is then shown to include both that which is and that which is not (al-madum), which the Mutazilah but not the Asharites had declared to be a thing (shay'). Such ilm falls into two major categories: the eternal knowledge of God and the temporal or created knowledge of creatures capable of cognition, such as men, angels, jinn, etc. The latter knowledge is subdivided in turn into necessary (or intuitive) and discursive.

Necessary knowledge is knowledge which can not be doubted. A subsidiary meaning, however, is that which cannot be dispensed with i.e. needful.[17] Discursive knowledge, on the hand is knowledge which is the result of prolonged reflection, or, stated differently, knowledge which rests on necessary or empirical knowledge.

Such necessary knowledge is acquired through one or the other of the five senses and is essentially indubitable. However, there is a type of necessary knowledge which is not a matter of sensation, but is the result of the immediate apprehension of the mind, for instance man's knowledge of his own existence and his inner states or affections, such as pleasure or pain, love or hate, knowledge or ignorance. To this should also be added the knowledge of the truth or falsity of indicative statements, as well as the second-intention type of knowledge, such as the knowledge of what makes shame shameful, fear fearful, etc.[18]

The third type of necessary knowledge includes, significantly enough, the authoritative accounts of events or facts which are geographically or historically remote, such a the existence of other countries, of historical personages, and of ancient kingdoms. To this type of knowledge belongs a supernatural or extraordinary variety, which God infuses directly into the Soul, without the help of intermediaries or sense organs, which are the normal channels of this type of knowledge.[19]

The distinction between rational and authoritative knowledge was first broached by the Mutazilah,[20] who sought to extend the domain of reason well into regions which so far had been considered the exclusive preserve of revelation or faith. The Asharite doctors, as illustrated in al-Baqalani's case, recognized the validity of rational knowledge but reacted instinctively against the Mutazilite infringement on the domain of faith. On two fundamental questions of "natural theology" and ethics, namely, whether God can be known rationally, independently of revelation, and whether the knowledge of good and evil is possible prior to revelation, the Asharite theologians took a qualified anti-Mutazilite stand. The existence of God and His unity can be known rationally from the consideration of the createdness (Huduth) of the world and the logical necessity of a creator (muhdith).

To demonstrate this necessity, Asharite doctors argued that the world, which they defined as everything other than God,[21] was composed of atoms and accidents. Now accidents cannot endure for two successive moments, but are continually created by God, who produces and annihilates them at will.[22] Similarly, the atoms in which these accidents inhere are continually created by God and can only endure by virtue of the accident of duration created in them by God.[23] It follows from this premise that the world, being created, must necessarily have a creator.[24]

Al-Baqalani's version of this argument differs little from the general Asharite argument. He does, however, strengthen this argument by two others in which the "middle term" is

different, but not the dialectical structure of the reasoning. In the first, he argues that the priority of certain things in time requires an "agent who made them prior," who is God. In the second, he introduces the concept of contingency and argues that things, considered in themselves, are susceptible of various forms or qualities. The fact that they actually possess certain forms and no others presupposes a "determinant" who decrees that they should receive these forms and no others, and this determinant is God.[25] The last argument, or argument a contingentia mundi, is more fully developed by later authors, particularly al-Juwayni (d. 1086) in his al-Risalah al-Nizamiyah, and is the argument which, as we have seen,[26] Ibn Sina fully exploited in his Metaphysics. It is noteworthy, however, that the generality of the Asharite theologians showed a distinct predilection for the argument a novitate mundi (huduth) in so far as it harmonized with their concept of a world created in time by an omnipotent God.[27]

On the other major issue of moral theology, the distinction between good and evil, the Asharite doctors were equally in disagreement with the Mutazilah. For, whereas the latter held that man can determine rationally what is good and evil, prior to revelation, the Asharites adhered to a strict voluntarist ethics. Good is what God has prescribed, evil what He has prohibited. In keeping with this voluntarist thesis, they were reluctant to admit that any merit attached to that type of rational knowledge which is attainable through unaided reason.[28] God's power and sovereignty are such that the very meaning of justice and injustice is bound up with His arbitary decrees. Apart from those decrees, justice and injustice, good and evil, have no meaning whatsoever. Thus God is not compelled, as the Mutazilah had argued, to take note of what is "fitting" in regard to His creatures and to safeguard their moral or religious interests, so to speak, but is entirely free to punish the innocent and remit the sins of the wicked. And had He so desired, He could have created a universe entirely different from the one which He has in fact created, or refrained from creating this universe or any part of it altogether.[29]

The metaphysical implementation of the theological and ethical outlook we have just outlined was the other major philosophical task the Asharite school set itself. In this regard the differences between its major representatives, from al-Baqalani to al-Shahrastani, are minor. Al-Baqalani, however, played a pioneering role in elaborating the metaphysical groundwork of Asharism. Significantly, later authors credit him with the introduction of atomism, which served as the metaphysical prop of Asharite theology.

The introduction of atomism certainly antedates the rise of the Asharite school itself, despite the statement of Ibn Khaldun that al-Baqalani was responsible for the "introduction of the rational premises on which proofs or theories depend, such as the existence of atoms, the void, and the proposition that an accident does not inhere in another accident or endure for two moments."[30] From the accounts of Islamic atomism contained in the earliest treatise on Islamic "schisms and heresies," Maqalat al-Islamiyin, written by the founder of the Asharite school himself, it appears that atomism had become firmly established in theological circles by the middle of the ninth century. Thus Dirar b. Amr, a contemporary of wasil b. Ata' (d. 748) and one of the earliest Mu'tazilite doctors of Basra, seems to have been the first theologian to challenge the generally accepted dualism of substance and accident. Al-Ashari reports that Dirar held that "body is an aggregate of accidents, which once constituted, becomes the bearer of accidents."[31] Similarly a thoroughgoing Shi'ite materialist who professed an anthropomorphic view of God of the crudest type, Hisham b. al-Hakam, challenged, as we have seen,[32] this orthodox dualism and reduced everything to the notion of body, which according to him was divisible ad infinitum[33] and consequently was not made up of atoms.

By the ninth century, the atomic theory of Kalam began to take definite shape. From al-Ashari's account, we can infer that Abu'l-Hudhail (d. 841 or 849), al-Iskafi (d. 854-855), al-Juba'i (d. 915), al-Ashari's own master, Muammar, a contemporary of Abu'l-Hudhail, as well as two contemporaries of his, Hisham al-Fuwati and 'Abbad b. Sulayman, accepted the atomic theory in one form or another.[34] To take al-Juba'i as an instance, this doctor defined substance or the atom as the bearer or substratum of accidents, which, he added, "was such in itself, and can be conceived as substance prior to its coming-to-be,"[35] presumably in some disembodied Platonic state.

The metaphysical speculation on substance and accident, initiated by the Mutazilah in the eighth century, was continued and refined by post-Mutazilite doctors. The Asharites, engrossed as they were with God's omnipotence and sovereignty in the world, found in atomism a convenient device for bolstering their theological claims. An Aristotelian world-view, dominated by causal processes that unfolded themselves almost mechanically, was ill-suited to their declared purpose of affirming God's prerogative to act freely and imperiously in the world. A collocation of atoms which depended, like the accidents inhering in them, on God's good pleasure, both for their creation and their duration, was more compatible in their view with the notion of God's arbitrary power .

Against the negators of the accidents, these doctors urged that the motion of a body subsequent to its rest is either due to the body itself or to something other than the body. The first alternative is absurd, since the body remains the same throughout the two successive states of motion and rest. Consequently it can only be due to something other than the body, which we call the accident.[36] Similarly, the existence of a number of strokes inflicted by an agent on a patient, for instance, is distinct from the agent, the patient, or the instrument of striking. Therefore, the number of strokes is something distinct from all those factors, and that is what we understand by accident.

The number of the accidents which the orthodox recognized totals thirty. In a general way, they may be divided into primary and secondary accidents, depending on whether they accompany substance necessarily or not. The first of the primary accidents are the essential modi or states (singular: kaun) such as motion, rest, composition, location. Then come the accidents of color, heat, cold, etc.[37] Al-Ashari is reported by al-Baghdadi as holding that eight of the accidents accompany substance necessarily: motion, color, taste, smell, heat or its opposite, dampness or its opposite, life or its opposite, and finally duration.[38]

The most peculiar variations on the theme of accidents are ascribed to Mutazilite and Ashaite doctors. Thus the Mutazilite al-Kabi and his followers are said to have held thlat substance can be divested of all these "primary accidents" save color; and Abu Hashim, al-Juba'i's son, held that upon its coming into being, an atom can be divested of all accidents save the accident of being (kaun). Another Mutazilite, al-Salihi, went a step further and argued that an atom could exist without any accidents whatsoever .[39]

It is characteristic of these accidents, as al-Baghdadi relates, that they are not susceptible by themselves of any composition, contact, or transmission, since these are characteristics of the body alone. In this regard they were obviously analogous to the atoms, which were said by some theologians to be incapable by themselves of any composition, contact, or motion. However, the two are distinguished somehow, but theoretical difficulties persisted. Thus the Asharite and, to some extent, the Mutazilite doctors found the phenomena of motion quite baffling, and they resorted to the most far-fetched devices in attempting to explain motion rationally. Al-Nazzam, for instance, reduced every accident or quality, including human actions, to the universal category of motion, and even explained rest as a "motion of intention."[40] Therefore, he argued, when a body is said to be static at a certain point, this can only mean that it had "moved in it twice." To account for the possibility of covering a certain distance, which consisted to him of an infinite number of points or particles, al-Nazzam introduced the concept of the leap (tafrah), or the view that a body could move from point A to point C without passing by the intermediary point B[41]

The Asharites, who subscribed to an even more extreme concept of discontinuous or discrete being, solved the difficulty in another way. They argued that motion and rest are two primary states or modi of substance, as has been noted. A substance which moves from one point to the other is at rest in relation to the second point, but in motion in relation to the first. Only al-Qalanisi, a somewhat dissident Asharite, is reported by al-Baghdadi as holding that rest consisted of two successive states of being in the same place, whereas motion consisted of two successive states in the first and the second places necessarily [42]

The most characteristic feature of the atoms of Kalam, as we have seen,[43] was their perishable nature, which the Asharites adhered to almost without exception. Not only al-Baqillani but the founder of the Asharite school himself believed the accidents to be perishable by nature and to belong to the class of "transient things" (arad) of this world, referred to in the Qur'an (8:67 and 46:24)[44]

In demonstrating the perishability of accidents, al-Baghdadi argues that the "thesis of the durability of accidents entails their indestructibility. For if an accident is said to endure by itselfthen it could persist in being until an opposite, necessitating its destruction, should come into being. However, there is no sufficient reason why such an opposite should arise and thereby counter its tendency to resist such an incursion."[45]

Thus the duration of substances was made contingent upon the inherence in them of the accident of duration (baqa'). Since, however, this accident is not capable of duration per se, it followed that either the durability of substance is to be referred to other accidents of duration indefinitely, or else another principle of durability had to be introduced. This principle the Asharites identified with God's own decree to preserve in being or destroy at will the atoms or ultimate components of physical objects in the world. Both the accidents and the atoms in which they inhere depended for their duration in this way on God's decree to repeat the process of their recreation as long as He pleased. Notwithstanding this circumstance, some Asharite doctors found it necessary to give a rational account of a body's eventual corruption or annihilation. Thus al-Baqillani described annihilation (fana') as the act of withholding the two accidents of color and mode (kaun) from the body. Inasmuch as a body can never be divested of these two accidents, such an action necessarily entailed, according to him, the annihilation of the body.[46] Such annihilation did not depend therefore on the inherence of the accident of corruption in the body, a thesis which, despite its strangeness, had at least one exponent. Al-Qalanisi argued that when God wishes to destroy a certain body, He creates in it the accident of corruption, which results in its destruction forthwith.[47]

The contribution of late Asharite doctors, such as al-Juwayni and al-Shahrastani, consists chiefly in elaborating or defending the concepts and methods to which the school as a whole was committed. The former, known also as Imam al-Haramayn, developed some of the epistemological and theological implications of Asharite doctrine in al-Shamil, of which an abridgement, al-Irshad, was made by the author. Al-Shahrastani, an author of encyclopedic learning, wrote one of the best known and most comprehensive "heresiographies" in Arabic, K. al-Milal wa'l-Nihal. The second part of it is an invaluable source for the reconstruction of the Islamic picture of Greek philosophy. In addition, al-Shahrastani wrote a compendium of theology, Nihayat al-Iqdam, which surpasses many of the earlier treatises in its thoroughness and logical coherence, although it adds little to our knowledge of the scholastic tradition in theology .

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