A Word on the Atomic Theory


In the early centuries of Islam, a movement arose aiming to solve problems of creation and religion. This movement, Kalam, literally conversation, was intended to be a rational explanation of religion, and included a thoroughgoing elaboration of the structure of matter and its relation to the Creator.[1] The ideas of the Mutakallimun, the expositors of the kalam, assumed the task of explaining the theory of motion, space and time, and how they are concerned with matter, its construction, and its various characteristics.[2] All this elaboration was necessary to clarify the ultimate concepts of the creation and the working of Allah.[3] Many Muslim jurists objected to such theology. Ibn Hanbal (780-855), a famous jurist of Baghdad , for instance, disapproved of all theology on the ground that it was bound to go beyond the Qur’an by interpreting it according to human ideas, thus distorting its message, which was perfectly expressed in the Book of God.[4] Theology was idle speculation that had not been practiced by Mohammed and his early companions, the models for later Muslims to follow.


The Mutakallimun’s theories do, indeed, intrude into the world of theology and religious interpretation, and, directly and indirectly, raise issues, in which this author has no interest, for the Qur’an and Suna of the Prophet are, indeed, enough for religious guidance and practice. Thus, only points relevant to physics will be discussed here.


Pines reminds us how, for the Mutakallimun, not only bodies, but also time, space and motion, and all the qualities and properties pertaining to the atoms (for instance their colours) have an atomistic structure.[5] In other words, everything is discontinuous. All atoms or quanta belonging to one particular category are similar; with no difference, for instance, between the quanta of motion from which every movement may be synthesized.[6]A 12th century account of the ideas of the Mutakallimun on atomic theory is given by Maimonides,[7] in 12 sections,[8]  and of which the following are extracts, as they are listed in Levey:[9]

1. Every corporeal substance is made up of very small parts called atoms. These atoms are alike; they have no quantitative properties or relationship but may, at different times, possess qualitative values. When atoms come together, they are unified, combined, or compounded, or they are separated by some type of dissolution. In other words, there are four ‘being’ states-being unified or brought together, being separated, being in motion, and being at rest. God continually re-creating this infinite number of atoms.

2. Between atoms, there is a vacuum type separation. This vacuum allows for combination and separation. Atoms may come in contact with one another but cannot interpenetrate.

3. Time consists of atomic time elements or intervals not infinitely divisible, just as space and motion eventually come to the end of their divisibility. The paradoxes of Zeno are thus avoided by eliminating infinitesimals.

6. Matter is inseparable from accidents which, themselves, cannot endure two atoms of time. Thus, Allah continually recreates the accidents. This idea agrees with the observation that everything is in motion or at rest, or changes constantly in some fashion. Some scholars, however, contended that some atoms and accidents were created for a length of time and so did not necessitate continual recreation. There is no nature in any thing except by the will of Allah-only an accident by his consent or will.

11. There is no infinity of space, time, or extension, since the universe was created at the beginning and so had a Beginner.

12.The senses err and so cannot prove a case against a rational demonstration. Thus motion is in leaps but appears continuous. Matter appears continuous but is in discrete particles. Recreation is at every moment but appears as one continuous impression. The senses create illusions, since time must be in atoms according to pure reason.[10]


The relation of the atom to matter in regard to the corporality of Allah and His creation was taken up seriously by the early Mutakallimun.[11] The depth of their ideas may be detected in the wide range of their thinking as briefly noted here through the views of Abu Rashid al-Nishaburi (932-1068)[12] who was the author of a treatise on the study of atomic substance.[13] In this book he attempted to explain simultaneous existence and non-existence, divisions of atoms, their origin, the coexistence of two bodies in the same place and time.[14] He assumed that the atom had dimensions and, therefore, that two atoms as a minimum would constitute a body.[15] As for the form of the atom, Abu Rashid believed that it is in the form of a parallelopiped or cube so that other atoms may attach themselves every easily to the first.[16] The sphere was therefore ruled out. Mass (a variable with regard to size according to the Greek Democritus) is a constant like size, for it is a ‘single property’ as is existence.[17] Furthermore all atoms are alike.[18] He, Abu Rashid, discussed the problem of the possibility of one atom taking the place of two atoms.[19] He also stated that two atoms may be separated without the presence of a third one between them. Empty space is thus postulated.[20] Abu Rashid also declared that the atom must have a dimension.[21]


The atomic theory occupied the minds of many other Muslim scholars, on whom it is needless to dwell too long here, but for more details, there are works by Lasswitz,[22] Pines,[23] and Levey.[24] Beginning with Al-Ashari (b. 873-4-d.935-6) who coined various terms for the atom, usually indicating the original or primordial indivisible substance.[25] Muslim authors believed that the minimum number of atoms in a body was four, six or eight.[26] Al-Razi , in his book Secret of Secrets, contended that there were five types of atoms, which were indivisible and separated by a vacuum.[27] Density determined the characteristics of softness, hardness, lightness, etc., of the four major elements: earth, air, water and fire. The space between the atoms determined the motion of the elements, whether they would rise as air and fire, or descend as water and earth.[28] Abu al-Hudhail taught that a body was that which possessed a right and a left, front and rear, and top and bottom. A body must, therefore, consist of at least six parts or atoms.[29] Some Muslims thought, as did Abu Bishr al-Salihi, that only two atoms could come together, others believed that two atoms formed a plane and three a solid.[30] If one were to concede, according to al-Salihi, that one atom could touch a larger surface, then the entire world could be placed in a very small volume.[31] Ibn Sina  and Al-Ghazali , for their part, debated some matters of great interest, such as ‘How in a line of atoms can an atom remain indivisible when it is in contact on either side with two different atoms? Can movement, heat, and light be conceived in terms of atoms?'[32]


All in all, as Levey concludes, not only  were the Muslims transmitters of early Greek atomic theory, but they also contributed many original ideas on the nature of the atom, its association with other atoms, and matter in relation to the atom, and numerous elaborated theories on what occurs in the mixing and solution process.[33] 

Medieval writers of the Christian West inherited many such theories from their Muslim predecessors. Included amongst these were Occam, Nicolaus of Austria (14th century), Nicholaus of Cusa (15th century), Agrippa of Nettesheim (16th century), and others who preceded the exposition of the atomic theory as we now know it.[34]

[1] S.M. Afnan: Avicenna, his Life and Works (London; 1958), p. 17.

[2] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; pp. 40-1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] G.F. Hourani: Philosophy and Theology (Muslim); in Dictionary of Middle Ages; op cit; vol 9; pp. 567-72; at p. 568.

[5] S. Pines: Studies in Arabic Versions of Greek texts and in Mediaeval Science (The Magnes Press, Brill, Leiden, 1986), p.355.

[6] Ibid.

[7] More Nebuchin; written in the early part of the 12th century, it was translated from the Arabic into Hebrew at an early date. Edited by S. Munk: Guide des egares (Paris; 1856), On time and recreation, see D.B.  Macdonald, in ISIS, 9; pp. 320 ff.

[8] S. Munk: Guide des egares; op cit; vol 1; p. 375 ff.

[9] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; pp. 41-2.

[10] D.B. MacDonald; ISIS; 9; pp. 329-37; in M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; p. 43.

[11] F. Dieterici: Der Musterstaat von Alfarabi (Leiden; 1900), pp. 34 ff.

[12] W. Alhwardt: Verseichniss der arabischeen Handschriften der Kng.Bibiothek zu Berlin; vol IV; p. 448.

[13] Kitab al-masail fi’l khilaf bain al-Basriyin wa’l Baghdadiyin; Al-Kalam fi’l Jawahir; Ms. Berlin; 5225.

[14] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; p. 46.

[15] A. Biram: Kitabu’l masai’l etc.. ed (Berlin, 1902).

See also M. Levey: Studies in the Development of Atomic Theory; Chymia; Vol 7 (1961); pp 40-56. p. 44.

[16] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; p 47.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A. Biram: Kitabu’l masai’l. op cit; p. 36.

[20] Ibid. pp. 36-43.

[21] Ibid. p. 47.

[22] K. Lasswitz Geschichte der Atomistik im Mittelalter bis Newton (Leipzig, 1890, re-edited in 1926).

[23] S. Pines: Beitrage zur islamischen Atomlehre (Berlin, 1936).

[24] M. Levey: Studies (in Chimya, vol 7); op cit.

[25] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; p 43.

[26] Ibn al-Murtada: Al-bahr al-ssakhhar; fol. 27 a-b;  in M. Horten: Die Phil. Systems der Spek. Theologen im Islam (Bonn; 1912) p. 221.

[27] J. Ruska: Al-Razi ’s Buch Geheimniss der Geheimnisse (Berlin; 1937).

[28] G. Heym; in Ambix; I; p. 188; in M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit; p. 45.

[29] In M. Levey: Early Arabic; p. 45.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Carra de Vaux: Astronomy and Mathematics, op cit; p. 391.

[33] In M. Levey: Early Arabic; p. 51.

[34] J.R. Partington: Annals of Science; 4; p. 245. R. Hooykaas: The Experimental Origin of chemical atomic and molecular theory before Boyle; in Chymia 2; pp. 65-80.