I've read (probably in wikipedia but can't track down the reference now) that the Asharite strand in Islamic theology couldn't accept that substance necessarily exists pre-eternally as the Quoran revealed Allah as the creator of this universe, and if something existed pre-eternally then there is no need for a creator.

Accordingly they dismantled time and space, by cleverly extending Democritus's theory of atomism from substance to both space & time. That is time and space emerged from a gathering together of time & space atoms.

(Of course one could say that these time atoms were also pre-existant before time itself. On a straight reading that question is nonsensical as time has been dismantled, there is no pre-, but to me, the question still has force, it is a matter of framing it correctly. How, I don't know, otherwise I would have framed it here.)

Does anyone have a reference where this is discussed, as it seems an interesting & fundamentally novel extension of greek atomism?

  • Hi Mozibur Ullah, while this isn't explicitly pertaining to the Asharite contribution, perhaps you might be interested in the topics of "digital physics" and "digital philosophy", and also especially, the "Fredkin finite nature hypothesis"? I also seem to recall that Penrose's "Road to Reality" has something in it relevant to this, something to do with finite fields, but am not totally sure, it's been awhile since I browsed through it...
    – user1539
    Commented Sep 29, 2012 at 7:49

2 Answers 2


According to at least one source, it seems that the Asharites didn't believe in space or time as physical constructs. They only exist in the mind of the one who perceives them:

The Aristotelian categories of thought were subjected by the Ash'arites to a searching criticism. Only two of those categories, substance and quality, were retained by them. The other categories, quality, place, time, etc., are nothing but relative characteristics (i'tibarat) that exist subjectively in the mind of the knower, having no corresponding objective reality. Source: MuslimPhilosophy.com

This quote does state "quality" in both that they retained and that they didn't, but I assume one of them is meant to be "quantity".

  • I was thinking why quality is mentioned in both the retaining and the relative characteristics when I read your last part of the answer. Which one is qualty? Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 18:26
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    @DescheleSchilder I suspect the first instance is meant to be "quality" and the second meant to be "quantity", because "quality" seems to fit with the abstract nature of "substance", and "quantity" with the concrete nature of "place" and "time". Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 18:32

Yep, that's roughly right! Atomism first emerged among the Mutazilitie mutakallimun and then was later adopted by the Ashari and Maturidi kalam schools.

It was broadly adopted due to the precieved finatude of events given the impossibility of an actual infinite (Cf. Kalam Cosmological Argument).

As you mention, this atomism is broader than how it was understood by the Greeks; it also holds that the interactions, attributes, space, time and motion are all finite (i.e. discontinuous). It was (and is) still widely held; it forms a key tenent in the 2 of 3 orthodox schools of Sunnī theology. It probably reached its peak arround the 12th c, but there's been a renewed interest but this is of a mixed quality.

The difference between Ashari & Greek atomism has lead some to claim other influcnes, particularly Bhuddist and Byzantine versions of atomism, but this remains unconclsuive and I'm personally unconvinced by this idea.

As such, they naturally also went on to adopt occasionalism, the most famous part of Ashari kalam that holds that the world is being continuosuly recreated and that disavows secondary causality. The (precieved) regularity between causes and events is simply due to the habit of God. As a side note, Mutazilitie mutakallimun did proposed a number of alternatives to occasionilsm whilst remaking atomists (E.g. iqtiran, tawlid) but these were quite quickly rejected.

Decent secondary sources to get started in English would be the Oxford and Cambridge Handbooks of Islamic Theology and Josef van Ess's fantastic The Flowering of Muslim Theology for which there's a good quality English translation available. The Kalam Research & Media journals and publications are also quite a good sources for both historical overveiws as well as the work of contemporary mutakallimun on these ideas.

As a side note the English secondary sources are of limited quality; the best secondary sources are in Turkish and the classical primary sources are in Arabic and Persian but there's also high quality primary work in a range of other Islamicate languages.

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