As anyone familiar with anti-religious polemics knows, the core criticism by today’s New Atheists is that, allegedly, belief in God is both infantile and irrational. It is, they say, a childish delusion that ought to have died out as humanity reached its maturity. In the New Atheism’s canon, belief in God is likened to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus: as you grow up, you’ll grow out of it. But is belief in God really irrational? Is it so at odds with what Antony Flew (who until quite recently was ‘the world’s most notorious atheist’) calls: the ‘pilgrimage of reason’?1
Traditionally, Muslims have agreed that there are indeed good rational arguments to support the belief in the existence of God. Religion, as Islam teaches, does not require abandoning reason, nor does it instil evading the evidence. Classical Islamic theology demonstrated the “proofs” for God’s existence in two ways. One of these ways is very abstract, demanding a fair degree of intellectual theorising. The other, by comparison, is far more straight forward and intuitive, and is rooted in the simplicity of everyday experience. Moreover, it mirrors the Qur’an’s style of reasoning on the matter.
The first has come to be known as the “argument from contingency – dalil al-huduth.” In Christian natural theology, this proof is called the kalam-cosmological argument. The second proof is akin to the teleological argument (also called the argument from design) in Christian natural theology. Natural theology also offers the ontological and moral arguments; the gists of which are given in the second part of this post. But here in the first of two parts, let’s engage the more abstract proof: the kalam-cosmological argument.
I’ve divided the post into four sections. The first two tackle the issue of what is meant by kalam and its place in Muslim theological discourse. The third explains the actual kalam cosmological argument. The fourth is where some contemporary objections to the argument are addressed:
1. The kalam-cosmological argument is so called because its origins lie in the Muslim kalam tradition. Kalam (‘speech’ or ‘discourse’ about God using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments – in other words, discursive theology) found its way into early Muslim thought via the philosophical legacy of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring reason to bear upon certain theological issues were the heterodox Mu‘tazilahs. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, on certain theological conundrums to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. Such enemies of the Sunnah were known to dismiss, distort and play fast and loose with Revelation; if it didn’t fit in with their conjectures, delusions or ego-driven rationalisations.
2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from kalam with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous, or almost unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i averred: ‘We are not people of kalam.‘2 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; indeed the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’3 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’4 As for Imam Ahmad, his assertions on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; and nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’5 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’6
3. In contrast to the large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them that seem to imply kalam could be allowed, provided it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and the consensus of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify or twist them. From them are these words of al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’7 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’8 He also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam – for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; as we have mentioned.’9
4. The distinction between the blameworthy and praiseworthy type of kalam began to gain traction among scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent from many of the more purist Salafis/Atharis. This purist approach itself ranged from a total rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.10 In asserting the middle ground on the matter, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about employing kalam: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11
5. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the entire story. Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’12 Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih cites Ibn Abi Ya‘la saying that ‘the correct view in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the view of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote, al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah, ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘13 Even then, the Hanbali use of kalam tended to be much more guarded than that of others.
6. Those who employed kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun says about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by utilising rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’14
7. Kalam theology has as its cornerstone the concept of “atomism” – that the cosmos is made up of atoms (jawahir, sing. jawhar), bodies (ajsam, sing. jism) and accidents (a‘rad, sing. ‘arad), all of which are contingent (hawadith, sing, hadith) – that is to say, they originate in time. More importantly, the atom – in kalam lingo – is an indivisible particle that occupies space (tatahayyaz); is subject to change (taghayyur); and has no innate power of duration (thubut, baqa’), but endures directly because of God through each moment of its existence. Futhermore, it is not just the atom which is indivisible. Time itself, in kalam atomism, only comes in finite units: it also having no intrinsic ability to endure. Again, it is God’s continuous act of creating these discrete units of time that allows it to actually “flow.”
8. It’s important not to confuse the kalam “atom” with the concept of atom in modern science. What kalam is stressing is that nothing in the cosmos is eternal or infinite. Every thing is contingent and is finite. The smallest, indivisible unit of matter being termed as the “atom” or jawhar. As for modern science, it has shown the tiny atom is divisible; that at its core are even tinier particles called protons and neutrons. These particles, in turn, are made of smaller particles still: quarks. So the kalam atom would, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, be equivalent to quarks (or, if we are to believe the disputed String Theory, to tiny one dimensional entities, “strings”, vibrating in eleven dimensional spacetime). The point is that the kalam atom refers to the smallest, indivisible substance possible; whatever science may call it.
9. Kalam atomism has one chief goal: God’s omnipotence. ‘For it denies, at each point in the duration of anything non-divine, that it has any intrinsic power of existence. God alone has such a power.’15 In other words, nothing endures without God. For the mutakallimun, for that’s what practitioners of kalam were called, the basis of atomism was rooted in both reason and revelation.
10. Reason, and a fair amount of mental theorising, show that the universe has to be finite. The argument runs like this: If you have a sequence of events, each one caused by the event preceding it, stretching way way back in time – can such a sequence be infinite; can it go on forever? An infinity may seem straightforward, but it throws up all sorts of problems. For instance, infinity plus one is still infinity, even though you have added to it. Or, for example, when you take today’s events and combine it with past events, these will increase; without today’s events, they’ll decrease. But increase or decrease in what is infinity is incoherent; irrational, even. So this would seem to suggest that infinities do not exist and that the series of events are finite, temporal, having a beginning. Undoubtedly, mathematical (some call them ‘potential’) infinities do indeed exist. However, physical (or ‘actual’) infinities do not.
11. Revelation, as per the mutakallimun, states this too. And He knows the number of all things, says the Qur’an [72:28] And He created all things and ordained for them a precise measure. [25:2] Thus all things have a finite number and measure. These verses, and others like them, affirm the temporal existence of all things and their finite number. This implies that neither matter nor time are infinitely divisible: they too are of finite sizes.
12. Interestingly, quantum physics posits the quantum of time, or Planck time. This is the smallest measurement of time to have any meaning. It is equal to 10-43 seconds (in other words, that is a number with forty-three zeros after the decimal point). No smaller division of time has any possibility or reality in the physical world, within the framework of physics as understood today. Time less than one Planck time apart can neither be measured and nor can any change be detected.16 The implication here for atomism is certainly worth exploring, although to pursue it here is beyond the paper’s remit and the author’s ability.
13. One final matter. In kalam theology, a thing is either qadim – eternal, timeless; or it is hadith – contingent, coming into existence (wujud) after non-existence (‘adm). All that comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. To put it another way: Every entity that exists, either exists by itself; by its own essence and nature, or it does not exist by itself. If it exists by its own essence, then it exists necessarily and eternally, and explains itself. It cannot not exist. But if an entity exists, but not by its own essence, then it needs a cause outside of itself for its existence. The kalam theologians state that God alone necessarily exists, while all contingent things owe their existence to Him.
14. So how does all of this tie in with the cosmological argument for God’s existence? Well, the preamble to the kalam argument may be presented as follows: [i] An actual infinite number does not exist; [ii] therefore the series of causes for the cosmos to be as it is now cannot be infinite in sequence: that is, it must be finite; [iii] therefore the cosmos was brought into existence at some point in the past.
15. The final conclusion in the above argument (that the universe came into existence at some point in the past) not only follows logically from the initial two premises, it also finds support in science. Cosmologists are now certain that the universe actually did have a beginning: the Big Bang. But to be clear, the logical conclusion of the above argument is still valid and true, regardless of the empirical proofs for the Big Bang.
16. From here it’s a short step to teasing out the kalam-cosmological argument (dalil al-huduth), which can be set out thus: [i] Everything that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence; [ii] the universe began to exist; [iii] therefore the universe has a cause for its existence.17 There is an implicit fourth premise, namely: [iv] The cause for the existence of the universe is God.
17. The above argument, as rational as it is, has been critiqued on a few grounds. One objection states that the argument’s premise [i] – everything that begins to exist must have a cause – although intuitively obvious, seems to be false. For quantum physics appears to show that electrons can pass out of existence at one place and re-appear elsewhere. This, as physicist Paul Davies has argued, violates premise [i] and hence the entire argument collapses.18 One reply to this states that although electrons do just that, they can only do so because of what is called a “quantum vacuum.” A vacuum, in quantum physics, isn’t “nothing at all”. It is a state of minimal energy, seething with “virtual particles.”19 It is this vacuum which gives rise to electron fluctuations, says the laws of quantum physics. Which is to say, the vacuum’s existence is the cause for electrons to exist, disappear and re-appear. Premise [i], therefore, still holds.
18. If everything has a cause, runs another objection, then what caused God? To this age old demur, Muslim theologians have repeatedly stressed that God is musabib al-asbab – “the [Uncaused] Causer of all things.” Conventional notions of time and space simply do not apply to God, for: There is nothing like unto Him, says the Qur’an [42:11]. ‘He is preexistent without beginning, eternal without ending,’20 is orthodoxy’s voice. God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud). Though God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. To quote the formulations of Islamic orthodoxy again: ‘The six directions do not contain Him as they do created things.’21 Hence, since the universe is contingent and brought into existence, and contingent things are not capable of generating themselves, theologians inferred that ‘they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha), namely, a deity who is eternal.’22 Moreover, the kalam-cosmological argument states: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. God, however, is beginningless; and so has no cause. ‘As He was in pre-existence possessed of His attributes, so shall He remain throughout all eternity.’23
19. Yet another criticism runs: why does the Uncaused Cause of all things have to be a single Deity? Why not many deities? Here the kalam theologians respond by drawing directly from the Qur’an, to infer from some of its verses “the argument from mutual interference” – dalil al-tamanu‘. Two such Quranic verses are: If there were gods in the heavens and earth, besides God, there would be chaos and disorder. [21:22] And: God has not chosen a son, nor is there a god with Him. For then each god would go away with his own creation, and some would overcome others. [23:91] What these verses tell us is that the existence of multiple gods is a self-evident logical absurdity. The actual argument from mutual hindrance, or interference, goes like this: If there were two deities and they disagreed over a matter, such as one wanting to bring a thing into existence and the other did not want to, then logically, there are only three possibilities: Either the will of both are carried out; or the two wills cancel each other out; or the will of one trumps the will of the other. The first case is an impossibility, as this would imply the existence of two mutual opposites; the second is also ruled out since that implies the thing neither exists nor doesn’t exist. It would also imply deficiencies in their wills and creative acts, and thus disqualify them as being the true Deity. Lastly, if the will of one is victorious, but not that of the other, then only this deity deserves to be God.24 Now whether such logic constitutes a highly persuasive proof that is open to a few fragilities (dalil iqna‘iyyah), or one that is definite and watertight (dalil qat‘iyyah), is the subject of some debate among classical Muslim theologians.25
20. Other concerns have been voiced about the kalam-cosmological argument, which may seem to some like a desperate attempt to clutch at straws. One contention states that since we’ve no experience of the origins of universes, we therefore have nothing to tell us that universes don’t come into existence without a cause. In response to this piece of conjecture it could more reasonably be argued that in our entire experience of the world, and of the cosmos at large, we’ve yet to find anything that exists without a cause. And there is no solid or empirical ground to conclude that the universe is an exception. I’ll wrap up with a more recent criticism of the first premise, from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow who insist that: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’26 But this is a very lacklustre and unsatisfactory answer. For physical laws, by themselves, cannot create anything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which describe what usually happens under any given set of conditions. Furthermore, leave aside the fact that such laws of physics are inferred from real material events, and therefore such laws would be meaningless if they had nothing real to describe, there’s an even more fundamental question to ask here: Who created the law of gravity? Who indeed!
Just how far the kalam cosmological argument ‘proves’ the existence of God is open to discussion. The argument is certainly coherent, logical and decisive as a theological doctrine (thus giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational). Although it rarely seems to be effective at convincing those who do not believe in God that He in fact exists. This is especially so when its premises are highly abstract and theoretical, relying upon only logic and syllogism. A more appealing proof, therefore, comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s instance to reflect on the ‘signs’ of God. These will, God-willing, be taken up in the final part of the blog.
1. Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One, 2007), 85.
2. Cited in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.
3. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.
4. As per Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.
5. See: Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.
6. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.
7. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.
8. ibid., 1:470.
9. ibid., 1:468.
10. The pro-kalam argument is offered in Ghazali, Iljam al-‘Awwam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalam, translated as: A Return To Purity In Creed (Philadelphia: Lampost Productions, 2008). The anti-kalam view is robustly expressed in Ibn Qudamah, Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, translated as: Ibn Qudamah’s Censure of Speculative Theology (England: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1985); and despite his kalam leanings, Ibn al-Jawzi critiques it in Kitab Akhbar al-Sifat, translated as: A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 104-20.
11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.
12. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6. Due to reason having the final say over Revelation, this blameworthy kalam may be rendered into English as: “speculative theology”. As for the kalam where reason is anchored to revealed proof, and so contours and supports it, this may be translated as: “discursive theology”.
13. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29. As for the pro-kalam arguments, they commence on p.226.
14. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.
15. T. Mayer, ‘Theology and Sufism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273.
16. J. Gribbin, Q is for Quantum: Particle Physics from A to Z (London: Phoenix Giant, 1998), 350.
17. For a fuller treatment of the argument, consult: Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 82-85; Juwayni, A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 19-28; Ayman Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, 204-214; W. L. Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1979).
18. P. Davies, Superforce (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 200.
19. See: Gribbins, Q is for Quantum, 511.
20. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.5.
21. ibid., §.47.
22. Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism, 92.
23. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, §.14. I have modified the translation here somewhat.
24. Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:47.
25. As to just how conclusive or not the argument is, see: al-Maydani, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Dar al-Bayruti, 2005), 32-34.
26. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 227.