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Notes from the Maimonides Foundation/NNLS day seminar on Maimonides

Revisiting Maimonides' Critique of the Kalām

Alnoor Dhanani

[The Mutakalimun, practitioners of Kalām (كلم), meaning "argument", were Islamic theologians who used the devices of science/philosophy to further their own theological ends—much, it strikes me, as the exponents of Intelligent Design do nowadays. Maimonides devotes a good part of his book, The Guide to the Perplexed, describing their arguments and then arguing against them.]

In Egypt in the twelfth century when Maimonides lived there, the Jewish community numbered twenty thousand; there was also a relatively small but influential Karaite community. These had come under the influence of the Mutakalimun, people such as Yussef al-Bassir—it is possible to talk about Jewish kalām as well as Islamic. Maimonides' attitude to the Mutakalimun was not purely theoretical.

For all his adversity to them, they had some similarities of aims with him.

His primary aim in writing the Guide to the Perplexed was to counter people such as his student Joseph, to whom the book is dedicated, being influenced by the Mutakalimun.


From a modern point of view, translating the Arabic word falsafa as "philosophy" is problematic. It also extends to many subjects, as far as economic and politics. It included many scientific subjects which are no longer part of philosophy per se.

Aristotle was anti-atomist. His criticism is ?traced [paragraph breaks off]

Epicurus responded to Aristotle's critique and formulated atomism. His physics was that the world is random but works mechanistically. He held that the purpose of physics is to remove fear, particularly fear of gods.

By contrast Plato's philosophy is more teleological. This was more acceptable to Philo and early Christian philosophers. They treated atomism with disdain because it was materialistic. They held that the possibility of vacuum exists, to explain less dense objects—they had fewer atoms within. They also held that colour, taste etc is subjective and does not reflect reality.

The task of philosophy as understood in falsafa was to understand how things really are—Aristotelian, with everything being composed of the four sublunar elements, or atomist.

There is also a problem in considering Mutakalimun theologians. The term has Christian/western connotations. Maimonides was a theological because he thought about the nature of G-d—but was of course not a Mutakalim.

They were rationalists insofar as they denied the possibility of salvation unless you engage the intellect and engage in what Scripture says—conformism without thinking about it does not lead to salvation. They believed that everyone must engage in philosophical speculation.

It is not clear why in the eighth century they began discussing atoms. Within a hundred years this became their dominant philosophy.

There is a significant difference between the atomism of ther Epicureans and the Mutakalimun: the latter held that things being determined by the chance meetings of atoms was wrong, and that the qualities of atoms were created by G-d in the atoms, possibly at the Creation. What we perceive, they held, is a true representation of the world because G-d does not decieve us. Atoms are inert; G-d moves them. When things burn there is burning because G-d wants, but that is His prerogative—as demonstrated by the Burning Bush not being consumed. [The Mutakalimun held that effects do not follow from causes due to natural laws, but that G-d recreates the universe in accordance with His will, every single moment.]

So, do we have free will?

The Ashari position is

The Mutazili position is: men have a limited sphere of causal ability. They can do things which are reflective of their will, but not like G-d create atoms or ?colour.

They have an idea of secondary causation—how a ball continues moving after we have left go of it.

Maimonides holds like Plato that a few have access to the truth—people with innate abilities and access to education. The rest can only see shadows, or in religious life, can only grasp at symbols.

G-d is not directly involved in the way the world works. Scripture must therefore be read allegorically.

Maimonides holds falsafa to be more demonstrable than kalām.

As an aside, Maimonides' refutation of the Kalām is an amusing warning against attempts, such as Gerald Schroeder's Genesis and the Big Bang, to reconcile science and religion: your hypothesis is going to be tied to the science of your day, and once the science moves on, your hypothesis is going to be left out cold. Maimonides is working from an Aristotelian metaphysics: that the world is constructed from the four sublunar elements of earth, air, fire and water, plus the fifth element constructing the crystal sphere on which the heavenly bodies are mounted.

As a result, he ends up arguing against the existence of such things as atoms and the possibility of vacuum. His argument against the former is that if you rotated a millstone, surely all the atoms that comprised it would have to come apart, rotate around, then come together again, and how come the millstone doesn't fall apart in the process. This argument seems to rest on the spatial scale of the structure of the universe being the same as that of atoms—that atoms are aligned to a grid like eggs in an eggcup—whereas now we know that the resolution limit to the structure of spacetime is as much smaller than atoms as atoms are than us (assuming all my readers are Homo sapiens...).

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