Atheism in the Early Period of Islamic History
In Western philosophy, the existence of the Divine, has been discussed by philosophers and theologians for centuries. Likewise, in Islamic philosophy the discussion took shape in the first 6th centuries of Islam. However, the discussion on the existence of the Divine was marginal, and there was no term for Atheism in pre-modern Arabic. The nearest equivalent is ilḥād, which literally means “deviation” or best translated “godlessness”.[i] The impetus for discussing the existence of the Divine was a perceived intellectual threat of creedal heresy by some public figures and thinkers. A group of people labelled as the Dahriyya were the modern equivalent of what we know call Atheists, for example Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, in his Kitāb al-aghānī, mentions a Arab living around the 120s/740s who is said to have been a Dahrī and the famous jurist and founder of the Hanifi school of thought, Abū Ḥanīfa. is supposed to have refuted such Dahrīs in public discussions.[ii] Details concerning the Dahrīs can be found in the works of al-Jāḥiẓ, Muḥammad b. Shabīb, Ibn Qutayba, and Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq.
From a contemporary philosophical perspective the Dahrīs had an affinity for naturalism, which is the view that the laws of nature operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe. [iii] Commenting on this, Particia Crone, a historian of early Islamic history, writes:
Dahrīs are identified as empiricists who held that knowledge must be based only on sense impressions (al-ḥiss)—above all, on what one had seen for oneself (al-ʿiyān)—in combination with a strictly limited amount of reasoning, and nothing else. On this basis, the Dahrīs found themselves able to affirm that the world was composed of four elementary qualities (ṭabāʾiʿ), or of those four qualities and spirit (rūḥ), which together generated everything that existed in this world, which had always existed, and would always exist, without any creator or providential ruler, except in the sense, according to the adherents of rūḥ, that the world was managed by the spirit that pervaded it. The Dahrīs found it impossible to affirm, or positively rejected, the existence of God, angels, spirits, demons, prophets, reward and punishment after death, or an afterlife of any kind. Many sources make it clear that they were skilled debaters who voiced their views in disputation.[iv]
The 5th/11th century philosopher and theologian al-Ghazālī was a key source on the Dahrīs who identified them as ancient philosophers. In his Kimiyāʾ-yi saʿādat he describes the Dahrīs as some form of reductionists who do not have a holistic understanding of the universe and its purpose. He asserts that they are like ants on a piece of paper, who cannot lift their eyes from the ink or the pen they see before the, and fail to see who is writing.[v] Following al-Ghazālī the evidence of atheism lessens, however in the 6th/12th century the Dahrīs appear in Ibn al-Jawzī’s Talbīs Iblīs, who responds to their claim.
As can be seen, the Islamic tradition has been exposed to a form of Atheism since its inception, and Islamic scholarship rose to the challenges of the Dahrīs who are similar to post-modern naturalists.
[i] Crone, Patricia. ” Atheism (pre-modern).” Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson. Brill Online , 2012
[iii] Papineau, David, “Naturalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/naturalism/>.
[v] al-Ghazālī, Kimiyāʾ-yi saʿādat, 1:57