Muzaffar Iqbal

“Atom” is often used as a problematic translation of the Qurʾānic word dharra (root dh-r-r), which is mentioned six times (Q 4:40; 10:61; 34:3; 34:22; 99:7-8) in the sense of an infinitesimal quantity. Its meaning is explained by Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, as “the weight of the head of a red ant” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:40). It is also said to be like “the floating dust-motes seen when sunlight shines through a window” (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; al-Khāzin, Lubāb al-taʾwīl, sub Q 4:40); and “the dust which remains clinging to the hand after the rest has been blown off” (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 4:40). In all six instances of its occurrence, the Qurʾān uses the singular form of the noun dharra in the phrase mithqāl dharra—“the weight of dharra”.

When Arab philosophers first translated the Greek “ἄτοµος”—átomos (from α-, “un-” + τέμνω -temno, “to cut”), meaning indivisible—they used the term al-jawhar al-fard, meaning “singular essence” (al-Tahānawī, Kashshāf, sub juzʾ), closely echoing the meaning of the Greek term. Classical Kalām and philosophy recapitulated this terminology in idealized form as the imaginary indivisible atom (al-juzʾ al-ladhī lā yatajazzaʾ).

Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, modern Arabic started to use dharra for the atom of modern science and this was subsequently adopted by several translators to render the Qurʾānic dharra into English (cf. Asad, Message; Daryabadi, Dawood, Hilali/Khan, Irving, Jones, Khalidi, Sarwar, Shakir, Sher Ali, Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran). This semantic link has been used by certain modernists to claim that it was the Qurʾān that first introduced the concept of the atom as the term is understood in modern science. This argument was used to “prove” that the Qurʾān is a revealed Book, because the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—could not have known about the existence of atoms (see last section for more details). “Atom” is used in this article in its non-technical sense, denoting an infinitesimal quantity.

Dharra as a Qurʾānic Term

(i) In the Context of Divine Justice

Al-Khāzin (678-741/1279-1340) explains that Allah Most High uses the term dharra in Q 4:40 (Verily Allah does not wrong [anyone] by as much as an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra), and if there is a good deed, He will multiply it and will grant from Himself a great reward) “as an example to describe the smallest possible thing which people can recognize in order to explain that He shall not wrong anyone in any way—small or great—and He multiplies the good, such that a good deed is as if it were ten [good deeds]. It is said that this will be at the time of reckoning: if someone were left with only an atom’s weight of good, Allah will multiply it as much as seven hundred times, leading to a great reward.” Hence Qatāda (ca.60-117/680-735) said: “It is dearer to me than the whole world and all there is in it that my good deeds be more than my evil deeds by as much as one atom’s weight” (al-Khāzin, Lubāb al-taʾwīl, sub Q 4:40).

Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca.652), Allah be well-pleased with him, said, “People’s accounts will be settled on the Day of Resurrection. If someone has even one more good deed than evil deeds, such a person will enter Paradise; and if even one evil deed is more than the good deeds [in a person’s record], that person will go to Hell.” Then he recited Q 23:102-103: And they whose weight is heavy in the balance, it is they who will have attained a happy state. And they whose weight is light in the balance, it is they who will have squandered their own selves to abide forever in Hell, and said, “indeed the balance tilts this way or that with the addition or subtraction of an atom’s weight” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:46).

(ii) As a Symbol of Divine Knowledge

Two almost identical passages use dharra to describe the inexhaustible, all-embracing, and unlimited knowledge of Allah Most High: Not even an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) on earth or in heaven escapes your Sustainer’s knowledge; and neither is there anything smaller or larger than that but is recorded in a clear Book (Q 10:61); and And the disbelievers say: “The Hour will never come unto us.” Say: “Nay, by my Sustainer, but it is surely coming unto you; [He is] the Knower of the Unseen. Not an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) [of whatever there is] in the heavens or on earth escapes His knowledge; nor is there anything smaller than that, or greater, but is recorded in a clear Book” (Q 34:3). These and numerous other verses affirm that Allah has knowledge of all things, large or small, manifest or hidden; indeed, the Qurʾān asserts that not a leaf falls but He knows it; nor is there a grain in the earth’s deep darkness, or anything living or dead, but is recorded in a clear Book (Q 6:59).

In contradistinction to the literal Qurʾānic description of Divine Knowledge (Q 2:32; 2:231; 2:282; 3:5; 3:29; 3:92; 4:32; 4:86), certain Muslim philosophers of the Islamic Neoplatonist tradition, spearheaded by Abū Naṣr al-Farābī (ca.258-339/ca.872-951) and epitomized by Ibn Sīnā (ca.370-429/ca.980-1037) and his school of thought, argued that God’s knowledge is atemporal, absolute, and universal. According to them He does not know particulars, especially of those things and events that are subject to change through generation and corruption. Since God is not changeable, His knowledge is also unchangeable, whereas knowledge of a particular temporal event requires a temporal relation between the knower and the event known and, hence, by necessity, entails change in the knower. Thus, they argued, God has knowledge of things only of universals and not of particulars (cf. Ibn Sīnā, Dānish Nāma-i alāʾī, ch. 30-32, p. 61-66).

Al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) devoted chapter thirteen of his Tahāfut al-falāsifa to refute this position, which in his opinion was nothing less than “a principle which undermined the very foundation of religious law altogether—because it means that if Zayd, for instance, obeys or transgresses against Him, Allah would not know of the change in his state, since He does not know Zayd as he is, for he is an individual and his actions are accidents which come into existence after they have been nonexistent; and if He does not know the individual, He does not know his states and acts; in fact, He does not know Zayd’s unbelief or his Islam [actually], but He only knows man’s unbelief or Islam universally and absolutely, not as specified in individual persons!” (al-Ghazālī, Tahāfut al-falāsifa p. 128).

Defending Ibn Sīna’s position, Ibn Rushd (d. 594/1198) called al-Ghazālī’s conception of Ibn Sīnā’s formulation a confusion of Divine and human kinds of knowledge, and an unjustified patterning of Divine knowledge on the model of human knowledge. “For [only] man perceives the individual through his senses and universals through his intellect…and no doubt [his] perception changes when the things perceived undergo change…[but] truly competent philosophers do not classify His knowledge of existents, may He be glorified, into universal or individual [categories]. For such classification of knowledge is only for a passive intellect (ʿaql munfaʿil) and [is an] effect (maʿlūl)—whereas the First Intellect (al-ʿaql al-awwal) is pure act and a cause (fiʿl-maḥḍ wa-ʿilla). His knowledge cannot be compared to human knowledge” (Ibn Rushd, Tahāfut al-tahāfut p. 455-456).

(iii) In the Context of Divine Sovereignty

In affirmation of absolute Divine sovereignty, Q 34:22 employs dharra as a term to refer to the absolute dependence of all creatures on Him: Say: Call upon those whom you imagine beside Allah [to have powers]; they have not an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) of ability and power either in the heavens or on earth; for them there is no share in [the heaven and earth], and He does not have any helper from among them.” This central Qurʾānic theme is mentioned in numerous other verses and explained through a parable in Q 22:73: O humankind, a parable is set forth; pay heed, then, to it: Behold, those whom you invoke beside Allah cannot create [as much as] a fly, even if they were to join together to that end; and if a fly takes away anything from them, they cannot [even] recover it from it. So weak indeed are the seekers and the sought!

(iv) In the Context of Final Accountability

In the two complementary verses of Sūrat al-Zalzala (Q 99:7-8), dharra is employed in a graphic description of the Day of Reckoning: And so, he who shall have done an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) of good shall see it; and he who shall have done an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) of evil shall see it. A weak-chained report states that when this sura was revealed, Abū Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, was sitting and eating with the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. When the Prophet recited to him the verses just revealed, he was so awe-struck by the momentous scale of the reckoning that he could not put the next morsel in his mouth, and asked: “O Messenger of Allah, will I be recompensed for every good and evil deed, even if it be equal to the weight of an atom (mithqāl dharra)?” “See, O Abū Bakr,” the Prophet replied, “whatever hardships you have suffered in this world, they are the recompense for whatever evil deeds—be they equal to an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra)—may have been committed by you; and your good deeds—be they equal to an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra)—are being gathered by Allah to recompense you on the Day of Resurrection” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 99:7-8).

Dharra is used in both the Qurʾān and the Hadith to denote an infinitesimal thing, quantity, or measure which may, nevertheless, outweigh great quantities; for example, the weight of one’s testimony of faith (shahāda) may prove to be heavier than bundled scrolls of sin (Tirmidhī, Īmān, mā jāʾ fī man yamūt wa-huwa yashhad an lā ilāha illā Allāh). Ibn Qutayba (213-276/828-889) points out that in addition to dharra, the Qurʾān uses several other terms for infinitesimal quantities: fatīla (Q 4:49, 4:77; 17:71); naqīra (Q 4:53; 4:124); qiṭmīr (Q 35:13); habāʾan manthūrā (Q 25:23); and habāʾan munbaththā (Q 56:6) (Taʾwīl mushkil al-Qurʾān p. 137-138).

Dharra in the Hadith Texts

The use of dharra in hadith texts is the same as the Qurʾānic usage. Allah Most High says in a Sacred Hadith (al-ḥadīth al-qudsī): “Who could be more evil than one who claims to create even as I create? Let them, then, create an atom (dharra) or a grain of wheat or barley” (Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, qawli-Llāhi taʿāla wal-Lāhu khalaqakum wa-mā taʿmalūn). A long hadith on intercession states that Muslims who have already entered Paradise will be asked by Allah to go and bring out from the Hellfire those Muslims who have even a dinar’s worth of virtue (khayr) in their hearts. They will do so. Then Allah will tell them to go a second time and rescue those who have as little virtue in their hearts as the weight of half a dinar. They will do so, but there will still remain a multitude in Hell who would have virtue even less than that, and thus Allah Most High will say: “Go and bring out even those in whose hearts you find good the weight of a dharra.” So, the people of Paradise will bring out a multitude and say: “O our Lord, now there is nothing of khayr left in [Hell]” (Muslim, Īmān, ithbāt ruʾyat al-muʾminīn fī-l-ākhirati rabbahum). Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī, the narrator of this hadith, may Allah be pleased with him, ends the hadith by saying: “If you do not believe my narration, then recite: Verily Allah does not wrong [anyone] by as much as an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra), and if there is a good deed, He will multiply it and will grant from Himself a great reward (Q 4:40).”

A similar usage of dharra is found in the hadith of the Great Intercession (Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, kalām al-Rabb ʿazza wa jall yawm al-qiyāma maʿ al-anbiyāʾ wa-ghayrihim): “Whosoever has professed ‘there is no deity except Allah’ will leave the Fire even though he has in his heart virtue [only] equal to the weight of a grain of barley; then the one who has professed ‘there is no deity except Allah’ even though there is in his heart virtue equal [only] to the [smaller yet] weight of a grain of wheat; then the one who has professed ‘there is no deity except Allah’ even though there is in his heart virtue equal to the weight of an atom (mithqāl dharra)” (Muslim, Īmān, adnā ahl al-janna manzilatan fīhā; Tirmidhī, Ṣifat jahannam, mā jāʾ anna lil-nār nafsayn wa-mā dhukir man yakhruj min al-nār min ahl al-tawḥīd; Ibn Mājah, Zuhd, dhikr al-shafāʿa).

Similar examples of the use of dharra can be found in numerous other Hadiths. For example, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is reported to have said: “The one who has even an atom’s weight (mithqāl dharra) of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise” (Muslim, Īmān, taḥrīm al-kibr wa-bayānuh).

Modern Usage

The use of “atom” for dharra in modern English, including various translations of the Qurʾān, has led to confusion and misinterpretation. Scores of websites and modernist texts equate the Qurʾānic dharra with the atom of current physical sciences as an argument for the Divine origin of the Qurʾān. A typical argument proceeds by noting that modern scientific theories and facts such as those regarding the atom could not have been known to the Prophet; their ostensible presence in the Qurʾān therefore establishes as definitive its claim of revelation (Yahya, The Miracle in the Atom). Such attempts overlook critical distinctions between the atom of modern science, which denotes a microscopic particle consisting of a solid central nucleus and made up of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons--all invisible to the human eye--and the dharra of the Qurʾān, which is invariably used to refer to an infinitesimally small amount.


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See also

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