Form & Matter

أفاد حجة العصر مولانا الشيخ محمد قاسم النانوتوی رحمه الله: «الفرض کالمادة والواجب كالصورة»، يريد أن الفرائض في وجودها المعتبر شرعا يحتاج إلى الواجبات كما أن المادة تحتاج إلى الصورة .

( معارف السنن ١:٧٣)

A fundamental doctrine of Aristotelian metaphysics is that ordinary objects of our experience are composites of form (صورة ) and matter (مادة ) – a doctrine known as hylemorphism (sometimes spelt hylomorphism) – after the Greek words ‘hyle‘ (matter), and ‘morph‘ (form).

For instance, a rubber ball is composed of a certain matter, namely rubber and a certain kind of form, namely the form of a red round bouncy object. The matter by itself isn’t the ball for the rubber could take on the form of a door stop, an eraser, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn’t the ball either for you can’t bounce redness, roundness or even bounciness down the hallway, these being mere abstractions. It is only the form and matter together that constitute the ball. What Shaykh Qasim Nanotwi alludes to in the above statement is that Fardh acts are matter and Wajib acts are forms is essentially that for an act to exist, it requires that both matter and form exist together. Taking ritual prayer as an example, according to the Hanafi school, the matter is: takbir, qiyam and qira’ah etc; and reciting surah fatiha, and the final tashahhud etc is the form.

Taking this analogy further, we can understand the sophisticated and well-nuanced understanding of the Hanafi jurists when they state that certain acts require sajdat sahw (prostration of forgetfulness) and certain acts require the ritual prayer to be repeated. To use the above example of the rubber ball: sometimes a change in the rubber ball constitutes some non-essential feature, as when a red ball is painted blue but remains a ball nonetheless. Sometimes it involves something essential, as when the ball is melted into a puddle of goo and thus no longer counts as a ball at all. The former sort of change is a change in ‘accidents’, and the latter change is a change in ‘substance’, and corresponding to each is a distinct kind of form: what makes something exist substantially is called substantial form and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form. For a ball merely to change its colour is for its matter to lose one accidental form and take on another, while retaining the substantial form of a ball and thus remaining the same substance, namely a ball. For a ball to be melted into goo is for its matter to lose one substantial form and take on another, thus becoming a different kind of substance altogether, namely a puddle of goo. Along a similar line of thought, substantial change in the wajib actions necessitate the prayer to be repeated, whilst accidental change necessitate that sajdat sahw be made.

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