Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Middle Ages)
Article abstract: As the first important Arabic prose writer, al-Jahiz employed his vast erudition and innovative stylistic technique to free the Arabic language from its theological and philological restraints, making it a tool for the long-term cultural cohesion of the diverse cultures of Islam.
Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Bahr ibn Mahbūb al-Jahiz may have been the child of East African slaves, who were numerous in southern Iraq in the eighth and ninth centuries. His ancestry is uncertain, however. The sobriquet al-Jahiz (goggle-eyed) refers to a remarkable physical condition which observers may have attributed to African origins. People of his time described al-Jahiz as an exceptionally ugly individual.
Al-Jahiz studied in his hometown of Basra, then went off to Baghdad for advanced education. He appears to have been employed early as a clerical official or copyist for the government. His unusual stylistic flair came to the attention of high officials, and the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun (813-833) commissioned him to write a series of essays justifying the Abbasid seizure of power from the previous Ummayad dynasty in Damascus around 750. According to some sources, the caliph once considered employing al-Jahiz as a personal tutor for his sons, but was so unnerved by his physical appearance that he decided against him. (In fairness to the caliph, it should be noted that al-Jahiz also had a reputation...
(The entire section is 1666 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!