Al-Jahiz 776–C. 869
(Pseudonym of Abu 'Uthman 'Amr B. Bahr Al-Fukaymi al-Basri) Arab philosopher.
Al-Jahiz is one of the best-known and most respected Arab writers and scholars. He is credited with the establishment of many rules of Arabic prose rhetoric and was a prolific writer on such varied subjects as theology, politics, and manners.
Al-Jahiz was born in Basra in 776 A.D. to a poor family which is believed to be of African descent. His father died when al-Jahiz was a baby. Despite the family's poverty, al-Jahiz's mother was able to send her son through the local Quranic school. Al-Jahiz received his nickname, which means "with projecting eye," as a result of his appearance: writers of the time note that he had bulging eyes. Life in Basra provided al-Jahiz with many learning opportunities even after he left school. Basra was the home of Mu'tazilism, a sect of Muslim thought, and al-Jahiz listened to scholars at the local mosque, informally learning from some of the greatest thinkers of the time. In addition, the city had a thriving market where al-Jahiz learned about human nature by observing the interaction between Arabs and non-Arabs. He penned his first known writings in 815-16; they were about the imamate (the prayer leader of a mosque), and attracted the attention of al-Mamun. Al-Jahiz achieved some fame and moved to Baghdad, where he continued to work as an apologist and advisor to the government. Scholars do not know if al-Jahiz ever held formal, long-term employment; they suspect that he lived off the dedications of his numerous writings. He suffered ill health in his later years and died in Muharram in December 868 or January 869.
Al-Jahiz is credited with writing nearly two hundred works, although fewer than one hundred survive today. His most famous work is Al-Hayawan (The Book of Animals), which merges discussions of zoology with philosophy. The book illustrates the order of God's universe and the nature of life and is also an important source of information on Arabic rhetoric and style. In Al-Hayawan and Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin, al-Jahiz reprinted many examples of written prose and instructed the reader upon rhetoric, eloquence, and selection of appropriate language for specific circumstances. Al-Jahiz wrote many works on politics in an effort to inform both the rulers and the people. These works include The Book of Legal Opinions, Refutation of the Christians, The Superiority of the House of Hashim to That of Abd Shams, and The Merits of the Turks and of the Caliphal Army in General. In addition, al-Jahiz was well known for his works of general instruction in which he attempted to teach his reader, often through a series of divergent anecdotes, on proper behavior. Among the most famous are The Book of Singing Slave Girls; The Book of Thieves; The Lepers, the Lame, the Blind and the Cross-Eyed; The Book of the Crown, On the Difference Between Enmity and Envy; Boasting Match between Girls and Boys; and On the Superiority of the Belly to the Back.
Critics agree that al-Jahiz is one of the most important early Arabic writers. Fedwa Malti-Douglas calls him "probably the greatest Arabic prose writer of all time." William M. Hutchins claims that al-Jahiz "is known in the Arab world today as an elegant stylist of literary Arabic, a satirist and humorist, and a theologian with interest in philosophy in that order." Al-Jahiz is credited with establishing the rules of Arabic prose writing by collecting previously written anecdotes and ideas and reissuing them along with his own instructions on the proper use of language and the importance of eloquence. Critics disagree about al-Jahiz's use of the anecdote and his seemingly disorganized and tangential writings, which have led to his being classified as a humorist. Hutchins argues that al-Jahiz wrote in this style in order to force readers to decipher the text and learn for themselves the message that he was imparting. In addition, scholars have disagreed about the authenticity of some works attributed to al-Jahiz. A great deal of debate has centered on what texts were written by al-Jahiz, how they should be translated, and whether fragmentary pieces were originally published together.
Rasa'il al-Jahiz (essay) 1352
* Al-Hayawan. 7 vols. [The Book of Animals] (essay) 1356-64
Al-Bukhala [The Book of Misers] (essay) 1359
Al-Qiyan [The Book of Singing Slave Girls] (essay) 1935
Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin. 4 vols. [The Book of Eloquence and Exposition] (essay) 1367-70
'Uthmaniyya (essay) 1374
Al-Bursan wal-'Urjan wal-'Umyan was-Hulan [The Lepers, the Lame, the Blind and the Cross-Eyed] (essay) 1972
*This title is also translated as The Book of Life.
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SOURCE: "Al-Jahiz," in Biographical Dictionary, Vol. II, translated by Bn Mac Guckin de Slane, Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britian, 1843, pp. 403-10.
[In the following excerpt, Khallikan discusses anecdotes which al-Jahiz told about himself]
Abu Othman Amr Ibn Bahr Ibn Mahbub al-Kinani al-Laithi, generally known by the surname of al-Jahiz and a native of Basra, was a man celebrated for his learning and author of numerous works on every branch of science. He composed a discourse on the fundamentals of religion, and an offset of the Motazilite sect was called al-Jahiziya after him. He had been a disciple of Abu Ishak Ibrahim Ibn Saiyar al-Balkhi, surnamed an-Nazzam1, and was maternal uncle to Yamut Ibn al-Muzarra, a person whose life we shall give. One of his finest and most instructive works is the Kitab al-Haiwan (book of animals), as it contains every sort of curious information. The same may be said of his Kitab al-Bayan wa 't-Tabaiyun (distinction and exposition)2. His productions are extremely numerous, and his talents are fully recognised; but he was deformed in person, and the prominence of his eyes, which seemed to be starting out of his head, procured him the surnames of al-Jahiz (the starer) and al-Hadaki (goggle-eye). Amongst the anecdotes concerning him, is the following, related by himself: "I was mentioned to...
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SOURCE: "Insights from the Uthmaniyya of Al-Jahiz into the Religious Policy of Al-Ma'mun," in The Muslim World, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 8-17.
[In the following essay, Zahniser explores the relationship between al-Jahiz 's writings and the views of the caliph al-Ma'mun. Zahniser argues that Uthmaniyya both reflected and influenced al-Ma 'mun 's policy.]
One of the most interesting periods in Islamic history is that of the caliphate of Abdallah b. Harun al-Rashid, called al-Mamun (198/813-218/833). Not only was it charac terized by great cultural advancement, greater sympathy for the aspirations of non-Arab Muslims, and a championing of the superiority of the fourth caliph, Ali b. Abi Talib; but also of Mutazilite orthodoxy and the persecution of a traditionalism represented by Ahmad b. Hanbal (164/780-241/851).
Crucial to an understanding of al-Mamun and his reign is the question of his relation to the supporters and champions of the claims of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali (d. 40/661). While our oldest sources, al-Tabari (244/839-310/923) and al-Yaqubi (d. 284/897), give no evidence as to what led al-Mamun to champion the cause of the Shia,1 the traditional Sunni sources present the view that this was due to the strong influence of his entourage in general and his vizier, al-Fadl b. Sahl, in particular,2 and the most reliable...
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SOURCE: "Source Criticism in the Uthmaniyya of Al-Jahiz," in The Muslim World, Vol. LXX, No. 2, April, 1980, pp. 134-41.
[In the essay below, Zahniser considers the methods that al-Jahiz used to evaluate the validity of his sources.]
In a previous article published in this journal on the Uthmaniyya of Abu Uthman Amr b. Bahr al-Jahiz (d. 869), the celebrated Basrian Mutazilite litterateur, reference was made to the fact that the author wrote a series of treatises for the caliph al-Mamun (reigned 813-833) on the imamate, and that his Uthmaniyya was probably one of them.1 It presents the views of a sect called the Uthmaniyya, views al-Jahiz himself seems to have shared. In it he argues for the superior virtue of Abu Bakr and, thus, his exclusive right to the leadership of the Muslim community.
An attempt is made here to elucidate al-Jahiz' assessment of the reliability of information from traditional sources for purposes of establishing the relative merits of the individuals surrounding the Prophet Muhammad. The importance of such an assessment is indicated in the third paragraph of the treatise:
If we examine carefully their historical data (akhbar) and consider the number of their Traditions (ahadith) as well as the authorities who transmitted them, if we look at the quality of their chains of authority...
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SOURCE: "The Regiments of the Imperial Army: Notes on Al-Jahiz's Epistle to Al-Fath B. Khaqan," in The Shaping of Abbasid Rule, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 116-38.
[In the following essay, Lassner discusses al-Jahiz's On the Virtues (Manaqib) of the Turk and what it reveals about early 'Abbasid armies.]
Al-Ma'mun, al Mu'tasim, and an officer whose name is not mentioned, disagreed as to the bravest among the officers [quwwad], troops [jund], and clients [mawali]. Al-Ma'mun maintained that there were none braver than the non-Arabs among the people of Khurasan [ajam ahl Khurasan, that is, the Transoxanians who brought him to power]. Al-Mu'tasim, in turn, favored the Turks [that were the backbone of his support], but the officers held out for the abna '. They were the ones that shackled the Turks [that is, lead them to Islam], just as their forefathers led the ['Abbasid] revolution [dawlah]. They fought the Commander of the Faithful [during the civil war] but now pay him obeisance, and it is through them that his rule is secured.
Based on Ibn Tayfur (Cairo), 80.
The professional army of the 'Abbasid state came to include a variety of ethnic groups from diverse regional backgrounds and social strata. The first century of the dynasty began with an army composed of vestiges...
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SOURCE: Structures of Avarice: The Bukhala in Medieval Arabic Literature, E. J. Brill, 1985, 183 p.
[In the following excerpt, Malti-Douglas analyzes the organization ofal-Jahiz 's works, arguing that his writings are not unstructured; examines the question of when al-Jahiz wrote Kitab al-Bukhala; and discusses the role of the anecdote in al-Jahiz's works.]
Al-Jahiz is one of the most justly famed of Medieval Arab authors, probably the greatest Arabic prose writer of all time. As such, he has spawned a considerable scholarly literature, both in the Middle East and in the West.1 One of the most striking features of the man was the breadth of his interests, itself reflected in the variety of his writings. It will be possible here only to present a biographical sketch, stressing the circumstances of his life, his intellectual formation, and an examination of questions relative to the composition of his Kitab al-Bukhala.
Al-Jahiz was also famous in the Medieval Islamic world and a great many biographical notices have come down to us, as can be seen from an examination of the section entitled "Les sources biographiques" in Charles Pellat's Le milieu basrien et la formation de Gahiz.2 Pellat has identified four sources which he characterizes as "fondamentales, en ce sens qu'elles fournissent des renseignements originaux et des traditions remontant à...
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SOURCE: "Rhetorical Criticism in Al-Jahiz's Al-Bayan Wa Al-Tabyin and Al-Hayawan," in Islamic Culture: An English Quarterly, Vol. XLI, No. 1, January, 1987, pp. 59-78.
[In the following essay, Abu 'l-'Addus explores the new rules of rhetoric which al-Jahiz presented in al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin and al-Hayawan.]
Arab writers regarded al-Jahiz as the establisher of the Arabic rhetoric. This was not because al-Jahiz formulated specific rules for rhetoric, but because in his books al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin and al-Hayawan he collected many texts and ideas about rhetorical criticism (naqd albalaghah), as we shall see below. These critical notices testify to the way in which the Arabs thought of eloquence in the third century A.H. In these two books, he discussed the dimensions of rhetoric (al-bayan), meaning and word, the idea that "every occasion has its appropriate speech," the eloquence of the Arabs (in riposte to the arguments of the Shu'ubiyah, who denied that the Arabs had any distinctive ability of speech or rhetoric), demand and statement sentences, the development of language, and poetry and its role. In this article an attempt will be made to analyze these points in al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin and al-Hayawan, and to examine whether al-Jahiz was influenced by Greek writers in these points, especially by Aristotle.
Many writers before...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Nine Essays of Al-Jahiz, translated by William M. Hutchins, Peter Lang, 1989, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Hutchins elaborates on al-Jahiz's role in Arabic literature.]
Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz lived more than a thousand years ago at the center of the Islamic empire during a peak time of Arab power. His literary works were financed by imperial officials. He is recognized as one of the early masters of Arabic prose literature. He has been an important influence on the development of twentieth century Arabic literature. A humorist, he was also a theologian associated with the Mu'tazili movement.
Al-Jahiz died in the last month of 868 AD or the first of 869 at an age of more than ninety years in his birthplace, Basra. He was a contemporary of the Saxon prince Egbert of Wessex and of the 'Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad, although he outlived the caliph by many years. He was born during the reign of Charlemagne and a generation after that of the T'ang dynasty emperor Hsuan Tsung of China. His literary experiments were contemporary with those of the Chinese literary reformers Han Yu and Liu Tsung-yuan.1 In terms of European literary history, the era of al-Jahiz came not quite midway between Juvenal and Sterne. He lived some seven hundred years after Juvenal and nine hundred before Sterne.
Both al-Jahiz and...
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SOURCE: "Al-Jahiz," in Abbasid Belles-Lettres, Julia Ashtiany, T. M. Johnstone, J. D. Latham, R. B. Serjeant and G. Rex Smith, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 78-95.
[In the following essay, Pellat discusses the unique contributions that al-Jahiz made to Arab literature.]
Abu Uthman Amr b. Bahr b. Mahbub al-Kinani al-Basri, known as al-Jahiz, is one of the best-known and most prolific of early Abbasid prose-writers and Mutazili theologians, and also one of the most controversial. Little is known of his origins, apart from the fact that he was born in Basra, probably around 160/776, to a humble family of freedmen (mawali) who were clients of the Banu Kinanah (a tribe related to Quraysh). Jahiz's forebears were probably of African descent; his grandfather was black, and he himself retained some of the pigmentation of his ancestors; his ugliness, caused by his bulging eyeballs, became proverbial and earned him the nickname oïjahiz (popeyed). Nothing is known of his father, who died soon after his birth, and little of his mother, to whom Jahiz must have been a source of considerable anxiety; she had managed to send him to the local Quranic school, but when he left he refused to be tied down to any regular work. It is said that he was once seen selling fish, and this, if true, confirms what other anecdotal sources say about his idle way of life. His...
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Pellat, Ch. "Al-DJahiz." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by B. Lewis, Ch. Pellat, and J. Schacht, pp. 385-87. London: Luzac & Co., 1965.
Offers an overview of al-Jahiz's life and writings.
Abbott, Nabia. "Early Islamic Historiography." In Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri I: Historical Texts, pp. 19-22. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Argues that although al-Jahiz favored the Abbasid, he wrote about Umayyad achievements.
Hitti, Philip K. "Scientific and Literary Progress." In History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, pp. 382-83. London: Macmillan & Co., 1964.
Discusses al-Jahiz's contributions to scientific thought but argues that he is more significant as a philosopher.
Mansur, Said H. The World-View of Al-Jahiz in Kitab Al-Hayawan. Dar Al-Maaref, 1977, 311 p.
In-depth, book-length examination of Kitab al-Hayawan.
Pellat, Charles. "Jahiz's Life." In The Life and Works of Jahiz: Translations and Selected Texts, pp. 1-27. Translated by D. M. Hawke. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969....
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