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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1666

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.

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Early Life

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 for a bitter and irascible temperament.)

Al-Jahiz was an active and productive individual, involved, like many Muslim intellectuals of this time, in a variety of arenas. He followed the rationalist Mutazilite school of Islamic thought, which reveled in logical analysis and lively debate; the Mutazilite sect which he founded appears to have espoused some radical theological views. Al-Jahiz was fond of defending unpopular positions in public debate even when he did not personally agree with them. He also dabbled in the natural sciences; his zoological treatise, Kitab alhayawan (book of animals), constituted one of the earliest attempts in Islam to formulate orders of living things. Of the more than 120 works attributed to al-Jahiz by thirteenth century geographer/biographer Yaqut, however, only a few are extant.

Al-Jahiz, who was fluent in Greek as well as Arabic, borrowed heavily from the Hellenistic tradition, frequently quoting or citing Aristotle and other Greek intellectual figures. Among Arabic scholars of his time, he was one of the most inclined to acknowledge his debt to Greek learning.

Life’s Work

The literary career of al-Jahiz owes much to the development in Islam of the concept of adab, or high culture. Adab demanded of its practitioners not only an eclectic knowledge base but also certain mannerisms and styles of expression considered appropriate to a cultivated intellectual elite. The content of adab might vary according to the personality of the individual; theology and Islamic canon law (Shariʿa) were considered appropriate subject matter. The keystone of adab, however, was literary and rhetorical expression. Eloquence was considered one of the essential virtues; indeed, in rigorously pious circles the spoken word was one of the few forms of emotional expression to which one might manifest visible reaction. Conventions of verbal elegance soon came to be applied in literary practice as well, so that good writing was elevated alongside rhetoric as a quality of the cultivated.

The evolution of adab raised difficulties concerning the heretofore restricted and unimaginative use of Arabic in written form. Written Arabic often adhered slavishly to Koranic expression, and in al-Jahiz’s age prose style was rigid and inflexible. Writers were essentially clerks and secretaries who compiled rather than created. There was a heavy emphasis on such traditional topics as the life of Muhammad and early Islam, as well as a consuming regard for philology at the expense of experiment. Matters of everyday life and those not directly related to the Koran or canon law were addressed only in poetry.

Al-Jahiz sensed that Arabic literary expression was at a dead end—that if current trends continued, Arabic would soon be relegated to use in religious observances only. To overcome this problem, he struck out in new directions with a prose style intended, as he described it, to be both educational and entertaining and to reach a broader segment of the literate public. Al-Jahiz combined a witty and satirical style with his breadth of learning to produce a large corpus of works on all aspects of contemporary life. He made extensive use of anecdotes to make his writing accessible by varying its structure and pace. Al-Jahiz’s frequent use of a rhymed, cadenced prose style called sajʿ deeply influenced adab culture even in media such as personal correspondence. He was also one of the first Arabic writers to employ irony as a literary device.

Among the surviving works of al-Jahiz, one that well illustrates his style is Kitab al-bukhala (book of misers), in which he rebukes members of the Persian urban middle class, contrasting their behavior with the generosity of the Arabs. It is not the dubious ethnic stereotypes that make the work interesting, however, but the manner of presentation. Marked by witty, vibrant prose, the work is filled with anecdotes about well-known past and contemporary figures who serve as negative examples of the virtue of generosity. Some have suggested that the format and style of the work continues in Arabic a tradition going back to the Charactēres ethikōi (c. 319 b.c.e.; The Moral Characters of Theophrastus, 1702, best known as Characters) of Theophrastus, in that al-Jahiz replicates the Greek philosopher’s brief and vigorous descriptions of moral character types.

Never one to dodge controversy, al-Jahiz wrote on a wide variety of issues of the time. In his Kitab al-Bayan wa-al-Tabyin (book of eloquence and exposition), he attacked the populist Shuʿubi movement, which proclaimed the superiority of non-Arabs over Arabs in religious and cultural achievement. Not surprisingly, many Shuʿubis were Persians, who, in the view of al-Jahiz, were most responsible for the clerical and bureaucratic pedantry to which Arabic literature had been reduced. Besides an essay which extolled the virtues of the Turks, al-Jahiz wrote one on black Africans and several on corruption and venality in government.

If al-Jahiz was something of a muckraker, he was also a devout Muslim. Deeply concerned by what he saw as a growing cynicism and infidelity among the literate classes, he never lost an opportunity to weave theology into his commentaries on everyday life and his descriptions of exemplary behavior.

Summary

As a scholar and man of letters, al-Jahiz had a lasting effect on Islamic culture. His zoological treatise, which, though wide-ranging and imaginative, treats zoology almost as a branch of philology and literature, found many emulators. Among them were the cosmographer al-Qazwini and the thirteenth century Egyptian scientist al-Damiri, generally regarded as the greatest Muslim figure in early zoology.

Al-Jahiz changed for all time the nature and function of Arabic prose; without him, the development of Arabic secular writing would have been almost unthinkable. No longer would Arabic be restricted merely to government reports, theology, and the recounting of the life of Muhammad and the Arab conquests; no longer would Arabic literacy be limited to a privileged few. Al-Jahiz showed that Arabic is a subtle and supple literary language, able to express the entire spectrum of human activity and desire, a vehicle in which literary devices could be exploited to their fullest effect.

Al-Jahiz was to become something of a cultural hero in Muslim Spain, setting of one of the greatest cultural flowerings in the medieval world. Spanish Muslims who traveled to Syria and Iraq to study heard al-Jahiz lecture and eagerly sought copies of his manuscripts to take home, where they became models of literary style for several centuries to come.

Bibliography

De Somogyi, J. “Al-Jahiz and Ad-Damiri.” Annual of the Leeds University Oriental Society 1 (1958/1959): 55-60. A brief examination of the influence of al-Jahiz on this Muslim scientist who, several centuries later, used his work as a model.

Dodge, Bayard, ed. and trans. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. This volume contains a brief biography of al-Jahiz in traditional Muslim form, also listing some of the scholars associated with him, by a tenth century chronicler. A good example of biographical treatment at the time, it provides a sense of the intellectual environment in which al-Jahiz lived and worked.

Hirschfeld, H. “A Volume of Essays by al-Jahiz.” In A Volume of Oriental Essays Presented to Edward G. Brown, edited by T. W. Arnold and R. A. Nicolson. Cambridge: Clarendon Press, 1922. Hirschfeld offers commentary on a previously untranslated group of essays and notes.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. This volume includes a discussion of the characteristics and development of adab culture and the role which al-Jahiz played in articulating its literary aspects. Shows the great breadth of intellectual and literary activity embraced by adab and the diversity of knowledge required of its practitioners.

Marshall, D. R. “An Arab Humorist: Al-Jahiz and ‘The Book of Misers.’ “ Journal of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Malta 4 (1970): 77-97. Marshall emphasizes secular as opposed to theological overtones of al-Jahiz’s work and discusses the various literary devices and idioms which gave his writing wide appeal.

Pellat, Charles. Introduction to The Life and Works of Jahiz: Translations of Selected Texts. Translated by D. M. Hanke. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969. The essays in this volume, originally translated into French, cover topics such as politics, theology, rhetoric, science, manners, love, and society. The short introduction by Pellat is a useful discussion of the career and significance of al-Jahiz.

Zahniser, Mathias. “Source Criticism in the ʿUthmaniyya of al-Jahiz.” Muslim World 70 (1980): 134-141. Zahniser argues that al-Jahiz belonged to a sect called ʿUthmaniyya, which opposed the claims of the Shiʿis regarding the right of succession in Islam. Al-Jahiz may have written tracts for the Abbasid caliphate supporting the rightful claim of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, to leadership.

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