Al-Jahiz Biography


(History of the World: The 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.

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...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)