Al-Jahiz Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.