Al-Jahiz Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

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.


Ibn Khallikan (essay date 1843)

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 al-Mutawakkil as a proper person to instruct one of his sons; but, on seeing me, he disliked my looks and dismissed me with a present often thousand dirhems. On leaving the palace, I met with Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim3, who was on the point of returning to Madina-tas-Salam (Baghdad), and he proposed to me that I should accompany him in his barge. I should remark that we were then at Sarra man Raa. I embarked with him, and, on reaching the mouth of the canal al-Katul4, a curtained tent was set up and he called for music, on which a female lute-player commenced singing an air, of which the words were:

'Our days are passed in quarrels and reproaches; our time is spent in anger. Can it it be that such an affliction is peculiar to me alone, or is it common to every lover?'

"She then stopped, and he told a female guitar-player to begin. The words she sung were:

'Show pity to true lovers! I see no one to assist them; how often do they part! how often are they severed! how often do they separate! how great must be their patience!'

"Here the lute-player said to her:

'And then what must they do?'

"To which the other female answered:

''Tis this they have to do—'

"She then struck her hand through the curtain, and, coming out at the rent she thus made, she appeared to us like a half-moon5 and threw herself into the water. A young page who was standing behind Muhammad, with a fly-flap in his hand, and who resembled her in beauty, went over to the place where she fell in, and saw her borne away under the water, on which he recited this verse:

''Tis thou who drownest me6 after meeting with thy fate! O that thou couldst know it!'

"He then sprung in after her, and the rowers having turned the barge round, perceived them sinking and clasped in each other's arms. They were never seen after. Muhammad was greatly shocked at the circumstance, but he at length said to me: 'O Abu Amr! tell me some story which may diminish my grief for the death of that unfortunate couple, or else I shall send thee to join them!' I immediately recollected an occurrence which happened to Yazid Ibn Abd al-Malik, and I related as follows: The khalif Yazid Ibn Abd al-Malik was holding a public sitting for the redressing of grievances, and amongst the memorials which passed under his examination, he found one containing these words: 'If it be the pleasure of the Commander of the faithful, he will have such and such a slave-girl of his brought out to me, so that she may sing me three airs.' On reading this note, Yazid was seized with anger, and he sent out a person with orders to bring in the writer's head, but he then dispatched another messenger after the first, with directions to bring in the individual himself. When the man appeared before him, the khalif addressed him thus: 'What induced thee to do what thou hast done?'—'My confidence in thy mildness,' replied the man, 'and my trust in thy indulgence.' Here the prince ordered all the assembly to withdraw, not excepting the members of the Omaiyide family, and the girl was brought in with a lute in her hand. The youth then said to her: 'Sing these words:

'Gently, O Fatima! moderate thy disdain! if thou hast resolved to sever our attachment, yet be gentle7.'

"When she had sung it, Yazid said to him: 'Speak;' and the other said: Sing:

'The lightning gleamed in the direction of Najd, and I said: O lightning! I am too much engaged to watch thee8.'

"And she sung it. Yazid then said...

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Mathias Zahniser (essay date 1979)

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...

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A. H. Mathias Zahniser (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 3283 words.)

Jacob Lassner (essay date 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 11265 words.)

Fedwa Malti-Douglas (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 19240 words.)

Yusuf Abu'l-'Addus (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 6367 words.)

William M. Hutchins (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 3977 words.)

Charles Pellat (essay date 1990)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 168 words.)