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...
(The entire section is 2205 words.)