Al-Jahiz

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Al-Jāḥiẓ
Born 776
Basra, Abbasid Caliphate
Died 868-9
Basra, Abbasid Caliphate
Era Medieval era
Region Muslim scholar
Main interests Arabic literature
Influenced

al-Jāḥiẓ (Arabic: الجاحظ‎) (full name Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī أبو عثمان عمرو بن بحر الكناني البصري) (born in Basra, 776 – December 868/January 869) was an Arabic prose writer and author of works of literature, Mu'tazili theology, and politico-religious polemics.

Early life[edit]

Not much is known about al-Jāḥiẓ's early life, but his family was very poor. Born in Basra early in 160/February 776, he asserted in a book he wrote that he was a member of the Arabian tribe Banu Kinanah.[1][2]

He sold fish along one of the canals in Basra in order to help his family. Financial difficulties, however, did not stop al-Jāḥiẓ from continuously seeking knowledge. He used to gather with a group of other youths at Basra's main mosque, where they would discuss different scientific subjects. He also attended various lectures given by the most learned men in philology, lexicography and poetry.

Al-Jāḥiẓ continued his studies. Over a span twenty-five years, he would acquire considerable knowledge on Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, and pre-Islamic Arab and Persian history. He also studied the Qur'an and the Hadiths. Additionally, al-Jāḥiẓ read translated books on Greek sciences and Hellenistic philosophy, especially that of Greek philosopher Aristotle. His education was highly facilitated due to the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate was in a period of cultural, and intellectual revolutions. Books became readily available, and this made learning easily available.

His career[edit]

While still in Basra, al-Jāḥiẓ wrote an article about the institution of the Caliphate. This is said to have been the beginning of his career as a writer, which would become his sole source of living. It's said that his mother once offered him a tray full of notebooks and told him that he'll earn his living from writing. Thereafter, he authored two hundred books throughout his lifetime that discuss a variety of subjects including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric. Jahiz was also one of the first Arabic writers to suggest a complete overhaul of the language's grammatical system, though this would not be undertaken until fellow linguist Ibn Maḍāʾ breached the issue two-hundred years later.[3] Of his writings, only thirty books survive.

He moved to Baghdad, the capital of the Arab Islamic Caliphate at the time, in 816 AD, because the Abbasid Caliphs encouraged scientists and scholars and had just founded the House of Wisdom. Due to the Caliphs' patronage, his eagerness to reach a wider audience, and establish himself, al-Jāḥiẓ stayed in Baghdad (and later Samarra) where he wrote a huge number of his books. The Caliph al-Ma'mun wanted al-Jāḥiẓ to teach his children, but then changed his mind when his children got afraid of his boggle-eyes (جاحظ العينين), it's said that this is where he got his nickname.

Most important books[edit]

A page from the Kitaab al-Hayawaan. Basra.

Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals)[edit]

The al-Hayawan is an encyclopedia of seven volume of anecdotes, poetic descriptions and proverbs describing over 350 varieties of animals. The work was considered by the 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi to be "little more than a plagiarism" of Aristotle's Kitāb al-Hayawān, a charge that was once levelled against Aristotle himself with regard to a certain "Asclepiades of Pergamum".[4] Later scholars have noted that there was only a limited Aristotelian influence in al-Jāḥiẓ's work, and that al-Baghdadi may have been unacquainted with Aristotle's work.[5]

Conway Zirkle, writing about the history of natural selection science in 1941, said that an excerpt from this work was the only relevant passage he had found from an Arabian scholar. He provided a quotation describing the struggle for existence, citing a Spanish translation of this work: "The rat goes out for its food, and is clever in getting it, for it eats all animals inferior to it in strength", and in turn, it "has to avoid snakes and birds and serpents of prey, who look for it in order to devour it" and are stronger than the rat. Mosquitos "know instinctively that blood is the thing which makes them live" and when they see an animal, "they know that the skin has been fashioned to serve them as food". In turn, flies hunt the mosquito "which is the food that they like best", and predators eat the flies. "All animals, in short, can not exist without food, neither can the hunting animal escape being hunted in his turn. Every weak animal devours those weaker than itself. Strong animals cannot escape being devoured by other animals stronger than they. And in this respect, men do not differ from animals, some with respect to others, although they do not arrive at the same extremes. In short, God has disposed some human beings as a cause of life for others, and likewise, he has disposed the latter as a cause of the death of the former."[6]

In a discussion broadcast by ABC. the palaeontologist and practising Muslim Gary Dargan said that al-Jāḥiẓ had made observations that described evolution: "Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."[7]

Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers) also (Avarice & the Avaricious)[edit]

A collection of stories about the greedy. Humorous and satirical, it is the best example of al-Jāḥiẓ' prose style. Al-Jāḥiẓ ridicules schoolmasters, beggars, singers and scribes for their greedy behavior. Many of the stories continue to be reprinted in magazines throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The book is considered one of the best works of al-Jāḥiẓ.[citation needed]

Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin (The Book of eloquence and demonstration)[edit]

Al bayan wa tabyeen was one of al-Jahiz's later works, in which he wrote on epiphanies, rhetorical speeches, sectarian leaders, and princes. Though he was neither a poet nor a philologist in the proper sense - al-Jahiz took a keen interest in almost any imaginable subject - the book is considered to have started Arabic literary theory in a formal, systemic fashion.[8] Al-Jahiz's defining of eloquence as the ability of the speaker to deliver an effective message while maintaining it as brief or elaborate at will was widely accepted by later Arabic literary critics.[9]

Risalat mufakharat al-sudan 'ala al-bidan (Treatise on Blacks)[edit]

Concerning the Zanj, he wrote:

Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. One of them will lift huge blocks and carry heavy loads that would be beyond the strength of most Bedouins or members of other races. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.

The Zanj say that God did not make them black in order to disfigure them; rather it is their environment that made them so. The best evidence of this is that there are black tribes among the Arabs, such as the Banu Sulaim bin Mansur, and that all the peoples settled in the Harra, besides the Banu Sulaim are black. These tribes take slaves from among the Ashban to mind their flocks and for irrigation work, manual labor, and domestic service, and their wives from among the Byzantines; and yet it takes less than three generations for the Harra to give them all the complexion of the Banu Sulaim. This Harra is such that the gazelles, ostriches, insects, wolves, foxes, sheep, asses, horses and birds that live there are all black. White and black are the results of environment, the natural properties of water and soil, distance from the sun, and intensity of heat. There is no question of metamorphosis, or of punishment, disfigurement or favor meted out by Allah. Besides, the land of the Banu Sulaim has much in common with the land of the Turks, where the camels, beasts of burden, and everything belonging to these people is similar in appearance: everything of theirs has a Turkish look.[10]

His death[edit]

Al-Jāḥiẓ returned to Basra with Hemiplegia after spending more than fifty years in Baghdad. He died in Basra in the Arabic month of Muharram in AH 255/December 868-January 869 CE.[11] His exact cause of death is not clear, but a popular assumption is that Jahiz died in his private library after one of many large piles of books fell on him, killing him instantly. Others say he died of a sickness. He died at the age of 93.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Al-Jahiz messages, Alwarraq edition, page 188; Yāqūt, Irshād al-arīb ilá ma`rifat al-adīb, ed. Iḥsān `Abbās, 7 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1993), 5:2102.
  2. ^ Chuo Kikuu cha Dar es Salaam. Chuo cha Uchunguzi wa Lugha ya Kiswahili (1974). Kiswahili. East African Swahili Committee. p. 16. ; Yāqūt, Irshād al-arīb ilá ma`rifat al-adīb, ed. Iḥsān `Abbās, 7 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1993), 5:2102.
  3. ^ Shawqi Daif, Introduction to Ibn Mada's Refutation of the Grammarians, pg. 48. Cairo, 1947.
  4. ^ F. E., Peters (1968). Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam. New York University Press. p. 133. 
  5. ^ Mattock, J. N. (1971). "Review: Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam by F. E. Peters". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 34 (1): 147–148. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00141722. JSTOR 614638. "...there is much more in al-Jāḥiẓ, enough to indicate that he used a version of Aristotle (or an epitome), but still not very much. If al-Baghdidi thought that the Kitab al-hayawan was a plagiarism of the Aristotelian work he was either a fool or unacquainted with Aristotle." 
  6. ^ Zirkle, Conway (1941). "Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species"". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84 (1): 71–123. 
  7. ^ Gary Dargan, Intelligent Design, Encounter, ABC.
  8. ^ G. J. H. Van Gelder, Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, pg. 2. Volume 8 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1982. ISBN 9789004068544
  9. ^ G.J. van Gelder, "Brevity in Classical Arabic Literary Theory." Taken from Proceedings of the Ninth Congress of the Union Européenne Des Arabisants Et Islamisants: Amsterdam, 1 to 7 September 1978, pg. 81. Ed. Rudolph Peters. Volume 4 of Publications of the Netherlands Institute of Archaeology and Arabic Studies in Cairo. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1981. ISBN 9789004063808
  10. ^ Medieval Sourcebook: Abû Ûthmân al-Jâhith: From The Essays, c. 860 CE
  11. ^ al-Ṣūlī, Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyá (1998). Kniga listov. Sankt-Peterburg: T͡Sentr "Peterburgskoe vostokovedenie". p. 392. 

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