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

al-Jāḥiẓ (Arabic: الجاحظ‎‎) (full name Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī أبو عثمان عمرو بن بحر الكناني البصري) (born 776, in Basra – 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] His nephew also reported that Al-Jahiz's grandfather was a black African.[3]

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 of Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, and pre-Islamic Arab 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 the Greek philosopher Aristotle. His education was highly facilitated by the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate was in a period of cultural and intellectual revolution. 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 is said that his mother once offered him a tray full of notebooks and told him he would earn his living from writing. He went on to write two hundred books in his lifetime on a variety of subjects, including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric. Of his writings, only thirty books survive. Al-Jāḥiẓ 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 his fellow linguist Ibn Maḍāʾ took up the matter two hundred years later.[4]

He moved to Baghdad, then the capital of the caliphate, in 816 AD, because the Abbasid caliphs encouraged scientists and scholars and had just founded the House of Wisdom.[citation needed] Because of the caliphs' patronage and his eagerness to establish himself and reach a wider audience, 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 were frightened by al-Jāḥiẓ's boggle-eyes (جاحظ العينين). This is said to be the origin of his nickname.[citation needed]

Most important books[edit]

A page from the Kitāb al-Hayawān. Basra.

Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of the 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".[5] 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.[6]

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 Evolution

After a long study of animals, Al-Jahiz was the first to put forward his view of biological evolution in his Book ofAnimals, which contains the germs of many later evolutionary theories (animal embryology, evolution, adaptation, animal psychology and sociology) "3.1". First of all, al-Jahiz’s attempts were made in a truly scientific spirit to classifV animals in a linear series, beginning with the simplest and continuing to the most complex; and at the same time, he arranged them into groups having marked similarities; and these groups were divided into sub-groups to trace the ultimate unit in the species "3.2" An early exponent of the zoological and anthropological sciences, al- Jahiz discovered and recognized the effect of environmental factors on animal life; and he also observed the transformation of animal species under different factors. And in many remarkable passages of his book, he also described for us the struggle of existences for survival, its aim and mechanisms and value in a scientific way, as well as in a folkloric way. As to know the mechanistiis of evolution, al-Jahiz described three mechanisms. These are Struggle for Existence, Transformation of species into each other, and Environmental Factors. Let us now see the mechanisms, as briefly as possible. Struggle for Existence: al-Jahiz placed the greatest weight on evolution by the struggle for existence, or, in a larger sense, by natural selection. It operates in conjunction with the innate desire for conservation and permanence of the ego. According to al-Jahiz, between every individual existence, there is a natural war for life. The existence are in struggle with each other. Al-Jahiz’s theory of struggle for existence may accordingly be defined as a differential death rate between two variant class of existence, the lesser death rate characterizing the better adapted and stronger class. And for al-Jahiz, the struggle for existence is a divine law; God makes food for some bodies out of some other bodies’ death. He says, “The rat goes out for collecting his food, and it searches and seizes them. It eats some other inferior animals, like small animals and small birds. . . it hides its babies in disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself against the attack of the snakes and of the birds. Snakes like eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter frightens all the animals which are inferior to it. ...

this is the law that some existences are the food for others. . . . All small animals eat smaller ones; and all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are like animals. . . God makes cause of some bodies life, “ "3.3" from some bodies death and vice versa. And according to al-Jahiz, the struggle does not exist only between the members of different species, but also between the members of the same species "3.4". From what al-Jahiz has said, we can make an assertion that God has created Nature in a prodigal reproductive character and He has also established a law, which is the biological struggle for existence in order to keep it within a limited ratio. Otherwise, the disorder could appear in Nature and it could lose some of its riches and species. We can see the germs of Darwin’s and the Neo-Darwinian’s theory of Natural Selection in this remarkable passage which we have mentioned above. Transformation of Species: Al-Jahiz, as later Lamarck and Darwin, for example, believes that the transformation of species and mutation is possible. The transformation operates in conjunction with the effect of environmental factors. And he asserted that the original forms branched out into new forms of species by gradually developing new characteristics which helped them to survive environmental conditions. He says, “People said different things about the existence of al-miskh (the original form of quadrupeds) "3.5". Some accepted its evolution and said that it gave existence to dog, wolf, fox and their similars. The members of this family came from this form (al-miskk).” "3.6" And, he adds that God’s will and power is the main causal factor in the transformation, and God can transform any species into another at any time He wants. So al-Jahiz defends the transformation of species and mutation, due to different factors, including God’s will’7, as we have said above. Here al-Jahiz got some of his material from the sayings of different learned men. As for the effect of environmental factors on species, al-Jahiz believes that the food, climate, shelter and other factors have some biological and psychological effects on species. And for him, these factors also lead the species to a hard struggle for survival. In a changed environment, there is also a change in some characters having survival value. The process of changing characters in succeeding generations makes the organisms better adapted to their environment. They thus survive and get a chance to breed and transmit their characteristics to their offspring. So, al-Jahiz based his theory upon the notion of the use and disuse of organs in the adaptation of animals to their environment. Al-Jahiz says, “Without doubt, we have seen that some Nabatheen navigators resembled the ape in some geographical environment, likely we have also seen some people from Morocco and have found them as like as al-maskh "3.8", except for a little difference.... And it is possible that the polluted air and water, and dust made this change in the character of these Moroccans. . . . If this effect goes on more and more in them, those changes in their bristles, ears, colours, and form (similar to the ape) increase more.... “ "3.9" Such are the main mechanisms of al-Jahiz’s biological evolution. Now, I will speak about al-Jahiz’s great influence upon Muslim and European scientists. Al-Jahiz’s zoology and theory of biological evolution have profoundly affected the development of zoology and biology. As we have said before, al-Jahiz’s biological evolution had some direct influences upon Ikhwan al-Safa, and other illustrious philosophers, such as Ibn Miskawayh, al-Biruni, Ibn Tufayl, with whom al-Jahiz’s theory acquired a new sense, in that they made of it two new doctrines: a cosmological one, because it was applied to the phenomena of the whole universe; and a sociological one, because it was applied to social phenomena. Moreover, Ibn Miskawayh and Ibn Khaldun explain the true meaning of Prophecy and prove it by such a theory. Thus, Jahiz’s pure biological evolution became the source of different doctrines in later Islamic thought, such as sociological, metaphysical and cosmological evolutionisms. On the other hand, al-Jahiz’s theory has been repeated by Muslim zoologists and naturalists, especially by al-Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini, in his ‘Aja’ ib al-Makhluqat, Mustawfi al-Qazwini in his Nuzhat al-Qulub, and al- Damiri in his Hayat al-Hayawan, without mentioning other literary persons, such as al-Masudi and Ibn Qutayba. As for the influence of al-Jahiz on European thinkers, it has become the subject of two main studies: “Der Darwinismus im X und XIX Jahrhundert” of Fr. Dieterici (Leipzig, 1878) and “Darwinistisches bei Gahiz” of E. Wiedemann (sitzungsbericht der physikalisch-medizinischen Sozietaet in Erlangen, 47, 1915). Previous to me, they found a great similarity between al-Jahiz and Darwin. Indeed, Darwin and his precursors took up the theory of al-Jahiz as the base for the essentiality of their evolutionary theories, and they formulated it in a more scientific way in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries development of science. Perhaps the only main difference b~etween al-Jahiz’s theory and modern theory is in ideology: al-Jahiz’s theory is theologic and more transcendental in this sense that he accepts that the first cause of evolution in living organisms is God and that the other factors are secondary; while Lamarck, Darwin and others’ evolution is more immanent and materialistic. Although the mechanistic explanations of the theories are more or less the same, Darwin and other modern scientists differ from al-Jahiz and other Muslim writers in ideological interpretation of the theory. How has Jahiz’s idea been transmitted to the Europeans? Al-Jahiz and other evolutionist Muslim thinkers influenced Darwin and his predecessors in several ways. Before the flourishing of C. Linnaeus (1707-1778), Buffon (1707-1788), E. Darwin (1731-1802),J. B. Lamarck (1744-1829), and Ch. Darwin (1809-1882), and long before the rise of the school of Natural Philosophy in Germany, al-Jahiz and others were known to Europeans through the translation of their own works and studies on them by Europeans. For example, al-Damiri’s book Hayat al-Hayawan was partially translated into Latin by a Jew, called Abraham Echellensis (d. Italy 1664) and published in Paris in 1617. This book contains many passages taken from al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan. Al-Nuwayri’s JVihaya was studied by D’Herbelot (1625—1695) in his Bibliotheca Orientalis, and later byJ. Heyman (?—1737). Ibn Tufayl’s Hay Ibn raqzan, which contains the philosophy of evolution, was first published by Edward Pocockes, Sr. (1604-1690), together with a Latin translation published by Edward ~Pococke, Jr. (1648-1727) in Oxford in 1671 (second edition, Oxford, 1700) "3.10". Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini’s cosmography, ‘Aja’ ib al-Makhluqat was published by F. Wustenfeld in 2 volumes in Gottingen in 1848-49; and Kitab Talkhis al-A thar of Bakuwi, a summary of al-Qazwini’s book was translated into French and published by De Guignes in Paris, in 1789 "3.11". In fact, his book also contains many ideas from al-Jahiz. And A. L. de Chezy translated al-Qazwini’ s ‘Aja’ib, and his translation was published in 1806 (first publication) by S. de Sacy, in his Chresiomathie A rabe. There is no doubt that the great evolutionist sufi, Mawlana, had already influenced Goethe, who called him “a Darwinian before Darwin” "3.12" his theory of metamorphosis has profbundly affected the development of biology. In any case, Islamic zoology penetrated the West as early as the seventeenth century "3.13". Some Europeans knew Arabic and they could read directly from the Muslim scientists’ books; for example, Darwin was himself initiated into Islamic culture in Cambridge under ajewish orientalist called Samuel Lee "3.14". We think that what we have said can show Muslim influence upon Europeans. Some further comparative study can be undertaken in this subject, in order to bring to light the influence of Muslim evolutionist thinkers upon the Europeans and the transmission of their ideas to the West. Al-Jahiz’s theory of evolution was something very new in the history of science, and there was nothing written previous to it. Although Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Aristotle spoke of the change in Nature, in plants and animals, they never made the first steps on the field of the future theory of evolution of the Muslims. Their concept of change was only a concept of simple change and motion, nothing more than that. And by the concept of change, they never designed explicitly or implicitly a concept of evolution: “The World of Nature is thus for Aristotle, a world of self-moving thing, as it is for the Ionians and for Plato. . .. Nature as such is process, growth, change. This process is a development, i.e. the changing takes successive forms, a, b, y, . . . in which each is the potentiality of its successor, but it is not what we call ‘evolution’, because for Aristotle, the kinds of change and of structure exhibited in the world of nature form an eternal repertory, and the items in the repertory are related logically, not temporally, among themselves"3.15"”. ."[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 al-Tabyinn 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]


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]


  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. ^
  4. ^ Shawqi Daif, Introduction to Ibn Mada's Refutation of the Grammarians, pg. 48. Cairo, 1947.
  5. ^ F. E., Peters (1968). Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam. New York University Press. p. 133. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Zirkle C (1941). "Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species"". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 84 (1): 71–123. 
  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". Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  11. ^ al-Ṣūlī, Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyá (1998). Kniga listov. Sankt-Peterburg: T͡Sentr "Peterburgskoe vostokovedenie". p. 392. 

3.1) Pella (Ch.), ‘Al-Djahiz”, op. cii., p. 386; cf Sarton, op. cii., p. 597. 3.2) Al-Jahiz, Kiiab al-Ha vawan, Vol. I, Cairo, 1909, p. 13, and see also different chapters of the volumes. 3.3) ldem., Vol. VI, pp. 133—34; and there are many passages in different volumes illustrating the struggle for existence. See VI, 139; VII, 47, 80. 3.4) ldem., vol. VII, pp. 47-48. 3.5) According to some opinions, this original form of animal was lost because of earthquakes and floods. See al-Jahiz, op. cit., vol. IV, p. 24; cf vol. VII, p. 77. 3.6) ldem, vol. IV, p. 23. 3.7) ldem., vol. IV, pp. 24-25; c1 vol. VI, pp. 24-26. 3.8) I think al-Maskh is a kind of ape; see Vol. IV, p. 24. And do not confuse al-Maskh with al-Miskh. 2.9) ldem., Vol. IV, p. 24; and cf vol. IV, pp. 25-27. 3.10) See Sarton (0.), op. cii., vol. II, Part 2, pp. 354—355. 3.1) Mieli (A.), op. cii., p. 152. 3.2) Cassirer (E.), The Problem of Knowledge, translated by W. H. Woglom and Ch. W. Hendel, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1950, p. 137. 3.3) Sarton (G.), op. cii., vol. III, part 2, p. 1641. 3.4) See Darwin (Sir F.), The Life and Letters of’ Charles Darwin, vol. I, London, 1887, p. 289. Samuel Lee (1783-1852), of Queen’s, was professor of Arabic and Hebrew. In 1821, he issued a “Sylloge Librorum Orientalium”. In 1829, he translated “The Travel of Ibn Battuta”, see The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XI, London, 1917, pp. 819-820. 3.5) Collingwood (R. C.), The Idea of’ Nature, Oxford, 1945, p. 82.

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