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Al-Jahiz Arab Scholar

Location of BasraLocation of Basra.

Al-Jahiz (in Arabic الجاحظ) (real name Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri) (born in Basra, c. 781 - December 868 or January 869) was a famous Arab scholar, believed to have been an Afro-Arab of East African descent. He was an Arabic prose writer and author of works on Arabic literature, biology, zoology, history, early Islamic philosophy, Islamic psychology, Mu'tazili theology, and politico-religious polemics.

Not much is known about Al-Jahiz's early life, but his family was very poor. He used to sell fish along one of the canals in Basra to help his family. Yet, despite his difficult financial troubles, that didn't stop him from seeking knowledge since his youth. He used to gather with a group of other youths at the main mosque of Basra, where they discussed various subjects of sciences. He also attended various lectures done by the most learned men in philology, lexicography, and poetry.

Al-Jahiz continued his studies, and over a span twenty-five years, he had acquired great knowledge about Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, history of the Arabs and Persians before Islam, and he studied the Qur'an and the Hadith. He also read translated books on Greek 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.

While still in Basra, Al-Jahiz 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 would earn his living from writing. Since then, he had authored two hundred books throughout his lifetime that discuss a variety of subjects including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric. He wrote a staggering number of books, of which thirty 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-Jahiz stayed in Baghdad (and later Samarra) where he wrote a huge number of his books. The Caliph al-Ma'mun wanted al-Jahiz 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.

The Kitab al-Hayawan is an encyclopedia of seven volumes of anecdotes, poetic descriptions and proverbs describing over 350 varieties of animals. It is considered as the most important work of al-Jahiz.

In the Book of Animals, al-Jahiz first speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and developed an early theory of evolution. Al-Jahiz considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the Struggle for existence. Al-Jahiz' ideas on the struggle for existence in the Book of Animals have been summarized as follows:

"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."

Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains, and wrote the following example of a food chain:

"The mosquitoes go out to look for their food as they know instinctively that blood is the thing which makes them live. As soon as they see the elephant, hippopotamus or any other animal, they know that the skin has been fashioned to serve them as food; and falling on it, they pierce it with their proboscises, certain that their thrusts are piercing deep enough and are capable of reaching down to draw the blood. Flies in their turn, although they feed on many and various things, principally hunt the mosquito. All animals, in short, can not exist without food, neither can the hunting animal escape being hunted in his turn."

He was also an early adherent of environmental determinism and explained how the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his theories on natural selection and environmental determinism to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:

"It is so unusual that its gazelles and ostriches, its insects and flies, its foxes, sheep and asses, its horses and its birds are all black. Blackness and whiteness are in fact caused by the properties of the region, as well as by the God-given nature of water and soil and by the proximity or remoteness of the sun and the intensity or mildness of its heat."

In the 11th century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi accused al-Jahiz of having plagiarized parts of his work from the Kitāb al-Hayawān of Aristotle, but modern scholars have noted that there was only a limited Aristotelian influence in al-Jahiz's work, and that al-Baghdadi may have been unacquainted with Aristotle's work on the subject. In particular, there is no Aristotelian precedant for al-Jahiz's ideas on topics such as natural selection, environmental determinism and food chains.

A collection of stories about the greedy. Humorous and satirical, it is the best example of Al-Jahiz' prose style. It is an insightful study of human psychology. Jahiz 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 Jahiz.

Al Jahiz is considered to be one of the most renowned writers of all time, for he is believed to have written during his life span about 360 books, from all walks of knowledge and wisdom of his time, al bayan wa tabyeen which literally means (eloquence and demonstration), was one of his last works, in which he approached various subjects, such as epiphanies, rhetorical speeches, sectarian leaders, princes, as well as giving a sardonic treatment to foolish and crazy people. It is also a book in which he converges the skills of language and eloquence, the art of silence and the art of poetry.

In Arabic the word jawari is the plural of jariya, meaning a female servant, which by today's standards we would call a concubine mistress. There were two kinds of female servants: jariya - one that manages the household and runs daily errands, was the first type. The second type used to be called qina (also spelled qaena). This was a jariya who had the ability to sing, which put her above the usual jariya in market value. Often, this kind of slave girl was worth a lot of money. In consequence, they became a luxury of princes and wealthy merchants. The other word in the title, ghilman, is the plural of ghoulam a word which might be translated eunuch, castrato, or ephebe. For most scholars the book of dithyramb on concubines and ephebes is a wanton book of sensuality, in this book Al Jahiz enthralls us with stories of an erotic nature that deal with the perception of sexuality in his time.

Al-Jahiz wrote the following on black people:

"We (Ethiopians in this case) have conquered the country of the Arabs as far as Mecca and have governed them. We defeated Dhu Nowas (Jewish King of Yemen) and killed all the Himyarite princes, but you, White people, have never conquered our country. Our people, the Zenghs (Blacks of Africa's East Coast) revolted forty times in the Euphrates, driving the inhabitants from their homes and making Oballah a bath of blood.  Blacks are physically stronger than no matter what other people. A single one of them can lift stones of greater weight and carry burdens such as several Whites could not lift nor carry between them. They are brave, strong, and generous as witness their nobility and general lack of wickedness. The Blacks say to the Arabs, 'A sign of your barbarity is that when you were pagans you considered us your equals as regards the women of your race. After your conversion to Islam, however, you thought otherwise. Despite this the deserts swarm with the number of our men who married your women and who became chiefs and defended you against your enemies'."

 The earliest works on social psychology and animal psychology were written by al-Jahiz, who wrote a number of works dealing with the social organization of ants and with animal communication and psychology.

Al-Jahiz returned to Basra after spending more than fifty years in Baghdad. He died in Basra in 869 AD. His exact cause of death is not clear, but a popular story is that an accident, where the books piling up his private library, toppled over and crushed him, caused his death. He died at the age of 93. Another version said that he suffered from ill health and died in Muharram.

  • "The most genial writer of the age, if not of Arabic literature, and the founder of the Arab prose style, was the grandson of a Negro slave, Amr ben Bahr, known as Al-Jahiz, 'The Goggle-Eyed'." H. A. R. Gibb
  • "Al-Jahiz was the greatest scholar and stylist of the ninth century." Christopher Dawson
  • "One of the greatest prose writers in classical Arabic literature." Bernard Lewis
  • "[al-Jahiz] was one of the most productive and frequently quoted scholars in Arabic literature. His originality, wit, satire, and learning, made him widely known." Philip K. Hitti


  1. ^ Sherman Jackson/ﺷﻴﺮﻣﺎﻥ ﺟﺎﻛﺴﻮﻥ, Al-Jahiz on Translation/ ﺍﻟﺠﺎﺣﻆ ﻭﻓﻦ ﺍﻟﺗﺮﺟﻤﺔ, in "Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics." Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo Press: 1984, p.99
  2. ^ Mit-Ejmes
  3. ^ Joshua Finkel, A Risāla of Al-Jāḥiẓ, in "Journal of the American Oriental Society," 1927, p. 314
  4. ^ James E. Lindsay, Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World (2005), p. 72.
  5. ^ a b Al-Jahiz: INTRODUCTION." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 25. Gale Group, Inc., 1998. 2006. 13 Sep, 2007
  6. ^ Conway Zirkle (1941). Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84 (1), p. 71-123.
  7. ^ Mehmet Bayrakdar (Third Quarter, 1983). "Al-Jahiz And the Rise of Biological Evolutionism", The Islamic Quarterly. London.
  8. ^ Gary Dargan, Intelligent Design, Encounter, ABC.
  9. ^ Frank N. Egerton, "A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 6: Arabic Language Science - Origins and Zoological", Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, April 2002: 142-146 [143]
  10. ^ Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (3), pp. 268-307 [278].
  11. ^ Peters, F. E., Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam, New York University Press, NY, 1968.
  12. ^ J. N. Mattock (1971). "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), p. 147-148.
  13. ^ Yosef A.A. Ben-Jochannan (1991), African Origins of Major Western Religions, p. 231, 238. Black Classic Press, ISBN 0933121296.
  14. ^ Amber Haque (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", Journal of Religion and Health 43 (4): 357-377 [376].



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This article was published on Tuesday 29 July, 2008.

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