Jahiz, al- (Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al- Kinani al-Fuquaimi al-Basri)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Jahiz, al- (Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al- Kinani al-Fuquaimi al-Basri)

Jahiz, al- (Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al- Kinani al-Fuquaimi al-Basri) (ca. 776-ca. 869) Arab encyclopedist and folklorist

During cultural turmoil under the Abbasid caliphate, al-Jahiz, the first Islamic zoologist, surveyed life in some 360 works of folklore and nonfiction. A native of Basra, born Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri, he claimed Arabo-Ethiopian ancestry. He tended toward idleness, suffered being called “Goggle-eyes,” and worked in boyhood to support his family, fishmongers living along an Iraqi canal. At the city mosque, he educated himself by attending lectures on history, lexicography, philology, poetry, and scripture and he became expert at diction, defining the meanings of words for clarity and understanding. At a time when Arab learning bore glimmers of the WISDOM LITERATURE of the Greeks and Persians, and when paper documents replaced parchment, he interspersed studies in orthodox Islam with Hellenic readings that favored the Greek philosopher Aristotle. When his mother urged him to choose a literary career, he began to write about a panoply of interests—agriculture, Arab cookery, board games, grammar, humor, language, oratory, physical handicaps, the seasons, versification, and zoology.

An upwardly mobile intellectual, al-Jahiz was readily accepted by the literary elite. He settled in Baghdad in 816 to study at the Bayt al-Hikma (House of wisdom), a library, institute of the humanities, and translation center established by Caliph al-Mamun in 813 to develop and study Persian astrology and mathematics and the Greek scientific treatises of Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, Plato, and Pythagoras. Colleagues at the institute included al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra and the algorithm, and three engineers and inventors known as the Banu Musa (Sons of Moses). In Baghdad and Samarra, the subsequent capital of the Abbasid caliphate, al-Jahiz produced monographs and texts. At age 40, he earned Abbasid patronage, in part by writing books on the caliphate and the military. Caliph al-Mamun considered hiring al-Jahiz as a household tutor, but declined because his bulging eyes amused the children. In advanced age, al-Jahiz, a partial paralytic, migrated back to his hometown. Legend describes his death in January 869 as, ironically, caused by a stack of tomes that fell on him. His work influenced RUMI, the touchstone of Persian Sufism.

Observation and Scholarship

Al- Jahiz devoted his life to observation, creating a medieval library of essay collections, epistles, and encyclopedias admired for their engaging style. He compiled a seven-volume bestiary, Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of animals, ca. 825), a masterwork covering snakes, foxes, hyenas, and the apes of Morocco. His zoology looks beyond the era's concepts of life to evolution, classification, embryology, diet, adaptation, camouflage, and environmentalism. He interspersed his scholarship with folk stories, anecdotes, and aphorisms based on animal behaviors as well as religious observations concerning god's reasons for making nature mutable yet orderly. Drawing on translations of works by Democritus, Euclid, Plato, and Ptolemy and anticipating Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, al-Jahiz outlined the struggle of animals to survive and produce healthy offspring. The text influenced Islamic biologists as well as European scientists.

The encyclopedist's other works include a range of specialties that satisfied his intellectual curiosity. Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of misers, ca. 825) reveals a witty, teasing side of al-Jahiz in SATIRES of greed and eccentricity within numerous professions and lifestyles, including finance and begging. In Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin (Book of eloquence and exposition, ca. 825), he surveys oratory and the rhetoric of princes, politicians, and foreign ambassadors currying favor in the Islamic Empire. He ventured into erotica in Kitab Moufakharat al Jawari wa al-Ghilman (Book of dithyramb of maids and valets, ca. 825), a commentary on sexuality in the servant class. His classic propaganda text Kitab al-Uthmaniyya (Book of the Uthmaniyya, ca. 825) legitimizes the throne of the Abbasids against denunciation of the Shiites, Islam's vocal minority. Al-Jahiz's commentary accounts for the longstanding differences between Shia and Sunni, the opposing branches of Islam. His definition of the exemplary Arab leader values the veteran's experience over youth and cites hardihood and morality as essentials of nobility.

Political and Social Science

Al-Jahiz made astute remarks on conflicts and controversies. His Manaqib at-turk (Exploits of the Turks, ca. 825) pointed out that the rule of Turkish viziers depended on their army of mercenaries. He compiled treatises on contemporary difficulties with crime, priestly dissension, and slavery and on the merger of a Perso-Arab culture, which he attributed to the use of Persian scribes to disseminate Arab grammar, lexicography, and rhetoric. In his harsh commentary on client Christians and Jews, he described their antipathy to Islam and disrespect and hostility toward Muslims. Disdain for Jews is seen in his dismissal of a people noted for butchering, dyeing, metal work, and tanning, the lowliest of crafts. In Al-Radd ala al-Nasara (Refutation of the Christians, ca. 825), he claimed that Christian outsiders were hypocrites who considered themselves immune from the law. He accused them of worming their way into the professions and for stirring up squabbles by challenging the devout to interpret ambiguous scriptures and by baiting ordinary Muslims with provocative polemical questions. His accusations foretell a climate ripe for the Crusades, which began in 1096 and raged until 1272.

Al- Jahiz described the ethnic attitudes of Islamic and African empires of his time. Among his lost works are comparisons of horses and mules, of northern and southern Arabs, and of the animosities between pure and mixed-blood Arabs. He compiled Risalat Mufakharat al-Sudan ala al-Bidan (Superiority of blacks to whites, ca. 825), a history of Ethiopian rivalry with Arabs and a model of ninth-century stereotyping and Arab attitudes toward the Ethiopian Aksumite Empire. His conclusions include observations of Berbers, Chinese, Copts, Hindus, Moors, and Nubians. He characterized blacks as racially distinct because of their physical environment. Perhaps because his grandfather was Ethiopian, the author admired black people as great riders, dancers, and drummers and a more generous and contented race than whites.


Fisher, William Bayne. The Cambridge History of Iran.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Jahiz, al-. The Book of Misers: Al-Bukhala. Translated by R. B. Serjeant. London: Garnet, 2000.