Abu Uthman Amr bin Basr al-Fuqaymi al-Basri al-Jahiz (160-255/776-869)

    Sometimes quoted as one of the first to develop a Darwinian scheme of evolution, Abu 'Uthman 'Amr b. Bahr al-Fuqaymi al-Basri al-Jahiz was the most talented Arab prose writer of the third century Hijra. He wrote works of adab, Mua`tazili theology as well as politico-religious polemics. Born at Basra (ca. 160/776), he owes his nickname, Jahiz (meaning with a projecting cornea) to a deformation of the eyes.


    Early in his life, he became part of a group of young people who gathered in at the main mosque of the Basra, then the center of the Islamic intellectual tradition, to discuss a wide range of questions. These young men attended lectures delivered by the most learned men of the day on philology, lexicography and poetry.


    Al-Jahiz’s wit and memory soon took him to the drawing rooms of the aristocracy and his command of Arabic language made him a favourite of the learned. The most important issues of his times were the theological questions dealing with the harmonization of faith and reason. Likewise, in politics, question of the qualification for the office of the Caliph was of foremost importance. Known for his penetrating observations of human nature, al-Jahiz lived a very intense social life combined with a vast reading of books of all kinds. Some of his works attracted al-Ma`mun’s attention and this led to his arrival in Baghdad where he made a strong impression on the intellectual elite. From that point onward, he made frequent and long sojourns in Baghdad but his hometown, Basra, left such a deep imprint on his life that it remains a continuous thread throughout all his works.


    Towards the end of his life, suffering from hemiplegia, he retired to Basra where he died in Muharram 255/December 868-January 869. Almost 200 works are attributed to al-Jahiz. They include two broad categories: Jahizian adab, intended to entertain and instruct the reader, and more serious works where he deals with topics of his times.


    His chief work in the first category is Kitab al-Hayawan (ed. Harun, Cairo n.d, 7 vols.), which is generally quoted in support of the claim that he had developed a scheme of Darwinian evolution, is actually not a bestiary but a genuine anthology based on narratives concerning animals. Often the narrative of this wonderful prose leads off into theology, metaphysics, sociology, embryonic theories and to the questions of evolution of species and the influence of climate on animal psychology. But these, one must recall, are not based on biology. These are imaginative journeys, with no science to support the claims made in the narrative.


    In addition to the Kitab al-Hayawan, which al-Jahiz left incomplete, we have Kitab al-Bighal (ed. Pellat, Cairo 1955), Kitab al-Bayan wa’l-tabyin (ed. Harun, Cairo 1367/1948-50, 4 vols, and other editions), both of which are an inventory of what have been called the “Arabic humanities”, designed to stress the oratorical and poetic ability of Arabs. His Kitab al-Bukhala (ed. al-Hadhiri, Cairo 1948 and other editions; Ger. tr. O. Rescher, Excerpt in Fr. tr. Ch. Pellat, Paris 1951), is a portrait gallery of Arabs which highlights the generosity of Arabs, remains unparalleled in Arabic literature. Filled with acute observations, light-hearted skepticism, a comic sense and satirical narrative, this admirable portrayal of human types and society describe several social groups (schoolmasters, singers, scribes…), but always within the bounds of decency--except in the case of Kitab Mufakharat al-dhawari wa’l-ghilman (ed. Pellat, Beirut 1957), dealing with a delicate subject, which is marred by obscenity. However, for the majority of literate Arabs al-Jahiz remains something of a jester; his place as such in legend can undoubtedly be attributed in part to his fame and his ugliness, which made him the hero of numerous anecdotes; but it must also be attributed to a characteristic of his writing which could not but earn him the reputation of being a joker in a Muslim world.

 

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