al-JAHIZ

al-JAHIZ, Abu 'Uthman 'Amr b. Bahr al-Fuqaymi al-Basri, was a famous Arab prose writer,
the author of works of adab, Mu'tazili theology and politico-religious polemics. Born at Basra
about 160/776 in an obscure family of mawali from the Banu Kinana and probably of Abyssinian
origin, he owes his sobriquet to a malformation of the eyes (jahiz = with a projecting cornea).
Little is known of his childhood in Basra, except that from an early age an invincible desire for
learning and a remarkably inquisitive mind urged him towards a life of independence and,
much to his family's despair, idleness. Mixing with groups which gathered at the mosque
(masdhidiyyun) to discuss a wide range of questions, attending as a spectator the philological
enquiries conducted on the Mirbad [q.v.] and following lectures by the most learned men of the
day on philology, lexicography and poetry, namely al-Asma'i, Abu 'Ubayda, Abu Zayd, he soon
acquired real mastery of the Arabic language along with the usual and traditional culture. His
precocious intelligence won him admittance to Mu'tazili circles and bourgeois salons, where
conversation, often light, was also animated by problems confronting the Muslim conscience at
that time: in the realm of theology, harmonizing faith and reason and, in politics, the thorny
question of the Caliphate which was constantly brought up by the enemies of the 'Abbasids, the
conflicts between Islamic sects and the claims of the non-Arabs. His penetrating observation of
the various elements in a mixed population increased his knowledge of human nature, whilst
reading books of all kinds which were beginning to circulate in Basra gave him some outlook on
to the outside world. It is quite certain that the intellectual resources offered by his home town
would have been fully adequate to give al-Jahiz a broad culture but the 'Iraqi metropolis, then
at its apogee, had a decisive influence in helping to form his mind. It left its rationalist and
realist imprint so clearly on him, that al-Jahiz might be considered not only one of the most
eminent products of his home town, but its most complete representative, for the knowledge he
subsequently acquired in Baghdad did not modify to any noticeable degree his turn of mind as it
had been formed at Basra; Basra is the continuous thread running through all his works.

Although he probably began writing earlier, the first proof of his literary activity dates from
roughly t00/815-6; it relates to an event which had a decisive effect on his subsequent career.
Some works (the plural is no longer in doubt) on the imamate, a very characteristic subject, won
him the compliments of al-Ma'mun and thereby that consecration by the capital coveted by so
many provincials eager to have their talent recognized and so reach the court and establish
themselves. From then on, without completely abandoning Basra, al-Jahiz frequently stayed for
long periods in Baghdad (and later Samarra) devoting himself to literary work of which an
appreciable part, fortunately, has been spared the ravages of time.

In spite of some slender indications, it is not really known on what we relied for his income in
Basra. In Baghdad, we know, he discharged for three days the functions of scribe and was very
briefly assistant to Ibrahim b. al-'Abbas al-Ďuli at the Chancellery; it is also probable that he was
a teacher, and he records himself an interview he claims to have had with al-Mutawakkil who,
anxious to entrust him with the education of his children, finally dismissed him because of his
ugliness. Although information about his private and public life is not readily forthcoming from
either his biographers or himself, it appears from what knowledge we have that al-Jahiz held
no official post and took on no regular employment. He admits, however, that he received
considerable sums for the dedications of his books and we know that for a time at least he was
made an allowance by the diwan. These fragmentary indications are indeed confusing and tend
to suggest that al-Jahiz who otherwise, unlike some of his fellow countrymen, does not appear
to have led the life of a courtier, acted the part of an eminence grise, so to speak, or of unofficial
adviser at least. We have seen already that the writings which won him the recognition of the
capital dealt with the Caliphate and were certainly intended to justify the accession to power of
the 'Abbasids; they were the prelude of a whole series of opuscules addressed to the authorities, if
not inspired by them, and relating to topical events; notwithstanding some degree of artifice in
risalas beginning: 'Thou hast asked me about such and such a question .... I answer thee that
...', it may be presumed that in many cases the question had in fact been asked and he had been
requested to reply in writing. For, if he was never admitted to the intimacy of the Caliphs, he
was in continuous contact with leading political figures and it is rather curious that he should
have attached himself successively to Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Malik al-Zayyat [q.v.], then after the
latter's fall from favour (t33/847) which almost proved fatal to both men, to the qadi al-qudat (d.
t40/854) Ahmad b. Abi Du'ad [q.v.] and to his son Muhammad (d. t39/853) and finally to
al-Fath b. khaqan [q.v.] (d. t47/861).

He nevertheless retained ample independence and was able to take advantage of his new
position to further his intellectual training and to travel (particularly to Syria; but al-Mas'udi,
Murudh, i, t06, was to criticize him for having attempted to write a geography book--now almost
entirely lost--without having traveled enough). In Baghdad also he found a rich store of
learning in the many translations from Greek undertaken during the Caliphate of al-Ma'mum
and studying the philosophers of antiquity--especially Aristotle (cf. al-Hadhi‹i, Takhridh nusus
aristataliyya min K. al-Hayawan, in Madhallat kulliyyat al-adab, Alexandria, 1953 ff.)--enabled him to
broaden his outlook and perfect his own theological doctrine, which he had begun to elaborate
under the supervision of the great Mu'tazilis of the day, of whom al-Nazzam and Ýhumama b.
Ashras [qq.v.], who seems to have had a strong influence on him, should be placed in the first
rank.

Towards the end of his life, suffering from hemiplegia, he retired to his home town, where he
died in Muharram t55/December 868-January 869.

Like many Arabic writers, al-Jahiz had a very great output. A catalogue of his works (see
Arabica, 1956/t) lists nearly t00 titles of which only about thirty, authentic or apocryphal, have
been preserved, in their entirety; about fifty others have been partially preserved, whilst the rest
seem irremediably lost. Brockelmann (S I, t41 ff.) has attempted to classify his works according
to real or supposed subjects and gives us some idea of the breadth and variety of his interests.
Considering only the extant works, which now for the most part are available in editions of
varying quality, two broad categories may be distinguished: on the one hand, works coming
under the head of Jahizian adab, that is to say intended in a rather entertaining manner to
instruct the reader, with the author intervening only insofar as he selects, presents and
comments on documents; on the other hand, original works, dissertations where his ability as a
writer and to some extent his efforts as a thinker are more clearly shown.

His chief work in the first category is K. al-Hayawan (ed. Harun, Cairo n.d, 7 vols..) which is not so
much a bestiary as a genuine anthology based on animals, leading off sometimes rather
unexpectedly into theology, metaphysics, sociology etc.; one can even find embryonic theories,
without it being possible to say how far they are original, of the evolution of species, the
influence of climate and animal psychology, which were not to be developed till the nineteenth
century. Following K. al-Hayawan, which was never completed, came K. al-Bighal (ed. Pellat, Cairo
1955). K. al-Bayan wa 'l-tabyin (ed. Harun, Cairo 1367/1948-50, 4 vols, and other editions) seems
fundamentally to be an inventory of what have been called the 'Arabic humanities', designed
to stress the oratorical and poetic ability of Arabs; he attempts to justify his choice by positing
the bases of an art of poetry, but he does so in an extremely disorderly fashion, as was pointed
out by Abu Hilal al-'Askari, K. al-Ďina'atayn, 5, who decided to write a more systematic treatise.

Another quality of the Arabs, generosity, is emphasized in K. al-Bukhala (ed. al-Hadhiri, Cairo
1948 and other editions; Ger. tr. O. Rescher, Excerpti ..; Fr. tr. Ch. Pellat, Paris 1951), which is
at the same time a portrait gallery, an attack on non-Arabs and an analysis of avarice, the
equivalent of which is not to be found anywhere in Arabic literature. His acute powers of
observation, his light-hearted scepticism, his comic sense and satirical turn of mind fit him
admirably to portray human types and society; he uses all his skill at the expense of
several social groups (schoolmasters, singers, scribes etc.) generally keeping within the bounds of
decency; only K. Mufakharat al-dhawari wa 'l-ghilman (ed. Pellat, Beirut 1957), dealing with a delicate
subject, is marred by obscenity, whilst K. al-qiyan (ed. Finkel), which is about slave-girl singers,
contains pages of remarkable shrewdness. But this work really belongs to the second category,
which includes the dissertations assembled by Kraus and Hadhiri: al-Ma'ad wa 'l-ma'ash, al-Sirr wa
hifz al-lisan, al-Jidd wa 'l-hazl, Fasl ma bayn al-'adawa wa 'l-hasad, and several other texts published
either by al-Sandubi or in the 11 Risala. One might also add the politico-religious works, now for
the most part lost, perhaps even deliberately destroyed when Sunnism finally triumphed over
Mu'tazilism. Of those still extant, the most voluminous is K. al-'Uthmaniyya (ed. Harun, Cairo
1374/1955; see Arabica, 1956/3) in which al-Jahiz asserts the legitimacy of the first three
Caliphs, attacks the claims of the Shi'a and thereby justifies the accession of the 'Abbasids to
power. No less important is K. Taswib 'Ali fi tahkim al-hakamayn (ed. Pellat, in Machriq, July 1958),
unfortunately incomplete and defective but clearly directed against the outdated partisans of the
Umayyads, who again were enemies of the 'Abbasids. In this respect Risala fi 'l-Nabita (or fi Bani
Umayya) is interesting also (see Pellat's translation, in AIEO Alger, 195t), for it is nothing short of
a report by al-Jahiz to the son of Ahmad b. Abi Du'ad on the political situation, the causes of
division in the community and the danger presented by the nabita, that is the neo-hashwiyya, who
were reviving Mu'awiya for their own ends and using the kalam to support their theses; Risala fi
nafyi 'l-tashbih (ed. Pellat, in Machriq, 1953) is in the same manner. Revealing of the
correspondences between government policy and al-Jahiz's activity are K. al-Radd
'ala 'l-Nasara (see Allouche's translation, in Hesp., 1939) and Risala fi manaqib al-Turk, dealing
respectively with measures taken against the Jimmis and the forming of the Turkish guard.
Generally speaking, in politics al-Jahiz shows himself irresolute Mu'tazili, that is an apologist of
the 'Abbasids against the pro-Umayyad movement of the Nabita, the Shu'ubis and the Shi'a; but
his highly personal manner of presenting facts tends to mislead his readers and in all probability
the pro-'Alid al-Mas'udi in Murudh, vi, 55 ff. misunderstood the true significance of his writings. If
the chronology of al-Jahiz's work could be established, one would probably see that after
warning the authorities against the regression that might be the result of abandoning
Mu'tazilism, he gave up the struggle once Sunni reaction had won the day and from then on
restricted himself to purely literary activity; the fact that he wrote K. al-Bukhala' in the latter part
of his life supports this hypothesis.

As in politics so in theology al-Jahiz was a Mu'tazili, though his doctrine appears to offer hardly
any original features; as the writings where he expounded are for the most part lost, one has to
make do with occasional annotations in al-khayyat, K. al-Intisar, translated and edited by A. N.
Nader, Beirut 1957, and with data supplied by the heresiographers (al-Baghdadi, Farq, 160 ff.;
Ibn Hazm, Fisal, iv, 181, 195; al-Shahrastani, on the margin of Ibn Hazm, i, 95-6; etc.; see also,
Horten, Die phil. Systeme der spekulativen Theologen im Islam, 3t0 ff.; L. Gardet and M. M. Anawati,
Introd. a la Theologie musulmane, index; A. N. Nader, Le Systemeqphilosophique des Mu'tazila, Beirut
1956, index) which summarize or indicate points where al-Jahiz differs from other Mu'tazilis.
Too little is known of the doctrine itself for one to be able to do more at this stage than simply
refer to the article mu'tazila, pending the completion of a thesis specifically concerned with the
question.

Meanwhile, even though Jahiz's place in the development of Muslim thought is far from
negligible, he is chiefly interesting as a writer and an adib, for with him form is never
overshadowed by content; even in purely technical works. If he is not the first of the great Arab
prose writers, if in rhetoric 'Abd Allah b. al-Muqaffa' [q.v.] and Sahl b. Harun [q.v.], to name but
two, are his masters, nevertheless he gave literary prose its most perfect form, as was indeed
recognized first by politicians who made use of his talent for the 'Abbasid cause and then by
Arab critics who were unanimous in asserting his superiority and making his name the very
symbol of literary ability.

Al-Jahiz's writing is characterized by deliberately contrived disorderliness and numerous
digressions; the individuality of his alert and lively style lies in a concern for the exact term--a
foreign word if necessary--picturesque phrases and sentences which are nearly always
unrhymed, but balanced by the repetition of the same idea in two different forms; what would
be pointless repetition to our way of thinking, in the mind of a 3rd/9th century writer simply
arose from the desire to make himself clearly understood and to give ordinary prose the
symmetry of verse; though difficult to render and appreciate in a foreign language, the flow of
his sentences is perfectly harmonious and instantly recognizable. Nevertheless, for the majority
of literate Arabs al-Jahiz remains, if not a complete buffoon, at least 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
inclined towards soberness and gravity; for he never fails, even in his weightiest passages, to slip
in anecdotes, witty observations and amusing comments. Alarmed at the dullness and boredom
enshrouding the speculations of a good many of his contemporaries, he deliberately aimed at a
lighter touch and his sense of humour enabled him to deal entertainingly with serious subjects
and help popularize them. But he realized he was doing something rather shocking and one
cannot help being struck by the frequency with which he feels it necessary to plead the cause of
humour and fun; the best example is in K. al-Tarbi' wa 'l-tadwir (ed. Pellat, Damascus 1955) a
masterpiece of ironic writing, as well as a compendium of all the questions to which his
contemporaries whether through force of habit, imitative instinct or lack of imagination offered
traditional solutions or gave no thought at all. Without stepping outside the boundaries of the
faith--this itself was something of a strain--he takes for granted the right to submit to scrutiny
accepted attitudes to natural phenomena, ancient history and legends handed down as truths,
to restate problems and skilfully suggest rational solutions. Nor is that all; for at a time when
mediaeval Arabic culture was taking shape, he brought together what seemed of most value to
him, drawing either on the Arab heritage, of which he was a passionate defender, or on Greek
thought,qalways careful however to curb the intrusion of the Persian tradition, which he
considered too dangerous for the future of Islam, into the culture he longed to bestow on his
co-religionists. This vast undertaking, based on the spirit of criticism and systematic doubt in
everything not directly concerned with the dogma of Islam, was unfortunately to be to a
considerable extent narrowed and side-tracked in the centuries to follow. It is true that al-Jahiz
was to have admirers as noteworthy as Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, imitators and even
counterfeiters, who made use of his name to ensure greater success for their works; but posterity
has only kept a deformed and shrunken image of him, seeing him at the most as a master of
rhetoric (see Pellat, in al-And., 1956/t, t77-84), the founder of a Mu'tazili school--whose
disciples no one bothers to enumerate--and the author of compilations to be drawn upon for
the elaboration of works of adab, a sizeable share of recorded information on jahiliyya and the
early centuries of Islam.
(Ch. Pellat)


The main biographies are those of khatib Baghdadi, xii, t1t-tt

Ibn 'Asakir, in MMIA, ix, t03-17

Yaqut, Irshad, vi, 56-80. A general outline is to be found in manuals of Arabic literature, as
also in: Sh. Jabri, al-Jahiz mu'allim al-'aql wa 'l-adab, Cairo 1351/193t

kh. Mardam, al-Jahiz, Damascus 1349/1930

t. Kayyali, al-Jahiz, [Damascus] n.d.

H. Fakhuri, al-Jahiz, Cairo [1953]

M. Kurd 'Ali, Umara' al-bayan, Cairo 1355/1937

H. Sandubi, Adab al-Jahiz, Cairo 1350/1931

Ch. Pellat, Le Milieu basrien et la formation de Gahiz, Paris 1953

idem, Gahiz a Bagdad et a Samarra, in RSO, 195t, 47-67

idem, Gahiziana in Arabica, 1954/t, 1955/3 and mainly 1956/t: Essai d'inventaire de l'aeuvre
∆ahizienne, with an account of mss, editions and translations (one should add to the
bibliography: A. J. Arberry, New material on the Kitab al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, in Isl. Research
Assoc. Miscellany, i, 1948, which gives the notice from Fihrist on Jahiz, missing in the
editions

and also: F. Gabrieli, in Scritti in onore di G. Furlani, Rome 1957, on the R. fi manaqib al-Turk

the Tunisian review al-Fikr, Oct. 1957 and March 1958, on the R. al-qiyan)

J. Jabre, al-Jahiz et la societe de son temps (in Arabic, Beirut 1957 (?), not consulted here). It
should be pointed out that in addition to the editions quoted in the course of the article, the
following collections have been published: G. van Vloten, Tria opuscula, Leyden 1903

J. Finkel, Three essays, Cairo 19t6

P. Kraus and M. T. Hadhiri, Madhmu' rasa'il al-Jahiz, Cairo 1943 (a French translation of
these texts is being prepared)

H. Sandubi, Rasa'il al-Jahiz, Cairo 135t/1933

Ihda 'ashrata risala, Cairo 13t4/1906

O. Rescher, Excerpte und ‹bersetzungen aus den Schriften des ... Gahiz, Stuttgart 1931 (analytical
translation of a good many texts). The texts in the three manuscript collections: Damad
Ibrahim Pasha 949

Br. Mus. 11t9 and Berlin 503t (see Oriens, 1954, 85-6) have in a good many cases been
published

those not yet published, along with some other texts of less importance, will be included in our
Nusus Gahiziyya ghayr manshura. K. al-'Urdhan, etc. has been recently discovered in Morocco, but
is of no great interest.


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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam --© 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands