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Abu Uthman al-Jahiz

Abu Uthman al-Jahiz

Circa 776–869

Adabwriter

Sources

Career . A native of Basrah in Iraq, al-Jahiz was one of the non-Arabs who made up most of the intellectual and scholarly class in that country. He was apparently of African ancestry, as he is described as black and as he wrote Risalat mufakharat al-sudan ‘ala al-bidan (Treatise on the Superiority of Blacks over Whites). Educated in the cosmopolitan milieu of Basrah, the chief Indian Ocean port of the khilafah, al-Jahiz belonged to the literary and intellectual circles of the city, which had strong economic and political ties with Turkestan, India, and the Indian Ocean area in general. From about 815, he rose to become one of the literary figures around the Abbasid khalifah al-Ma’mun (ruled 813–833), who greatly valued scholarship. As a result, al-Jahiz moved to the capital, Baghdad, and later to Samarra’ after it became the capital from 836. He retained his ties with Basrah as well, perhaps in order to keep his distance from the rulers. Although he held no official posts, he received largess from several Abbasid prime ministers, while also working as a scribe and a teacher. Perhaps after a military revolt that killed his friend and patron in 861, he returned permanently to Basrah, where he died.

Writings. Al-Jahiz composed during his long life at least two hundred works, which qualify him as virtually the founder of cultured prose literature in Arabic (adab).Of these works, about thirty survive complete, along with another fifty more or less extensive fragments. Some of these works are short treatises; others are multivolume sets, including his long, incomplete, Kitab al-hayaivan (The Book of Animals) in eight volumes. This anthology of interesting and entertaining information also includes embryonic ideas of animal psychology and even the evolution of species. Other works include diverse information about language, eloquence, oratory, poetry, and literary skill. Al-Jahiz’s work is so foundational that it is somewhat difficult to characterize by genre because the various Arabic prose genres had not yet taken specific forms. Sometimes he is called an essayist, but—while many of his treatises are indeed essays—the term does not do justice to the breadth and complexity of his work. Many of his works, such as Kitab al-bukhala (The Book of Misers), are highly satirical, calling attention to the serious social criticism at the heart of many of al-Jahiz’s writings. He also devoted some effort to polemical writings defending the right of the Abbasids to rule and asserting his own somewhat Mu’tazilite views, those of a philosophical school patronized by the Abbasids that emphasized justice and reason. Al-Jahiz became so well-known in his lifetime that he was able to maintain some control over the copying and publishing of his books, a milestone on the road to the recognition and attribution of individual authorship.

Sources

William M. Hutchins, trans., Nine Essays of al-Jahiz (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).

Charles Pellat, “Al-Jahiz,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Pellat, The Life and Works ofjahiz, translated by D. M. Hawke (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).

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