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Al-Damīrī, Muhammed Ibn Musa

(b. Cairo, Egypt, 1341; d. Cairo, 1405)

natural history.

Al-Damīrī for some years earned his living as a tailor. His fondness for literature led him to study with the leading teachers of the time, among them Ibn ‘Aqil; soon he had mastered traditional science to such an extent that he became a teacher in the country’s most distinguished centers of learning, such as al-Azhar University.

His religious convictions led him to join a Sufi brotherhood and to make the pilgrimage to Mecca six times, and the indulgences of his youth gave way to almost daily fasting.

Al-Damīrī’s literary fame rests upon only one of his works, the Hayāt al-hayawān (“Life of the Animals”), of which there are three versions: the large (al-kubrā), the medium (al-wusṭā), and the small (al-ṣugrā). In this work he collected as much information as possible on the animals mentioned in the Koran and in Arabic literature. The articles, arranged in alphabetical order, generally give the following information: (a) grammatical and lexicographical peculiarities of the name by which the animal is known according to al-Jāḥiẓ, ibn Sīda, and others; (b) description of the animal according to the leading authorities, particularly Aristotle and al-Jāḥiẓ (c) Muslim traditions in which the animal is mentioned; (d) juridico–theological considerations regarding the animal, especially whether one may eat its flesh; (e) proverbs about the animal, particularly from the Madjama ʿal-amthāl of al-Maydānī; (ƒ) the medicinal properties (khawāṣṣ), if any, of the various products derived from the animal—in this he generally follows Aristotle, al-Jāḥiẓ, Ibn Sīnā, al-Qazwīnī, and others; (g) rules for the interpretation of dreams in which a particular animal appears.

This outline, however, is followed only for the major animals, and one or another of the categories of information is omitted from most of the entries. Al-Damīrī’s sources are exclusively Arabic but of course include translations into that language from other tongues, especially Greek. Consequently, the 807 authors that he quotes include representatives of a great many nations.

The literary value of the work, written for the most part in a sober and lucid style, lies in the many observations collected, in the frequent quotations from folklore, and in a series of digressions, like that on the history of the caliphate, under iwazz (“goose”), which takes up a thirteenth of the book.

The scientific value of the work is not as great. Al-Damīrī, who simply followed tradition, contributed no observations of his own and compiled solely what he was able to find in other books. The Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān contains 1,069 articles describing a lesser number of animals, since some are entered under various synonyms and others are purely imaginary, existing only in Muslim tradition. An example of the latter is al-burāq, the famous mount with human face, horse’s mane, and camel’s feet on which Muhammad ascended to heaven, Sometimes al-Damīrī’s descriptions provide sufficient data to identify the animals mentioned in the Koran (see 34, 13/14, al-ʿarada, the wood borer) or reflect popular legends that may also be found in the fiction of the period, such as The Thousand and One Nights. The articles on the lizard and the lion are cases in point.

The Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān has been republished several times and has been translated into Persian and Turkish.


I. Original Works. A list of MSS can be found in C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, II (Weimar, 1902), 138, and supp. II (Leiden, 1938), 170. Another list of editions is that included in L. Kopf, “al-Damīrī,” in Encyclopédie de l’Islam, 2nd ed., II (Paris–Leiden, 1965), 109–110. There is an incomplete English trans. by Col. A. S. G. Jayakar as far as “Abū Firās,” a nickname of the lion (Bombay, 1906–1908).

II. Secondary Literature. On al-Damīrī or his work, See G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Baltimore, 1948), pp. 1214, 1326, 1639–1641; and many papers by Joseph Somogyi, including “Medicine in ad-Damīrī’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān,” in Journal of Semitic Studies, 2 , no. 1 (1957), 62–91; “Ad-Damīrī’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān, An Arabic Zoological Lexicon,” in Osiris, 9 (1950), 33 ff.; “Biblical Figures in ad-Damīrī’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān,” in Dissertationes in honorem E. Mahler (Budapest, 1937), pp. 263–299; “The Interpretation of Dreams in ad-Damīrī’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān,” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1940), 1–20; “Chess and Backgammon in ad-Damīrī’s Ḥayāat al-ḥayawān,” in Études orientales à la mémoire de Paul Hirschler (Budapest, 1950), pp. 101–110; “A History of the Caliphate in the Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān of ad-Damīrī,” in Bulletin of the school of Oriental Studies, 8 (1935), 143–155; and “Index des sources de la Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān de ad-Damīrī,” in Journal asiatique (1928), 2 , 5–128.

Juan Vernet

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