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Al-Jāḥiz, Abū ‘Uthmān ‘Amr Ibn Baḥr

(b.Basra, Iraq, ca. 776; d. Basra, 868-869)

natural history.

AI. Jāḥiẓ is a nickname that means “the goggle eyed.” His ugliness is further attested to by sources that mention it as the reason he lost his post as tutor to the children of Caliph al-Mutawakkil. Although ardently devoted to Basra, al-Jāḥiẓ spent extended periods in Baghdad and Sāmarrā. His teachers were the philologists and men of letters al-Asma‘ī, Abū ‘Ubayda, and Abū Zayd. Among other things he studied translations from the Greek that had recently become available.

A tireless reader, al-Jāḥiẓ also obtained a great deal of oral information from the sailors, bedouins, and men of all classes who could be found in Basra. In politics and religion he adhered to the rational theology of the Mu‘tazila school. This allegiance can be seen in, for example, a number of writings he devoted especially to defending the legitimacy of the Abbasid dynasty. He also wrote polemical works against the Jews and Christians. He earned so much money from his books that he was able to support himself even when he was not holding an office.

Of the long list of writings attributed to al-Jāḥiẓ by literary historians, approximately 200 are genuine, of which less than thirty are extant. Many contain noteworthy remarks pertaining to the various sciences; but a group of them is devoted specifically to scientific themes. Among the shorter writings, mostly lost, are Of the Lion and the Wolf; On the Mule and Its Uses; Dogs; Grain, Dates, Olives, and Grapes; Minerals; Man; On the Difference Between Jinn and Men; Refutation of He Who Considers Man to Be an Indivisible Entity (Atom); On Cripples, Lepers, and the Poor; On the Difference Between Men and Women; Contest Between Female Slaves and Young Men; The Limbs; The Bedouin Diet; On the Drinker and Drink (on the Types of Date Wine); Critique of Medicine; The Grocer’s Shop; Against Alchemy; Countries (Geography); and Contest Between Winter and Summer.

By far the most important of these works, and one of al-Jāḥiẓ’ most extensive, is his book on animals (Kitāb al-Hayawān) in seven parts. As yet no satisfactory edition of it exists, but much of it has been translated into European languages, particularly English and Spanish; the most recent edition contains a very detailed name and subject index. The book is not a systematic account of zoology but, rather, a literary work meant to entertain, the arrangement of which is based on certain groups of animals. For this reason it treats far fewer animals than the total number known to al-Jāḥiẓ, who considers only the larger mammals, some important birds, and, with special enthusiasm, the insects, such as flies, gnats, scorpions, and lice. Al-Jāḥiẓ describes the animals and relates, with many literary digressions, what the Arabs knew about them. The work is therefore a kind of national zoology in which he includes the results of his own scientific studies. He is acquainted with and eagerly draws on Aristotle’s Historia animalium but he is not dependent on it. Other Greek writers are cited as well.

Al-Jāḥiẓ distinguishes running, flying, swimming, and crawling animals and opposes the carnivores to the herbivores. He likewise differentiates doglike animals, catlike animals, and ruminants. He divides the birds into birds of prey, defenseless birds, and small birds. For lack of reliable material he does not discuss fishes. He rejects the division into useful and harmful animals, since even the animals harmful to man have their uses in the divine plan of the universe and the opposition between good and bad in general is one of the foundations of the organization of the universe. Al-Jāḥiẓ displays an interest in the adaptation of certain animals, accepts the possibility of the spontaneous generation of some animals (for example, of frogs from ice), and considers such special problems as the language of animals. He also discusses the effects of intoxication and castration on animals, as well as their sexual anomalies, including sodomy. For al-Jāḥiẓ man is a microcosm that unites within itself the attributes of numerous animals.

Al-Jāḥiẓ did not slavishly accept the material he found in the writings of his predecessors. He formed his own judgements and even conducted his own investigations, some of which are remarkable for their methodology. He was critical of tradition, even of the Koran. A book on zoology of this scope never appeared again in the Islamic world.

In 1946 Oscar Löfgren published the illustrations preserved in a manuscript of this work in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Some of them represent coitus between animals, a subject that was very seldom depicted. In one picture an act of sodomy is illustrated. The illustrations are monochromatic, but R. Ettinghausen has reproduced in color the image of an ostrich sitting on its eggs.

Al-Jāḥiẓ held that alchemy was not impossible in principle but spoke out against its practice, since in the course of thousands of years so many great scholars had achieved no practical results.


I. Original Works. Two of al-Jāḥiẓ’s books are Kitāb al-Hayawān, ’Abd al-Salām Hārūn, ed., 2nd ed., 7vols. (Cairo, 1938-1945); and Livre des mulets, ed. and with notes by Charles Pellat (Cairo, 1955). Translations from the “quasi-scientific works” of al-Jāḥiẓ are in Charles Pellat, The Life and Works of Jāḥiẓ (London, 1969), pp. 126-199. Other translations are in Oskar Rescher, Excerpte und Übersetzungen aus den Schriften des Philologen und Dogmatikers Ğâhiz aus Baçra (150-250 H.), I (Stuttgart, 1931). See also Oscar Löfgren, Ambrosian Fragments of an Illuminated Manuscript Containing the Zoology of al-Jāḥiẓ (Uppsala, 1946); and R. Ettinghausen, Arab Painting (Paris, 1962), pl. p. 157.

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically: G. van Vloten, Ein arabischer Naturphilosoph im 9. Jahrhundert (el-Dschâhiz) (Stuttgart, 1918); M. Asin Palacios, “El ‘Libro de los animales’ de Jāḥiẓ,” in Isis, 14 (1930), 20-54; and L. Kopf, “The ‘Book of Animals’ (Kitâb al-Hayawan) of a al-Jāḥiẓ (ca. 767-868),” in Actes du VII“Congres international” d’histoire des sciences (Jerusalem, 1953), pp. 395-401. See also Charles Pellat, Le milieu basrien et la formation de Ğāhiz (Paris, 1953); and his article” Djāḥiẓ,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, II, 2nd ed (London-Leiden, 1965), 384-387); and George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 597.

M. Plessner