Who was Al Jahiz?

There is unanimity among western scholars that Muslim scientists progressed in various scientific areas during Golden Islamic Era (8th to 12th century). Various cities in Arabian Peninsula, Persia & Central Asia became melting pots for scientific achievements. Bagdad and Basra were considered the cities of knowledge where scholars from various parts of world came and shared their knowledge with the Arabian scholars. In recent years, western media & scholars are involved in unravelling the contribution of little known Arab Scientists. This interest stems from the fact that some scientists believe that current developments in scientific knowledge have deep linkages with the Golden Islamic Era. It is important to mention that most of us know about popular names like Ibn Khuldun, Al-Razi, Jabir Bin Hayyan, Ibn Sina and Al-Biruni. Nevertheless, there were other Muslim scientists who also contributed towards scientific knowledge. One of the neglected Arab scientist of 9th century AD was Al-Jahiz.

Al-Jahiz was born in Basra in 776 with ancestors from Ethiopia. Despite bad economic conditions at home, Al-Jahiz continued to pursue knowledge and attended lectures on different topics at the elite study centres in Bagdad. In this write-up, I will try to brief you about the achievements made by Al-Jahiz.

Al-Jahiz considered himself as a writer, theologian and naturalist. His ideology was a perfect blend of religion and science. It is believed that he compiled two hundred books and only thirty of them survived till date. One of the important contribution made by Al Jahiz is in the form of ‘Kitab Al Hayawan’ (Book of Animals) which is an encyclopaedia of more than 300 varieties of animals. Western philosophers consider  Kitab Al Hayawan as a foreshadow of the concept evolution which was later on consolidated by Charles Darwin. They believe that there are numerous examples of natural selection and struggle for existence in this encyclopaedia. Jahiz wrote “Animals engage in a struggle for existing, and for resources, to avoid being eaten, and to breed.” He further writes that “Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species’. These views seems to be scientific, but most important feature in these contributions is that he added a spiritual link to it. For example, he provided the examples of Natural Selection, but at the same time he appreciated the complexity and creativity of God. Jeannie Miller, researcher in University of Toronto’s pointed out that Al Jahiz’s aim was to unravel the knowledge regarding secrets of God’s creation, and also to bring to limelight the importance of human relationship with God. ‘Kitab Al-Hayawan’ has inspired many scholars for their academic and research presentation. Professor (Dr.) Kruk’s lecture on “A map of a cat” was motivated by scientific pictures and references of Kitab Al-Hayawan. This book further played an important role for increasing our knowledge in the field of zoology, biology, evolutionary theories, medicine, veterinary, anatomy, etc.

Another important contribution of Al-Jaḥiẓ was documentation of stories about the greedy. In the book entitled ‘Kitab al-Bukhala’ or ‘The Book of Misers’, Jahiz beautifully wrote stories in a humorous and satirical manner that too in a prose style. This book is a collection of greedy behavour of beggars, singers, scribes and schoolmasters. Prose lovers in Arab-speaking world consider ‘Kitab al-Bukhala’ as one of the best contribution of Al-Jāḥiẓ. This book has been translated into other languages including French. The third important contribution of Al Jahiz was ‘Kitab al-Bayan wa-al-Tabyin’ (The Book of eloquence and demonstration) in which he wrote rhetorical speeches of princes & leaders. In addition to above works, Al Jahiz documented on language, grammar and psychology. Most important aspect of these works was that they were written in a language which was understandable to common person.

Al Jahiz was so much attached to libraries and books that it is assumed that he died in his private library after a pile of books fell on him.

Dr. Ummer Rashid Zargar is Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, Govt. Degree College Anantnag