Al-Jahiz lived, during one of the most exciting times of intellectual history – the period of the transmission of Greek science to the Arabs and the. A Wondrous Journey of Discovery with 9th-century Explorer Al-Jahiz. ‘ Inventions and the Book of Animals’ is an educational initiative. al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals: The transcendent value of disgust | Inventions.

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Al-Jahiz lived, during one of the most exciting times of intellectual history — the period of the bkok of Greek science to the Arabs and the development of Arabic prose literature -and was intimately involved in both. It was there that he first went ajimals school — studying under some of the most eminent scholars of Islam. His family was poor and as a young man of 20 he seems to have sold fish along one of the Basran canals. This is said to have been the beginning of his career as a writer, which would become his sole source of living.

He moved to Baghdad, attracted by the greater scope of the capital of the Arab Islamic Caliphate at the time, in AD, because the Abbasid Caliphs encouraged scientists and scholars and had just founded the House of Wisdom. Jshiz Bagdad he was exposed to a new and iahiz influence: Greek science, particularly Aristotelian thought.

The fact that he never held an official position allowed him an intellectual freedom impossible to someone connected to the court.

Over a span twenty-five years, he would acquire considerable knowledge on Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, and pre-Islamic Arab and Persian history. His education was highly facilitated due to the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate bkok in a period of cultural, and intellectual revolutions.

Books became readily available, and this made learning easily available. The availability of a cheap writing material was accompanied by another social phenomenon, of which al-Jahiz himself was a product: For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the cities of the Middle East contained a large number of literate people — many of humble origins.

During his long lifetime al-Jahiz authored two hundred books that discuss a variety of subjects including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric.

Al-Jahiz and “The Book of Animals”

Of his writings, only thirty books survive today — enough nevertheless to show the omnivorous curiosity of the author. The titles, however, give only a faint idea of their contents. Despite his propensity to meander in prose, al-Jahiz was particularly interested in style and correct expression.

This interest in style was characteristic of a group of Basran scholars, who, during the late eighth bpok early ninth centuries, sought to preserve the linguistic heritage of the Arabs by recording jauiz poetry and sayings of the Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula.

Al-Jahiz – Wikipedia

This movement had unanticipated results: They went on to compose sophisticated commentaries on the Koran, critical editions of poetry and treatises on grammar, and to compile dictionaries and specialized word-lists. Al-Jahiz never lost sight of his readers, and developed a very personal and characteristic style, which blended anecdote, serious subjects and jokes, in an effort to hold their interest.


He described his style himself, saying: My books contain above all unusual anecdotes, wise and beautifully expressed sayings handed down by the Companions of the Prophet, sayings which will lead to the acquisition of good qualities and the performance of good works … they also contain stories of the conduct of kings and caliphs and their ministers and courtiers, and the most interesting events of their lives.


In Baghdad, al-Jahiz not only fused the Islamic sciences to Greek rationalism, but created Arabic prose literature. He showed that Arabic was flexible enough to handle any subject with ease, and although he was not personally associated with the House of Wisdom, his linguistic achievement paralleled — indeed surpassed — the efforts of the scholars engaged in rendering Greek scientific texts into Arabic. Bagdad was exposed to ov new and important influence: His works attest the remarkable spread of Greek ideas among ordinary readers.

Both in his jahix matter and vocabulary, he presumes a familiarity — albeit superficial — with Jahlz and the technical anjmals of scholastic theology. He tells many anecdotes of the scholars of the House of Wisdom, many of whom appear to have been his friends. The book that best illustrates his method is his Book of Animals — Kitab anijals — which, even incomplete, runs to seven fat volumes in the printed edition.

Despite the title, the Book of Animals is by no means conventional zoology, or even a conventional bestiary. But this is by no means all.

In keeping with his theories of planned disorder, he introduces anecdotes of famous men, snippets of history, anthropology, etymology and jokes.

1001 Inventions and the Book of Animals

Anticipating a number of concepts which were not to be fully developed until the oof of Darwin and his successors, al-Jahiz toys with evolutionary theory, discusses animal mimicry — noting that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host — and writes at od on the influences of climate and diet on men, plants mahiz animals of different geographical regions.

He jajiz gets into animal communication, psychology and the degree of intelligence of insect and animal species. He gives a detailed account of the social organization of ants, including, from his own observation, a description of how they store grain in their nests in such a way that it does not spoil during the rainy season.

He knows that some insects are responsive to light — and uses this information to suggest a clever way of ridding a room of mosquitoes and flies. The bewildering variety of its contents, in fact, has always daunted translators, and later natural historians. Al-Damiri, who lived in the 14th century and wrote a well-known encyclopedia called The Lives of the Animals, used much of the scientific and linguistic information from al-Jahiz, but eliminated the anecdotes, poetry, digressions and jokes.

His greatest service, perhaps, was in popularizing science and the rational method, and in showing that a literary man could concern himself with any subject. I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, off the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: Sadly, few works of al-Jahiz have survived the vicissitudes of time, but those that have, make us regret all the more the ones that have been lost.

Together they present a faithful and lively portrait of Baghdad and Basra during the Golden Age of Islam. He writes of singing girls, vagabonds, scholars, theologians, caliphs and viziers, and a very detailed picture of everyday life in ninth-century Iraq could be extracted from his works. More importantly, he communicates to us the excitement of an intelligent non-specialist confronted with radical scientific, philosophical and theological speculations. At the same time, al-Jahiz enthusiastically supported certain aspects znimals the Greek tradition, by which he meant primarily Aristotle.


He believed in the scientific method — as it was then understood — and applied reason and logic to observed phenomena. Loving a good story, however, al-Jahiz could never resist passing on the most preposterous yarns of sailors and Bedouin.

This lack of rational plan, so much a feature of his works, bopk have been at least partly deliberate, since his greatest fear pf boring his readers. This does not mean that he was never serious, but that in all his major works, seriousness and humor are inextricably mixed; it is sometimes difficult to know when he is joking and when he is not.

It is also difficult to pin al-Jahiz down on a given topic, for he loved to present debates between two social classes — scholars and merchants, mules and horses for instance — in which the merits of each are jzhiz before the reader.

What the author himself thought is often not obvious, and it is possible that in these dialogues he was primarily interested in showing his skill at taking both sides of an argument. He had a great love of books, and his Book of Animals begins with a long passage in their praise. It would have saddened him that so boko of his own have perished, but he would have been delighted, one feels, with the manuscript from which the illustrations that adorn this article are taken.

This manuscript, which dates from the 14th century, was discovered in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan in by the Swedish scholar Oscar Lofgren. The Ambrosiana manuscript is textually very important.

It is obviously copied by an educated scribe who has indicated the vowels — not normally written in Arabic — which allow the text to be more accurately understood than heretofore. This is doubly important as few manuscripts of the Book of Animals survive, and the Ambrosiana manuscript is among the earliest of those that do. Even more important than the text, however, are the superb miniatures which illuminate it.

Illustrated Arabic manuscripts of any sort are extremely rare, and this is the only illustrated copy of a work by al-Jahiz in existence. One cannot help feeling that al-Jahiz would have liked them, especially in view of his own admiration for the pictorial arts of the Byzantines and the Chinese — which he mentions in the Book of Animals.

His exact cause of death is ainmals clear, but a popular assumption is that Jahiz died in his private library after one of many large nahiz of books fell on him, killing him instantly.