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Al-Jahiz : biography

776 –

al-Jāḥiẓ () (full name Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī ) (born in Basra, 781 – December 868/January 869) was an Arabic prose writer and author of works of literature, Mu’tazili theology, and politico-religious polemics.

In biology, Al-Jāḥiẓ introduced the concept of food chains and also proposed a scheme of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, environmental determinism and possibly the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Most important books

Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals)

The al-Hayawan is an encyclopedia of seven volume of anecdotes, poetic descriptions and proverbs describing over 350 varieties of animals. The work was considered by the 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi to be "little more than a plagiarism" of Aristotle’s Kitāb al-Hayawān, a charge that was once levelled against Aristotle himself with regard to a certain "Asclepiades of Pergamum". Later scholars have noted that there was only a limited Aristotelian influence in al-Jāḥiẓ’s work, and that al-Baghdadi may have been unacquainted with Aristotle’s work.

Conway Zirkle, writing about the history of natural selection science in 1941, said that an excerpt from this work was the only relevant passage he had found from an Arabian scholar. He provided a quotation describing the struggle for existence, citing a Spanish translation of this work: "The rat goes out for its food, and is clever in getting it, for it eats all animals inferior to it in strength", and in turn, it "has to avoid snakes and birds and serpents of prey, who look for it in order to devour it" and are stronger than the rat. Mosquitos "know instinctively that blood is the thing which makes them live" and when they see an animal, "they know that the skin has been fashioned to serve them as food". In turn, flies hunt the mosquito "which is the food that they like best", and predators eat the flies. "All animals, in short, can not exist without food, neither can the hunting animal escape being hunted in his turn. Every weak animal devours those weaker than itself. Strong animals cannot escape being devoured by other animals stronger than they. And in this respect, men do not differ from animals, some with respect to others, although they do not arrive at the same extremes. In short, God has disposed some human beings as a cause of life for others, and likewise, he has disposed the latter as a cause of the death of the former."

Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers) also (Avarice & the Avaricious)

A collection of stories about the greedy. Humorous and satirical, it is the best example of al-Jāḥiẓ’ prose style. It is an insightful study of human psychology. Al-Jāḥiẓ ridicules schoolmasters, beggars, singers and scribes for their greedy behavior. Many of the stories continue to be reprinted in magazines throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The book is considered one of the best works of al-Jāḥiẓ.

Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin (The Book of eloquence and demonstration)

Al bayan wa tabyeen, which literally means (eloquence and demonstration), was one of his later works, in which he wrote on epiphanies, rhetorical speeches, sectarian leaders, and princes.

Risalat mufakharat al-sudan ‘ala al-bidan (Treatise on Blacks)

Concerning the Zanj, he wrote:

Early life

Not much is known about al-Jāḥiẓ’s early life, but his family was very poor. Born in Basra, he asserted in a book he wrote that he was a member of the Arabian tribe Banu Kinanah.Al-Jahiz messages, Alwarraq edition, page 188 Al-Jāḥiẓ’s grandfather is believed to have been a Zanj (Bantu) slave from East Africa.

He used to sell fish along one of the canals in Basra in order to help his family. Financial difficulties, however, did not stop al-Jāḥiẓ from continuously seeking knowledge. He used to gather with a group of other youths at Basra’s main mosque, where they would discuss different scientific subjects. He also attended various lectures given by the most learned men in philology, lexicography and poetry.