By David W. Tschanz
In every generation and among every nation, there are a few individuals with the desire to study the workings of nature; if they did not exist, those nations would perish.
So wrote Abu ‘Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bakr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri, better known as al-Jahiz – the Goggle-Eyed – in his magnum opus, the Book of Animals.
Al-Jahiz himself was one of those individuals and was fortunate to live during one of the most exciting epochs of intellectual history – the period of the transmission of Greek science to the Arabs and the development of Arabic prose literature. Al-Jahiz was intimately involved in both.
Born about the year 776, some 14 years after the foundation of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, al-Jahiz grew up in Basra, Iraq, founded early in Islamic times as a garrison city but by the time of his birth was a major intellectual center, along with its rival, Kufa.
Al-Jahiz attended Basra’s schools, studying under some of the most eminent scholars of Islam. One of the most important aspects about the period of Al-Jahiz’s intellectual development and his life was that books were readily accessible. Though paper had been introduced into the Islamic world only shortly before al-Jahiz’s birth, it had, by the time he was in his 30’s, virtually replaced parchment, and launched an intellectual revolution.
The availability of a cheap writing material was accompanied by another social phenomenon –the rise of a reading public. 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.
Al-Jahiz and his parents, for example, were poor themselves; as a young man of 20 he sold fish along one of the Basran canals. Nevertheless, al-Jahiz learned to read and write at an early age, indicating the opportunities for “upward mobility” in eighth-century Iraq. Al-Jahiz tells the story of how his mother presented him with a tray of paper notebooks, and told him that it would be by means of these that he would earn his living.
Al-Jahiz began his career as a writer – a precarious profession both then and now- while still in Basra. He wrote an essay on the institution of the caliphate – which met with approval from the court in Baghdad – and from then on seems to have supported himself entirely by his pen, if we except a single three-day stint as a government clerk. The fact that he never held an official position allowed him an intellectual freedom impossible to someone connected to the court – though he did dedicate a number of his works to viziers and other powerful functionaries. In turn, he often received gifts of appreciation for these “dedications”. He received 5,000 gold dinars from the official to whom he dedicated his Book of Animals.
Al-Jahiz wrote over two hundred works, of which only thirty have survived. His work included zoology, Arabic grammar, poetry, rhetoric and lexicography. He is considered one of the few Muslim scientists who wrote on scientific and complex subjects for the layman and commoner. His writings contain many anecdotes, regardless of the subject he is discussing, that make his point and bring out both sides of the argument. Some of his books are: The Art of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut, Against Civil Servants, Arab Food, In Praise of Merchants, and Levity and Seriousness. On the style of writing, al-Jahiz stated that:
The best style is the clearest, the style that needs no explication and no notes, that conforms to the subject expressed, neither exceeding it nor falling short.
The most important of Al-Jahiz’s works, however, is the Book of Animals – Kitab al-Hayawan – which, even incomplete, totals seven fat volumes in the printed edition. It contains important scientific information and anticipates a number of concepts that were not fully developed until the first half of the twentieth century. In the book, al-Jahiz discusses animal mimicry – noting that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host – and writes at length on the influences of climate and diet on men, and plants and animals of different geographical regions. He discusses animal communication, psychology and the degree of intelligence of insect and animal species. He also 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 so that it does not spoil during the rainy season. He even knew that some insects are responsive to light – and used this information to suggest a clever way of ridding a room of mosquitoes and flies.
An early exponent of the zoological and anthropological sciences, al-Jahiz discovered and recognized the effect of environmental factors on animal life; and he also observed the transformation of animal species under different factors. Furthermore, in several passages of his book, he also described the concept, usually attributed to Charles Darwin, of natural selection.
Al-Jahiz’s concept of natural selection was something new in the history of science. Although Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Aristotle spoke of change in plants and animals, they never made the first steps towards developing a comprehensive theory. To them change, was only a concept of simple change and motion and nothing more than that.
Eighty-seven folios of the Book of Animals (about one-tenth of the original text by al-Jahiz) are preserved in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. This collection (a copy of the original) dates from the 14th century and bears the name of the last owner, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, and the year 1615. These folios of the Book of Animals contain more than 30 illustrations in miniature.
Al-Jahiz returned to Basra after spending more than fifty years in Baghdad. He died in Basra in 868 as a result of an accident in which he was crushed to death by a collapsing pile of books in his private library. A fitting death for a writer.