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Al-Jāḥiẓ (in Arabic الجاحظ) (real name Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri) (781 – December 868/January 869) was a famous Afro-Arab scholar of East African descent, the grandson of a Negro (Zanj) slave. He was an Arabic prose writer and author of works on Arabic literature, biology, zoology, history, early Islamic philosophy, Islamic psychology, Mu'tazili theology, and politico-religious polemics.

Early life

Not much is known about Al-Jahiz's early life, but his family was very poor. He used to sell fish along one of the canals in Basra to help his family. Yet, despite his difficult financial troubles, that didn't stop him from seeking knowledge since his youth. He used to gather with a group of other youths at the main mosque of Basra, where they discussed various subjects of sciences. He also attended various lectures given by the most learned men in philology, lexicography, and poetry.

Education

Al-Jahiz continued his studies, and over a span twenty-five years, he had acquired great knowledge about Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, history of the Arabs and Persian before Islam, and he studied the Qur'an and the Hadith. He also read translated books on Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, especially that of Greek philosopher Aristotle. His education was highly facilitated due to the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate was in a period of cultural, and intellectual revolutions. Books became readily available, and this made learning easily available.

His career

While still in Basra, Al-Jahiz wrote an article about the institution of the Caliphate. This is said to have been the beginning of his career as a writer, which would become his sole source of living. It's said that his mother once offered him a tray full of notebooks and told him that he would earn his living from writing. Since then, he had authored two hundred books throughout his lifetime that discuss a variety of subjects including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric. He wrote a staggering number of books, of which thirty survive.

Moving to Baghdad

He moved to Baghdadmarker, the capital of the Arab Islamic Caliphate at the time, in 816 AD, because the Abbasid Caliphs encouraged scientists and scholars and had just founded the House of Wisdom. Due to the Caliphs' patronage, his eagerness to reach a wider audience, and establish himself, al-Jahiz stayed in Baghdad (and later Samarramarker) where he wrote a huge number of his books. The Caliph al-Ma'mun wanted al-Jahiz to teach his children, but then changed his mind when his children got afraid of his boggle-eyes (جاحظ العينين), it's said that this is where he got his nickname.

Works

Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals)

The Kitab al-Hayawan is an encyclopedia of seven volumes of anecdotes, poetic descriptions and proverbs describing over 350 varieties of animals. It is considered as the most important work of al-Jahiz.

In the Book of Animals, al-Jahiz first speculated on the influence of the environment on animals and developed an early theory of evolution. Al-Jahiz considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the struggle for existence, an ancestor of natural selection. Al-Jahiz' ideas on the struggle for existence in the Book of Animals have been summarized as follows:

Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains, and wrote the following example of a food chain:

He was also an early adherent of environmental determinism and explained how the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community. He used his theories on natural selection and environmental determinism to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:

In the 11th century, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi accused al-Jahiz of having plagiarized parts of his work from the Kitāb al-Hayawān of Aristotle, but modern scholars have noted that there was only a limited Aristotelian influence in al-Jahiz's work, and that al-Baghdadi may have been unacquainted with Aristotle's work on the subject. In particular, there is no Aristotelian precedent for al-Jahiz's ideas on topics such as natural selection, environmental determinism and food chains.

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

A collection of stories about the greedy. Humorous and satirical, it is the best example of Al-Jahiz' prose style. It is an insightful study of human psychology. Jahiz 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 Jahiz.

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

Al Jahiz is considered to be one of the most renowned writers of all time, for he is believed to have written during his life span about 360 books, from all walks of knowledge and wisdom of his time, al bayan wa tabyeen which literally means (eloquence and demonstration), was one of his last works, in which he approached various subjects, such as epiphanies, rhetorical speeches, sectarian leaders, princes, as well as giving a sardonic treatment to foolish and crazy people. It is also a book in which he converges the skills of language and eloquence, the art of silence and the art of poetry.

This book is considered one of the earliest works in Arabic literary theory and literary criticism.

Kitab Moufakharat al Jawari wal Ghilman (The book of dithyramb of concubines and ephebes)

In Arabic the word jawari is the plural of jariya, meaning a female servant, which by today's standards we would call a concubine mistress. There were two kinds of female servants: jariya – one that manages the household and runs daily errands, was the first type. The second type used to be called qina (also spelled qaena). This was a jariya who had the ability to sing, which put her above the usual jariya in market value. Often, this kind of slave girl was worth a lot of money. In consequence, they became a luxury of princes and wealthy merchants. The other word in the title, ghilman, is the plural of ghoulam a word which might be translated eunuch, castrato, or ephebe. For most scholars the book of dithyramb on concubines and ephebes is a wanton book of sensuality, in this book Al Jahiz enthralls us with stories of an erotic nature that deal with the perception of sexuality in his time.

Risalat mufakharat al-sudan 'ala al-bidan (Superiority Of The Blacks To The Whites)

Al-Jahiz wrote the following on black people:

The Essays

In his treatise The Essays, he wrote a chapter entitled "On the Zanj", where Zanj means black people, whom he praises and uses environmental determinism to explain why they are black:

Other works

The earliest works on social psychology and animal psychology were written by al-Jahiz, who wrote a number of works dealing with the social organization of ants and with animal communication and psychology.Amber Haque (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", Journal of Religion and Health 43 (4): 357-377 [376].

His death

Al-Jahiz returned to Basramarker after spending more than fifty years in Baghdadmarker. He died in Basra in 869 AD. His exact cause of death is not clear, but a popular story is that an accident, where the books piling up his private library, toppled over and crushed him, caused his death. He died at the age of 93. Another version said that he suffered from ill health and died in Muharram

Quotes

  • "The most genial writer of the age, if not of Arabic literature, and the founder of the Arab prose style, was the grandson of a Negro slave, Amr ben Bahr, known as Al-Jahiz, 'The Goggle-Eyed'." H. A. R. Gibb
  • "Al-Jahiz was the greatest scholar and stylist of the ninth century." Christopher Dawson
  • "One of the greatest prose writers in classical Arabic literature." Bernard Lewis
  • "[al-Jahiz] was one of the most productive and frequently quoted scholars in Arabic literature. His originality, wit, satire, and learning, made him widely known." Philip K. Hitti


See also



References

  1. James E. Lindsay, Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World (2005), p. 72.
  2. Al-Jahiz: INTRODUCTION." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 25. Gale Group, Inc., 1998. eNotes.com. 2006. 13 Sep, 2007
  3. Cyril Glasse, The New Encyclopedia of Islam, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 2008), p.631
  4. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, (University of Chicago Press: 1991), p.466
  5. Conway Zirkle (1941). Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 84 (1), p. 71-123.
  6. Mehmet Bayrakdar (Third Quarter, 1983). "Al-Jahiz And the Rise of Biological Evolutionism", The Islamic Quarterly. London. [1]
  7. Frank N. Egerton, "A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 6: Arabic Language Science - Origins and Zoological", Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, April 2002: 142-146 [143]
  8. Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (3), pp. 268-307 [278].
  9. Peters, F. E., Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam, New York University Press, NY, 1968.
  10. J. N. Mattock (1971). "Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam by F. E. Peters", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 34 (1), p. 147-148.


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