Abu Othman Amr bin Bahr, famously known by his nickname Al-Jahiz, was a writer born in Basra, Iraq, in 776 A.D. History regards him as one of the most influential scholars of the early Islamic world, having written more than 200 works of poetry, religion, politics and zoology.
Al-Jahiz was born to a poor family of non-Arab-Muslim origin, also known as Mawali, and worked in his early years selling fish on the city’s canals. His grandfather was a Black porter.
From an early age, Al-Jahiz showed a desire to learn and he was inquisitive which led him to live an independent life despite coming from a destitute background. Growing up in a mixed-race community increased his knowledge of human nature.
Al-Jahiz developed a love for the Arabic language, becoming an avid reader and a prolific writer. In order to widen his intellectual horizons, he traveled to Damascus, Samarra and Baghdad, where he resided for many years.
He wrote in a manner that the general community could understand, mainly by the use of satire, irony, humor, anecdotes, and other tales that were not considered scientific. In most places, his writing was not taken seriously by scholars.
He died a happy man in 868 A.D. at age 93. Although the exact cause of his death is not known, it’s speculated that died in his library after books toppled and crushed him.
Al-Jahiz had a malformation of the eyes in the form of a projecting cornea which made his life difficult. This is where he got his nickname Al-Jahiz, which means “goggle-eyed”. The repulsion he got from this malformation could have sharpened his sense of humor and contributed a great deal to his writing.
He discovered the theory of biological evolution long before Charles Darwin wrote “On The Origin Of Species.” In his encyclopedia ”Kitab Al Hayawan”, which translates to “The Book of Animals”, he wrote about the effect of the environment on animals’ survival chances and he described the struggle for survival among all the species. He also made a link between food consumption and the environment and said the latter determined the physical characteristics of all plants and animals. The book went further to identify how the environment was responsible for the different human skin colors.
Although he grew up in mixed-race surroundings, Al-Jahiz highlighted the greatness of the Black people. He challenged anti-Black sentiment in the Islamic world through his book, “Treatise On Blacks.” In this book, he argued that the cultural and military accomplishments of Black people surpassed that of the Arabs who were constantly oppressing them.
He was, however, committed to his faith and wished to enrich his proud Arab Heritage, which he defended with passion. He was aware of any foreign influences such as the Persian tradition, which he considered a threat to Islam.
Al-Jahiz did not take any formal employment but instead relied on the many volumes of books he wrote for a living. In time, his writing became widely known and this earned him recognition by various officials whom he met in person. He also stayed in touch with leading political figures. He took advantage of his many contacts to further his intellectual training and travel. He sharpened his theological outlook by studying widely on Aristotle and other Greek philosophers and expanded his knowledge through his supervisor, the great Mu’tazili.
The bulk of Al-Jahiz books that survived to date are only in Arabic. This includes the seven volumes printed in Cairo that make up the “Kitab Al Hayawan” — a zoological goldmine of more than 350 animals. It is also available online.
“The Book of Misers,” which is said to have been Al-Jahiz’s masterpiece, discusses greed and cupidity. It has been translated into English. Al-Jahiz wrote his book long before French playwright Molière — one of the greatest writers of all time — wrote “The Miser,” which was first performed in 1668.
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