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Great Muslim Scholars 'Amr ibn Bahr Al-Jahiz

Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bahr al-Basri Al-Jahiz (776 - 868 C.E.)

Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri al-Jahiz was born in Basra in 776 C.E. He studied in Basra, a major intellectual center, under several well known Islamic scholars. Al-Jahiz belonged to an average working class family. During his late teens, while continuing his study, he helped his father in the fish market. Recognizing his more productive talents, one day his mother presented him with a tray of paper notebooks suggesting that he earn his living by means of writing. This incident helped to launch what was to become an illustrious career that lasted more than sixty years.

Al-Jahiz's earliest writing on the 'Institution of the Caliphate' was well received at the court of Baghdad. Around 815 C.E., al-Jahiz moved to Baghdad, a city founded about fifteen years before his birth as the seat of Abbasid Caliphate and the capital of Islamic Empire (excluding Andalusia, i.e., Spain, Portugal and southern France; see Cordoba). He continued to write on a variety of subjects and was well respected at Caliph's court. Although he was admired by court officials, he never worked for them nor held any official position.

Al-Jahiz wrote more than two hundred works but only thirty are extant. His work included zoology, Arabic grammar, poetry, rhetoric and lexicography. He is considered as one of the few Muslim scientists who wrote on scientific and complex subjects for nonspecialists and common people. His writings contain many anecdotes regardless of the subject he is discussing to make his point and to bring out both sides of an argument. Some of his famous books are: The Book of Animals, 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 advanced 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."
His most famous book 'Kitab al-Hayawan' (Book of Animals) is an encyclopedia of seven large volumes. He was rewarded with 5,000 gold dinars from the court official to whom he dedicated the Book of Animals.

Kitab al-Hayawan contains an amazing array of scientific information that was not to be fully developed until the first half of the twentieth century. Al-Jahiz discusses his observation in detail on the social organization of ants, animal communication and psychology, and the effects of diet and climate. He described how ants store and preserve grain in their nests during the rainy season. He suggested an ingenious way of expelling mosquitoes and flies from a room based on his observation that some insects are responsive to light. Al-Jahiz expounded on the degree of intelligence of animal species and insects. He also observed that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host, and expounded on the effects of diet and climate not only on men but also on animals and plants.

Eighty-seven folios of the Book of Animals (about one-tenth of the original text by al-Jahiz) are preserved in 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.

As was common with writings of Muslim scientists of the golden Age (8th to 10th century), al-Jahiz recognized the signs of Allah (The One and Only God) in the creation. In the Book of Animals he wrote that a pebble proves the existence of Allah just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe - for the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast.

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.

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