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
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
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.