Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī — most commonly referred to as Al-Jahiz — was born in 776 in Basra, Iraq. He was a scholar, writer, zoologist, and theologian, a perfect example of how Arab scientists sought truth in the natural world. While we don’t know much about his early life, it is acknowledged that he was not born into a privileged family, but gained acceptance in social and academic circles with his intellect and ideas.
Al Jahiz was widely praised for being a prolific thinker and a humorous and entertaining writer, managing to support himself without taking a position at court. Instead, al-Jahiz made a living by writing 200 books throughout his life. So far, experts have only been able to recover 30 of his publications.
Among his most famous works is the pioneering “Book of Animals,” al-Jahiz’s most celebrated.
Among his most famous works is the pioneering Kitāb al-ḥayawān (“The Book of Animals”), undoubtedly al-Jahiz’s most celebrated. It is composed of seven volumes filled with details about animal behavior and habitats. It is surprisingly progressive for being written in the nineth century and features modern ideas about food chains and evolution, biology, and the presence of homosexuality in nature. However, “The Book of Animals” is far more than an encyclopedic treaty. It is also extremely poetic, and despite being scientific, still honors Islamic ideas and theology.
Al-Jahiz writes that “Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed.” And he added that “Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.”
His description of what would later be defined as natural selection is astonishingly clear and demonstrates his developed understanding of how animals evolve and thrive. Al-Jahiz was forward-thinking enough to write that nature is ever-changing. One millennium later, Charles Darwin would present similar information and be celebrated as the leader and pioneer of the evolutionary movement.
One millennium later, Charles Darwin would present similar information.
Few people are aware that a ninth century Afro-Iraqi with Ethiopian roots had already discussed and published books on those ideas. When reading his work, it is easy to forget he lived 1,200 years ago — especially since it took the Western world several centuries more to come out from the tight grasp of the Church and begin exploring the scientific world in any capacity.
“The Book of Animals” was written to help readers find solace in their environment and beliefs. Yet, it is also far more than a book about animals, and it is difficult to overstate how rhythmic and poetic his written prose is.
“The book is silent as long as you need silence, eloquent whenever you want discourse. It is a friend who never deceives or flatters you, and it is a companion who does not grow tired of you,” al-Jahiz muses. The compassion and patience on display in these sentiments exemplify what he hoped to achieve through his work; to educate and inspire those around him to live in harmony with nature.
Al-Jahiz used the ‘Adab’ writing genre, which he was instrumental in developing. It was filled with explicit anecdotes and provocative jokes. It was funny, scandalous, and erotic, but never strayed away from the Islamic values he lived by. The joyfulness he weaved into his work is refreshing and illustrates the rich Arab culture many outsiders are unaware of.
Most of the animals documented in this work have become endangered.
Unfortunately, most of the animals documented in this work have become endangered. His colorful two-dimensional drawings are a portal into a world of natural abundance. The drawings, while not hyper-realistic, are an excellent example of the artistic style of the time. Luckily, thanks to his classification and perfect calligraphy, which refers to the animals by name, readers aren’t left trying to guess if they’re looking at a salamander or a crocodile.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt spoke of the subjectivity of nature. He was a pioneer for a new holistic scientific era in Europe and the United States and was notably considered Darwin’s mentor and muse. Al-Jahiz mirrored several of Humboldt’s sentiments by intertwining creative writing skills with his futuristic observations of the natural world.
Throughout his professional life, al-Jahiz was a devout Muslim, and his work consistently had religious undertones. He was able to discuss evolution and how homosexuality is observed in a variety of species while studying the Quran and being a respected theologist. This is a testament to how open-minded and eager the Islamic civilization was to learn about the natural world and study its manifestations across disciplines. Islamic values and scientific progress could coexist and even flourish as the Quran advocates the search and acquisition of knowledge explicitly. This mindset was not consistent within European communities at the time.
Along with being a man of science and literature, al-Jahiz was also passionate about his origins. His East African roots encouraged him to delve into the history of his blackness in hopes of teaching other Black Africans about the significant role their ancestors played in the development of civilization.
His “Book of the Glory of the Black Race” is a splendid account of the historical efforts of the African people.
His “Book of the Glory of the Black Race” is a splendid account of the historical endeavors of the African people. He refers to the Black African as the “original man” and how he can be found all around the globe. “The Ethiopians, the Berbers, the Copts, the Nubians, the Zaghawa, the Moors, the people of Sind, the Hindus, the Qamar, the Dabila, the Chinese, and those beyond them, the islands in the seas are full of blacks up to Hindustan and China.”
Ancient Islamic and Middle Eastern history and culture are not given the recognition they deserve. The fact that al-Jahiz’s achievements — a pioneer in literature, science, and racial pride — have been completely ignored in classrooms and textbooks for centuries, then attributed to European scholars hundreds of years later, reveals the inherent Eurocentrism present in the Western education system. Perhaps, if people were taught more about Arab and Islamic culture, there would be less islamophobia and more interest, compassion, and appreciation.
Al-Jahiz passed away in 868, after a life full of inspiring others, discovering the natural world’s secrets, and making readers chuckle under their breath as they read his crude “Adab” writings. To say he was ahead of his time would be a disservice. He was a revolutionary thinker with a passion and love for the Earth and all its creatures.