Al-Jahiz
Region: Basra, Iraq
Notable works: "Kitab al-bayan wa al-tabyin", "Exploits of the Turks", "Kitab al-Hayawan"

Al-Jahiz Facts

Biography

Al-Jahiz, in full Abu ?Uthman ?Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz, (born c. 776, Basra, Iraq--died 868/869, Basra), Islamic theologian, intellectual, and litterateur known for his individual and masterful Arabic prose.

His family, possibly of Ethiopian origin, had only modest standing in Basra, but his intellect and wit gained him acceptance in scholarly circles and in society. During the reign of the ?Abbasid caliph al-Ma?mun, al-Jahiz moved to the regime's capital, Baghdad. He did not take a position at court but supported himself, at least in part, with contributions from patrons, often of high rank, in return for the dedications of his books. When the court moved to Samarra?, al-Jahiz journeyed there, but shortly before his death he retired to Basra.

Few of his treatises on theology and politics are extant; some are known only from quotations by other authors. His prose masterpieces, however, are available. Many of these are essays on diverse topics; others are anthologies in which poetry, jokes, and anecdotes, however obscure or daring, have been introduced by al-Jahiz to illustrate his points. His unfinished Kitab al-hayawan ("Animals"), in seven volumes, is a bestiary drawing on Aristotle and also an anthology of Arabic literature with animal themes to which theological, sociological, and linguistic discussions have been added. Kitab al-bayan wa al-tabyin ("Elegance of Expression and Clarity of Exposition"), another long work, treats literary style and the effective use of language. Kitab al-bukhala? ("Book of Misers") is a collection of stories about the avaricious. Al-Jahiz, in effect, provides in his works an entire education in the humanities of his time.

Although noteworthy for his intellectual freedom, al-Jahiz often supported government policy in his writings. He was, for example, part of the rationalist Mu?tazilite school of theology supported by the caliph al-Ma?mun and his successor. When Mu?tazilism was abandoned by the caliph al-Mutawakkil, al-Jahiz remained in favour by writing essays such as Manaqib at-turk (Eng. trans., "Exploits of the Turks," in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1915), a discussion of the military qualities of the Turkish soldiers, on whom government policy depended.

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