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Volume 33, Number 3May/June 1982

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Science:The Islamic Legacy

The Book of Animals

Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrations courtesy of Ambrosiana Library

In every generation and among every nation, there are a few individuals with the desire to study the workings of nature; if they did not exist, those nations would perish," wrote Abu 'Uthman 'Ami ibn Bakr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri, better known as al-Jahiz - the Goggle-Eyed - in his magnum opus, the Book of Animals.

Al-Jahiz himself was one of those individuals. He lived, furthermore, during one of the most exciting epochs of intellectual history - the period of the transmission of Greek science to the Arabs and the development of Arabic prose literature -and was intimately involved in both.

Born about the year 776, some 14 years after the foundation of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, al-Jahiz grew up in Basra, founded early in Islamic times as a garrison city, but now, along with its rival city, Kufa, a major intellectual center.

Basra contributed substantially to al-Jahiz's intellectual development. It was there that he first went to school – studying under some of the most eminent scholars of Islam. Even after he migrated to Baghdad -attracted by the greater scope of the capital. he never lost his affection for his home; after some 50 years in Baghdad, he returned to Basra, and it was there that he died. According to legend he was crushed to death by a collapsing pile of books in the year 868.

Legendary though it may be, that story illustrates an important fact about the world in which al-Jahiz lived: books were accessible. Though paper had been introduced into the Islamic world only shortly before al-Jahizs birth, it had, by the time he was in his 30s, virtually replaced parchment.

The availability of a cheap writing material was accompanied by another social phenomenon, of which al-Jahiz himself was a product: the rise of a reading public. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the cities of the Middle East contained a large number of literate people - many of humble origins.

Al-Jahiz and his parents, for example, were poor themselves; as a young man of 20 he seems to have sold fish along one of the Basran canals. Nevertheless, al-Jahiz learned to read and write at an early age, indicating the opportunities for what today's sociologists would call "upward mobility" in eighth-century Iraq. Al-Jahiz tells the story of how his mother presented him with a tray of paper notebooks, and told him that it would be by means of these that he would earn his living.

Al-Jahiz began his career as a writer - then, as now, a precarious profession - while still in Basra. He wrote an essay on the institution of the caliphate - which met with approval at the court in Baghdad - and from then on seems to have supported himself entirely by his pen, if we except a single three-day stint as a government clerk. The fact that he never held an official position allowed him an intellectual freedom impossible to someone connected to the court - though he did dedicate a number of his works to viziers and other powerful functionaries, and received 5,000 gold dinars from the official to whom he dedicated his Book of Animals.

During his long lifetime - he lived until he was 92 - al-Jahiz composed some 200 works, of varying length, on an extraordinary range of topics. Of these, only 30 or so survive today - enough nevertheless to show the omnivorous curiosity of the author. Al-Jahiz wrote Levity and Seriousness, The Art of Keeping One's Mouth Shut, Misers, Early Arab Food, In Praise of Merchants, Against Civil Servants, The Squaring of the Circle, The Merits of the Turks, and, perhaps the most important, the Book of Animals.

The titles, however, give only a faint idea of their contents. Incapable of keeping to the point, al-Jahiz's essays wander from anecdote to anecdote, digression to digression, until both he and the reader lose sight of the original subject entirely.

Despite his propensity to meander in prose, al-Jahiz was particularly interested in style and correct expression. "The best style," he says in an essay on schoolteachers, "is the clearest, the style that needs no explication and no notes, that conforms to the subject expressed, neither exceeding it nor falling short."

This interest in style was characteristic of a group of Basran scholars, who, during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, sought to preserve the linguistic heritage of the Arabs by recording the poetry and sayings of the Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula. This movement had unanticipated results: because of their almost anthropological interest in the language and customs of the Bedouin, and in the social conditions of Arabia during both the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods, the Basran scholars achieved a deep appreciation of Arabic grammar and pre-Islamic poetry. They went on to compose sophisticated commentaries on the Koran, critical editions of poetry and treatises on grammar, and to compile dictionaries and specialized word-lists.

A master of these disciplines, al-Jahiz was one of the first writers of Arabic to work all the diverse preoccupations of the Basran scholarly milieu -grammar, prophetic tradition, rhetoric, lexicography and poetry-into a "literature" - that is, prose compositions to be read by non-specialists for pleasure and instruction.

Around the year 815, only two years after the founding of the House of Wisdom, al-Jahiz moved to Baghdad, where he was exposed to a new and important influence: Greek science, particularly Aristotelian thought. Attracted by scholastic theology, for instance, he subsequently used the dialectic method of the theologians in many of his works, often with humorous intent.

For al-Jahiz never lost sight of his readers, and developed a very personal and characteristic style, which blended anecdote, serious subjects and jokes, in an effort to hold their interest. He described his style himself, saying:

My books contain above all unusual anecdotes, wise and beautifully expressed sayings handed down by the Companions of the Prophet, sayings which will lead to the acquisition of good qualities and the performance of good works ... they also contain stories of the conduct of kings and caliphs and their ministers and courtiers, and the most interesting events of their lives.

In Baghdad, al-Jahiz not only fused the Islamic sciences to Greek rationalism, but created Arabic prose literature. He showed that Arabic was flexible enough to handle any subject with ease, and although he was not personally associated with the House of Wisdom, his linguistic achievement paralleled - indeed surpassed - the efforts of the scholars engaged in rendering Greek scientific texts into Arabic.

His works attest the remarkable spread of Greek ideas among ordinary readers. Both in his subject matter and vocabulary, he presumes a familiarity - albeit superficial - with Aristotle and the technical terminology of scholastic theology. He tells many anecdotes of the scholars of the House of Wisdom, many of whom appear to have been his friends.

The book that best illustrates his method is his Book of Animals - Kitab al-Hayawan - which, even incomplete, runs to seven fat volumes in the printed edition.

Despite the title, the Book of Animals is by no means conventional zoology, or even a conventional bestiary. It is an enormous collection of lore about animals - including insects - culled from the Koran, the Traditions, pre-Islamic poetry, proverbs, storytellers, sailors, personal observation and Aristotle's Generation of Animals.

But this is by no means all. In keeping with his theories of planned disorder, he introduces anecdotes of famous men, snippets of history, anthropology, etymology and jokes. The bewildering variety of its contents, in fact, has always daunted translators, and later natural historians. Al-Damiri, who lived in the 14th century and wrote a well-known encyclopedia called The Lives of the Animals, used much of the scientific and linguistic information from al-Jahiz, but eliminated the anecdotes, poetry, digressions and jokes.

The "literary" quality of the Book of Animals, however, should not obscure the fact that it contains scientific information of great value. Anticipating a number of concepts which were not to be fully developed until the time of Darwin and his successors, al-Jahiz toys with evolutionary theory, discusses animal mimicry - noting that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host - and writes at length on the influences of climate and diet on men, plants and animals of different geographical regions. He even gets into animal communication, psychology and the degree of intelligence of insect and animal species. He gives a detailed account of the social organization of ants, including, from his own observation, a description of how they store grain in their nests in such a way that it does not spoil during the rainy season. He knows that some insects are responsive to light - and uses this information to suggest a clever way of ridding a room of mosquitoes and flies.

His greatest service, perhaps, was in popularizing science and the rational method, and in showing that a literary man could concern himself with any subject.

A devout Muslim, al-Jahiz regarded the physical world as the visible sign of God's will. His purpose in writing the Book of Animals was not merely to entertain, but to lead his readers to an appreciation of the wonders of God's creation, which he believed to be as manifest in the most insignificant as in the grandest:

I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: for this purpose the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast.

Sadly, few works of al-Jahiz have survived the vicissitudes of time, but those that have make us regret all the more the ones that have been lost. Together they present a faithful and lively portrait of Baghdad and Basra during the Golden Age of Islam. He writes of singing girls, vagabonds, scholars, theologians, caliphs and viziers, and a very detailed picture of everyday life in ninth-century Iraq could be extracted from his works. More importantly, he communicates to us the excitement of an intelligent non-specialist confronted with radical scientific, philosophical and theological speculations. Baghdad and Basra were awhirl with ideas, and al-Jahiz is very funny about the pretensions of people who studded their conversation with technical terms like "atom" without in the least understanding what an atom was.

At the same time, al-Jahiz enthusiastically supported certain aspects of the Greek tradition, by which he meant primarily Aristotle. He believed in the scientific method - as it was then understood - and applied reason and logic to observed phenomena. Loving a good story, however, al-Jahiz could never resist passing on the most preposterous yarns of sailors and Bedouin.

This lack of rational plan, so much a feature of his works, may have been at least partly deliberate, since his greatest fear was boring his readers. This does not mean that he was never serious, but that in all his major works, seriousness and humor are inextricably mixed; it is sometimes difficult to know when he is joking and when he is not. It is also difficult to pin al-Jahiz down on a given topic, for he loved to present debates between two social classes - scholars and merchants, mules and horses for instance - in which the merits of each are paraded before the reader. What the author himself thought is often not obvious, and it is possible that in these dialogues he was primarily interested in showing his skill at taking both sides of an argument.

He had a great love of books, and his Book of Animals begins with a long passage in their praise. It would have saddened him that so many of his own have perished, but he would have been delighted, one feels, with the manuscript from which the illustrations that adorn this article are taken.

This manuscript, which dates from the 14th century, was discovered in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan in 1939 by the Swedish scholar Oscar Lofgren. Lofgren stumbled on it, for it was not listed in the catalog of the manuscripts in the Ambrosiana done by von Hammer in 1839. He identified the text as a fragment of the Book of Animals - 87 folios containing about one-tenth of the complete text. The manuscript is not only fragmentary but disordered. An ownership mark on the last folio states that when the fragment passed into the hands of a certain 'Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi in 1615, it had 94 folios, so even at that date the manuscript was incomplete. It is not known how or when the Ambrosiana Library obtained the manuscript.

The Ambrosiana manuscript is textually very important. It is obviously copied by an educated scribe who has indicated the vowels - not normally written in Arabic - which allow the text to be more accurately understood than heretofore. This is doubly important as few manuscripts of the Book of Animals survive, and the Ambrosiana manuscript is among the earliest of those that do.

Even more important than the text, however, are the superb miniatures which illuminate it. Illustrated Arabic manuscripts of any sort are extremely rare, and this is the only illustrated copy of a work by al-Jahiz in existence. The 30 miniatures, done in a deliberately archaizing style - perhaps imitated from an earlier illustrated manuscript from al-Jahiz's native Iraq - were done at the high point of Arabic manuscript illumination: 14th-century Mamluk Egypt. A recent exhibition of Mamluk art at the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. (see Aramco World, November-December 1981) has familiarized the American public with the glories of the Islamic decorative arts under the Mamluk dynasty. The style of the miniatures, consciously old-fashioned, succeeds in capturing the mood of al-Jahiz's prose -they are lively, highly colored and gently humorous. One cannot help feeling that al-Jahiz would have liked them, especially in view of his own admiration for the pictorial arts of the Byzantines and the Chinese - which he mentions in the Book of Animals.

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the May/June 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1982 images.