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The father of the theory of evolution

Al Jahiz observed the phenomenon of natural selection a millennium before Darwin and he wrote about this and more with wit and verve

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Abu ‘Uthman ‘Amr Ibn Bahr Al Qinanih Al Fuqaymih Al Basrih, known to most people as Al Jahiz, was born in Basra (Iraq) in AD776. He excelled as a writer of Arabic prose, with serious contributions to literature and to the corpus of Mu‘tazili theology, and was uniquely placed to add to the period’s various politico-religious polemics. As a biologist, he proposed his theory of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, long before Darwin developed his, and relied on satire and irony to get his points across. Long neglected by contemporary authors and rarely discussed in school texts save for brief introductions, Al Jahiz deserved to be widely read, if for no other reason than to discover his significant contributions to humanity.

Life and times

Al Jahiz’s family origins are obscure, most likely in Abyssinia (contemporary Ethiopia). He owes his sobriquet to a malformation of the eyes (jahiz means “with a projecting cornea”), which did not make his life easy, though the revulsion he suffered for it may only have sharpened his sense of humour and use of irony to express his opinions. A precocious child, Al Jahiz displayed an invincible desire to learn, coupled with an inquisitive mind that pushed him towards a life of independence. As a practising Muslim, he was fond of discussing a wide range of questions with lecturers in mosque services and, in debates with ‘Ulamah (learned men), he delved into philology, lexicography and poetry. Regular conversations with fellow Basrawis, such as Al Asma’i, Abu ‘Ubaydah, Abu Zayed and others, sharpened his language skills.

This was the first of his several significant accomplishments, even if his more controversial association with Mu‘tazilism, the Muslim school of theology that maintained the Quran could not have been created and that the holy scriptures must not be co-eternal with God because of his perfect unity and eternal nature. Of course, this was, and still is, a highly controversial school, though several philosophers adhered to it as learned men confronted the Muslim conscience. In the realm of theology, how the ‘Ulamah could harmonise faith and reason and in politics, what to do with the thorny question of the Caliphate, an institution that was constantly brought up by the enemies of the ‘Abbasids, were issues that were vigorously debated then as now. Conflicts between Muslim sects and ties with non-Arabs preoccupied him as well, given that he lived among a mixed population that, fortunately, added to his knowledge of human nature. An avid reader, Al Jahiz acquired a vast collection of books.

Al Jahiz contemplated a move to Baghdad, then the growing capital of the ‘Abbasid empire that added value to humanity, where he would interact with eminent scholars, even if his attachments to Basra never waned. While still in the southern city, Al Jahiz wrote an essay about the institution of the Caliphate that won him the compliments of the Caliph Al Ma’mun, the seventh ‘Abbasid caliph (r 813–833), who was known for his attempts to end sectarian rivalry in Islam and to impose upon his subjects a rationalist Muslim creed. This was Al Jahiz’s ticket to Baghdad, where his talents were recognized. But it might be safe to conclude that he was a commuter rather than a permanent resident. He frequently stayed for long periods in Baghdad (and later Samarra), where he composed many of his works, most of which perished over time. Interestingly, he started earning his living by compiling nearly two hundred books, though barely 30 survive. By his own admission, Al Jahiz received considerable sums of money for the dedications he inscribed in his books to supplement his modest court allowance. He did not have an official position, was not a courtier, and did not act the part of an éminence grise or hold any unofficial adviser’s role. He took no regular employment. While the Caliph wanted Al Jahiz to teach his children, this was not to be because, according to a legend, the youngsters were repulsed by his sight.

Consequently, Al Jahiz earned his living through the pen, which give some veracity to the notion that he composed many tomes. As his writings became known and earned him recognition, they encouraged the author to address a series of dedications to various officials, many of whom he met in person. Although he was never close to the Caliphs, he stayed in touch with the leading political figures. Perhaps the most famous Baghdadi official he composed for was Mohammad Bin ‘Abdul Malek Al Zayyat, and when the latter fell from favour in 847, Al Jahiz became a confidant of the Supreme Judge Ahmad Bin Abi Du‘ad and his son Mohammad.

Such contacts notwithstanding, Al Jahiz retained a level of independence in his work and was smart enough to ingratiate himself enough to take advantage of his many contacts, to further his intellectual training and to travel. Towards that end, he went to Damascus and Beirut, although critics were offended when he attempted to write a geography book after one or two trips to nearby cities. The geographers held the view that he ought to spend more time on the road and acquire a deeper knowledge before contributing to the field.

Al Jahiz was not offended and found a rich store of learning in the many translations from Greek undertaken during the Caliphate of Al Ma’mum in Baghdad. He studied Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, an exposure that sharpened his theological outlooks, which he expanded under the supervision of the great Mu‘tazili of the day, Abu Ishaq Ebrahim Bin Sayyar Al Nazzam.

Towards the end of his life, suffering from hemiplegia (total paralysis of one side of the body), he retired to Basra, where he died in December 868. The exact cause of death was never clear, though a popular assumption was an accident, in which the books piling up in his private library toppled and crushed him. When he died, Al Jahiz was 93, a relatively happy man.

Philosophical ideas and the theory of evolution

Al Jahiz was the first Muslim “biologist” to develop a theory on evolution. Indeed, he wrote on the effects of the environment on an animal’s survival chances, as he observed and carefully described the evident struggle for existence among all species. Interestingly, he made a linkage between food consumption and the environment, determining that the latter established, or perhaps, contributed to the physical characteristics of all plants and animals. Long before Darwin advanced his own theories, Al Jahiz noticed how the environment was responsible for the different human skin colours. His “Kitab Al Hayawan” (Book of Animals) stood as an encyclopaedia of at least 350 varieties of animals and, though seldom read nowadays, included critical notions that were unique to the Basrawi. Few can deny his valuable work on natural selection long before Darwin’s Origin of Species: Al Jahiz discovered the notion of biological evolution, Darwin perfected it.

A sense of humour

This significant contribution notwithstanding, Arabs in general and Arab scholars in particular perceived Al Jahiz as a buffoon, or at least someone who was a jester and could not be taken seriously. Regrettably, part of the reason for this perception was the philosopher’s own fault, as his favourite method was to mix most of his serious work with numerous anecdotes, jokes, and other tales that were not deemed scientific or serious enough. Muslim writings, then as now, were inclined towards soberness and gravity and Al Jahiz stood out as a writer who, even in his weightiest passages, could easily slip in anecdotes, or offer witty observations, or even add what appeared to him to be amusing comments. Whether his preferred method was the result of how people reacted to his physical appearance was impossible to know, although something must also be said to the effect that he consumed oodles of dull prose that, truth be told, disappointed him. Al Jahiz mastered the Arabic language , refused to be bored by what he was doing and, importantly, was strongly persuaded that a deliberately lighter approach would allow many more individuals to absorb serious subjects. So, he popularised some unorthodox ideas and probably enjoyed shocking his critics with his new thoughts. Humour was not simply a tool to entertain but a medium to propagate solemn notions to as wide an audience as possible. His “Kitab Al Tarbi‘wal Tadwir” (Book of Expressions and Refinements) is a masterpiece of ironic writing. The “Kitab Al Bukhalah” (Book of Misers) is that rare collection of stories about the greedy, which apply to all generations, across times. Without the formal training of a modern psychologist, Al Jahiz was nevertheless eminently qualified to write on his observations of human beings, and especially of their behaviour, in his own unique style. How he ridicules schoolmasters and scribes alike, and his jest of singers or even his comments on beggars are all worthy of attention.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Al Jahiz warned authorities against any regression that could result from abandoning Mu‘tazilism, although he probably gave up the struggle with Baghdadi officials once he concluded that the Sunni reaction inevitably weakened the pro-Mu‘tazili arguments. Consequently, he altered his outlook and devoted his life to literary and scientific activities, perhaps aware that not all battles were of the winnable kind. The fact that he wrote the Book of Misers in the latter part of his life supports this hypothesis, for the avarice he concluded was real and also existed among so-called learned men. Both in politics as in theology, Al Jahiz was a Mu‘tazili through and through, even if he took “for granted the right to submit to scrutiny, accepted attitudes to natural phenomena, [and welcomed] ancient history and legends handed down as truths”, to better restate problems and suggest rational solutions. He never stepped outside the boundaries of the faith, but wished to enrich his proud Arab heritage, which he defended with passion, and was wary of foreign influences. While he tolerated Greek thought, he was “always careful to curb the intrusion of the Persian tradition, which he considered too dangerous for the future of Islam, into the culture he longed to bestow on his co-religionists”.

Many admirers, imitators and even counterfeiters borrowed from Al Jahiz, although history reserved a somewhat distorted image of his many contributions, concluding that he was nothing more than a master of rhetoric. In fact, he was much more than that, a thinker who made serious contributions to Mu‘tazilism, a theoretician who added to our scientific knowledge base and, equally important, someone who seldom took himself so seriously that he could not crack a joke or resort to irony to make his point. He was, in short, a major contributor to the study of adab, a philosopher who rejected the jahiliyyah, and who brilliantly analysed knowledge.

Selected readings

The bulk of Al Jahiz books that survive are only available in Arabic, including the seven volumes printed in Cairo that make up the Kitab Al Hayawan (Book of Animals), which a zoological goldmine (available online). “The Book of Misers”, translated by R.B. Serjeant, New York: Ithaca Press, 2000, is probably the author’s masterpiece, in which he discusses greed and avarice, long before Molière (1622-1673) — one of the greatest writers of all time — penned his own opus “L’Avare” (The Miser — also available as Avarice & The Avaricious, London: Routledge, 1999).

There are several analytical books, in French, by Charles Pellat, who is considered to be the foremost contemporary expert on Al Jahiz. One of the more interesting is available in English. See Charles Pellat, “The Life and Works of Jahiz”, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969. For other useful bibliographical sources, see Conway Zirkle, “Natural Selection before the ‘Origin of Species’”, “Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society” 84:1, 1941, pp. 71-123; Mehmet Bayrakdar, “Al-Jahiz and the Rise of Biological Evolution”, “The Islamic Quarterly” 27:3, 1983, pp. 307-315; William M. Hutchins, “Nine Essays of Al Jahiz”, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1989; and Daniel Heller-Roazen, “Secrets of Al Jahiz: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts”, Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012.

This article is the fifth of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.

Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).