One of the most important classical writers in the Arab world comes from the Abbasid Caliphate. Born in Basra in 776 A.D, Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr will become known by his nickname: Al-Jahiz (the bug eyed).
Sources mention that his grandfather was a black cameleer and that their roots go back to the Kinanah tribe in the heart of Arabia. Orphaned at a young age and raised by his poor mum selling bread and fish on the river bank, Al-Jahiz was keen on seeking knowledge and learning from a young age. He started with a group of youth learning in the main mosque of Basra at the time of the Abbasid reign (750-1517 A.D) which was considered the Golden Era, where Caliphs paid special attention to knowledge and translation.
Books were readily available and Al-Jahiz got to learn from the best mentors such as Al-Akhfash and Al-Asmai’. He studied philology, lexicography, poetry, syntax, pre-Arabic history, the Quran and the Hadith as well as reading translated books of Greek science and Hellenistic philosophy.
He also learned the Mu’tazila theology which left its mark on his mindset and writings. In his lifetime, Al-Jahiz lived under the rule of 12 Abbasid Caliphs and managed to produce more than 170 written works between books and research papers. Unfortunately, not all of them survived and the ones that did are considered timeless classics such as: Book of Animals, The Book of Misers and The Book of Eloquence and Demonstration.
The latter was considered one of the four essential books when learning Arabic literature by Ibn Khaldun, the famous Andalucian philosopher.
Al-Jahiz was known for his eloquence, intelligence and wit as well as his ugliness. Famous stories about his looks (short, dark-skinned and bug-eyed) include one with Caliph Al-Moutawakel hearing of him and ordering that he tutors his children. However, when the Caliph met him, he was appalled by his looks and changed his mind yet paid him generously. Another story was of an unknown woman asking him to accompany her to the jeweller, to discover — surprisingly — that she’d asked for a picture of the devil to be engraved on her ring and who’s a better model than Al-Jahiz? In his final years, Al-Jahiz suffered from hemiplegia and later gout. He died in 869 AD after a pile of books fell on him, killing him instantly. Many consider Al-Jahiz a pioneer as he noted the natural selection process in his Book of Animals, centuries before Darwin.
As an Arab student, I got to learn extracts from Al-Jahiz’s work in literature classes, especially from the 'Book of Misers'. Recently, I acquired the book and decided to read it as an adult. The book is divided between letters from famous characters of the time defending their stance on being stingy (pages long with many citations from different sources) and stories of famous misers of Al-Jahiz’s time.
Although humorous and satirical, the book’s main purpose was to highlight the fact that stinginess — unknown to Arab societies at the time — was creeping in as an influence of other cultures such as Persian.
Al-Jahiz’s not only relates anecdotes of the misers but also analyses the psychology behind their acts, which reflects his ingenuity. Some of the misers are in denial and others are proud. Reading the long letters was daunting at times, yet full of interesting stories, poetry and historical facts. Being a linguist, Al-Jahiz has sections in the book that names different types of food, eating habits and beggars. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of these stories as an introduction to this great Arab writer.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org