Abu Uthman ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri, also known as, Al-Jahiz, was born in the caliphate (Islamic State) of Basra, Iraq in 778. It is said that he was born with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge despite his family being poor. The name Al-Jahiz translates to “The Goggle-Eyed”, a name that was given to him because his eyes were larger than normal. According to scholars and testimonials of family members, physically, he was described as a dark skin man, the grandson of a black cameleer. Not much is known about his early life, but information suggest that he would sell fish to help his family earn income, when he wasn’t soaking up knowledge from reading or attending lectures. Al-Jahiz and other youth of the day would gather at the main Mosque of Basra and discuss several topics to seek as much understanding as possible. In addition to the gatherings at the Mosque, he would attend various lectures on several scientific topics; zoology, language, philosophy and writing were the topics that interested Al-Jahiz the most. He consumed information as if his appetite could never be satisfied over a twenty-five year period, helping to set the foundation for a man who is considered the greatest of the Arabic writers.
Writing would change Al-Jahiz’s life and help him earn his place in history. He began his career as a writer after he wrote an article about the Caliphate of Basra; the massive amounts of knowledge he obtained over the years helped him become a very knowledgeable writer. Over his lifetime, Al-Jahiz wrote over two-hundred books covering subjects such as zoology, poetry, philosophy, lexicography, rhetoric, etc. Al-Jahiz was a person who would be considered a genius and ahead of their time; he suggested that the Arabic grammatical system become overhauled two-hundred years before it was actually overhauled by Ibn Mada. In 816 AD, Al-Jahiz moved to Baghdad along with many other scholars due to the encouragement of the Abbasid Caliphate Dynasty; the Caliphate wanted to expand the popularity of his library, the “House of Wisdom”. Al-Jahiz was considered to be a very knowledgeable person and a very capable teacher. His reputation was so respected that Caliph Al-Ma’Mun wanted him to teach his children. Unfortunately, the Caliph’s children were afraid of Al-Jahiz’s eyes and he did not teach the children.
Of the two-hundred books written by AL-Jahiz, only thirty have survived the years. His most famous book is the Kitab al-Hayawan or Book of Animals. This book is the reason Al-Jahiz his considered “The Father of The Theory of Evolution”. The Book of Animals is seven volumes of anecdotes and descriptions of over 350 animals; Al-Jahiz was studying evolution and natural selection before Charles Darwin. Al-Jahiz’s book Kitab al-Bukhala or the Book of Misers is where he showed his prose style of writing, a style that influenced modern Arabic writing. Book of Misers is one of the reasons Al-Jahiz is considered one of the greatest Arabic prose writers in history. The Book of eloquence and Demonstration and On the Zanj are two other popular books that Al-Jahiz wrote and survived the times. After living in Baghdad for a considerable amount of time, Al-Jahiz moved back to his hometown of Basra before he died between 868 and 869 AD. A lifelong scholar turned writer would not only influence the Abbasid Caliphate Dynasty, but he influenced the Arabic world and beyond. He became the “Father of The Theory of Evolution” just because he had a love for zoology, writing and teaching. He is a giant within the Arabic world and an unknown influence to the rest of the world, until now. Abu Uthman ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri aka Al-Jahiz, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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Roders, J.A. (1946). World’s Great Men Of Color Volume 1 New York, New York: Simon & Schuster
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