Al-Jāḥiẓ (real name Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Basri) (born in Basra, 781 – December 868/January 869) was an Arabic prose writer and author of works of literature, Mu'tazili theology, and politico-religious polemics.
In biology, Al-Jāḥiẓ introduced the concept of food chains and also proposed a scheme of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, environmental determinism and possibly the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Not much is known about al-Jāḥiẓ's early life, but his family was very poor. Born in Basra, He said in a book he wrote that he was a member of the Arabian tribe Banu Kinanah. However, his dark skin led some people to say thay he was the grandson of a black slave.He used to sell fish along one of the canals in Basra to help his family. Yet, despite his difficult financial troubles, that didn't stop him from seeking knowledge since his youth. He used to gather with a group of other youths at the main mosque of Basra, where they discussed various subjects of sciences. He also attended various lectures given by the most learned men in philology, lexicography, and poetry.
Al-Jāḥiẓ continued his studies, and over a span twenty-five years, he had acquired great knowledge about Arabic poetry, Arabic philology, history of the Arabs and Persians before Islam, and he studied the Qur'an and the Hadiths. He also read translated books of Greek sciences and Hellenistic philosophy, especially that of Greek philosopher Aristotle. His education was highly facilitated due to the fact that the Abbasid Caliphate was in a period of cultural, and intellectual revolutions. Books became readily available, and this made learning easily available.
While still in Basra, Al-Jāḥiẓ wrote an article about the institution of the Caliphate. This is said to have been the beginning of his career as a writer, which would become his sole source of living. It's said that his mother once offered him a tray full of notebooks and told him that he'll earn his living from writing. Since then, he had authored two hundred books throughout his lifetime that discuss a variety of subjects including Arabic grammar, zoology, poetry, lexicography, and rhetoric. The staggering number of books though, haven't all reached us, only thirty books survived.
He moved to Baghdad, the capital of the Arab Islamic Caliphate at the time, in 816 AD, because the Abbasid Caliphs encouraged scientists and scholars and had just founded the House of Wisdom. Due to the Caliphs' patronage, his eagerness to reach a wider audience, and establish himself, Al-Jāḥiẓ stayed in Baghdad (and later Samarra) where he wrote a huge number of his books. The Caliph Al-Ma'mun wanted Al-Jāḥiẓ to teach his children, but then changed his mind when his children got afraid of his boggle-eyes (جاحظ العينين), it's said that this is where he got his nickname.
Theory of Evolution
Al-Jāhiz was one of the first Muslim biologists to develop a theory on evolution.
He wrote on the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and he first described the struggle for existence. Al-Jāḥiẓ was also the first to discuss food chains, and was also an early adherent of environmental determinism, arguing that the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community and that the origins of different human skin colors is the result of the environment. His Book of Animals states,
Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.
His book was a major influence on Arab scholars of the 11th to 14th centuries, and the Latin translations of their work in turn became known to Charles Darwin's predecessors, Linnaeus, Buffon and Lamarck.
Most important books
Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals)
The al-Hayawan is an encyclopedia of seven volume of anecdotes, poetic descriptions and proverbs describing over 350 varieties of animals. The work was considered by the 11th-century Muslim scholar Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi to be "little more than a plagiarism" of Aristotle's Kitāb al-Hayawān, a charge that was once levelled against Aristotle himself with regard to a certain "Asclepiades of Pergamum". Later scholars have noted that there was only a limited Aristotelian influence in al-Jāḥiẓ's work, and that al-Baghdadi may have been unacquainted with Aristotle's work.
In the work al-Jāḥiẓ speculates on the influence of environment on animals, a concept considered by some to be a precursor to evolution. It is considered as the most important work of Al-Jāḥiẓ.
Kitab al-Bukhala (Book of Misers) also (Avarice & the Avaricious)
A collection of stories about the greedy. Humorous and satirical, it is the best example of al-Jāḥiẓ' prose style. It is an insightful study of human psychology. Al-Jāḥiẓ ridicules schoolmasters, beggars, singers and scribes for their greedy behavior. Many of the stories continue to be reprinted in magazines throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The book is considered one of the best works of al-Jāḥiẓ.
Kitab al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin (The Book of eloquence and demonstration)
Al bayan wa tabyeen, which literally means (eloquence and demonstration), was one of his later works, in which he wrote on epiphanies, rhetorical speeches, sectarian leaders, and princes.
Risalat mufakharat al-sudan 'ala al-bidan (Treatise on Blacks)
On the Zanj [ "Black Africans"]
Everybody agrees that there is no people on earth in whom generosity is as universally well developed as the Zanj. These people have a natural talent for dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, without needing to learn it. There are no better singers anywhere in the world, no people more polished and eloquent, and no people less given to insulting language. No other nation can surpass them in bodily strength and physical toughness. One of them will lift huge blocks and carry heavy loads that would be beyond the strength of most Bedouins or members of other races. They are courageous, energetic, and generous, which are the virtues of nobility, and also good-tempered and with little propensity to evil. They are always cheerful, smiling, and devoid of malice, which is a sign of noble character.
The Zanj say to the Arabs: You are so ignorant that during the jahiliyya you regarded us as your equals when it came to marrying Arab women, but with the advent of the justice of Islam you decided this practice was bad. Yet the desert is full of Zanj married to Arab wives, and they have been princes and kings and have safeguarded your rights and sheltered you against your enemies.their environment that made them so. The best evidence of this is that there are black tribes among the Arabs, such as the Banu Sulaim bin Mansur, and that all the peoples settled in the Harra, besides the Banu Sulaim are black. These tribes take slaves from among the Ashban to mind their flocks and for irrigation work, manual labor, and domestic service, and their wives from among the Byzantines; and yet it takes less than three generations for the Harra to give them all the complexion of the Banu Sulaim.
The Zanj say that God did not make them black in order to disfigure them; rather it is their environment that made them so. The best evidence of this is that there are black tribes among the Arabs, such as the Banu Sulaim bin Mansur, and that all the peoples settled in the Harra, besides the Banu Sulaim are black. These tribes take slaves from among the Ashban to mind their flocks and for irrigation work, manual labor, and domestic service, and their wives from among the Byzantines; and yet it takes less than three generations for the Harra to give them all the complexion of the Banu Sulaim. This Harra is such that the gazelles, ostriches, insects, wolves, foxes, sheep, asses, horses and birds that live there are all black. White and black are the results of environment, the natural properties of water and soil, distance from the sun, and intensity of heat. There is no question of metamorphosis, or of punishment, disfigurement or favor meted out by Allah. Besides, the land of the Banu Sulaim has much in common with the land of the Turks, where the camels, beasts of burden, and everything belonging to these people is similar in appearance: everything of theirs has a Turkish look.
Al-Jāḥiẓ returned to Basra after spending more than fifty years in Baghdad. He died in Basra in 869 AD. His exact cause of death is not clear, but a popular assumption is that an accident, where the books piling up his private library, toppled over and crushed him, caused his death. He died at the age of 93. Another version said that he suffered from ill health and died in Muharram.