Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books. Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature, vol. What a great companion and support! What a pleasant object of leisure and recreation. Ibn Harun, 7 vols. These sentiments in praise of the written word are part of the introductory section of the monumental Arabic anthology Kitab al-hayawan.
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He was born in in Basra, the second biggest city in Iraq. Even though his family was very poor, it did not stop Al-Jahiz of seeking knowledge and attending lectures on different topics like Arabic poetry, philology and lexicography. Although the Book of Animals consists of a wide range of subjects, the great amount of scientific information given is of great value.
Al-Jahiz introduces the concept of biological evolution in this book. After observing animals and insects, al-Jahiz came to the conclusion that there must be some mechanisms which have influence on the evolution of animals, and this years before Darwin did.
Al-Jahiz writes about three main mechanisms; the struggle for existence, the transformation of species into each other, and the environmental factors. It was clear to him that there is always one species stronger than the other, and that in order to survive, species had to develop new characteristics. These new characteristics helped species to adapt to environmental conditions and created new species.
Although the mechanisms are scientific, Al-Jahiz added a spiritual aspect to it. It eats some other inferior animals, like small animals and small birds…it hides its babies in disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself against the attack of the snakes and of the birds.
Snakes like eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter frightens all the animals which are inferior to it.
This is the law that some existences are the food for others…All small animals eat smaller ones; and all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. But the Book of Animals is not the only great work written by al-Jahiz. The Book of Misers, for example is also very popular. It is a social, literary and historical encyclopedia. They are all written in a language very accessible for the common person. He sometimes added funny anecdotes and amusing comments in his scientific works. It is not clear how he died, but there is no doubt that his works were and still are indeed revolutionary.
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Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books
Ibn al-Nadim lists nearly titles attributed to Al-Jahiz, of which 75 are extant. The names may however have been confused. He sold fish along one of the canals in Basra to help his family. He used to gather with a group of other youths at Basra's main mosque, where they would discuss different scientific subjects. During the cultural and intellectual revolution under the Abbasid Caliphate books became readily available, and learning accessible. He read translated books on Greek sciences and Hellenistic philosophy , especially that of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Al-Jahiz, was also critical of those who followed oral Hadiths , referring to his Hadithist opponents as al-nabita "the contemptible".
The Father of the Theory of Evolution: Al-Jahiz and His Book of Animals