Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Rabi-Ul-Awwal \ Rabi-Ul-Akhir 1424 H
June 2003
Volume 16-06 No : 198
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Al-Jahiz - the First Islamic Zoologist
Letter from America
The Value of Repentance


Al-Jahiz - the First Islamic Zoologist

Al-Jahiz's mother presented him with a tray of paper notebooks, and told him that it
would be by means of these that he would earn his living!


By David W. Tschanz

In every generation and among every nation, there are a few individuals with the desire to study the workings of nature; if they did not exist, those nations would perish.

So wrote Abu 'Uthman 'Amr ibn Bakr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri, better known as al-Jahiz - the Goggle-Eyed - in his magnum opus, the Book of Animals.

Al-Jahiz himself was one of those individuals and was fortunate to live during one of the most exciting epochs of intellectual history - the period of the transmission of Greek science to the Arabs and the development of Arabic prose literature. Al-Jahiz was intimately involved in both.

Born about the year 776, some 14 years after the foundation of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, al-Jahiz grew up in Basra, Iraq, founded early in Islamic times as a garrison city but by the time of his birth was a major intellectual center, along with its rival, Kufa.

Al-Jahiz attended Basra's schools, studying under some of the most eminent scholars of Islam. One of the most important aspects about the period of Al-Jahiz's intellectual development and his life was that books were readily accessible. Though paper had been introduced into the Islamic world only shortly before al-Jahiz's birth, it had, by the time he was in his 30's, virtually replaced parchment, and launched an intellectual revolution.

The availability of a cheap writing material was accompanied by another social phenomenon --the rise of a reading public. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, the cities of the Middle East contained a large number of literate people - many of humble origins.

Al-Jahiz and his parents, for example, were poor themselves; as a young man of 20 he sold fish along one of the Basran canals. Nevertheless, al-Jahiz learned to read and write at an early age, indicating the opportunities for "upward mobility" in eighth-century Iraq. Al-Jahiz tells the story of how his mother presented him with a tray of paper notebooks, and told him that it would be by means of these that he would earn his living.

Al-Jahiz began his career as a writer - a precarious profession both then and now- while still in Basra. He wrote an essay on the institution of the caliphate - which met with approval from the court in Baghdad - and from then on seems to have supported himself entirely by his pen, if we except a single three-day stint as a government clerk. The fact that he never held an official position allowed him an intellectual freedom impossible to someone connected to the court - though he did dedicate a number of his works to viziers and other powerful functionaries. In turn, he often received gifts of appreciation for these "dedications". He received 5,000 gold dinars from the official to whom he dedicated his Book of Animals.

Al-Jahiz wrote over 200 works, of which only 30 have survived. His work included zoology, Arabic grammar, poetry, rhetoric and lexicography. He is considered one of the few Muslim scientists who wrote on scientific and complex subjects for the layman and commoner. Some of his books are: The Art of Keeping One's Mouth Shut, Against Civil Servants, Arab Food, In Praise of Merchants, and Levity and Seriousness. On the style of writing, al-Jahiz stated that:

The best style is the clearest, the style that needs no explication and no notes, that conforms to the subject expressed, neither exceeding it nor falling short.

The most important of Al-Jahiz's works, however, is the Book of Animals - Kitab al-Hayawan - which, even incomplete, totals seven fat volumes in the printed edition. It contains important scientific information and anticipates a number of concepts that were not fully developed until the first half of the twentieth century. In the book, al-Jahiz discusses animal mimicry - noting that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host. He also gives a detailed account of the social organization of ants, including from his own observation, a description of how they store grain in their nests so that it does not spoil during the rainy season.

An early exponent of the zoological and anthropological sciences, al-Jahiz discovered and recognized the effect of environmental factors on animal life; and he also observed the transformation of animal species under different factors. Furthermore, in several passages of his book, he also described the concept, usually attributed to Charles Darwin, of natural selection.

Al-Jahiz's concept of natural selection was something new in the history of science. Although Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Aristotle spoke of change in plants and animals, they never made the first steps towards developing a comprehensive theory. To them change, was only a concept of simple change and motion and nothing more than that.

Eighty-seven folios of the Book of Animals (about one-tenth of the original text by al-Jahiz) are preserved in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan.

Al-Jahiz returned to Basra after spending more than fifty years in Baghdad. He died in Basra in 868 as a result of an accident in which he was crushed to death by a collapsing pile of books in his private library.

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Globe Talk

Letter from America

God Gave Us Brains to Choose the Right from Wrong!

I am desperate to speak to Muslims in any forum. Years ago I had the pleasure of taking a course- the Geography of the Middle- East. The professor, Dr. Brooks spoke fluent Arabic and had travelled throughout the Middle East. He provided me a unique insight into the religion and cultures there. This new appreciation was complimented by a good upbringing from my mother after my father’s death. She instilled in me qualities that any man must have to become a truly good human being. First one learns to love oneself as a sacred being. One then learns to love others as one self . Honesty , bravery, integrity, passion, and compassion are the virtues that round off a good upbringing. These are the very same virtues that are taught to Muslims, and Jews. The obvious point being "what are we arguing about"? The answer is very simple really. Prejudice, ignorance, corruption and simple minded fundamentalism. The idiots here in the U.S. that would victimise innocent Muslims are no different than the scum that murdered innocents on September 11th. So many people here in America and elsewhere use only the parts of religious philosophy that suit their needs. In my life I have seen so much evil done in the name of religion. This does not make me an infidel . It makes me think for my self and act in the fashion that provides an example to others. There is far to much deferral to the supposed wisdom of priests and Mullahs.

I challenge all my Jewish , Christian, and Arab brothers to reach out to others outside of their religious circles. Focus only on the commonalities, not the illusory differences . Any religious leader who preaches hate should be cast out. Whether it's a fundamentalist Christian leader in America, or a fundamentalist Mullah at in Pakistan they should be shunned. The true word of God is written in the heart of every man and woman. God gave us eyes, and ears, to see and hear the truth. He gave us hands to reach out to comfort others and to bring justice . We can dine on the bitter fruit of hate or the sweet taste of freedom and peace . It's our choice. He gave us a brain to recognise the difference.May we all share in the sweet taste of freedom and learn gentleness in all things as the Bible and the Quran teach us.

Peter Mullen
quarkaz1@msn.com

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Soul Talk

The Value of Repentance

At the very moment a person repents from his sins, he becomes the most beloved to Allah


Mullah Ali Qari (RA) in his Arabic commentary of Mishkaat wrote an incident about Ibrahim bin Adham (RA), who was an eminent spiritual leader of his time. He writes that Ibrahim bin Adham said, “While walking one day I came across a wealthy young man who was spewing due to having drunk liquor. He vomited so much that flies started buzzing around him. This excessive spewing caused him to lose consciousness.” Upon initially seeing him Ibrahim bin Adham was very upset. The thought occurred to him that the very tongue that pronounces the name of Allah has been spoiled by the impurity of liquor. He fetched a pail of water and washed the vomit around his mouth. He prayed to Allah with the following words: “Oh Allah, though he is unworthy and disobediently involved in sin, You are my Friend and he is a servant of my Friend. In view of the fact that I consider him to be Your servant even though he is a sinner I will cast my attention on him, for he is nonetheless connected to You.”

The splash of cold water on his face immediately woke him up. He came to his senses and sat up. He said: “Ibrahim you are such a prominent Wali Allah (friend of Allah), he who has given up the Kingdom of Balkh, yet you are tending to a miserable drunkard like myself?” Ibrahim replied, “Seeing you in this disabled state aroused compassion in me. I saw you in a state where flies are buzzing around you, but because you are a servant of my Allah, I deemed it correct to serve you….” The young man was very surprised saying, “I was always under the impression that men of Allah look down upon sinners. Today have I come to realise that none are as compassionate upon sinners as the friends of Allah. Please give me your hands, so that I can make Taubah, I can repent for my sins and become Bayat to you.”

Sultan Ibrahim (ra) accepted his request for Bayat and made him repent from his sins. At that moment he received kashf (ability to see some hidden things) that this young man who had just repented had surpassed many pious individuals of that period.

Indeed, at the very moment a person repents from his sins, he becomes the most beloved to Allah. Even the angels celebrate in the heavens saying that so and so has asked forgiveness from Allah and has come close to Allah.

(www.islamcan.com)

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