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Widely believed to be of Ethiopian descent, the African-Arab, al-Jahiz (the more common appellation, due to an eye deformity) is referred to as the “father of the theory of evolution” by some historians. Born in 776 and raised in Iraq, through daily attendance at the Masjid (Mosque) lectures, such as the Great Mosque of Basra, he soaked up the intellectual atmosphere that permeated the Abbasid epoch – it’s Golden Age.

He developed a love for – and expertise in the Arabic language, becoming an avid reader and prolific writer. He was also reported to have written over two hundred (some sources say three hundred plus) works, about thirty are extant. A unique feature of his oeuvre, apart from his celebrated prose – is that he tailored his writing in such a manner that the general community could understand; interspersing his writing, with anecdotes, humour and witticisms. Of his writing, the Egyptian scholar Abdul Salam Harun said:

Al-Jahiz is one of the elites of oration in Arabic and it is not unfair to say that he is the pioneer of oratory in Arabic”.

Seeking to widen his intellectual horizions further, he travelled to Damascus, Beirut, Samarra and Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, where he resided for many years. He read Greek literature (in translation), especially Aristotle and learnt Farsi.

He was a man of reason and logic, which generated a spirit of life-long independence. He earned his living through his writings (such as book dedications) and teaching, rather than the patronage of the court.

From a massively wide range of subject matter, his most famous of works is Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals); a pioneering work which covers aspects of  biology and zoology; such as animal classification, food chains and evolution. In it he wrote:

The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter 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 the bigger animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are like animals…”

Believing that everything begins with God – the original organism, he stated:

”I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: for this purpose the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast”

Al-Jahiz died in 868. From a youthful fish-seller, on the canals of Basra, he became a gargantuan figure, in the development of literature in Muslim civilisation, science, and the study of the evolution of mankind.

© Natty Mark Samuels, 2015. African School.