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Al-Jā-hiẓIn Praise of Books$

James Montgomery

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780748683321

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748683321.001.0001

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Physiognomy of Anapocalyptic Age

Physiognomy of Anapocalyptic Age

(p.21) Part 1 Physiognomy of Anapocalyptic Age (p.22)

James E. Montgomery

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter sets the scene by drawing a picture of the electric decade in which The Book of Living was written, between 847 and 857. The decade was characterized by the certainty of the imminence of the End Time and by political turmoil and unrest, with the death of caliph al-Wāthiq, the accession of Caliph al-Mutawakkil, and the termination of the Caliphal Inquisition (Mi?na). The decade witnessed a turning away from Kalām theology. In terms of al-Jā?i?’s view of how his society should be organized this turning away from Kalām was tantamount to a threat to its security and was reflected in the prevalence of dissent and disagreement around him. The chapter also reviews the personal cataclysms experienced by al-Jā?i? during this decade: his stroke; the death of his patrons; and his sponsorship by al-Mutawakkil. It also highlights two key features so typical of elite writing: the close connection between eristics and salvation; the practice of self-chronicling.

Keywords:   ʿAbbasid history, Apocalyptic society, Kalām, Eristics and salvation, Self-chronicling society

(p.23) 1.1 Cataclysm1

At about the time that an intrepid explorer named Sallām al-Tarjumān (the Interpreter) led a scientific expedition to the northernmost reaches of the Islamic Empire, to the outer rim of the unknown world, al-Jāḥiẓ began his own intrepid exploration of the known, created world in The Book of Living.2

Sallām had been charged with the task of discovering whether the hordes of Yaɔjūj and Maɔjūj (Gog and Magog) had breached the wall built by the Horned Man, Alexander the Great, to contain their onslaught. Their release was a signal of the beginning of the End Time. The Caliph al-Wāthiq had had a dream in 227/842 that a crack had appeared in the wall. A convinced messianist, as all the early cAbbasid caliphs were, an expert dancer and professionally trained singer, as few of the cAbbasid caliphs were, al-Wāthiq had been expecting something like this. He had been sworn in as caliph on 8 Rabīc I, 227 (26 December 841) on the death of his father al-Muctaṣim and would rule for just under six years, until his bizarre death in 23 Dhū al-Ḥijja, 232 (10 August 847), entombed in an oven built in the ground where he would seek comfort from a debilitating oedematous condition which may have been the result of diabetes.

He began readying his realm for the cataclysm. He had developed the new capital of Samarra (‘The Eye’s Delight’) begun by his father, building a palace and improving the port, thereby ensuring its acceptance (and investment) by his society’s elite and its consolidation as Baghdad’s imperial replacement. He was vigorous in implementing the Miḥna (the Trial) initiated by his uncle the Caliph al-Maɔmūn (d. 218/833), who had played an enthusiastic and formative role in al-Wāthiq’s education.

The Miḥna was the caliphal policy publicly to interrogate members of (p.24) the judiciary and the imperial and religious establishment with a view to determining their stance on the question of divine unity (tawḥīd). It sought to do this by testing them on the question of whether the Qurɔān was created or not (and thus was somehow co-eternal with God). Ensuring that an uncontaminated form of monotheism prevailed not only established caliphal legitimacy and authority, but also guaranteed that if the End Time were to come (and the Caliphs and their entourages were convinced it would come), the Caliph would not be judged by God to have been deficient in his promotion of the one, true faith. The Caliph, after all, was responsible for the salvation of his subjects and without a mechanism such as the Miḥna for the enforcement of belief, a rightly ordered society could not be produced.3

In a notorious incident in Muḥarram 231 (September–October 845), during an exchange of prisoners with Byzantium, al-Wāthiq extended the reach of the Miḥna beyond the literate elite to include ordinary members of the population, decreeing that they would only be welcomed back into the community if they testified to the uncreatedness of the Qurɔān. He also had the inhabitants of the frontier towns along the marches with Byzantium interrogated. But he did not stop there, for he extended the content of the Miḥna to include a denial of the divine vision in the afterlife – the moment in Paradise when God will make Himself visible to His faithful believers. In many ways this caliphally sponsored rejection of anthropomorphism (tashbīh) was simply a move to make explicit an already implicit component of the testimony to the createdness of the Qurɔān. The issue of createdness had addressed anthropomorphism but tangentially.

A key moment in al-Wāthiq’s brief but perplexing reign was the trial and execution of Aḥmad b. Naṣr al-Khuzācī in 231/846. As a trial to correct deviant belief, it may have been less eventful for the history of religious ideas in Islam than the more celebrated trial of Ibn Ḥanbal by the Chief Judge Aḥmad b. Abī Duɔād in front of al-Muctaṣim in around 220/835 (an event of enormous repercussions which led to the emergence of a Sunnī school of law and the virtual canonisation of its eponym). In terms of imperial politics and social stability, however, the trial of Aḥmad b. Naṣr was potentially more explosive and divisive. The sources disagree on whether Aḥmad was the mastermind of a plot among the cAbbasid elite to overthrow al-Wāthiq or was the pious leader of a popular renunciant movement. Whatever his offence, (p.25) he was brought before al-Wāthiq and interrogated by the Caliph himself. No sooner had the Caliph found him guilty than he promptly switched roles from chief inquisitor to chief executioner. He called for Ṣamṣāma, the fabled sword of the pre- and early Islamic hero cAmr b. Macdī Karib, and attempted to decapitate Aḥmad b. Naṣr. He was not strong. His aim was not true enough to kill Aḥmad with the first blow. A second blow was more effective but no less successful. Finally Sīmā the Turk stepped forward and finished the job. Al-Wāthiq delivered a final, gratuitous, thrust of the sword into Aḥmad’s stomach.

Throughout his caliphate, al-Wāthiq appears to have been obsessed with The Cave, Sūrat al-Kahf, chapter 18 of the Qurɔān, one of the most demanding, perplexing and uplifting sūras in the Revelation.4 In this declamatory tour-de-force, man’s limitations are repeatedly intoned in a series of narratives that stress God’s omniscience – a lowering celebration of God’s irruptions in terrestrial existence and a dazzling exploration of the impending reality of the Apocalypse and Judgement Day:

Praise God who sent down His Book to His slave! He made it correct and straight, not crooked – to give warning of a mighty violence on His part and to bring joy to the believers who do good deeds, telling them of their blessed reward [18: 1–2].

God’s creation is both enticement and test:

We have made everything on earth attractive to them so that we may test them and determine who are better in deeds. We will make it an empty wasteland [7–8].

The Sūra takes its name from the Companions in the Cave, the Qurɔanic account of a narrative also found in Christian legend and known as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In the Qurɔān, this event becomes a challenge to man’s intellectual skills, a challenge which invites man to acknowledge the collapse and enfolding of time when viewed from infinity:

In this way we allowed people to stumble upon them so that they would know that God’s promise is truth and that there is no doubting the Hour. For they disputed with each other about what had happened and said: (p.26) ‘Build a building over them’. Their Lord knows best about them. Those who were victorious about what had happened said: ‘Let us dedicate a mosque to them’ [21].

The uncertainty surrounding how long the Companions were asleep and how many Companions there were in the Cave contrasts with the certainty of the Hour. God controls everything. Man has no agency without God:

They will say: ‘Three. Their dog was the fourth’. Others say: ‘Seven. Their dog was the eighth’. Say: ‘My Lord knows their number. Only a few know them so do not wrangle over them except openly5 and do not ask anyone for a ruling about them’. And you must not say about anything: ‘I shall do this tomorrow’, without saying, ‘If God wills’. Mention your Lord if you forget and say: ‘Perhaps my Lord will guide me to something more righteous than this’. They remained in their cave for three centuries and then nine more years. Say: ‘God knows how long they remained. He possesses the secrets of the heaven and the earth. How keen is His vision! How acute His hearing! Men have no protector against Him. He allows no one to share in His judgement [22–6].

The practice of debate and man’s querulousness will be further explored in the Sūra, and the Qurɔanic caution will in turn exercise a hold over al-Wāthiq’s successor, al-Mutawakkil. A key point in the preceding verses is that God allows His knowledge to ‘a few’ (qalīl). Al-Wāthiq, God’s representative on Earth, would surely have considered himself one of the few.

The Qurɔān thus invites and dispels any hope of eschatological calculation. Only God knows when it will happen. Man can only know that it will happen. The episode of the Companions of the Cave exhorts the listener to visualise the invisible, to experience the unknowable, whilst discouraging man and limiting his epistemic powers:

You will suppose that they are awake though recumbent. We make them turn to the right and the left, while their dog stretches his paws on the doorstep. If you were to discover them, you would turn away in flight and would be consumed with terror [18].

Throughout the Sūra, vivid detail fills the listener with the terror which would have been produced by seeing the scene. A similar effect is produced (p.27) by the ensuing descriptions of Heaven and Hell (vv. 29–31) and the Hour and Judgment Day (vv. 45–53). It is little wonder that al-Wāthiq sent a second expedition, under the leadership of the mathematician and cartographer Muḥammad b. Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, to discover the cave.6

Dreams were widely thought to be sources of prophecy (often depending on the status of the dreamer, of course). Al-Wāthiq would have responded to his dream as prophetic. It is evocative of al-Māɔmūn’s dream of Aristotle, figured as the inspiration for the wholesale translation of the Greek philosophical and scientific heritage into Arabic.7 The immediate inspiration for the Caliph’s dream is the following passage:

They ask you about the Horned Man. Say: ‘I will recite a tale about him to you’. We made him powerful on earth and provided him with a way in everything and everywhere [83–4].

So he followed one way and came to where the sun sets. He discovered that it sets in a spring of mephitic mud. He also discovered a people there. We said: ‘Horned Man, you can either punish them or you can treat them with kindness’. He said: ‘We will punish those who have wronged. Then they will be returned to their Lord and He will punish them with a fear-some punishment. Those who believe and do good will receive the greatest kindness as reward’. In Our commandment We will declare that they will have prosperous ease [85–8].

Then he followed another way and came to where the sun rises. He discovered that it rises over a people whom We have not protected from it. So it was. We already had knowledge of what was there [89–91].

Then he followed another path and came to where the Two Peaks meet. In front of them he found a people who could hardly understand a single word. They said: ‘Horned Man, Yaɔjūj and Maɔjūj wreak destruction throughout the earth. Shall we render you tribute for you to put a rampart between us and them?’ He said: ‘The power my Lord has vested in me is better. Help me with your strength. I will build a barrier between you and them. Bring me lumps of iron’. When he had reached the level of the Two Peaks he said: ‘Blow!’ When he had set it ablaze, he said: ‘Bring me molten metal to pour over it’. So they were unable to surmount it and they were unable to perforate it. He said: ‘This is a mercy from my Lord but when my (p.28) Lord’s promise comes He will raze it to the ground. My Lord’s promise is true’ [92–8].

On that day We will have left them engulfing each other in waves. There will be a blast on the Horn and We will have mustered them together [99].

So the Horned Man is set three tests. In the first test, he decides to use his God-given power wisely and appropriately (vv. 85–8). In the second test, he does not arrogate the accomplishment of his discovery to his own doing but acknowledges God’s prior knowledge of the unknown (vv. 89–91). In the third test, he combines his God-given wisdom with technological and engineering know-how (also from God, of course), not for worldly gain (he turns down the payment of tribute) but for the betterment of mankind and the realisation of God’s plan (vv. 92–8).

In this Sūra the prospect of ‘meeting’ (liqāɔ) with God is twice mentioned (vv. 105 and 110). The anthropomorphists and corporealists in al-Wāthiq’s society presumed that the meeting was to be the occasion for the divine vision. The Caliph thought otherwise.

Sallām returned from his expedition and informed the Caliph that the wall stood firm though a crack had begun to appear. So al-Wāthiq’s messianic expectations were correct: the End Time was beginning. They were only cut short by his death, which, as well as being bizarre, was in the telling reminiscent of the Qurɔanic account of the death of the prophet Solomon. Al-Wāthiq, like Solomon, filled his retainers with such awe that they did not dare approach him interred and immobile in his oven. They only discovered his death by chance.8

The Cave is thus a blueprint for al-Wāthiq’s caliphate. Al-Jāḥiẓ was not connected personally with al-Wāthiq according to the sources, though some of his writings do address the question of anthropomorphism, very much the focus of the theological anxieties of the age, and probably date from his reign. Al-Jāḥiẓ did however move in the circles of the major powerbrokers of al-Wāthiq’s reign, notably his primary patron at this period the Vizier Muḥammad b. cAbd al-Malik al-Zayyāt (the Oil Merchant), the Ḥanafī Chief Judge, Aḥmad b. Abī Duɔād, and his son Abū al-Walid Muḥammad. He wrote treatises for all these patrons to peruse on topics of contemporary (p.29) import and counselled them on which course of action to take on these issues.

Though not connected personally with the Caliph, al-Jāḥiẓ and al-Wāthiq did have one peculiarity in common. They both suffered from ocular defects. Al-Wāthiq suffered from a whiteness in one eye, the ‘terrible eye’ of Beckford’s Vathek which immobilised onlookers, occasionally causing them to expire from fear.9 Abū cUthmān cAmr b. Baḥr got his nickname al-Jāḥiẓ from a condition which caused his eyes to bulge prominently from their sockets. In an era which was so obsessed with appearances and physical, visible defects as cAbbasid courtly society around the middle of the third century was, there was something apocalyptic about the ugliness of both men. As Sartre remarked in his biography of Tintoretto, ‘ugliness is a prophecy’, a catastrophe so extreme that it ‘tries to take negation to the point of horror’.10 Their ugliness was a sign of the times.

Al-Wāthiq may not have suffered the cataclysm he was expecting from Yaɔjūj and Maɔjūj, but the apocalypse was soon to come for al-Jāḥiẓ. With the Caliph’s death in 232/847, his brother al-Mutawakkil was chosen as his successor and sworn in as caliph. The new caliph wasted no time in destroying the men who had chosen him and who had ruled the empire for more than a decade. The first to go was al-Zayyāt, who was arrested on 7 Ṣafar, 233 (22 September 847) and who died some forty days later on 19 Rabīc I, 233 (2 November 847). The Vizier’s death aped that of the previous caliph. He too was imprisoned in an oven, though this time the oven was an iron-maiden which the Vizier had himself devised and refined for the torture of prisoners.

This was the first of a series of cataclysms which al-Jāḥiẓ (probably in his late sixties) was to endure. The death of a patron usually meant the disgrace, if not also the death, of those members of the entourage most closely associated with him. He was brought in chains in a pitiful state before the Chief Judge, no friend of the now dead Vizier, berated but then pardoned and accepted into the Chief Judge’s entourage.11 Whether this was at the intercession of the Judge’s powerful son Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad, in whose entourage al-Jāḥiẓ also seems to have served, is a matter for surmise.

Al-Jāḥiẓ’s security was not long lived however, for at some point, and the precise date is uncertain, Ibn Abī Duɔād was imprisoned in his own body by a massive stroke. One authority connects his stroke with his incarceration by (p.30) al-Mutawakkil. Other sources give us to believe that it happened before then. Al-Jāḥiẓ ‘disappears’ from the record during this period. He had dedicated The Book of Clarity and Clarification to the Judge, and offered him a number of works, among them one on legal verdicts, but it is not known whether he continued to reside in Samarra or had returned to Basra. It is probably during this stage in his life that he himself suffered the massive stroke which forced him to postpone his work on The Book of Living, the second major cataclysm to seek to fulfil the apocalyptic prophecy of his ugliness.12

Al-Mutawakkil appointed the Judge’s son Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad as his father’s representative. Then on 24 Ṣafar, 237 (27 August 851), by confiscating their estates, he made a move against this family which had controlled the empire’s judiciary for so long and so closely. Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad was imprisoned on 3 Rabīc I, 237 (4 October 851) and died during Dhū al-Ḥijjah, 240 (May–June 854). He was outlived shortly by his father who died a month later during Muḥarram (June–July). The third cataclysm had struck. Once again, in a society where one’s well-being and chances of survival depended on one’s personal networks and the protection of a powerful figure, al-Jāḥiẓ, debilitated by his hemiplegia, was without a patron.

The death of Ibn Abī Duɔād is generally recognised as the culmination of a slow and relentless process over some seven years whereby the Caliph al-Mutawakkil terminated the Miḥna and removed the principal nodes of the civil, bureaucratic and personal networks which sustained it. The jurist and annalist al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), usually so garrulous a historian and so generous with his facts, is strangely reticent, if not even evasive:

When the caliphate reached al-Mutawakkil, he forbad debating (jidāl) about the Qurɔān and other topics (ghayri-hi). His edicts (kutub) to that effect were despatched to the farthest reaches of the empire (āfāq).13

It seems that by forbidding public debate on the Qurɔān, al-Ṭabarī means that al-Mutawakkil had ended the Miḥna. But there is another consequence of the prohibition: the Caliph’s suppression of theological debate. It is no exaggeration to say that all theological debate of any import during this century was, directly or indirectly, tantamount to debate about the Qurɔān.

At this point the hold over the caliphal imaginary exerted by The Cave re-emerges. The Cave is much exercised over man’s querulous nature. In its (p.31) figuration of the End Time, God rebukes man for his obstinate unwillingness to respond appropriately to the parables and scenes He depicts for them:

We have set out every figure for people but man is the most argumentative thing [54].

Jadal, argument and debate, is the reason for man’s rejection of God’s generous signs and messages:

We despatch the envoys as bringers of good news and warnings. The ingrates argue with falsehood to refute the truth thereby. They scoff at My signs and the warnings they are given [56].

Argumentativeness and unbelief (kufr, ingratitude) are closely linked. Of course, the Qurɔān is not relentlessly against debate. The central verse is Q Naḥl 16: 125, ‘debate with them in the better way!’ But The Cave presents a powerful indictment of its ills and resonates with other Qurɔanic condemnations of querulous man.14

Al-Mutawakkil’s ban on debate concerning the Qurɔān is the last in the series of cataclysms to strike al-Jāḥiẓ, the most persuasive and committed proponent of the centrality of debate and the Kalām theology (of which debate was such a representative feature) to the right guidance of the Islamic community. The caliphal edict must have left him pondering if, and how, he could continue to promote his beloved Kalām.

Ponder he must have. The Book of Living represents one of his solutions to these cataclysms, for at some point during the early caliphate of al-Mutawakkil we find al-Jāḥiẓ in the company of the caliph’s favourite courtier, the brilliant and erudite al-Fatḥ b. Khāqān, now the caliph’s amanuensis and himself a bibliomaniac. Al-Jāḥiẓ dedicated a revision of his treatise On the Noble Qualities of the Turks (Fī Manāqib al-Turk) to al-Fatḥ and the caliph’s favourite secured him a regular stipend from al-Mutawakkil in return for his tract The Rebuttal of the Christians (al-Radd calā al-Naṣārā). It seems that al-Jāḥiẓ and his promoter were successful in convincing the court that he was an exponent of the sort of ‘semi-rationalism’, the middle way between the traditionists and the rationalists, sponsored by al-Mutawakkil.15

In 244/858 al-Jāḥiẓ was a member of al-Mutawakkil’s journey to Damascus, where he transferred his court and the principal secretaries of the (p.32) imperial bureaucracy in order to launch a sustained and protracted attack on Byzantium. If al-Jāḥiẓ’s comments in The Book of Living are anything to go by, the grandeur of this enterprise was undone by an infestation of fleas. And following al-Mutawakkil’s murder on 4 Shawwāl, 247 (11 December 861) at the hands of the Turkish guard in Samarra and the concomitant demise of al-Fatḥ, al-Jāḥiẓ, by then probably in his eighties, had been able to secure the favour of al-Mutawakkil’s vizier from 236–48/851–62, cUbyad Allāh b. Yaḥyā b. Khāqān, with a work on the subject of ethical discrimination: On the Difference between Enmity and Envy, Fī Faṣl mā bayn al-cAdāwa wa-al-Ḥasad.16 Although cUbayd Allāh was exiled at the time of al-Mutawakkil’s assassination, al-Jāḥiẓ was either too old or too sick to have been embroiled in the aftermath.

This remarkable survivor, this enigmatic embodiment of his era, withstood the onslaught of his apocalypse. His Book of Living presents a remarkable testament to the integrity of his intellect and the tenacity of his commitment to debate. When he died in Muḥarram, 255 (December 868/January 869) his remarkable lifetime had coincided with at least ten, if not eleven, caliphs, from al-Hādī (possibly al-Mahdī) through Hārūn al-Rashīd to al-Muctazz.

(p.33) 1.2 Eristics and Salvation17

By the time al-Jāḥiẓ set about writing The Book of Living, the Kalām was well established as a set of identifiable, epistemological and social practices. It could boast of a cadre of exponents, the Mutakallimūn (the Kalām Masters). It had (tacitly?) established an etiquette and code of conduct for its regularly heated and always fully committed debates (the fate of one’s soul was at stake). Excelling at Kalām had led to a number of appointments at the caliphal courts and in elite entourages. Indeed, it is regularly spoken of as a ‘craft’ (ṣināca) or on some occasions even a ‘business’ (tijāra). In other words, it was a profession, in both senses of the word.

There were two complementary sides to the Kalām. Naẓar, ‘speculation’, was the rational and logical exploration of problems. Jadal, ‘eristics’, was the process of subjecting them to debate.18 As its name suggests, the Kalām, literally, ‘talk’, ‘speech’ or ‘discourse’, was a pronouncedly and profoundly oral activity, practised in groups, usually in the mosque but also in refined salons and in doorways to people’s houses and even on walks in the outskirts of the city. As such, it was not immediately amenable to being written down. We hear that various Kalām Masters wrote positions out on a sheet of paper or pamphlet (ṣaḥīfa), such as that by al-Naẓẓām on the atom (and incorporated by al-Ashc arī in his doxography) and by Bishr b. al-Muc tamir on speech.19

What we know about the intellectual and eristical activity we identify today as the Kalām is entirely dependent on doxographies from the end of the third century and beginning of the fourth.20 Al-Khayyāṭ’s (d. c. 300/913) fascinating exercise in mimetic representation, Kitāb al-Intiṣār (The Book of Victory), is at heart a doxography. If, as it seems to be, the Book of Doctrinal Positions (Kitāb al-Maqālāt) attributed to al-Nāshiɔ al-Akbar (d. 293/906) is the work of Jac far b. ḥarb (d. 236/851); and if the various arguments (p.34) adduced by scholars on the use of earlier written sources by al-Ashc arī in the compilation of his encyclopaedia of Kalām thought, The Doctrinal Positions of the Islamists (Maqālāt al-Islāmīyīn), are correct, the point remains: at this stage to write Kalām was to provide an account of various spoken positions on any given subject taken by rival Kalām Masters. This is precisely the format which al-Naẓẓām’s pamphlet on the atom takes in al-Ashc arī’s quotation of it.

From these scattered shards of incomplete debates and disputes, of voiced positions but often disembodied beliefs, it is difficult to reconstitute the systems of which they are faint echoes. The shards are themselves often laconic to the point of impenetrability. They can be obdurate in their unwillingness to share the visions they represent. The occasions which gave rise to the debates to which they belong also defy restitution.

Consequently, from our reading of these texts, the impression we have of Kalām activity in the third century is little more than a congeries of conclusions (the workings of the problem are rarely shown) expressed with the pithiness of Euclidean propositions.21 Are we then to imagine that a Kalām Master would simply appear in public and pronounce his verdict, the conclusion of his and his cenacle’s thinking on a given topic, a dazzling and puzzling conundrum for other Masters to unpack and unravel in an attempt to refute? Or was this as much Kalām activity as the doxographers were willing to record? If this is all the doxographers were willing to record, surely we should be wary of defining Kalām activity solely in terms of their selective frame of reference. In other words, we should be wary lest what we identify as Kalām activity in the third century is precisely what the doxographers identified and bequeathed to us in texts which are themselves part of a separate series of debates, be it, as in the case of al-Ashcarī, a legitimation of the system he was in the process of generating out of the Muctazilism he had recused, or, in the case of Jacfar b. Ḥarb, a tool for the eradication of heresy as part of the elite’s endeavour to fashion the rightly guided community.

If the Kalām did not readily lend itself to writing, and if there are no texts which explicitly identify themselves as Kalām works, and if these scattered pronouncements are all the evidence we are left with, how are we to proceed? Well, we do know that the Kalām was not just the public declaration of enigmatic, oracular utterances. We hear of a myriad of debates performed in public on a cornucopia of subjects between Muslims and Manichaeans, (p.35) between Muslims and Christians, between Muslims and Muslims. The defence of the religion was widely recognised as a core component of Kalām activity. There was a close intimacy between Kalām as a profession and the conduct of forensic inquiries. The Miḥna is nothing if it is not the fusion of forensic inquiry with the question and answer style upon which the Kalām and so many other intellectual activities of the period were predicated. And it has often been remarked that many early solutions to theological questions were legal solutions: as van Ess pithily remarks, ‘most Muctazilī theologians … were jurists’.22

Third-century society was omnivorous in its appetite for the spectacle of debate. There was often a disjuncture between the subject matter debated and the real topic of debate, a disjuncture which the textual tradition often conceals rather than reveals. Obliquity in approaching questions was a branch of Kalām activity and its obliquity was not always obvious to all those who witnessed or read the written representation of these debates, though we could also be forgiven for thinking that often a wilful unwillingness to recognise the real subject of debate was operative.

Al-Jāḥiẓ anatomised the spectacle of his society. He saw it as his task to record and archive the debates which he witnessed and in which he took part. The utility of his archive is recognised by every scholar interested in Kalām activity during the formative stages of this speculative activity. But there remains an enormous reluctance to acknowledge that his extant writings constitute Kalām works, despite the testimony of his readers within the classical tradition that he was a major Kalām Master.23 After all what could all these works on mules, left- and right-handedness, the lame, the purblind and the crippled, on misers and singing-girls, have to do with corporealism and the indivisibility of the atom, with accidents and ontology, with human obligation and autonomy and capacity to act, with divine unity and anthropomorphism? Or put bluntly, what does a book of animals have to do with theology?

Over the twenty-five years I have spent reading and puzzling over al-Jāḥiẓ’s dishevelled corpus and comparing it with the apophthegmatic pronouncements of the Kalām Masters preserved by the doxographers, I have come to appreciate the presence in the Jāḥiẓian corpus of this tendency the Kalām had to treat topics with obliquity. Thus, to take just one famous (p.36) example, a book on the subject of misers may not simply be about misers but may be an exercise in theodicy, a way to explore and circumscribe the question of the generosity of God and how man should respond to God’s generosity.24

Let us turn briefly to one of the most acute readers of al-Jāḥiẓ’s works and one of his sharpest critics, his younger contemporary Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889):

Abū Muḥammad said: Now we come to al-Jāḥiẓ, the last of the Kalām Masters, the one whereby his predecessors are gauged (mucāyar).25 He was easily the best of them at arguing to his own preference, and the most prodigiously clever in the subtlety with which he magnified the trivial so that it became important, and diminished the important so that it became trivial. His ability for this was such that it enabled him to establish one thing and its opposite.

Therefore, he would argue in favour of superiority of the blacks to the whites, and you will find him at one point supporting the cUthmānīya against the Rāfiḍa, and at the next supporting the Zaydīya against the cUthmānīya and the People of the Sunna. At one point he would establish the superiority of cAlī for the Imamate (May God be pleased with him!) and at another point he would demote him. He would say, ‘God’s Emissary (May God bless and cherish him!) said’, but would follow this immediately with, ‘Ibn al-Jamāz said’, or ‘Ismācīl ibn Ghazwān said’, and other similar outrages. God’s Emissary (May God bless and cherish him!) is far too important to be mentioned in the same book as those two, so what do you think about mentioning him on the same sheet of paper or in the next line or two?

He produced a treatise in which he lists the arguments of the Christians against the Muslims, but when he comes to rebut them, he patiently allows their argument to stand, as if he simply wanted to teach them something they did not understand and to cast doubts on the weak-minded members among the Muslims.

And in his writings you will find him purposefully making use of risible elements and nugatory trifles. What he meant thereby was to seduce the young26 and appeal to topers of date wine.27 He makes fun of the (p.37) Ḥadīth in a way that is obvious to the people of knowledge. For example, he mentions the liver of the fish and the horn of Satan and notes that the Black Stone was once white and had been turned black by the Polytheists, and that the Muslims were under an obligation to return it to its former whiteness when they accepted Islam. He even mentions the sheet of writing which contained the Revelation concerning wet-nurses, kept under the bed of cĀɔisha, which the sheep ate, as well as various stories told by the People of the Book, such as how the cock and the crow were drinking partners, how the hoopoe buries its mother in its head, how the frog sings the praise of God, the neck-ring of the dove, and such like, which we will mention in what follows, if God wills.

Furthermore, he was the biggest liar in the community and out of them all held the Ḥadīth in the meanest contempt – he was the fiercest champion of falsehood. God have mercy on you! Someone who knows that what he says is actually reckoned among the deeds he does will say little but what benefits him. Someone who knows for certain that he is held responsible for what he composes and what he writes does not establish one thing and its opposite, and does not devote all his energies to affirming what he considers to be false. Al-Riyāshī recited the following verse to me:

Write in your own hand only that which will be a joy for you to behold on Judgment Day.28

Few can match Ibn Qutayba as an accomplished reader of al-Jāḥiẓ’s work. His examples are taken from various works in the Jāḥiẓian corpus, including his work against the Christians (Al-Radd calā al-Naṣārā) and the Book of Quadrature and Circumference, Kitāb al-Tarbīc wa-al-Tadwīr. What we find here is a clear exposition of al-Jāḥiẓ’s favourite compositional technique, the prominence which he accords to compiling the archive of debate, yet with a complete distortion of the motives informing those techniques. What seems to irk Ibn Qutayba so much is al-Jāḥiẓ’s refusal to guide his reader by explicitly condemning the falsehoods of the positions he represents. Ibn Qutayba argues that by not explicitly condemning these utterances al-Jāḥiẓ becomes himself responsible for their errors. What we have at play here is the clash of two opposing views on how to construct the textual archive through the mimetic representation of debate. Consider the following passage in which (p.38) al-Jāḥiẓ declares the moral probity required of someone who writes in this manner:

When providing the account (qiṣṣa) of one’s disputant, and when describing someone else’s system, one must not turn his falsehood into a truth or render his defective ideas sound. However one must speak in accordance with how the creed (niḥla) can be interpreted and with what the position (maqāla) permits. And one should only quote one’s opponent’s words and provide an account of his position when at the very least one has the capacity to understand the position they have reached and the ability to grasp what they have comprehended.29

So what has so often been held against al-Jāḥiẓ as a lack of sincerity and a wayward delight in arguing both sides of a case, appears in fact, in light of his defence of representation (and this is just one of many similar injunctions and instructions scattered across his corpus), to have been a conscious, personally motivated, religiously justified and politically validated, stratagem.

The Book of Living is a case in point. It is at first sight a jumble of an archive of lore devoted to some 350 animals which draws heavily and often unavowedly on a recently made translation of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium by Yaḥyā b. al-Biṭrīq.30 It can be and has been read as such with much enjoyment by many fortunate enough to gain access to its riches. And yet I cannot stress enough the significance of al-Jāḥiẓ’s words to the Addressee of The Book of Living: that when the two Kalām Masters al-Naẓẓām and Macbad debated the merits of the dog and the rooster, ‘what they were really talking about was the topic of human obedience and disobedience’ (Ḥayawān 1.210.5–6). This study is an attempt to think about The Book of Living in a way which respects its author’s injunction.

So when, upon becoming caliph, al-Mutawakkil forbad public debate on the Qurɔān, he banned Kalām. How could a Kalām Master such as al-Jāḥiẓ who had devoted his whole life to its practice and to its codification in writ-ing respect such a ruling? Al-Jāḥiẓ was a thinker for whom the structure of knowledge was organised as a series of steps in a Kalām debate, with psychic tranquility as the prize. He considered the salvation of his soul and the souls of his fellow Muslims to depend on the extent to which they fulfilled God’s (p.39) injunction to use His gifts of reason and speculation to their fullest potential. Did the Caliph, the guardian of the salvation of his subjects, mean to condemn his community to eternal punishment? What should a publicly committed Kalām Master such as al-Jāḥiẓ do about the situation? Could he devise a remedy and so save his society?

The solution he did devise was to have recourse to his society’s enthusiasm for an emergent technology – increasingly available books written on readily accessible and affordable rag-paper of good quality. There was nothing new about the book or the codex, of course. The key change was the manufacture of affordable rag-paper.

By the time of the introduction of this rag-paper, cAbbasid society was no stranger to the public face of the book. It is easy to forget that by the third century the book actually preceded paper and the codex was in fact an innovation of considerable antiquity.

Books were costly possessions: lavishly produced, multi-coloured Qurɔāns for example; or the autograph of Sībawayhī’s Kitāb, his seminal Book on grammar, which al-Jāḥiẓ presented as a gift to his patron the Vizier al-Zayyāt. Books belonged to the elite and were features of the courtly life, regularly being kept secluded in private libraries. Presumably the imperial administration kept at least some of its registers (dīwān) in codex form, though information is scarce and the custom of keeping loosely tied folders of documents written on small patches of leather was the norm.31

Among the wider public beyond the court, in the mosque, the marketplace and the street outside a teacher’s home, scholars regularly used jotters and notebooks in their teaching, be it as aides-memoire or for checking the accuracy of a student’s command of the text studied. These were more pedagogical conveniences than books of the type we would recognise as such, though increasingly in the course of the third century more and more books were written by scholars for use within their study circles. Increasingly, too many of these lecture notes and school texts made it into the public domain as books.

The refinement in the technique of manufacturing rag-paper, presumably engendered by an increase in demand for copies of books, and its subsequent availability made the emergence of book markets possible. And so there appeared on the literary and cultural scene the warrāq, the stationer (to (p.40) borrow Gruendler’s translation of the term), a trader in paper, copyist, editor, publisher and book-entrepreneur.32

Books were obviously popular though they continued to encounter stiff opposition to their use in certain domains, notably the scholarly study of the Ḥadīth, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s contemporaries and he were also eager participants in and constructors of an epistolary culture, in which letters were written among friends, in which epistles were written by scribes in the imperial administration, and in which political, theological and philosophical tractates took the form of epistles. His contemporaries and he were also keen members of a salon culture of informed debate, impassioned discussion and erudite conversation. In The Book of Living al-Jāḥiẓ took debate out of the public domain, enclosed it in book format, and encouraged his readers and audience to cultivate the practice of debating with the self in private. Thus the book became both salon and epistolary exchange, an artefact in which writing and reading were as much an art of conversation as a tradition of instruction.

What kind of society did al-Jāḥiẓ (who was no egalitarian) set out to save with his Book of Living? His society was divided into the elite and the commonalty. Among the latter were included the ordinary mass of labourers, craftsmen and trades people, soldiers, bargees and merchants, who thronged the streets of Baghdad and Basra. They were to be kept very firmly and decidedly in their place, for al-Jāḥiẓ thought they were prone to civil unrest and riot. And for an elitist like al-Jāḥiẓ, the Ḥadīth folk belonged in no uncertain terms to the commonalty.

This social vision was both static and dynamic. It advocated the commonalty as a discreet, if capaciously and somewhat amorphously defined, group whose place in society was very distinctly circumscribed. Within that place in society they were to strive to fulfil to the best of their abilities the tasks they had been created for and assigned to by God. It was in return for how they discharged these tasks that the commonalty would be recompensed in the afterlife. And yet it was possible to move from the commonalty to the elite by virtue of acquiring a consummate grasp of God’s chosen language, the cArabīya. It was the command of this formal language, as well as, say, the accumulation of wealth, which permitted social climbing. In order to demonstrate one’s grasp of the cArabīya, no-one’s native mother tongue, the (p.41) would-be social aspirant had also to master the intricacies and niceties of at least one of the recognised and established intellectual activities which were practised through the medium of the cArabīya. In other words, not only did the aspirant social-climber have to be the master of a scholarly craft, he had to be the master of the linguistic medium in which that craft and all other crafts were expressed. Al-Jāḥiẓ was probably one such upwardly mobile rhetorical paradigm.

The literate elite had been generously given by God the gift of the reasoning intellect and so was charged with its proper use. It was for its proper use that its members would be recompensed in the afterlife. They had been set a great task by God, for the reasoning intellect was a difficult instrument, one as liable to misuse as it was to proper use. But it had to be used, whether one did so by serving the caliph and the imperium, or as a judge and jurist, or by studying with a religious expert.

The literate elite also included non-Muslims, notably the Nestorian Christians of the Church of the East, but also ṣabiɔans from Ḥarrān, formidable debaters, prominent members of the establishment, and inheritors of intellectual and cultural traditions of venerable antiquity.

At the start of the third century, the only way to acquire this knowledge was to sit in the mosque and study with a teacher. Not everyone had access to the right kind of instruction, be it in language competence or the fine points of scholarship. Books written with the conscious aim of providing this knowledge were soon to appear. Early exponents of this approach were the grammarian al-Farrāɔ (d. 207/822), who did not write books himself but promoted the pedagogical benefits of his lectures when disseminated and published as books, and the first bookman in Arabic culture, Abū cUbayd al-Qāsim b. Sallām (d. 224/838), whose many monographs catered for this unquenchable scholarly thirst for knowledge and patronly enthusiasms. In the course of the third century, writing books developed from an almost exclusively religious and courtly activity to a practice which recognised few limitations beyond those of access and which catered for a society of users of the knowledge they contained. By the end of the century there had emerged what Toorawa cleverly termed ‘writerly culture’. Writers of books no longer needed patrons. The marketplace was where they earned their living. The book was omnipresent.33

(p.42) Al-Jāḥiẓ is regularly canonised as the trail-blazer in this commodification of the book and the new style of authorship. But as a writer al-Jāḥiẓ was Janus-faced. The challenge was to write for two basic audiences. His audience was first and foremost the patron. Without a patron for a work, al-Jāḥiẓ had no public voice, and there was no occasion for writing. Many of his works recognise that the patron is overwhelmed with responsibilities and pressing demands on his time and they explain to him how to read their contents and derive benefit from skim-reading. But, if the patron decided not to lock al-Jāḥiẓ’s composition away in his own library for private consultation and possession, al-Jāḥiẓ knew that he also had to address the rest of the literate elite, theoretically from the Caliph and the cAbbasid family at its apex, down through the vizier and the civil, judicial and imperial functionaries to the secretaries, his own fellow Kalām Masters and their disciples, and other writers with whom he was often in competition for patronage. The Book of Living for example addresses both audiences: it is driven by the established practice of courtly and aristocratic patronage; and it presents its contents as readily accessible and utilitarian, as Abū cUbayd had done with his monographs and Ibn Qutayba would soon do, if he had not already begun to do so by the middle of the century. What made al-Jāḥiẓ different in his Book of Living was his totalising vision, his urge to capture all of creation in a single work that was both a monograph and an ‘omnigraph’.

Not everyone agreed, however, with the utility and value of books. The book had its opponents. It needed to be defended. The Addressee of The Book of Living was one such opponent:

You inveighed against the book, yet I know no charge more dutiful, no copartner more equable, no fellow-traveller more agreeable, no teacher less imperious, no comrade quicker to attend and less given to offend, less given to weary and vex, more scrupulous in conduct, less given to confront and affront, less given to defamation and further from calumniation, more abundantly wondrous and versatile, less given to being overbearing and over-reaching, further from quarrel (mirāɔ) and less likely to stir up discord (shaghab), more ascetic in dispute (jidāl ) or less eager to feud (qitāl) – than a book. I know no comrade better at complying and hastier at satisfying, more helpful and less distressful; no tree longer-lived (p.43) or more productive, with fruit sweeter to taste and easier to pluck, more fructiferous or with its yield more plentiful, whatever the season – than a book. I know no offspring one can breed, which, from the moment of its birth and in its infancy, cheap in price and readily available, provides such wondrous counsels (tadābīr), unusual lessons, laudable achievements of sound minds and subtle intellects, lofty and wise insights, ways of righteous living and the wisdom of experience, information about past eons and distant lands, about sayings still in use and communities long dead and gone, as the book provides you with. God (Great and Glorious!) said to His Prophet (blessed and cherished be he!): ‘Recite, and your Lord is the most gracious and open; He who taught by the pen’.34 So He (Blessed and Exalted!) described Himself as having taught by the pen (qalam) in the same was as He described Himself as being gracious and open (karam). He counted this among His major benefactions and important donations. People have said: ‘The pen is a second tongue’. And they have said: ‘All who understand the benefaction in the clarity of the tongue understand better the superiority of the benefaction in the clarity of the pen’. Furthermore, God included this as a Recitation (qurɔān) and made it part of His first Revelation (tanzīl), the opening of His Book [Ḥayawān 1.41.10–42.16].35

Strong praise for the book, indeed. But al-Jāḥiẓ was a bibliophile whose passion for books was not completely untempered. In his hierarchy of forms of communication, writing (khaṭṭ) ranked just below the word (lafṛ) – in other words, in his system, the spoken word was primary. He was well aware that there were problems with books. A second book, Al-Jāḥiẓ: in Censure of Books, will explore his bibliophobia.36

There were bad as well as good books. The books of the Manichaeans (zanādiqa) are a case in point. Al-Jāḥiẓ quotes Ibrāhīm b. al-Sindī’s fetishistic admiration for how they would only use pure, white paper, lustrous, black ink and superlative calligraphy in their books, to say nothing of the respect they showed for calligraphers:

When I pay out a large sum of money for a book – and you know how I love money and hate spending it – my soul’s lavish spending on books becomes a sign of reverence for knowledge, and reverence for knowledge becomes a (p.44) sign of my soul’s nobility and of its being secure and free from intoxicating vices! [Ḥayawān 1.55.13–56.1].

Ibrāhīm was a miser but he was also a book-junkie. He was intoxicated by books and addicted to them. They were his vice. Al-Jāḥiẓ is swift to rectify his companion’s misplaced admiration for all this empty chatter and fairytale ‘talk about light and darkness, the copulation of satans and intercourse of demons, talk of the Archon Ṣindīd, the terror of the Column of Glories, mention of Shaqlūn and the Thoughtful Female (hammāma)’ (Ḥayawān 1.57.10–13).37

Al-Jāḥiẓ lived in an era of book-junkies and provides a series of anecdotes exemplifying their devotion to books and book collecting (Ḥayawān 1.52.12–62.8).38 His conversation with Ibrāhīm on Manichaean books is part of this series. Here are two other short examples:

I heard al-Ḥasan al-Luɔluɔī say: ‘For the last forty years, I have not taken a siesta, reclined or passed a night without a book propped on my chest’ [1.52.16–53.1].

Ibn al-Jahm said: ‘When I am enjoying a really good book and I find it contains the benefit (ɔida) I had hoped it would, you should see me minute by minute looking to see how many pages there are left, in fear lest I finish it too soon and the substance (mādda) of its mind (qalb)39 come to an end. If it is a thick tome (muṣḥaf) with many pages (waraq), my life is perfect, my joy complete’ [1.53.7–10].

Books were vulnerable. They needed to be protected:

Despite what we have said about the Warashān and Rācibī pigeons, others said: ‘It is not the case that the compound creature does not procreate or produce unviable offspring or have young which do not conceive’. They and people like them pervert knowledge and turn books into objects of suspicion. They are seduced by their large number of followers but you will find that they are invariably the sort who are addicted to listening to bizarreries and besotted with rarities and novelties. If in addition to their addiction (istihtār) they were to be given a share of prudence (tathabbut) and a portion of caution (tawaqqī), then books would be kept safe from a great deal of perversion (fasād) [1.144.2–7].

(p.45) So books are at the mercy of their readers and their authors. And authors too need to be protected from books for books are all too prone to entice them into self-delusion.40

The stiffest opposition to writing and books came from those scholars who were devoted to the collection of the prophetic Ḥadīth. They nurtured a profound fear and anxiety lest booklore should oust the authority of the scholar as the guarantor of the authenticity of the Ḥadīth. And there was a deep-rooted cultural and social predilection for the sharing of knowledge and learning in company. Learning was social cement. It kept the community together.41

Baghdad in the third century was an epistemic and cultural arena in which bibliophilia and bibliomania were confronted by, and coexisted with, stern opposition from vocal and passionate groups of bibliophobes. There is no greater indication of the ambivalent status which books and reading books occupied than in the story of how the Revelation was first given by the Angel Jibrīl (Gabriel) to Prophet Muḥammad. Jibrīl brought him a tissue of cloth with a ‘writing’ (kitāb) enigmatically contained in it and suffocated the Prophet on two occasions until the Prophet was able on the third occasion to comply with the Angel’s instructions. Writing and the Book, the divine inventory, are properly the preserve of God. Little wonder then that al-Jāḥiẓ, who, according to later biographers, would rent out book shops overnight and read the latest arrivals while other slept, came to represent the consummate bibliophile for the tradition and yet was said in one late biographical notice to have been killed by a collapsing shelf full of books.42

So while it is important to stress the emergence of a book culture, we should also remember that this was a society which continued to prioritise and revere orality and oral practices – a hegemony present in the way in which all third-century books gesture to orality by voicing the writer’s words: ‘Abū cUthmān said …’; ‘Abū Muḥammad said …’. Books were listened to as often as they were read. And reading itself was presumably voiced and not silent. In fact listening to books could be deadly. The traditionist Ibn Wahb (d. 197/813) listened to the reading of a book which graphically portrayed the terrors of the Resurrection. He died from shock.43

(p.46) 1.3 A Self-chronicling Society44

The Iraqi imperial and learned elite of course was nicely and precisely stratified within its own confines and was sharply aware of its ranks and classes. It was held together by many shared values: competitiveness, garrulousness, a love of spectacle, and the cultivation of the self.45 It was also addicted to compiling the chronicle and charting the anatomy of its existence.

These aspects are, I think, well brought out in the following account by a centenarian whose libido will not abate, despite his decision to castrate himself in his youth:

The devout Ṣabiɔan will sometimes castrate himself. In this respect he takes precedence over the Byzantine when it comes to making a show of his good intention and professing his religious devotion by castrating his son completely and making it impossible for him to procreate. Abū al-Mubārak the Ṣabiɔan did this. But he was always being summoned by our Caliphs and princes who would listen to him conversing throughout the night, because they found that he was such a skilled communicator46 and had such a fund of novel stories and marvellous booklore (nawādir al-kutub). He lived to be more than a hundred and I have never heard anyone more amorous (aghzal) than him. And if he was telling the truth about himself, there was no one alive who had more illicit sex than he did [Ḥayawān 1.125.9–15].

I had the following story from Muḥammad b. cAbbād who said: ‘I heard him speak. The subject of the discussion was women and their place in men’s hearts. The company had alleged that the eagerness of a man’s desire for women was an indication of how fully developed his virility was and of how far he had progressed in this particular aspect so fundamental to his physique (khilqa), his behaviour (mac) and his nature (ṭabc) (p.47) – since he had been born a man and not a woman.47 Then Abū al-Mubārak addressed us: “Surely you all know that I am more than a hundred years old. Is it not the case that for a man this old, his decrepit weakness, his tired memory,48 the death of his libido (shahwa), and the cutting off of his supply of sperm must have destroyed his longing (ḥanīn) for women and his thoughts of love (ghazal)?” “You are correct,” we said. “Is it not the case,” Abū al-Mubārak continued, “for someone who has habituated his soul to keep clear of women for a long time, who has kept away from them for years – for a lifetime indeed, that habit, the disciplining of his nature and domestication of his soul must have lessened the weight of struggling against his libido and the stimuli (dawācī) of coitus, for you know that habit is man’s second nature49 which does provide at least some good support to stop fondling women?” “You are correct,” we said. “Is it not the case that someone who has not tasted the delights of being alone with them, who has not sat in their company in wanton abandon, who has not heard them talk and beguile and seduce men’s hearts, attracting and exciting his desires, and who has not seen them uncovered and naked, who has for a long, long time kept away from them, must stop being attracted to them altogether?” “You are correct,” we said. “Is it not the case that, for someone who knows that he has been completely castrated (majbūb) and that his reason (sabab) for being intimate with them has been excised, despondency must be one of his strongest reasons for self-denial (zuhd), consolation, and the termination of fleeting thoughts (khawāṭir)?” “You are correct,” we said. “Is it not the case that, for someone who has been led by abstention from this world and from the delights women offer, what with their beauty, their seductive appeal for the pious and the fact that the Prophets have used women, to castrate himself, without being compelled by any parent or foe or without being taken into captivity, his abstention must be powerful enough to remove all remembrance of women, and to dispel from him the pain of missing the experience of them? Is it not the case that someone who has it in his power to realise his determination and choose the decision (irāda) which will lead him to cut off that member which brings so many important pleasures, to endure the pain involved, let alone the risk, and to undergo the punishment and the damage to his physique, must no longer be subject to temptation (waswās) in this regard (bāb) or fall prey to their (p.48) attractions (dawācī)?” “You are correct,” we said. “Is it not the case that someone whose mind has forsaken this comfort, who has given up having children and being remembered through his goodly descendants, must have forgotten this activity (bāb) even if he can still recall some of his memories? As if this were not enough, you know that I blinded myself on the day I castrated myself, and so I have forgotten how things look (kayfīyat al-ṣuwar) and how they give delight, and have no knowledge of what is intended thereby and how they may be intended. Should not the soul of a man in a condition such as this be disposed to a cheer free of care, preoccupied with the activity (bāb) for which he underwent these agonies?” “You are correct,” we said. “Now suppose I were not decrepit and I had not practised long avoidance, and my equipment were still functioning, is not the fact that I have not eaten any meat (ḥayawān) for eighty years and have not filled my veins with drink lest it increase my libido and lessen my resolve – is not this enough to put an end to the stimuli (dawācī) I feel and to still the motion if it arises?” “You are correct,” we said. “Well then, after all I have described to you, I have only to hear a woman singing, and one minute I think that my insides (kabid )50 have melted, at another I think that they have burst open, at another I think my reasoning intellect has been snatched away, and sometimes my heart is sent into such a tizzy when I hear one of them laughing that I think it has jumped out of my mouth. So how then can I criticise anyone else about them?”’ [1.126.2–128.7].

God the Exalted keep you! If he was telling the truth about being in this state, when these aspects had come together in him, what do you think he was like say sixty or seventy years earlier? What do you think he was like only one hour before castration? No amount of agency (istiṭāca) or ability (imkān) in any of its attributes were such that they could stop him wanting (irāda) women given that he had such a strong need and libido for them. God the Exalted is too merciful to His creation and too just to His bondsmen to impose upon them the difficulty of avoiding a thing which He had attached so closely to and placed so firmly in their hearts [1.128.8–14].

Abū al-Mubārak’s philosophically and scientifically informed cultivation of the self and his genial garrulousness as a speaker, his self-promotion as a subject worthy of scrutiny and debate are a stunning example of how cAbbasid (p.49) society set about composing the chronicle of itself in the middle of the third century. Abū al-Mubārak is also evidence of the eagerness with which al-Jāḥiẓ shaped this self-chronicling society.

This was a society which valued personal testimony and eye-witness, in which everyday and mundane events demanded the attention of the man of reasoning intellect. In the following passage, I especially like the way the ancient Greek heritage, medical knowledge and personal, everyday experience are ranked side by side and provide a running commentary on each other. The first speaker is Polemon, the author of the Physiognomy (see Ḥayawān 3.269.2):51

He said: ‘Understand that pigeons and other birds do not respond well to being loosed (taghmīr) from great distances. Their sense of direction depends on their training and on whether they have been habituated to a particular place. The first step is for the bird to be taken up and out onto a roof top, and for a marker which it recognises to be set up. It should not fly beyond where it dwells. Food should be thrown to it on the roof, morning and evening, close by the marker set up for it, in order for it to become familiar with the spot and accustomed to returning there. Let the fancier attend to what the marker is made out of. It must never be black or anything which looks black when viewed from a distance. The bigger the marker, the better it is as a sign. He should never let it fly at the same time as its mate. He should pluck the feathers of one and let the other loose in flight. Both should be brought out onto the roof at the same time. The one with its feathers intact should be loosed in flight for it will yearn for its mate and when it knows the place, circles and returns, having become familiar with the spot, and when the feathers of the other bird have grown back, this bird should be treated in the same way. It is even better to bring them both out onto the roof with clipped wings, so that they can become familiar with the spot. Then one of them should be loosed in flight before its fellow, and the second should be treated in the same way the first had been’ [3.274.5–275.9].

How similar these words are to what Māsarjawayh52 said. In his book he gave an account of the nature of all types of milk (albān) and drinking them as medication. When he had finished his account, he said: ‘Thus I (p.50) have given you an account of the condition of these types of milk qua milk (al-albān fī anfusihā), but attend to the patients for whom you prescribe milk to drink. In the first instance, you, the patient, need to purge your stomach and you need to consult someone who knows how much milk your disorder requires, and how the class (jins) to which your disorder belongs relates to the class to which the milk belongs’ [3.275.10–14].

This is similar to what a carpenter once said in my house. I had employed him to hang a large, expensive door, so I said to him: ‘It is a difficult thing to hang a door well. Scarcely one in a hundred carpenters has the knack. Someone may have an excellent reputation for being skilled in constructing ceilings and domes but not be fully proficient at hanging a door properly. Yet ordinary people generally think that ceilings and domes are harder. There are parallels for this. For example, a servant or a maid may be adept at roasting a whole kid or a new born goat, but not at roasting a side of meat. Those who have no knowledge suppose that it is easier to roast a part than the whole’. He replied: ‘You did a good thing to let me know that you were examining my work, for now that I know what you know it will prevent me from doing a botched job (tashfīq)’. He hung the door and did an excellent job. But I did not have a ring in the house for the front of the door, for when I wanted to lock it, so I said to him: ‘I do not want to detain you until my servant can get to the market and back. So bore me a hole for the pin to go in’. When he had bored the hole and received his payment he went to leave and then turned back and said: ‘I have drilled the hole properly. But attend to the carpenter who will fit the pin (zirra) for you – if he misses with just one blow he will split the door. And a split is a defect (cayb)!’ Then I understood that he knew his craft inside out [3.276.2–277.4].53

Al-Jāḥiẓ wrote many works. A good number of them have survived. I am sure though that they pale into insignificance in comparison with the many counsels, conversations, debates, discussions and lectures he must have participated in over the many years of his long life. His sprightly mind and nimble intellect, his affable volubility as an anecdotalist, his peremptory style, his conviction in the rightness for his community of the theological position he had fashioned, made of him the perfect chronicler of his society and its (p.51) civilisation. He was the embodiment of the ‘world memory’ of which Italo Calvino wrote, the creation of which would lead to the correction of reality should reality happen to disagree with memory – after reading al-Jāḥiẓ’s works it becomes impossible to imagine a third century which does not accord with his world memory.54 And yet this world which he so carefully archived was for him as naught compared with the real world he hoped God would give him entry to when the apocalypse or death came. (p.52)


(3) . Personal responsibility for the salvation of his subjects is one of the duties of the Caliph outlined by al-Maɔmūn in his Miḥna letters as reproduced by al-Ṭabarī: Yücesoy, Messianic Beliefs, pp. 134–5.

(4) . My reading is indebted to Brown, ‘The apocalypse of Islam’.

(5) . The phrase mirāɔan ẓāhiran is obscure. I have not sought to remove the obscurity.

(6) . See Zadeh, Mapping Frontiers, pp. 34–8.

(7) . See Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, pp. 95–104.

(p.471) (9) . Beckford, Vathek, p. 156.

(10) . Sartre, ‘Tintoretto: the prisoner of Venice’, in Sartre, Modern Times, p. 362.

(11) . See Chapter 4.3, p. 233, for a translation of a key account of the encounter.

(12) . See Chapter 4.2, pp. 201–7 (for a translation of the dedicatory epistle to the treatise on legal verdicts) and Chapter 2.2, pp. 61–3 (for the stroke).

(13) . Al-Ṭabarī, Taɔrīkh, III/3, p. 1412.16–17; Al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XXXIV, p. 119; see Melchert, ‘Religious policies’, pp. 321–2 on al-Mutawakkil’s invitation of the Ḥadīth transmitters and jurisprudents (generally presumed to have been the principal victims of the Miḥna) to Samarra.

(15) . On al-Jāḥiẓ’s declaration that he was both a promoter of speculative inquiry and a transmitter of prophetic accounts, see Chapter 4.2, pp. 202 and 208; on al-Mutawakkil’s semi-rationalist policies, see Melchert, ‘Religious policies’, p. 318.

(16) . This epistle will be discussed in Al-Jāḥiẓ: In Censure of Books.

(18) . The most concise description I know of the Kalām reasoning process is, oddly, an account of Greek Scepticism: Barnes, ‘The beliefs of a Pyrrhonist’, especially pp. 58–60. His sequence of the stages of Sceptical inquiry is that of the Kalām: ‘investigation’ = naẓar; ‘opposition’ = jadal or muwāzana or mucāraḍa or munāẓara; ‘equipollence’ = takāfuɔ al-adilla; epokhē (i.e. suspension of judgement) = tawaqquf; ataraxia (i.e. equanimity) = sukūn al-nafs. The difference is that in the Kalām tawaqquf led to either ḥayra (aporetic perplexity), at which point the process would have to begin afresh, or to yaqīn (certainty).

(19) . Maqālāt, 316.1–317.6; Schoeler, ‘Writing for a reading public’, p. 62.

(25) . This is a difficult phrase and I am tempted to read micyāran. My translation is provisional. Lecomte offers ‘celui qui tourne les Anciens en ridicule’: Ibn Qutayba, Le traité des divergences, p. 65, §72.

(26) . Ibn Qutayba uses in this and the previous sentence two key terms in al-Jāḥiẓ’s treatises, aḥdāth, youths, and ḍucafaɔ, more regularly ḍucafāɔ, terms by which al-Jāḥiẓ at times seems to intend the theological groups of the Nābita and the Ḥashwīya.

(p.472) (27) . Al-Jāḥiẓ and many third century scholars argued in favour of the licitness of nabīdh, date wine. To drink it was considered a mark of a refined individual.

(29) . Al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Rasāɔil, ed. Hārūn: Macrifa Rasāɔil 4.50.13–17. (This edition is referred to by the name of the epistle followed by Rasāɔil and then volume, page and line numbers.)

(30) . See Miller, ‘More than the sum’, Chapter 1, for a re-assessment of how al-Jāḥiẓ read this translation.

(31) . See the study of one collection of such leather notes by Khan, Arabic Documents.

(32) . Blair, Paper Before Print; on the warrāq as stationer: Gruendler, ‘Book culture before print’, p. 32; on the jobs associated with the paper industry and the functions of the warrāq: Shatzmiller, Labour, p. 117; M. A. J. Beg, ‘Warrāḳ’, EI2, XI, pp. 150–1.

(33) . Toorawa, Ibn Abī Ṭāhir Ṭayfūr; Bray, ‘Lists and memory’; the materials collected in the special issue of the Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 12 (2012), edited by Antonella Ghersetti on the book in fact and fiction in pre-modern Arabic literature. The history of this process is currently being written by Beatrice Gruendler. See her ‘Book culture before print’ for an interim survey. I would like to thank Professor Gruendler for sharing her work with me.

(34) . Q cAlaq 96: 3–4. I have tried to reproduce the rhyme in al-akram and bi-al-qalam with my pleonasm ‘most generous and open’ and ‘pen’.

(35) . See the partial translation in Pellat, Life and Works, p. 131.

(36) . This topic formed the subject of the Third K. W. and E. K. Rosenthal Memorial Lecture in Ancient and Medieval Near Eastern Civilization I delivered at Yale University in April, 2008. I subsequently delivered it at numerous venues, including SOAS at the University of London. I am grateful to my audiences for the questions I received. See also Webb, ‘“Foreign books”’.

(37) . Read camūd al-subaḥ for Hārūn’s al-s-b-kh and al-hammāma for Hārūn’s al-hāma wa-al-ham(m)āma: see the relevant entries in de Blois and Sims-Williams, Dictionary of Manichaean Texts, Vol. II; shqlwn seems to be a transcription of ɔshqlwn the Syriac for Saklas, the leading Archon: see de Blois, p. 59, under ṣindīd; Pellat, ‘Le témoignage d’al-Jāḥiẓ sur les Manichéens’.

(38) . See Touati, L’armoire, especially pp. 21–57 on collecting books.

(39) . In his comments on my translation, Professor van Gelder proposes the following understanding of qalb: ‘I wonder if min qalbihī could mean “from (i.e. as a result of ) turning (its pages)” (qalb standing for taqlīb). Al-Jāḥiẓ humanises (p.473) the book in a previous passage, but here Ibn al-Jahm does not and speaking of “the heart” (or “mind”) of the book I find odd’.

(40) . See Chapter 5.4, pp. 366 and 371.

(42) . The report has been exhaustively studied by Schoeler, The Biography of Muḥammad, pp. 38–79 and 124–9; for al-Jāḥiẓ’s role in the ‘cult of books’, see Makdisi, The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam, pp. 70–1; on his death, see Pellat, Life and Works, p. 9; Pellat, ‘Al-Ǧāḥiẓ jugé’, p. 48. For a similar unfortunate death under a crush of books, that of Dennis Pilton, a British academic who refused to publish what in the UK is known as ‘original’ research (i.e. research as defined by the UK Government agency the HEFCE) but was an egregious and expert compiler of book lists, see Taylor, ‘The “F”-ing bookcase’.

(44) . I owe this phrase to Dimitri Gutas.

(46) . Literally, ‘comprehending (fahm) and making others comprehend (ifhām)’.

(47) . The text notes that Ibn cAbbād is still speaking with a set use of qāla: qāla Ibn cAbbād. Similar occurrences in the passage of qāla to mark the end of Abū al-Mubārak’s comments: 1.126.9, 1.126.13, 1.126.16, 1.127.1, 1.127.9, 1.127.16, 1.128.3.

(48) . Or reading dhakar for Hārūn’s dhikr: ‘the flaccidness of his member’.

(49) . I have ignored the allatī which Hārūn has supplied.

(50) . The kabid, the liver, was thought to be the organ in which the emotions were located.

(51) . See Sezgin, GAS, III, pp. 352–3, who suggests the work is Kitāb Firāsat al-Ḥamām, The Book of the Physiognomy of Pigeons; Ullmann, Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften, pp. 17–18; the Arabic version has been edited twice: Kitāb Iflīmūn fī al-Firāsa, ed. Georg Hoffmann, in Föster, Scriptores physiognomonici, I, pp. 93–294 (pp. 171.16–199.7 are devoted to animals); the ‘Leiden Polemon’ is edited and translated by Robert Hoyland in Swain, Seeing the Face, pp. 329–463; the Introduction to the ‘Istanbul Polemon’ by Ghersetti in (p.474) Swain, Seeing the Face, pp. 465–85. The passages quoted by al-Jāḥiẓ in The Book of Living do not feature in the extant Arabic translation of Polemon: Hoyland, ‘Polemon’s encounter’. See further: Hoyland, ‘Physiognomy in Islam’; and the articles in Seeing the Face: Hoyland, ‘The Islamic background’; Ghersetti, ‘The semiotic paradigm’; Ghersetti with Simon Swain, ‘Polemon’s Physiognomy.

(52) . On him see Sezgin, GAS, III, pp. 224–5, who identifies him as Māsarjawayh the Younger, to be differentiated from his father Māsarjawayh al-Baṣrī (see Sezgin, GAS, III, pp. 206–7); Ullmann, Medizin, pp. 23–4; Ullmann, Naturund Geheimwissenschaften, p. 21.

(53) . There is a translation of this last passage in Pellat, Life and Works, pp. 151–2.

(54) . Italo Calvino, ‘World Memory’, in Numbers in the Dark, pp. 135–41.