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Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books

Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books

James E. Montgomery
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 592
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  • Book Info
    Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books
    Book Description:

    Introduces the writings and ‘Abbasid-period textual world of Al-Jāhiz, the 'father of Arabic prose' Al-Jāhiz was a bibliomaniac, theologian, and spokesman for the political and cultural elite, a writer who lived, counselled and wrote in Iraq during the first century of the 'Abbasid caliphate. He advised, argued and rubbed shoulders with the major power brokers and leading religious and intellectual figures of his day, and crossed swords in debate and argument with the architects of the Islamic religious, theological, philosophical and cultural canon. His many, tumultuous writings engage with these figures, their ideas, theories and policies. They give us an invaluable but much-neglected window onto the values and beliefs of this cosmopolitan elite.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-8333-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 3-20)
  4. Part 1 Physiognomy of an Apocalyptic Age

    • 1.1 Cataclysm
      (pp. 23-32)

      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 inThe Book of Living

      Sallām had been charged with the task of discovering whether the hordes of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj (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...

    • 1.2 Eristics and Salvation
      (pp. 33-45)

      By the time al-Jāḥiẓ set about writingThe Book of Living, theKalāmwas well established as a set of identifiable, epistemological and social practices. It could boast of a cadre of exponents, theMutakallimūn(theKalāmMasters). 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 atKalāmhad led to a number of appointments at the caliphal courts and in elite entourages. Indeed, it is regularly spoken of as a ‘craft’ (ṣināʿa) or on some occasions even a ‘business’...

    • 1.3 A Self-chronicling Society
      (pp. 46-52)

      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 ṣabiḥan will sometimes castrate himself. In this respect...

  5. Part 2 The Book of Living

    • 2.1 The Totalising Work
      (pp. 55-59)

      When al-Jāḥiẓ began working on al-Jāḥiẓ, the Caliph al-Wāthiq was sure the End Time was about to come. Shortly after al-Wathiq’s death, the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, his successor, banned debate on the Qurʾan. Thereby he endangered the public pursuit of the dialectical method for ascertaining the truth which al-Jāḥiẓ considered central to the religious well-being of his society. Its very hopes of attaining salvation when judged by God at the End Time were imperilled. For al-Jāḥiẓ, then, the End Time had begun.

      His response to eschatological imminence was to write the totalising work, an attempt to fulfil a moral imperative — the...

    • 2.2 The Treatise as Totality
      (pp. 60-63)

      The Book of Livingexists today as a work in seven volumes. Its principal subject is God’s creation and the place of man in that creation. It is dif-ficult for someone who has not wrestled with the text to gain an impression of the exuberance and abundance of its totality and, as far as I am aware, the complete work has, unsurprisingly, never been translated from Arabic into any other language whatsoever.

      So how do I convey this impression? Short of providing a translation (a lifetime’s work), I could attempt a detailed inventory, say in the form of a catalogue...

    • 2.3 Parsing Totality
      (pp. 64-69)

      One of the enduring obstacles to any reading of al-Jāḥiẓ’s writings, one which is especially acute in the case ofThe Book of Living, is following the sequence of ideas, parsing the arguments, grasping the train of thought: perceiving the interlocking of the miniscule as a way of comprehending the totality of the totalising work.

      According to the advice which al-Jāḥiẓ from time to time offers the Addressee, the treatise is composed in such a way that it is simultaneously many, shorter, treatises, arranged so as continually to refresh the psychic energy of the reader. Perhaps, then, if the author...

    • 2.4 The Articulation of The Book of Living
      (pp. 70-97)

      When we begin to consider the work from this angle, it soon becomes evident that it is held together through various organisational techniques which are clearly distinguished, many of them very simple in nature. Looking at them will help us to reflect on some of the questions I want to consider. Is the unfinished nature ofThe Book of Livinghow al-Jāḥiẓ wanted it to be? Is its incompleteness significant, part of any message the work may have? IsThe Book of Livinga book in the sense that its final form was given to it by its author? Was...

    • 2.5 Analogues?
      (pp. 98-104)

      I am sure many readers will object to my butchery of al-Jāḥiẓ’s treatise. I am not too happy about it myself. After all, one of the principal pleasures of reading this work is both the surprise bou ght on by a perpetual encounter with the unexpected and its incessant frustration of expectation. Perhaps, though, few of my readers will disagree with me when I repeat that this treatise is a messy text. Is this merely what we have come to recognise as the gesture of orality so fundamental to third-century Arabic compositions? Is this simply what books looked like in...

  6. Part 3 The Jāḥiẓian Library Under Attack

    • 3.1 Introducing the ‘Introduction’
      (pp. 107-110)

      Al-Jāḥiẓ’sThe Book of Livingdid not meet with the agreement or approval of all of his contemporaries and readers. It was apparently subjected to a damning critique. Therefore the treatise begins with a catalogue of a library – the library of al-Jāḥiẓ’s books which have been rejected. The catalogue assumes the form of a protracted address of an unnamed individual who has criticised al-Jāḥiẓ’s books and has rejected the value of the book as a social, intellectual and cultural artefact, condemning it as something which inflicts on ʿAbbasid society more harm than benefit. The address is sustained initially over the...

    • 3.2 Translation
      (pp. 111-128)

      In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful. In Him do I trust. [1] May God keep you clear of uncertainty (shubha)⁵ and free from perplexity (ḅayra)! May He establish a kinship (nasab) between you and knowledge (maʿrifa) and a relationship (sabab) between you and truth! May He make prudence (tathabbut) dear to you, embellish equitableness (inṣaf) in your eyes, make you savour the sweetness of piety, and allow your heart (qalb) to sense the majesty of the truth! May He place in your breast the coolness of certainty and drive from you the submissiveness of despair! May He...

    • 3.3 Commentary
      (pp. 129-143)

      [1] AtḤayawan1.44.8—12, many of these key concepts recur in al-Jāḥiẓ’s description of the moral agency and intellectual capacities God has endowed man with. Compare this with the opening address of his treatisesOn the Creating of the Qurʾān(Fi Khalq al-Qurʾān)Rasāʾil3.285.2– 3, where we encounter the termsshuhba,thabbata,shākirin; and ofOn Agents(al-Wukalāʾ)Rasāʾil4.95.3—96.18, where similar moral and spiritual failings on the part of an Addressee are denounced for misunderstanding the divine articulation of human society and thus denying the thanks due to God for His benefaction (niʿma), explicitly stated at...

    • 3.4 The Argument
      (pp. 144-172)

      [1] Al-Jāḥiẓ begins his work with a pious address to an unnamed recipient. It is an address which contains ten wishes. These wishes are not for continued well-being, or prosperity or felicity in continued favour from God, as we often find in such opening addresses. Rather, they are wishes for the (re-) establishment of intellectual well-being. In other words, al-Jāḥiẓ prays for the institution or the restitution (as opposed to the continuation) of these virtues.

      Therefore the Addressee needs God to unite him with knowledge and truth (such a connection being presently non-existent). The extent of the Addressee’s intellectual corruption...

  7. Part 4 The Salvific Book

    • 4.1 Biobibliographies
      (pp. 175-192)

      Anumber of questions arise from the foregoing examination of the contours of this disagreement. Why were al-Jāḥiẓ’s books rejected in this manner? What was the point of the critique? What exactly was attacked — the form, the content, the ambition, or the fact of the book — that is, the fact that it was even written? Was it the style of thinking (Kalam) or did the work unsettle the attacker, resolutely determined not to be fashioned as an ideal reader? Who was the attacker? Why is he unnamed? And what did al-Jāḥiẓ hope to achieve by rehearsing his arguments and refuting them...

    • 4.2 The Form of the ‘Introduction’
      (pp. 193-223)

      By the middle of the third century, in terms of the textual tradition as it has been preserved, the form that a speaker gave to his speech and that a composer bestowed on his composition was an integral part of what one said and was subjected to the most intense scrutiny by his audience of listeners and readers. (This audience was also largely formed of one’s competitors, looking not only to learn but also to attack.) The beginning of a work, be it poem or prose composition, was the moment when the form of the work was advertised and where...

    • 4.3 The Enigma of the Addressee
      (pp. 224-238)

      The whole work, as we are beginning to see, invites us to try to answer its mysteries, to respond to its idiosyncrasies. A question persists in my mind. Why does al-Jāḥiẓ begin his longest and most ambitious, if unfinished, extant work in this manner? I have pondered this question long and hard. There is no easy answer, it seems to me, beyond of course effectively seeking recourse in its very imponderability — it begins thus because it is unfathomable.

      Perhaps the simplest story we might tell about it is the following. The ‘Introduction’ was written after an original dedication and donation...

    • 4.4 Invective
      (pp. 239-255)

      The Addressee of the ‘Introduction’ has attacked al-Jāḥiẓ with a series of accusations which he seeks to rebut. What exactly does the Addressee accuse al-Jāḥiẓ of?

      The key term in the invective isʿayb,ʿuyub, a blemish, fault, failing, or defect which besmirches a man’s honour and occasions disapproval and condemnation among his peer group and/or society, and which the committer, or possessor (if it is an object), should respond to as a significant diminishment of his social standing. (The nearest response in modern, Western, societies which I can think of is ‘shame’ but this distorts as much as it...

    • 4.5 The Cohesiveness of Society
      (pp. 256-265)

      However we resolve ‘the enigma of the addressee’ or specify the nature of the Addressee’s invective, the force of some of al-Jāḥiẓ’s arguments in the first section of the ‘Introduction’, notably the proposition that books are highly effective agents of social cohesion, remains. Let us recap briefly. In the process of rebuttal of the Addressee’s charges he enumerates more than thirty of his own works which have been attacked, explains how God has ordered His creation and discusses His disposition of human society, arguing incessantly that the book as artefact is a central, indeed a necessary, part of holding that...

    • 4.6 An Encyclopaedia to Save Society
      (pp. 266-274)

      What society needed, then, as an antidote to the strife which had riven it, was a book which sought to describe the wonders of God’s creation.The Book of Livingis a miscellany, a florilegium and an ordered inventory of creation. The totalising ambition of the treatise tempts us to make of it an encyclopaedia, the mission of which was to save society by celebrating the majesty of God’s creation, easily and readily discerned and capable of generating consensus.

      To describeThe Book of Livingas an encyclopaedia, however, is to describe it as something which it is obviously not,...

  8. Part 5 The Architecture of Design

    • 5.1 Governance of the Cosmos
      (pp. 277-318)

      The Book of Livingis a book on a mission – a mission to save society from fragmentation through squabbles, quarrels, arguments, disagreements and disputes. It proposes to achieve this by enfolding its readers in its all-embracing universe of debate, encouraging them in solitude to engage with its written arguments and so to avoid the psychological consequences of public debate. Its message: a celebration of God’s majesty as manifest in His creation. Its proselytising appeal: to all theists, dualists, monotheists and henotheists (among whom could conceivably be included those who tended to promote the virtues of one principle, say light, against...

    • 5.2 The Grateful Response, 1
      (pp. 319-332)

      The ‘Design Complex’ exerted the force of a moral imperative for those believers who explored its complexities. This contributed to a highly developed notion of moral obligatedness (taklīf), which included among other things the obligation to express gratitude to the Creator. This chapter will explore two ways of fulfilling this obligation: the use of formal Arabic (theʿArabīya) in order to thank God (Part 1); the confluence of composition (taʾlīf) and godlikeness (tashabbuh) (Part 2).

      Gratitude to the benefactor is a prominent theme in early ʿAbbasid writings. We find it in the introduction to al-Shāfiʿī’s Risāla at the start of...

    • 5.3 The Grateful Response, 2
      (pp. 333-363)

      The ‘Design Complex’ revealed the breath-taking extent of God’s power and kindness to His creatures as made manifest in His creation. As Benefactor He could only be thanked appropriately in the proper use of His language, at one and the same time both a divine and a human language. This is one of the reasons why interest in the numinousʿArabĪyadistinguishes the speculative activities of the third-century practitioners of theKalām, with their especial devotion to the principles of language usage, and as such it is for them an identity marker, an emblem of their speculative and exegetical practice....

    • 5.4 Obliquity
      (pp. 364-388)

      Cognition of the ‘Design Complex’ was widely held to have been implanted in us as human beings. A rightful response to this benefaction, a realisation of man’s moral obligatedness, was found in the use of God’s favoured language, the numinousʿArabīya, to capture the wondrous signs of creation in compositions which were aggregates in the way that created existence was an aggregate and which were held together vicariously and accidentally by an author who derived his agency from God. In this way an author both aspired to draw near unto God and at the same time remained firmly within the...

  9. Part 6 Appreciating Design

    • 6.1 An Eristical Contest
      (pp. 391-393)

      One question still haunts me despite all my preceding attempts to come to terms withThe Book of Living. What exactly were al-Jāḥiẓ and the unnamed Addressee quarrelling over? al-Jāḥiẓ finishes his ‘Introduction’ by returning to their disagreement. In this part I translate the whole passage. In the process I try to reveal the nature of their disagreement and also identify the kind of writing to which the ‘Introduction’ belongs, something which eluded me earlier in Chapter 4.2.

      The ‘Design Complex’ teaches us that we are equipped by God with the innate ability to recognise the signs of His governance...

    • 6.2 Translation
      (pp. 394-417)

      [1.1] You said: ‘Were the dog’s nature and behaviour (maʿnā) fully that of the carnivore, it would not keep the company of humans and avoid that of predators; it would not dislike thickets and hang around houses; it would not avoid open ground and keep away from empty deserts, cleaving to places where men gather and live instead. Were its behaviour, disposition (khuluq) and nourishment fully those of the herbivore, it would not eat human flesh and rabidly attack people. Yes, in fact, sometimes it even becomes rabid and turns on its master, frenziedly attacking his family. This is what...

    • 6.3 The Argument
      (pp. 418-422)

      The preceding altercation can be unpicked as follows.

      [1.1]—[3.5]The Addressee’s Attack on the Rooster and the Dog (1.190.12—203.10)

      The Addressee’s attack is given in three distinct statements. He raises the following topics:

      [1.1] The faults of the dog: it combines traits of both carnivore and herbivore (and so is not pure); it attacks its owners;

      [1.2] Though kept as a guard dog it is just as likely to need guarding against, on account of its thievery and taste for carrion, including human flesh;

      [1.3] Its excessive greed;

      [1.4] An erroneous exegesis of a Qurʾanic verse has endeared...

    • 6.4 Conclusion
      (pp. 423-424)

      Let me briefly draw attention to a couple of comments which al-Jāḥiẓ makes in the preceding passage I translated:

      This is the fundamental principle at the heart of the disquisition (maqāla) and the axis around which the mill turns [1.207.15—16].

      What they were really talking about was the topic of obedience and disobedience [1.210.5—6].

      The debate between the dog and the rooster was really, according to al-Jāḥiẓ, an exploration of the subject of human responsibility and wrong-doing. That this was its true topic has obviously escaped the notice of the Addressee. But what I find more illuminating is...

  10. Postface
    (pp. 427-429)

    In the cultural milieu of third-century Iraq and the bibliomania which accompanied the appearance of books, attitudes to books were anything but straightforward. An essential ambivalence, from a religious, intellectual and cultural point of view, predominated.In Praise of Booksis devoted to al-Jāḥiẓ’s bibliophilia. It focuses on the most sustained paean of books in the Jāḥiẓan corpus, that contained in the first part of hismagnum opus, the seven-volume celebration of God’s creation:The Book of Living. In this paean, books are presented as the solution to a broken society, designed to heal its rifts and promote cohesion through...

  11. Appendix: The Praise of Books
    (pp. 430-469)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 470-533)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 534-570)
  14. Index
    (pp. 571-586)