al-Jahiz’s profoundly serious work on scholarly hospitality

In today’s universities, stern professors labor to problematize, complexify, and obscurate.  In ninth-century Baghdad, world-leading in population size and scholarly development, many scholars behaved similarly.  But not al-Jahiz.  Al-Jahiz wrote profound, important, and highly entertaining works on subjects from animals to eloquence.  Al-Jahiz ridiculed other scholars’ pretenses of seriousness through the form and substance of his own, hospitable work.

al-Jahiz's view of the books of grammarians and others

In his essay “Inside, Outside & Back to Front,” al-Jahiz mocks scholarly disputes between originalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Qur’anic interpretation that emphasizes rational purposes and consequences.  Some scholars asserted that the text of the Qur’an, like God, predates the creation of the world.  These scholars focused understanding on the words of Qur’anic passages in making legal judgments.  Other scholars asserted that God created the Qur’an, like God created all living creatures.  This living Qur’an school emphasized rational analysis of a Qur’anic passage’s purpose and consequences in relation to legal judgments.  Trials before the supreme court in the early Abbasid Caliphate focused on this matter of interpretation with life-and-death opinions at stake.[1]

Al-Jahiz pruriently recast the dispute between the originalist-text and living-text legal schools.  A pun in Arabic associates the originalist and living legal schools with the back and front of the body, respectively.  Addressing a dear young friend who lavishly praised the back, al-Jahiz argues vigorously for men taking the frontal path:

It is common practice to describe a man as having been known for certain qualities since the time he emerged “from his mother’s belly” but not “from his father’s back.”  … A man can have “inside knowledge” of events but not a “backside knowledge” of them. … If the only good thing about the front was a comely face and the only bad thing about the back was that it incorporates the buttocks, that alone would be a clear indication of the merit of the belly and the baseness of the back.  …  the brave man is described as “going boldly forward,” the coward as “turning his back.”  There is a world of difference between the man who meets his enemy head on and the one who shows him the back of his head, or between the screwer and the screwed, the rider and the ridden, the doer and the done to, the one who comes and the one come on … The merits of the back would only be described by a man besotted by them, addicted to riding them, itching to sleep with them and hooked upon chasing them: a man at odds with the law, who has strayed from the straight and narrow and severed his connections  with common decency — in other words, an habitual felon, an inveterate backslider, a persistent suborner and a confrere of sinners and deviants. [2]

Al-Jahiz disparages scholars who engage in sloppy reasoning, deliberately subvert truth, and promote lies and vice.  He expresses faith that his friend’s reasonableness will allow him to be turned from the back to the front.  He prays that God will lead us from the front and that we will not turn our back on God.  Al-Jahiz deploys these common argumentative tactics in conjunction with his insistent and outrageous punning.  After al-Jahiz’s essay, a vicious argument between originalist and living-text legal scholars could easily generate involuntary laughter.  That’s serious scholarly work.

In his essay “Drink & Drinkers,” al-Jahiz ridicules scholarly disputes about the legality of alcoholic drinks.  The Qur’an declares that wine is sinful, an abomination, and to be avoided.  The Qur’an also declares that the righteous in paradise will have “rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink.”[3]  Understanding these passages and the legal status of alcoholic drinks other than wine are matters of interpretation.  Islamic scholars have actively debated these legal issues.  Al-Jahiz first approaches these legal issues with detailed, contradictory, and absurd lists of consequences of drinking:

Vintage toddy clears the mind, invigorates the body and puts backbone and heart in a man. … It banishes flatulence and wind and gets rid of bile and phlegm.  It promotes good will and giving.  … It is a faithful companion when one’s lonely.  …{on the other hand} it loosens the tongue and adds to the level of nonsense around.  It causes bad temper and incontinence.  … {The drunk man} dribbles down the front of his tunic and throws up the last meal that he ate. [4]

After he has established that reasoning through such consequences is ludicrous, al-Jahiz focuses on enticing descriptions posed as legal questions:

What is your view of the fine raisin toddy of Homs or the stuff that is made from white honey?  With its rose-red colour glowing behind a patina of gold, it looks like sunlight captured in a glass and laughter in the palm of your hand.

What about the juice of bruised grapes, heated to help it along and aged in the jar to perfection?  When opened, its bouquet suffuses the air.  Its colour has the brilliance of garnets, set in a bed of bright rubies.  It gleams in the glass like newly minted dinars and sparkles like a meteorite shower. [5]

Arguing from an originalist-textualist view (the back orientation), al-Jahiz rejects the claim that God’s intent was to forbid all alcoholic drinks.  God in the Qur’an singled out wine for prohibition.  Al-Jahiz, essentially asserting the interpretive principle that English common law later called expressio unius est exclusio alterius (“the express mention of one thing excludes all others”), argues that God’s plain-statement prohibition of wine means that other alcoholic drinks are legal.  Al-Jahiz’s main point, however, seems to be more about aridity of legal disputes.  He observes:

If the nature of the debate about intoxicating drinks was of the same order as the controversy between the proponents of different singing styles and rhythms, delivery, tone and metre, the lengthening and elision of notes, the role of the breath, throat, palate and uvula, the right amount of string tension to produce the finest sound, the correct place to insert a glottal stop or vocalize a consonant with “u”, whether the “quick” metre is more suited to the first or second string or whether a gently descending scale is more melodious than a rapidly declining one — if the argument was of that order, the matter would be simple and I would defer to anyone laying a claim to knowledge superior to mine.  However, I debate with no one whose knowledge is inferior. [6]

Despite the legal disputes, al-Jahiz and his interlocutors have extensive lips-on experience of intoxicating drinks.  In the matter of intoxicating drinks, the originalist-textualist interpretation of the Qur’an kisses experience as the logic of the law.  Al-Jahiz’s essay supports the legal principle, obscured in bitter legal arguments, that some pleasures are licit.

In his essay “The Pleasures of Girls & Boys Compared,” al-Jahiz takes scholarly discussion of sexual pleasure to popular obscenity.  Debating the merits of men having sex with boys relative to men having sex with women was a common literary theme in the ancient Greco-Roman world.[7]  Al-Jahiz does not attempt to outdo in eloquence and learning his literary predecessors.  Al-Jahiz’s opens his subject with lewdness.  He states that the pious ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas, on pilgrimage to the holy mosque in Mecca, recited this verse:

If the words that a little bird tells me are true,
This woman who’s walking beside me, I’ll screw.

With implicit ridicule of legal scholar’s debates, al-Jahiz also reports that another pious man prayed:

Lord, make my penis as hard during intercourse at Your law permits.[8]

After such preliminaries, al-Jahiz moves on to the literary set-piece of a debate between a pederast and a fornicator.  While a similar debate that Plutarch stages in his Dialogue on Love is full of literary references and sophisticated rhetoric, al-Jahiz has the two sides showing little learning and mainly exchanging quotations of poetry.  Al-Jahiz ends the dialogue diffusely and then adds a section of popular obscene jokes.  Al-Jahiz thus strips the pretenses of the literary topos and exhibits its crude appeal.

Given the importance of hospitality in Arabic culture, al-Jahiz’s attacks on tedious and repulsive scholarly disputes and his formulation of much more hospitable alternatives are serious scholarly work.  Al Jahiz was neither merely an amusing writer, nor a serious scholar according to the dominant conventions of scholarly seriousness of his time, or ours.[9]  He apparently cared deeply for entertaining scholarly communication.  That’s an idea worth effort for scholars to understand.

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[1] Under Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, legal scholars were required to testify as to whether the Qur’an was coexistent with God or created by God.  These proceedings are known as the Mihna.  Scholars determined to have incorrect beliefs about the createdness of the Qur’an were subject to torture and execution.  On the intellectual-political contours of the Mihna, see Hurvitz (2001).  Similar disputes existed in the ancient world regarding the creation of the world and the origin of medicine.  On originalist and living schools of legal interpretation in the U.S. today, see Scalia (1997) and Breyer (2005). Interpretation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution is a prominent legal issue over which the originalist and living-text schools have clashed. The contemporary U.S. legal academy leans strongly toward the living-text school, while the originalist school was most popular among legal scholars in the ninth-century Abbasid caliphate.  That difference seems to be related to the underlying structure of the deliberative market: U.S. legal statutes can be changed and the U.S. Constitution can be amended, while the text of the Qur’an is given.

[2] Al-Jahiz, Risalah fi tafdil al-batn ‘ala al-zahr, trans. Colville (2002) pp. 64-65 (Inside, Outside & Back to Front). The translation in Hutchins (1989) (The Superiority of the Belly over the Back) is similar, but more literal and less colorful.  The authorial figure strongly condemns his interlocutor’s sexual orientation.  While expressing compassion for the interlocutor himself, the authorial figure appears self-centered, arrogant, and narrow-minded:

I have discovered a residue of sympathy for you in my soul and a feeling of pity towards you: it is only the afflicted who can be pitied.  All praise be to God for sparing me from the scourge which He has meted out to you and for making me superior to so much of His creation.

I believe that I should now conclude this essay with the simplest of prayers for you, so earning divine reward for myself.

Trans. Colville (2002) p. 68.

[3] Qur’an 2:219; 5:9, 90; 47:15.

[4] Al-Jahiz, Kitab al-sharib wa al-mashrub, trans. Colville (2002) pp. 135-36 (On Drink & Drinkers).  Hutchins (1989) doesn’t include this work.

[5] Trans. Colville (2002) p. 137. Abu Nuwas (lived from about 756 to 814 GC in Baghdad) is a classical Arabic poet widely regarded as having written the greatest poetry in praise of wine (khamriyyāt). In addition to writing explicit poems about men having sex with men, Abu Nuwas wrote more than four hundred wine poems.

[6] Id. p. 142.  Al-Jahiz criticized grammarians for unnecessary, tedious complexity, disparaged them for mainly being “tutors of adults and teachers of youngsters,” and pointed to their lack of relevance in broader social contexts.  Baalbaki (2009) pp. 104-5, 108-110.  In his Book of Animals, al-Jahiz stated:

I am completely infatuated with two things, listening to the accounts of the Bedouins and to the contending arguments of two opponents in theological disputation.  Nothing is better than these two; for both arouse amazing stores of good spirits that can hearten a bereaved person even in the extremities of sorrow, or cheer up an angry person even as the flames of rage consume him.  And if these two activities do not offer themselves, then one can find in all subjects sufficient types of entertainment, humor, pleasure, leisure, and distraction.

Trans. Heath (2009) pp. 168-9.  Al-Jahiz’s claim of infatuation with accounts of the Bedouins and contending arguments in theological disputations seems meant ironically.  The cultural elite of ninth-century Baghdad probably considered accounts of the Bedouins to be like accounts of Puritans and cowboys in contemporary American culture.  Consider, for example, al-Jahiz’s account of a love story of Jamil and Buthaynah.  Or ponder the position of al-Jahiz’s teacher al-Asma’i relative to Bedouin love. Moreover, most theological disputes in ninth-century Baghdad probably were as boring as most law review articles in the U.S. today.  Al-Jahiz engaged in theology, but across a much broader canvass of subjects and concerns than that of the typical legal scholar.  Like Galen, al-Jahiz vigorously engaged his opponents, but also despaired of the prevailing communicative competition:

{Al-Jahiz} wants to achieve the utmost clarity to make the fullness of commentaries and interpretations unnecessary.  On the other hand, he is convinced of the necessity of discussions, debates, and different criteria.  Different versions, even disagreements, are part of our linguistic activity and are not to be condemned.

Behzadi (2009) p. 132.  The challenge in deliberative market competition, just as in other areas of market competition, is to get competition that serves the public interest.  Not all forms of competition do so.

[7] See, e.g. Plutarch, Dialogue on Love (Erotikos/Amatorius), in Moralia, trans. Babbitt (1927) v. 9 (alt. 19th-century translation); Pseudo-Lucian, Affairs of the Heart (Amores), trans. Harmon; Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, 2:35-38, trans. Reardon (1989).

[8] Al-Jahiz, Kitab mufakharat al-jawari wa al-ghilman, trans. Colville (2002) pp. 203, 204 (The Pleasures of Girls & Boys Compared), for both quotes above.  Hitchens (1989) pp. 139, 141 (Boasting Match over Maids and Youths) has a much more literal translation of the first quote (poem).

[9] A leading scholar of al-Jahiz observed:

a tendency, almost universally discernible in the European persona of al-Jāḥiẓ, to seek refuge in humor, irony, and parody (all synonyms in the fabrication of this persona) when al-Jāḥiẓ in his writings refuses to conform to the very persona we have fashioned for him.  And this is a most comforting and facilitating hermeneutic circle in Jāḥiẓian studies: al-Jāḥiẓ is not a serious writer and therefore when he appears to be serious he must not be serious because he is not a serious writer.

It is not that al-Jāḥiẓ is not playful or that he does not voice his characters uttering jokes and witticisms—sometimes he also voices his own various auctorial personae as uttering these witticisms.  He does this often and repeatedly.

Montgomery (2011) p. 624.  The serious/not-serious dichotomy obscures al-Jahiz’s attempts at reforming serious scholarship.  Part of that attempted reform is to encourage others with a wide variety of capabilities to engage with scholarship to the extent of their capacities.  See Montgomery (2009) pp. 226-9.


Baalbaki, Ramzi. 2009. “The Place of al-Jahiz in the Arabic Philological Tradition.” In Heinemann et al. (2009) pp. 92-110.

Babbitt, Frank Cole, trans. 1927. Plutarch’s Moralia. London: W. Heinemann.

Behzadi, Lale. 2009. “Al-Jahiz and his Successors on Communication and the Levels of Language.” In Heinemann et al. (2009) pp. 125-132.

Breyer, Stephen G. 2005. Active liberty: interpreting our democratic Constitution. New York: Knopf.

Colville, Jim, trans. 2002.  Al-Jāḥiẓ.  Sobriety and mirth: a selection of the shorter writings of al-Jāhiz. London: Kegan Paul.

Heath, Peter. 2009.  “Al-Jahiz, Adab, and the Art of the Essay.” In Heinemann et al. (2009) pp. 133-72.

Heinemann, Arnim, Manfred Kropp, Tarif Khalidi, and John Lash Meloy. 2009.  Al-Jāḥiẓ: a Muslim humanist for our time. Würzburg: Ergon Verlag in Kommission.

Hurvitz, Nimrod. 2001. “Miḥna as Self-Defense.”  Studia Islamica. 2001 (92): 93-111.

Hutchins, William M., trans. 1989.  Al-Jāḥiẓ.  Nine essays of al-Jahiz. New York: P. Lang.

Montgomery, James Edward.  2009.  “Al-Jahiz on jest and earnest.”  Pp. 209-39 in Tamer, Georges. 2009. Humor in der arabischen Kultur / Humor in Arabic culture. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Montgomery, James Edward.  2011. “Why al-Jahiz Needs Slonimsky’s Earbox.”  Journal of the American Oriental Society. 131 (4): 623-634.

Reardon, Bryan P. , ed.  1989. Collected ancient Greek novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scalia, Antonin. 1997. A matter of interpretation: federal courts and the law : an essay. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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