al-Jahiz shows alternative to Ziolkowski’s magnanimity

In the opening acknowledgements to his seminal and magisterial critical edition of Solomon and Marcolf, eminent professor Jan Ziolkowski thanked numerous persons. Ziolkowski even went as far as to thank students:

The second group of those who merit appreciation is the audience of students, in both large lecture courses and small language classes at Harvard University, upon whom over the past decade I have inflicted draft translations of the Medieval Latin S&M. The glee that these readers have taken in both the subversive earthiness of Marcolf and the authoritative schoolishness of Solomon played no small part in my decision to complete the undoing of my reputation among my colleagues by publishing this project. [1]

Ziolkowski thus credited his intellectual daring and courage to his students. Moreover, Ziolkowski exonerated all who had helped him for any errors in his critical edition:

All of them are entitled to exculpation for any remaining errors and infelicities. [2]

Monograph authors commonly conclude acknowledgments by accepting personal responsibility for any remaining errors. For a book that’s not much more than the author’s subjective interpretation of literature, that’s not much more than taking responsibility for one’s own thoughts.

Error in a critical edition is a much different beast. Consider:

est largior in dando: ist mult zu beczalen den man α. Mulier pinguis et grossa est larior in dando iussa: Cattus (Catta MN) piguis et grossa est tardior (tardus L) in murium captura LlMm; Nn has both versions. dando: danda C. iussa: fissa Gg; lacking in S. [3]

What if iussa actually isn’t lacking in S? Philologists swing battle axes over lesser offenses. How could anyone dare to accept responsibilities for all errors in a critical edition? After all, an author cannot be expected to verify personally all the factual grammatical etymological linguistic textual scribal details that go into a critical edition. Some mistakes might really be someone else’s fault!

The eminent ninth-century Arabic scholar and author al-Jahiz shows a much less magnanimous alternative for distributing credit for work and responsibility for errors. Al-Jahiz’s masterful On Misers begins with a formal address to the book’s anonymous patron. That address concludes with a disclaimer:

I have written down numerous tales for you, many with their author’s names attached, others with no attribution to their authors, either out of fear of them or out of respect for them. Had you not asked me for this book, I would certainly neither have gone to the trouble of writing it, nor exposed myself to ill treatment and retaliation. So if this book be reproached or have weaknesses, it’s your fault; but if there be success, it’s mine not yours! [4]

Later in his book, al-Jahiz declares:

If in this book you come across any solecism, words lacking grammatical inflection, or improper expression in my source, please realize that I have left them out on purpose. Applying the correct rules of grammar to those words would spoil the charm of our stories and blunt their edge. But I have retained the errors where I offer words of those misers with pretensions to intellectuality and words of such avaricious house scholars as Sahl ibn Harun and the likes of him. [5]

Al-Jahiz might appear to be rude, crude, and unlearned. But those who study his book closely recognize his literary genius. His book is On Misers. Misers is a topic plausibly related to the implied author’s lack of magnanimity toward others.

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[1] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. ix-x. The subsequent quote is from id. Solomon and Marcolf should be required reading for all college students.

[2] Ziolkowski thus followed the practice documented in an ancient Latin epigram:

si placet commune est, si displicet nostrum

{ if it pleases, credit belongs to the community; if it displeases, the blame is ours }

[3] Id. p. 251 (Textual Notes on Part 1, Prologue 14b). Here’s some relevant discussion (see in particular note [1]).

[4] al-Jahiz, On Misers (al-Bukhalāʼ), from Arabic trans. Serjeant (1997) p. 7, adapted non-substantially for readability. The proper transliteration of al-Jahiz is al-Jāḥiẓ. I use the former form because non-specialists are more likely to search using that form.

[5] al-Jahiz, On Misers, last paragraph before section on Ahmad ibn Khalaf, my adaption of the translation of Serjeant (1997) p. 32, with help from Colville (1999) p. 40. The manuscript witnesses to On Misers are sparse and full of errors. Serjeant generally provides a more exact scholarly translation, while Colville’s translation is generally more readable.

The translations of the above passage have some significant differences. Serjeant’s translation is:

If, in this book, you come across any solecism, or speech wanting in grammatical inflection, or an expression misapplied from its proper sense, you should know that I have left it out because grammatical inflection makes this kind (of story-telling) obnoxious and removes it from its own sphere, except when I retail some of the speech of those misers with pretensions to intellectuality and of such avaricious ulema as Sahl b. Hārūn and the likes of him.

Colville’s translation is:

If you come across any grammatical errors in this book, non-Arabic words or colloquial expressions, please realise that they have been left in on purpose. Applying the correct rules of grammar would spoil the charm of our stories and blunt their edge. The exception to this is when I quote from what pseudo-intellectual skinflints and cheapskate scholars, such as Sahl ibn Haroun, have to say.

The translation above is my attempt to provide a translation for readers with no knowledge of Arabic literature or culture. My translation is based on Serjeant’s and Colville’s translations, plus my sense of the meaning of the text given my understanding of how al-Jahiz writes. If the above translation is in error, everyone is responsible, but I am more responsible than all others.


Colville, Jim, trans. 1999. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. Avarice & the avaricious {Kitâb al-Bukhalāʼ}. London: Kegan Paul.

Serjeant, R.B., trans. 1997. Abū ʻUthman ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ. The book of misers: a translation of al-Bukhalāʼ. Reading: Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

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