Jeannie Miller is Assistant Professor at University of Toronto, where she teaches premodern Arabic literature. She is currently working on a book examining categories and their exceptions in al-Jahiz’s ninth-century Kitāb al-Ḥayawān. The book argues that semantic and natural categories are a major intellectual question for al-Jahiz,and that this interest is reflected in the book’s form and more generally in al-Jahiz’s prose style. This marks an early moment in the dance between lexicographic and Aristotelian notions of semantics in Arabic intellectual history. One of the most significant testing grounds for notions of category in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān is the boundary between human and non-human animals.
Al-Jahiz and Adab
Al-Jahiz is often treated as the first adib, though al-Jahiz does not use this term, and his organizational methods are for the most part not reproduced by those successors who did call themselves udabāʾ.
Nonetheless, this paper considers his approach to knowledge as a forerunner of “adab” in that it demonstrates a necessarily transdisciplinary knowledge practice, namely comparative debate (tamthīl, muwāzana, muʿāraḍa and other names). As demonstrated in al-Jahiz’s accounts of disputes like the dog-rooster debate in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, the early ninth century mutakallimūn engaged in rhetorical disputation as a trans-disciplinary practice. This dispute genre demanded an ability to undercut the opponent by shifting the terms of the debate, switching from one domain of knowledge to another – between historic analysis of poetry, law, theology, medicine, and so on. This produced a wide-ranging body of learning among practitioners, including a strong focus was on intellectual method. This oral genre, as reproduced, developed, and theorized in al-Jahiz’s writings, inspired al-Jahiz’s trans-disciplinary approach to knowledge, often referred to (for better or worse) in twentieth-century scholarship as adab and as humanism. Al-Jahiz’s transdisciplinary practice then is not merely a matter of juxtaposing varied source materials, but rather has a focus on juxtaposing intellectual approaches. The paper will treat this fore-runner of adab in comparison with his contemporaries, Ibn Qutayba, al-Mubarrad, and Ibn Ṭayfūr.