"A Rich Concept of Arabic / al-cArabiyya:

al-Jahiz's Original View of 'Arabic' in relation to the Holy Qur'an"*


Jamal el-cAttar (PhD, University of Edinburgh)

(PS: best viewed in MSIExplorer 5.5, with Arabic Language Support)


In this paper the following features of Arabic shall be discussed, according to the cAbbasid figure al-Jahiz (776-869 CE /160–255 AH). These features are:

  • Spontaneity

  • Richness

  • A divine gift or a human product?

  • Divine ‘Qisma'

  • Superiority of Arabic (The Fortune of Arabic)

  • Notion of 'Nazm' (Qur'anic literary configuration)

  • Notion of 'Sarfa' and the literary capacity of the Arabs

  • Concluding Comments

Features of Arabic

1 Spontaneity

In what may be described as one of the earliest comparative linguistic  attempts,  al-Jahiz concludes that whereas the languages and ideas  of non-Arabs had followed a process of immense meditation and long exercise  of the mind, and rested heavily on studying books[1], Arabic language and thought, he says – while attempting  to historize for the pre-Qur'anic period – were uniquely spontaneous[2] and were almost inspired. Words were at the Arabs' disposal once they wanted them, and were uttered in abundance without exerting any extraordinary effort. The Arabs were not like those who needed to memorize the knowledge  of others deliberately, nor had they to artificially model their speech in the form of those who preceded them. They could not  but transmit what hey naturally found palatable and close to their hearts and minds[3].

Furthermore, Arabic has a charming simplicity and smoothness to learners, provided, that there exists a genuine need to know it.[4] Those who question al-Jahiz's opinion are advised by him to visit Arabia and meet its most eloquent poets and orators in order to have  a direct taste of Arabic[5].


2 Richness

Arabic expression, "البيان العربي", al-Jahiz adds, "has no equal, and Arabic  language has no parallel in its richness and wealth."[6] This richness is attributed by al-Jahiz to an incomparable synonymic[7] and derivative[8] nature of Arabic. Al-Jahiz says,

    "The Arabs have been 'more' eloquent in their expression and they enjoyed a language which was 'richer' in vocabulary, 'terser' and (uniquely) precise in word, the composition of its speech was 'more varied' and the application of proverbs which were in use therein were outstanding and more current".[9]


3 A Divine gift or a human product?


One may ask how was it that the literary excellence of the Arabs preceded their cultural excellence? i.e., how did it happen that Arabic reached a certain level of maturity (before Islam) prior to the actual appearance of their civilization? Was there an Arabic civilization before the Arabic language matured to its pre-Qur'anic stage? Was it an  outcome of a gradual agreement among Arabs? Or was it installed in form and content  all of a sudden?
These questions bring us closer to al-Jahiz's view of the relation between Arabic and the Qur'an.
Not only the Qur'an was divinely revealed, Arabic itself (amongst other languages) was also inspired. Adam (PBUH) is  said to have been the first speaker of Arabic[10], the language that was exclusively endowed with a unique capacity to grow and increase in perfection and was enriched with unique incomparable features in order to allow it to demonstrate the miraculous difference between  human and divine eloquences. According to a Hashimite report[11], al-Jahiz says that an outstanding Arabic was later initiated in the person of the Prophet Ismacil (PBUH) who is said to have  become an outstanding speaker of Arabic, not after proper instruction but because of a divine miracle that shifted his tongue and character to Arabic. That shift was a proof to the truth of his prophethood[12]. So Ismacil (PBUH) stood in relation to his people in the same relation Muhammad (PBUH) was to stand before Quraysh[13]. In both instances the miracle was in the sudden way  each excelled the native speakers of Arabic before him.

What happened between Prophet Ismacil's time  (PBUH) and the pre-Qur'anic stage of Arabic maturity? al-Jahiz's  answer is  interesting, as it reflects a developmental outlook within  the overall inspirational outlook to Arabic. In other words, al-Jahiz gives room for a human role in the journey undertaken by Arabic. According to al-Jahiz,  Arabic was a bounty-lent[14] by God to the Arabs. It was God who provided the Arabs with  the chance of exercising and experimenting with that bounty, thanks to the  superior synonymic and derivative capacities endowed in it,  before the time came to reveal the difference between human and Divine eloquences  of Arabic.

Until Arabic reached its pre-Qur'anic stage, al-Jahiz's account of the journey made by Arabic may hypothetically be sketched as follows:

    1- Prophet Adam (PBUH): first Divine inspiration of Arabic with potentialities of excellence which were not given to other languages inspired to Adam (PBUH).

    2- The Arabs: were offered God's bounty to experiment and enrich it in Arabia[15].

    3- Prophet Ismacil's (PBUH) outstanding Arabic in relation to the Arabic of the people around him.

    4- Pre-Islamic Arabs continued exercising with God's lent bounty until  they produced an  unprecedented literary output. al-Jahiz's rough estimation of the oldest poetry before Islam does not precede it by more than two hundred years[16]. His other estimate of an (indefinite) but longer[17] period does not go as far as the period that witnessed Greek wisdom.  In both cases it is implied in al-Jahiz's attitude that Arabic had been undergoing a growing line of excellence which was proportional to its  proximity to Islam. This observation applied to all Arabs, initially the Northerners then followed by the Southerners who could not avoid joining the circle of Arabic due to the common geographic setting, and frequent  inter-marriages with the Northerners[18].

    5- Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) outstanding Arabic in relation to the Arabic of his people; Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) sudden excellence in Arabic, ranks after the Qur'an in the hierarchy of excellence[19].

    6- The unsurpassable Qur'anic Arabic.

    7- Post-Islamic Arabic.

So what al-Jahiz believes  to have occurred to Arabic in the meantime, is eventually evident in the  superior  literary status of its most notable clan, Quraysh. Quraysh is said  to have  been subjected to the strictest divine supervision that "eliminated  genetic  impurities (and raised it in its literary and socio-moral  excellences  over all other Arabian tribes) in preparation for all that is  magnificent  and most significant"[20], al-Jahiz says:

    "وقريش قوم لم يزل الله تعالى يقلبهم في الأرحام البريئة من الآفات وينقّلهم من الأصلاب السليمة من العاهات ويعبّيهم لكل جسيم ويربيهم لكل عظيم".

[Wa Quraysh qawmun lam yazal Allahu ta‘ala yuqallibuhum fi al-arham al-bari’a min al-aafat, wa yunaqqiluhum min al-aslab al-salima min al-‘Aahat, wa yu‘abbihum likul jasim wa yurabbihum likul ‘azeem]


al-Jahiz's own description of the literary status of Quraysh[21] and the Pre-Islamic Arabs[22] sums up his view of Arabic mentioned above; i.e., of an inspired supervised Arabic. According to al-Jahiz, Arabic had  been miraculously enriched, initiated and divinely nurtured until it reached its pre-Qur'anic destined  stage of maturity whereby Arabic  and the Arabs were both to experience and witness an unusual charming  Arabic, the Qur'an, that had an unprecedented arrangement (Nazm ), a new literary configuration that assembled their very own alphabets  and words yet which lies beyond  their literary level of superiority, and stays unsurpassable!

4 Divine ' Qisma'

Al-Jahiz substantiates his original thesis of the divine origin of Arabic by making another comparative study, this time  among the Arabian tribes themselves; he says:

    "While some Arabian tribes had shared the same fertile geographical setting, they however exhibited different poetical output. Thus, there was no relation between the geographical setting and poetical output. Poetry and power of expression, are due to "ما قسم الله", i.e., what Allah has allocated (Qasama)"[23]

According to al-Jahiz the invisible caring hand of God was not confined to the Arabs alone, but was also responsible for the virtues of all other nations. For example, the Greeks were also gifted with wisdom, the Persians with political management, the Turks  with military strength, etc.

The Arabs were endowed with the Arabic language and its corresponding socio-moral code, which al-Jahiz calls:
"حظ العربية", "the fortune of  Arabic" (Hazz al-cArabiyya)[24].

Again he says:

      "God's Justice ordained that His bounties be evenly divided among His creations, by giving each generation and every nation its right share, that is conducive to the correct understanding of religion and leading to the perfection of the world's welfare"[25].

And his notion of Divine "qisma" does not mean that such virtues bestowed by God on nations should be apparent in every member of these nations. They have been available on a general basis, and  are likely to be almost uniquely present in one but not in the other nation, says al-Jahiz:
    "It was not that every Arab was a poet and expert in tracking foot-steps or in the science of physiognomy, but these virtues and the like were more abundant, widespread, exclusively perfected and more apparent amongst them"[26] .

5 Superiority of Arabic: " حظ العربية" ("Fortune of Arabic")

Owing to the superior feature of Arabic, the Arabs were elevated to a distinguished literary and socio-moral status among nations:
    "Because of the eloquence of Arabic and the beauty of its expression, God sent His best Prophet amongst the Arabs, made his language Arabic and even revealed to him an Arabic Qur'an"[27].
In other words, Arabic was God's chosen language for His chosen message: i.e., Arabic could not have carried God's message to humanity had He chosen English or Latin for that purpose. Since Arabic was destined to play a specific function in  the future, i.e., to witness the revelation of the Qur'an, we can now understand why al-Jahiz was inclined to expect a distinguished birth of the Arabic language, first in the person of Prophet Adam (PBUH), then in Prophet Ismacil (PBUH) accompanied in the latter case by God's supervision of his Qurayshite descendents, lest they, the Qurayshites, – as an expected  Islamic nation – will not certainly benefit from the beautiful Arabic, its  charming logic and its binding moral code that it had been  intended to convey.

What is significant in al-Jahiz's  view of Arabic is not just the linguistic aspects of Arabic but also the  inseparable socio-moral dimensions

    "وليس في الأرض قوم أعنى بذم جليل القبيح ودقيقه  وبمدح دقيق الحسن وجليله من العرب، حتى لو جهد أفطن البرية وأعقل الخليقة أن يذكر معنى لم يذكروه، لما أصابه. ولهم حظّ العربية مع الحفظ لأنسابهم ومحاسن أسلافهم ومساوئ أكفائهم للتعاير بالقبيح والتفاخر  بالحسن ليجعلوا ذلك عونا لهم على اكتساب الجميل واصطناع المعروف، ومزجرة لهم عن إتيان القبيح وفعل العار وليؤدبوا أولادهم ب ما أدبهم به آباؤهم".

[Wa laysa fi al-ard qawmun a‘ana bi zamm jalil al-qabih wa daqiqihi wa bi madh daqiq al-hasan wa jalilihi min al-‘Arab, hatta law jahida aftan al-bariyya wa a‘aqal al-khaliqa an yazkura ma‘nan lam yazkuruh, lama asabah. Wa lahum hazz al-‘Arabiyya ma‘a al-hifz li ansabihim wa mahasin aslafihim wa masawi’ akfa’ihim li al-ta‘ayur bi al-qabih wa al-tafakhur bi al-hasan li yaj‘alu zalika ‘awnan lahum ‘ala iktisab al-jamil wa istina‘a al-ma‘arouf, wa majzaratan lahum ‘an ityan al-qabih wa fi‘il al-‘Aar wa li yuaddibu awladahum bi ma addabahum bihi aaba’uhum…]

If the Arabs were to excel the nations of the world, Arabic has  been the mark and the cause of their excellence[29]

The fortune of Arabic, "حظّ العربية", that was exclusively for the Arabs had given them a three-fold superiority and a distinction over the nations:

  • The Arabs have proved to be perfect candidates for the first Islamic society proposed in the Qur'an owing to the binding moral code that remained amongst their notables as was evident in the mastery of Arabs in cheering of virtues and condemning of vices, says al-Jahiz[30]:

"إحكام العرب شأن المناقب والمثالب ... في بقايا ما ثبتوا عليه من دين إبراهيم."

[Ihkam al-‘Arab sha’n al-manaqib wa al-mathalib…fi baqaya ma thabatu ‘alayh min din Ibrahim…]

  • The Arabs have been credited with the honour of transmitting to the human race God's first Universal Speech that was conveyed through their language. It was through the Arabs that God addressed humanity, and it is therefore incumbent on the Arabs to translate the meaning of the Qur'an to all the world[31].

  • As the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, the Arabs were raised to be God's direct addressee, thanks to the (socio)-literary excellences He has provided[32].

The Arabic language is superior to the languages of the world in the same way that the Qur'an is superior to the language of the Arabs[33]. The Arabs who failed to display something similar to the Qur'an, while they being God's direct addressees has been meant to be God's permanent sign and  proof of His miracle to humanity at large,[al-‘Arab hum al-hujja ‘ala jami‘ ahlal-lughat]  "العرب هم الحجة (حجة الله) على جميع أهل اللغات", as they, themselves, have failed to match its excellences[34].

6 The notion of Nazm (Qur'anic literary configuration)


al-Jahiz found the Qur'an to be magnificent in its amazing literary configuration, he says:
    "The Qur'an differs from all the known rhymes of poetry and prose. It is a prose whose rhythm is not modelled on that of poetry or rhymed prose (sajc, "سجع") and whose configuration  stands as a magnificent evidence and as a great Divine proof"[35].  
The underlying secret of the Qur'an, says al-Jahiz, lies in the very special  and unprecedented composition of the very Arabic letters and words used by the Arabs. As in any masterpiece of  art, the attention follows the way things  are composed and assembled from the same raw material known to all [36].
It is remarkable that this notion of Nazm was later developed by cAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjani[37] (d. 471 AH) who adopted al-Jahiz's position regarding the miraculousness or the inimitability of the Qur'an.

7 The notion of Sarfa and the literary capacity of the Arabs

In spite of al-Jahiz's Muctazilite position regarding man's great capacity of free will, it is only in this place that we find his view of human ability in relation to (i) literary output and (ii) the inability to surpass the Qur'an to reflect his belief in the "Jabrite" doctrine of Predestination (i.e., human free will is restricted in this respect)[38].

Could he not have served the notion of Icjaz better without resorting to "sarfa", i.e., while still recognizing man's ability as continuously perfect and not turned away?[39] The point was that while some maintained the notion of Icjaz, in their full recognition of man's undisrupted free will yet of his inability to surpass the Qur'an,  men  like al-Jahiz however, thought that it  would show more respect for man's  free will if  we assume his established weakness vis-à-vis the Qur'an, was not a malfunction of our perfect faculties, something not coming from  within when left to their normal functioning, but due to a Superior Will that turned them away  from  so doing. If al-Jahiz's resort to sarfa may  appear to be an early compromise between caql (reason) and naql (revelation), it is in facta diplomatic call  to continuously marvel man's caql that could have  produced something like the Qur'an, had  he been able to do so; i.e., if he could have escaped being eventually turned away by God from doing so. Al-Jahiz's view of sarfa is therefore twofolded in its implication. It is first implying a sarfa of capacity (Divine intervention,  man's  ability being divinely incapacitated),  hence leading to sarfa of attention, will  and desire[40]. In this respect he was following the  position of his  teacher, al-Nazzam[41].

But does al-Jahiz see the Qur'an as an obstacle to the future post-Qur'anic literary capacities of the Arabs?

No.  If Arabic was destined to grow before the Qur'an, its post-Qur'anic development  cannot be denied. Arabic was not meant to be frozen in the literary forms  of pre-Islamic Arabs. Post-Qur'anic eloquence of Arabic was still possible[42], and al-Jahiz himself notes that some Arabic tribes reacted  differently to the coming of Islam: a tribe like Banu Badr remained poetless while Banu al-Harith b. Kacb produced famous Islamic poets, when they were not famous poetically before the advent of Islam[43]. So while post-Qur'anic eloquence was recognized by al-Jahiz (even if it was emitted by non-Arabs) – that eloquence was recognized by al-Jahiz, displayed by their predecessors and consequently below the perfect  Arabic that had been cristallized in the Qur'an, thanks now not to the factor of mixing with nations that was gradually diluting their pure literary talents  but also due to the Divine intervention or mechanism of "sarfa" through which al-Jahiz implies – God was maintaining, generation after generation, His version of the "Perfect Qur'anic Arabic".  

I think that the Qur'anic challenge loses its defying intensity and cannot be held as really open and charismatically eternal if man's literary abilities are unnecessarily and continuously checked, incapacitated and diverted from meeting that challenge.  al-Jahiz's  attempt to serve the concept of eternal challenge – eternal  cajz (failure) therefore need not be based on Divine "sarfa " but rather on an undisrupted capacity and undeflected attention; al-Qur'an's  superiority is not because man's attention is eventually being turned away,  but it is because man's capacity is kept at its best. In short, endowed with a promising potential for a growing exellence, Arabic's  journey rested - in perfecto - in the Qur'an, leaving Arabs with the unsurpassable walls of the excellences of the Qur'anic Suras, as if these written suras  (literally, walls or fences) were erected before all Arabs, speakers of Arabic and the nations of the world, as an empirical sign pointing to the undeniable  difference between the literary peak of human (i.e. Arabic) eloquence and that of the Divine Qur'anic eloquence.


Concluding Comments

al-Jahiz's above views on Arabic should be fitted  into their historical context as they initially reflect an intellectually curious search for the wisdom underlying the conditions that brought about the Qur'an in an Arabic dress. Hence, al-Jahiz may be credited for initiating such an analytical search into the distinctive features of pre-Islamic Arabic language and culture[44], and how they stand in comparison to the Qur'an and to all other languages and cultures, in the belief that there was no conflict between the "Universality" of the Qur'an and its "particular" Arabic setting.

In his rational attempt to understand the harmonious relation that existed  between the Qur'an and the pre-Islamic language and culture, al-Jahiz at one point did say that Arabic enjoys a higher literary status than that of the other languages, simply because of the undeniable charismatic fact that the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. This position needs not be necessarily implying a national prejudice by al-Jahiz towards the Arabs. In my opinion, the notion of the superiority of Arabic to the other languages, outlined  above, does not reflect the real and complete picture, because before Arabic  happened to enjoy that status, it had to demonstrate its inferiority to the  Qur'an. Similarly, had the Qur'an been revealed in Latin, all non-Latin languages  would have been inferior to it, as Latin would be less superior to the revealed  Latin. So before raising Arabic to an internationally comparative linguistic  analysis, we have to remember the historical failure of the most eloquent  Arabs to imitate the Qur'an[45], that was intended to stress  the permanent difference between human and Divine eloquences, between pre-Islamic  Arabic and Qur'anic Arabic, and left as a sign to attract the world via  the  Arabs to its contents[46] .

If the superiority of Arabic was not proposed by al-Jahiz out of a "Shucubi" national prejudice, it was nevertheless forwarded against those Shucubi's (anti-Arabs), who undermined the language and culture of the Arabs after realizing their role in the appearance of the Qur'an and the proposed Muslim Umma. al-Jahiz's opinion on the special birth or distinctive initiation and Divine supervision of Arabic could be seen from the same angle. In order to face "Shucubi" attacks, al-Jahiz had to raise the superiority of Arabic from the pre-Qur'anic era to the time of Prophet Ismacil (PBUH) or Adam (PBUH), thus enhancing its historical prestige (and future one too) that could fit with his Muctazilite notion of Khalq al-Qur'an (createdness of the Qur'an), but without taking it any further in time as his contemporary Hanbalites were assumed by him to have raised it above the limits of time (and therefore  accused  by him of polytheism by assuming it had co-existed with God) by opposing to hold the Muctazili notion[47].

As far as al-Jahiz's inspirational attitude to the origin of  languages is concerned[48], one may raise the objection that if Prophet Adam (PBUH) was equally the first speaker of languages, what was the  special thing about Arabic?  Because Arabic had been special since its inception in Prophet  Adam (PBUH), then this raises  its status vis-à-vis other languages  since its initiation.  We may infer that out of all  languages that had been revealed to Prophet Adam (PBUH), Arabic was the only language exclusively chosen by God to enjoy those innately incomparable superior features in order to fulfill its destined Qur'anic role i.e., in order to demonstrate  miraculously the obvious difference between human and Divine eloquences. Of course, languages other than Arabic were  used by God or His prophets before Prophet  Muhammad (PBUH), but by raising  the charismatically inspired features of Arabic to Prophet Adam's time (PBUH), we may also say that not even one of the languages  revealed to those Prophets was intended to demonstrate the dimension Arabic had had to convey. Previous  prophetic messages were instead concerned with the content that could have  been expressed in any language. The content of previous  languages of revelation was stressed by external miracles  which were outside the realm of human speech, but the content of the final revealed message was mainly stressed by its  Divine and inimitable expression .

In short, Arabic had a special start in preparation for a special future function. That is why we have seen al-Jahiz's explanation of the literary excellence of Arabs as being "almost inspirational"[49], i.e., drawing from the Divine pool, implying that it could  not have been learnt or acquired. Similarly was the case with Prophets Adam (PBUH), Ismacil (PBUH) and Muhammad,(PBUH), because perfection in Arabic  eloquence can only be sought from the reservoirs of God whereby no one can rival Him in this respect. This outlook reflects another Muctazilitic way[50] for expressing their concern to apply monotheism or Tawhid  (here, uniqueness of power of speech of God) in all aspects; a concern that sometimes had grown out of its (Muctazilitic) proportions, and unintentionally bridged the gap with the Hanbalite's or "Jabrite's" concept of God, especially when one prominent member like al-Jahiz held that although it appears that man had had a share in the linguistic development undertaken by Arabic[51], it was in fact – al-Jahiz says – God who was the Hidden and Real Architect of events, Sole Supervisor and Unique Perfector of Arabic[52].



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--, K. al-Hayawan, ed. A. Harun, 7 Volumes, Cairo: 1950 and Beirut: Dar Ihya' al-Turath al-cArabi, 1958.

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[1]  al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan wa-al-Tabyin,ed. A. Harun (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr,  n.d.) 3:28. See also 3:6.
[2] al-Jahiz's own words read (Ibid)

  "وكل شيء للعرب فا نما هو بديهة وارتجال وكأنه إلهامو ليست هناك معاناة ولا مكابدة ... وكل معنى للعجم فا نما هو عن طول فكرة وعن إجتهاد رأي وطول خلوة وعن مشاورة ومعاونة وعن طول التفكر ودراسة الكتب وحكاية الثاني علم الأول وزيادة الثالث في علم الثاني...".

[Wa kullu shay’in lil-‘Arab fa innama huwa badeehatun wa-irtijal waka'annahu laysat hunaka  mu‘anatun wala mukabada… wa kullu ma‘na li al-‘Ajam fa innama  huwa ‘an tuli fikratin wa 'an ijtihadi ra'yin wa tuli khalwatin wa ‘an mushawaratin wa mu‘awanatin wa ‘an tul al-tafakkur wa dirasat al-kutub wa  hikayat al-thani ‘ilm al-awwal wa ziyadat al-thalith fi ‘ilm al-thani…]

[3] Ibid, 3:28-29 and Rasa'il al-Jahiz, ed. A.Harun  (Cairo: Maktabat al-Khanji, 1964), 1:70. Does this quality extend to al-Jahiz's  time? Would such a generalization  allow spontaneity in eloquence and thought  (feature of Arabs  before  Islam) to be accompanied by proper learning and methodic  instruction (a  quality  attributed to non-Arabs)?  Well, contrary to a recent interpretation of al-Jahiz's statement, that saw in that spontaneity a permanent feature of Arabs, thus denying them the natural  capacity of meditation and planning (See M.A. al-Jabiri, Takwin al-cAql al- cArabi, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-cArabiyya, 1998) p.32, we find  al-Jahiz's view of Arabic easily accommodating (i) spontaneity  and  (ii) resort to books of wisdom and frequenting  culama'. Yes, books are not the  source for a distinction in eloquence,  (the factor being attributed  to  Divine  provision of the Arabs'  poetical instincts, "ما قسم الله لهم من الحظوظ في الغرائز" [ma Qasama Allah lahum min al-huzuz fi al-ghara'iz]. See K. Al-Hayawan, ed. A. Harun, (Beirut: Dar Ihya' al-Turath  al- cArabi, 1958) 4:381, but al-Jahiz's age differed from the  pre-Islamic  age, and now resorting to books and frequenting culama' would  uncover one's qariha (gift in eloquence) but cannot create it. See  al-Bayan, 1:86. Moreover, al-Jahiz's fondness of  the superior literary abitlities  of the Muctazila clearly reflect that spontaneity and meditation may go together.  See Ibid., 1:138-139.

[4] al-Jahiz, K. Al-Hayawan, ed. A. Harun, 5:289-290. For the other factors  affecting learning, see al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan,  3:293-294, and T.Khalidi, "A Mosquito's Wing: al-Jahiz on the Progress of  Knowledge". In Arabic and Islamic Garland (London: 1977).

[5] al-Jahiz, K.al-Bayan, 1:29, al-Jahiz's own testimony reads (Ibid., 1:144-145):

"و كلام الناس في طبقات كما أن الناس أنفسهم في طبقات ... وأنا أقول: إنه ليس في الأرض كلام هو أمتع ولا آنق ولا ألذ ولا أشدّ اتصالاً بالعقول السليمة ولا أفتق للّسان ولا أجود تقويماً للبيان من طول استماع حديث الأعراب, العقلاء, الفصحاء, العلماء, البلغاء..."

[Wa kalamu al-nas fi tabaqat kama anna al-nas anfusahum fi tabaqat… wa ana aqul: innahu laysa fi al-ard kalamun huwa amta‘u wa la aanaq wa la alazz wa la ashadd ittisalan bi al-‘uqul al-salima wa la aftaq li al-lisan wa la ajwada taqweeman li al-bayan min tuli istima‘a hadith al-A‘Arab, al-‘uqala’, al-fusaha’, al-‘ulama’, al-bulagha’…]

[6] al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Akhbar wa Kayf Tasihh, ed. C. Pellat, Journal Asiatique, 255 (1967) p. 92.

[7] al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Bayan, 1:17-20

[8] On Arabic Ishtiqaq (derivative nature) see K. Al-Hayawan,  1:153-154 & 2:80, 185-6, 197, 288-289, and K. al-Bayan, 1:139, 169. This  incomparable nature, we shall see, has accompanied Arabic since its inception  in Adam (PBUH).

[9] al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan, 1:384

[10] al-Jahiz, K.al-Bayan, 3:290.

[11] Rasa'il al-Jahiz, 1:31, and K. al-Bayan, 3:290-293, 1:383. Ibn Faris, the linguist quotes a similar report by Ibn cAbbas. See al-Sahibi, (Beirut edition) pp:31-34.

[12] Ibid. The alleged origin of Arabic is accepted by al-Jahiz along the same lines of religious thought that recognizes Ismacil's (PBUH) sudden utterance of Arabic consistent with God's role behind Jesus's  (PBUH) speech while in the cradle, John's (PBUH)  utterance of  wisdom while   boy, Solomon's (PBUH) knowledge of the  language of  birds and ants. Believers from all nations of the world, al-Jahiz says, will equally speak Arabic  in paradise without prior learning – Rasa'il,   1:33 and K. al-Hayawan,  4:82.

[13] al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan, 2: 17, 18, 28 & 4: 30-32.

[14] al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan, 1:348. As if God doubled His bounty by revealing His final version that remains inimitable yet challenging.

[15] See K. al-Bayan, 1:163. The benefit of confining Arabs to Arabia may reflect al-Jahiz's assumption that Arabic had to be kept in its purest form. This territorial view of languages i.e., that each territory had its special language, may be compared to the inspirational view of languages to Prophet Adam (PBUH) and his sons, whereby each son chose a different territory. See Ibn Jinni (d. 392 A.H.), K. al-Khasa'is, 1:41, quoted by A. al-Rajihi, Fiqhal-Lugha fi-al-Kutub al-cArabiyya, (Beirut, Dar al Nahda al- cArabiyya, 1972) p. 81.

[16] al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan , 1:74.

[17] al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan , 6:277.

[18] al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan , 3:291

[19] Ibid. 2:17, 18, 29 & 4:30-32; al-Jahiz's own words read:

"وكلام رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم مما لم يسبق اليه عربي ولا شاركه فيه أعجمي, ولم يدّع لاحدولا إدّعاه أحد. وهو الكلام الذي قل عدد حروفه، وكثر عدد معانيه... لم يسمع الناس كلاماً قط أعمّنفعاً ولا أقصد لفظاً ولا أحسن موقعاً ولا أفصح معنى من كلامه...".

[Wa kalamu Rasuli Allah -salla Allahu alayhi wa sallama- mimma lam yasbuq ilayhi ‘Arabiyyun wa la sharakahu fihi A‘ajamiyyun, wa lam yudda‘a li ahadun wa la idda‘ahu ahad. Wa huwa al-kalam allazi qalla ‘adadu hurufihi,  wa kathura ‘adadu ma‘aneeh… lam yasma‘ al-nas kalaman a‘amma naf‘an wa la aqsada lafzan wa la ahsana mawqi‘an wa la afsaha ma‘nan min kalamih…]

[20] Rasa'il  al-Jahiz, 3:46, on the literary excellence of Quraysh, see: Rasa'il al-Jahiz, 4:117, 238.

[21] al-Jahiz says (ibid):

      "وقريش أفصح العرب لساناً وأفضلها بياناً وأحضرها جواباً وأحسنها بديهة وأجمعها عند الكلام قلبا"

[Wa Quraysh afsahu al-‘Arab lisanan wa afdaluha bayanan wa ahdaruha jawaban wa ahsanuha badihatan wa ajma‘uha ‘inda al-kalam qalban…]

[22] See Rasa'il, 3:278-280, & Kitab al-Akhbar, p. 92.

[23] Banu Hanifa were almost devoid of poetry, while Aws and Khazraj were poetically famous. See K. al-Hayawan, 4:380.

[24] Rasa'il, 1:67 and Kitab al-Akhbar, p. 92.

[25] Rasa'il, 4:103.

[26] al-Jahiz, Kitab al-Akhbar, p.91. al-Jahiz rightly adds that one may even observe a variation in the power of speech among Arabs: "You would find the redundant, the incapable of expression, the slow, the erroneous, the boaster, the talkative, etc…" , al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan, 1: 144-145. An identical view is taken by al-Jahiz's faithful disciple, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (4th cent. AH). See al-Imtac wa-al-Mu'anasa (Beirut: Dar Maktabatal-Hayat), vol. 1:74.

[27] al-Jahiz, Rasa'il 4:237.

[28] al-Jahiz, Kitabal-Akhbar, p.92. An identical view of Arabic is taken again by Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi. See al-Imtac wa-al-Mu'anasa, 1:77-78.

[29] It should be stressed here that although al-Tawhidi's view of the superiority of Arabic is that of al-Jahiz, al-Tawhidi's approach to that result seems to be more empirical and less dogmatic, as he openly calls for a universal comparative study between Arabic and the languages known to him during the fourth century A.H., see (Ibid.), 1:77-78 whereby al-Tawhidi sums up the linguistic superiority of Arabic in its unique explicit and implicit capacities.

[30] al-Jahiz, Rasa'il ,1:69-70, and K. al-Hayawan, 6:223.

[31] See K. al-Hayawan, 7:213-214, and K. al-Bayan,  1:105. Though al-Jahiz  says that poetry cannot be (fully) translated  (K. al-Hayawan, 1:75), he means that there are peculiar elements in  every language that cannot be fully rendered  to the other language.  When this comes to translating Arabic poetry, the translator's responsibility becomes bigger (Ibid., 74-77). When it comes to the Qur'an, the responsibility is magnified (Ibid.,77) but in both cases it is not impossible. Translation from and to Arabic is encouraged but as Z.N. Mahmoud interprets al-Jahiz, while translating to Arabic, the translator is faced with the least amount of elements peculiar to the language in translation.  While translating from Arabic, however, the translator is faced with the highest ratio of elements that cannot be rendered from their assembled state in Arabic into the other language. See Majallat al- cArabi, volume 362, January 1989, (Kuwait: Ministry of Information), pp. 20-21. al-Jahiz's advice concerning translation from Arabic had to wait five centuries before the need existed to translate Arabic in Spain. See "Nazariyyat al-Jahiz fi-al-Tarjama", by M. Abdal-Hamid, in al-Mawrid, vol.7, No.4, 1978, pp. 48-50.

[32] al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan, 7:214, and al-Rasa'il, 4:237-238.

[33] al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan, 1:144-145, and al-Rasa'il, 4:237-238.

[34] al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan, 7:213-214, and K. al-Bayan, 3:291, 295-296. al-Jahiz describes the Arabs' failure (cajz ) to match the Qur'an as due to "Sarfa"  (Divine intervention).

[35]  al-Jahiz, K. al-Bayan, 1:383.

[36] See al-Jahiz's critical view of good poetry, K. al-Hayawan, 3:131-132.

[37] See K. Abu Deeb, al-Jurjani's Theory of Poetic Imagery,  (Wiltshire:  Aris and Philips Ltd, Warminster, 1979) and I. cAbbas, Tarikh al-Naqd al-Adabi cind al- cArab  (Beirut: Mu'assasat al-Risala, 1971) pp. 419-425.

[38] This attitude shows that al-Jahiz is not truly a complete Muctazili. I propose to expound his "Jabrite" (pre-ordained) view in a separate article.

[39] On "Sarfa", see K. al-Hayawan, 4:89, and  6:269. al-Jahiz's  understanding of the failure of Arabs ( cajz) is that it was because of Divine sarfa. This sarfa was not a sarfa (negation) of their own will, for they have attempted and tried, but it was a sarfa of their capacity; hence their failure.

[40] See Risala fi Hujaj al-Nubuwwa, 3:273-277. Wherein al-Jahiz aims to stress the consensus in agreement (itbaq) of the Arabs challenged by the Qur'an, on the impossibility of producing the like, having felt their cajz, thus leading them to discard the matter  (adrabacan, taraka ) gradually losing any motive, and neglecting it (ghafilacan). In this way sarfa of attention followed sarfa of capacity.

[41] See al-Shahristani, al-Milal-wa-al-Nihal, 1:56-57.

[42] al-Jahiz finds the poetry of Bashshar despite his Persian origin, to be the most spontaneous among a group including non-Arab poets as Abu-al- cAtahiya and Sayyid-al-Himyari. See al-Bayan, 1:50.  His courageous invitation to literary critics to free themselves from any national prejudice ( casabiyya) before commenting on the value of any literary work, is remarkable. In this respect he values the poetry of Abu Nuwas  to be superior to that of al-Muhalhal. See K. l-Hayawan,  2:27 and 3:129. This attitude allowed him to see in nations other than the Arabs good qualities.  See my M.A. thesis: The  views of al-Jahiz Concerning the Nations as eflected  in  his Works: an Exposé and Critique. American  University of Beirut, 1989.  But the general rule observed  by al-Jahiz concerning (post-Islamic) masters of Arabic eloquence, remains the same as he regards the Arabs (whether Beduin or city dwellers) to be more  "poetic",  " أشعر", than poets of Arabic coming from the Mawali (clients) group, by virtue of a stronger Divine provision of eloquence to the former and not the latter.  See K. al-Hayawan,  3:130. Territory, instincts and races are acknowledged in al-Jahiz's concept of human eloquence, not that they are the independent causes for any difference in eloquence amongst nations, but because they are the medium or the channels to receive that Divine Qisma. See Ibid., 4:380-381:

       "و إنما ذلك عن قدر ما قسم الله لهم من الحظوظ في الغرائز، والبلاد والأعراق مكانها...".

  [Wa innamam zalika ‘an qadr ma qasama Allah lahum min al-huzuz  fi al-ghara’iz, wa al-bilad wa al-A'araq makanuha...]

But while the native Arabs continue to display an Arabic eloquence superior to that of non-native Arabs, al-Jahiz says that the level of pre-Qur'anic  eloquence of the Arabs remains to be almost unmatched by the most gifted Arabs of his age! See K. al-Bayan, 1:29. By effect of the cultural mixing between Arabs and other nations, the previous scale of widespread eloquence is significantly diminished, and hence not every Arab in al-Jahiz's time retains the uncorrupted poetic talents that his predecessors had widely enjoyed in the literary "Beduin milieu" of Arabia (Ibid., 1:28 and Kitab al-Akhbar,p. 93).

[43] See K. al-Hayawan, 4:381. Ibn Khaldun (8th C) similarly says that the eloquence of the Islamic poets was superior to that of the pre-Islamic poets because the former were more fortunate to have been introduced to Qur'anic and Hadith literature that was not present before the latter. See cAbbas, op. cit, p. 622.

[44] Whereas al-Tawhidi appears to respond to that socio-lingual search (see f.n. 28), Abd al Qahir al-Jurjani was concerned with the linguistic aspects (al-Nazm).

[45] See al-Jahiz, Risala fi Hujaj al-Nubuwwa, 3:273-277.

[46] Ibid., 3:256-7 and footnotes 31 , 34 above.

[47] See al-Jahiz, Risala fi Khalq al-Qur'an, 3:285-300.

[48] See footnote 10 above.

[49] See footnote 2 above.

[50] The first way was by refuting the co-existence of the Qur'an with  God.

[51] See footnote 14 above.

[52] See al-Jahiz, Risala fi al-Mucallimin, 3:46 and Risala fi Hujaj al-Nubuwwa, 3:244 and Risala fi-al-Awtan, 4:110-111.

This paper was given by invitation of BRISMES  (British Society  For Middle Eastern Studies), during the 1992 Annual Conference at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, 9-10 July 1992. It was also published in the Proceedings of this Conference which was entitled:  Democracy in the Middle East, pp. 20-33. Website: http://www.dur.ac.uk/brismes/index.html

Other papers by Dr. Jamal el-'Attar on this site:
  • Address: "Pearls of Civilizations" (attar1.htm)
  • "East-West Healthy Cultural Relations" (attar3.htm)
  • "Melodious Messages from Mountains of Light" (attar4.htm)
  • "Perpetuators of the Power of Peace: When Languages, Arts & Literature Cross-Culturally Unite & Altruistically Please!" (attar5.htm)




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