Islamic Father of Evolution

Al-Jahiz (776-868) was a philosopher, poet, zoologist and writer, one of the few Muslim scientists.  Born in Bazra, Iraq, he was a celebrated writer who loved amusing anecdotes .  He was also a keen observer of the social and natural worlds. Al-Jahiz wrote over 200 works, the most famous of which was his 7 volume Book of AnimalsKitab al-Hayawan, which (even incomplete) runs to seven volumes in the printed edition.

Al-Jahiz (776-868) was a philosopher, poet, zoologist and writer, one of the few Muslim scientists. Born in Bazra, Iraq, he was a celebrated writer who loved amusing anecdotes and keen observer of the social and natural worlds. Al-Jahiz wrote over 200 works, the most famous of which was his 7 volume 'Book of Animals. In this encyclopaedia he discusses animal communication and mimicry, social organisations, the intelligence of insects and mammals. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
(Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Despite the title, the Book of Animals is by no means conventional zoology, or even a conventional bestiary. It is an enormous collection of lore about animals – including insects – culled from the Koran, the Traditions, pre-Islamic poetry, proverbs, storytellers, sailors, personal observation and Aristotle’s Generation of Animals.

 The “literary” quality of the Book of Animals, however, should not obscure the fact that it contains scientific information of great value. Anticipating a number of concepts which were not to be fully developed until the time of Darwin and his successors 1,000 years later, al-Jahiz toys with evolutionary theory, discusses animal mimicry – noting that certain parasites adapt to the color of their host – and writes at length on the influences of climate and diet on men, plants and animals of different geographical regions. He even gets into animal communication, psychology and the degree of intelligence of insect and animal species. He gives a detailed account of the social organization of ants, including, from his own observation, a description of how they store grain in their nests in such a way that it does not spoil during the rainy season. He knows that some insects are responsive to light – and uses this information to suggest a clever way of ridding a room of mosquitoes and flies.

Few manuscripts of the Book of Animals survive. Even more important than the text, however, are the superb miniatures, which illuminate it. Illustrated Arabic manuscripts of any sort are extremely rare. One surviving copy of the Book of Animals held in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan has 30 miniatures.

The Crocodile from The Book of Animals by Al-Jahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images
The Crocodile from The Book of Animals by Al-Jahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images
Queen Taking the Fruit from a Plate Offered by two Handmaidens from The Book of Animals by Al-Zahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images
Queen Taking the Fruit from a Plate Offered by two Handmaidens from The Book of Animals by Al-Zahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images

For his speculation environmental determinism, food chains and the struggle for existence, Al Jahiz is considered the father of modern evolutionary theory.

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