Al-Jahiz and Ibn Battutah

“The book is silent when you need silence, and eloquent when you want it to talk. It never interrupts you if you are busy, but if you are lonely it will be a good companion. It is a friend who never deceives or flatters you, and it is a companion who never grows tired of you.” — al-Jahiz

I recently finished listening to a Great Courses lecture series on the Islamic Golden Age, and two figures in particular caught my attention: Al-Jahiz and Ibn Battutah. Al-Jahiz was a prolific writer who lived 776-868/9; a number of his works still survive today, including The Book of Animals and The Book of Misers. Known for his wit as well as his insight, the Book of Animals is particularly notable for hinting at a precursor to the Theory of Evolution. The Book of Misers is a collection of anecdotes about tight-fisted people, but is respected for its exquisite use of prose and cutting humor. In his life al-Jahiz was a well-regarded scholar, and even, so the story goes, was in the running to serve as mentor to the Caliph’s children. However, the children were scared of his bug-like eyes, and so he was passed on for the post. The name “al-Jahiz” in fact means the bug-eyed, and is a name he acquired later in life; his birth name was Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī. The “al-Baṣrī” refers to his hometown of Basra, where he was born and died, although he spent a great part of his adult life in Baghdad.

Ibn Battutah was a great traveler, who explored vast swaths of the Eastern Hemisphere. He made the Hajj several times, but his travels took him through China, India, southeast Asia, central Asia, and all over the Middle East and North Africa, all the way to Spain. He wrote a book titled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling covering all of his travels. Throughout his life, he often stopped and took posts as an Islamic judge, as he was well-educated and was from a family of judges. Cities he visited included Mecca, Alexandria, Damascus, Jerusalem, Medina, Basra, Tabriz, Jeddah, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Constantinople, Bukhara, Samarkand, Delhi, Chittagong, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Marrakech. Quite a list! He stayed for eight years in India, working as qadi (religious judge) for the Sultan there, who apparently had quite a temper and even didn’t let ibn Battutah take another hajj; ibn Battutah only finally got out when he was sent as emissary to China. He spent his twilight years at home in Morocco, and it was then that he dictated his travelogue.

These two well-versed men contributed great works to the world canon, and the world is richer for it. I hope I’ve piqued your interest and you get a chance to do some further reading about them, or perhaps even pick up one of their works! À la prochaine!

Muslim Heritage: Al-Jahiz

Islamic Philosophy Online: Al-Jahiz

World Digital Library: The Book of Misers

1001 Intentions: Al-Jahiz’ Book of Animals

Enotes: al-Jahiz Critical Essays

Why Ibn Battutah is the Greatest Explorer of All Time

World Digital Library: Ibn Battutah’s Rihla

The Mariner’s Museum: Ibn Battutah

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