Let us explore how the natural world is figured in several Arabic texts by looking at some key moments.
Moment One, al-Andalus, ca. 544-5/1150: The Story of Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (Alive Son of Awake), the boy reared by a gazelle on an equatorial island as imagined by Ibn Ṭufayl
The setting is the Isle of Wāqwāq south of the equator in the Indian Ocean. Men and women are born on the island but without father or mother. Women are born from a special tree. Here the four elements are in complete balance. The light in which the island is bathed produces an ambient atmosphere which is a perfect prerequisite for spontaneous generation. It is thus that an archetype of the noble savage, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, literally ‘Alive the Son of Awake’, is born. Or is it? For the narrator of Ibn Ṭufayl’s philosophical conundrum presents us with a second birth story. As an infant, Ḥayy was put to sea in a casket by his noble mother who feared for his life, just as the mother of the baby Moses did. The narrator does not tell us how to reconcile these two stories. Indeed, the point they are intended to make is not clarified either. Is it that we are invited to choose between religious credulity and scientific causality, between faith and science?
The creator of this experiment, Ibn Ṭufayl poses us many, many more puzzles of this ilk. His narrator tells the story of how Ḥayy is nurtured and reared by a gazelle and, as he grows to manhood, penetrates the secrets of natural science (his first act is to dissect his dead gazelle mother), develops and practises ethics (he cares for plants and protects vulnerable animals, eats only what he can forage), explores physics and then abstracts metaphysics. His final achievement on this journey is communion with the divine, leaving the supralunar world behind.
Upon his descent back to terrestrial form in the cave, Ḥayy learns how to bring about this separation of body and soul, almost at will. His solitary life is soon to end, however, for Absāl, an interloper from the mainland, visits the island and finds Ḥayy engaged in his ascetic and meditational practices. It is in the company of Absāl that Ḥayy acquires language and learns that there are many more people like Absāl. He agrees to travel with him to the inhabited world and to share his knowledge with others. He finds humans, however, to be frustrating creatures, unable to rise above their everyday concerns, and in despair abandons human society to return to his island.
Tales such as this speak beyond their time and place. Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān captured the imaginations successively of the Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494), of the British empirical philosopher John Locke (d. 1704), of the English novelist Daniel Defoe (d. 1731) and possibly even of the Dutch rationalist Benedict Spinoza (d. 1677). Each of these scholars read Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān as a philosophical programme, as a manifesto of autodidacticism – of what the human mind is able to achieve through the unaided and untrammelled application of reason.
Imagined places give birth to imagined tales, in a manner not dissimilar to the spontaneous generation we have just heard about on the Isle of Wāqwāq. Let us begin in al-Andalus, the landmass of the Iberian Peninsula as conquered and inhabited by the Muslims from the third/eighth to the tenth/fifteenth century. Al-Andalus is itself an imagined space, a site of nostalgia, and, according to many moderns, a beacon of convivencia, an oasis of multicultural coexistence where the Abrahamic religions lived side by side in harmony. It is hardly surprising, then, that some scholars trace the etymology of the name al-Andalus to the lost city of Atlantis of which Plato wrote, for both are figments, shards of myth. The end of al-Andalus is marked by the discovery of the New World, a hitherto undreamed of place, by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
But these tales also live in their time and place and retain echoes of where they are born. Al-Andalus was a site of natural experiment, fabled for its material abundance, its agriculture and advances in botany, and its magnificent gardens set in and around palaces of breath-taking scale, complexity and beauty. The Alhambra in Granada is a late, but wonderful, example of this Andalusi vision. Andalusi poets such as Ibn Khafājah (d. 533/1139) were also adept at composing poems in celebration of their natural paradise.
Al-Andalus throughout its long history was intimately connected with the Maghreb, North Africa. During the sixth/twelfth century, a powerful Berber reform movement, the Almohads, were in the ascendancy. Their name in Arabic is al-muwaḥḥidūn, those who profess the unity of God – a brand of purified and chastened monotheism, so pristine in fact that to profess it meant in many ways to discard the particularities of religious identities. It was a universal and universalising monotheism, a system which did not cherish belief informed by an unquestioning acceptance of dogma based on prior authority. So there is an Almohad aspect to Ibn Ṭufayl’s tale, for, by growing up without any parents or elders or teachers, the narrator suggests, Ḥayy is not trammelled by the acceptance of any prior dogma at all and is thus able to connect with the light of reason which God has implanted in each and every human being and so attains a level of spiritual enlightenment none but prophets have achieved.
Ibn Ṭufayl, who died in 581/1185–6, was a prominent courtier, probably a member of the cadre of intellectuals and scholars maintained by Almohad rulers. He was an older contemporary of the great Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (d. 595/1198). He presumably had an all-round education: in Qur’anic studies; grammar and lexicography, belles-lettres and poetry; medicine; and possibly even the law. He may have worked as the ruler’s personal censor, reviewing the works commissioned by the ruler.
His profession as censor certainly fits with the enigmatic and puzzling style he uses for his story. Most readers of the work are seduced into seeing its message as one of outright triumph. It is indeed a tale of triumph, but a compromised triumph, for Ḥayy is incapable of communicating what he has learned to other men and Absāl succeeds by imitating Ḥayy’s example before Ḥayy can speak and as he learns how to speak. Ineffable knowledge is necessarily incommunicable. The acquisition of language signals the inability to express the experience of the divine. Thus, Ḥayy cannot really communicate what he knows and returns to his almost solitary life of ascetic devotions on the Isle of Wāqwāq.
We are left to exercise our own powers of reason in order to evaluate Ḥayy’s fate. His return to his island paradise reveals nature and corporeality to be ambiguous – it is both how Ḥayy is empowered to discover and commune with God, and how he is hindered from perpetual communion with the divine.
Moment Two, Baghdad ca. 338/950: The Debate Between Man and the Animals at the Court of the King of the Jinn by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ)
My second moment also occurs in an imaginary setting but it is not a setting that is an imagined physical space. I mean the philosophical coterie of the Brethren of Purity. This group of philosophically minded thinkers are in a very real sense the direct descendants of Plotinus and his followers in Rome during the second century AD. As Plotinus and his fellow seekers of the truth lived lives of contemplation, yearning to found the ideal city of Platonopolis, so the Brethren of Purity explored the secrets of nature and God’s creation in each other’s company. The community which they sought to found was not a physical but a psychic city, a city of souls, for they shared with many other Muslim intellectuals of the classical eras a belief that through ethical cultivation and virtuous living, together with philosophical reasoning, their souls could somehow transcend their bodies and coexist with the souls of other like-minded humans in a manner which left materialism behind.
These enigmatic writers set out to write an encyclopaedic collection of fifty-two epistles, in which all learning, wisdom and correct bodily regimens would be set forth. So strong was their rejection of their physical selves, so keen their desire to efface their corporeal individualism and to realise psychic community through the annihilation of identity, that we do not know their identities with any real certainty or even when the epistles were written, despite the phenomenal popularity their writings enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) in the Muslim world. This prioritisation of the communal over the individual must also have been central to how they wrote, for the uniform style of the epistles suggests that they are the product of group composition.
Epistle Twenty-Two is The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn. (The translation of the Arabic title of the work is: On the Classes of Animals, their Wondrous Physiques and Unusual Behaviour). Once again we find ourselves on an idyllic island in the Indian Ocean near the equator: the kingdom of Bīwarāsp the Wise, the King of the Jinn. (In Islamic folklore, the jinn, genies of the European imagination, are beings of fire who are often malevolent to man; in the Qur’an, we learn that some of the Jinn are Muslims, some unbelievers).
The Brethren tell us briefly of the history of human civilisation. Exiled from the Garden, Adam procreated and his descendants spread throughout the earth. For as long as humans were outnumbered by the animals, they lived in far-away places, in fear. They lived as vegetarian gatherers and foragers but did not molest or interfere in the animal kingdom. With towns and cities came the domestication of the animal kingdom. Domestication led to the enslavement and enforced labour of the beasts, much to the chagrin of the non-human animals. The animals who remained wild now inhabit the far-away places where once men lived in fear. But unlike the animals who did not molest these reclusive humans, the humans went beyond the domestication of non-human animals to hunting and trapping them out of a conviction that non-human animals were their slaves. So things continue, even after the arrival of Prophet Muhammad and his conversion of many of the Jinn.
We are told that Bīwarāsp and his people live in edenic bliss until a ship carrying merchants reaches his shores. The humans from the ship settle and build towns in this paradise regained. They impose their will on the non-human animals, beasts and cattle who, prior to the ship’s arrival, inhabited the island in a state of natural splendour and harmony. In sum, humans are caught in a cycle of repression and unthinking hostility to the animal kingdom. This time, however, the animals send a delegation to Bīwarāsp and protest that the humans wrongly consider the animals to be their runaway slaves. Bīwarāsp, a wise and just king, invites seventy humans to come to his court to defend their position against the plaint of the animals.
A long and brilliant debate ensues between the animals, human and non-human, in which a dazzling array of positions are presented. At each turn, the non-human animal delegates defeat the arguments of their human opponents. In order to comprehend why the Brethren use the fabular device of giving voice to the animals in order to compose the zoological section of their encyclopaedia, why they excoriate humankind for their atrocious mistreatment of the natural world, and why they eventually conclude the debate as they do, we need to think about their Neoplatonic universe.
The Brethren’s starting point is God’s overwhelming grace and mercy. He is a providential creator who has so fashioned His creation as to ensure that every creature has what it needs in order to exist for its allotted span in a universe of perfect harmony and regularity. Stars and planets are set in hierarchically arranged spheres, and the course of these spheres is set by the angels who are both Neoplatonic intellects and Platonic Forms. God’s beneficence emanates down through the spheres and angelic intellects. The regular rhythms of the universe are thus made possible by His providence but also exhibit His providence. Each link in this cosmic chain is charged with an obligation from God: that it must pass His bounty down to the level below it. This regularity and providential harmony is evident also in the supralunar world, that is the world of nature. God gives to each and every creature all that it needs and in return each and every natural being, set in the environment that God has decreed for it, acts in accordance with God’s allotted gifts.
To man alone, however, God has granted an immortal soul, ‘a ray of light shed by the Divine,’ as ibn Tufayl’s translator L E Goodman puts it, and this means that man alone will be resurrected and judged – only he can win paradise and thus only he is accountable for his actions. In order for man to win redemption and remain true to God’s gift of an immortal soul, he is given the ability to make choices. Man alone in the universe as the Brethren constructed it is equipped with the faculty of choice, a faculty not even given by God to the angels.
Only man out of all of God’s creation is not content to remain within the boundaries God has set for him. He has forgotten what the non-humans are only too cognisant of: that his achievements in science, tradecraft, industry, and ingenuity, would be impossible were it not for God’s beneficent providence. Man has waxed arrogant and denied God’s grace. He has failed to comprehend that, for all its regularity, the universe is not eternal, because its continued operation is another manifestation of providence. Man’s achievements and capabilities are surpassed by similar capabilities in the non-human world, be it the social organisation of ants, the skilful fabrications of bees, the vision of birds, the compassionate behaviour of the griffin.
What man must learn from the other animals is that, although man has been singled out by God, and although the cosmos is anthropocentric, it is anthropocentric in a special sense. It is anthropocentric insofar as it exists to enable man to secure salvation and thus fulfil God’s gifts to him; but it is not anthropocentric insofar as it does not exist for him to do with as he pleases.
According to the Brethren, the non-humans are natural monotheists: ‘the highest piety, as the animals show by their own lives, is but a celebration of God’s mercies and a quest for His compassion’. Goodman argues persuasively that for the Brethren, ‘animals are not subjects’, but have a ‘virtual subjecthood’ that recognises their ‘moral standing’. The Brethren give animals the power of speech, Goodman posits, because of their ‘intrinsic worth.’
Man is thus enjoined to emulate the non-humans and fully to grasp that God’s decree is inexorable, that all things must pass, and that only God is perfect. The wisest choice a man can make is to seek refuge in God. In order to do this, he must recognise the teleology of non-human subjecthood, designed, at least as far as man is concerned, to allow the opportunity for him to perceive that choices are part of a system that is not articulated solipsistically. Such a perception is the crux of human obligation.
In what is both a surprising turn of events (because the non-humans are the real victors in the debate) and an inevitable conclusion (because the Brethren are unwilling to sacrifice the presence of the divine soul in man), victory is in the end given to the humans – but only just. Victory is awarded to the humans for the very thing which lifts them above the level of human and non-human: their ability to attain the status of ‘friend of God’ – i.e. the human capacity to leave the condition of humanness behind:
Please realise that these men who are the friends of God, the purest and best of all of His creation, behave honourably and pleasingly, with deeds that are pious, learning that is multifarious, insight deific, character angelic, lifestyles just and beatific, behaviour wondrously majestic.
But as we saw with the tale of Ḥayy, the crux of the matter is ineffable:
No one can describe their essential attributes adequately, and tongues grow weary when eloquent speakers try to list them. Over the ages many may have spoken of them in public gatherings, long homilies may have been devoted to the explanation of their exemplary lives and goodly ethos, but still their true nature has not yet been comprehended.
Thus, victory in the debate goes to the human, not because he is superior to nature and to the eloquent representatives of the non-human kingdom – quite the opposite, he abuses the position of responsibility God has given him, his stewardship of the natural world is, as the non-humans establish, tyrannical, and in the debate he is bested at every turn by the representatives of the animal kingdom. Man is victorious because he can achieve the incommunicable, he can realise the ineffable.
So, in what is a paradox typical of the Brethren’s thought, humans must exercise their God-given gift of choice in order to emulate the angels who are not blessed with the gift of choice. Choice must be used judiciously, wisely and piously, in order to be eradicated in utter, unquestioning obedience. This is why the Brethren state right at the beginning of their epistle that ‘when virtuous and good, man is a noble angel, the best of creation.’ In order to fulfil our humanity, we must transcend what defines us and marks us out as genuinely human – we must embrace the ineffable.
Moment Three, Arabia c. 620: Man and the Natural World in the Qur’an
It is hardly surprising that the first human to speak at the court of the King of the Jinn builds his defence of humankind on verses from the Qur’an. It is worth quoting this speech at some length, as it provides many of the major aspects of the revelation which outline man’s position in the natural world:
An orator, one of the descendants of al-ʿAbbās, stood up and delivered this speech from the pulpit: Praised be God, Lord of the Worlds, goal of those who are God-conscious, enemy of only those who do wrong. God bless our master Muhammad, Last of the Prophets, Imam of the Envoys, Dispenser of Intercession on Judgement Day. Praised be God ‘who created man from water’(25:54). He created his wife from him, and spread their seed, men and women, far and wide, honouring their offspring, carrying them by land and sea, and nourishing them with good things. As Almighty God says, ‘He created cattle for you, for they bring warmth, and give many benefits. You can eat of them. They delight you when you drive them to pasture and lead them home at the end of the day. They carry heavy loads for you to lands you would struggle and suffer to reach’ (16:5-7). The Almighty also says, ‘You are carried on them and on ships’(40:80), and, ‘Some cattle are beasts of burden, some are for slaughter’ (6:142). Praised be God who says, ‘horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and take pride in. You cannot know all that He creates’ (16:8), and ‘for you to sit astride their backs and be mindful of your Lord’s bounty when you are astride their backs’(43:13). There are many verses in the Qur’an, the Torah and the Gospels that show that animals were created for us and on account of us. They are our slaves, we their masters. I ask God’s forgiveness for us all.
As Goodman and McGregor note, there are other key passages in the Qur’an which the orator does not adduce, such as 16:14-16:
He it is who subdued the sea, that you might eat moist flesh from it and bring forth from it jewellery to wear, and see ships cleaving it, that you may seek His bounty and mayhap be thankful. He pitched towering mountains on the earth, lest it shake you; rivers and passes that you may find your way, and landmarks – for by the stars are they guided.
At first sight, the evidence seems compelling. We could easily be forgiven for concluding with the orator in his defence of humankind that the whole created world is put at man’s disposal for his benefit. The Qur’an appears to present creation as anthropocentric. Man is put in a position of pre-eminence and privilege. The mountains are created to stop earthquakes, which are a Qur’anic portent of the Last Day, the end of the world. Rivers and mountain roads allow man passage across insurmountable regions. The stars revolve in the night sky to help man find his way in safety. Cattle were created to provide transportation and food and skins to keep warm.
So how can the non-humans have a case before the King of the Jinn? Are they not simply being obstreperous, perverse and obstructive? Let us pay close attention to two aspects of the verses quoted by the ʿAbbasid orator, verses which are almost drowned out in the hubbub:
horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and take pride in. You cannot know all that He creates (16:8);
for you to sit astride their backs and be mindful of your Lord’s bounty when you are astride their backs (43:13)
In short, these verses contain two important Qur’anic messages: (1) man’s knowledge of things is limited compared to God’s – His design may contain more than man is aware; and (2) man is enjoined to ponder, reflect upon and consider what God has given him in the form of these natural blessings. God puts the natural world at man’s disposal to be enjoyed and used responsibly in keeping with the humility we feel in respect of His omniscience and the gratitude due to Him for His kindnesses.
Despite this encouragement and guidance, the orator concludes his series of quotations with a declaration that the non-human world is in thraldom to man.
The Brethren of Purity devote the remainder of their epistle to challenging this as an unwarranted inference to draw from the verses of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an has much to say about animals, human and non-human. In terms of non-human animals, the focus in the Qur’an is on the animals that its first audience would observe most frequently. This is most evident in the prominence of the insect world: spiders, flies, locusts, bees and ants abound. Perhaps the most conspicuous non-human animal is the camel, but the Qur’an reminds us that in God’s universe jinn and angels are non-human animals. Furthermore, God repeatedly draws attention to all the aspects of His creation that man is not party to, so the universe may even be populated by unknown and unspecified creatures. We are also reminded of the animal languages that God occasionally makes it possible for human animals to comprehend. The natural, non-human world of the Qur’an is a numinous mystery. The human world, however, is all too often deaf to this numinousness.
Paradoxically, the Qur’an presents creation as both theocentric and anthropocentric. It is theocentric because, in the words of Sarra Tlili, ‘any being that worships and obeys God obtains God’s pleasure and is rewarded in the hereafter.’ She also notes that ‘non-human animals … are answerable to God, not to human beings’ and argues that ‘privileged status is contingent upon moral and religious uprightness, not species membership.’ She draws attention to how the Qur’an ‘presents non-human animals as psychologically complex beings’ situated in a cosmos that is ‘highly interactive with its Creator: It makes choices, experiences emotions, takes divine commands, prays, and hymns the praises of God.’
But it remains anthropocentric in that the Qur’an is addressed to mankind, both good humans (i.e. those who are God-conscious, those who are grateful to Him for His bounty and so have embraced Islam) and bad humans, the wilful, woeful wrong-doers who have rejected God in their ingratitude. Tlili reminds us that the Qur’an ‘does challenge humans’ self-perceptions and brings to light many of the features that it considers moral and spiritual flaws.’ But not all human animals in the Qur’an are flawed. All humans need constant reminders of God’s grace, of course, but some humans are so depraved and corrupt that they need constant admonishment, in God’s limitless mercy. In the Qur’an, the natural world, while existing to obey and worship God, is designed somehow or other to alleviate the burden of the good members of mankind. It is hard, Tlili’s persuasive arguments notwithstanding, to resist the conclusion that God’s creation and its non-human animals are figured in the Qur’an as a gift to recompense the faithful for their displays of faith in this life. But that of course should not be taken to mean that everything is placed in man’s power exclusively for his sake or that the sake of any non-human animal is defined, delimited or determined by man’s sake. It is an error of teleology to assume that this is so.
In fact, it is a double teleological error. It misrepresents the purpose for which non-humans and the natural world were created – to worship God through uncompromising obedience and thus draw man’s attention to God’s overwhelming kindness to him by committing such things to his stewardship. And it misrepresents the purpose for which man was created – to celebrate God’s generosity through the appreciation of His blessings. Creation is thus anthropocentric, albeit in only a limited way – for it is actually theocentric. Man is not the end of the chain but another link fashioned by God. Man’s brutal treatment of non-human animals and abuse of the animal kingdom is a perversion of God’s plan for man and for His creation. As His special creature, before whom God asked the angels to kneel down in supplication, man should aspire to emulate God insofar as he is able. God is kind to man. Man should show gratitude to God for his gifts by being kind to other creatures in turn and in so doing ‘join a harmonious cosmic order of submission to the decrees of their Creator.’ It is thus that man will be rewarded in this life and the next.
Moment Four, Arabia ca. 600: The Zoomorphism of the Outlaw Poet al-Shanfarā
The era before the revelation of the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad is known in Arabic as the Jāhiliyyah: the Age of Ignorance, i.e. of the Revelation; or the Age of Savage Barbarism. For many in the classical era, a potent sign of the divine origin of the Qur’an was the forbidding, hostile and savage landscape into which it was revealed. Not only was the terrain inhospitable – desert upon desert of barren waste, with few settlements and townships. The people who inhabited that terrain were equally savage and inhospitable: lawless Bedouin nomads who were devoted to their ideals of vendetta and waged continuous warfare on each other as they crossed the deserts in their seasonal transhumance, from watering-hole to pasture land.
This savage barbarity was celebrated in mighty odes of a daunting complexity and forbidding diction. These odes sing of conquest, of masculine triumph over women, foe and nature, defiant challenges to the implacable desert.
The poets of these odes were thought to be gifted each with their own shayṭān, the word which we today know in English as ‘Satan’ – a familiar demon who whispered to them intimations of the unseen world. They were wild warriors, charged with singing the achievements of their tribe but they also lived on the margin of the tribe whose praises they sang, because they were both of this world and not of this world.
Of all the wild warriors, few were wilder than the ṣaʿālīk, the ‘brigand’ poets, outlawed by their tribes for conduct which could not be tolerated of even a peripheral presence. One brigand poet, Taʾabbaṭa Sharrā, whose name means ‘he picked up wickedness and carried it under his arm,’ taken by the tradition to be an allusion to his easy familiarity with noxious snakes, sings of how he encounters a ghūl, a shape-shifting ghoul, in the desert:
Who will tell the braves of Clan Fahm my tale?
At Raḥā Bitān I came face to face with a ghoul
darting through a barren desert flat as a sheet of vellum
‘Back off!’ I warned her, ‘we’re both exhausted, always on the move’
but she lunged in attack I parried with polished Yemeni steel
my aim was true down she fell, flat, on face and hands.
‘Hit me once more!’ ‘Stay still. My resolve is true!’
I lay on top of her all night waiting for dawn to see
what had attacked me eyes in a cat’s grim skull
split tongue an aborted camel’s misshapen legs
head of dog hair rags
like an old cloak or a tattered waterskin
Of all the wild brigands, few were wilder than al-Shanfarā, the wild man of the tribe of Azd. Ostracised by his tribe, the outlaw poet becomes zoomorphised. In his relentless defiance of his society, he successively surpasses the hardiness of the wolf and the speed of the sand-grouse to become a mountain ibex. Here is the climax of his famous poem known as the Lāmiyyat al-ʿArab, the poem of the desert Arabs rhyming in the letter ‘lām’:
Dog-days mirages melt
vipers slither on terracotta sand
I face the sun bare but for a few rags and
a mane of wild hair messy knots that blow in the wind
caked in a year’s grime lice-ridden
A desert torn by winds shield flat
empty no sign of humans
I climbed the mountains at its farthest lip
I stand and squat the lord of all I survey
amid the dark fleecy ibexes like girls in long flowing robes
my shelter from the midday blaze
Safe in my fastness I am a buck
By the end of his poem, the outcast poet, so long uncivilised and so far from the company of other humans, has transformed himself into an ibex. Zoomorphism has effaced humanity – though like the non-humans in the epistle of the Brethren, al-Shanfarā retains the power of speech.
The brigand poets are in a sense not so different from Ibn Ṭufayl’s wild man, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, on the Isle of Wāqwāq. To be sure, the Neoplatonism of Ibn Ṭufayl takes Ḥayy into the presence of the divine. But both Ḥayy and al-Shanfarā exult in the wonder of nature, unlike the men before the King of the Jinn who mistreat God’s creatures and inflict pain upon them.
Moment Five-Basra, 244/858: The Book of Living by Abū ʿUthmān al-Jāḥiẓ
Iraq in the ninth century was where one of the most startling cultural events of the pre-modern world unfolded: the translation into Arabic on a phenomenal scale of works in Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi and Sanskrit. The ninth century intellectual elite of Iraq had access to more of the writings of Greek antiquity than we enjoy today. They spent roughly the equivalent of the annual scientific research budget of a first-world country on locating, establishing and editing the manuscripts, translating them into Arabic and retranslating them if the original translations proved deficient.
Al-Jāḥiẓ was an omnivorous reader of this material. A theologian and writer, he died in Basra in Iraq in 868, imprisoned in his own body by a stroke. His bold synthesis of the meaning of existence and his difficult style of writing marked him out for posterity as a wild man and thus he became proverbial for his ugliness.
His magnum opus is one of the most remarkable books to have survived in Arabic: a detailed, extensive, and at times breath-taking survey of the natural world. This tumultuous and seemingly anarchic seven-volume treatise is known as The Book of Living. In it al-Jāḥiẓ intended to explore God’s creation and to reveal the multifaceted design which it contained. For al-Jāḥiẓ, creation was a semiotic system, a site filled with a cornucopia of signs and indications which God had tasked man with reading correctly. Many of these signs, according to al-Jāḥiẓ, were located in the non-human animals God had created to share the world with man.
Here are two passages from the book that showcase the author’s verve and bravura. In the first passage, Polemon, the first speaker, is the author of an important text from Greek antiquity known as the Physiognomy and the second speaker Māsarjawayh is a Christian Arab physician. The third speaker is, of course, al-Jāḥiẓ himself:
Polemon said: ‘Understand that pigeons and other birds do not respond well to being loosed from great distances. Their sense of direction depends on their training and on whether they have been habituated to a particular place. The first step is for the bird to be taken up and out onto a roof top, and for a marker which it recognises to be set up. It should not fly beyond where it dwells. Food should be thrown to it on the roof, morning and evening, close by the marker set up for it, in order for it to become familiar with the spot and accustomed to returning there. Let the fancier attend to what the marker is made out of. It must never be black or anything which looks black when viewed from a distance. The bigger the marker, the better it is as a sign. He should never let the pigeon fly at the same time as its mate. He should pluck the feathers of one and let the other loose in flight. Both should be brought out onto the roof at the same time. The one with its feathers intact should be loosed in flight for it will yearn for its mate and, when it knows the place, it will circle and return, having become familiar with the spot. When the feathers of the other bird have grown back, this bird should be treated in the same way. It is even better to bring them both out onto the roof with clipped wings, so that they can become familiar with the spot. Then one of them should be loosed in flight before its fellow, and the second should be treated in the same way the first had been.’
How similar these words are to what Māsarjawayh said. In his book he gave an account of the nature of all types of milk and drinking them as medication. When he had finished his account, he said: ‘Thus I have given you an account of the condition of these types of milk qua milk, but attend to the patients for whom you prescribe milk to drink. In the first instance, you, the patient, need to purge your stomach and you need to consult someone who knows how much milk your disorder requires, and how the class to which your disorder belongs relates to the class to which the milk belongs.’
This is similar to what a carpenter once said in my house. I had employed him to hang a large, expensive door, so I said to him, ‘It is a difficult thing to hang a door well. Scarcely one in a hundred carpenters has the knack. Someone may have an excellent reputation for being skilled in constructing ceilings and domes but not be fully proficient at hanging a door properly. Yet ordinary people generally think that ceilings and domes are harder. There are parallels for this. For example, a servant or a maid may be adept at roasting a whole kid or a new born goat, but not at roasting a side of meat. Those who have no knowledge suppose that it is easier to roast a part than the whole.’ ‘You did a good thing to let me know that you were examining my work,’ he replied, ‘for now that I know what you know it will prevent me from doing a botched job.’ He hung the door and did an excellent job. But I did not have a ring in the house for the front of the door, for when I wanted to lock it, so I said, ‘I do not want to detain you until my servant can get to the market and back. So bore me a hole for the pin to go in.’ When he had bored the hole and received his payment he went to leave and then turned back and said, ‘I have drilled the hole properly. But attend to the carpenter who will fit the pin for you – if he misses with just one blow he will split the door. And that would be a shame for a crack will spoil the door!’ Then I understood that he knew his craft inside out.
This was a society which valued personal testimony and eye-witness, in which every day, mundane events demanded the attention of the man of reasoning intellect. In the passage, I especially like the way the ancient Greek heritage, medical knowledge and ordinary, personal experience are ranked side by side and provide a running commentary on each other.
Personal testimony and eye-witness are central to the practice of experimentation. Consider the following account of a scientific experiment:
Now, the reason why our companions know about the intoxication of animals is as follows. When Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Sulaymān al-Hāshimī had fed alcohol to ʿAlluwayh (whom everyone knows as ‘The Dog of the Kitchen’), then to al-Duhmān, to the imbibers of Basra, and to anyone who visited Basra – in fact to all the hard drinkers who came within his reach – he decided to feed alcohol to camels, Bactrian and Arab, to ungulates, buffaloes and cows, and to horses, thoroughbreds and jades. When he had finished with every animal which had a large frame and a capacious stomach, he moved on to sheep and gazelles. Next he moved on to vultures, dogs and weasels. Then a snake-charmer visited them and they secured his services. He had a trick – he knew of how to open the mouths of snakes and to pour liquid right into their stomachs using stalks and nose-syringes. He would use what was appropriate for each thing. He was hardly human – material things complied with him and other men did his bidding. Thus it was that they were able to observe these differences in all those different classes of animals.
The Arabic title of the work that these passages are included in is Kitāb al-Ḥayawān. This is usually rendered as The Book of Animals. As we begin to appreciate the centrality of man to al-Jāḥiẓ’s vision for the book, more and more scholars are beginning to refer to it as The Book of Living Beings or Living Things. I hear a deep echo of the word ḥayawān in the Qur’an, 29: 64, a verse in which the word carries the meaning of ‘living’: ‘This life down here is but frivolity and dalliance. The next dwelling – it is living (ḥayawān), if only they knew.’ And in fact al-Jāḥiẓ himself alludes to this meaning:
If someone says, ‘So and so has produced a book on the classes of living things (ḥayawān) but does not include the angels and the jinn, though that is normally how people use the word,’ there is another occurrence of the word ‘living’ (ḥayawān) – the words of the Great and Glorious God in His Book: ‘The next dwelling – it is living.’
I think al-Jāḥiẓ must have meant his title to evoke this unique Qur’anic use of the word.
Al-Jāḥiẓ was a bibliomaniac, a master of the dialectical method of thinking about God and reality (material and moral) known as kalām. He was also a prominent intellectual, a spokesman for influential members of the political and cultural elite, and a writer who lived, counselled and wrote in Iraq during the first century of the ʿAbbasid caliphate.
He came to prominence during the reign of Caliph al-Maʾmūn (r. 198-218/813-833), famous for its promotion of the Arabic translations of Greek philosophical and scientific learning, and died shortly after the caliphate of al-Mutawakkil (r. 232-247/847-861). In the intervening years he advised, argued and rubbed shoulders with the major power brokers and leading religious and intellectual figures of his day, from the caliphs and the brutal vizier (but accomplished epistolographer) Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Malik al-Zayyāt, to the forbidding Chief Judge Aḥmad Ibn Abī Duʾād and the cultured courtier al-Fatḥ b. Khāqān, from the brilliant dialectician al-Naẓẓām and the Neoplatonising philosopher al-Kindī to the pious scholar Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal.
At one time or another al-Jāḥiẓ acted as counsellor and adviser to these masters of the political universe, often expressing views with which they did not agree. And at one time or another he crossed swords in debate and argument with the architects of the Islamic religious, theological, philosophical and cultural canon. He did not agree with most of them. His many, tumultuous writings engage with these figures, their ideas, theories and policies and thus afford an invaluable but much neglected chronicle of the anxieties, values and beliefs of this cosmopolitan elite.
ʿAbbasid society was swamped with a proliferation of new types of knowledge, most of it, as we have seen, coming from translations of Greek and Indian science and philosophy, and was challenged by new ways of disseminating and devouring the knowledge to which it was already so deeply attached. Books became a cultural obsession.
The introduction of papermaking techniques into second century Iraq heralded a third century technological revolution in the refinement of rag-paper and the production of books written on rag-paper rather than leather or parchment (although there was a period of overlap in which all three media continued to be used). It quickly became no longer acceptable simply and without justification or premeditation to rely on predominantly oral forms of disseminating knowledge.
Al-Jāḥiẓ was at the vanguard of this ‘knowledge revolution’, an insatiable reader and writer of books who would hire out bookshops overnight in order to consume its stock of volumes without being disturbed. Indeed, in one late source he is said to have died on one such occasion, when, a frail and elderly man suffering from paralysis, he was crushed by a collapsing pile of books. The popularity of this story in modern scholarship attests to the power of its appeal.
The Book of Living was written over more than a decade that was marked for al-Jāḥiẓ by personal catastrophe (a debilitating stroke) and political danger (the death of two patrons). Work on it was begun before 232/847. The latest events it refers to are in 244/858. This was a decade which witnessed a turning away from kalām theology when the Caliph al-Mutawakkil banned debate and so endangered the dialectical method for ascertaining the truth which al-Jāḥiẓ considered central to the ordering, stability and preservation of his society. He wrote The Book of Living in response to these concerns.
The enterprise began as an attempt to fulfil a moral imperative – the need to thank God for His creation by producing a comprehensive inventory of it. The production of such an inventory involved the proper application of the special gift which God had given to man: the reasoning intellect.
To this end al-Jāḥiẓ sought to codify his inventory in the form of a totalising book. Yet the process was paradoxical: in order to write it, al-Jāḥiẓ had somehow to become the ideal writer. This meant that he had effectively to mimic God by aspiring to omniscience, while fully aware that he could never be such an ideal writer. He must have wondered whether his book could ever be complete, yet his notion of moral obligation (taklīf) required that he undertake the task. He produced possibly the longest, and probably the most complex, book written in Arabic at the time. But it seems that the struggle for completeness resulted in the work being unfinished.
Not all of his contemporaries agreed or approved of the enterprise. The Book of Living was subjected to a withering criticism that extended beyond The Book of Living itself to engulf most of his public writings and become a categorical rejection of the benefits which the book as an artefact brought to society. Al-Jāḥiẓ reverts throughout The Book of Living to this criticism. The initial 200 pages of the first volume (in its modern edited version) engage specifically with the attack.
Al-Jāḥiẓ designed his book to save society from the competitive strife in which argument and debate had engulfed it. Debate could now be internalised in the soul of the reader. This was made possible because books encouraged solitary reading and interior debate. How could someone think that a book could save society? Al-Jāḥiẓ’s answer lay in an appreciation of God’s design in the universe. The third century abounded in books on the subject. The theological premise of the Book of Living is that God has put in man a primary appreciation of His design. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s book explores this primary appreciation of design and so directs its appeal at the monotheists in his audience. By participating in the process of becoming his ideal readers, this audience will be led to recognise that creation can only fully and properly, however imperfectly, be appreciated through al-Jāḥiẓ’s (Islamic) account of design.
But for al-Jāḥiẓ this task of reading the semiotic system of creation was not straightforward. In fact, viewed from an Enlightenment perspective we might perhaps be tempted to describe his grand labour as a failure. If we did, however, we would be as guilty of misrepresentation as are the men at the court of the King of the Jinn. This is because al-Jāḥiẓ set out to explore exactly what it means for man to be placed at the centre of creation—for the sake of man, and for the sake of the other creatures with whom he shares this world. Like the Brethren of Purity, he believed that everything created has a purpose, but that its purpose is not always apparent, or even discernible upon careful consideration and examination. In other words, al-Jāḥiẓ heeds the injunctions from the Qur’an which I discussed previously: (1) man’s knowledge of things is limited compared to God’s – His design may contain more than man is aware; (2) man is enjoined to ponder, reflect upon and consider what God has given him in the form of these natural blessings.
This Book of Living, this textual survey of creation, is based extensively on the early Arabic translation of Aristotle’s biological writings. It investigates the limitations of language and scientific taxonomy in classifying the natural world. Al-Jāḥiẓ sets up lists and categories and then subsequently collapses them and leaves them hanging with little explicit guidance on how we his readers are to reconstruct them or on whether we are to abandon them. His interest is almost exclusively in the hybrid, the inter-category, the creature which can belong to more than one category. The eunuch is one of his favourite examples, for the eunuch is both male and not-male because it has been deprived of the ability to procreate, to do what characterises a male human being as male. The ambiguity of his status after castration raises important problems for the laws which in Islam govern how men and women should mix.
In a sense then this difficult and impenetrable book mimics the impenetrability of God’s plan as it is demonstrated by His creation of the natural world and the animal kingdom. And so once again, we are back at the unknowability of things and the ineffability of the divine. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s commitment to the moral obligation he believed God had put man under through God’s gift of the reasoning intellect (ʿaql) and his primary vehicle for expressing his gratitude to God (eloquence) was so strong that he would never have had recourse to an embracing of the ineffable. After all, he refused to have recourse to silence when his powers of speech were strongly impaired by his stroke. He may certainly have struggled to find the means adequately to communicate his appreciation of God’s design, and he would never have for one moment have presumed to think that his communication of it could ever be comprehensive or exhaustive, for God was ultimately unknowable and beyond man’s comprehension. But struggle he did and I, for one, am grateful to him for his uncompromising efforts, because this struggle has given us The Book of Living, one of the truly great books of the human spirit.
Epilogue: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello and The Lives of Animals
In 1997-98 the Nobel-prize winning novelist J.M. Coetzee delivered the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. However, he did not deliver two ordinary lectures, for this most elusive of writers delivered two lectures which tell the story of how a famous Australian novelist, Elizabeth Costello, delivers two lectures at Appleton College, an occasion that, of course, mirrors the event hosted by Princeton.
Originally published as The Lives of Animals, the lectures are ‘The Philosophers and the Animals’; ‘The Poets and the Animals.’ Perhaps I should not refer to two lectures because the visit is narrated through the eyes of Costello’s son John Bernard, an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Appleton, and he is delayed by a meeting and so we miss the delivery of the second lecture, ‘The Poets and the Animals.’ Instead, we attend the question and answer session that follows the lecture. And in John’s company, we also attend the staged dialogue between Costello and Thomas O’Hearne, Appleton’s Professor of Philosophy.
Just as Costello’s lectures elicit a plethora of words in response, so Coetzee’s lectures elicited responses in The Lives of Animals – a series of four ‘Reflections,’ by Marjorie Garber, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger and Barbara Smuts. The volume also contains an introduction by Amy Gutmann. In turn, the book elicited a second book of responses: Philosophy and Animal Life, with contributions from Cary Wolfe, Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell and Ian Hacking. And clearly Costello’s lectures did not leave Coetzee untouched, for he subsequently included them as Lessons Three and Four in his novel Elizabeth Costello. (For that matter Costello clearly would not leave Coetzee alone, for she suddenly appears in the sickroom of Paul Rayment, the protagonist of Coetzee’s 2005 novel Slow Man, who must try to adapt to life after losing a leg in a road traffic accident.)
As I re-read Coetzee/Costello in the context of writing this article on man and nature, I was struck by Costello’s articulate struggle with words. She is not short of words, yet seems incapable adequately of expressing the lived consequences for her of her horror and revulsion at the lives animals are forced to live in modern societies. At the end of ‘The Poets and the Animals,’ as she is being driven to the airport by her son, she declares:
I no longer know where I am … Calm down I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?
The italics express a muffled scream. When her son looks at her he sees her ‘tearful face.’
Elizabeth is rarely hesitant to express herself. Like al-Jāḥiẓ, she refuses to seek recourse to silence and is eloquent (in writing and apparently also in talking, if not in delivering her lecture). In ‘The Philosophers and the Animals,’ she mounts a sustained critique of the hegemony of reason (and attendant concepts like consciousness and self-awareness) which she dismisses as merely a tendency in human thought, one among many (p. 67), for reason has consigned all beings that do not exhibit or express its like to a second-class status (p. 78). According to Elizabeth, fiction allows us to enter the minds of others, whether those others are real or imaginary persons, and therefore fiction, and not philosophy, allows us to think our way into ‘the existence of a bat’ (p. 80). So when pressed to enunciate the point of her talk, to state her principles, she urges the audience to ‘listen to what your heart says’ (p. 82). At the end of the dinner hosted by the President of Appleton College in her honour, Elizabeth declares, ‘I don’t know what I think … I wonder what thinking is, what understanding is. Do we really understand the universe better than animals do?’ (p. 90). (Of course, this is the very thing Elizabeth refused to do earlier: to offer a statement of principle.)
However, the existential crisis Elizabeth finds herself caught up in is not a struggle for words but a struggle for communication. For though she is not lost for the words to express the horror she feels and thinks, she fails to communicate this horror to others. This is the reason why everyone she meets finds her difficult, if not impossible, to get on with, including her son John. She is unable to get her fellow human animals to share her reality. And in this respect, she fails where the poets she discusses in her second lecture succeed.
The topic of ‘The Poets and the Animals,’ the second lecture, is a discussion of three poems: The Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke, and The Jaguar and Second Glance at a Jaguar by Ted Hughes. These poems, according to Elizabeth, invite us to inhabit the body of the panther or the jaguar (p. 98). They are ‘the record of the engagement’ with the animal, though when transmogrified into words, whatever feelings this engagement engenders are abstracted ‘for ever from the animal’ (p. 98).
In a statement that resonates very powerfully for me and has much to say about how I have endeavoured to read the five texts from the classical Arabic textual tradition, Coetzee’s Costello, who is not uncritical of Ted Hughes, notes how:
when we read the jaguar poem, when we recollect it afterwards in tranquillity, we are for a brief while the jaguar. He ripples within us, he takes over our body, he is us.
Let me end, then, with a poem from the Arabic tradition that in my opinion does just what Costello says happens when she reads Hughes’s Jaguar. The Arabic poem is one of the ṭardiyyāt, the hunting poems, a genre of poetry that enjoyed great vogue from the third/eighth to the fourth/tenth centuries. The poem is to be found in the dīwān, the collected poetry, of al-Ḥasan ibn Hāniʾ, better known as Abū Nuwās (d. c. 200/813-814). It describes a horse of elemental power that takes over our body.
Rays lit up the sky
Black night struck camp –
Proof it was day.
I brought out Colt – a stallion of brute power and pedigree.
Fire’s energy coursed
Through his tight-twist, taut-rope joints
He was sent to earth by night clouds guided by a rising star
Showered with their gifts
Blessed by clouds black with rain
In constant downpours.
He drank from their bounty. Limbs grew strong.
We approached. The ass neighed in alarm.
Colt stirred with lust.
The ass sprinted from al-Ṭuwā’s holy trees.
I said to my slave, an expert hunter:
‘Mount! Colt makes me anxious.’
His light frame settled on Colt’s back.
He fired him. Colt’s eyes swam with water.
He hunted a hardloin male –
A thrust that made its jaws spew
Thick belly blood mixed with spit
The bitter food of death
Delivered by doom’s lightning bolt
Neck iridescent, voltaic.