How a Satirist Captured the Maladies of the Islamic Golden Age

In ninth-century Iraq, the iconoclast al-Jahiz skewered the intellectual pretensions of powerful men working for the Abbasid palace

How a Satirist Captured the Maladies of the Islamic Golden Age
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The ninth-century Iraqi theologian and Arabic litterateur Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr, better known to the world as al-Jahiz, or “The One With Bulging Eyes,” was among classical Islamic civilization’s wittiest writers and social critics. Hailing from Basra in southeastern Iraq, the author of over 100 works was unique for his distinguished prose style in an era more renowned for its celebrated poets. The eclectic subjects to which he turned his pen spanned the full range of intellectual inquiry of the time, including politics, religion, philosophy, zoology, humor and literary style.

Yet this Iraqi — said by some to have been of African heritage — was not merely a gifted writer. He was also one of Islam’s legendary iconoclasts and provocateurs. Living during an era often cast as the Islamic Golden Age, when scholars boldly pushed the frontiers of intellectual pursuit, al-Jahiz took a much dimmer view of his peers. A gifted satirist, he masterfully exposed the hypocrisies and intellectual shortcomings of the scholarly class in polemics that continue to entertain and enlighten over a millennium later. His critiques also hold obvious lessons for an era such as our own, in which so many cultures of the Islamic world have become mired in a stagnant orthodoxy.

One of al-Jahiz’s most original and interesting works was a book-length attack on the intelligentsia of his day. This philippic is all the more striking given that these renowned scholars continue to be admired today for their literary, scholarly and scientific achievements.

To analyze all of al-Jahiz’s writings would be the task of a lifetime. But one would be remiss not to study the satires and diatribes he wrote about his fellow scholars. Among these were marvelous books such as “An Epistle Disparaging the Character of Scribes” and “The Book of Misers,” which gleefully deflated the pretensions of the intellectual class. Vanity, insincerity, cultural alienation and blind imitation were only a few of the flaws at which al-Jahiz aimed his pen in these works and others.

The specific class of people whom al-Jahiz wrote about were the scribes of his era, known in Arabic as “kuttab.” These were usually highly educated men, expected to be well-acquainted with the arts and sciences as well as refined forms of the Arabic language. They were paid to write on behalf of caliphs, viziers and high court officials, with the best among them promoted to the highest offices of the state. As ghostwriters for caliphs and kings, they would learn the fine art of using ornamented prose as a tool to threaten or entice enemies in written correspondence and public proclamation.

On the face of it, al-Jahiz’s epistle comes across as a vengeful attack by one of the most able dialecticians of the Abbasid era against a clique of government officials. (He is said to have worked as a palace scribe himself for three days.) Yet, in my view, al-Jahiz saw these functionaries as representative of the whole class of intellectuals in the broad sense of the word. As we shall see, other works by this medieval Arab man of letters contain numerous appraisals of the writers, poets, scholars and scientists who lived during the first century of Abbasid rule, which in his lifetime extended from Tunisia to the borders of China.

In Iraq, al-Jahiz bore witness to the zenith of the Abbasid dynasty. The empire’s capital, Baghdad, where he is said to have resided for many years before retiring to his hometown of Basra, was then one of the largest cities in the world. It was a true cosmopolis, attractive for the same reasons that great cities draw people today: economic opportunity, education, arts, nightlife and the promise of fame and fortune. As a writer and intellectual, al-Jahiz found a boisterous social circle in Iraq to study and critique.

Abbasid Iraq was a place of intense theological, ideological, ethnic and literary debates. A Persian-dominated movement known as “shuubiyah,” which attacked the elevated status of Arabs and Arabic, was in vogue and had many proponents. Al-Jahiz, who viewed himself as an Arab, took note of this trend and became its vehement opponent, writing several books aimed at defending the Arabs and their virtues. Given that many scholars in his day were not Arab — they were, in fact, expressly anti-Arab — his fierce criticism of the intellectual class is not entirely surprising.

Still, it must be acknowledged that his attacks on the kuttab were daring, given how powerful some members of this class were. But again, this was a man who enjoyed private audiences with the caliphs of his day. So popular was he that, when he died circa 869, it is said that the caliph wished he had been brought before him so he could have conversed with the renowned scholar in person. (In fact, al-Jahiz had been paralyzed in his later years and so could not have been brought to Baghdad anyway.) Beyond his powerful connections, al-Jahiz’s financial independence — a result of generous sums received for producing some of his works — may also have been a factor in making him one of the very few writers who could speak freely, not only about the maladies of the age but also its various classes and subclasses.

It is his critical perspective that I feel makes al-Jahiz most relevant to our times. No matter how many centuries pass, people, in their hearts, remain driven by the same recognizable impulses and desires. Perhaps today’s Arab intellectuals should pay closer attention to what al-Jahiz said about their predecessors — lest they fall victim to the same habits of thought that he skewered in his writings. As the 11th-century litterateur Badi al-Zaman al-Hamadani once quipped, “For every epoch, there is an al-Jahiz.”

Satire is among the most powerful tools for bringing the powerful back down to earth, and al-Jahiz was a master of the craft.

Although al-Jahiz’s book on the kuttab inspired me to write this article, his broader body of work provides ample examples of his opinions about the intellectuals of his era and how he appraised them on various levels. In his masterpiece, “The Book of Misers,” he poked fun again at some of the most prominent intellectuals of his day, mostly without naming them. “Herein are numerous stories that, once we start narrating them, those concerned will be known even if we do not mention them by name,” he wrote in the introduction to this most entertaining work. Yet he was more than happy to name and shame those who had been known for their parsimony and indeed boasted of it, and had written polemics in defense of it. One of these was Sahl ibn Harun, a writer and government official who served as the head of the House of Wisdom, Baghdad’s grand library, which doubled as an academy for the arts, sciences and translation. Included in al-Jahiz’s book is an entire epistle written by Ibn Harun, in which he staunchly defends the art of austerity, writing:

You rebuked me when I said that no one should be deceived into being generous because of their long age, hunched back, thin bones and feeble body. And that no one should be so unconcerned as to hand over his money to others, allowing them to control it, indulge in excess and satisfy their desires. This person may live a long time without realizing it and may advance in age without feeling it. And perhaps is granted in the midst of despair, or he is struck by some hidden calamities of destiny that never occurred to him, and he will seek to recover what cannot be regained and complain to those who show no mercy.

One of his most memorable caricatures, contained in the famous “Book of Misers,” is a depiction of a man portrayed as a fraudulent intellectual. He begins with a cartoonish depiction of this individual, who was, he writes, “extremely short, yet claimed he was excessively tall. He was square in shape and, due to the plumpness of his belly and the breadth of his hips, you would think he was round-shaped.” He goes on to lampoon the boastfulness of this unfortunate scholar, writing that “his claims about the different fields of knowledge were in proportion to his ignorance of them, and his pretense to explain them was in proportion to his lack of understanding. He was often argumentative and contentious, prone to contradiction, and he enjoyed controversy.”

These examples were doubtless a caricature of al-Jahiz’s contemporaries, but then so was his pamphlet on the kuttab and many other works. Still, like all great satirists, al-Jahiz had a serious message to deliver as well. And, while he indulged in satire in many of his shorter works, he also authored a number of well-researched and powerfully argued books on a wide range of subjects, from food writing to criticizing anti-Black racism.

Moreover, there were thinkers whom al-Jahiz did hold in high regard. Many of these were affiliated with the Mutazilite school of thought to which he belonged and from which he founded an offshoot known as the “Jahiziyya” school. The Mutazilites were rationalist thinkers who adopted certain theological and philosophical precepts, including the necessity of divine justice and human freedom. Given this association, it is perhaps no surprise that al-Jahiz spoke most favorably of his Mutazilite teacher, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Nazzam. In his “Book of Animals,” al-Jahiz wrote, “People of old said that, once in a thousand years, a peerless man emerges. If this is true, Abu Ishaq is among those.”

He also wrote approvingly of Abu Nuwas, a contemporaneous poet of mixed Arab and Persian origin known for his innovative verse, of whom he said that his poetry exceeded in excellence that of some of the pre-Islamic Arab greats: a bold view to adopt even today. Importantly, al-Jahiz was acutely aware of the exceptionality of his own time, in contrast to many other writers of his day and in subsequent centuries who tended to exalt the wisdom and knowledge of generations past.

In spite of that, al-Jahiz also offers some of the earliest and most scathing criticism of intellectuals in the Islamic world. One of his critiques relates to what we would today call academic writing. He noted that certain scholars of his time wrote in a complicated style that made their writing unnecessarily opaque. In the “Book of Animals,” al-Jahiz recounts how he confronted the legendary Arabic grammarian al-Akhfash over his writing, telling him he ought to adopt a more comprehensible style of prose, rather than riddles that rendered his work inaccessible. We should perhaps credit al-Akhfash for his candor when he replied, “I did not write these books for the sake of God, and these are not books of religion. Had I written these books in the style you suggest I follow, people would have no need of me. My goal was (financial) gain. I write some books in a comprehensible manner so that the sweetness of what people can comprehend urges them to understand what they could not fathom.” By deliberately overcomplicating his style, al-Jahiz explained, al-Akhfash obliged students to come to him for paid private classes, rather than simply reading his books on their own.

I immediately thought of al-Jahiz’s confrontation with al-Akhfash when I read the celebrated essay by the Canadian-American linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, “Why Academics’ Writing Stinks.” It confirmed to me — and, no doubt, many others — that the problem of obscure scholarly writing has always been an issue. In his essay, Pinker says academics suffer from what he calls the “curse of knowledge,” whereby they cannot grasp that readers without their specialized expertise will not be able to understand their ideas, especially when expressed in jargon-heavy “academese.”

Al-Jahiz similarly takes issue with what might be described as the vanity of knowledge among intellectuals. Once certain educated people learn a few terms from a given discipline, he says, or familiarize themselves with a trending idea or school of thought, they are quick to believe they have become nothing short of philosophers and start attacking established social norms and questioning religious beliefs without due understanding or investigation. On a deeper note, al-Jahiz took issue with the envy, animosity and vanity often found among the intellectual class. He likened them to old dogs sitting idly on the side of a marketplace, ignoring passersby but pouncing at once to attack any strange feline that happened to appear. Worse, he said, they revel at pointing out the mistakes and weaknesses of each other and take joy in humiliating one another. Writing as a man of true street smarts, with a perceptive understanding of the classes of his society, al-Jahiz observed that this obnoxious behavior was unique to the intelligentsia. Butchers, for example, would close their shops for a day if it happened that one of their fellow meat sellers lost business, to help them recover their losses. Intellectuals, by contrast, pretended not to know each other when they crossed paths in the street. “The kuttab do not distinguish themselves with anything except their mutual denial,” al-Jahiz writes. “Even if one of them knows the other and has read his work, when he sees him, he pretends not to know him.”

Finally, al-Jahiz speaks of a trait so common among intellectuals that one imagines it must have been a rite of passage: their hostile stance against faith. He argues that this attitude arose from a wish by scholars to show their cleverness, even though their position was more often the product of imitating their peers rather than independent investigation. As he writes, “The purest form of blindness is imitation in heresy, for if it takes root in one’s heart, it elevates one’s brazenness and makes it difficult for people of debate to convince one otherwise.” This hostility toward faith or traditionalism continues to be in vogue today and, I daresay, often appears to be the result of imitation and trend-following rather than serious examination. In many cases, speaking against religion and traditionalism in public becomes “cool” and a way for individuals to stand out.

Despite his critiques of heresy, al-Jahiz himself was far from a dogmatist. Criticizing the rote interpretations of faith common among some of his peers, a shortcoming that he blamed on the influence of Sassanid Persian writings on Abbasid-era intellectuals, al-Jahiz eloquently chastised those who used religion to justify authoritarian social practices. “What book is more ignorant and what plan is more corrupt,” he wrote, “than a book that requires people to blindly obey and become fanatical about religion, not based on understanding and love, and that offers no benefit for livelihood or religious correctness?”

Al-Jahiz also laments that many intellectuals lack any depth of real knowledge and yet brag about the little they know by dropping the names of kings, sages and scholars to dazzle commoners. He argues that the shallowness of their knowledge helped to fuel their arrogance, which was further compounded by the perceived power they held by virtue of their access to the caliphal court. He then says that, once they acquire the uniform of the kuttab, partly consisting of a cloak of a certain design, they come to view themselves as more important than kings. Describing the kuttab, he writes, “At the peak of ostentation, the pinnacle of extravagance, and the vast ocean of arrogance and indulgence, one of them imagines himself superior … thinking that he is the followed and not the follower, and that he is the king of kings.” When I read this, I could not help but think of some Arab intellectuals today who sport berets or other hats and wear long uncombed hair. Pinker himself began his essay on academic writing by mocking American professors for “wearing earth tones” and “driving Priuses.”

Despite his legendary polemics, throughout history, Islamic-Arabic civilization has produced a rich literature written primarily for a readership of kuttab. Indeed, one of al-Jahiz’s own books, “Elegance of Expression and Clarity of Exposition,” would have been readily consumed by the kuttab, given its status as one of the primary sources for classical “adab,” loosely translated as “literature,” familiarity with which was essential for this stratum of intellectuals, who wrote, as the Austrian historian Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum puts it, with “recondite allusion,” “elaborate indirection” and “poignant pun.”

Yet it was his critiques for which al-Jahiz remains best remembered today. No one but him dared to write an entire polemic against a powerful class of intellectuals, the kuttab, whose main concern in life, collectively speaking, was to move up the ladder in royal courts and government chanceries. His work expressed a courage rare in his time — but also today, when Arab intellectuals often still shy from tackling social and political taboos. For his daring writing, al-Jahiz won the attention and patronage of influential private patrons.

Whenever I read al-Jahiz, I cannot help but imagine him milling around the cafes of Baghdad, Damascus or Cairo, casting a cynical eye at the scores of intellectuals who inhabit these coffeehouses. After observing their behavior, listening to their conversations and chatting to some of them at length, he would retire to his book-laden study to write a polemic about the decline of knowledge, the deterioration of literature and the disappearance of those who were once true masters of the intellect.

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