Although al-Nazzam made the first steps in the
field of biological evolutionary thought in the history of science,
for the first time the theory of biological evolution in its complete
form was presented by a great early zoologist, al-Jahiz in the
ninth century. He was the first to originate it. Al-Jahiz’s theory
is an example of scientific revolution and innovation that has
had reverberations into the farthest reaches of human thought.
It is fair to say that many problems of the philosophy of Nature
appeared in a new light after the revolution of al-Jahiz and his
successors. Before describing al-Jahiz’s own views and his influence
upon Muslim and European thinkers, especially upon Lamarck and
Darwin, I want to give some biographical and bibliographical accounts.
a. Biographical and Bibliographical Notices
Al-Jahizs complete name is Abu Uthman Amr bin Bahr
Basri. He owes his sobriquet (al-Jahiz = the goggle-eyed) to a
malformation of his eyes. He was born at Basra about 776. Little
is known of his childhood, except that, from an early age, an
invincible desire for learning and a remarkably inquisitive mind
urged him towards a life of independence and, much to his familys
despair, idleness. Mixing with groups which gathered at diflérent
mosques to learn, attending as a spectator the philological enquiries
conducted on the Mirbad and following lectures by the most learned
men and scholars of his time on philology, lexiography and poetry,
namely al-Asmai, Abu Ubayda, Abu Zayd, he soon acquired
real mastery of the Arabic language along with the usual and traditional
culture."1" And later his precious
intelligence won him admittance to Mutazili circles and
bourgeois salons, where conversation, often light, was also
animated by philosophical, theological, scientific problems. His
penetrating observation of the various elements in a mixed population
increased his knowledge of human nature, whilst reading books
of all kinds which were beginning to circulate in Basra gave him
some outlook onto the outside world. His early literary activity
won him the compliments of al-Mamun and thereby that consecration
by the capital covetted by so many provincials eager to have their
talent recognized and so reach the court and establish themselves.
From then on, without completely abandoning Basra,
al-Jahiz frequently stayed for long periods in Baghdad and later
in Samarra, devoting himself to literary and scientific works.
For some time he was the teacher of al-Mutawakkil’s children.
Although information about his private and public life is not
readily forthcoming from either his biographer or himself, it
appears from what knowledge we have that al-Jahiz held no official
post and took on no regular employment. He admits, however, that
he received considerable sums for the dedications of his books
and we know that for a time at least, he was made an allowance
by the diwan. In Baghdad, later on, he found a rich store of learning
which enabled him to broaden his outlook and perfect his own philosophical
and theological doctrine, which he had begun to elaborate under
the supervision of the great mu tazalis of the day, of whom al-Nazzarn
and Thumana b. Ashras, who seems to have had a strong influence
on him, should be placed in the first rank.
Towards the end of his life, suffering from hemiplegia,
he retired to his hometown, where he died in 869 (225) "2".
As in politics, so in theology al-Jahiz was a mu’tazili. He was
also a famous Muslim prose writer. His place in the development
of Muslim thought is far from negligible. He was the founder ofa
sect named after him, al-Jahiziyya "3".
He was a genius in the science of zoology. And he knew how to
obtain ammonia and salmiac from animal offals by dry distillation
Being a polyhistor and man of letters, al-Jahiz had a very great
output like many Muslim writers. A catalogue of his works lists
nearly 200 titles of which only about a third have been preserved
in their entirety; about fifty thers have been partially preserved,
whilst the rest seem irremediably lost "5".
His most important book is The Book of Animals (Kitab al-Hayawan)
"6". Iahiz’s method was empirical
and scientific, not only discursive, as Sarton elieves "7".
That is why Asin Palacios says, “Como el mismo lo insinua en el
rologo (I, 6), puso a contribucion para redactarlo los libros
de los filosofos, os relatos y noticias de viajeros, marinos,
etc. Y Ia observacion o experiencia lirecta.” The scientific value
of this book is great; and it is "8",
as Asin Palacios ays, a real contribution to the history of science,
namely to zoology. The main source of al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals
is the book on zoology of his )recursors and contemporary, ‘Abd
al-Malik bin Qurayb al-Asma’i (739- 831) "9".
As far as I knowm this book is the first zoological, book in the
history of slamic thought. The Kitab al-Hayawan was the object
of many studies, and had great influence upon later Muslim scientists,
and via them upon European thinkers as well. And it became the
source for later books on oology. Al-Jahiz’s many sentences are
quoted by Ikhwan al-Safa’ and Ibn
Miskawayh, and many passages are quoted by Zakariyya’
al-Qazwini (1203-1282) in his ‘A/a’ ib al-Maklzluqat, and by Mustawfial-Qazwini
(1281- ?) in his Nuzkat ai-Qulub; and al-Damiri in his Hayat
b. Al-Jakiz’s View on Biological Evolution
After a long study of animals, Al-Jahiz was the first to put forward
his view of biological evolution in his Book ofAnimals, which
contains the germs of many later evolutionary theories (animal
embryology, evolution, adaptation, animal psychology and sociology)
First of all, al-Jahiz’s attempts were made in a truly scientific
spirit to classifV animals in a linear series, beginning with
the simplest and continuing to the most complex; and at the same
time, he arranged them into groups having marked similarities;
and these groups were divided into sub-groups to trace the ultimate
unit in the species "12"
An early exponent of the zoological and anthropological sciences,
al- Jahiz discovered and recognized the effect of environmental
factors on animal life; and he also observed the transformation
of animal species under different factors. And in many remarkable
passages of his book, he also described for us the struggle of
existences for survival, its aim and mechanisms and value in a
scientific way, as well as in a folkloric way. As to know the
mechanistiis of evolution, al-Jahiz described three mechanisms.
These are Struggle for Existence, Transformation of species into
each other, and Environmental Factors.
Let us now see the mechanisms, as briefly as possible.
Struggle for Existence: al-Jahiz placed the greatest weight on
evolution by the struggle for existence, or, in a larger sense,
by natural selection. It operates in conjunction with the innate
desire for conservation and permanence of the ego. According to
al-Jahiz, between every individual existence, there is a natural
war for life. The existence are in struggle with each other. Al-Jahiz’s
theory of struggle for existence may accordingly be defined as
a differential death rate between two variant class of existence,
the lesser death rate characterizing the better adapted and stronger
class. And for al-Jahiz, the struggle for existence is a divine
law; God makes food for some bodies out of some other bodies’
death. He says, “The rat goes out for collecting his food, and
it searches and seizes them. It eats some other inferior animals,
like small animals and small birds. . . it hides its babies in
disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself
against the attack of the snakes and of the birds. Snakes like
eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves
from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful
than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter
frightens all the animals which are inferior to it. ...
this is the law that some existences are the
food for others. . . . All small animals eat smaller ones; and
all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are
like animals. . . God makes cause of some bodies life, “ "13"
from some bodies death and vice versa. And according to al-Jahiz,
the struggle does not exist only between the members of different
species, but also between the members of the same species "14".
From what al-Jahiz has said, we can make an assertion that God
has created Nature in a prodigal reproductive character and He
has also established a law, which is the biological struggle for
existence in order to keep it within a limited ratio. Otherwise,
the disorder could appear in Nature and it could lose some of
its riches and species. We can see the germs of Darwin’s and the
Neo-Darwinian’s theory of Natural Selection in this remarkable
passage which we have mentioned above. Transformation of Species:
Al-Jahiz, as later Lamarck and Darwin, for example, believes that
the transformation of species and mutation is possible. The transformation
operates in conjunction with the effect of environmental factors.
And he asserted that the original forms branched out into new
forms of species by gradually developing new characteristics which
helped them to survive environmental conditions. He says, “People
said different things about the existence of al-miskh (the original
form of quadrupeds) "15". Some
accepted its evolution and said that it gave existence to dog,
wolf, fox and their similars. The members of this family came
from this form (al-miskk).” "16"
And, he adds that God’s will and power is the main causal factor
in the transformation, and God can transform any species into
another at any time He wants. So al-Jahiz defends the transformation
of species and mutation, due to different factors, including God’s
will’7, as we have said above. Here al-Jahiz got some of his material
from the sayings of different learned men. As for the effect of
environmental factors on species, al-Jahiz believes that the food,
climate, shelter and other factors have some biological and psychological
effects on species. And for him, these factors also lead the species
to a hard struggle for survival. In a changed environment, there
is also a change in some characters having survival value. The
process of changing characters in succeeding generations makes
the organisms better adapted to their environment. They thus survive
and get a chance to breed and transmit their characteristics to
their offspring. So, al-Jahiz based his theory upon the notion
of the use and disuse of organs in the adaptation of animals to
Al-Jahiz says, “Without doubt, we have seen that some Nabatheen
navigators resembled the ape in some geographical environment,
likely we have also seen some people from Morocco and have found
them as like as al-maskh "18",
except for a little difference.... And it is possible that the
polluted air and water, and dust made this change in the character
of these Moroccans. . . . If this effect goes on more and more
in them, those changes in their bristles, ears, colours, and form
(similar to the ape) increase more.... “ "19"
Such are the main mechanisms of al-Jahiz’s biological evolution.
Now, I will speak about al-Jahiz’s great influence upon Muslim
and European scientists. Al-Jahiz’s zoology and theory of biological
evolution have profoundly affected the development of zoology
and biology. As we have said before, al-Jahiz’s biological evolution
had some direct influences upon Ikhwan al-Safa, and other illustrious
philosophers, such as Ibn Miskawayh, al-Biruni, Ibn Tufayl, with
whom al-Jahiz’s theory acquired a new sense, in that they made
of it two new doctrines: a cosmological one, because it was applied
to the phenomena of the whole universe; and a sociological one,
because it was applied to social phenomena. Moreover, Ibn Miskawayh
and Ibn Khaldun explain the true meaning of Prophecy and prove
it by such a theory. Thus, Jahiz’s pure biological evolution became
the source of different doctrines in later Islamic thought, such
as sociological, metaphysical and cosmological evolutionisms.
On the other hand, al-Jahiz’s theory has been repeated by Muslim
zoologists and naturalists, especially by al-Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini,
in his ‘Aja’ ib al-Makhluqat, Mustawfi al-Qazwini in his
Nuzhat al-Qulub, and al- Damiri in his Hayat al-Hayawan,
without mentioning other literary persons, such as al-Masudi and
As for the influence of al-Jahiz on European thinkers, it has
become the subject of two main studies: “Der Darwinismus im X
und XIX Jahrhundert” of Fr. Dieterici (Leipzig, 1878) and “Darwinistisches
bei Gahiz” of E. Wiedemann (sitzungsbericht der physikalisch-medizinischen
Sozietaet in Erlangen, 47, 1915). Previous to me, they found a
great similarity between al-Jahiz and Darwin. Indeed, Darwin and
his precursors took up the theory of al-Jahiz as the base for
the essentiality of their evolutionary theories, and they formulated
it in a more scientific way in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries development of science. Perhaps the only main difference
b~etween al-Jahiz’s theory and modern theory is in ideology: al-Jahiz’s
theory is theologic and more transcendental in this sense that
he accepts that the first cause of evolution in living organisms
is God and that the other factors are secondary; while Lamarck,
Darwin and others’ evolution is more immanent and materialistic.
Although the mechanistic explanations of the theories are more
or less the same, Darwin and other modern scientists differ from
al-Jahiz and other Muslim writers in ideological interpretation
of the theory.
How has Jahiz’s idea been transmitted to the Europeans? Al-Jahiz
and other evolutionist Muslim thinkers influenced Darwin and his
predecessors in several ways. Before the flourishing of C. Linnaeus
(1707-1778), Buffon (1707-1788), E. Darwin (1731-1802),J. B. Lamarck
(1744-1829), and Ch. Darwin (1809-1882), and long before the rise
of the school of Natural Philosophy in Germany, al-Jahiz and others
were known to Europeans through the translation of their own works
and studies on them by Europeans. For example, al-Damiri’s book
Hayat al-Hayawan was partially translated into Latin by a Jew,
called Abraham Echellensis (d. Italy 1664) and published in Paris
in 1617. This book contains many passages taken from al-Jahiz’s
Kitab al-Hayawan. Al-Nuwayri’s JVihaya was studied by D’Herbelot
(1625—1695) in his Bibliotheca Orientalis, and later byJ. Heyman
(?—1737). Ibn Tufayl’s Hay Ibn raqzan, which contains the philosophy
of evolution, was first published by Edward Pocockes, Sr. (1604-1690),
together with a Latin translation published by Edward ~Pococke,
Jr. (1648-1727) in Oxford in 1671 (second edition, Oxford, 1700)
"20". Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini’s
cosmography, ‘Aja’ ib al-Makhluqat was published by F. Wustenfeld
in 2 volumes in Gottingen in 1848-49; and Kitab Talkhis al-A thar
of Bakuwi, a summary of al-Qazwini’s book was translated into
French and published by De Guignes in Paris, in 1789 "21".
In fact, his book also contains many ideas from al-Jahiz. And
A. L. de Chezy translated al-Qazwini’ s ‘Aja’ib, and his translation
was published in 1806 (first publication) by S. de Sacy, in his
Chresiomathie A rabe. There is no doubt that the great evolutionist
sufi, Mawlana, had already influenced Goethe, who called him “a
Darwinian before Darwin” "22"
his theory of metamorphosis has profbundly affected the development
of biology. In any case, Islamic zoology penetrated the West as
early as the seventeenth century "23".
Some Europeans knew Arabic and they could read directly from the
Muslim scientists’ books; for example, Darwin was himself initiated
into Islamic culture in Cambridge under ajewish orientalist called
Samuel Lee "24". We think that
what we have said can show Muslim influence upon Europeans. Some
further comparative study can be undertaken in this subject, in
order to bring to light the influence of Muslim evolutionist thinkers
upon the Europeans and the transmission of their ideas to the
Al-Jahiz’s theory of evolution was something very new in the history
of science, and there was nothing written previous to it. Although
Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Aristotle spoke of the
change in Nature, in plants and animals, they never made the first
steps on the field of the future theory of evolution of the Muslims.
Their concept of change was only a concept of simple change and
motion, nothing more than that. And by the concept of change,
they never designed explicitly or implicitly a concept of evolution:
“The World of Nature is thus for Aristotle, a world of self-moving
thing, as it is for the Ionians and for Plato. . .. Nature as
such is process, growth, change. This process is a development,
i.e. the changing takes successive forms, a, b, y, . . . in which
each is the potentiality of its successor, but it is not what
we call ‘evolution’, because for Aristotle, the kinds of change
and of structure exhibited in the world of nature form an eternal
repertory, and the items in the repertory are related logically,
not temporally, among themselves"25"”.
1) Pellat (Ch.), “Al-Dlahiz”, in RI2, vol. II, p.
2) Ibn ‘Asakir, MMIJ, IX, pp. 203—217.
3) Khaiib Baghdadi, XII, pp. 212-222.
4) Sarton (G.), Iniroduciion in ihe Hisiorp of Science,
vol. I, Washington, 1927, p. 597.
5) Pellat (Ch.), “Gahiziana”, in Arabica, 1956/2; cf Brockelmann
(C.), GAL, SI., 241ff
6) The Book of .4niinals was published in 7 volumes, in
7) Sarton says: “His most important work is The Book oj.-Inimals,
a very discursive compilation, the purpose of which is theological
and folkloric, rather than scientific , Sarton, op. cii., p. 597.
Sarton’sjudgement is not true; indeed, many of the knowledges
given in the 1)00k are the result of his personal observation
and his experiences, as al-Jahiz himself says in several chapters.
8) Asin Palacios (M.), “El ‘Libro de los Animales’ deJahiz”,
in isi.’;, vol. 14 1930, p. 21.
9) Some parts of’ his book are published by R. Geyer in
Wien, in 1887; and by A. Haffner in Wien, in 1895—1896; the book
on the creation of man is still unpublished.
10) It is very interesting to notice that a summary of’
al-Damiri’s and other Muslim scientists’ books was translated
into Latin by Abraham Echellensis (d. Italy 1664) and was published
under the title “Dc Proprietatibus et Virtutibus Medicis Animalium”
in Paris, in 1617. So, that is to say, sometime before the appearance
ofbarwin’s precursors, such as F. Redi (1626—1698), C. Linnaeus
(1707—1778), Buflon (1707—1788), Lamarck (1744—1829). the idea
of evolution of Muslims was penetrated in West and this explains
why the first evolutionists came from France. See Mieli (A.),
La Science .1 robe ei Son Role dan l’Et’oluiion Scienijfique Mondiale,
Leiden, Brill, 1938, pp. 263-264, n. 3; and extracts have been
translated into French by A.J. Silvestre dc Sacy, Oppianos II,
Strasbourg, 1787; see Sarton (G.), Vol. III, Part II, p. 1641.
11) Pella (Ch.), ‘Al-Djahiz”, op. cii., p. 386; cf Sarton,
op. cii., p. 597.
12) Al-Jahiz, Kiiab al-Ha vawan, Vol. I, Cairo, 1909, p.
13, and see also different chapters of the volumes.
13) ldem., Vol. VI, pp. 133—34; and there are many passages
in different volumes illustrating the struggle for existence.
See VI, 139; VII, 47, 80. 14. ldem., vol. VII, pp. 47-48.
15) According to some opinions, this original form of animal
was lost because of earthquakes and floods. See al-Jahiz, op.
cit., vol. IV, p. 24; cf vol. VII, p. 77.
16) ldem, vol. IV, p. 23.
17) ldem., vol. IV, pp. 24-25; c1 vol. VI, pp. 24-26.
18) I think al-Maskh is a kind of ape; see Vol. IV, p.
24. And do not confuse al-Maskh with al-Miskh.
19) ldem., Vol. IV, p. 24; and cf vol. IV, pp. 25-27.
20) See Sarton (0.), op. cii., vol. II, Part 2, pp. 354—355.
21) Mieli (A.), op. cii., p. 152.
22) Cassirer (E.), The Problem of Knowledge, translated
by W. H. Woglom and Ch. W. Hendel, Yale University Press, New
Haven, 1950, p. 137.
23) Sarton (G.), op. cii., vol. III, part 2, p. 1641.
24) See Darwin (Sir F.), The Life and Letters of’ Charles
Darwin, vol. I, London, 1887, p. 289. Samuel Lee (1783-1852),
of Queen’s, was professor of Arabic and Hebrew. In 1821, he issued
a “Sylloge Librorum Orientalium”. In 1829, he translated “The
Travel of Ibn Battuta”, see The Dictionary of National Biography,
vol. XI, London, 1917, pp. 819-820.
25) Collingwood (R. C.), The Idea of’ Nature, Oxford, 1945,