Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books. By JAMES E. MONTGOMERY. Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature, vol. 2. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2013. Pp. vi + 586. $160, [pounds sterling]95.
"The book, what a treasure and helpful means it is! What a great companion and support! What a pleasant object of leisure and recreation. [...] The book is a receptacle filled with knowledge, a container crammed with good sense, and a vessel full of lightheartedness and earnestness. [...] Where will you find a companion like a book?" (my translation of al-Jahiz, Kitab al-hayawan, ed. 'A. M. Ibn Harun, 7 vols. [Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, 1938-1958], 1: 38-39). These sentiments in praise of the written word are part of the introductory section of the monumental Arabic anthology Kitab al-hayawan. This encyclopedic work, seven volumes in print, was composed in the ninth century by 'Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz, one of the most prolific classical Muslim writers and author of numerous works of belles-lettres, rationalist theology, and politico-religious polemics. Al-Jahiz, the "father of Arabic prose," as he is sometimes called, lived in Basra and Baghdad during the first century of the Abbasid dynasty, an era of remarkable cultural and intellectual brilliance that transformed medieval Arabo-Islamic civilization into a learning society with the written word as the basis of knowledge.
James Montgomery's set of two monographs, In Praise of Books and In Censure of Books, is dedicated to a close examination of al-Jahiz's intellectual and textual world. The first volume, the focus of this review, is also the first full-fledged analysis of al-Jahiz's masterpiece, Kitab al-hayawan. In his erudite study, Montgomery acquaints the reader with major questions such as how al-Jahiz "viewed, represented, encouraged and discouraged his society's responses to the paper book," while thereby "touching all aspects of intellectual life--from interpreting the Quran to reading Aristotie in Arabic" (p. 3).
In the West, al-Jahiz's Kitab al-hayawan has thus far been known chiefly as "The Book of Animals," a viable and literal translation of the Arabic title. Montgomery, however, has wisely opted to render the title as "The Book of Living." His main argument for this is that the principal subject of this capacious work is in fact "God's creation and the place of man in that creation" (p. 60). This conceptual background is manifest in the thematic spectrum and overall structure...