'Foreign Books' in Arabic Literature: Discourses in Books, Knowledge and Ethnicity in the Writings of al-Jāḥiẓ

Peter Webb


Al-Jāḥiẓ is one of the ʿAbbāsid era’s most celebrated bibliophiles, and his praise of books and championing of ‘writerly culture’ in 3rd/9th-century Iraq are well documented. However, he also expressed distinctly negative appraisals of books that have hitherto received much less scholarly attention. This paper will examine the curiously paradoxical views of al-Jāḥiẓ by considering his opinions on non-Arabic books in the context of scholarly debates in his contemporary Iraq. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s conception of such books intersected debates regarding (a) the suitability of books to transmit knowledge, (b) rivalries between Arabs and non-Arabs in early ʿAbbāsid Iraq, and (c) the merits of translating scholarly writings from pre-Islamic civilisations. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s opinions on these issues led him to develop a particular conception of the ‘perfect book’ whereby he could unreservedly praise his own writings and extol ʿAbbāsid literary culture, but at the same time subordinate foreign literary cultures to the non-literate pre-Islamic Arabians. Al-Jāḥiẓ’s theories reveal that 3rd/9th-century Iraq had not yet become entirely a ‘civilisation of the book’, and that conceptions of language, ethnicity and knowledge influenced the formation of Muslim bibliophilia.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5617/jais.4616


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