Jahiz: Dangerous Freethinker? by James E. Montgomery

Freethinking is characterised by a reliance on reason and autonomy rather than authority or institution. It is an inquisitive and questioning state of mind, one that readily slips into scepticism and possibly even relativism. As Richard Scholar has recently argued, freethinking ‘flourishes wherever a thinker encounters an obstacle in the search for truth’. I do not consider secularism or irreligiosity (or even atheism) to be essential to the notion of freethinking. In my view freethinking is characterised instead by a reliance on independent, reasoned thinking driven by a quizzical stance with regard to received knowledge.

Jahiz (d. 868–9), the ninth-century thinker, certainly relied on reason and the questioning of received or inherited beliefs. He was not a sceptic, though he saw doubt as an indispensable moment on our path to truth. He was not a relativist: right and wrong were identifiable and unchanging moral qualities accessible to the human reason. And he was most definitely not anti-authoritarian. For him authority came from God and was vested in the caliph and in the apparatus of the caliph’s government, however semi- or loosely institutionalised that apparatus was.

Jahiz was a thinker who put his freethinking at the service of the caliph and his regime. For Jahiz and his society to attempt anything else would have merited God’s wrath: society needed freethinking to ensure it was a fit response to God’s revelation of the Qur’an. Jahiz would have been dismayed to learn that there was anything dangerous about the promotion of his brand of freethinking. And yet, by the end of his long life, he was castigated as an intellectual lightweight, written off as a doddering wit, and subsequently read largely as a stylist of antiquarian interest.

Let us begin in media res, with a typical example of Jahiz’s style of writing and thinking.The following passage is from volume 7 of a work called The Book of Living, by far the most ambitious work of Jahiz to have survived. Jahiz raises the question of whether birds have a language:

Every species of animal knows how to survive and get what it needs, how to evade its predators and catch its prey. It works out how to trap the animals that are inferior to it and how to protect itself against those superior to it. It chooses places to hide and defend itself and moves when it thinks they are unsuitable.