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Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books

James E. Montgomery

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Shortlisted for The Sheikh Zayed Book Award 2017

Introduces the writings and ‘Abbasid-period textual world of Al-Jāhiz, the 'father of Arabic prose'

Al-Jāhiz was a bibliomaniac, theologian, and spokesman for the political and cultural elite, a writer who lived, counselled and wrote in Iraq during the first century of the 'Abbasid caliphate. He advised, argued and rubbed shoulders with the major power brokers and leading religious and intellectual figures of his day, and crossed swords in debate and argument with the architects of the Islamic religious, theological, philosophical and cultural canon. His many, tumultuous writings engage with these figures, their ideas, theories and policies. They give us an invaluable but much-neglected window onto the values and beliefs of this cosmopolitan elite.

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Part I: Physiognomy of An Apocalyptic Age
Part II: The Book of Living
Part III: The Jaḥiẓian Library Under Attack
Part IV: The Salvific Book
Part V: The Architecture of Design
Part VI: Appreciating Design
Appendix: The Praise of Books

About the Author

James E. Montgomery is The Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at Fellow of Trinity Hall, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge.


‘Montgomery’s book contains many translations from Kitab al-Hayawan and, occasionally, from other works by al-Jahiz. Despite his humble view of himself as a capable translator of a great Arab writer like al-Jahiz, his translations are excellent…His translations of several long passages, as well as of short ones strategically placed in his well-designed analytical study of al-Jahiz’s book, help readers understand this "father of prose" and his unique contribution to adab and to cultural life in the first century of the Abbasid caliphate. Montgomery’s endnotes are copious, his bibliography is a veritable reference catalogue of classical Arabic literature and related topics, and his detailed index is a great help to searching readers.’

- Issa J. Boullata, McGill University, Review of Middle East Studies

- Issa J. Boullata, McGill University, Review of Middle East Studies

‘There is more translation of The Book of the Living here than ever been in English, in itself making it a worthy contribution to the field thirsty for such material, but it is the extensive commentary and explication of the argument which make the work so impressive. Cross-referencing shows a deep familiarity with all seven volumes of The Book of the Living and the rest of the Jahizian corpus. Translation difficulties, solutions and compromises are presented, including many of the Arabic terms (within the translation) to aid the student or scholar of classical Arabic (which can interrupt the flow for a non-Arabic reader). Contextualizing information is plentiful; on the political situation (for example caliphal legitimacy under the Abbasids in Baghdad, a debate being revived today), the religious (the role of the imam, correct religious behaviour), social (gender, etiquette) and intellectual issues (the nature and role of debate and the book) – to name just a few of the strands Montgomery uncovers and explores.’

- Lydia Wilson, The Times Literary Supplement

Readers who think of al-Jahiz as a sophist or a buffoon have a surprise coming. Montgomery's wrestling match with the Book of Living affords unexpected views of the Abbasid mind, and puts al-Jahiz at the centre of the most vital and momentous debates of his age.

- Michael Cooperson, University of California, Los Angeles

I've read a good number of books in the last 40 years. This is one of the most remarkable. "Oh strange new world that has such people in it." All of humanity is here in these rich, challenging, fascinating pages. Montgomery is a remarkable historian and a great writer.

- Rebecca Stott, University of East Anglia

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