Al-Jahiz, the Muslim philosopher who had the idea of ​​evolution 1,000 years before Darwin

Al-Jahiz, the Muslim philosopher who had the idea of ​​evolution 1,000 years before Darwin


“The book of animals” by al-Jahiz had seven volumes.

The theory of evolution, by British scientist Charles Darwin, is one of the cornerstones of modern science.

The idea that species change gradually over time through a mechanism called natural selection revolutionized our understanding of the living world.

In his 1859 book, ” On the Origin of Species, ” Darwin defined evolution as a “descent with modifications,” demonstrating how different species emerge from a shared ancestor.

But it seems that the theory of evolution itself also has an ancestor in the Islamic world.

About a thousand years before Darwin did it, a Muslim philosopher living in Iraq, known as al-Jahiz , wrote a book about how animals change through a process he called “natural selection”.

His real name was Abu Usman Amr Bahr Alkanani al-Basri, but history remembers him by his nickname, al-Jahiz, which means someone with bulging eyes.

stamp representing al-Jahiz
Copyright of the STATE OF QATAR imageImage caption The Qatar Post Office issued a stamp representing al-Jahiz, as part of its Personalities of Islam series.


It is not the kindest way to call someone, but the fame of al-Jahiz lives in his seminal book, ” Kitab al-Hayawan ” (The Book of Animals).

He was born in 77 AD in the city of Basra, southern Iraq, at a time when the Mutazilah movement – a school of theological thought advocating the exercise of human reason – was gaining ground in the region.

It was during the peak of the Abbasid power . The academic works were translated from Greek into Arabic and in Basra there were important debates on religion, science and philosophy that shaped the mind of al-Jahiz and helped him formulate his ideas.

The paper was introduced into Iraq by Chinese merchants, which spurred the dissemination of ideas, and the young al-Jahiz began writing on a variety of subjects.

His interests covered many academic areas, including science, geography, philosophy, Arabic grammar and literature.

It is believed that he produced 200 books during his life, but only a third of them survived to this day.

Charles Darwin
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption When Charles Darwin died in 1882, Great Britain honored him by burying him in Westminster Abbey, where famous national figures rest.

“The book of animals”

His most famous work, “The Book of Animals”, is designed as an encyclopedia that presents 350 animals. There al-Jahiz postulates ideas that closely resemble Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“Animals engage in a struggle for existence and resources, to avoid being eaten and reproduce,” writes al-Jahiz.

“Environmental factors influence organisms by developing new characteristics to ensure survival , thus transforming them into new species.”

He continues: “The animals that survive to reproduce can transmit their successful characteristics to their descendants.”

It was clear to al-Jahiz that the living world was in a constant struggle to survive, and one species was always stronger than another.

The cover of the French satirical magazine La Petite Lune in 1871
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption A French magazine with a caricature of Darwin and his theory that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor.


To survive, animals had to have competitive characteristics to find food, avoid becoming another person’s food and reproduce. This forced them to change from generation to generation.

Al-Jahiz’s ideas influenced other later Muslim thinkers. His work was read by men such as al-Farabi, al-Arabi, al-Biruni and Ibn Khaldun.

The “spiritual father” of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, also widely known as Allama Iqbal, noted the importance of al-Jahiz in his collection of lectures, published in 1930.

He stressed that “it was al-Jahiz who pointed out the changes that occur in the lives of animals due to migration and changes in the environment.”

“Mohammedan theory”

The contribution of the Muslim world to the idea of ​​evolution was not a secret for the European intellectual of the nineteenth century. In fact, a contemporary of Darwin, the scientist William Draper, spoke of the “theory of Mohammedan evolution” in 1878.

However, there is no evidence that Darwin was familiar with al-Jahiz’s work , or that he understood Arabic.

Drawing of four species of finches observed by Darwin in the Galapagos Islands
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Darwin noticed a variation of the beak while observing different species of finches in the Galapagos Islands.


The British naturalist legitimately deserves his reputation as a scientist who spent years traveling and observing the natural world, and who founded his theory with unprecedented detail and clarity, transforming the way we think about the world.

But science journalist Ehsan Masood, who has made a radio documentary series for the BBC called “Islam and Science,” says it is important to remember others who have contributed to the history of evolutionary thought.


It also highlights that creationism did not seem to exist as a significant movement during the 9th century in Iraq, when Baghdad and Basra were the main centers of advanced learning in Islamic civilization.

” The scientists did not spend hours examining passages of Revelation to see if they were comparable to the observed knowledge of the natural world,” Masood wrote in an article on al-Jahiz in the British newspaper The Guardian .

“Instead, they went out and tried to discover things for themselves.”

In the end, it was the search for knowledge that caused the death of al-Jahiz. It is said that at the age of 92, when he was trying to reach a book from a heavy bookcase, it collapsed on top of him, killing him.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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