CSSH: The Quibbler: Al-Jahizís Practice of Epistemic Justice, J. Miller, University of Toronto on October 24, 4pm

Author: CSSH

 The Quibbler: Al-Jahiz’s Practice of Epistemic Justice, J. Miller, University of Toronto

Date: 24.10.2019 16:00

Location: CASE B35


The Department of Comparative Literature invites you to its second event this semester


The Quibbler: Al-Jahiz’s Practice of Epistemic Justice


Because he is famous as the founder of Arabic compilatory belles-lettres (adab) and rhetoric (balāgha), it may come as a surprise that al-Jahiz (d. 868 CE) saw himself mainly as a theologian (mutakallim).  His writings are full of self-corrections, exceptions, and qualifications that destabilize and undermine the knowledge they convey, producing a dazzling, but often puzzling effect. While the standard interpretation is to treat him as a sophistical writer with no commitment to truth, I propose here another reading.


Al-Jahiz wrote in the midst of a massive influx of medical and scientific knowledge from Persian, Indian, Syriac, and Greek sources, but before Aristotelian logic and philosophy came to be widely disseminated in Arabic. In his Epistle on the Craft of Kalām, al-Jahiz proposed to unify all knowledge under the heading of kalām (theology), which he vastly expanded to include the areas of empirical study, rhetoric, and history – areas where absolute knowledge was impossible.  He uses his unique quibbling authorial voice to dramatize an exemplary balance between approaches to knowledge that are in tension with one another, and to show of his management of provisional and linguistically-bound knowledge.  His gives this rare personal quality the name justice (inṣāf).


I will close the talk with a glance at how Ottoman readers made sense of this equivocating, quibbling style, based on the notes they left behind on the manuscripts of al-Jahiz’s massive compilation Book of Animals.


Jeannie Miller is Associate Professor at University of Toronto in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. Her book, The Quibbler: Al-Jahiz’s Equivocations in Kitāb al-Ḥayawān and Beyond is forthcoming in 2020 with Edinburgh University Press.  She holds a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to learn what the physical manuscripts of al-Jahiz’s writings can tell us about the reception and transmission of his work, and to re-edit a portion of Book of Animals based on new witnesses.