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Signs of Skepticism in Early Abbasid Literature: The Case of al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/869)

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The well-known littérateur, al-Jāḥiẓ, was heavily invested in the theological controversies of his time. A chief object of dispute was anthropomorphism ( tashbīh). For al-Jāḥiẓ, who had great confidence in the mind to discover all truths and also in the language of the Arabs to express these truths with clarity, anthropomorphist belief amounted to muddled thinking. In his view, the partisans of anthropomorphism simply did not understand how to interpret the language of scripture, nor did they grasp the rational criteria on the basis of which claims to knowledge could be satisfactorily made. Al-Jāḥiẓ attacked anthropomorphist belief (and related topics) in varied theological treatises, but he also took on anthropomorphism in some of his literary treatises, notably The Superiority of the Belly to the Backand The Book of Squaring and Circling. These two literary treatises not only bear the marks of theological controversy, they are also “teaching” tools indicating that al-Jāḥiẓ deployed a skeptical strategy in quasi-satirical form as a way to inculcate in the partisans of anthropomorphism doubts about their own beliefs.

Affiliations: 1: Georgetown University Washington, d.c. USA


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