Signs across Races: Al-Jahiz’s cosmo-semiosis and his trans-racial mapping of the “human”

This essay aims to carry out an analysis of al-Jahiz’s Book of the Glory of the Black Race from a semiotic perspective. The topic of racial difference is read in light of the theory of categorization that al-Jahiz’s develops in his main work, titled Book of Animals. What is particular to this approach to categorization is the adoption of a cosmosemiotic view according to which the overall world and the plurality of entities comprising it are immanently and signically inter-related. This means that the checklist of features and connotations, namely the attributes, composing each category are interpreted in a non-exclusionary way. Rather than consisting of oppositional and mutually exclusive categories, al-Jahiz’s world comprises nuanced categorical differences that result from the ubiquitous and trans-categorical presence of those same attributes. The significance of each attribute is therefore an outcome of its radial inclusion in many other categories, which are, in turn, mutually interrelated. What determines the smooth and ambiguous borders of each category is the responsible and weighted choice of the attributes to be chosen, on a case by case basis, as salient categorical axes. From this perspective, even the human being is a sign, precisely an “interpretant” sign, and his moral and destinal task is to decode the semiotic and therefore relational cipher that is immanently inscribed by God in Creation. This moral task becomes a never-ending duty that makes semiosis the very categorical pivot of humanity.
The trans-categorical method of inquiry is also applied by al-Jahiz; to a “reading” of racial diversity. Hence, the real glory of the Black race—and the genuine thesis underlying this book—is its assessment of the human category, and its attitude to embody the best attributes/qualities with which God has endowed (at least potentially) humankind. Skin color differences have no relevance in God’s eyes, nor are they the consequence of any kind of divine punishment or reward. Even if an open-minded material investigation and comparison of some black-skinned human beings finds them to be connoted by many good attributes, blackness in itself is still not considered to be a salient categorical axis. The value of each individual depends on the degree to which s/he engages a genuine inquiring gaze on the signs of human trans-racial and racially ubiquitous positive attributes.

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