DAMIRI, MOḤAMMAD b. Musā b. ʿIsā Kamāl al-Din Ebn Elyās b. ʿAbd-Allāh al-Damiri (b. Cairo, A.H. 745/A.D. 1342, d. Cairo, A.H. 808/ A.D. 1405), a tailor turned Shāfiʿi theologian, is best known for his Ḥayātal-ḥayawān (Animal Life). It is a comprehensive work on all that pertains to animals, which became widely disseminated in the Islamic world in three recensions--long (kobrā), intermediate (wosṭā), and short (şoḡrā). The sources that were available to Damiri include the rich Persian literary tradition in animal tales (such as the Sindbād-nāma and Manṭeq al-ṭayr in addition to Kalila wa Demna). In contrast, the Graeco-Roman or the Aristotelian legacy seems to have been indirect. For example, Aristotle’s Historia animalium had been translated into Arabic by Yaḥyā ebn al-Beṭriq in the eighth century. It remained, however, embodied in veterinary and medical texts as well as in cosmological works, such as al-Qazvini’s ʿAjāʾeb al-Maḵluqāt (Wonders of Creation), or incorporated into large compilations, which bordered on philosophy, biology, psychology, and natural history, such as the Epistles of the Eḵwān al-Ṣafāʾ, or the seven-volume Ketāb al-ḥayawān of Jāḥeẓ (A.H. 163-255/A.D. 780/868) (Pellat-Thoumine, 1979). Jāḥeẓ’s work had already prepared the way for Damiri in a haphazard and unsystematic way (Pellat, 1969). To what extent and in which way Damiri utilized these works among his hundreds of sources has yet to be adequately investigated in light of modern scholarship.

The nature and scope of Damiri’s work can be gleaned from the organization of its content, which contains more than a thousand articles, quoting from 807 authors (Somognyi, 1928). Arranged alphabetically according to names of animals, each article loosely extends, at least in the longer version, into seven sections: (1) a philological consideration of the animal’s name; (2) a description of its physical characteristics and habits; (3) the traditions (aḥādiṯ) where it is mentioned; (4) its juridical status (ḥokm) within the Shariʿa as to whether eating its flesh is permissible (ḥalāl) or not (ḥarām and makruh) according to the different legal schools (maḍāheb); (5) the relevant proverbs, largely attributed to Maydāni’s Majm aʿal-amṯāl; (6) medicinal and other properties (ḵawāṣṣ) of the various parts of the animal; (7) the interpretation of its appearance in dreams. These categories are expanded, in a highly anecdotal style, with numerous quotations and material, such as the metaphorical use of animals in the art or “science of rhetoric” (ʿelm al-noṭq). Damiri even digresses into a survey of other subjects, such as the history of the Capliphate (Somognyi, 1935).

Having witnessed a discussion at an assembly, where the ignorant and the learned were equally confused on the subject of the natural qualities of certain animals, Damiri became acutely aware of the need to correct erroneous notions and widespread misconceptions about animals (Ḥayātal-ḥayawān, Preface, p. 2). The autobiographical aspect of the Preface acquires greater significance when considered in the context of Damiri’s own times when the importance placed by the Mamluks on the horse and the equestrian arts (funun al-furusiyya) was accompanied by a resurgence of interest in texts on animals (Ayalon, pp. 954-55). In addition to contemporary treatises of a quasi-zoological nature, such interest is reflected in the production of illustrated versions of earlier works. These included not only Jāḥez’s Book of Animals (Ketāb al-Ḥayawān), and Durayhim al-Mawṣili’s Book on the Usefulness of Animals (Ketāb Manāfeʿ al-Ḥayawān), but also literary texts of Indo-Persian origin, such as the Kalila wa Demna. The stylistic characteristics of these illustrations indicate continuity with the older Persian iconographical traditions that combine an acute eye for the defining qualities unique to each animal with an almost cartoon-like economy of presentation (Ettinghausen, p. 136, 153-58).

The Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān is a complex work that is not easy to classify. It falls neither within zoology, nor the medieval bestiary where animals are used for the purpose of moral instruction. In the comprehensive scope, Damiri’s work exemplifies the Islamic classical tradition of an encyclopaedic approach to knowledge (ʿelm). Unlike earlier specialized encyclopaedias, however, such as Ebn Sinā’s Qānun, a systematically organized, lucidly presented synthesis of medical knowledge, Damiri’s work represents an heroic attempt to impose a rational grouping to a vast store-house of animal lore, which fails in practice. It remains an uncritical compilation, indiscriminately lumping together the important and the trivial, the real and the imaginary, the factual and the fictional (deriving, for example, from One Thousand and One Nights). Nonetheless, the result is an indispensable source of cultural reference on animals for both Arabic and Persian.



The popularity of Damiri’s work in the Islamic world is exemplified in its numerous editions, translations, and printed impressions (Cairo: Bulāq, A.H. 1275 / A.D. 1858; 2nd ed., A.H. 1284 / A.D. 1867; Maimuniyah Press, A.H. 1305 / A.D. 1903).

A contemporary translation, possibly of the ṣogrā version, was made into Ottoman Turkish by Meḥemmed b. Süleymān, (Topkapi Sarayi, Revan MS. No. 1664, F.E. Karatay, Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi Kütüphänesi Türkċe Yazmalar Katalogu, Vol. I, Istanbul, 1961, p. 567); one, possibly of the ’wosṭā’ version, by Ibrāḥim b. al-Hajj ʿAbdullāh al-Adanavi (the Mofti of Sivas), which includes an index; another by ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān b. Ibrāḥim was printed in Constantiniyya in A.H. 1272 / A.D. 1855 and 1900 (A. Adivar, Osmanli Türklerinde Iµlim, Istanbul, 1943, pp. 15, 76, 91).

In the sixteenth century a Persian translation was prepared for Sultan Selim I by Ḥakim Šah Qazvini and another, entitled ¨¨Ḵawaṣṣ al-Ḥayawān by Edris b. Ḥusām- al-Din Bedlisi (d. A.H. 926 / A.D. 1560) (Karatay, Farsca Yazmalar, MS No. 277, p. 106).

An illustrated lithograph edition was printed in A.H. 1285 / A.D. 1869 (Teheran?) (F.E. Karatay, Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi Kütüphānesi Farsca Yazmalar Katalogu. MS No. 277, Istanbul, 1961, p. 106).

Damiri’s work was also known in a Latin translation, probably from an abridged version. It was, for example, incorporated into the sources of the Hierozoïcon sive bipartitum Opus de Animalibus Sacrae Scripturae, London, Thomas Rycroft, 1663. It was composed by Samuel Bochart (1599-1667), A Biblical scholar, as a demonstration of the divine wisdom through the observance of God’s creation. Demiri became known among eighteenth-century orientalists through Bochart. An unpublished French translation of the “histoire des animaux” of Demiri by Petit de la Croix, le fils, is mentioned in Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale, ou Dictionnaire universel (continuée par C. Visdelou et A. Galland), Tome IV (1779); H. A. Schulten’s "Additions” (1782), p. 731. There is also a partial English translation (up to Abu Ferās )by Col. A.S.G. Jayakar, entitled Ad-Damiri’s Ḥayāt al-Ḥayawān (A Zoological Lexicon), London / Bombay, 1906-8, Vol.I & II, Part I. It includes a lengthy introduction. For a detailed bibliography of manuscripts and translations in addition to those mentioned within the text, see D. Ayalon, “Furusiyya,” and F. Viré, “faras” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, New ed. Vol. II, 1965, pp. 784-88, and 952-55.

C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, II, Leiden, 1949, p. 172 f.; Supplement, II, p. 170 f; III, p. 1260.

Iskandar, A.Z., A Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Science in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library, London, 1967, pp. 106-07.

L. Kopf, “al-Damiri,” Encyclopédie de l’Islam, 2nd ed., II, Paris/Leiden, 1965m pp. 109-10.

Ch. Pellat, J. Sourdel-Thomine, et. al. “Ḥayawān” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., III, London/Leiden, 1979, pp. 305-312; Ch. Pellat, ed., The Life and Works of Jāḥez, trans. D.M. Hawke, London, 1969; French orig., Zurich, 1967.

Secondary sources and studies. R. Ettinghausen, Arab Painting, Cleveland, Ohio, Skira, 1962, pp. 156-58, 161.

G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Baltimore, 1948), pp. 1214, 1326, 1639-41.

F. Sezgin, Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums, II, (Medizin-Pharmazie-Zoologie-Tierheilkunde; Bis ca. 430 H.), Leiden, 1970, pp. 344, 364, 366, 368.

S.J. de Somognyi, “Index des sources de la de Ḥayāt al- ḥayawāad-Damiri,” Journal asiatique, 213, 1928, pp. 5-128.

Idem: (Somognyi), “A History of the Caliphate in the Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān, by al-Damiri” in Bulletin of the School of African and Oriental Studies, 8, 1935, pp. 143-55.

Idem (Somognyi), “Ad-Damiri’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān. An Arabic Zoological Lexicon,” Osiris, IX, 1950, pp. 33-43.

Idem (Somognyi, “The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ḥayāt al- ḥayawān,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1940, pp. 1-20.

Idem (Somognyi), “Biblical Figures in al-Damiri’s Hayāt al-hayawān” in Dissertations in honorem E. Mahler, Budapest, 1937, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1940, pp. 1-20.

Idem (Somognyi), “Medicine in ad-Damiri’s Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān,” Journal of Semitic Studies, II, No. 1, 1957, pp. 62-91.

Idem (Somognyi), “Die Stellung ad-Damiris in der Arabischen Literatur,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 56, 1960, pp. 192-206.

Juan Vernet, “Al-Damiri” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 3, New York, 1969, pp. 548-49.

(G. A. Russell)

Originally Published: July 20, 2002

Last Updated: July 20, 2002