Biography of Al Asma’i

Al-Asma’i or Asma`i, scientific: ʿAbd al-Malik b. Quraib al-Aṣmaʿī (c. 740-828) (Arabic: ‏أبو سعيد عبد الملك ابن قريب الأصمعي‎) was an Arab scholar, philologist and anthologist, one of the earliest Arabic lexicographers and one of the three leaders of the Basra school of Arabic grammar.

He was also a pioneer of natural science and zoology. He is considered as the first Muslim scientist to study animals in detail. He wrote many works such as: Kitab al-Khail (The Book of the Horse), Kitab al-Ibil (The Book of the Camel), Kitab al-Farq (The Book of Rare Animals), Kitab al-Wuhush (The Book of Wild Animals), Kitab al-Sha (The Book of the Sheep) and Kitab Khalaq al-Insan (The Book of Humanity). He also provides detailed information on human anatomy.

Al-Asma’i was born in 740 or 741, though his exact place of birth has been disputed. Some authors have reported his birthplace as Basra in what is now Iraq, while others have listed it as Merv in what is now Turkmenistan. Whatever the case, during his life al-Asma’i was undoubtedly a representative of the Basran school of Arabic grammar, and was a pupil there of Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi and Abu ‘Amr ibn al-‘Ala’,as well as a contemporary of Abu ‘Ubaida and Sibawayhi.[7][8] He seems to have been a poor man until by the influence of the governor of Basra he was brought to the notice of Harun al-Rashid, who enjoyed his conversation at court and made him tutor of his sons Al-Amin and Al-Ma’mun. Al-Rashid, who suffered from insomnia, once held an all-night discussion with al-Asma’i on pre-Islamic and early Arabic poetry. Al-Asma’i proved popular with the influential Barmakid viziers as well. He became wealthy and acquired property in Basra, where he again settled for a time. Al-Asma’i died in the year 828, though the exact location is, again, a matter of dispute; some have listed the place of death as Baghdad, while others claim he had returned to Merv at that time.

Al-Asma’i was also a student of language and a critic, his book Fuhulat having been one of the first works of Arabic literary criticism. It was as a critic that he was the great rival of Abu ‘Ubaida. Whereas the latter, a member of the Shu’ubiyya movement, esteemed non-Arabic (chiefly Persian) culture, al-Asma’i believed in the superiority of the Arabs over all peoples, and of the freedom of their language and literature from all foreign influence. Some of his scholars attained high rank as literary men. Due to his intense interest in cataloging the Arabic language, he spent a period of time roaming the desert with Bedouin tribes in order to observe their speech patterns.

In one incident recounted by numerous historians, the Caliph al-Rashid brought forth a horse and asked both al-Asma’i and Abu ‘Ubaida (who had also written extensively about zoology) to identify the correct terms for each part of the horse’s anatomy. Abu ‘Ubaida excused himself from the challenge, saying that he was a linguist and anthologist rather than a veterinarian; al-Asma’i then leaped onto the horse, identified every part of its body and gave examples from Bedouin Arab poetry establishing the terms as proper Arabic vocabulary. Yahya, a Barmakid vizier of the Caliph, took pity on al-Asma’i, who was a perennial bachelor and was not considered to be a handsome man. Yahya attempted to buy al-Asma’i a slave girl, but she was so repulsed by al-Asma’i’s appearance that Yahya bought her back due to her rejection.[6]

Of Asma’i’s many works mentioned in the catalogue known as the Fihrist, only about half a dozen are extant. These include the Book of Distinction, the Book of the Wild Animals, the Book of the Horse, and the Book of the Sheep. Most existing collections of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry were compiled by al-Asma’i’s students based on the principles he taught.[3] In the modern era, German Orientalist Wilhelm Ahlwardt collected and republished al-Asma’i’s magnum opus Asma’iyyat, considered to be one of the primary sources of early Arabic poetry.

He also authored a botanical work, Plants and Trees, in which he names 276 plants, many of which are collective designiations. He also names all the plants which grow in the different parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Asma’i’s biography has been collected by Ibn Khallikan, who referred to him as a complete master of the Arabic language and the most eminent of all transmitters of the oral history and rare expressions of the language.

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ilustrasi al asma'i
ilustrasi al asma’i

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