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Is it better to be right or left-handed? The view from the 9th century

Was it really bad to be left-handed in the Middle Ages? Or was it better than being right-handed? The ninth century writer of all things unusual, al-Jahiz, weighs in.

While in more recent centuries there has been a stigma against being left-handed, it is not clear whether or not this was also true in the Middle Ages. However, the topic was debated in one of the works by Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī, the famous Arabic writer better known as al-Jahiz.

Al-Jahiz (776 – 869) had come very poor family in the present-day Iraqi city of Basra, but once his skill as a writer emerged, he began a long career penning over 200 books on a wide range of topics, going from poetry to zoology to sex. His works often had humour and satire, and he was also well-known for examining unusual topics.

In the article, ‘Kitab al-Bursan: Al-Jahiz on Right- and Left-Handedness’, Geert Jan van Gelder focuses on part of of the writer’ work The Leprous, the Lame, the Blind, and the Squinty-Eyed. It offers a collection of biographies and stories about people (and in some cases animals) who had some physical abnormality or defect, yet have gone to have successful careers. These could be people who were blind, were hunchbacks, had very long necks, had stunted growth, were hit by lightning, or were just bald, among many other categories. Gelder explains, “the general drift of the book, insofar as one may be discerned, is that a disability should not stand in the way of greatness or fame. It is a book that could now be called politically correct.”

The final sections of this book turns to a slightly different topic – a debate between a left-hander and a right-hander, who argue over which of them is superior. Al-Jahiz has the two fictitious characters speak during the chapter, while he himself adds in several digressions, such as how people breathe through their left and right nostrils.

The left-hander goes first in the debate, and offers a wide range of arguments, including listing prominent people who were left-handed, and noting facts and pseudo-facts like that hearts are on the left side of the body and that most people will swerve to the their left. He even relates a case where two brothers, one right-handed and the other left-handed, both of which had their right hand cut off for stealing. After this the right-handed man was deemed to be helpless, unlike his brother. To this story, the right-hander responded, “I know of no virtue of the left-hander, except when he steals, is caught, and has his hand cut off!”

The right-hander also offers his own arguments, which includes him saying, “When a left-handed person wraps himself in his cloak and walks, he looks distorted and it shows up his defect and disfigurement. Left-handedness is ugly in men; in a woman it is even uglier. We have never seen a left-hander who was not a weaver or some (other) lowly or despicable person.”

Both debaters make note of hadiths from Islamic religious tradition to bolster their case, but it seems that the right-hander has the better argument, as he explains that in the Qur’an the people who go to heaven on the Day of Judgment are “those on the right hand” while those headed to hell are “on the left hand.”

“Thus the section ends,” Gelder explains, “petering out without a proper conclusion or an explicit verdict on the outcome of the debate. It is as if al-Jahiz could not make up his mind what to do: write a collection of anecdotes and interesting pieces of information on left- and right-handedness, or compose a debate on the virtues of either, carried out by fictional opponents.” However, while it seems to the reader that right-hander has the strongest cases, al-Jahiz finds it best to be ambidextrous.

The article, ‘Kitab al-Bursan: Al-Jahiz on Right- and Left-Handedness’, by Geert Jan van Gelder, appears in the book Al-Jahiz: A Muslim Humanist for our Time, edited by Arnim Heinemann, John Meloy, Tarif Khalidi and Manfred Kropp. Published by the Orient-Institut of Berlin in 2009, the book offers seventeen essays that were originally given in a conference four years earlier, which examine al-Jahiz’ intellectual range and literary achievements.

Top Image: Photo by Derek Bruff / Flickr

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