ABŪ ḤAYYĀN TAWḤĪDĪ, ʿALĪ B. MOḤAMMAD B. AL-ʿABBĀS, an outstanding man of letters and essayist of the Buyid period. He was born between 310/922 and 320/932, probably in Shiraz, though his birthplace is also given as Nīšāpūr, Wāseṭ, or even Baghdad. He is said to have received the name Tawḥīdī because his father was a seller in Baghdad of a type of date known as tawḥīd; but it is possible (cf. Soyūṭī, Lobb al-lobāb) that Tawḥīdī is derived from the name ahl al-tawḥīd wa’l-ʿadl adopted by the Moʿtazela and so would refer to his philosophical views. He spent his youth in Baghdad, where he studied law with the Shafeʿite scholar Abū Ḥāmed Marvarrūḏī and Hadith with Abū Bakr Šāšī, Abū Saʿīd Sīrāfī, and others. His studies must have included philology and literature, and at least a smattering of Sufism.

On the completion of his studies he made a living as a professional scribe and moved to various cities. He was in Mecca in 353/964 (al-Emtāʿ, Cairo, 1939-44, II, p. 79) and at Ray in 358/968 (Yāqūt, Odabāʾ II, p. 292). On the latter occasion he was scribe to Ṣāḥeb b. ʿAbbād (q.v.), vizier to the Buyid prince Moʾayyed-al-dawla; but he also had connections with Ebn al-ʿAmīd (d. 360/970), vizier of Rokn-al-dawla, the father of Moʾayyed-al-dawla. Abū Ḥayyān himself tells us (Moqābasāt, Cairo, 1929, p. 156) that in 361/971 he was in Baghdad listening to Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī’s lectures on philosophy. Before long, however, he was back in Ray in the employment of Ebn al-ʿAmīd’s son and successor, Abu’l-Fatḥ b. al-ʿAmīd, who fell into disfavor and was executed (shortly after the death of Rokn-al-dawla) in 366/976. Almost immediately Abū Ḥayyān returned to the post of secretary to Ṣāḥeb, and retained this post until the end of 370/980, when he moved to Baghdad and was recommended by friends to the vizier Ebn Saʿdān. He continued to serve Ebn Saʿdān until the latter’s dismissal and execution in 375/985. While working for Ebn Saʿdān, he was also a member of the distinguished literary and philosophical circle or salon of Abū Solaymān Manṭeqī Seǰestānī (d. about 375/985). He was probably also in touch with Abū Solaymān during earlier periods of residence in Baghdad. It is chiefly through the writings of Abū Ḥayyān that we know about this circle. After the death of Ebn Saʿdān he seems to have had no regular appointment, though he wrote a book (al-Moḥāżarāt wa’l-monāẓarāt) for Abu’l-Qāsem Modleǰī, vizier in Shiraz of Ṣamṣām-al-dawla. The poverty and lack of recognition from which he suffered for twenty years embittered him to such an extent that toward the end of his life he burnt his own books as a gesture of despair and defiance. He was certainly alive in 400/1009 and may have continued to live in Shiraz until 414/1023, by which time he would have been a centenarian.

Abū Ḥayyān aimed at playing a part in the literary life of his age comparable to that played by Jāḥeẓ two centuries earlier. The first main influence which carried him toward the fulfillment of his aim was the brilliant intellectual life surrounding the viziers Ebn al-ʿAmīd (Abu’l-Fażl) and his pupil and protégé, Ṣāḥeb b. ʿAbbād. Both viziers were themselves litterateurs of merit, and by their patronage attracted distinguished writers and thinkers. Abū Ḥayyān came to feel that the Ṣāḥeb was requiring him to perform tasks beneath his dignity, and his conduct led to dismissal. He took his revenge in a book called Maṯāleb (or Ḏamm) al-wazīrayn, “The vices of the two viziers” (ed. E. Kaylānī, Damascus, 1961). He had already made an anthology of adab, al-Baṣāʾer wa’l-ḏaḵāʾer, in ten volumes (ed. E. Kaylānī, Damascus, 1964-66). The second main influence on him was Abū Solaymān, who was himself in contact with Ṣāḥeb. However, where the latter had a leaning towards Muʿtazilite views, Abū Solaymān belonged to the Neoplatonic tradition of Fārābī and the Christian Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī; and in philosophy Abū Ḥayyān followed Abū Solaymān closely. The charges of extreme heresy made against him by some medieval Muslim writers do not seem to be justified. Abū Solaymān’s salon was literary, rather than strictly philosophical, and discussed all sorts of intellectual questions. On the premature death of ʿAżod-al-dawla in 372/983, the circle decided that each member should make some appropriate statement; in this they were deliberately imitating certain Greek philosophers who expressed opinions on the death of Alexander the Great. Many of the discussions of Abū Solaymān’s salon have been recorded by Abū Ḥayyān in his distinctive prose, firstly in al-Moqābasāt (“Adaptations”) and secondly in al-Emtāʿ wa’l-moʾānasa (“Pleasure and conviviality”). Both books have survived and have been printed. Several other minor works have also survived.


Yāqūt, Odabāʾ, pp. 380-407 (with many quotations in other articles; see indices).

Ebn Ḵallekān, in article on Ebn al-ʿAmīd, tr. de Slane, III, p. 264.

Sobkī, Ṭabaqāt, Cairo, 1906, IV, p. 2. Brockelmann, GAL I, p. 283; S. I, pp. 435-36.

F. E. Peters, Allah’s Commonwealth, New York, 1973, pp. 529-35.

EI2 I, pp. 126-27.

(W. M. Watt)

Originally Published: December 15, 1983

Last Updated: July 19, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 3, pp. 317-318

Cite this entry:

W. M. Watt, “ABŪ ḤAYYĀN TAWḤĪDĪ,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/3, pp. 317-318; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abu-hayyan-tawhidi-ali-b (accessed on 30 January 2014).