The Beginnings of Arabic Grammar

Photo Mohammad Ehsai, "Mohabbat (Compassion)" - 2011إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

“Indeed, We have sent it, an Arabic Qur’an so that you all may understand.” (12:2)

قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا غَيْرَ ذِي عِوَجٍ لَّعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ

“It is a Qur’an in Arabic, without any crookedness, in order that they may have Taqwa.” (39:28)

Imam Shafi’ said: “Every Muslim is obligated to learn the Arabic tongue to the utmost of his power in order to profess through it that ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم is His Messenger’ and to utter what is mandated upon him…” (al-Risalah, pg.93)

Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah said, “The Arabic language is part of the religion, and knowing it is obligatory. This is because the ability to understand the Qur’an and Sunnah is obligatory on every Muslim, and yet they cannot be understood without knowing Arabic, and the (general Islamic principle is that) every act that is an essential prerequisite to perform an obligatory act is also obligatory.” (Iqtida Sirat al-Mustaqeem, pg.469)

It is through the medium of Arabic that Islam has been preserved; primarily through the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and secondarily through the numerous classical books on Islam written by the scholars over the past 1400 years or so. Translations are important, but we need to know Arabic in “real” time. We cannot take out our translations during Salah, Jumu`ah khutbah, or Tarawih in Ramadan. It is through this language that Allah speakers to us, and to His Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم. Translations are often inaccurate and cannot equal the beauty of the actual Arabic language.

Arabic at the Time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم

Arabic had evolved to a very high level as a language when the Qur’an was revealed. The Arabs knew their language so well that illiteracy only made them better in mastering their native tongue. In terms of writing, Arabic words at the time did not even have any dots on its letters besides not having anyHarakaat (diacritical vowel marks). The Arabs prided their language to such a degree that they would call non-Arabs عَجَمي or “one who is illiterate in language.” It was at this time that the lofty and [inimitable] words of the Qur’an were revealed to them through Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم. In fact, the Qur’an directly challenged the Arabs in their language to produce something like it:

وَإِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَىٰ عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُوا بِسُورَةٍ مِّن مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُوا شُهَدَاءَكُم مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

“And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down to Our slave, then produce a chapter of the like thereof    and call your witnesses besides Allah, if you are truthful.” (Qur’an, 2:23)

The people of Makkah were well acquainted with the life of Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم, who they recognized as the most exemplary and trustworthy among them. Further, it was also known that he صلى الله عليه و سلم had no ability to read or write. Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم was commanded to say,

قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا الَّذِي لَهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ يُحْيِي وَيُمِيتُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الْأُمِّيِّ الَّذِي يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَكَلِمَاتِهِ وَاتَّبِعُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ

“Say: ‘Oh mankind! Verily, I am sent to you all as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. None has the right to be worshipped but He; it is He who gives life and causes death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write; who believe in Allah and His Words, and follow him so that you may be guided.’” (Qur’an, 7:158)

Despite his lack of ability in reading and writing, which was a sign of his prophethood mentioned in the prior scriptures [1], the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه و سلم had been given the gift of eloquence by Allah and was the most eloquent of the Arabs. He صلى الله عليه و سلم said,

بُعِثْتُ بِجَوامِعِ الْكَلِم

“I have been sent with comprehensive speech.” (Bukhari, Hadith #6845)

Evolution of Arabic Grammar

The earliest attempt to write the Arabic grammar began when Ali (R) commissioned one of his students, Abu al-Aswad ad-Du’ali (69 AH) to codify Arabic grammar. During the time of the caliphate ofAli (R), it was apparent that Arabic grammar needed to be systemized. This was because many of the non-Arabs who had embraced Islam were making critical errors in the Arabic language. Here is an excerpt from ad-Du’ali [2]:

“I came to the leader of the Believers, `Ali ibn Abi Talib, and found that he was holding a note in his hand. I asked, ‘What is this, oh Leader of the Believers?’ He said, ‘I have been thinking of the language of the Arabs, and I came to find out that it has been corrupted through contacts with these foreigners. Therefore, I have decided to put something that they (the Arabs) refer to and rely on.’ Then, he gave me the note, and on it wrote: ‘Speech is made of nouns, verbs, and particles. Nouns are names of things, verbs provide information, and particles complete the meaning.’ Then he said to me, ‘Follow this approach and add to it what comes to your mind.’

Ad-Du’ali continued saying, “I wrote two chapters on conjunctions and attributes then two chapters on exclamation and interrogatives. Then I wrote about إِنَّ وَ أَخَوَاتِها and I skipped لَکِنَّ . When I showed that to him, he ordered me to add لَکِنَّ . Therefore, every time I finished a chapter I showed it to him, until I covered what I thought to be enough. He said, ‘How beautiful is the approach you have taken!’”

At this point in history, the science of grammar called اَلنَّحْو (Nahw) started to evolve and blossom. Following ad-Du’ali came many other grammarians, who studied and developed the science of the language. The period between 750 AD and 1500 AD saw more than 4000 grammarians who have been recorded in history [3]. Of these, the most famous was Sibaway. (180 AH), who compiled the work “al-Kitab”, which became the standard reference for Arabic grammar. The teacher of Sibaway, al-Khalil (75 AH), is credited with compiling the first complete Arabic dictionary كِتابُ الْعَين based on Arabic roots.

The work of these grammarians and their counterparts set the paradigm for subsequent generations of grammarians. These grammarians studied the Arabic of the Qur’an, pre-Islamic poetry, and other literature from Bedouin Arabs as the ideal standard of language. Interestingly, the pure, unadulterated language of the Bedouins became regarded as what we now know as Classical Arabic or اَلْفُصْحٰى (al-Fus’ha). This pure Arabic was spoken for the first 300 years AH. Until today however, the rules of Classical Arabic have been preserved in the numerous voluminous works of Islamic scholarship. We hope that Insha’Allah our Ummah will once again be able to understand and speak the original language that was spoken by the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم, his Companions (R), and the early successors.




[1] “Those who follow the Messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write whom they find written with them in the Torah and the Injil (Gospel), who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him, and followed the light which was sent down with him it is those who will be the successful.” (Qur’an, 7:157)

[2] Adapted from Ibn al-Anbari in his book

[3] Jiyad, Mohammed. A Hundred and One Rules! A Short Reference for Syntactic, Morphological, & Phonological Rules for Novice and Intermediate Levels of Proficiency. Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010.

By Masood Ranginwala

Extracted from Essentials of Qur’anic Arabic, Vol.1

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