Part 44

The sciences concerned with the Arabic language

January 1, 2022

There are four pillars of the Arabic language=

  • lexicography
  • grammar
  • syntax and style (bayan)
  • literature

Knowledge of them all is necessary for religious scholars, since the source of all religious laws is the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which are in Arabic. Their transmitters, the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation, were Arabs. Their difficulties are to be explained from the language they used. Thus, those who want to be religious scholars must know the sciences connected with the Arabic language.

These sciences differ in emphasis (as to their importance) according to the different degrees (of usefulness) they possess for conveying the intended meaning of speech, as will become clear when they are discussed one by one. The conclusion will be that the first and most important of them is grammar, since it gives a clear.

indication of the basic principles (used in expressing) the various intended meanings. Thus, one can distinguish between subject and object, as wells as between the subject of a nominal sentence and its predicate. Without grammar, one would not know on what to base giving information (about anything)

Lexicography would deserve to be first, were not most of its data constant and restricted to their (conventional) meanings, incapable of changing, in contrast to the case endings (in grammar) which indicate dependence, the (person or thing) that is dependent, and the (person or thing) on which (something else) depends. 1235 They always change completely and leave no trace.

Thus, grammar is more important than lexicography, since ignorance of (grammar) is very harmful to mutual understanding. This is not the case with lexicography. And God knows better.


Language is the expression by a speaker of his intention. Such expression is an act of the tongue which originates in an intention to convey the meaning of speech. 1236 Therefore, (language) must become an established habit (located) in the part of the body that produces it, namely, the tongue.1237

In every nation, the (formation of language takes place) according to their own terminology. The linguistic habit that the Arabs obtained in that way is the best there is. It is the one most clearly expressing the intended meaning, since many ideas are indicated in it by something else than words. There are, for instance, vowels to distinguish the subject from object and i-case - that is, the genitive - and (there are) letters to transform actions (verbs) - that is, motions -into essences, 1238 without need of other words. These (features) are found in no other language but Arabic. All other languages need special words to indicate a particular idea or situation. Therefore; we find non-Arabs lengthier in their speech than we would consider necessary in Arabic. This is what was meant in the following remark by Muhammad= “I was given the most comprehensive words, and speech was made 1239short for me.”

The consonants, vowels, and positions (of letters [sounds]), that is, the forms of the Arabic language, came to indicate the intended meaning in a definite manner. The (Arabs) did not need a craft to teach them their meaning. It was a habit in their tongues that one generation learned from the other, as our children nowadays learn our languages.

Then Islam came. The Arabs left the Hijaz to seek the royal authority that was in the hands of (foreign) nations and dynasties. They came into contact with non-Arabs. As a result, their linguistic habit changed under the influence of the solecisms they heard non-Arab speakers of Arabic make, and it is hearing that begets the linguistic habit. Thus, the (Arab linguistic habit began to) incline toward adopting forms of speech at variance with it, because (the Arabs) became used to hearing them spoken, and (their linguistic habit) became corrupted. 1240

Cultured people feared that the (Arab linguistic) habit would become entirely corrupted and that, if the (process of corruption) went on for a long time, the Qur’an and the traditions would no longer be understood. Therefore, they derived certain norms for the (Arab linguistic) habit from their way of speaking. (These norms are) of general applicability, like universals and basic principles.

They checked all the other parts of speech with them and combined like with like. (Among such norms,) for instance, are these:

  • The agent has the u-ending.
  • The object has the a-ending.
  • The subject of a nominal sentence has the u-ending.

Then, they considered (the fact) that the meaning changes with the change of vowel (endings). For this (phenomenon), they used the technical term of i’rab. For the thing that necessitates the change (in meaning), they used the technical term “agent,” (‘amil), and so on. All these things came to be technical terms peculiar to the (grammarians) who set them down in writing and made a particular 1241 craft of them. The technical term they used for that (craft) is “grammar” (nahw). The first to write on (grammar) was Abul-Aswad adDu’ali, of the Banu Kinanah. 1242 It is said that he did so upon the advice of ‘Ali, who noticed that the (linguistic) habit was changing. Therefore he advised (ad-Du’ali) to protect it, and (ad-Du’ali) anxiously went about the task of fixing it accurately by means of comprehensive, inductively evolved rules.

Later on, scholars wrote books on (grammar). Eventually, in the time of al- Khalil b. Ahmad al-Farahidi, 1243 in the days of ar-Rashid, people were more in need of (grammatical rules than ever before), because the (linguistic) habit was disappearing from among the Arabs. (Al-Khalil) improved the craft (of grammar) and perfected its various chapters. Sibawayh 1244 learned (grammar) from him. He perfected its details and increased the number of proofs and examples used in connection with it. He wrote on it his famous Book which became the model for everything subsequently written on (grammar). 1245 Short books for students were later written by Abu-Ali al-Farisi 1246 and Abul-Qasim az-Zajjaji. 1247 In them, they followed the model of (Sibawayh’s) Book.

Then, there was much grammatical discussion. Divergent opinions originated among the grammarians of al-Kufah and al-Basrah, the two old cities of the Arabs. They used an increasing number of proofs and arguments. The methods of (grammatical) instruction also became different. There was much difference of opinion with regard to vowel endings in many verses of the Qur’an, since thegrammarians held different opinions as to the basic rules of (grammar). This became a lengthy subject for students (to study). Then recent scholars came, with their method of being brief. They cut short a good deal of the long discussion, though they included everything that had been transmitted. That, for instance, was what Ibn Malik 1248 did in the Kitab at-Tashil, and others. Or, they restricted themselves to elementary rules for (beginning) students. That, for instance, was what az- Zamakhshari did in the Mufassal and Ibn al-Hajib in the Muqaddimah. 1249 They also frequently versified the subject. That was done, for instance, by Ibn Malik in two rajaz poems, the large and the small one, and by Ibn Mu’ti 1250 in a rajaz poem of a thousand verses (ay’zyah).

In general, the works on this subject are innumerable and cannot all be known, and the methods of (grammatical) instruction are varied. The method of the ancients is different from that of recent (grammarians). The methods of the Kufians, the Basrians, the Baghdadis, and the Spaniards also, are all different. Grammar has come to the point of being allowed to disappear, along with the decrease in the other sciences and crafts which we have noted and which is the result of a decrease in civilization. At the present time, there has reached us in the Maghrib a systematic work (diwan) from Egypt attributed to the Egyptian scholar, Jamal-ad-din b. Hisham. 1251 He treats in it all the rules governing vowel endings, both in general and in detail. He discusses the letters (sounds) and the individual words and sentences. He omits the repetitions found in most chapters of grammar.

He called his work al-Mughni fi l-i’rab. 1252 He indicates all the fine points of the vowel endings in the Qur’an and sets them down accurately in chapters and sections and according to basic norms all of which are very orderly. We have found in (the work) much information attesting to (the author’s) great ability and abundant knowledge of grammar. In a way, his approach follows the method of the Mosul grammarians who followed in the footsteps of Ibn Jinni and adopted his technical terminology for (grammatical) instruction. In this way, he has produced a remark- able work that shows his powerful (linguistic) habit and his acquaintance with the subject.


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