There is a common grammatical question raised as to why the word ‘Sabeans’ in two very similar verses appears in two different grammatical states. In Surat al-Baqara, the verse appears in the accusative case (النصب) whilst in Surat al-Maida, the verse appears in the nominative case (الرفع).
We observe in Surat al-Baqara Ayah 62:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالنَّصَارَىٰ وَالصَّابِئِينَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)
Whilst in Surat al-Maida, verse 69 it says:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئُونَ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Sabeans and the Christians – whosoever believes in God and the last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (5:69)
The first point to note is that ‘Sabeans’ in the verse of al-Baqara is in the grammatical state we would expect it to be. This is because ‘Sabeans’ is connected to a word which is preceded by the accusative particle inna (إن). “An accusative particle accepts a subject and a predicate through dependencies called ism inna (اسم إن) and khabar inna (خبر إن). The subject ism inna is always in the accusative case manṣūb (منصوب), and the predicate khabar inna is always in the nominative case marfūʿ (مرفوع).”1
The ism of inna in the verse is الذين and ‘Sabeans’ is connected to it through the conjunctive (و) so it takes the same grammatical state and hence in the verse of al-Baqara it is in the accusative case. As such, what calls for grammatical explanation is not the verse of al-Baqara, which is in its expected grammatical form but the verse of al-Maida, which appears to be conflicting with the expected grammatical rules. It is important to note, as al-Fakhr al-Razi mentions, several Muslims, like Ubay ibn Ka’ab, ibn Mas’ud and ibn Kathir read the verse in its accusative case, akin to the verse of al-Baqara.
Al-Fakhr al-Razi’s Response
In response to this, the great Muslim exegete al-Fakhr al-Razi mentions two responses that have been given to explain this apparent discrepancy.
1) The first response is that offered by al-Khalil and Sibawayh which is to say that ‘Sabeans’ is in the nominative case because it’s the beginning of a new sentence, but it was bought forward to make a particular point which we shall subsequently explain. Thus, what the verse really intends to say is something akin to this:
Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews and the Christians – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve – and the Sabeans too.
The claimed reason is that although the Sabeans are further from guidance than the people of the Book, given their worship of planets and other entities, they can also attain salvation if they meet these conditions. Ibn Ashur – another famous exegete – added that when Arabs wish to add something to ism inna, and this thing is considered strange or unexpected, they will bring it in the nominative case (رفع). As an example of this, he cites, alongside some poetry, the following verse of the Quran:
Surah At-Tauba Ayah 3:
أَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِيءٌ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ۙ وَرَسُولُهُ
that Allah and His Messenger have repudiated the idolaters (9:3)
His Messenger is in the nominative case (مرفوع) when one might have expected it to be in the accusative case. As Ibn Ashur notes, the idea that a person would repudiate his family and people would be considered very strange and thus it comes in the nominative case to indicate this and to demonstrate that the religion is greater than any other consideration.2 The verse is thus saying, Allah has repudiated the idolaters and His Messenger has too. In the verse under discussion, it may be considered strange and unexpected for the Sabeans to be promised such a reward and hence they were mentioned in the nominative case to indicate this implicit sentence which promises them reward also.
2) The second response is the one offered by al-Farra which is to say that the accusative participle inna (إن) is weak in its ability to act here. This is for several reasons:
Firstly, the ability of inna to act is due to its similarity to a verb and the similarity between verbs and huruf is weak. Secondly, the action of inna is restricted to its ism only, and it has no impact on the khabar, which remains in its nominative case because it is the khabar of a mubtada’ and this is the position of the kufis. Thirdly, the effect of inna only shows up in certain names. There are other names in which the effect of inna does not appear. The word الذين does not change its external form regardless of what state it is.
Based on the aforementioned, if ism inna is a word in which its external form doesn’t tell us its grammatical state, what is connected (معطوف) to it can appear in either grammatical form, namely the nominative case, whereby the inna has no impact, or accusative case, where inna has an impact. The reason for this is that inna’s impact is already weak, and if it is in a sentence where its impact on its ism doesn’t appear, then it is in a state of complete weakness. Consequently, it is permissible to put the connected word to ism inna in its nominative case; this is the case it would be in prior to inna’s entry. This position, according to al-Razi, is better than the first view of the Basri school, because the first view makes it the case that God’s ordering of the words is not correct, and it is only understood properly when we rearrange it through our analysis. The second view does not require such restructuring.3
- Al-Tahrir wa al-Tanweer, verse 69 of al-Ma’idah.
- See Mafatih al-Ghayb under 5:69. Allamah Tabatabei also selects this view in al-Mizan succinctly noting that this verse invalidates what some grammarians have considered impermissible; namely making what is added to the ism of inna nominative prior to mentioning the khabar.