Brief Look at the Development of Arabic Grammar

Given the role Arabic grammar has to play in Qur’anic and Hadith sciences, it is important for one to not just study grammar as it is generally taught today and suffice with it, rather it is crucial to have an understanding of its development and as well as a critical approach towards it in order for its further development and progression. These are summarized notes I have taken over time, describing the general phases of development of Arabic grammar. Due to the usage of technical terms in these notes, the post will be understood by those who already have a brief background in Arabic grammar.


The development of Arabic grammar can be divided into seven general periods:

1) Foundational (1st and 2nd century Hijri): This period includes part of the 1st and 2nd century Hijri. More precisely, from the time of Imam Ali (s) to the time of Ibn Abi Ishaq al-Hadhrami (d. 117). This was the period when the preliminary foundations for Arabic grammar were laid down.

2) Writing & Disseminating (2nd century Hijri): This era begins with the likes of Abu ‘Amr bin al-‘Ala and ‘Isa bin ‘Umar (d. 149) and ends with the likes of Abu Zakariyyah al-Farra, Khalil (d. 170), Sibawayh (d. 180), Kisayee and Akhfash. Many books were written in this era, the most notable one being al-Kitab of Sibabwayh.

3) Expounding (3rd century Hijri): This era is known as the age of bayan and ta’qib, due to the efforts of Mubarrad (d. 285) and Tha’lab (d. 291) – who happened to be ardent rivals – as they tried to expound on the views of Khalil, Sibabwayh, Kisayee and Farra. They worked on defining principles upon which earlier scholars based their views upon and as well as explaining the foundations of the Basran and Kufan schools.

4) Formalization & Drawing Parallels (4th century Hijri): In this era there was a surge in grammar classes which spread throughout the Islamic world. It was in this period when different schools became formalized and were recognized with their own established views. The main methodologies that were developed during this time were as follow:

  1. Selective Approach: This approach can be seen in the works of scholars such as Ibn Kaysan and Ibn Sarraj – this approach was generally attributed to the school of Baghdad, and it was an effort to reconcile the views of the Basran and Kufan school.
  2. Exegetical Movement: The exegetical movement gained attention after the likes of Sayrafi and Ramani began formalizing the views of earlier schools of thought. Many focused on expounding the views of Sibabwayh, explaining them based on the grammatical views of the theologians.
  3. Drawing Parallels (Analogy & Comparisons): This was a methodology used by Abu al-Qasim al-Zajaji (d. 340) and Ibn Jinni in his book al-Khasais. This trend can be seen all the way till the time of Ibn al-Anbari in his book Lum’ al-Adillah and Suyuti (d. 911) in his book al-Iqtirah.

5) Standardization (5th & 6th century Hijri): During the 5th century Hijri, we see a wave of schools springing up in the West. Linguist sciences flowered in Andalus and then expanded to other areas of the West and this movement was active for more than 2 centuries. Since this era was the age of standardizing principles and foundations, it is seen as a bridge that connects the eras before it and the ones after. The work of al-Shantamri, who emphasized a return back to the more basic and simple principles of syntax, can be seen as that bridge. Ibn Sayyidah al-Mursi was also a part of this movement, as well as al-Iflili, al-Zubaydi, Ibn Tarawah and his student al-Suhayli.

During the 6th century Hijri, there were two distinct scholars who helped construct this bridge were:

  1. Abu Musa al-Jazuli al-Marakashi who conjugated the rules of grammar in a logical manner, and his work was seen as an authority for a full century.
  2. Ibn Madha’ from Andalus attempted to simplify Arabic grammar – his most famous work being The Refutation of the Grammarians.

However, neither of these two scholars were able to reach the level of al-Shantamri (d. 476).

6) Reconciliation (7th century and onward): In this century all efforts of the past centuries were put together and the schools of thought were reconciled. This effort reached its climax in the Alfiyyah of Ibn Malik al-Juyani, which became the main book of reference in all teaching circles. The methodology by which Arabic grammar was meant to be understood became established and fully-defined. Other scholars that had a role in expanding and formalizing this methodology were Abu Hayyan and Ibn Hisham.

7) Renewal and Re-examination (Modern Day): These movements have resulted in modern day study of Arabic grammar and issues such as our interaction with grammar are generally discussed.

Methodologies used in developing Nahw

There were numerous methods employed during the aforementioned 7-phases. Some methods by which Arabic grammar developed were as follow:

1) Hearing: The standard was Arabic the way it was spoken during the Age of Ignorance till the end of the 2nd century Hijri. The last person from the eloquent ones was who Sibabwayh witnessed in 150 Hijri by the name of Ibrahim bin Hurma (إبراهيم بن هرمة). Those who lived after that time-period, their Arabic eloquence weakened and diminished, as it continued to get mixed with non-Arab dialects through the 3rd century Hijri onwards. Eloquence and formality was diminished to such an extent that trying to pronounce something correctly and in its most eloquent form in normal day-to-day speech became shameful. Tha’lab even composed poetry pointing to this reality:

إن شئت أن تصبح بين الورى             ما بين شتّام و مغتاب‏

فكن عبوسا حين تلقاهم             و كلم الناس بإعراب‏

The eloquence of Arabic remained restricted to the middle of the peninsula, between the open deserts, and residents of Najd, Tahamah and Hejaz. This was because these places were away from those tribes and individuals whose dialects had become mixed with Persian (as opposed to those who resided up in Iraq or Syria etc.)[1].

We also notice that many of the grammarians were not well-versed in Hadith sciences. Even Sibabwayh who initially set off to study it, became so involved with grammar that he was never able to get into hadith sciences deeply. Thus we see that the grammarians barely rely on narrations in their works of grammar to prove a point, because very few of them were experts in it. Some of these grammarians would argue that much of the hadith corpus was being narrated by meaning (naql bil ma’na) which made it pointless to refer to it as a source for establishing credibility for grammatical principles, and on top of that, many narrations were transmitted by non-Arab narrators.

This view was not accepted by all scholars though. Others would argue that whether the hadith narrators were Arab or non-Arabs, they generally had a habit of relaying words of a narration as it is. Furthermore, some argue that even if we accept that many of the narrations were narrated by meaning, most of the narrators were still Arab. Thus we see Ibn Malik in his book Shawahid al-Tawdhee wa al-Tashih li-Mushkilaat al-Jami’ al-Sahih (شواهد التوضيح والتصحيح لمشكلات الجامع الصحيح) attempting to justify and respond to all criticism made by the grammarians on the wordings of some of the narrations from Sahih Bukhari.

In any case, the primary method used by the grammarians to build their foundations was what how they would hear the Arabs pronounce words, especially when it was composed in prose and poetry.

2) al-‘Aamil: One of the most important views in Arabic grammar is that some kind of words effect some other kinds of words as far as their syntax is concerned. This view has been referred to as Nazariyah al-‘Aamil (نظرية العامل) which is considered by the grammarians the basis of explaining the I’rab, and then utilizing it in their deductions.

Books have been written by scholars both for and against this view. Those who are against this view say that it is the speaker himself who gives the Raf’, Nasb or Jazm. Ibn Jinni alludes to this, whereas Ibn Mudhah’ takes this view and expands on it in his book al-Radd ‘ala al-Nuhat and attacks the view completely and even states that it is logically impossible for a word to effect another word.[2]

These discussions amongst the grammarians surround themselves around many different technical terms such as Zahir, Ma’nawi, Mazkur, Mahzuf etc. To briefly summarize the famous view of the grammarians and their justification for it, they say:

The I’rab is the last movement that a word gets due to an ‘aamil which has acted upon it – either by its very presence or by taking it into consideration without it being present. So if we say أكرم زيد عمرا the verb Akrama is the ‘amil which has given raf’ to Zayd, and Nasb to ‘Amr. The first understanding that comes to mind is that this I’rab is the result of “Ikram” that took place, not that it is the cause of it in a legal or logical sense. Rather it is merely an explanation given by the scholars regarding what they have observed in speech. They have noticed a relationship between the different types of words. In some instances they notice that some words are given certain i’rab when they are alongside a certain word – which they call al-‘aamil – and the word which took on an i’rab (al-mu’rab) is referred to as al-ma’mul. The effect or i’rab is thus not created by the ‘aamil – that is to say, it is not through causality – rather as Ghazali says: عندها لا بها (when an ‘aamil exists, this effect also exists alongside it – not necessarily due to it).

Nevertheless, in certain scenarios this view is forced to take an ‘amil into assumption such as when trying to determine the cause of raf` for Mubtada or for a verb. This view also then expands into being able to use analogy and deduction.

3) Analogy and Deduction: The term qiyas has been used with different meanings in different sciences. Qiyas that was employed in Aristotelian logic began being used in grammatical works from 4th century Hijri onwards.[3] However Qiyas that is referred to in Usul al-Fiqh – also known as Qiyas al-‘Illah – which focuses on deduction after having determined the cause of a ruling, was used heavily in grammar from its initial stages.

Kisayee and Ibn al-Anbari both have been reported to have said that Nahw is a Qiyas, as it is a science that has a measuring tool based on the induction carried out on Arab speech.

However Ibn al-Anbari and after him Suyuti went further than this and said there are four pillars of Qiyas done in grammar which are: al-asl, al-far`, al-hukm and al-`illah. Suyuti lists out the grammatical Qiyas[4] as follow:

1) Predicating a far` on an asl

2) Predicating an asl on a far`

3) Predicating a Nazeer upon a Nazeer

4) Predicating a Dhidd upon a Dhidd

The Qiyas themselves are also of different kinds[5]:

1) al-Qiyas al-‘Aam

2) al-Qiyas al-Nazari

3) al-Qiyas al-Ta’leeli

However the grammarians knew that language cannot be conformed to strict rules like in Mathematics, therefore rare or uncommon pronunciations and usages were inevitable. With that being said, the practice of Qiyas went through the following stages:

  1. Observing the language on an apparent level, and understanding its syntax and morphology. These were written down and most of it was all based on induction rooted in hearing.
  2. Staying away from every conjugation which does not exist in Sima’, even if it was in accordance with Qiyas. This is what Tha`lab refers to in this line of poetry:

و لا تقل يعسو و لا ذا عاس             إنّ السّماع مانع القياس‏

  1. Establishing the reliability of that which was against the rules of Sima’ and at other times against Qiyas – such as the rare and uncommon instances. That which is rare is as follow:
    1. Rare (Shaaz) is like the word سنين with vowels, and the Nasb of a present tense verb by removing the أن in the sentence: تسمع بالمعيديّ خير من تراه or the plural of فارس into فوارس
    2. Uncommon (Nadir) is a word whose usage does not go to all Arab tribes, like the tribe of Huzayl doing Ibdaal of Alif Maqsura into Ya when it is added to a Ya-Mutakallim like هويّ in  هواى and numerous other examples.
    3. Necessity (Dharurah) is a word whose types are a lot in poetry, such as Tarkheem in a non-Munada, and conjugating that which does not get conjugated, or turning a masculine into a feminine.

4) Justification: Semiotic justifications began with Khalil and Sibawayh, which then subsequently turned into logical justifications at the time of Ibn Saraj and Zajaji (like in his book Kitab al-‘Ilal). Then a wave of principled reasoning appeared at the time of Ibn Jinni, Ibn al-Anbari, Suyuti and those after them. The reasoning during the time of Khalil was seen tantamount to linguistic exegesis which would unveil the nature and true meaning of speech.

Steps that were taken:

  1. Attempts to explain speech, which became known as the cause of al-Farq, or Amn al-Labsالفرق أو أمن اللبس
  2. A tendency towards simplifying speech, especially if certain words had a high usage. This became known as استعمال الأخف

al-Zajaji in his Kitab al-Idha therefore says: Reasons given in Arabic grammar are of three types – Ta’leemiyah, Qiyasiyyah, & Jadaliyyah.

As for Ta’leemiyah (they are primary reasons), it is the reasoning provided for the justification of certain words – because we have heard how Arabs have pronounced all words. For example, stating that Ism al-Fa’il is a conjugation for an active participle, equips us to know or conjugate words on that pattern whenever we need to. Or learning the rules of Raf’ and Nasb based on Nawasikh.

As for Qiyasiyyah (they are secondary reasons), they discuss why for example does Anna make Zayd Mansub – or more generally, why does Anna give nouns Nasb. The reply that Zajaji gives is that these nouns become like the objects in a verb (which is Anna in this case) that is muta`addi.

As for Jadaliyyah (they are tertiary reasons), it when it is explained why certain Huruf resemble verbs (for example Anna) and what verbs are they resembling. There are discussions present on these questions, however many responses are just mere attempts to justify certain views.

We have mentioned before that Ibn al-Anbari relied on the school of Usul and made use of their terminologies in explaining matters, and this can be seen in Kitab Lum` al-Adillah. However in Kitab Asrar al-Lugha his goal was to present secondary reasons and tertiary reasons, where he relies more on al-Farq and al-Takhfif.

How Should We Interact with the Grammatical Heritage

From the very beginning, scholars of grammar differentiated between those matters that were necessary for the general public and those that weren’t. As for those who wished to go into more detail, they would be the ones who would need to go look up the more intensive works, and become familiar with the larger historical heritage.

In the past, we notice that some scholars had gone to apply exaggerated standards of grammar, like Ibn al-`Urayf who writes a sentence which can be analyzed in more than 200-hundred thousand ways. Mubarrad for example, coined up difficult questions for practice, such as his famous sentence in al-Muqtadhib:

الضارب الشاتم المكرم المعطيه درهما القائم في داره أخوك سوطا أكرم الآكل طعامه غلامه زيد عمرا خالد بكرا عبد اللّه أخوك

Then many began arguing over morphological matters which were also deemed pointless. Such as the many cases in which a certain word is removed in order to morph it into another word. For example, they coin up a word named Mataya (مطايا) and based on the rulings of tasgheer they would say it becomes Mutayyah (مطيّ), but there is a huge debate between Khalil and Yunus as to what letter was removed. Khalil suggests that the Alif before the Ya was removed and the other Alif turned into a Ya and became Mutayya. However, Yunus says that the Ya between the two Alifs was removed and became مطآة then a Ya of tasgheer was added and the Alif after that Ya became into a Ya, then the second Alif was given a Kasra and became a Ya as well, until it morphed into Mutayyah. However these discussions are given no importance or value by scholars who are deemed part of the renewal process.

But at times we see that these disagreements do have a somewhat of an importance. For example in the morphological discussion having to do with الذي و التي  and whether they can be given tasgheer which results in: اللّذيا و اللّتيا if one were to make them dual-plural they would be pronounced اللذيان و اللتيان. Sibabwayh and Akhfash agree that the Alif of dual is the one that remains, however they differ on the extra Alif that is added and then removed, regarding which Sibabwayh says it has been removed and has not been taken into assumption. But Akhfash says it has been removed but is still taken into assumption. The benefit of this discussion does not appear in the case of dual-plural, but it does appear in a plural. If we were to make a plural of the tasgheer words اللذيا و اللتيا we have to say اللذيّون و اللذيّين with a Dhamm on Ya and its Kasr according to the view of Sibabwayh, who said that there is no Alif assumed. However in the view of Akhfash, the Ya will get a Fath, like in the case of المصطفين or الأعلون.

Further complicated discussions can be seen when some suggest that the Kasra on the Meem of مائة is not the same as the Kasra on the Meem of مئون. Or those who say that the Alif in تهامة is not the same Alif as it appears in تهام.

In the renewal era, scholars have generally moved towards presenting a simplified version of grammar. They claim that many of these discussions, in which the grammarians would engage themselves in were fruitless and were nothing but mental exercises.

This movement was spear-headed by different scholars, the most famous of them being Ibn Mudha’. It is known that he was influenced by the views of Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri who wanted to differentiate between what every student should know about Nahw and what is sufficient for a scholar to know. Ibn Hazm was of the view that whatever exists in Kitab al-Wadhi’ of Abi Bakr al-Zubaydi is the minimum amount that is obligatory for a student to know from Nahw, and what exists in Kitab al-Jumal of Zajaji is the most that one needs to know and there is no benefit of going any further than that. In more recent times, someone like Dr. Shawqi Dhaif has written many works attempting to simplify Arabic grammar and remove what he considers to be fruitless discussions.


[1] al-Iqtirah (الاقتراح) by Suyuti, Page 19; and al-Muzhar المزهر  Page 128

[2] See al-Radd ‘ala al-Nuhat of Ibn Mudhah’, page 81

[3] Interestingly, Hasan Ansari has mentioned in a recent article that one of the down-falls of the Islamic tafseer heritage has been in fact looking at the Qur’an through a grammatical lens which has been heavily influenced by Greek works on logic

[4] ثم فصل السيوطي أنواع القياس النحوي قائلا إنها:

1. حمل فرع على أصل: مثل إعلال الجمع و تصحيحه حملا على المفرد. كقولهم ديم في جمع ديمة، و ثورة في جمع ثور

  1. حمل أصل على فرع: و مثله إعلال المصدر لإعلال فعله و تصحيحه لتصحيح الفعل. مثل قمت قياما، و قاومت قواما
  2. حمل النظير على النظير: فالنظير في اللفظ مثل زيادة «إن» بعد «ما» المصدرية الظرفية و الموصولة لأنهما بلفظ «ما» النافية، و دخول لام الابتداء على «ما» النافية حملا لها في اللفظ على «ما» الموصولة. و النظير في المعنى جواز «غير قائم الزيدان» حملا على «ما قام الزيدان. أما النظير في اللفظ و المعنى، فهو أن يرفع أفعل التفضيل اسما ظاهرا، لشبهه بأفعل التعجب، و جواز تصغير أفعل التعجب لشبهه بأفعل التفضيل
  3. حمل ضد على ضد: كالنصب «بلم» حملا على الجزم ب «أن» و في الجزولية في باب البناء أن الشي‏ء قد يحمل على مقابله، و على مقابل مقابله، و على مقابل مقابل مقابله

[5] 1. القياس العام: و بعضهم يسميه القياس الأصلي. و هو إلحاق اللفظ بنظيره المسموع و المماثل. و لقد استعمله النحويون في كثير من الأحكام. و بالخصوص، في أبنية المصادر و المجموع، و تصريف الأفعال، و الصيغ الصرفية

  1. القياس النظري: و هو إلحاق اللفظ بنظير غير مماثل، أو بنظير غير مسموع، فمثال الأول قياس ترخيم المركب المزجي على الأسماء المنتهية بتاء التأنيث، أما الثاني فنراه في صيغ مفردة قرر النحويون أنها تدخل في باب القياس، مثل قولهم شنئي في النسبة إلى شنوءة، و لو لم يكن لها نظير تقاس عليه
  2. القياس التعليلي: و هو ما يرد للتنبيه على علة الحكم، مثل قول النحويين إن الفعل المضارع أعرب قياسا على الاسم لمشابهته له في احتمال عدة معان لا يتبين المراد منها إلا بالإعراب

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