Iqra Companion to Seminary Studies (2): Study Guide for Arabic

Study Guide

What follows is a study guide for students who enter the seminaries with the intention of getting a better understanding of the Islamic tradition. Once again, this is not a foolproof guide, rather it should be taken as an advisory guide.


Arabic Morphology (al-Ṣarf)

The Arabic language is a language where many words will typically be derived from one set of letters. For example, the words, ضَرَبَ، يَضْرِبُ and ضَارِبٌ, all share the same root letters which are ض، ر، ب. Arabic morphology is the science that deals with recognizing and making changes to words for primarily semantic or other purposes. According to most scholars, there are three types of words in the Arabic language, particles, verbs and nouns. Particles, such as عَلَى or فِي cannot be conjugated and as such are not focused on in this science. Verbs and nouns can be conjugated and thus this science discusses each of these.

Main Works in this Science

The primary works on Arabic morphology that are studied in the seminary are Ṣarf e Sādeh by Aghā Ṭabāṭabāī, by Persian language schools, or Sharḥ Kitāb al-Tasrīf by al-Taftazānī. Some schools may also study Ṣarf e Mīr or Sharḥ al-Naẓẓām. One of the works I also studied officially in school one term was a book called Darsnāmeh-ye Ṣarf by Hamid Jaza’iri.

One should note that the sciences related to the Arabic language such as Arabic morphology or Arabic syntax, developed well after the Arabic language. That is, these sciences developed later on as theories to understand and interpret the Arabic language. As such, earlier works will not have separated these works and may have discussions of Arabic morphology, grammar and rhetoric mixed together within one work. The primary work that is known to be the root of all such discussions is the well-known al-Kitāb by al-Sībawayh (d. 796 CE). This is a very short and terse work and has been the subject of many commentaries. You will find many discussions in advanced books of Arabic grammar where Sībawayh’s words will be discussed and debated over by different scholars.

Students should typically refer to Ibn al-Ḥājib’s (d. 1249) al-Shāfīyah and the multiple commentaries that have been written on it. The most popular commentaries on this work are Raḍī al-Dīn Āstrabādī’s (d. 1287) as well as Ḥasan bin Muḥammad al-Nīsābūrī’s (d. 1446) commentary called Sharḥ al-Naẓẓām. Ham’ al-Hawāmayh’ is also a work that may be referred to a lot, it is a commentary by Suyūṭi (d. 1505 CE) on his own work by the name of Jam’ al-Jawāmayh’.

If someone wants to find and discuss the application of morphological discussions to the Quran, they can refer to Mahmūd Ṣāfī’s (d. 1985), al-Jadwal fi I’rāb al-Qurān. This book has grammatically analyzed each verse of the Quran, however, the author will typically include morphological discussions on specific words within each verse after the grammatical discussions. His morphological discussions typically focus on nouns rather than verbs.

Benefits and Method of Study

When studying Arabic morphology it is best to try to practice different conjugations as much as possible. Discussions on the different verb forms (abwāb) within these books are also very beneficial and provide an opportunity to use Arabic dictionaries to conduct research. In terms of studying advanced concepts or referring to other books, the footnotes in Ṣarf e Sāday are crucial as they provide very interesting discussions and often provide references to interesting discussions in other books. Also, one may refer to their teacher as well to provide them with references to other interesting discussions or questions to look into.

Studying Arabic morphology has immediate practical benefits. It allows for the recognition of words based on patterns, particularly verbs. This is evidently important for reading Arabic. It also allows for easier construction of words for those who may learn to speak Arabic. Certain more theoretical discussions such as the meanings attained from different verb forms can also be very beneficial in other sciences such as Quranic exegesis. Some particular discussions will be applied in other sciences such as the discussion on the difference between an ism al-maṣdar vs. a maṣdar – as seen in both jurisprudence and even the discussion on the concept of existence (wujud) in philosophy.

Arabic Syntax (al-Naḥw)

Arabic syntax is the science that deals with Arabic words, in terms of their grammatical states, within speech. Different grammatical states such as the accusative state, nominative state, genitive state etc. will have semantic effects and thus it is important for one to understand their implications. There are different ways to divide up the science. One way to divide up the science is the method used by Ibn al-Ḥājib in al-Kāfīyah where it is divided into 3 parts based on the three different types of words. The first part will deal with nouns and their declensions and is further divided into two parts, one that deals will nouns that can have declensions and one that deals will nouns that cannot have declensions.

Books will typically first discuss nouns that can have declensions (mu‘rab) and will then discuss how declensions are demonstrated on particular nouns. After this, different declensions will be discussed. Nouns can be in the nominative (marfū‘) case, this is if the noun is a subject or predicate of a non-verbal sentence or if it is the subject of a verbal sentence. They can also be in the accusative case (manṣūb), this occurs if the noun is, for example, the direct object of a verb or if it is the predicate of the word kāna (كان). Nouns can also be in the genitive case (majrūr) if they are part of a genitive construction or if they are the object of a preposition. Nouns can also simply follow the state of another noun such as appositions (badal) in Arabic.

After this, books will typically discuss nouns that cannot have declensions (mabnī) such as certain numbers or nouns like هذا or الذي.

The next part focuses on verbs. Once again, some verbs can have declensions whilst others cannot. The main focus of this part is on verbs that can have declensions. Those verbs are primarily in the nominative state but they can also adopt the accusative or jussive (majzūm) states.

The last part of Arabic grammar focuses on particles. Particles themselves do not typically adopt grammatical states, however, they can cause other words to adopt grammatical states. This part of Arabic grammar typically discusses this role, but also heavily focuses on the meanings that different particles can have within speech. This discussion can play a significant role in other sciences, particularly exegetical sciences and many books will dedicate large portions to this specific discussion.

Main Works in this Science

Most schools will typically start off with simple works like al-Hidāyah fī al-Naḥw, al-Ṣamadīyya by Shaykh Bahāī, Ajrūmīyah, or al-‘Awāmil by al-Jurjānī. Some of the Arabic language schools will cover Qaṭr al-Nadā. After this, they typically progress to commentaries on the Alfīyyah by Ibn Mālik, namely, Bihjat al-Marḍīyah by al-Suyūṭī or the Sharḥ of Ibn al-‘Aqīl. After this, some schools may study the first and fourth chapter of Mughnī al-Labīb or the abridged version, Mughnī al-Adīb.

As mentioned before, the main work in this science is al-Kitāb by al-Sībawayh (d. 796 CE) along with the many commentaries written on it. Once again, it may not be very useful or fruitful for students in their initial stages to independently refer to this book and spend their time trying to decode its terse language.

It is important to realize that there are various schools of thought that have populated the field of Arabic grammar. The most classical two schools of thought are the Baṣrī school of thought and the Kūfan school of thought. Both of these schools were engaged in discourse and debate with each other and disagreed in many different discussions. Ibn Anbārī (d. 1181 CE) has a famous book entitled al-Inṣāf fi Masāil al-Khilāf bayn al-Naḥwīyīn al-Baṣrīyīn wa al-Kufīyīn in which he details and debates many of the famous differences of opinions between these two schools of thought. Generally speaking, and this is definitely an over-simplification, the Baṣrī’s would strive to come up with general principles and rules for many issues. They would typically incorporate pseudo-philosophical reasoning within their discussions. On the other hand, the Kufan school would refrain from creating as many rules or general principles and would allow for usages that go against famous rules (the discussions on the subject of a verb preceding the actual verb is a good reference to observe such sentiments).

Some famous scholars from the Baṣrī School are Khalīl b. Aḥmad al-Farāhīdī (d. 175), Sībawayh, Akhfash and Mubarrad (d. 285). Mubarrad wrote a book entitled al-Muqtaḍab.  While some famous scholars from the Kūfan school are Kisāī, Farrā and Ibn Anbārī.

After these two schools, the school of Baghdād gained prominence. Scholars such as Zujājī or Zamakhsharī, the famous exegete, were from this school. Zujājī wrote a book documenting and discussing the different types of lām (ل) within Arabic entitled, Kitāb al-Lāmāt. Zamakhsharī has a book on Arabic grammar by the name of al-Mufaṣṣal fī Ṣan’at al-I’rāb which has been the subject of many commentaries, he has also mentioned a lot of his grammatical views in his exegesis, al-Kashshāf. One of the most interesting scholars of this school was Ibn Jinnī (d. 392 AH), the author of al-Khaṣāis amongst other works, who held many unique views.

One of the later schools of thought was that of Spain which contained many famous figures such as Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭi (d. 911), Ibn Mālik (d. 672) and Ibn Hishām (d. 761). This school is known for coming forward and making the best of the differences between the Kūfan and Baṣrī schools. Scholars from this school will typically have developed strong views due to the fact that they have studied the differences of opinions between the previous famous schools. Ibn Mālik is the author of the famous Alfīyah, a poem that summarizes all of Arabic grammar. Al-Suyūṭī has written a commentary on that poem entitled, al-Bihjat al-Marḍīyah ‘ala Alfīyah Ibn Mālik. He also has other grammatical works such as Ham’ al-Hawāmi’. He has also discussed many grammatical points as well as the meanings of different particles in his work on the Quranic sciences entitled al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Quran. Ibn Hishām al-Anṣārī is also the author of many works. He has written Qaṭr al-Nadā wa-Ball al-Ṣadā. He has also written Mughnī al-Labīb which is typically studied in advanced Arabic grammar classes.

There are also many contemporary scholars of Arabic grammar. One such famous scholar is ‘Abbās Ḥassan who has written al-Naḥw al-Wāfī which is written in the same order as the Alfīyah by Ibn Mālik. He is a very strong scholar and has a lot of Kūfan leanings. He will often attack rules that he deems to be overly philosophized. Another strong more contemporary scholar is al-Fāḍil al-Sāmarāī who is the author of a host of works on Arabic grammar and morphology. He has a strong focus on determining the semantic implications of grammatical discussions. One of his famous works is Ma‘ānī al-Naḥw which is another book that is in the same order as the Alfīyah by Ibn Mālik. It should be noted that these contemporary scholars have read much of the debates and discussions that have been recorded in previous works of Arabic grammar. As such, their analyses and views are very strong, and if one reads them without reading more historical works, they may not be able to read them very critically. As such, to read these discussions in a critical manner, one has to be familiar with these discussions in previous works. Although, these works still make very good reference books and still present the views of previous scholars.

As briefly pointed to when Zamakhsharī, the exegete, was mentioned. Much of the literature on Arabic grammar can be found in exegetical works. The Islamic exegetical tradition is home to many exegeses that had a primarily grammatical focus in relation to the Quran. When just starting to study Arabic grammar one may refer to al-Ṭabrasī’s, Jawāmay’ al-Jāmi’ which will mention interesting and easy to understand points related to Arabic grammar. More advanced discussions can be found in Zamakhsharī’s al-Kashshāf or Abū Ḥayyān’s al-Baḥr al-Muḥīt. For a later more advanced survey of discussions related to Arabic grammar in the Quran one can refer to Ibn ‘Āshūr’s al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr.

An amazing resource work we were introduced to by our teacher in our first term of studying al-Hidāyah, was Mawsu’ah al-Nahw wa al-Sarf wa al-I’rab by Dr. Amil Badi’ Ya’qub. Once you have done a basic course on Arabic grammar, this encyclopedic work will be more than sufficient for a student to use as a reference work.

Related Reading:

Benefits and Method of Study

There are different levels to which one can engage in studying Arabic grammar, each to serve different purposes. At its most basic level, books of Arabic grammar can be divided into 3 parts: definitions, rules and reasoning. Most books will begin by defining grammatical concepts such as the subject (mubtadā) or predicate (khabar). After this, they will discuss the rules pertaining to these grammatical concepts. For example, all subjects must always be in the nominative case or all subjects must always be singular (mufrad). More advanced texts will go on to provide explanations and proofs for these rules. They may quote poetry to demonstrate the usage of a rule, or they may use poetry as proof for a rule. Furthermore, advanced texts will typically also quote other points of view.

In any case, any student studying Arabic grammar must memorize the definitions and rules pertaining to each grammatical concept. This is the most basic requirement that is fulfilled with the study of basic works such as al-Hidāyah fi al-Naḥw or Kitāb al-Ṣamadīyah. A student should be able to apply their understanding to Arabic texts and analyze texts grammatically. If someone studies these preliminary texts well and achieves this goal, they will not have to do much in terms of memorizing or struggling with more advanced texts. These rules will formulate most of a student’s practical experience with Arabic grammar.

After this, students must decide how far they want to take their understanding of Arabic grammar which is dependent on what the student plans on accomplishing with their knowledge of Arabic grammar. Students who want to enter the exegetical sciences may need to develop a critical understanding of Arabic grammar to the point that they should be able to criticize different grammatical interpretations of the Quran. Students who wish to develop an understanding of Arabic poetry may attempt to focus on the poetry that is quoted in books of grammar as proof of usages. Many advanced books of Arabic grammar contain separate books within them that explain the poetry being used in the book. It can be very useful to read these books alongside the text being studied to develop an understanding of Arabic poetry and how certain verses of poetry are used as proof. Muḥyī al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd is one particular author who has written many books explaining verses of poetry that are used in popular textbooks such as Sharḥ Ibn Aqīl or Qaṭr al-Nidā, his books can be immensely beneficial.

Other students who may want to develop a more in-depth understanding of the meanings of particles may wish to go further and study Mughnī al-Labīb by Ibn Hishām to develop a critical understanding of such particles as they are not treated critically in many other texts. In any case, after the basic stage of memorizing rules, students can determine their own need for specializing in Arabic grammar.

In terms of benefits, learning Arabic grammar has immediate practical benefits. Knowing Arabic grammar helps students deepen their knowledge of texts and allows them to access terser texts or texts that use a lot of grammatical jargon such as exegetical texts.

Why Am I Still Struggling with Arabic After Many Years?

One of the most common struggles many students face, despite spending many years in the seminary, is their inability to fluently read and understand Arabic texts. There could be various reasons why a student, even after a decade, may still be struggling to read and understand Arabic. Firstly, this could simply be due to the fact that they did not study well, nor take their studies seriously, and in the process ended up relying heavily on translations of works. However, what we find often is that there are students who exerted a lot of effort in learning grammar, their strength in grammatical discussions is very apparent, yet they struggle to read and understand texts fluently. On the contrary, you will find some students who may not be very strong in the technicalities of grammar, but their reading and understanding of texts are decent. The biggest reason for this – besides serious pedagogical issues in the way the language is taught in the seminaries1 – is simply the lack of knowledge of Arabic vocabulary. The only solution to this is to learn as much vocabulary and jargon as possible, and that usually only happens when one reads a wide variety of literature. I can only share my own personal experience as to how I increased my reading fluency to whatever extent it is at now:

  1. While still studying introductory grammar, I began reading volume 2 of Uṣūl al-Kāfī with a colleague. It eventually took over a year to finish this volume, but during this process, I got familiar with many words, the structure of narrations, the chapters of al-Kāfī, how certain statements may look informative (ikhbār), but in fact are questions, and a wide range of other features about the ḥadīth-corpus that one only learns through reading them. This was a time-consuming process, with heavy recourse to dictionaries and as well as the Farsi or English translations available, but the key is to remain consistent.
  2. With each foundational course you study in the seminary, the vocabulary you learn should unlock various other similar literature for you. If you study Uṣūl al-Fiqh, you will learn certain terminologies, which should then allow you to access and understand other texts of Uṣūl al-Fiqh. Likewise, with Fiqh, philosophy or any other subject. It is therefore necessary to pay attention to these terminologies, what they mean and how they are being used. This is because, as any competent student will acknowledge, terminologies can be used in various different meanings depending on which scholar, genre, or time-era you are reading. It should also be mentioned that despite learning these terminologies, there will still be certain texts where one will struggle – for example, studying al-Uṣūl of Shaykh Muẓaffar may only slightly equip someone to understand some parts of al-‘Uddah of Shaykh Ṭūsī. For such more difficult works, one may have no choice but to seek assistance from senior specialists and teachers of the seminary to clarify the meanings of certain passages. Do not be demotivated when you encounter such situations, because you should eventually realize that some texts are genuinely very difficult to understand, such that even specialists may disagree on what the author really intended.
  3. Reading tertiary books in Arabic. For every discipline one studies in the seminary, one will find numerous related books on that subject. For example, there are numerous works written on topics related to Uṣūl al-Fiqh, Fiqh, Rijāl, Quranic exegesis etc. which are not officially studied in the seminary but can be accessed by students independently. Try to read these works as much as possible and expose yourself to various writing styles of authors and as well as vocabulary.
  4. I would translate passages of Arabic books, articles, and narrations, many of which have been published on Iqra Online over the years. This assisted a lot in learning Arabic, as I would be forced to learn the meaning of words whenever I would get stuck on them.
  5. I would listen to Arabic lessons of teachers in the seminary and once I had trained my ears to understand spoken Arabic, I began sitting in Arabic classes in the seminary very regularly. This is yet another way to build your vocabulary.

The next part of this study guide will cover the subjects of epistemology, logic & philosophy.


  1. This is a well-known issue, something Shahīd Muṭahharī was lamenting a few decades before the Islamic Revolution. He writes:

    “There are also problems with the way the Arabic language is studied. Arabic literature is taught in the seminaries, but the teaching method is wrong. As a result, the seminarians, after years of studying Arabic literature, learn Arabic grammar, but do not learn the Arabic language itself. They cannot speak Arabic and are unable to use it or write it eloquently.” (English translation taken from The Most Learned of the Shi‘a, pg. 168.