About: Variety of my Blog Posts

Dear all (and especially those who follow this blog)

As the title of my blog indicates, I post about literature and language (both mostly in relation to Arabic, but with blog posts typically in English). I am pretty sure that people following this blog do so for different reasons, and may not be interested in both types of post. Therefore, I am generally trying to alternate between literary posts (such as poetry translations and interesting anecdotes), and more technical posts (such as grammatical discussions). Feedback is, of course, always welcomed.

Thank you.


PICTURE CREDIT: Notepad on Table, Alexander, https://pixabay.com/en/table-wood-notepad-notebook-1558811/


Semantics and Translation of the Iḍāfa

We have previously discussed how the classical grammarians did not generally classify as ‘definite’ an idafa in which the mudaf ilayhi is indefinite, even though (like every idafa) it has some definiteness built into it. One could say that such an idafa is definite, but not definite enough! I have already enumerated (in the earlier post) the main reasons why did it not meet the bar. However, when we are translating the controversial type of idafa into English, we are no longer concerned with only the internal mechanics of Arabic grammar.

We need to consider

  • the semantics of the target language, English

  • the fact that not all idafas are equal in their semantic function (possessive/non-possessive, vague/specific, tangible/abstract)

Despite the fact that the idafa is a simple structure involving putting two isms next to one another, it covers a broad range of different meanings.

1. Possessive / Attributive Idafas involving Tangibles

The idafas one encounters most commonly are of this type. For these idafas, it generally makes sense to translate them invariably as:

the (A) of (B)

regardless of whether the mudaf ilayhi is definite or indefinite: e.g.

كتاب زيد = the book of Zayd كتاب الرجلِ = the book of the man

كتاب رجلٍ = the book of a man

رأس رجلٍ = the head of a man

(saying ‘a head of a man’ would clearly sound absurd in English, because of the implication that a man has more than one head!)

One can, by all means, refine the translation thereafter, to sound idiomatically better. As a native English speaker, I can confidently say that ‘a man’s book’ sounds more natural than ‘the book of a man.’ There might, of course, be exceptions to this. For example, if a particular man has more than one book, it might make more sense to translate:

كتاب رجلٍ as ‘a book of a man’ (or simply revert to the vague-but-uncontentious “a man’s book”)

Similarly, Imru’ al-Qays’ description of a mountain in the rain as كبير أناس would have to be translated as “a giant among (of) people”; in English it would be awkward (but admittedly still possible) to say, ‘the giant of a people’:

A giant among people, wrapped in a striped robe

كبيرُ أناسٍ في بجادٍ مزمّل

Translating the mudaf as definite regardless of the state of the mudaf ilayhi also allows us to preserve the difference in meaning between the following two statements:

  1. كتابُ رجُلٍ = the book of a man

  2. كتابٌ لِرجلٍ = a book of a man

Clearly, (ii) is ‘more indefinite’ (vaguer) than (i). There are actually three further expressions that are even vaguer:

  1. كتابٌ ما لرجلٍ = any book of a man’s

  2. كتابٌ لِرجلٍ ما = a book of any man’s

  3. كتابٌ ما لرجلٍ ما = any book of any man’s

So, treating the mudaf as invariably definite

  • Provides a single, simple rule to the English-speaking Arabic student, allowing him/her to reliably translate most idafas without having to look at whether the mudaf ilayhi is definite or not in each particular case.

  • Allows us to easily preserve the nuances in meaning between statements (i) -(v) above.

2. Non-possessive Idafas

The ‘the (A) of (B)’ translation template does not work for these, and hence the debate over ‘the vs a’ does not arise. There are three major types:

  1. Vague Idafas

غير زيدٍ = other than Zayd

مثل فاطمة = like Fatimah (similar to Fatimah)

  1. Numerical Idafas (involving the numbers 3-10)

خمسة أيّامٍ = five days

أربع بيوتٍ = four houses

  1. Superlative Idafas

سلّمتُ على أطولِ رجلٍ = I greeted the tallest man

Note that the superlative expression here is not the same one as:

أطول الناسِ = the tallest of the people

3. Attributive Idafas involving Abstract Nouns

The ‘the (A) of (B)’ template does not always work here. The ‘(A) of (B)’ part does still generally work. But regarding the choice of English article (if any), one needs to think further. One might use ‘the’, ‘a’ or neither. Relevant considerations are:

  • Uniqueness

وسَط دائرةٍ must be translated as ‘the middle of a circle’

(‘a middle’ would imply there is more than one center)

  • English grammatical rules for using articles with abstract nouns (For an overview see this article). Considerations here include whether the abstract noun is qualified or unqualified, and whether it is countable or uncountable. I will suffice with a few illustrative examples:

prerequisites for obtaining a driver’s license

شروط الحصول على رخصة القيادة

an expired driver’s license

رخصة قيادة منتهية

Grant me a reputation of honor among the later generations (Quran, 26:84)

وَٱجْعَل لِّى لِسَانَ صِدْقٍ فِى ٱلْـَٔاخِرِينَ

If the excellence of a man’s words impresses you then say ….

فإذا أعجبك حسن قول امرئ فقل …. (رواه البخاري في خلق أفعال العباد, وعلقه في صحيحه)

4. Non-Literal (Adjectival) Idafas

In this type of of idafa, the mudaf is a descriptive characteristic of the mudaf ilayhi, and the relationship conveyed by the idafa is could be paraphrased by a verbal relationship. It is similar to (now rather archaic) English expressions like “fair of face,” and “ample of means”. Two points should be noted with regard to translating this type of idafa:

  1. ‘The….’ or ‘A….’

    Since this idafa is effectively a ‘compound adjective,’ its definiteness or indefiniteness is defined by that of the person/thing it describes. The mudaf in this case can explicitly take a definite article al- (if the person/thing being described is definite). Hence, there is no need to worry about whether to use “the (A) of (B)” or “a (A) of (B)” as a template. For example:

رأيتُ الرجلَ الحسنَ الوجهِ

I saw the fair-of-face man

= I saw the handsome man

رأيتُ رجلاً حسنَ الوجهِ

I saw a fair-of-face man

= I saw a handsome man

  1. ‘….of….’ or not?

    The insertion of the word ‘of’ between the mudaf and mudaf ilayhi will not always result in a phrase that is good English, but can still give a draft translation that can then be refined. For example:

A ‘praiseworthy-of-outcome’ matter

= A matter praiseworthy in outcome

or ‘A matter with a praiseworthy outcome

أمرٌ محمودُ العاقبةِ

A ‘wounded-of-hand’ person

= A person with a wounded hand

شخصٌ مجروحُ اليدِ

The Arabian therein is ‘exotic-of-face’

= The Arabian therein has an exotic face

or ‘The face of the Arabian therein is exotic

(this phrase occurs in Mutanabbi’s famous poem describing the beautiful Persian valley of Bawwan)

العربيّ فيها غريبُ الوجهِ

[God] the forgiver of sin, acceptor of repentance, severe in punishment,” Quran, 40:3

غَافِرِ ٱلذَّنۢبِ وَقَابِلِ ٱلتَّوْبِ شَدِيدِ ٱلْعِقَابِ

So, in summary:

  • The idafa occupies a liminal (‘betwixt and between’) status in terms of definiteness.

  • Semantic specifics (in both Arabic, and the target language) can tip the balance one way or the other in a particular situation.

  • From a perspective purely internal to Arabic grammar, the classical position (that the mudaf has the same definitenes status as the mudaf ilayh) is a strong position, but is not completely cut-and-dry.

  • As a pragmatic rule for English-speaking students, there are definite merits (pun not intended) to treating the mudaf as invariably definite (at least for common, ‘tangible’ idafas that indicate possession or attribution).

Epitome of Wisdom, Poem (l. 7-12)

Below is the second installment (lines 7-12) of my translation of Bosti‘s famous poem, Epitome of Wisdom, with the original Arabic following immediately underneath. (The opening, lines 1-6, can be found here.)

The metaphor of ‘God’s rope,’ in line 12, is taken from Quran, 3:103, and the phrase has been exegetically glossed (variously) as: God’s covenant, monotheism, God’s revelation, the Quran, the community of believers.


To win the hearts of people: kindness show,
For kindness on men's hearts is wont to grow.
Fool! how long will you wretchedly seek gain
In service of this body that will wane?
To your soul turn, perfect its righteousness;
'Tis soul not body that makes humanness.
If you perchance encounter balefulness,
Respond with pardon and with graciousness.
Whenever hopefuls turn to you: assist
The noble man is a philanthropist.
Hold fast with your hands twain to God's firm rope;
God is your refuge when there seems no hope.

7 – أحسِنْ إِلَى النَّاس تستعبدْ قُلُوبَهم فطالما استعبد الْإِنْسَان إِحْسَانُ
8 – يَا خَادِم الْجِسْم كم تشقى بخدمته أتطلب الرِّبْح فِيمَا فِيهِ خسرانُ
9 – أقبِلْ على النَّفسِ واستكمِلْ فضائلَها فَأَنت بِالنَّفسِ لَا بالجسمِ إِنْسَانُ
10 – وَإِن أَسَاءَ مُسيءٌ فَلْيَكُنْ لَك فِي عرُوض زلَّتِه صَفْحٌ وغُفرانُ
11 – وَكُنْ على الدَّهْر مِعْوانا لذى أمَل يَرْجُو نَداك فَإِن الْحُـرَّ مِعوُانُ
12 – وَاشْدُدْ يَديك بِحَبل الله مُعتصِما فَإِنَّهُ الرُّكْن إِن خانتْك أَرْكَانُ

PICTURE CREDIT: Climbing Mountainer, aatlas, https://pixabay.com/en/climber-mountaineer-mountaineering-299018/

Liminality of the Muḍāf (II)

Notwithstanding the arguments (which I explained in an earlier post) in support of the classical grammarians’ assertion that the mudaf is indefinite if the mudaf ilayhi  is indefinite (and the adjective argument in particular is very strong), some counter-arguments can be raised:

  1. The mudaf does not take tanwin (the nun-ated ending that normally indicates indefiniteness). Admittedly, it does not take the default indicator of definiteness (an al-) either.

  2. A mudaf that is a diptote (ممنوع من الصرف) will take a kasra (‘i’ vowel) declensional ending if it is in the genitive case. This ending is used for triptotes and for diptotes in the definite state, but not indefinite diptotes. e.g.

سلّمتُ على أطولِ الناسِ = I greeted the tallest of the people

في مصائبِ قوم = in the misfortunes of a people

  1. A third argument hinges of realizing that definiteness and indefiniteness are not polar binaries, but rather a spectrum. I will now proceed to elaborate this further.

Definiteness as a Spectrum

As I have touched on in a previous post, Arab grammarians described nouns (as well as pronouns and adjectives) as falling along a spectrum of definiteness. The level of definiteness of a word derives from its identity (what type of word it is), but sometimes also from its situational usage. It is typical, in this taxonomy, to find the lowest level of definiteness mentioned as belonging to the mudaf whose mudaf ilyahi is definite.

But classifications are often simplifications. In reality, there are ambiguities, and given that definiteness is a continuum, philosophers will recognize the case at hand as a Sorites paradox. In layman’s terms: if we want to specify a distinct cut-off point or threshold between ‘indefinite’ and ‘definite,’ there will inevitably be some arbitrariness to our choice. It is of course important and even necessary for scholarly and pedagogical purposes (as I touched on in my post on meta-grammars) to construct theoretical frameworks and produce taxonomies, and this was the aim of the classical Arab grammarians, but they themselves do sometimes point out some of these ambiguities. Here are a few examples:

  1. Grammarians disagreed whether a vocative common noun intended as a specific address منادى نكرة مقصودة (e.g. يا رجلُ ) is definite or indefinite. This syntactic scenario has some similarity to the idafa, as I may return to later.

  2. Ibn Hisham (d. 761H / 1360CE), while performing syntactic analysis (إعراب) of a Quranic verse (21:50), comments that qualification/specification (تخصيص) of an indefinite makes it closer to a definite.

قال في مغني اللبيب: (وهذا ذكر مبارك أنزلناه) ، فلك أن تقدر جملة أنزلناهصفة للنكرة وهو الظاهر ، ولك أن تقدرها حالا عنها لأنها قد تخصصت بالوصف وذلك يقربها من المعرفة .

  1. The subject of a nominal sentence normally has to be definite. However, an indefinite noun can function as subject if it is a qualified (مخصوص) indefinite.

قال في قطر الندى: ويقع البتدأ نكرة إن عم أو خص

So, yes, an idafa with indefinite mudaf ilayhi can indeed function as a nominal subject (مبتدأ). Here are a couple of examples:

      • Ibn `Abbas, companion of Prophet Muhammad, said: “The contemplation of a moment[‘s duration] is better than the [mindless] ritual of a year.”

تفكرُ ساعةٍ خيرٌ مِنْ عبادةِ سنةٍ (رواه أبو الشيخ في العظمة)

      • Prophet Muhammad told a man whose camel had broken some ostrich-eggs that “the fasting of a day or the feeding of a poor person” would suffice as compensation for the damage done.

عليك في كلِّ بيضةٍ صيامُ يومٍ أو إطعامُ مسكينٍ (رواه أبو داود في المراسيل)

      • The poet Mutanabbi’s (d. 354H / 965 CE) proverbial words, “The misfortunes of some people are benefits for some [other] people”

مصائب قوم عند قوم فوائد

So, as might already be clear from the above examples, qualified (مخصوص) nouns are ‘more definite’ than unqualified (عامّ) nouns. Common ways of qualifying / specifying a noun are: adding an adjective (صفة) and adding a mudaf ilayhi. The phrase “a house” is indefinite and non-specific; it could validly describe any houses in the world. If we say, “a house of a man,” it is now more specific, because we have excluded houses belonging to women, children, animals, etc. In other words, adding the mudaf ilyahi has made the originally-indefinite ‘a house’ closer to definiteness. 

قال صاحب النحو الوافي: أما إذا كان المضاف نكرة وأضيف إلى نكرة فإنه يكتسب منها مع بقائها على حالها– “تخصيصًايجعله من ناحية التعيين والتحديد في درجة بين المعرفة والنكرة؛ فلا يرقى في تعيين مدلوله إلى درجة المعرفة الخالصة الخالية من الإبهام والشيوع، ولا ينزل في الإبهام والشيوع إلى درجة النكرة المحضة الخالية من كل تعيين وتحديد.

We could even say that every idafa has some amount of definiteness (specificity) built in to it!

In the final post of this series, I address the application of this the translation of idafas into English.

…. to be continued

– Suheil Laher

Epitome of Wisdom, Poem (l. 1-6)

“The price of wisdom is above rubies,” the Biblical Book of Job declares. “Whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good,” we find in the Quran. Wisdom has a perennial appeal to the human spirit, and since ancient times, poets across the world have been attempting to capture it in lines of wisdom poetry.

The poem Epitome of Wisdom (`Unwan al-Hikam) by Abul-Fath al-Bosti (d. 1010 CE / 401H) is perhaps the most famous piece of wisdom poetry in Arabic. Below is my translation of the first six lines. I have translated each hemistich as a separate line, as is my wont, and so the English below comprises twelve lines, in pentametric rhyming couplets. The original Arabic follows. I am hoping to continue translating the rest of the poem over the next few months, as time permits.


Know well that more in worldly things is less,
And profit, save in goodness pure, is loss.
And all enjoyment that lacks permanence
Is ultimately naught but indigence.
You who intently builds what nigh will end,
In this will you your precious life expend?
And you, assiduous for your wealth to grow,
Did you forget that wealth's delight is woe?
From this world and its glint detach your heart;
A turbid draught t'is which will soon depart.
Give ear to these wise aphorisms mine,
Well-burnished for you like a diamond fine.


1 – زِيَادَة الْمَرْء فِي دُنْيَاهُ نُقْصَان وَربحه غير مَحْض الْخَيْر خسران
2 –
وكل وجدان حَظّ لاثبات لَهُ فَإِن مَعْنَاهُ فِي التَّحْقِيق فقدان
3 –
يَا عَامِرًا لخراب الدَّار مُجْتَهدا بِاللَّه هَل لخراب الْعُمر عمرَان
4 –
وَيَا حَرِيصًا على الْأَمْوَال تجمعها أنسيت أَن سرُور المَال أحزان
5 –
زع الْفُؤَاد عَن الدُّنْيَا وَزينتهَا فصفوها كدر والوصل هجران
6 –
وأرع سَمعك أَمْثَالًا أفصلها كَمَا يفصل ياقوت ومرجان

– Suheil Laher


Turbidity: Gerd Altmann, https://pixabay.com/en/smoke-steam-diesigkeit-veil-smog-108664/

Foggy Path: Erich Westendarp, https://pixabay.com/en/fog-fields-dirt-track-bauerschaft-3097079/

Abul-Fath al-Bosti, Biography

BostMap`Ali ibn Muhammad al-Bosti (d. 1010 CE / 401H) belletrist and leading poet and prose-writer of his time. He hailed from the central Asian city of Bost, (known today as Lashkargah, in south-western Afghanistan). Bosti’s language was ornate, displaying skillful use of rhetorical embellishment techniques, especially paranomasia of which he was considered a master.

Sunset_over_Helmand_RiverHe is renowned for his wisdom poetry and aphorisms, particularly the Epitome of Wisdom (عُنوان الحكم), a 63-line poem that came to be widely memorized among cultured people, including commonly being taught to children. The biographer Dhahabi (d. 748H) described the poem as “a long, superlatively exquisite poem, in wide currency among people of virtue.” Several commentaries were written on it, and it was translated to Persian.

Busti was also a Shafi`i jurist, and active in the field of hadith studies (his teachers in this field include the famous hadith-master Ibn Hibban (d. 965 CE / 354H), and among those who transmitted hadith from the poet are al-Hakim al-Naysaburi (d. 405H) and Abu `Uthman al-Sabuni (d. 449H).

[Sources: Dhahabi, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala; Yaqut, Muj`am al-Buldan; `Abdul-Fattah Abu-Ghudda (ed.), `Unwan al-Hikam]


Liminality of the Muḍāf (I)

IdafaStormTeacup2Thresholds are sites of ambiguity, and even danger. It is said that in the past, people believed that evil spirits could lurk by the entrance to a home, and that therefore a man would carry his newly-wedded wife across the threshold in order to prevent her from being harmed by the demons of the threshold. This post is not about superstitions, but rather about a storm-in-a-teapot grammatical point. I draw on the concept of threshold to mediate in the debate over whether the mudaf (in Arabic syntax) is definite or indefinite.

The idafa – a grammatical structure that comprises an apposition of two nouns – is used in Arabic (and some other Semitic languages) to convey a relationship (often, but not necessarily, possession) between the two nouns. For example:

كتاب زيدٍ kitabu-Zayd(in)

the book of Zayd” / “Zayd’s book.”

Note that there are no prepositions or enclitics involved in the idafa structure; the relationship (of possession, etc) is conveyed merely by the apposition of the two nouns, along with the second noun being invariably in the genitive case (which is often indicated by the -in declensional suffix). There is no disagreement over the meaning (and English translation) of the “Zayd’s book” example I just cited. Everyone agrees that in cases like this, where the second term of the apposition (mudaf ilayhi) is definite, the first term (the mudaf) is also definite by mere virtue of its relationship to the former. (Actually, that’s a simplification – be wary when anyone says ‘always,’ ‘never’ or ‘everyone agrees’ in grammar – but I’ll let it slide for now.)

The controversy arises over the mudaf‘s definiteness when the second term (mudaf ilayhi) of the apposition is indefinite, e.g.

كتاب رجلٍ kitabu-rajul(in)

  • Is it
    • the book of a man” ?

    • Or, “a book of a man” ?

Of course, one could sidestep the debate by simply translating the term as, “a man’s book,” but grammar enthusiasts will be interested in resolving the issue: is the mudaf in this case considered definite or indefinite? The issue has been much discussed (with some people expressing their opinion on the matter very forcefully), on online forums such as here and here.

Arguments for Indefiniteness (The Classical Grammarians’ Position)

Classical Arab grammarians (as far back as the legendary Sibawayh, d. 180H / 796 CE) have declared that the definiteness status of the mudaf depends on the mudaf ilayhi. In other words, if the second term is definite, then the first term is also definite, and if the second term is indefinite then the first term is indefinite.

قال سيبويه في الكتاب: المضاف إنما يكون معرفة ونكرة بالمضاف إليه

So, according to this, we should translate as follows:

كتاب رجلٍ kitabu-rajul(in)

a book of a man”

According to the classical grammarians in general, then, if the mudaf ilayhi is indefinite then the mudaf is not considered definite, but it is considered qualified (specified, مخصوص).

The following arguments can be cited in support of this position

  1. The default state of nouns is considered to be the indefinite (نكرة) state, and therefore in cases of ambiguity about the level of definiteness, one would tend to leave a word with the default (‘indefinite’) classification.

  2. An adjective for such a mudaf is typically indefinite, e.g.

لِسَانَ صِدْقٍ عَلِيًّا = “A high reputation (literally: tongue) of honor” (Quran, 19:50)

  1. Since an idafa with a definite mudaf is clearly ‘more definite’ (أعرَف) than one with an indefinite mudaf, perhaps putting these on either side of the threshold served as a convenient way to indicate this.

Far be it from me – a mere dabbler in Arabic grammar – to question or critique a master grammarian like Sibawayh. What I will do, however, is to explain the setting of the issue in order to show that the act of definition (here, and often) contains a subjective (and hence arbitrary) element; something that the classical grammarians themselves were often aware of. Having established this ambiguity, I feel there is no harm in leveraging it to help address the Arabic-English translator’s quandary of whether to translate كتاب رجلٍ as ‘a book of a man’ or ‘the book of a man.’

For starters, we can mention that the classical grammarians did make an exception to the rule that a mudaf’s definiteness or indefiniteness matches that of the mudaf ilayh. If the mudaf is a word that is a word of vagueness (متوغِّل في الإبهام , literally: ‘deeply (immersed) in its vagueness’), then the mudaf remains indefinite even if the mudaf ilayhi is definite; it does not acquire definiteness, nor even specificity (تخصيص).

The most common words in this ‘vague’ category are:




other than

in accordance with

similar to

Thus, for example:              غير زيدٍ = “other than Zayd”,  and the word غير here is considered indefinite, even though its mudaf ilayhi is definite.

…. to be continued

PICTURE CREDIT: “Storm in Teacup” : Modified form of original image by NagualDesign taken from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Storm_in_a_teacup.jpghttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Storm_in_a_teacup.jpg

Unforgotten Favors

A touching anecdote about an unforgotten act of kindness, capped off by some beautiful lines of poetry about the moral obligation of gratitude (my English translations in iambic pentameter blank verse, along with the original Arabic). Both the pieces (coincidentally) involve Buwayhid viziers.

The Vizier Muhallabi (Abu Muhammad al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Azdi, d. 352H / 963CE) was appointed as vizier in the Buwayhid court of Mu`izz al-Dawla in 339H / 950 CE. Before his attachment to the royal court, he was once traveling, and wished for meat, but due to extremely straitened circumstances was unable to afford any. In his frustration, he spontaneously composed the following lines of poetry, in which he wishes he could die!1

Is there not death for sale that I could buy?
For in this life of mine, I see no good.
Can not delicious-tasting death now come,
And liberate me from this hateful life?
Whenever from afar I see a grave,
I wish that I were buried next to him.
Shan't I beseech Almighty God to bless,
That man who'll charitably gift me death?
ألا موت يباع فأشتريه ** فهذا العيش مالا خير فيه
ألا موت لذيذ الطعم يأتي ** يخلصني من العيش الكريه
إذا أبصرت قبرا من بعيد ** وددت لو أنني مما يليه
ألا رحم المهيمن نفس حر ** تصدق بالوفاة على أخيه

One of his travelling companions (named either Abu `Abdullah al-Sufi, or Abul-Husayn al-`Asqalani), upon hearing this pitiable lament, went and purchased some meat with one silver coin (dirham). He cooked the meat and fed it to Muhallabi, and the two men parted ways soon after.

The vicissitudes of fortune proved such that Muhallabi went on to be appointed vizier in the royal court, while his former travel companion fell upon hard times. The latter, hearing of Muhallabi’s new position, sought him out in Baghdad, and sent him a small chit bearing the following lines of poetry:

O tell the vizier – dearer than myself – 
These words, reminding of what's long forgot!
Remember when in misery you said:
Is there not death for sale that I could buy?

ألا قل للوزير فدته نفسي ** مقالة مذكر ما قد نسيه أتذكر إذ تقول لضنك عيش ** ألا موت يباع فأشتريه

When Muhallabi read the note, the reminder of his former state of indigence drew out his deepest feelings of generosity. He immediately commanded that the man be given 700 silver coins (dirhams), along with a note on which he wrote the Quranic verse meaning:

The likeness of those who spend their money in the cause of God is that of a grain from which grow seven ears, each ear containing a hundred grains. And God multiples for whom He wills.” (Quran, 2:261)

He then summoned the man into his presence, bestowed a fine robe upon him, and appointed him to comfortable job as a state functionary.

[Source: Ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-A`yan, 2/124-5]

A later Buwayhid Vizier and belletrist, Abul-Qasim al-Maghribi (d. 418H / 1027 CE) wrote the following lines of poetry, which rather beautifully capture sentiments such as those underlying the above story. He wrote:

The debts of acts of kindness are not paid
The same way as financial debts are paid.
But in the hearts of noble folk they'll hang,
Suspended like a mote floats in the eye.
ديون المكارم لا تقتضى ** كما تقتضى واجبات الديون
ولكنها في قلوب الكرام ** تجول مجال القذى في العيون

[Source: Ihsan `Abbas, al-Wazir al-Maghribi, p. 158]

1 On the theological dispproval of explicitly praying for death, see the following hadith: https://sunnah.com/bukhari/75/32

PICTURE CREDITCara Sweeney https://pixabay.com/en/thanks-appreciation-gratitude-font-418358/

On Gratitude (Poetry)

Two short pieces translated from Abshihi’s anthology al-Mustatraf (d. 852H / 1449 CE):

  1. Don’t let ingratitude deter you from doing good
  2. We fall short in thanking God

1. Let not ingratitude deter you from doing good

An unthanked favor that some day I did
To an ingrate will not cause me to stop.
Nay, I'll do good so long as I should live,
For though they thank me not, God still rewards.

[Hamdanid poet Abu Firas (d. 357/968)]

وما نعمة مكفورة قد صنعتها  إلى غير ذي شكر تمانعني أخرى

سآتي جميلا ما حييت فإنّني  إذا لم أفد شكرا أفدت به أجرا

2. We fall short in thanking God

Dear God, consistently bestowing good,
On me, yet that did not raise thanks in me.
I've no defense that would excuse my crime,
Except that I confess: I've no excuse.

[Abshihi cited these lines without naming their author. Cheikho attributes them to the `Abbasid poet Mahmud al-Warraq (d. 230H / 844 CE)]

PICTURE CREDIT: Artsy Beehttps://pixabay.com/en/thank-you-thanks-greeting-card-944086/

أيا ربّ قد أحسنت عودا وبدأة  إليّ فلم ينهض بإحسانك الشكر
فمن كان ذا عذر لديك وحجة  فعذري إقراري بأن ليس لي عذر

Types of Arabic ‘Nouns’ (al-ism) (I) : Definiteness Spectrum

In two earlier posts (here and here), I had discussed how word categories are arbitrary, and do not always map well across languages. I had also mentioned that the ‘three word categories’ usually referred to for Arabic are a simplification. Now, as a followup to that, I will present some elaboration of subcategories of the ism category of words.




Personal Pronouns


‘he’ هو , ‘we’ نحن

Proper Names

الاسم العَلَم

  • Personal Proper Names

اسم العلم الشخصي

Zayd زيد , Fatimah فاطمة

  • Generic Proper Names 1

اسم العلم الجنسي

أسامة (generic lions or a lion)


أسماء الإشارة

هذا ، هذه ، ذلك ، تلك

هؤلاء ، اولائك

Relative Pronouns

الأسماء الموصولة

الذي ، التي

الذين ، اللاتي

Common Nouns

(with Definite Article)

اسم الجِنس

(ذو الأداة)

الكِتاب (‘the book’)

Verbal isms,

Sound isms

أسماء الأفعال

أسماء الأصوات

حَذارِ (beware!)

هلا (Whoa, horsie!)

Interrogative isms

أسماء الاستفهام

مَن؟ (Who?)

كَيفَ؟ (How?)

1The concept of ‘Generic proper names’ in Arabic is similar to that of words like ‘Caesar’ or ‘Pharaoh’ in English, but with some difference in grammatical behavior.


(Go on to the next paragraph if you are not interested in knowing where information in the table came from): In pre-modern manuals of Arabic grammar, most of these subcategories are commonly found in the chapter on definiteness and indefiniteness, because the grammarians tried to arrange them along a spectrum of definiteness. Note that there was some disagreement concerning the exact order of this progression of definiteness; the list above is based on Ibn Hisham’s ranking in his book Sharh Qatr al-Nada (d. 761H / 1360CE), except for the indefinites, which he does not enumerate in this book, and which I therefore added in from other sources (mainly Ghalayini’s Jami` al-Durus).


  1. Only the last couple of lines of the table refer to indefinite isms

  2. I have omitted from Ibn Hisham’s list those subcategories that are not distinct types of words but rather distinct situational usages of words (the same word might be more or less definite depending on how it is used in a sentence : perhaps a topic for another post some time!)

  3. There are other categories of words that are not in the above table. Most prominently, adjectives don’t appear in this list (which makes sense, given that an adjective can be definite or indefinite). So, this post needs a follow-up post that categorizes isms from a different angle!

– Suheil Laher

PICTURE CREDIT: Light spectrum: Gerd Altman, https://pixabay.com/en/lines-rainbow-colors-spectrum-color-520430/