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Marhaban

What does مرحبًا (“marhaban”) actually mean?

In Arab culture, “marhaban” (مرحبًا) is commonly used as a greeting to welcome someone. However, the core meaning of the root ر-ح-ب is somewhat surprising and shows how deeply the word is connected to Arab culture.

Published: January 7, 2024

In Arab culture, the expression marhaban (مَرْحَبًا) is used to greet guests, friends, and even strangers. It is a way to show hospitality and warmth towards others, and can be used in formal or informal settings. As is so often the case – especially in your own mother tongue – you don't give much thought to why you use this word and what it actually means.

Reason enough for us to start a search for clues and take a closer look at the term مرحبًا and its root ر-ح-ب.



Although “marhaban” is often simply translated as “welcome,” this tiny expression actually represents the core of Arab culture: hospitality. The word embodies generosity and friendliness, both deeply rooted in Arab culture, creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere in social interactions.

Additionally, “marhaban” is often followed by additional words of welcome and good wishes, further emphasizing the concept of hospitality and making people feel at home.

About the root رَحُبَ

The root ر-ح-ب denotes to be spacious.

If we look up the root in the dictionary, we find the رَحُبَ, sometimes also رَحِبَ. So, the sentence رَحُبَ المَكانُ simply means: The place was spacious. In the old times, رَحْبٌ was also used to denote if someone had quite some kilos in the middle zone of the body, meaning, wide in the belly as mentioned by the 15th-century scholar al-Suyuti (السيوطي).

Possible meanings of the root ر-ح-ب

Let's dig deeper and check some nouns that are based on this root:

  • رَحْبٌ means wide; spacious – used as an adjective. For example, بَلَدٌ رَحْبٌ is a wide, spacious country.
  • Notice here the difference! The word ٌرَحْب with “a” (فتحة) is used as the adjective (wide; spacious). If you want the noun (wideness; spaciousness), put the vowel “u” (ضمة) on the first letter = رُحْبٌ.

    The famous scholar Abu Mansur al-Azhari (أبو منصور الأزهري) wrote in his famous work Tahdhib al-Lughat (تهذيب اللغات ~ The Concise Guide of Languages) that the meaning of مَرْحَبًا can be explained by the following sentence: أتيت أو لقيت رُحبًا وسَعة لا ضيقًا which literally means: You found spaciousness, not tightness.
  • ٌرَحِيب means wide; spacious; in a figurative sense: generous – used as an adjective
  • رَحْبةٌ means vastness or square
  • رَحابَةٌ means wideness; spaciousness

In dictionaries, we can also find other words of the root رَحُبَ which are translated with words related to the idea of to welcome someone.

  • Welcome! (عَلَى الرُّحْبِ والسِّعةِ). Long version: to welcome somebody warmly (اسْتَقْبَلَ شَخْصًا عَلَى الرُّحْبِ والسَّعةِ). The word سَعة means size, capacity and ٌرُحْب means vastness, spaciousness.
  • رَحَّبَ – يُرَحِّبُ بِ which is usually translated as to welcome; to greet. This is a (فَعَّلَ).

When you say مَرْحَبًا, you basically invite someone to spaciousness or ampleness.

Explanation of مَرْحَبًا

To explain the change in meaning from “to be spacious” to “welcome” for the word “مَرْحَبًا” (“marhaban”), we can look at how languages evolve. This shift likely occurred due to cultural reasons, where the concept of spaciousness became associated with the idea of welcoming and hospitality, i.e., to give the space or open it to someone. Therefore, “مَرْحَبًا” is usually translated as “welcome” because of this evolution in meaning.

Arab hospitality enjoys worldwide renown and is encapsulated in numerous cultural sayings. Even the hadiths contain passages depicting aspects of Arab culture that persist to this day.

Allah's Messenger said, Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should serve his guest generously. The guest's reward is: To provide him with a superior type of food for a night and a day and a guest is to be entertained with food for three days, and whatever is offered beyond that, is regarded as something given in charity. And it is not lawful for a guest to stay with his host for such a long period so as to put him in a critical position.” Sahih al-Bukhari 6135

قَالَ ‏”‏ مَنْ كَانَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ فَلْيُكْرِمْ ضَيْفَهُ، جَائِزَتُهُ يَوْمٌ وَلَيْلَةٌ، وَالضِّيَافَةُ ثَلاَثَةُ أَيَّامٍ، فَمَا بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ فَهْوَ صَدَقَةٌ، وَلاَ يَحِلُّ لَهُ أَنْ يَثْوِيَ عِنْدَهُ حَتَّى يُحْرِجَهُ ‏”‏‏.‏ حَدَّثَنَا إِسْمَاعِيلُ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنِي مَالِكٌ، مِثْلَهُ وَزَادَ ‏”‏ مَنْ كَانَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ فَلْيَقُلْ خَيْرًا أَوْ لِيَصْمُتْ ‏”

During my time in Egypt, I attended weddings almost every week, despite being unfamiliar with the bride and groom. I was reassured that this customary practice posed no issue. Eventually, I came across a fitting proverb that encapsulates and elucidates this experience:

ضيف الكرام يضيّف

The guest of the hospitable treats hospitably.

This points to a traditional practice in Arab countries: when a distinguished individual invites someone to an event, the invitee may bring along several of their own companions without the host's consent. Nevertheless, the host extends the same hospitality to these guests as they would to those personally invited.

The word مرحب in the Holy Qur'an

The word مَرْحَبًا already occurs in the Holy Qur'an in two consecutive verses of Sura 38 which is called Sura Sad (سورة ص).

Sura 38:59

هَـٰذَا فَوْجٌۭ مُّقْتَحِمٌۭ مَّعَكُمْ لَا مَرْحَبًا بِهِمْ ۚ إِنَّهُمْ صَالُوا۟ ٱلنَّارِ

[It will be said], “Here is another crowd of people rushing headlong to join you.” [The response will be], “They are not welcome! They will burn in the Fire.” (translation: Abdul Haleem)

Sura 38:60

قَالُوا۟ بَلْ أَنتُمْ لَا مَرْحَبًا بِكُمْ أَنتُمْ قَدَّمْتُمُوهُ لَنَا ۖ فَبِئْسَ ٱلْقَرَارُ

They will say to them, “You are not welcome! It was you who brought this on us, an evil place to stay,” (translation: Abdul Haleem)

Let's keep going and try to figure out how we can understand the shift in meaning to a more abstract (welcome) and personal manner (you).

مرحبًا بكم – Why do we use the preposition ب here?

We will go back to the example sentence above: رَحُبَ المَكانُ.

We said that we can translate the sentence into English as follows: The place was spacious. The meaning is related to that of the VIII-verb اتَّسَعَ – يَتَّسِعُ (to be extended; to be stretched out).

We can tune the sentence رَحُبَ المَكانُ and upgrade it by using a preposition (حرف الجر) and a pronoun: رَحُبَ بِكَ الْمَكَانُ. We can translate this sentence into English with The place was spacious with you (past tense) or May the place be spacious with you (wish).

رَحُبَ is a special verb. The interesting thing here is the middle vowel of the I-verb as verbs which have the ضَمّة “u” (فَعُلَ) as the middle vowel usually CANNOT have a direct object (مفعول به). Linguists call such verbs intransitive (فِعْلٌ غَيْرُ مُتَعَدٍّ). This is important to understand why the preposition ب suddenly comes into play here.

In Arab countries, welcoming guests with a fresh cup of coffee (Arabic coffee) or tea is a common tradition. Dates are also often offered to guests as a symbol of hospitality.

Customs and Traditions in Arab Countries

Let's summarize the most important insights:

  • In the old times, the verb رَحُبَ was treated as an intransitive verb (= no direct object).
  • Only later, by frequency of use, the verb became transitive by itself, so one can say the following sentence: رَحُبَتْكَ الدّارُ which can be translated as: May the house be spacious to you. Note that الدّارُ is the subject (فاعِل).

    Note that in Arabic, the noun دار (plural forms: دور or دِيار or دِيارات or دِيَرة) which means house, home or building is feminine (مُؤَنَّث); so we use the feminine form of the verb ➤ رَحُبَتْ.
  • Scholars explain the transitivity of رَحُبَ by an ellipsis, which means that has been left out over time but is still implicitly understood. So, the original phrase without the omission was: رَحُبَتْ بِكُمُ الدَّارُ
  • Some scholars go so far as to say that there is no sound verb of the pattern فَعُلَ that is transitive, except for رَحُبَ.

In summary, we can say that we need the preposition ب to express to whom we grant spaciousness or ampleness.

This is particularly confusing with the II-verb رَحَّبَ – يُرَحِّبُ بِ, as II-verbs (pattern فَعَّلَ) are usually transitive like IV-verbs (pattern أَفْعَلَ), meaning they have a direct object. With رَحَّبَ, however, we usually do not have a direct object but only the “indirect” object indicated by the preposition ب.

If we look at English, when you say I greet you, the word you is the direct object. But in Arabic, verbs with a “u” (ضّمّة) as the middle root vowel are tricky. You shouldn't try to understand them by using English, but rather try to understand them from the Arabic perspective.

This is true for many verbs of this type. For example, “كَرُمَ” means to be noble; to be generous. The II-verb كَرَّمَ means to call somebody noble or to honor someone. In our situation, the II-verb, رَحَّبَ – يُرَحِّبُ بِ actually means: He welcomes him with the greeting of مَرْحَبًا” or He says to him مَرْحَبًا. This is best explained if we rearrange the sentence and use the infinitive noun (مصدر) of the II-verb: لَقيتُهُ بِالتَّرْحِيبِ means I met/encountered him with the greeting of مَرْحَبًا.

We have not checked the word مَرْحَب so far, which is what we will deal with now.

Illustration Arab hospitality
The word “marhaban” is deeply connected to Arab hospitality

What type of word is the Arabic word مَرْحَبًا?

Once again, we must start from the I-verb رَحُبَ. There are two main interpretations:

  • The common explanation is that مَرْحَب is a noun of place (اسم المكان).
  • مَرْحَب could also be a special form of an infinitive noun (مصدر ميمي). The original masdar form is رُحْبٌ.

Excursus: “marhabteen” in Arabic dialects

In Levantine Arabic (أهل الشام), the greeting marhaba can be met with the response marhabteen (مرحبتين). In many books, I have read that this is supposed to be the dual form (twice welcome! or two welcomes). I have to admit that my knowledge of Levantine Arabic is quite limited. But in my opinion, the explanation of the dual here does not really make sense.

There are many words which have this type of ending, for example, أهلين and سهلين and صَحْتين and بعدين. So how can we explain this ending? First of all, yes, the endings do resemble the dual forms (المثني).

But I do think that this related to the fact that in dialects, people do not use Nunation/Tanween (إلغاء التنوين); only in some words today, we find corrupted remnants of the Tanween. The vowel before the Tanween was changed into a long vowel that fits into the dialect soundwise. If anyone disagrees with this explanation, I'd be happy to learn more about that (contact me or use the comment section).

Vowels matter: مرحب is not always the word we use for مرحبا

Without vowels, مرحب is not always the word we use for مرحبا.

We should not confuse ٌمَرْحَب with other forms that look the same without vowels.

  • The word ٌمُرَحِّب is the active participle (اسم الفاعل) of the II verb رَحَّبَ.
  • The word ٌمُرَحَّب is the (اسم المفعول) of the II verb رَحَّبَ. For example: an unwelcome guest (ضَيْفٌ غَيْرُ مُرَحَّبٍ بِهِ).

The IV-verb َأَرْحَب is not very common and denotes the core meaning of “to make wider”. For example, أَرْحَبَ الْمَكَانُ means اِتَّسَعَ (to be/get extended; to be/get stretched out).

  • The word مُرْحِبٌ is the active participle of the IV-verb أَرْحَب.
  • The word مُرْحَبٌ is the passive participle of the IV-verb أَرْحَب.

There is also the verb مَرْحَبَ which is considered an (intransitive) verb with four root letters (رُباعِيٌّ مُتَعَدٍّ بِحَرْفٍ). For example: The phrase مَرْحَبَ الْمُضِيفُ بِضُيُوفِهِ means رَحَّبَ بِهِمْ or in other words: قَالَ لَهُمْ مَرْحَبًا.

In Hans Wehr's dictionary, the verb مَرْحَبَ is not listed under the root ر-ح-ب, but as a separate entry under م-ر-ح-ب. Interestingly, in older editions of Hans Wehr (for example, 4th edition in English and up to 5th edition in German), it is written that the verb مَرْحَبَ means to welcome someone and takes a direct object as indicated in Hans Wehr by the letter ه; so the receiver of the greeting would be the direct object. This has been corrected in the latest German edition (6th edition). Now the preposition ب is given instead, as in most of the Arabic-Arabic dictionaries.


Let's summarize what we know so far:

  • The word مَرْحَبٌ (accusative: مَرْحَبًا) conveys the idea of welcoming someone. The word literally means a place where there is a lot of space.
  • If you want to express that you applied the idea of مَرْحَبًا to someone (= you welcome the person), you can use the II-verb رَحَّبَ and put the person you would like to welcome after the preposition ب, usually in the form of a pronoun.

We now have to address the question of why we use the accusative case (= مَرْحَبًا) and whether it would also work with the nominative case (= مَرْحَبٌ).

Marhaban
Marhaban is a common, formal greeting in Arabic that has no religious connotation.

What case ending is correct with مرحب?

For grammatical problems, especially when there are questions about case endings, the following approach is often helpful: We need to reconstruct the sentence (تقدير). We basically have three options:

The accusative case (منصوب)

Option 1: direct object (مَفْعُولٌ بِهِ)

➤ Assumption: مَرْحَبًا is the direct object of a deleted verb.

So which verb could that be? We could assume one of the following sentences:

  • لَقِيْتَ مَرْحَبًا in the meaning of لَقَيْتَ رُحْبًا. The I-verb لَقِيَ – يَلْقَى means to find; to get; to receive; to encounter.
  • Another possibility: أَصَبْتُ مَرْحَبًا. The IV-verb أَصابَ – يُصيبُ can convey many ideas. Among the several meanings are to get; to obtain; to acquire.

Option 2: absolute object (مَفْعُولٌ مُطْلَقٌ)

➤ Assumption: مَرْحَبًا is the absolute object of a deleted verb (مفعول مطلق لفعلٍ محذوفٍ).

The main purpose of the absolute object (مفعول مطلق) is to emphasize the meaning and occurrence of the main verb (تَأْكيد). It is usually an infinitive noun (مصدر), which is related to the verb it comes from (same root letters), and it is always indefinite (نَكِرة).

When you see a standalone noun in the accusative case, it is often an absolute object. The verb which was in charge for the absolute object was omitted. For example, the word شُكْرًا is what is left as we have omitted the verb: أَشْكُرُكَ شُكْرًا.

How would such a sentence look like when we apply the idea to مَرْحَبًا?

  • We could reconstruct the sentence as follows: رَحُبَتْ بِلادُكَ مَرْحَبًا

We can also use a verb of different root letters and use a so-called نائِبٌ عن المفعول المطلق. It is basically a word that does the job of the absolute object.

  • We could reconstruct the sentence as follows: نَزَلْتَ مَكانًا مَرْحَبًا. Afterwards, not only the verb but also the direct object (= مكانًا) got omitted, and the only thing that remains is the extra element: مَرْحَبًا.

The nominative case (مرفوع)

Option 3: subject or predicate of a nominal sentence (جملة اسمية)

If someone says marhab (مَرْحَبٌ) instead of marhaban, would that be a mistake? No, it wouldn't.

Arabic grammar allows for a lot of creativity. You only have to justify the solution within the grammatical framework, and then quite a lot is actually possible, as long as it is consistent with the rules. So we need a good and sound grammatical explanation to justify the usage of the nominative case.

  • We could say that مَرْحَبٌ is part of a (جملة اسمية).
  • Then, مَرْحَبٌ serves as the predicate (خبرٌ) of the deleted subject (خبرٌ لمبتدإٍ محذوفٍ).
  • We could picutre such a sentence as follows: هٰذا مَرْحَبٌ

But it could also be the other way round:

  • Then, مَرْحَبٌ is the subject (مبتدأٌ) and the predicate is deleted (مبتدأٌ لخبرٍ محذوفٍ).
  • Such a sentence could look like this: لَكَ مَرْحَبٌ
  • Then, the predicate – which is the prepositional phrase (شبه الجملة), namely لكَ – gets omitted.

SUMMARY OF THE ANALYSIS OF “MARHABAN”

In this article, we looked at the short and simple Arabic greeting marhaban and its cultural significance as a symbol of hospitality. We explored the linguistic roots of “marhaban,” tracing its evolution from the concept of spaciousness to representing the warm embrace of welcoming and hospitality.

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