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الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْمِ: “Prayer is better than sleep” – Is it really “better”?

The Islamic call to prayer is a tricky construction. In Sunni Islam, the muezzin uses khayr (خير) which strangely denotes a comparative (better). Why?

Last updated: May 2, 2021

At least regarding the grammar of the sentence, the Arabic sentence الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْمِ means “prayer is better than sleep”.

You might know that in Sunni Islam there is a special line that the muezzin says if he calls people to come to pray during dawn: الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْمِ (as-salatu khayrun min an-nawm). This is only said for the الْفَجْر-prayer (fajr).

This is an interesting grammatical construction. We do not use the regular اِسْم التَّفْضِيل ism -al-Tafdeel) here, following the pattern: أَفْعَل – which would denote a comparative or superlative meaning.

So why do we translate the word with a comparative meaning?

The word خَيْرٌ is usually translated as good, which is correct. But it also has another meaning – the meaning of a اِسْم تَفْضِيل.

The word خَيْر has the same meaning as أَحْسَن – better.

Let us have a closer look at some examples:

Prayer is better than sleep.الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْم
Work is better than laziness.الْعَمَلُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْكَسَلِ
He is better than…هُوَ خَيْرٌ مِنْ
I am not better than the student.لَسْتُ خَيْرًا مِن الطَّالِبِ

What is the DNA of the word خَيْر?

The word for better was originally أَخْيَر – but it was changed into خَيْر.

This happened a long time ago as in the Qur’an, خَيْر is already used in the meaning of better.

The word comes from the root خ – ي – ر. The corresponding I-verb is خارَ.


Watch out for the correct plural:

meaningpluralsingular
good; excellent/better; bestخِيار or أَخْيارخَيْر
good; blessing; good thingخُيُورخَيْر

There are other words which follow the same logic as خَيْرٌ, for example, the word شَرٌّ (bad or evil), but it is less common.

She is worse than……هِيَ شَرٌّ مِنْ
Notice that there is no feminine form of شَرٌّ !

Watch out: If you use خَيْرٌ or شَرٌّ in a إِضافة-construction, they have the meaning of the superlative.

(the) best studentخَيْرُ طَالِبٍ
  • In Arabic, you don’t use the definite article although it has a definite meaning in English.
  •  As it is a إِضافة-construction, the word خَيْر doesn’t get nunation.

If you are interested – here is more about grammar:

Picture credit: Image by Mücahit Yıldız from Pixabay

3 comments
  1. I’m curious then how ‘better’ gets translates into ‘wealth’ Surah Al-Adiyat. (وَإِنَّهُ لِحُبِّ الْخَيْرِ لَشَدِيدٌ – 100:8) Any thoughts?

    1. Beside the meaning of an elative – a comparative ( اسم تفضيل) or even superlative -, خير does also denote “wealth” in the meaning of المالُ الكثير الطَّيِّب (especially when used with the definite article).

Any thoughts or ideas about this? Leave a reply!

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