Last updated on November 28, 2020

According to the story, Sibawayhi (سيبويه) was challenged by his ri­val from Kūfa, al-Kisā’i (الْكِسائِي), to pronounce himself on an ab­struse question.

If you say the following sentence in Arabic, should you use both pronouns in the nominative case (هُوَ and هِيَ) or do you use the sec­ond pronoun in the accusative case (هُوَ and إِيّاها)?

كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِن الزُّنْبُورِ فَإِذا هُوَ هِيَ ‏

كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِن الزُّنْبُورِ فَإِذا هُوَ إِيّاها

The sentence means: I used to think that the sting of a scorpion was more intense than that of a wasp, but [I discovered that] it was the same.

The following translation clarifies what the pronouns refer to: I used to think that the scorpion was more vehement in stinging than the hor­net, and lo, he is (as vehement as) she.

Sībawayhi said that هُوَ هِيَ was correct. Al-Kisa’i said the opposite.

Sībawayhiهِيَ must be in the nominative (مَرْفُوع) فَإِذا هُوَ هِي
Kisā’iإِيّاها must be in the accusative (مَنْصُوب) فَإِذا هُوَ إِيّاها

A similar question in English would be whether it is she or it is her should be correct. In other words, whether the word in question should be nominative, i.e., in the independent case (رَفْع), or accusa­tive, i.e., the dependent case (نَصْب).

What Sībawayhi proposed

Conjunction (حَرْف عَطْف). It has no place in إِعْراب.ف
Particle of surprise (حَرْف مُفَاجَأَة). It has no place in إِعْراب.إِذا
Personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) which relates to scorpion. It is the subject (مُبْتَدَأ) of the nominal sentence (جُمْلة اِسْمِيّة). Although you can’t see it (due to the fixed, indeclinable shape), it is placed in the location of a nominative case (فيِ مَحَلّ رَفْع).هُوَ
Personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) serving as the predicate (خَبَر). It has a fixed, indeclinable shape (مَبْنِيّ عَلَى الْفَتْح), so we can’t mark the case visibly. Nevertheless, the word occupies the posi­tion of a nomi­native case (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع) since it is the predicate.هِيَ

What did al-Kisa’i propose?

He agreed on every­thing we’ve said so far – except for the last word (إِيّاها). There are two ways to han­dle إِيّاها .

Option 1:

إِيّاها is a personal pronoun (ضَمِير مُنْفَصِل) which serves as the DIRECT OBJECT (مَفْعُول بِهِ), so it is located in the position of an accusative case ( فِي مَحَلّ نَصْب). But how can it be the direct object since there is apparently no verb in the sentence?

He as­sumed that there was a verb, but it was deleted (فِعْل مَحْذُوف) and is still implic­itly understood. It could have been the verb to be equivalent to (يُساوِيها). Therefore, we ap­ply the rules of a ver­bal sentence (جُمْلة فِعْلِيّة).

Now it is getting even more complicated. Although many peo­ple say that إِيّاها is the accusative case of هِيَ , this is not entirely correct.إِيّاها has a fixed shape and has to end with aسُكُون on the Aleph in any case as the Aleph can’t carry any other sign. It al­ways must beاْ . There­fore, we have to be more precise and say that إِيّاها it is placed in the po­sition of an accusative (فِي مَحَلّ نَصْب).

We still have to solve one thing: Where is the predi­cate (خَبَرْ) for the subject (مُبْتَدَأ), i.e., هُوَ , of the primary (nominal) sen­tence? Sīb­awayhi said that it isهِيَ . Following option 1, however, it is the entire verbal sentence (with the estimated, deleted verb).

It is actually pretty common that an entire sentence serves as the خَبَرْ . In such a situation, we assign a place value and say that the sen­tence occupies the position of a nominative case (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع) be­cause the rule says that the predicate has to be in the nomi­native case. That’s all pretty confusing, but it is a way to justify why you see the per­sonal pro­noun in the accusative case.

Option 2:

The personal pronoun إِيّاها is the PREDICATE of the deleted verb (خَبَر كانَ الْمَحْذُوفة مِع اِسْمها). The rules say that the predicate of كانَ has to be مَنْصُوب, so we arrive at إِيّاها.

We already said that هُوَ is the subject of the primary nominal sen­tence. This subject also needs a predicate. So where is here? The predi­cate is represented by كانَ , including its two governed factors (كانَ وَمَعْمُولَيْها). They altogether serve as the predicate of the nominal sen­tence and altogether fill the posi­tion of a nomi­native (فِي مَحَلّ رَفْع).

Back then public debates about grammar were a form of enter­tainment in which the goal was not so much to establish a truth as to defeat an opponent in front of an audience. Sībawayhi was con­vinced that an accusative (مَنْصُوب), which would beإِيّاها , can’t be the predicate of a nominal sen­tence.

Suddenly, his rival, al-Kisā’i, presented four Bedouins who were pretending to have just happened to be wait­ing at the door. They announced that a true Bedouin would only say إِيّاها .

Sībawayhi left Baghdad and went to Shi­raz in Persia where he soon died of anger and grief at the result of the debate, consoled by a payment of 10,000 dirhams solicited for him by al-Kisāʾī, as legend has it. Others say that he died from illness. He passed away in 796 (180 AH), per­haps at the age of forty.

Followers of the Basra school claim that al-Kisā’i had bribed them before to support his answer. Fol­lowers of the Kūfa school reject this and say that it would be an insult to throw such allega­tions on al-Kisā’i’s name. In the end, all four Bedouins testified that هُوَ إِيّاها was correct. Sīb­awayhi, it seemed, was wrong.

The dispute was typical for the discussions at that time because it dealt with “what can be said” and “what can’t be said” in Ara­bic. Sīb­awayhi was being judged on this ability to speak correctly and not on the logic of his analysis. If one made a mistake, it sim­ply meant that he didn’t say it in the way the Bedouins speak.

Note: The translation of the last part of the famous sentence is tricky. It is not clear which words the feminine pronouns, in fact, re­late to. Several translators came to different results.

Slane (1842-1871)and behold! It was so.
Carter (2004)and sure enough it is. (Cart. relates هِيَ/‎ إِيّاهَاto لَسْعة.)
Ramzi Baalbaki (2014)but [I discovered that] it was the same.
Lutz Edzard (2016)(however,) the former is (like) the latter.
In German, I would say: Ich glaubte, der Skorpion stäche heftiger als die Hornisse/Wespe, und siehe, sie ist (in dieser Beziehung wie) er.

More of that:

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  1. What is Arabic grammar based on nowadays and how does it get updated?

    1. Hi Manuel, that is huuuuge topic. Short answer: the core is classical Arabic. But there were many updates and patches – which is why we ended up with Modern Standard Arabic. The “Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo”, for example, develops and regulates the Arabic language in Egypt. Many things which are now considered to be correct are “imports” from other languages, especially, when you look at the sentence structure. It is much more common now to use an “English” “subject plus verb plus object” order. And many of the fine-tunes of Classial Arabic, such as emphasis, are gone. One example which is now considered to be correct is “kull aam wanta bikheyr”. You find more information about that in this article:

Any thoughts or ideas about this? Leave a reply!

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