Last updated: July 18, 2021
The grammarians of the prime of Arabic grammar were nerds, geniuses and some of them died tragically. Many of them weren’t native speakers of Arabic – but of Persian origin. My list in this article is very subjective and marked by the ups and downs of my own learning. It does not follow academic standards.
The greatest Arabic grammarians of all time
- Where Arabic grammar emerged
- The TOP 5 Arabic grammarians and scholars
- No. 1: Sibawayhi (سـيـبـويـه)
- No. 2: al-Farra’ (الفرّاء)
- No. 3: Ibn Malik (ابن مالك)
- No. 4: Ibn Mansur (ابن منظور)
- No. 5: Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (أبو الأسود الدؤلي)
- Other big names
Where Arabic grammar emerged
We have relatively little information about the time between the death of Muhammad (632 CE) and the emergence of Arabic grammar in the 7th and 8th century. But there is some common ground. We can roughly say that…
- The study of Arabic grammar emerged in what we today know as Iraq. We can say that Iraq is the cradle of Arabic grammar.
- It began in the city of Basra and later spread to Kufa. Both cities were engaged in a long-lasting famous contest over the sovereignty of grammar.
- The Basran scholars applied more of a dry and rational logic and were mainly driven by trying to seal the Islamic texts and stop the corruption of the speech.
- Many say that the founder of Arabic grammar is the Basran Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali. There are many legends and anecdotes about why he felt the urge of codifying Arabic – but there is no final proof.
The TOP 5 Arabic grammarians and scholars
No. 1: Sibawayhi (سـيـبـويـه)
Sibawayh (died ca. 796/180 AH) was a Persian grammarian who later moved to Basra. He is in my opinion one of the best grammarians of all time.
Sibawayhi is the author of the earliest Arabic grammar book. He developed a framework that can be used to analyze near all possible situations you might encounter in an Arabic sentence. It is a comprehensive encyclopedia of Arabic grammar. Sibawayhi writes down the principles rules of grammar – explained and proven by countless examples taken from Arabic sayings, verse and poetry,
The book was published after his death and is simply called “al-Kitab“: “the book“. It is a five volume work. It is definitely worth reading – but not for the fainthearted.
There is a famous legend about Sibawayhi’s death. It is related to the case ending (!) of a wasp/hornet and a scorpion and became famous as al-Mas’ala al-Zunburīyah: The Question of the hornet.
His teacher: al-Khalil
I have to mention another person here: al-Khalil (الخليل), Sibawayhi’s most influential teacher. There are 608 references to him in Sibawahi’s al-Kitab.
Al-Khalil (died 791/175 AH) codified phonetics and metrics. He is also credited with having devised the basic principles of lexicography in his work Kitab al-Ayn – the first Arabic dictionary. (I wrote an article about that – read it here.)
No. 2: al-Farra’ (الفرّاء)
al-Farra (died 822/207 AH) was the most brilliant figure of the Kufan grammar school. He was a student of al-Kisa’i (الكساءى), the founder of the grammar school of Kufa. Scholars later said about him that al-Farra’ is “one who skins language“.
His analysis was based on the pure spoken Arabic of the Bedouins who, back then, were the masters of spoken Arabic.
He died on the way to Mecca, aged about 60 or 67, in 822 (207 AH).
al-Farra’ wrote the other main grammatical work of the 8th century: Ma’ani al-Qur’an (معانى القرآن). It is a grammatical and philological commentary on the Qur’an – with stress on lexicology and morphology. It is not so much about syntax which was Sibawayhi’s special topic.
His work is unique because it is the only extensive work by a grammarian of the Kufa school. It was the basic source for many commentaries on the Qur’an for centuries.
No. 3: Ibn Malik (ابن مالك)
Ibn Malik (died 1274/672 AH) grew up in al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and later moved to Aleppo and Damascus in Syria where he taught Arabic.
The Alfiyya of Ibn Malik (ألفية ابن مالك) is a book of Arabic grammar written in VERSES (!) in the 13th century. It covers many specialities which university students nowadays often never learn.
Dozens of commentaries have been written on this book. For centuries, it was the main source of learning for children. They had to memorize it.
No. 4: Ibn Mansur (ابن منظور)
Ibn Manzur (died 1312/711 AH) was a lexicographer of the Arabic language. He was born in Tunisia and grew up in the Maghreb. In his early life, he worked as a judge. He died in Cairo.
He is the author of the monumental dictionary Lisan al-Arab (لسان العرب), the tongue of the Arabs. It is the best known dictionary of the Arabic language as well as one of the most comprehensives. My interview series 9273 roots is related to this work.
No. 5: Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (أبو الأسود الدؤلي)
Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (died 689/69 AH) was a poet and companion of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. We don’t know a lot about his life.
He is considered the father of Arabic grammar (Nahw). When the Islamic empire was growing fast, there were many new Muslims who could not speak Arabic – but wished to read and recite the Qur’an. There are many legends and anecdotes about the founding of Arabic grammar. al-Du’ali is said to have introduced the use of diacritical marks (vowel markers; tashkeel) and is the author of the earliest works on grammatical stuff.
Other big names
Many other grammarians could be in this list. Some big names:
- Ibn Ajurrum (ابن آجرّوم): He (died 1323/) was a famous Moroccan grammarian and is the author of a treatise on grammar which is still widely studied.
- Ibn Jinni (ابن جني): He (died 1002/392 AH) was – among many things – also an expert on morphology – sarf (صرف).
- al-Zajjaj (الزجّاج): He (died 949/337 AH) was interested in the logical foundations of grammar. He was one of the most original thinkers of the Arabic tradition
- al-Mubarrad (المبرّد): He (died 898/285 AH) wrote many critical works on Sibawayhi’s al-Kitab. His book al-Kamil is one of the most interesting and challenging works on grammar.
Remark: In part two, we will have a look at the best Arabic grammarians of the West.