‘Haleel’ here means husband. The spouse is known as ‘Haleel’ or ‘Haleela’, coming from ‘Halal’ as they are ‘Halal’ for each other. ‘Ghania’ is a woman who is or beautiful or young. The ‘Shadq’ is the part of the mouth below the cheek. It is used here to depict the width of the wound. ‘A’lam’ refers a camel as it’s lip is split.
In the court of Harun al-Rashid: The Khalifa asked the famous linguist and poet al-Asma’i to explain a poem full of difficult words. Al-Asma’i completed the task with ease. Harun al-Rashid said,” Verily O’ Asma’i strange words are not strange to you”. Asma’i replied, “O commander of the believers, how can it be otherwise? For I know 70 words for a rock!”.(1)
Another story goes like this. Abu al ‘Ala al Ma’aree, another famed linguist who was blind entered a gathering of knowledge. While doing so, he accidentally stepped on someone’s foot. The person not knowing who Abu al ‘Ala was said, “Who is this dog who didn’t see me?”. Abu al-‘Alaa was offended; he shot back, “The dog is the one who doesn’t know 70 names for the dog.”(2)
One might think these are exaggerations by Arabs. Obviously, they take great pride in their language and heritage. But the truth is, this is not an exaggeration by any means. Scholars have compiled books listing out all the synonyms of certain words in Arabic. There is a book mentioning 70 synonyms of honey by Firouzabadi (Al-Kitab al-Jami’ fil ‘Asl). Ibn Khalawayh has books on the names of the lion for which you can find an english translation here.
He has also written a book mentioning 200 names for the snake. Al-Zubaidi (379H) says that there are 400 names for the lion, 300 for the sword, 255 for the camel, 170 for water, 70 for rain, and each of these words have a particular usage.
Aqrabiyyat al-Lugha al-Arabiyyah (ISESCO)
But why does Arabic have so many words for the same thing? I mean 10 synonyms for lion is understandable, but 400?
To understand this, we have to understand the position language held in the Arab society. The Arabs before the advent of Islam were largely an illiterate society. Poetry was the means by which news was spread, and stories were told. Events were immortalised through poetry. Some poets became so powerful, that sometimes all it took was a single line of poetry to make a tribe lose its status. And, sometimes the opposite happened. And perhaps, out of this obsession the Arabs became true masters of the language.
The Crazy Thing About Synonyms in the Arabic Language
Not only does Arabic have an insanely large number of words, each synonym varies slightly in meaning!
When it come’s to finding the right word for the right thing the Arabs take it to a whole new level. Let me show you what I mean.
When you are hungry, you say you are ‘جائع’. But say you are hungry on a hot day. Yes, there is a word for that, it’s ‘مَغتُوم’. If you are thirsty, you are ‘عطشان’. But if you are thirsty and craving milk, you are ‘عَيْمان’
If you are starting out learning Arabic, you might find this overwhelming. But you shouldn’t really worry about this, as most people don’t use these words in conversation anymore. And you definitely don’t need to master all these words to understand Arabic. But the point is, you should keep adding on to your Arabic vocabulary for the rest of your life. It is an enlightening experience to know all the shades and indications of a rare word, and then read it in the Quran or Hadith. You will have a whole new level of understanding of the Verse or Hadith or even classical poetry.
Saying A Lot With A Few Words
What arabs consider fluency is the ability to express the maximum meaning, in the smallest possible number of words. And Arabic is an exceptionally remarkable medium to do so.
The total number of words in the Arabic Quran is 77,429 (Source: Quran Corpus). But the Quran in English (Saheeh International Translation) is 158,962 (Source: tanzil.net). That is almost exactly twice the number of words!
So it takes twice the number of words in English to say the same things.
Please note that the number of words may vary slightly based on the way they are counted using a computer program.
The Arabic Root System
Every word in Arabic can be traced back to a root word. These root words are mostly 3 letter and sometimes 4 letter sequences which represents a general concept or meaning. All the words that stem from this root word will have a link to this meaning or concept.
For example, the root k-t-b carries the meaning ‘write’. From it comes ‘kitaba’ writing, ‘kataba’ (he) wrote, ‘maktaba’ library, ‘kitab’ book, ‘katib’ writer, ‘maktab’ office (somewhere you write things), and so on.
Once you start learning Arabic you will start seeing patterns to how these words are made. For example, verbs in the past tense follow the pattern of kataba ( Eg. ‘qar’a, ‘wa’qafa’, ‘dhahaba’), place nouns follow that of maktab ( Eg. ‘masjid’, ‘majlis’, ‘mahkama’ ) and so on.
This means that once you know the root word, you will start recognising possibly hundreds of other words from just that one word!
Words That Mean Opposite Things At The Same Time
Not only do words have so many synonyms, sometimes the same word carries so many meanings. And where this gets interesting is that sometimes the same word can be two exactly opposite things.
Let me give you an example,
Allah says in the Quran,
إِنَّ هَٰؤُلَاءِ يُحِبُّونَ الْعَاجِلَةَ وَيَذَرُونَ وَرَاءَهُمْ يَوْمًا ثَقِيلًا – 76:27
The translation according to the Saheeh International is:
“Indeed, these [disbelievers] love the immediate and leave behind them a grave Day”.
‘وَرَاءَ’ usually means behind.
But in reality there is more to this ayah than the meaning in this translation. I always use to think, shouldn’t the Yawm al Qiyama be ‘in front’ of the disbelievers, rather than behind them? Because it is in the future?
Turns out, ‘Wara’ can mean both ‘in front’ and ‘behind’, and if you go to the Tafsir of this ayah you will find a lot of them interpret ‘Wara’ to mean in front here.
And you can find reference to the usage of ‘Wara’ to mean ‘in front’ in the language of the Arabs, if you refer to classical poetry.
For example, in the poetry of Labid, he says:
أَليْسَ ورائي، إنْ تراخَتْ مَنيّتي*** لُزُومُ العَصَا تُحْنَى علَيها الأصابعُ
أخبّرُ أخبارَ القرونِ التي مضتْ*** أدبٌ كأنّي كُلّما قمتُ راكعُ
Is it not what is [ورائي] in front of me, if my death was delayed (and I reach old age), that I will always be with a cane, with my fingers wrapped around it.
Talking about the generations past; When I walk it will be as if I am bowing down (Ruku’) every time I stand up.
There are so many other examples for such words:
Ṣarīm can mean both ‘night’ and ‘morning’
Jūn can mean both ‘black’ and ‘white’
Ṭarb can mean both ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness’
Jalal can mean both ‘great’ and ‘insignificant’
If you are wondering how one is supposed to understand what they mean if opposite meaning are possible, the answer is: you should discern it from context.
It is part of the beauty of the Arabic Language.
These are only a few of the amazing aspects about Arabic. There is a lot more to look at like ilm al-balāghah (rhetoric), ilm al-‘Arūḍ (poetic metre) and so much more.
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1.Ahmad ibn Mustafa al-Bayeedi, Al-Lataif fee al-Lugha, P 13. (Dar al-Fadila, Cairo)
“Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand.”
The Quran is an amazing book no matter what language you read it in. But trust me when I say this; you have never really read the Quran until you have read it in Arabic. That is why you have to learn Quranic Arabic.
The sudden changes in style, the short verses with powerful meaning, the rhyming words – it is something you have to experience for yourself. In fact, the language of the Quran is so sublime, that it froze the version of Arabic it was revealed in through time. What we know today as Modern Standard Arabic is almost the same as Quranic or Classical Arabic. The major difference is the addition of new words for the modern context. This is because unlike most other languages, Arabic never changed or evolved. Read more about how Arabic never changed in my blog post.
But It’s Hard to Learn Quranic Arabic Right?
I’ll try to give my honest opinion here. I’ve been learning and trying to improve my Arabic for more than 9 years. I have also taught it and watched people learn. And the answer to the question depends on what level of Arabic you are looking to achieve.
1. To achieve complete Mastery – It is something I would put in the region of ‘very very difficult’. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. I say this because Arabic is not like other languages. And even most native Arabs can’t speak with perfect I’rab (the word suffix system in Arabic). If you pay attention you find that in colloquial Arabic they don’t pronounce the word endings most of the time. To be fair to the native speakers, you could say that people don’t speak with the complete I’rab anymore. But, that was the way classical Arabic was spoken, but even then, people used to make mistakes. And that was seen as a huge embarrassment. There is even a word for making mistakes in I’rab – al-laḥn.
Moreover, Arabic is exceptionally rich and intricate with a large number of synonyms for many words. The problem is each has a slight difference in meaning. For example, ‘lion’ has more than 300 synonyms. Al-‘Anbas is “The Lion from Whom Other Lions Flee”, al-Hirmās is “Aggressive Towards People”, and al-Asjar is “The Lion Whose Eyes Are Bloodshot”.
Here is another example of how intricate Arabic can be. Abu Bakr al-Siddīq (ر) saw a man with a garment. He asked him:
Do you wish to sell it?
لا، رحمك الله.
What he meant was, ‘No, may Allah forgive you’. But the sentence could also mean, ‘May Allah not forgive you’.
Abu Bakr said to him:
May the tongues of your people become upright; could you not have said:
لا و رحمك الله؟
That sentence would have made the intended meaning perfectly clear. The addition of the ‘waw’ here makes all the difference.
The reason I am telling you all this is because I want you to understand that learning Quranic Arabic is a lifelong quest. You definitely don’t need this level of mastery to understand the Quran in general. But, the more you advance your Arabic the more you see the beauty of the Quran. There are many levels to understanding the Quran. The effect it had on the people of the Quraish to whom it was revealed was profound. The more your Arabic moves closer to theirs the more you see the linguistic genius of the Quran. So while those ‘learn with 5 minutes a day’ apps and 2-month intensive courses are all a great start, remember that’s what they are – just a start.
2. To be able to understand the Quran – This should be your first milestone. And, this is one that will give you immense satisfaction when you achieve it. Contrary to what I told you about achieving absolute mastery over the language, this is an easy task. I am talking about being able to understand most of the verses of the Quran in Arabic. You might not yet be able to speak Arabic fluently at this level. But when you read the Quran with the aid of a translation, knowing the Arabic grammar and words, gives you a whole new level of insight into the meanings.
The Quranic Arabic Learning Plan
In the rest of this post, I am going to try and show you the fastest and way to get there. Please note that I am not making any claims about this being ‘the best methodology ever’. This is the best I have come up with based on my experience and research. Also, I will keep updating this post if I feel improvements can be made Insha Allah. So be sure to check this post often.
Focus on Relevant Quranic Vocabulary
It’s obvious that vocabulary is the first thing people start learning when they want to learn a language. But if you want to learn Arabic to understand the Quran, then start with words used in it. It’s surprising that many books designed to teach classical Arabic to beginners have many words that are never going to be used in the Quran. If you want to understand the Quran, why waste time learning the Arabic word for seashells, dentist or radio? You can get to that later when you get past the basic level.
Frequency List of Words in the Quran
So if you want to get fast results, I suggest, using a frequency list. A frequency list is when you take all the words in a language and you arrange them based on the frequency of usage. When you do that for the Quran, you get some amazing insights. Take a look at this infographic:
If you master the meanings of the first 70-100 most frequent words in the Quran, you will know the meaning of more than 50% of the words in the Quran. Amazing right?
Apps like Anki flashcards and Memrise are also great for learning words. My favourite is Anki, where you can upload a list of flash cards, and it will keep showing them to you at specific intervals. This is based on a great learning technique called spaced repetition.
Here are 100 most common verbs in the Quran:
But remember words are only going to make sense to you if you put them in the right context. That is why it is important to use a textbook simultaneously. Which brings us to step 2.
Grammar and Sentence Practice – Use A Text Book
Grammar is the backbone of a language. When it comes to the Quran it is not something you can skip. It is extremely important that you become very thorough with the fundamentals. Once you get the basics of Arabic grammar down, it just keeps giving. It will help you understand the Quran and every classical book you read. So take this step very seriously at the outset. The good news is that Arabic grammar is extremely logical and straightforward.
The book I recommend is the same one I started out with. I still think it is one of the best Fus’ha (classical Arabic) textbooks available. It is called, ‘Al Arabiyyah Bayna Yadayk’. Consisting of 4 books and audio cd companions, the series aims to develop listening, reading, speaking and writing skills. What is different about this course is that it follows a hands-on approach and explains concepts through examples, without being overly theoretical.
Ideally, you need a teacher for this series of books. If you can’t find locally, there are excellent free videos teaching the book. Make sure you check them out.
If you just follow along with this book and actively keep learning vocabulary, you will soon start understanding the Quran. By the time you reach book 3 and 4, your Arabic will be pretty immaculate.
Sometimes the grammatical concepts need a bit of extra explanation. For this, I recommend using an English grammar reference book like ‘Fundamentals of Arabic Grammar’ by Husain Abdul Sattar.
Practice is the real game changer. During our university intake, there were a lot of guys who spoke no english. There were also a lot of us who wanted to learn Arabic. Some of us would hang out with people from other countries and make an effort to speak the language even though we were terrible at it initially. And some others were too shy and they would stick to their own circles and groups. At the end of the 4-5 years, those who made the effort to practice and make friends who spoke another language made drastic improvements. I’ve seen guys go from scratch to speaking amazing english. And the same when it comes to Arabic.
You learned how the words work in a sentence from your text book. Now you need to actually say it to someone for it to be hardwired into your brain. You need to hear it being said to you. A lot.
If there is someone you can speak Arabic to, great! If not you just need to get creative. Language learners have put together some amazing ways to immerse oneself in a language. One great resource is italki.com where you can find a native Arabic speaker willing to help you out with your Arabic in exchange for you teaching him English or your native language. You don’t even need a native speaker in the beginning. Someone who can hold a basic conversation in Fus’ha will do. For more language exchange sites see, ‘The 10 Best Language Exchange Sites’.
Also, get your writings corrected by native speakers at lang-8.com.
You can return them the favour by correcting their writings in your native language.
Communities like Reddit.com/r/learn_arabic are great places to hang out with other active learners.
It is also important to listen to Arabic lectures and programmes. Have you noticed that when you learn a new word in a new language you tend to forget it a few times before you can remember it? But if you hear a new word in a language you know well, you remember it just after hearing it once. This is because of the connections in your brain. It is used to the language. To hardwire Arabic into your brain likewise you need to get plenty of listening time.
So this is the simple and straightforward outline I have for learning Quranic Arabic. To recap:
Focus on relevant words using frequency lists. Use techniques like spaced repetition.
Follow at text book – ‘Al Arabiyyah Bayna Yadayk’. Find a teacher offline or online.
Practice, practice and more practice. Use websites to find someone to practice with if you can’t find them locally. Hang our it relevant communities. Get help.
If you stick to the plan with dedication where you are following a regular schedule. And if you make sure you are practicing, you will be surprised how fast you can make progress with Arabic. You will be understanding the Quran in Arabic in no time, insha Allah.
If you ever need any help with planning your program, or there is something you can’t get your head around, just reach out to me. I will be glad to help if I can.
The Arabic language is truly beautiful. Did you know that ‘lion’ has more than 300 synonyms in Arabic? Here is an Infographic we have put together for you with some great facts about Arabic. Let me know what you think about it in the comments.
Arabic Language Facts [Infographic]
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Say you are reasonably acquainted with Fus’ha or classical Arabic (written Arabic). If you wanted some more context or explanation behind a verse in the Quran, you can just open up Tafsir al-Tabari. Whats amazing about that is Tafsir al-Tabari is an exegesis of the Quran written in the year 883! The fact that people who know modern formal Arabic can understand it 1000 years later is amazing. It means that Arabic has remained practically unchanged.
To see how bizarre this is, see what English looked like from roughly the same period:
Hƿæt! ƿē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum,
þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
– 8th Century Poem, Beowulf in Old English
The above example is actually old english. If you focus on the words long enough you can make out slight connections.
The reason it looks like a completely different language is because the sounds and grammar went through major changes. In what is known as the Great Vowel Shift, all Middle English long vowels changed their pronunciation. Some consonants as well.
The Great Vowel Shift
If you want to see differences in grammar you just need to look as far back as Shakespeare (17th century).
Romeo & Juliet
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
While, its common knowledge that ‘thou’ means you, the sentence doesn’t mean ‘Where are you, Romeo?’ like most people assume. ‘wherefore’ meant ‘what is the purpose of?’. The line means something like, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, what is the purpose of you being Romeo?’ or ‘Why are you Romeo?’
This is one of hundreds of examples. But this is not just English. This is the case with most languages. They change, evolve and many even die.
So what is different about Arabic?
The short answer: The Quran.
The long answer:
When the Quran was revealed to Muhammad ﷺ there were different dialects spoken. The Quran was even revealed in different dialects. But only the dialect of the Quraish was preserved. From here, the Arabic of the Quran spread out to the world – to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Africa and even as far as Spain.
The Ummayyad Period
Arabic was the official language of new Islamic empire. But with the large number of people now learning it, they started making mistakes in pronouncing the Quran correctly. The Arabs were worried about preserving the purity of the Quran, and introduced the dot and vowel marks to the script to help people read correctly.
But even today, non-arab muslims work extensively on their pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet to perfect their Quranic recitation.
The Abbasid Period
By now, the Islamic Empire was in its Golden Age. There was a revolution of knowledge, science and art. Arabic was the language of the learned. Books were translated into Arabic from different languages. For instance, the caliph Al-Mansur ordered for literature to be translated to Arabic. Under al-Mansur and by his orders, translations were made from Greek, Syriac, and Persian, the Syriac and Persian books being themselves translations from Greek or Sanskrit(1).
It’s also worth noting here that, were it not for Arabic many classical and important works would have been lost. For example, we won’t have most of the works of Aristotle today if they were not recovered from the Arabic translations.
The spoken dialects were different by now between Syria, Iraq and Madinah and so on. But the high esteem in which muslims held the Quran and Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) meant that the pure version of Arabic kept being taught and used.
The Decline and Survival
After the 14th century, the Islamic empire was weakened. It was now split into different smaller kingdoms. Large parts of it were now conquered by foreign rulers. Ibn Khaldun says about this, “When non-Arabs, such as the Daylam and, after them, the Saljuqs in the East and the Zanitah and Berbers in the West, became the rulers and obtained royal authority and control over the whole Muslim realm, the Arabic language suffered corruption. It would almost have disappeared, if the concern of the Muslims with the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which preserve Islam, had not (also) preserved the Arabic language” (2).
Then came the onslaught of the Mongols. Ibn Khaldun says,”But when the Tatars and Mongols, who were not Muslims, became the rulers in the East, this element in favor of the Arabic language disappeared, and the Arabic language was absolutely doomed. No trace of it has remained in these Muslim provinces: the ‘Iraq, Khurisan, the country. of Firs (southern Persia), Eastern and Western India, Transoxania, the northern countries, and the Byzantine territory (Anatolia). The Arabic methods (uslub) of poetry and speech have disappeared, save for a (remnant). Instruction in (what little Arabic is known) is a technical matter using rules learned from the sciences of the Arabs and through memorizing their speech. (It is restricted) to those persons whom God has equipped for it. The sedentary Arabic dialect has largely remained in Egypt, Syria, Spain, and the Maghrib, because Islam still remains (there) and requires it. Thus, it has been preserved to some degree. But in the provinces of the ‘Iraq and beyond (to the East), no trace or source of (the Arabic language) has remained. Even scientific books have come to be written in the non-Arabic (Persian) language, which is also used for instruction in (Arabic) in class”.(3)
Finally came the fall of Granada, the last foothold of the Arab Islamic Empire in Spain. Known as Al-Andalus in the Islamic world. After this the official language of the Ottoman empire (1299–1922) was Turkish.
Classical Arabic was always taught in the circles of Quranic learning, the Masjids, schools and universities. It was used in the discussions of Fiqh, Tafsir and Hadith. The pronunciation was always taught exactly as it had been at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.
Allah makes a promise in the Quran, “إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ”
Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian. (Quran, 15:9)
The Quran cannot be really protected and preserved unless the Arabic language in which it was revealed was preserved. Otherwise its meaning cannot be fully grasped by the reader. It would have been inaccessible. And we see the fulfilment of this promise when we look back at history.
1. O’Leary, De Lacy (1922). Arabic Thought and its Place in History. P 107. (From Wikipedia article: ‘Transmission of the Greek Classics’)
2. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah,(Translated by Franz Rosenthal), P 477.
3. Same source. Page 477-478.