Sibawayh (Arabic: سِيبَوَيْهِ Sībawayhi[4] or Sībawayh; Persian: سِیبُویه‎ Sībūyah [siːbuːˈja]; c. 760–796), whose full name is Abu Bishr Amr ibn Uthman ibn Qanbar al-Basri (أَبُو بِشْر عَمْرو بْن عُثْمَان بْن قَنْبَر ٱلْبَصْرِيّ, ’Abū Bishr ‘Amr ibn ‘Uthmān ibn Qanbar al-Baṣrī), was a Persian[5][6] leading grammarian of Basra and author of the earliest book on Arabic grammar. His famous unnamed work, referred to as Al-Kitāb, or "The Book", is a five-volume seminal discussion of the Arabic language.[7]

Entrance to Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz
Bornc. 760, Shiraz, Persia,[1] Abbasid Caliphate
Diedc. 796,[2] Shiraz, Persia or Basra, Iraq, Abbasid Caliphate
EraMedieval philosophy
RegionIslamic philosophy
Main interests
Arabic and Persian

Ibn Qutaybah, the earliest extant source, in his biographical entry under Sibawayh simply wrote:

He is Amr ibn Uthman, and he was mainly a grammarian. He arrived in Baghdad, fell out with the local grammarians, was humiliated and went back to some town in Persia, and died there while still a young man.[8]

The tenth-century biographers Ibn al-Nadim and Abu Bakr al-Zubaydi, and in the 13th-century Ibn Khallikan, attribute Sibawayh with contributions to the science of the Arabic language and linguistics that were unsurpassed by those of earlier and later times.[9][10] He has been called the greatest of all Arabic linguists and one of the greatest linguists of all time in any language.[11]


Born circa 143/760, Sibawayh was from Shiraz, in today Fars Province, Iran.[1][n 1] Reports vary, some saying he went first to Basra, then to Baghdad, and finally back to the village of al-Baida near Shiraz where he died between 177/793 and 180/796, while another says he died in Basra in 161/777.[13][14][9] His Persian nickname Sibuyeh, arabized as Sībawayh(i), means "scent of apples" and reportedly referred to his "sweet breath."[15] A protégé of the Banu Harith b. Ka'b b. 'Amr b. 'Ulah b. Khalid b. Malik b. Udad,[16][17] he learned the dialects (languages) from Abu al-Khattab al-Akhfash al-Akbar (the Elder) and others. He came to Iraq in the days of Harun al-Rashid when he was thirty-two years old and died in Persia when he was over forty.[14] He was a student of the two eminent grammarians Yunus ibn Habib and Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, the latter of whom he was most indebted to.[18][19][20]


Despite Sibawayh's renowned scholarship, his status as a non-native speaker of the language is a central feature in the many anecdotes included in the biographies. The accounts throw useful light on early contemporary debates which influenced the formulation of the fundamental principles of Arabic grammar.

The Question of the HornetEdit

In a story from the debate held by the Abbasid vizier Yahya ibn Khalid of Baghdad on standard Arabic usage, Sibawayh, representing the Basra school of grammar, and al-Kisa'i, one of the canonical Quran readers and the leading figure in the rival school of Kufa,[21] had a dispute on the following point of grammar, which later became known as المسألة الزنبورية al-Mas’alah al-Zunbūrīyah ("The Question of the Hornet").

The discussion involved the final clause of the sentence:

Arabic: كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ ٱلْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةً مِنَ الزُّنْبُورِ، فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيَّاهَا.
kuntu ʾaẓunnu ʾanna l-ʿaqraba ʾašaddu lasʿatan min az-zunbūri, fa-ʾiḏā huwa ʾiyyā-hā.
"I have always thought that the scorpion was more painful in stinging than the hornet, and sure enough it is."[22]

Both Sibawayh and al-Kisa'i agreed that it involved an omitted verb, but disagreed on the specific construct to be used.

Sibawayh proposed finishing it with fa-'iḏā huwa hiya (فإذا هو هي), literally "and-thus he [is] she",[23] using "he" for the scorpion (a masculine noun in Arabic) and "she" for "stinging, bite" (a feminine noun), arguing that Arabic does not need or use any verb-form like is in the present tense, and that object forms like ('iyyā-)hā are never the main part of a predicate.

Al-Kisa'i argued instead for fa-'iḏā huwa 'iyyā-hā (فإذا هو إياها), literally "and-thus he [does] onto-her", supporting the object pronoun -hā ("her") with the particle 'iyyā-. The grammatical constructions of the debate may be compared to a similar point in the grammar of modern English: "it is she" vs. "it is her", which is still a point of some disagreement today.

To Sibawayh's dismay, al-Kisa'i soon ushered in four Bedouins who had "happened" to be waiting near the door.[24][25] Each testified that huwa 'iyyā-hā was the proper usage and so Sibawayh's was judged incorrect. After this, he left the court,[23] and was said to have returned in indignation to Shiraz where he died soon, apparently either from upset or illness.[9]

A student of Sibawayh's, al-Akhfash al-Asghar (Akhfash the Younger), is said to have challenged al-Kisa'i after his teacher's death asking him 100 questions on grammar, proving al-Kisa'i's answers wrong each time. When the student revealed who he was and what had happened, al-Kisa'i approached the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and requested punishment from him knowing he had had a share in "killing Sibawayh."[26]


Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz.

Sibawayh's Al-Kitab was the first formal and analytical Arabic grammar written by a non-native speaker of Arabic, i.e. as a foreign language. His application of logic to the structural mechanics of language was wholly innovative for its time. Both Sibawayh and his teacher al-Farahidi are historically the earliest and most significant figures in respect to the formal recording of the Arabic language.[27] Much of the impetus for this work came from the desire of non-Arab Muslims for correct interpretation of the Quran and the development of tafsir (Quranic exegesis); The poetic language of the Qur'an presents interpretative challenges even to the native Arabic speaker.[12] In Arabic, the final voiced vowel may occasionally be omitted, as in the Arabic pronunciation of the name Sibawayh where the name terminates as Sibuyeh. Discrepancies in pronunciation may occur where a text is read aloud (See harakat); these pronunciation variants pose particular issues for religious readings of Qur'anic scripture where correct pronunciation, or reading, of God's Word is sacrosanct.

Later scholars of Arabic grammar came to be compared to Sibawayh. The name Niftawayh, a combination of "nift", or asphalt - due to his dark complexion - and "wayh", was given to him out of his love of Sibawayh's works.[28] Abu Turab al-Zahiri was referred to as the Sibawayh of the modern era due to the fact that, although he was of Arab descent, Arabic was not his mother tongue.[29]


Al-Kitāb[n 2] or Kitāb Sībawayh ('Book of Sibawayh'), is the foundational grammar of the Arabic language, and perhaps the first Arabic prose text. Al-Nadim describes the voluminous work, reputedly the collaboration of forty-two grammarians,[14] as "unequaled before his time and unrivaled afterwards".[14] Sibawayh was the first to produce a comprehensive encyclopedic Arabic grammar, in which he sets down the principles rules of grammar, the grammatical categories with countless examples taken from Arabic sayings, verse and poetry, as transmitted by Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, his master and the famous author of the first Arabic dictionary, "Kitab al-'Ayn", and of many philological works on lexicography, diacritics, poetic meter (ʻarūḍ), cryptology, etc. Sibawayh's book came from flourishing literary, philological and tafsir (Quranic exegetical) tradition that centred in the schools of Basra, Kufa and later at the Abbasid caliphal seat of Baghdad.[30] Al-Farahidi is referenced throughout Al-Kitāb always in the third person, in phrases such as "I asked him", or "he said".[31][32] Sibawayh transmits quotes, mainly via Ibn Habib and al-Farahidi, of Abu ʻAmr ibn al-ʻAlāʼ 57 times, whom he never met.[33] Sibawayh quotes his teacher Harun ibn Musa just five times.[34]

Grammarians of BasraEdit

Probably due to Sibawayh's early death, "no one", al-Nadim records, "was known to have studied Al-Kitāb with Sibawayh," nor did he expound it as was the tradition. Sibawayh's associate and pupil, Al-Akhfash al-Akbar, or al-Akhfash al-Mujashi'i, a learned grammarian of Basra of the Banu Mujashi ibn Darim, transcribed Sibawayh's Al-Kitāb into manuscript form.[35][36][37][38] Al-Akhfash studied Al-Kitāb with a group of student and grammarian associates including Abu 'Umar al-Jarmi and Abu 'Uthman al-Mazini, who circulated Sibawayh's work,[35] and developed the science of grammar, writing many books of their own and commentaries, such as al-Jarmi's "(Commentary on) The Strange in Sibawayh". Of the next generation of grammarians, Al-Mubarrad developed the work of his masters and wrote an Introduction to Sibawayh, Thorough Searching (or Meaning) of "the Book" of Sibawayh, and Refutation of Sibawayh.[14] Al-Mubarrad is quoted as posing the question to anyone preparing to read the Book,

"Have you ridden through grammar, appreciating its vastness and meeting with the difficulties of its contents?"[14]

Al-Mabriman of al-'Askar Mukram and Abu Hashim debated educational approaches to the exposition of Al-Kitāb. Among Al-Mabriman's books of grammar was An Explanation of "the Book" of Sibawayh (incomplete). Al-Mubarrad's pupil and tutor to the children of the Caliph al-Mu'tadid, Ibn as-Sarī az-Zajjāj wrote a Commentary on the Verses of Sibawayh, focusing on Sibawayh's use of both pre- and post-Islamic poetry. Al-Zajjaj's pupil, Abu Bakr ibn al-Sarraj, also wrote a Commentary on Sibawayh. In an anecdote about Ibn al-Sarraj being reprimanded for an error, he is said to have replied "you have trained me, but I've been neglecting what I studied while reading this book (meaning Sibawayh's Al-Kitāb), because I've been diverted by logic and music, and now I'm going back to [Sibawayh and grammar]", after which he became the leading grammarian after al-Zajjaj, and wrote many books of scholarship. Ibn Durustuyah an associate and pupil of al-Mubarrad and Tha'lab wrote The Triumph of Sibawayh over All the Grammarians, comprising a number of sections but left unfinished. Al-Rummani also wrote a Commentary on Sibawayh. Al-Maraghi a pupil of al-Zajjaj, wrote "Exposition and Interpretation of the Arguments of Sibawayh".[14]


Al-Kitāb, comprising 5 volumes, is a long and highly analytic and comprehensive treatment of grammar and remains largely untranslated into English. Due to its great unwieldiness and complexity the later grammarians produced concise grammars in a simple descriptive format suitable for general readership and educational purposes.[12] Al-Kitāb categorizes grammar under subheadings, from syntax to morphology, and includes an appendix on phonetics.[39] Each chapter introduces a concept with its definition.[40] Arabic verbs may indicate three tenses (past, present, future) but take just two forms, defined as "past" (past tense) and "resembling" (present and future tenses).[41]

Sibawayh generally illustrates his statements and rules by quoting verses of poetry, grabbing material from a very wide range of sources, both old and contemporary, both urban and from the desert: his sources range from pre-Islamic Arabian poets, to later Bedouin poets, urban Umayyad-era poets, and even the less prestigious and more innovative rajaz poets of his time.[42]

Although a grammar book, Sibawayh extends his theme into phonology, standardised pronunciation of the alphabet and prohibited deviations.[30] He dispenses with the letter-groups classification of al-Farahidi's dictionary.[43] He introduces a discussion on the nature of morality of speech; that speech as a form of human behavior is governed by ethics, right and wrong, correct and incorrect.[44]

Many linguists and scholars highly esteem Al-Kitāb as the most comprehensive and oldest extant Arabic grammar. Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati, the most eminent grammarian of his era, memorized the entire Al-Kitāb, and equated its value to grammar as that of hadiths to Islamic law.[4]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Versteegh gives Sibawayh's birth-place as Hamadan[12] in Western Iran, however neither Ibn Nadim nor Ibn Khallikan, whose work seems based on the former's, mention his place of birth, and merely state he was Persian. Only Al-Zubaydī reports an akhbar (tradition) from Abū 'Alī al-Baghdadī that Sibawayh was born in a village near Shiraz.
  2. ^ Al-Nadim claims to have seen notes about grammar and language in Sibawayh's handwriting in the library of a book collector, Muhammad ibn al-Husayn (Abu Ba'rah), in the city of al-Hadithah - he may have been referring to a city near Mosul or a town on the Euphrates.


  1. ^ a b Zubaydī (al-) 1984, p. 66, §6 (#22).
  2. ^ Mit-Ejmes
  3. ^ a b c d e f Sībawayh, ʻAmr ibn ʻUthmān (1988), Hārūn, ʻAbd al-Salām Muḥammad (ed.), Al-Kitāb Kitāb Sībawayh Abī Bishr ʻAmr ibn ʻUthmān ibn Qanbar, vol. Introduction (3rd ed.), Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, pp. 7–12
  4. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. I, A-B, pg. 126. Eds. Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, J.H. Kramers, Évariste Lévi-Provençal and Joseph Schacht. Assisted by Bernard Lewis and Charles Pellat. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1979. Print edition.
  5. ^ Danner, V. (1986). "Arabic Language iv. Arabic literature in Iran". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. II, Fasc. 3. Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. pp. 237–243. Persians have been prominent as well in the fields of Arabic grammar, philology, and lexicography. The greatest name in Arabic grammar belongs to the Persian Sībawayh (Sībūya) Bayżāwī (fl. 180/796), whose work, al-Ketāb (The book), remains to the present day the most authoritative exposition of Arabic grammar.
  6. ^ Donner, F.M. (1988). "Basra". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 8. Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. pp. 851–855. Some of these cultural figures were of Iranian descent, including the early paragon of piety Ḥasan al-Baṣrī; Sebawayh, one of the founders of the study of Arabic grammar; the famed poets Baššār b. Bord and Abū Nowās; the Muʿtazilite theologian ʿAmr b. ʿObayd; the early Arabic prose stylist Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ; and probably some of the authors of the noted encyclopedia of the Eḵwān al-Ṣafāʾ.
  7. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 4. Part of the Landmarks in Linguistic Thought series, vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415157575
  8. ^ Michael G. Carter, Sibawayhi, pg. 8.
  9. ^ a b c Ibn Khallikan (1868). Ibn Khallikan's Biographical. Vol. 2. Translated by MacGuckin de Slane, William. London: W.H. Allen. p. 396.
  10. ^ Meri, Josef W. (January 2006). Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Routledge. p. 741. ISBN 978-0-415-96691-7. Of Persian origin, he attached himself in the middle of the second/eighth century to a number of early authorities on the Arabic language in Basra, notably al-Khalil ibn Ahmad and Yunus ibn Habib.
  11. ^ Jonathan Owens, Early Arabic Grammatical Theory: Heterogeneity and Standardization, pg. 8. Volume 53 of Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1990. ISBN 9789027245380
  12. ^ a b c Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 58. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. Paperback edition of the 1997 first edition. ISBN 9780748614363
  13. ^ Khallikan (Ibn) 1843, p. 397.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Dodge, Bayard, ed. (1970). The Fihrist of al-Nadim A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Vol. 1. Translated by Dodge, B. New York & London: Columbia University Press. pp. 111–114.
  15. ^ Versteegh, Kees (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition. London: Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 0-203-44415-9.
  16. ^ Durayd (1854), Wüstenfeld, Ferdinand; Gottingen, Dieterich (eds.), Kitab al-Ishtiqaq (Ibn Doreid's genealogisch-etymologisches Handbuch), pp. 155, 237
  17. ^ 'Abd al-Salam Muh. Harun, ed. (1958), Kitab al-Ishtiqaq (New edition), Cairo: Al-Khanji
  18. ^ Smarandache, Florentin; Osman, Salah (2007). Neutrosophy in Arabic Philosophy. Ann Arbor, Michigan: American Research Press. p. 83. ISBN 9781931233132.
  19. ^ Aryeh Levin, "Sibawayh." Taken from History of language sciences: an international handbook on the evolution of the study of language from the beginnings to the present, pg. 252. Ed. Sylvain Auroux. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000. ISBN 9783110111033
  20. ^ Francis Joseph Steingass, The Assemblies of Al Harîri: The first twenty-six assemblies, pg. 498. Volume 3 of Oriental translation fund. Trns. Thomas Chenery. Williams and Norgate, 1867.
  21. ^ Touati, Houari; Cochrane, Lydia G. (2010). Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-226-80877-2.
  22. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, p. 64 in first ed., p. 72 in second ed.
  23. ^ a b Carter, Michael G. (2004). Sibawayhi. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 13. ISBN 1850436711.
  24. '^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, p. 64 in first ed. (1997) or 72 in second ed. (2014), citing Ibn al-'Anbārī's Insāf, pp. 292-5 in Weil's edition of 1913.
  25. ^ Rosenthal, Franz (1952). A History of Muslim Historiography. Leiden: Brill Archive. p. 245.
  26. ^ al-Qāsim Ibn-ʻAlī al- Ḥarīrī, The Assemblies of Al Ḥarîri: 1: containing the first 26 assemblies, vol. 1, p. 499. Trns. Thomas Chenery. Williams and Norgate, 1867.
  27. ^ Toufic Fahd, "Botany and agriculture." Taken from Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Volume 3: Technology, Alchemy and Life Sciences, pg. 814. Ed. Roshdi Rasheed. London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415124123
  28. ^ Bencheikh, Omar. Nifṭawayh. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Accessed 1 January 2013.
  29. ^ Abu Turab al-Zahiri...Sibawayh of the Era. Al Jazirah, Monday, 27 October 2003.
  30. ^ a b Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 55.
  31. ^ Introduction to Early Medieval Arabic: Studies on Al-Khalīl Ibn Ahmad, pg. 3. Ed. Karin C. Ryding. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780878406630
  32. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 25.
  33. ^ Michael G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 19. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  34. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Grammar and Qurʼānic Exegesis in Early Islam, pg. 161. Volume 19 of Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1993. ISBN 9789004098459
  35. ^ a b Khalil I. Semaan, Linguistics in the Middle Ages: Phonetic Studies in Early Islam, pg. 39. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1968.
  36. ^ Monique Bernards, "Pioneers of Arabic linguistic studies." Taken from In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture, pg. 215. Ed. Bilal Orfali. Volume 63 in the series "Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics." Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011. ISBN 9789004215375
  37. ^ Qutaybah, Abu Muh. 'Abd Allah (1850), Wustenfeld, Ferdinand (ed.), Kitab al-Ma'arif (Ibn Coteiba's Handbuch de Geschichte), Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, pp. 36 l. 19, 37 l.17
  38. ^ Qutaybah, Abu Muh. 'Abd Allah (1960), Wustenfeld, Ferdinand (ed.), Kitab al-Ma'arif (Ibn Coteiba's Handbuch de Geschichte - New edition, Cairo: 'Tharwat 'Ukashah
  39. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (1997), pg. 74.
  40. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (1997), pg. 77.
  41. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (1997), pg. 84.
  42. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, page 65 in first ed. (1997), page 73 in second ed (2014).
  43. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (1997), pg. 88.
  44. ^ Yasir Suleiman, "Ideology, grammar-making and standardization." Taken from In the Shadow or Arabic, pg. 10.


  • Dodge, Bayard, ed. (1970), The Fihrist of al-Nadim A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture, vol. 2, translated by Dodge, B, New York & London: Columbia University Press
  • Brustad, Kristen, 'The Iconic Síbawayh', in Essays in Islamic Phililogy, History, and Philosophy, ed. by Alireza Korangy and others, Studies in the History and Culture of the Middle East, 31 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 141–65 ISBN 9783110313727
  • Carter, Michael G., Síbawayhi (London: Tauris, 2004)
  • Khallikan (Ibn) (1843), Ibn Khallikan's Biographical, vol. 2, translated by MacGuckin de Slane, William, London: W.H. Allen, pp. 396–9
  • de Sacy, Silvestre. Anthologie grammaticale arabe. Paris 1829.
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  • Owens, J. The Foundations of Grammar: An introduction to Medieval Arabic Grammatical Theory. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company 1988. ISBN 90-272-4528-2.
  • Al-Nassir, A.A. Sibawayh the Phonologist.London and New York: Keegan Paul International 1993. ISBN 0-7103-0356-4.
  • Edzard, L. "Sibawayhi's Observations on Assimilatory Processes and Re-Syllabification in the Light of Optimality Theory", in: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, vol. 3 (2000), pp. 48–65. (PDF version - No longer available; HTML version; HTML Unicode version)
  • Zubaydī (al-), Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan (1984) [1954]. "§6 (#22)". In Ibrāhīm, Muḥammad (ed.). Ṭabaqāt al-Naḥwīyīn wa-al-Lughawīyīn (in Arabic). Cairo: Al-Khanjī. pp. 66–72.

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