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'Al-Asma'i or Asma`i, scientific: ʿAbd al-Malik b. Quraib al-Aṣmaʿī (c. 740-828) (Arabic: ‏أبو سعيد عبد الملك ابن قريب الأصمعي‎) was an Arab scholar and anthologist, one of the earliest Arabic lexicographers and one of the three leaders of the Basra school of Arabic grammar.[1][2][3][4]

He was also a pioneer of natural science and zoology.[5] He is considered as the first Muslim scientist to study animals in detail. He wrote many works such as: Kitab al-Khail (The Book of the Horse), Kitab al-Ibil (The Book of the Camel), Kitab al-Farq (The Book of Rare Animals), Kitab al-Wuhush (The Book of Wild Animals), Kitab al-Sha (The Book of the Sheep) and Kitab Khalaq al-Insan (The Book of Humanity). He also provides detailed information on human anatomy.


He was born in Basra and was a pupil there of Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi and Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala',[2] as well as a contemporary of Abu 'Ubaida and Sibawayhi.[6][7] He seems to have been a poor man until by the influence of the governor of Basra he was brought to the notice of Harun al-Rashid, who enjoyed his conversation at court and made him tutor of his sons Al-Amin and Al-Ma'mun.[2][7] Al-Rashid, who suffered from insomnia, once held an all-night discussion with al-Asma'i on pre-Islamic and early Arabic poetry.[8] Al-Asma'i proved popular with the influential Barmakid viziers as well.[3] He became wealthy and acquired property in Basra, where he again settled for a time; but returned later to Baghdad, where he died in 828.

Al-Asma'i was also a student of language and a critic, his book Fuhulat having been one of the first works of Arabic literary criticism.[9] It was as a critic that he was the great rival of Abu 'Ubaida. Whereas the latter, a member of the Shu'ubiyya movement, esteemed non-Arabic (chiefly Persian) culture, al-Asma'i believed in the superiority of the Arabs over all peoples, and of the freedom of their language and literature from all foreign influence. Some of his scholars attained high rank as literary men. Due to his intense interest in cataloging the Arabic language, he spent a period of time roaming the desert with Bedouin tribes in order to observe their speech patterns.[6]

In one incident recounted by numerous historians, the Caliph al-Rashid brought forth a horse and asked both al-Asma'i and Abu 'Ubaida (who had also written extensively about zoology) to identify the correct terms for each part of the horse's anatomy. Abu 'Ubaida excused himself from the challenge, saying that he was a linguist and anthologist rather than a veterinarian; al-Asma'i then leaped onto the horse, identified every part of its body and gave examples from Bedouin Arab poetry establishing the terms as proper Arabic vocabulary.[5]


Of Asma'i's many works mentioned in the catalogue known as the Fihrist, only about half a dozen are extant. These include the Book of Distinction, the Book of the Wild Animals, the Book of the Horse, and the Book of the Sheep. Most existing collections of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry were compiled by al-Asma'i's students based on the principles he taught.[3]

He also authored a botanical work, Plants and Trees, in which he names 276 plants, many of which are collective designiations. He also names all the plants which grow in the different parts of the Arabian Peninsula.[10]

His biography has been collected by Ibn Khallikan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kees Versteegh, Greek Elements in Arabic Linguistic Thinking, pg. 110. Volume 7 of Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1977. ISBN 9789004048553
  2. ^ a b c al-Aṣmaʿī, Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  3. ^ a b c "Asma i, al-" in Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature, pg. 78. Merriam-Webster, 1995. ISBN 9780877790426
  4. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 25. Part of Landmarks in Linguistic Thought series, vol. 3. New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415157575
  5. ^ a b Housni Alkhateeb Shehada, Mamluks and Animals: Veterinary Medicine in Medieval Islam, pg. 132. Volume 11 of Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9789004234055
  6. ^ a b Anwar G. Chejne, The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, pg. 43. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. ISBN 9780816657254
  7. ^ a b M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 22. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  8. ^ Wen-chin Ouyang, Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition, pg. 81. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780748608973
  9. ^ G. J. H. Van Gelder, Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, pg. 2. Volume 8 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1982. ISBN 9789004068544
  10. ^ 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