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Entrance to Sibawayh's tomb
Bornc. 760, Hamadan, Persia[1]
Diedc. 796,[2] Shiraz, Persia
EraMedieval philosophy
RegionIslamic philosophy
Main interests
Persian and Arabic

Abū Bishr ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān ibn Qanbar Al-Baṣrī (c. 760–796, Arabic: أبو بشر عمرو بن عثمان بن قنبر البصري‎), known as Sībawayh or Sībawayhi[4] (سيبويه, pronounced Sibuyah in Persian, and Sībawayh in the Arabic tradition) was Persian,[5][6] a leading grammarian of Basra and author of Arabic linguistics. His famous unnamed work, referred to as Al-Kitāb, or "The Book", (in five volumes) is a seminal encyclopedic grammar of the Arabic language.[7]

Ibn Qutaybah, the earliest extant source, in his biographical entry under Sibawayhi has simply:

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

The biographers, Ibn al-Nadim of the 10th century and Ibn Khallikan of the 13th, attribute Sibawayh with contributions to the science of language (i.e. Arabic language and linguistics) unsurpassed by those of former and latter 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 ca. 760 CE, Sibawayh was from Hamadan in western Iran.[1] He went first to Basra, then to Baghdad, and finally back to Shiraz, in Fars Province Iran, where he died between 793 and 796 CE.[12][9] His Persian nickname Sibuyah (Arabized as Sībawayh) - "odour of apples" - reportedly refers to his "sweet breath."[13] A protégé of the Banu Harith b. Ka'b b. 'Amr b. 'Ulah b. Khalid b. Malik b. Udad,[14][15] 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.[12] He was a student of the two eminent grammarians Yunus ibn Habib and Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, to whom, the latter, he was most indebted.[16][17][18].


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

Rival schools of Basra and Kufa[edit]

This is a story about the debate held by the Abbasid vizier Yahya ibn Khalid of Baghdad on the standard Arabic usage, between Sibawayh, representing the Basra school, and al-Kisa'i, one of the canonical Quran readers and the leading figure in the rival school of Kufa.[19] It became known as al-Mas'ala al-Zunburīyah ("The Question of the Hornet").

Involved was the translation of the sentence: "I have always thought that the scorpion was more painful in stinging than the hornet, and sure enough it is."[20] At issue was the form of the last word in the Arabic sentence.

Sibawayh proposed fa-'idhā huwa hiya (فإذا هو هي), literally "sure-enough he she",[21] meaning "sure-enough he (the scorpion, masc.) is she (the most painful one, fem.)"; Arabic does not need or use any verb-form like is in such situations.

Al-Kisa'i argued instead for fa-'idhā huwa 'iyyaha (فإذا هو إياها), literally "sure-enough he her", meaning "he is her".[a]

Sibawayh justified his position on theoretical grammatical grounds, arguing that the accusative form could never be predicate. To his dismay, however, al-Kisa'i ushered in four Bedouins who had 'happened' to be waiting by the door. In fact al-Kisa'i had bribed them earlier.[20][22] Each testified that huwa 'iyyaha was the proper usage and Sibawayh's was judged to be incorrect. At this he left the court[21] and was said to have returned in indignation to Shīrāz and died there, apparently either from upset or illness.[9]

A student of Sibawayh's, Al-Akhfash al-Asghar (Akhfash The Younger), accosted al-Kisa'i after his teacher's death and asked him 100 grammatical questions, 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 that he be punished for having a share in "killing Sibawayh."[23]


Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz.

Sibawayh's Arabic grammar was the first formal text on and first 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.[24] 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. [1] 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.[25] 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.[26]

Textual transmission of al-Kitab[edit]

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. The Book itself, comprised several volumes and was the collaborative effort of forty-two grammarians.[12] And although Sibawayh was among its authors, the principles and subjects were those of his teacher, Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi. At any rate, the book called al-Kitab al-Sibawayh (Book of Sibawayh), is described by Al-Nadim as "unequaled before his time and unrivaled afterwards".[12] Farahidi had produced many philological works including the famous dictionary, "Kitab al-'Ayn", books on lexicography, diacritics, poetic meter (ʻarūḍ), cryptology, etc, and Sibawayh's book came from tradition of literary and philological scholarship, however his "Kitab" lays claim to be the first Arabic grammar[27] and perhaps the first Arabic prose text.

Throughout Al-Kitab where the phrase "I asked him", or "he said", is used without naming the person referred to, the reference is to al-Farahidi.[28][29] Sibawayh and Abu ʻAmr ibn al-ʻAlāʼ were said to have never met, however Abu 'Amr is quoted 57 times in the Kitab, mainly by transmission via Ibn Habib and al-Farahidi.[30] Sibawayh was reputedly also a student of Harun ibn Musa, although he is quoted just five times.[31]

Grammarians of Basra[edit]

Al-Nadim records "no one was known to have studied the Book with Sibawayh," and nor did Sibawayh expound it as was the tradition.

Upon his early death, 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 Kitab into manuscript form.[32] [33][34][35] Al-Akhfash studied the Book together with a group of grammarians including Abu 'Umar al-Jarmi and Abu 'Uthman al-Mazini. These student and grammarian associates were responsible for circulating Sibawayh's work[32] and they developed the science of grammar, writing many books of their own. Al-Jarmi wrote a "(Commentary on) The Strange in Sibawayh". The subsequent generation of grammarians included Al-Mubarrad, who developed the work of his masters. Among his writings were "Introduction to Sibawayh", "Thorough Searching (or Meaning) of the Book of Sibawayh" and "Refutation of Sibawayh".[12] 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?"[12]

Al-Mabriman of al-'Askar Mukram and Abu Hashim debated educational approaches to the exposition of Sibawayh's Book. Among Al-Mabriman's books of grammar was "An Explanation of the Book of Sibawayh" (uncompleted). Al-Sari al-Zajjaj was a pupil of al-Mubarrad and tutor to the children of the Caliph al-Mu'tadid. Among his books was a "Commentary on the Verses of Sibawayh". One anecdote told of al-Zajjaj's pupil, Abu Bakr ibn al-Sarraj, who also wrote a "Commentary on Sibawayh", was of an occasion where al-Sarraj was reprimanded for an error, replied "you have trained me, but I've been neglecting what I studied while reading this book (meaning the Book of Sibawayh) - because I've been diverted by logic and music, and now I'm going back to [Sibawayh and grammar]". And so 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" - this comprised a number of sections but was unfinished. Al-Rummani wrote a "Commentary on Sibawayh". Al-Maraghi a pupil of al-Zajjaj, wrote "Exposition and Interpretation of the Arguments of Sibawayh".[12]


The Kitab, comprising 5 volumes, is a huge highly analytic and comprehensive encyclopedia 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.[1] The Kitab categorizes grammar under subheadings, from syntax to morphology, and includes an appendix on phonetics .[36] Each chapter introduces a concept with its definition.[37] 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).[38]

Sibawayh generally illustrates his statements and rules by quoting verses of poetry; mainy from the Pre-Islamic Arabian and Bedouin poets and some from the early Umayyad Caliphate era.[39]

Although a grammar book, Sibawayh extends his theme into phonology, standardised pronunciation of the alphabet and prohibited deviations.[27] He dispenses with the letter-groups classification of al-Farahidi's dictionary.[40] 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.[41] Many linguists and scholars highly esteem Al-Kitab as the most comprehensive and oldest extant Arabic grammar. Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati, the premier grammarian of his era, memorized the entire Al-Kitab, equated its value to grammar as the Hadith - the recorded statements of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, is to Islamic law.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The difference has been compared to that in English between, for example, It is she and It is her, still a point of contention today.


  1. ^ a b c d Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 58. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. Paperback edition. ISBN 9780748614363
  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, Introduction (3rd ed.), Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, pp. 7–12
  4. ^ So spelled in the Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd edition (Brill).
  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. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayhi, pg. 8.
  9. ^ a b c Ibn Khallikan (1868). Ibn Khallikan's Biographical. 2. Translated by MacGuckin de Slane, William. London: W.H. Allen. p. 396.
  10. ^ Meri, Josef W. (January 2006). Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia. 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 d e f g Dodge, Bayard, ed. (1970). The Fihrist of al-Nadim A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture. 1. Translated by Dodge, B. New York & London: Columbia University Press. pp. 111–114.
  13. ^ Versteegh, Kees (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition. London: Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 0-203-44415-9.
  14. ^ Durayd (1854), Wüstenfeld, Ferdinand; Gottingen, Dieterich (eds.), Kitab al-Ishtiqaq (Ibn Doreid's genealogisch-etymologisches Handbuch), pp. 155, 237
  15. ^ 'Abd al-Salam Muh. Harun, ed. (1958), Kitab al-Ishtiqaq (New edition), Cairo: Al-Khanji
  16. ^ Smarandache, Florentin; Osman, Salah (2007). Neutrosophy in Arabic Philosophy. Ann Arbor, Michigan: American Research Press. p. 83. ISBN 9781931233132.
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Touati, Houari; Cochrane, Lydia G. (2010). Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-226-80877-7.
  20. ^ a b Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 64.
  21. ^ a b Carter, M.G. (2004). Sibawayhi. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 13. ISBN 1850436711.
  22. ^ Rosenthal, Franz (1952). A History of Muslim Historiography. Leiden: Brill Archive. p. 245.
  23. ^ al-Qāsim Ibn-ʻAlī al- Ḥarīrī, The Assemblies of Al Ḥarîri: 1: containing the first 26 assemblies, vol. 1, pg. 499. Trns. Thomas Chenery. Williams and Norgate, 1867.
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Bencheikh, Omar. Nifṭawayh. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Accessed 1 January 2013.
  26. ^ Abu Turab al-Zahiri...Sibawayh of the Era. Al Jazirah, Monday, 27 October 2003.
  27. ^ a b Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 55.
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 25.
  30. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 19. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  31. ^ 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
  32. ^ a b Khalil I. Semaan, Linguistics in the Middle Ages: Phonetic Studies in Early Islam, pg. 39. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1968.
  33. ^ 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
  34. ^ 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
  35. ^ Qutaybah, Abu Muh. 'Abd Allah (1960), Wustenfeld, Ferdinand (ed.), Kitab al-Ma'arif (Ibn Coteiba's Handbuch de Geschichte - New edition, Cairo: 'Tharwat 'Ukashah
  36. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 74.
  37. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 77.
  38. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 84.
  39. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 65.
  40. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 88.
  41. ^ Yasir Suleiman, "Ideology, grammar-making and standardization." Taken from In the Shadow or Arabic, pg. 10.
  42. ^ 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.


  • Dodge, Bayard, ed. (1970), The Fihrist of al-Nadim A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture, 2, translated by Dodge, B, New York & London: Columbia University Press
  • Ibn Khallikan (1868), Ibn Khallikan's Biographical, 2, translated by MacGuckin de Slane, William, London: W.H. Allen, p. 396
  • de Sacy, Silvestre. Anthologie grammaticale arabe. Paris 1829.
  • Derenbourg, H. (ed.) Le livre de Sibawaihi. 2 vols. Paris 1881-1889. [reprinted: New York: Hildesheim 1970].
  • Jahn, Gustav. Sībawaihis Buch über die Grammatik übersetzt und erklärt. Berlin 1895-1900. [reprinted: Hildesheim 1969].
  • Schaade, A. Sībawaihi’s Lautlehre. Leiden 1911.
  • ʻAbd al-Salām Hārūn, M. (ed.) Kitāb Sibawayhi. 5 vols. Cairo 1966-1977.
  • 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)

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