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Entrance to Sibawayh's tomb
Born c. 760, Hamadan, Persia[1]
Died c. 796,[2] Shiraz, Persia
Era Medieval philosophy
Region Islamic philosophy
Main interests
Persian and Arabic

Abū Bishr ʻAmr ibn ʻUthmān ibn Qanbar Al-Baṣrī (c. 760–796, Arabic: أبو بشر عمرو بن عثمان بن قنبر البصري‎), commonly known as Sībawayh or Sībawayhi[4] (سيبويه, an Arabized form or rather misreading of the Middle Persian name Sēbōē, modern pronunciation Sēbōya or Sībūye) was a Persian linguist and grammarian of Arabic language. His seminal work, Al-Kitāb, was the first written grammar of the language.[5] Despite his significance to the development of the Arabic language and linguistic tradition, Sibawayh was an ethnic Persian[6] and was not a native speaker of Arabic, having learned the language later in life. He has been referred to as the greatest of all Arabic linguists and one of the greatest linguists of all time in any language.[7]


He was of Persian origin, born ca. 760 in Hamadan (modern day Iran).[1]

Sibawayh was a student of Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi and Yunus ibn Habib,[8][9][10] two eminent grammarians. Whenever Sibawayh used the phrase "I asked him" or "he said" without mentioning a name, he was referring to al-Farahidi.[11][12] While he never met Abu ʻAmr ibn al-ʻAlāʼ, he quoted from him 57 times in the Kitab, mainly by transmission via Ibn Habib and al-Farahidi.[13] Sibawayh was also a student of Harun ibn Musa, though he quoted the latter only five times in the Kitab.[14]

He died in Shiraz, Fars, around AH 180 (796/797).[citation needed]


In Baghdad, the Abbasid vizier Yahya ibn Khalid held a debate on 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.[15]

The incident became known as al-Mas'ala al-Zunburīyah, "The Question of the Hornet," because one of the sentences involved translates as "I have always thought that the scorpion was more painful in stinging than the hornet, and sure enough it is."[16] At issue was the form of the last word in the Arabic sentence. Sibawayh proposed fa-'ida huwa hiya (فإذا هو هي), literally "sure-enough he she",[17] 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-'ida 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 an accusative form cannot be a predicate, but to his dismay, al-Kisa'i ushered in four Bedouins who were pretending to have just happened to be waiting at the door; al-Kisa'i had bribed them to support his answer prior to the debate.[16][18] All of them testified that huwa 'iyyaha was the way they always said it and therefore Sibawayh was wrong. Sibawayh thus left the court.[17]


According to some accounts, Sibawayh returned to Shīrāz after the famous debate and died of anger at the result of the hornet debate; others blame simple illness. In any case the incident became famous. Ibn Qutaybah, the earliest extant source, in his biographical entry under Sibawayhi has simply:

He is ʻAmr ibn ʻUthman, 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.[19]

Upon his untimely death, Al-Akhfash al-Akbar, one of his teachers, transcribed Sibawayh's infamous Kitab into manuscript form.[20] While Sibawayh had also studied under Yunus ibn Habib and was most indebted to Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, al-Akhfash was responsible for circulating Sibawayh's work among students of Arabic grammar.[20][21] Al-Akhfash al-Asghar, another one of Sibawayh's students, accosted al-Kisa'i after his teacher's death and asked him 100 grammatical questions, proving al-Kisa'i's answers wrong every single 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."[22]


Sibawayh's tomb in Shiraz.

Sibawayh, a non-Arab, was the first to write on Arabic grammar and in passing the first one to explain Arabic grammar from a non-Arab perspective. 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.[23] Much of the impetus for this work came from the desire for non-Arab Muslims to understand the Quran properly and thoroughly; the Qur'an, which is composed in a poetic language that even native Arabic speakers must study with great care in order to comprehend thoroughly, is even more difficult for those who, like Sibawayh,[1] did not grow up speaking Arabic. Additionally, because Arabic does not necessarily mark all pronounced vowel sounds, as the erroneous Arab misreading Sibawayh for what should have been pronounced Sibuyeh illustrates, it is possible to misread a text aloud (See harakat); such difficulty was particularly troublesome for Muslims, who regard the Qur'an as the literal word of God to man and as such should never be mispronounced or misread.

Since Sibawayh's death, subsequent scholars of Arabic grammar are often compared to him. Niftawayh received his name as a combination of "nift", or asphalt due to his dark complexion, and "wayh" because of his love for Sibawayh's works.[24] 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, the Arabic language was not his mother tongue.[25]


Sibawayh's al-Kitab was the first book on Arabic grammar ever written.[26] The Kitab was likely the first published book in Arabic in the form of prose rather than poetry, and it set the standard of explaining rather than merely describing grammar that all subsequent grammarians of Arabic have followed.[1] The formula begins with syntax and then finishes with morphology, with phonetics included as an appendix.[27] Each chapter started with the definitions of the new concepts which were to be introduced.[28] Sibawayh defined Arabic verbs as belonging to either three tenses (past, present, future) but being represented by only two forms, which he defined as "past" for the past tense and "resembling" for the present and future tenses.[29]

Sibawayh would most often support his claims and points with verses from Arabic poetry. While a great deal of the quotes were from the poems of Pre-Islamic Arabia and the Bedouins, he would also quote poets up into the era of the early Umayyad Caliphate.[30]

While predominantly a book of grammar, Sibawayh did touch on the topic of Arabic phonology, prohibiting deviations from the standard pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet.[26] He even disagrees with al-Farahidi, one of his teachers and the author of the first Arabic dictionary (Kitab al-'Ayn), contradicting the latter's classification of Arabic letters into groups.[31] He also touched on the topic of ethics. In Sibawayh's view, speech was like all other human behaviors and was thus governed by right and wrong; correct and incorrect grammatical forms were described by him with the same terms of "right" and "wrong" used in morality.[32]

Al-Kitab is held in high esteem by linguists as the earliest written source on Arabic grammar, as well as a very long, detailed one. Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati, who was undisputed as the premier grammarian of his era, memorized Al-Kitab by heart from front to back, considering it as significant to grammar as Hadith, or the recorded statements of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, are to Islamic law.[33]

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. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 4. Part of the Landmarks in Linguistic Thought series, vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415157575
  6. ^ Meri, Josef W. (January 2006). Medieval Islamic Civilization, Volume 1 An Encyclopedia. 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. 
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ Florentin Smarandache and Salah Osman, Neutrosophy in Arabic Philosophy, pg. 83. Ann Arbor: American Research Press, 2007. ISBN 9781931233132
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 25.
  13. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 19. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ Touati, Houari; Cochrane, Lydia G. (2010). Islam and Travel in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-226-80877-7. 
  16. ^ a b Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 64.
  17. ^ a b M.G. Carter, Sibawayhi, pg. 13. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 1850436711
  18. ^ Franz Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography, pg. 245. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1952.
  19. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayhi, pg. 8.
  20. ^ a b Khalil I. Semaan, Linguistics in the Middle Ages: Phonetic Studies in Early Islam, pg. 39. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1968.
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Bencheikh, Omar. Nifṭawayh. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. Accessed 1 January 2013.
  25. ^ Abu Turab al-Zahiri...Sibawayh of the Era. Al Jazirah, Monday, 27 October 2003.
  26. ^ a b Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 55.
  27. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 74.
  28. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 77.
  29. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 84.
  30. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 65.
  31. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 88.
  32. ^ Yasir Suleiman, "Ideology, grammar-making and standardization." Taken from In the Shadow or Arabic, pg. 10.
  33. ^ 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.


  • 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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