Arabic has 3 types of words; Intro to Conjunctions & “al”

Words in Arabic were originally divided into three types. The classification is attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib who told his student Abul-Aswad al-Du’ali that he had pondered Arabic and found it all to either be a name, action, or harf.

Verbs/Actions [فِعْل/ أَفْعال] 

A verb is “an action confined to a specific time period.

Nearly all Arabic words, even the nouns, have a verbal origin and meaning, and are thus derived from verbs. For example, the word for pen “قَلَم” has a verbal origin mentioned in the Prophet’s sunnah “قَلَّمَ الأَظْفار” which means “he clipped the nails.”

Arabic verbs have 3 tenses:

  • Past, which is sometimes called “perfect” because the action has been completed
  • Present/Future, frequently called “imperfect” because the action is still ongoing
  • Command or imperative, while some do not consider this a “tense”.

Verbs have a limited scope of structures making them easy to identify. With each lesson, we’ll learn more about how they are formed and thus, how to recognize them. Verbs never have a closed taa’ ة nor do they ever have a tanween ًٌٍ.[1]

 

Nouns [اِسْم/ أَسْماء]

In addition to people, places and things, the Arabic ism includes adjectives, verbal nouns, as well as some particle-like words, as we’ll come to learn.

Adjectives in the Quran:

{إِنَّ اللَّـهَ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ} ﴿١٩٩﴾ سورة آل عمران

Truly, Allah is Fast in reckoning” [3:199]

{اللَّـهُ لَطِيفٌ بِعِبَادِهِ} ﴿١٩﴾ سورة الشورى

Allah is Kind to His worshippers,…” [42:19]

People in the Quran:

{أَكَانَ لِلنَّاسِ عَجَبًا أَنْ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ رَجُلٍ مِّنْهُمْ} ﴿٢﴾ سورة يونس

Was it astonishing to the people that We have Revealed to a man from them?” [10:2]

Places in the Quran:

{وَإِلَىٰ مَدْيَنَ أَخَاهُمْ شُعَيْبًا ۗ} ﴿٨٥﴾ سورة الأعراف

And to Madyan, their brother, Shu’aib” [7:85]

Things in the Quran:

{قُل لَّا يَعْلَمُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ الْغَيْبَ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۚ } ﴿٦٥﴾ سورة النمل

Say: None knows what is in the heavens and the earth’s unseen except Allah.” [27:65]

{قَالَ لَوْ أَنَّ لِي بِكُمْ قُوَّةً} ﴿٨٠﴾ سورة هود

He said: if I had strength to overpower you…” [11:80]

{وَيُؤَخِّرْكُمْ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى ۚ} ﴿٤﴾ سورة نوح

And He will give you respite until an appointed term.” [71:4]

 

Particles [حَرْف/ حُرُوْف]

When the Arabic word “ḥarf” is used to refer to the part of speech, the plural is ḥuroof. This word may also mean alphabetical letter, whose plural is sometimes [أَحْرُف]. The word also appears in the Qur’an with its etymological root meaning, which is “cliff edge”,

{وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَعْبُدُ اللَّـهَ عَلَىٰ حَرْفٍ ۖ } ﴿١١﴾ سورة الحج

And among mankind is he who worships Allah upon an edge (i.e. in doubt)…” [22:11]

Letters may be named ḥarf because they represent just an edge or tip of a word.

Arabic particles include prepositions, words for emphasis, conjunctions, negation, condition, connection, response, interrogation, and more as we’ll come to learn. Some of them are written in the beginning, middle or end of a sentence while others must be connected to a verb or noun. While all particles add meaning to the sentence, some directly change the tense of a verb or noun following it.

Generally, Arabic particles do not have a 3-letter root. Also, unique to particles is that they do not have any “inflexion”. Their final vowel mark never indicates its meaning in relation to the rest of the words. Rather, its presence by itself is what adds meaning to the words before and or after them. They tie meanings together, but are not meaningful subjects that could stand alone.

To begin learning Arabic grammar, consider the two most common particles in all of Arabic: conjunctions and the “definite article”.

Arabic Conjunctions [حُرُوف العَطْف]

Some of the most oft-used conjunctions in the Quran and outside the Quran

And” – used in Arabic in all the ways we used the English “and” wa [وَ] – always attached to the next word, never written with a space after it, unlike the English “and”.
then”, immediately succeeding, right along with; happening in response fa [فَ] – also, never written alone
then/later” eventually succeeding Thumma [ثُمَّ] – generally written as a separate word

 

{كَيْفَ تَكْفُرُونَ بِاللَّـهِ وَكُنتُمْ أَمْوَاتًا فَأَحْيَاكُمْ ۖ ثُمَّ يُمِيتُكُمْ ثُمَّ يُحْيِيكُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ} ﴿٢٨﴾ سورة البقرة

How can you disbelieve in Allah, and you were dead then [as if immediately after] He gave you life. Then He will give you death, then again will bring you to life then to Him you will return.” [2:28]

What’s fascinating to note is that fa and thumma always tell the reader that chronology and order are meant.

Also, from the conjunctive particles is the word that means “or” in Arabic: أَوْ

{أَوْ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ أَوْ فِي الْأَرْضِ} ﴿١٦﴾ سورة لقمان

 “…Or in the heaves or on earth…” [31:16]

 

The Definite Article [“ال” التعريف]

Lastly, is the definite article, “al” [ال] which may only be attached to nouns, and always removes the tanween, and makes the noun “definite” as if we’re talking about a specific version of it. The word for specific in Arabic grammar is (المَعْرِفة) while unknown or nonspecific and indefinite is (النَّكِرة). An easy way to remember those two is that they share roots with the common phrase al-amr bil-ma`roof wa al-nahi `an al-munkar. Ma’roof, like ma’rifah means something that’s known, whereas munkar and nakirah are unknown.

Definite

(specific known)

Indefinite

(any non-specific)

المَعْرِفة

النَّكِرة

الكِتابُ

كِتابٌ
الكِتابَ

كِتاباً

When we attach this definite article to a word, not only does the meaning change, but it undergoes another change in appearance and pronunciation. Look at the word “Kitaab” in the following 3 aayaat. What do they all have in common?

Can you spot the differences in script and meaning?

Without the definite particle

Translation

With the definite article Translation
{وَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمْ كِتَابٌ} And when a Book came to them… {ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رَيْبَ ۛ فِيهِ} This is The Book wherein no doubts lie
{أَمْ آتَيْنَاهُمْ كِتَابًا} Or have We given them a book… {اللَّـهُ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ الْكِتَابَ} Allah is the one who sent down The Book
{فِي كِتَابٍ مُّبِينٍ} …in a Clear Book… {وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ} Recall from The Book

 

If you noticed that the tanween was absent, and the translation went from “a” to “the” then that’s it! Those same two rules are in effect whenever the specifying al is attached to any noun.

A final important point to note about “al” that is especially beneficial to those learning Arabic without the background, is that big concepts are generally given “al” in front of them, even if we wouldn’t translate them with “the”. For example, al-jabr which refers to algebra, an al-ikhlaas, and al-taqwaa (الجَبْر الإِخْلاص، والتَّقْوى). A lot of beginners, when they compose a phrase or sentence with ikhlaas/sincerity for example and want to say it in Arabic, they simply say “إخلاص” but that would be a mistake, unless there is a specifically grammatical reason preventing us from adding the “al” to it. Otherwise, if we are talking about a concept, we would generally make it definite. Hence, a lot of book titles in Arabic that simply discuss a single concept would be translated as such, without “the”. For example, a book called “القانون” would likely be translated as “Law” and not “The Law”. As long as it cannot be an non-specific “a law”, then we would generally write concepts like that with the “al” for definitiveness, even if it would be awkward to add “the” for it in English.

[1] There are a couple examples in the Quran where the scribes of the Prophet ﷺ were instructed to put a tanween onto a verb, and thus, mushafs today are written with the tanween in those two aayahs. However, in normal Arabic writing, this would not be the case. The Quran has a few exceptions to the rules of writing.

About Chris
Chris, aka AbdulHaqq, is from central Illinois and accepted Islam in 2001 at age 17. He studied Arabic and Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia from 2007-13 and most recently earned a master's in Islamic Law from Malaysia. He is married with children.

1 Comments

  1. Jazakhallah khair. This is very helpful.

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