Arabic Grammar – Between Nahw and Iraab

Arabic grammar consists of two main fields:

  1. Nahu/nahw النَّحْو which is syntax. Syntax is “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.”

 

  1. Sarf الصَّرْف or word morphology, “the study of the forms of words.”

 

As a note, syntax is usually what we study for how to form proper speech, whether written or spoken. There’s another word for dissecting proper speech, or “backwards syntax”, and that is parsing, which is called i’3raab [الإِعْراب] in Arabic, and is learning the “inflection” of the word. Inflection is “a change in the form of a word (typically the ending) to express a grammatical function or attribute such as tense, mood, person, number, case, and gender.” The word i’3raab is also used to refer to the final changeable vowel [a, u, i] at the end of each word that may reflect the inflection or meaning of the word related to those around it. For example,

{وَآمَنُوا بِمَا نُزِّلَ عَلَىٰ مُحَمَّدٍ} ﴿٢﴾ سورة محمد

“…and they believed in what was sent down upon Muhammad” [47:2]

{وَمَا مُحَمَّدٌ إِلَّا رَسُولٌ} ﴿١٤٤﴾ سورة آل عمران

And Muhammad is nothing but a messenger…

While the word “Muhammad” appears in both aayahs, the ending of the word helps to determine its meaning in relation to the rest of the words in the sentence, in addition to the order. In the first aayah, it ends with kasrataan, and in the second, dhammataan, or tanween of the kasrah and tanween of the dhammah. Muhammad-in and Muhammad-un. These are differences of inflection or i’raab. We’ll learn what these indicate later on insha’Allah. The point here is understanding that two elements determine the word’s relationship to words around it: the order and the ending.

However, the most important thing to help you understand the Quran is simply enriching your vocabulary. Remind yourself this every time you find the grammar confusing. If you have a strong vocabulary base, you might not be able to form sentences or know why a word took this or that form, but you’ll have a good idea of what the Quran intends, especially with a solid background in Islamic faith and seerah. Most of the vocabulary we learn we’ll do so through exercises of Arabic morphology, so mold your study priority around that.

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.

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