Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Deadlier than the Sting of a Wasp and the Sting of a Scorpion: If you live by Nahw you die by Nahw ...?

Assalamu 'alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

The famous Sibawayh - to whom all Arabic grammarians after him are indebted - died at a very young age in approximately 180 AH. Some give his age as young as 33 years. However, he did not leave this world before he wrote al-Kitab which became known as the قرآن النحاة (Qur'an of the Grammarians). If that does not say it all then listen to what Abu 'Uthman al-Mazini had to say about "al-Kitab":
(من أراد أن يعمل كبيرا في النحو بعد كتاب سيبويه فلْيستحي) (Whosoever wishes to produce something great in Nahw after the Book of Sibawayh, let him be ashamed of himself). Another testimony to the high esteem in which al-Kitab was held is no other than the testimony of one of the great sons of Arabic grammar and literature, Abu al-Abbas al-Mubarrid who, if anyone indicated to him the desire to want to read Kitab Sibawayh, would simply say: "Have you ever travelled the sea?" meaning thereby that Kitab Sibawayh is not for the faint-hearted and students run the risk of drowning in its sheer depths. Such then is the calibre of scholar that we are dealing with here.

Nahw is what Sibawayh lived by and it was also Nahw that brought about his premature demise (may Allah grant him the highest place in Jannah for the great service that he rendered for the language of the Qur'an). That Sibawayh lived by Nahw is borne out by the fact that he started out his career as a student of hadith, reading hadith to the likes of Hammad ibn Salamah. It was here that a very young but highly sensitive Sibawayh erred in the reading of a hadith and was subsequently corrected by Hammad ibn Salamah. Instead or reading أبا الدرداء Sibawayh read أبو الدرداء in the following hadith: "ليس من أصحابي أحد إلا ولو شئت لأخذت عليه ليس أبا الدرداء…" . This was Hammad's response: لحنتَ وأخطأتَ يا سيبويه، ليس هذا حيث ذهبتَ، إنما ليس ها هنا استثناء (You have made a grammatical error, O Sibawayh. It is not as you said it, rather ليس is used here as (particle of) exception). Sibawayh responded by saying: لا جرم سأطلب علمًا لا تُلَحِّنني فيه (No problem, I will seek a type of knowledge that you will not fault me in), and this is how he ended up learning Nahw.
In another report narrated by Hammad himself Sibawayh came with a group of students to Hammad and Sibawayh was the one recording and noting down the ahadith dictated by Hammad, and erred, on one occasion, in the spelling of the word (الصفا) - one of the famous hills in Makkah that pilgrims ascend during the Hajj to which Hammad remarked: يا فارسيّ لا تقل الصفاء لأن الصفا مقصور [O Persian, don't say الصفاء (with a hamzah at the end) because الصفا is without a hamzah]. When Sibawayh had finished and left the majlis he (apparently) broke his pen, and said: لا أكتب شيئاً حتى أُحْكِم العربية (I'm not going to write anything down until I get my Arabic / grammar straight and sorted out). These two events as well as others prompted Sibawayh to take up the study of Nahw under the famous al-Khalil ibn Ahmad (the author of the first Arabic dictionary "Kitab al-'Ayn" and the founder of the Science of Arabic Poetic Meter - Prosody). It was concerning Sibawayh that al-Khalil used to remark whenever he came for a Nahw session: مرحباً بزائرٍ لا يمَلّ (Welcome to a visitor that never tires) and he would only use it for Sibawayh as an expression of endearment.

Incidentally, something similar happended to the famous Abu al-Fath Ibn Jinni with his lifelong teacher, Abu 'Ali al-Farisi, who when the latter first met the former, the former (i.e. Ibn Jinni) was conducting a class on Sarf (morphology), and he (Abu 'Ali) asked him a question to which he (Ibn Jinni) was unable to provide an answer, and Abu 'Ali al-Farisi said: زبَّبت قبل أن تُحَصْرِمَ (you want to dry the grapes and turn them into raisins before you have even given them time to harden and become compact), that is, "you want to embark on something before you are even ready and ripe for it". After this Ibn Jinni took to accompanying Abu 'Ali as his closest student until he eventually became successor to the Chair of Nahw and Sarf up until then held by his teacher, Abu 'Ali al-Farisi, in Baghdad.

Anyhow, to come back to the main theme of the post, Sibawayh then became a master, nay, the master of Arabic grammar. Shortly, before his death Sibawayh made a trip to Baghdad which was then under the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid and ministry of Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmakiy. It was this same Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmakiy that was to organise and set up a debate between the then leaders of the two major schools of Arabic grammar: Sibawayh of the Basran school and al-Kisa-iy (also one of the Seven Qur'anic Readers) from the Kufan school. When the two leaders finally met for the debate, it was Al-Kisa-iy who asked Sibawayh: Should I ask you or are you going to ask me?' to which Sibawayh responded: 'You ask me'. It was then that al-Kisa-iy asked Sibawayh the famous المسألة الزنبورية (the Wasp Question) which goes as follows:

قالت العرب: قد كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةَ من الزُّنْبُوْرِ فَإِذَا هُوَ هِيَ أو فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيَاهَا
[The Arabs say: I used to think that the scorpion was more severe in its sting than the wasp / hornet, and then I found him (i.e. the wasp) to be just like her (i.e. the scorpion)]

The question that al-Kisa-iy wanted Sibawayh to answer was: are both فَإذَا هُوَ هِيَ and فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيّاهَا valid or is it just the first that is valid, that is, فَإِذَا هُوَ هِيَ ? Sibawayh responded by saying that only the first one is correct for which he then adduced certain textual proofs. Al-Kisa-iy begged to differ with him and said: العرب ترفع ذلك وتنصبه [the Arabs make it both marfu' (nom.) and mansub (acc.)]. Yahya, the organiser, then said: قد اختلفتما وأنتما رئيسا بلديكما، فمن يحكم بينكما؟ (the two of you have disagreed, and you are both the heads of your respective schools, who will judge between you? Al-Kisa-iy indicated to a group of Arabs standing at the door, from whom both cities have transmitted and derived their grammars from, and asked for them to be brought and asked the same question. Here, there have been numerous contradictory reports, some of which said that the native Arabs could not pronounce the Nasb (or accusative) version and were forced to just side with al-Kisa-iy. The point of consensus of these reports seems to be that the end result was that the Arabs (whether though coercion or not) concurred with al-Kisa-iy, and Sibawayh came out of the debate the lesser of the two.

The mas'alah has since been debated at length with views supporting both Sibawayh and al-Kisa-iy. Defeated (or cheated) in a city in which he was a stranger, Sibawayh returned to Basra never to return to Baghdad. Shortly, after his arrival in Basra, the world's greatest grammarian passed away - it was said out of sadness at the young age of 33 (or somewhere in that region). However, his great masterpiece lived on up to today. Out of respect for Sibawayh, al-Kisa-iy used to teach his students from al-Kitab. Some of Sibawayh's staunchers adversaries were found to have hidden al-Kitab under their pillows which only became known after they had already passed away. Despite what happened, the greatness of Sibawayh lives on and will continue to live on in both the lands of the العرب (Arabs) and the العجم (non-Arabs). Michael Carter, non-Arab, has dedicated an entire website to the study of al-Kitab called "the Sibawayhi Project", and is the author of a book entitled "Sibawayhi" in the "Makers of Islamic Civilization" series. May Allah reward Sibawayh the best of rewards, for certainly without him, Arabic would not have flourished as it did. Sibawayh has become a legend. Sibawayh is Nahw, and Nahw is Sibawayh - the two cannot be separated. Long live Sibawayh in our hearts, and long live al-Kitab in our midst:

ألا صلى المليك صلاة صدق* على عمرو بن عثمان بن قنبر
فإن كتابه لـم يغن عـنـه * بـنـو قـلـم ولا أبناء منبر

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