Every nation has excelled in a particular aspect of civilization, with varying fields of brilliance. The Greeks, for instance, excelled in theater, philosophy, and other forms of arts and sciences. The Arabs, living in their deserts before Islam, effortlessly crafted the most eloquent speech and exquisite poetry, untouched by artificiality. It is noteworthy that the Quraysh sent their newborns to the desert to imbibe eloquence from the tribal environment and enjoy its refreshing, healthy air. Thus, it can be said that the Arabs excelled in the art of words and everything related to it.
The Quran further affirmed this, astounding them with its eloquence and style, leaving the self-proclaimed masters of eloquence speechless before its majestic Quranic prose.
Reasons for the Establishment of Arabic Grammar
The dawn of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula marked the entry of Arabs and non-Arabs alike into the approach of Islam in droves. This blending of races and cultures signified a potential threat to the Arabic language, leading to several reasons for the establishment of Arabic grammar.
The first reason was religious. The Arabs were keen to recite the texts of the Quran with utmost eloquence and accuracy, especially after errors started appearing in the common people’s speech. The earliest instances of such errors were witnessed during Prophet Muhammad’s time. For example, when he heard someone mispronouncing, he remarked, “Guide your brother, for he has gone astray,” likening the mispronunciation to misguidance. Similarly, Caliph Umar once encountered children mispronouncing while practicing archery and reprimanded them, highlighting that linguistic errors were more concerning to him than errors in archery.
Another example is when Caliph Umar heard two men racing in archery; one said “Asabta” (you missed) instead of “Asabta” (you hit), leading Omar to comment that poor pronunciation was worse than poor archery skills.
The second reason was the Arabs’ immense pride in their language, fearing its corruption upon mingling with non-Arabs, particularly Roman and Persian speakers. This fear led them to establish correct language structures to prevent its dissolution into foreign languages.
The third reason was social. Non-Arab Muslims who embraced Islam needed to learn Arabic correctly to understand their religion and assume positions and roles in the emerging Islamic state.
These and other reasons compelled language enthusiasts to lay down the foundations and principles of Arabic grammar. The critical question remains: who initiated this scientific endeavor?
Originator of Arabic Grammar
Scholars agree that the foundations of Arabic grammar were laid in early Islam, specifically in Basra, Iraq. This is because Basra was inhabited by pure eloquent Arabs from the Tamim tribe and others, situated at the desert’s edge, facilitating interaction with eloquent Bedouins and near the Marbad poetry market. Arabic grammar is a purely Arab invention, a feature not found in any other language in the world.
The majority of scholars attribute the establishment of Arabic grammar to Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali, though there are variations in accounts regarding its inception. One narrative describes Abu al-Aswad entering upon Caliph Ali, who was contemplating the corruption of Arabic due to non-Arab influences. Ali then showed him a piece of paper outlining the basics of Arabic language structure and instructed Abu al-Aswad to expand upon these principles.
Some say Abu al-Aswad himself initiated the study of grammar after hearing a mispronunciation of a Quranic verse, prompting him to seek permission from Ziyad ibn Abihi, the governor of Basra, to establish Arabic grammar rules.
Another account tells of a conversation between Abu al-Aswad and his daughter, which led him to realize the importance of clear grammatical distinctions.
The Strongest Reason for Establishing Arabic Grammar
From the above, it is evident that the primary reason for developing Arabic grammar was the spread of mispronunciations among the masses. The Arabs detested mispronunciations, as they were unaccustomed to them. For instance, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan once remarked that his premature aging was caused by the fear of mispronouncing while delivering sermons.
Therefore, every Arabic speaker owes a debt of gratitude to the diligent scholars of Basra who exhaustively worked to establish the rules of the language and refine its vocabulary. This will be further explored in upcoming articles, If Allah willing.
Author: A. Abdel Moneim Al-Abdo, Arabic Language Teacher at Masarat Initiative