Monthly Archives: April 2006

“Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon.”

sandal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

While one of the aims of Arabic Gems is to provide original content related to the Arabic language, I came across a great article in The Daily Star by Tamim al-Barghouti that I wanted to post here. It is extremely interesting, has a nice philosophical take on the reasoning behind the phenomena it speaks about, and its content is in line with the content of this site, almost like a continuation from the previous posts. You can read it below, or on the link provided above.

Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon.

By Tamim al-Barghouti
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon. There is a whole category of words that mean one thing as well as its opposite. For example, the word, "saleem," means the one who is cured as well as the one who has just been bit by a snake. The word baseer, means one with great sight and insight, but also means blind. Mawla means master and slave and wala means to follow and to lead, The word umma, which is usually translated as nation, means the entity that is followed, or the guide, as well as the entity that follows and is guided.

Like many properties of Arabic, the reason for this is usually attributed to the Bedouin origin of the language – the desert is said to impose unity, homogeneity, and therefore equality on the all creatures. Sand is everywhere, and in the end everything turns into sand, the contradictory extremes of life seem to be the same in essence. But this traditional explanation, like many traditional explanations, does not explain much.

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Two ends of the same stick.

Stickal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

There is a category of words in Arabic known as al-ad`daad الأضداد. They are a type of ishtiraak in which a single word shares different shades of meaning, but what is special about the ad`daad is that the same word is applied to two completely opposite meanings. For example, the word jawn جَوْن can mean either black or white, and Ibn Faaris mentioned in his book al-Saahibee fee Fiqh al-Lughah that it was among the customs of the Arabs to apply words in such a way.

Sometimes such differences are tribal. For example, the sudfah سُدفة in the dialect of the tribe of Tameem refers to the darkness, while in the dialect of Qays it refers to the light. Similarly, the tribe of 'Aqeel would use the verb lamaqa لَمَق to mean 'he wrote it', while all the other tribes of Qays would use it to mean 'he erased it'.

It is important to have knowledge of such words to better understand and appreciate the language of the Qur'an, for it was revealed in the language of the Arabs at that time, and in accordance with their dialects. Thus, in Surah Yunus, verse 54 Allaah says,

وَلَوْ أَنَّ لِكُلِّ نَفْسٍ ظَلَمَتْ مَا فِي الأَرْضِ لاَفْتَدَتْ بِهِ وَأَسَرُّواْ النَّدَامَةَ لَمَّا رَأَوُاْ الْعَذَابَ وَقُضِيَ بَيْنَهُم بِالْقِسْطِ وَهُمْ لاَ يُظْلَمُونَ

And if each soul that wronged had everything on earth, it would offer it in ransom. And they will feel regret when they see the punishment; and they will be judged in justice, and they will not be wronged.

The verse assarroo َأسَرُّواْcomes from the root sarra سرَّwhich refers to concealment, however this word is one of the ad`daad and as such, also means 'to make something clear and bring it out in the open'. By understanding both meanings of the word, we are afforded a truer insight and clearer picture of such people on the Day of Resurrection, in that their regret and sorrow at what they used to do will not only be felt in their hearts but also manifest and shown through their actions and state.

Another example lies in Surah al-Baqarah, verse 26,

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لاَ يَسْتَحْيِي أَن يَضْرِبَ مَثَلاً مَّا بَعُوضَةً فَمَا فَوْقَهَا
Indeed, Allah is not ashamed to present a parable – that of a mosquito or what is above (i.e. bigger) than it.

The word fawqa فَوْقَهَاis one of the ad`daad and can mean both 'above' or 'below', and in light of the above verse, this knowledge will grant us understanding that Allaah is not ashamed to present any parables at all, whether large or small. Reading the verse with only one of the two meanings may lead us down a different trail of thought.

Yet another example of the ad`daad lies in the verb dhanna ظَنَّwhich is often used in the Qur'an. The most common meanig of this word is 'to suppose' something, with an element of doubt, yet at the same time it can mean to have certain knowledge of a thing. Thus, when Prophet Yusuf interpreted the dreams of his two companions in prison his discourse indicated that he was completely certain of his interpretation. It would not then make sense to use the verb dhanna to mean he had doubt, in verse 42 of Surah Yusuf,

وَقَالَ لِلَّذِي ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ نَاجٍ مِّنْهُمَا اذْكُرْنِي عِندَ رَبِّكَ
And he said to the one whom he dhanna to be saved: "Mention me to your king."

However, due to this being knowledge of the future and hence of the unseen, about which none has sure knowledge other than Allaah, it is possible that dhanna was used here to indicate this angle.

May Allaah grant us insight into the miracles of His words – ameen. As was said by Abu 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, "the difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation itself."

Tales from the riverbank.

giftal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

One of the most fascinating aspects of Arabic in my eyes, is finding the relationship between words that come from the same root but do not seem to have an obvious link in their meaning. The study of etymology in any language is fascinating in itself, but due to the root system in Arabic the findings are more likely to be linked to Arabic itself rather than finding that they are loan words from another language, as is often the case with English etymology, for example.

One such word that I came across was the word jaa'izah جائزة meaning 'a gift'. The root of this word is jeem-waw-zay ج – و – ز. Ibn Faaris mentions in Mu'jam Maqaayees al-Lughah that this root has two original meanings; one is related to passing through/traversing/crossing, as in Yunus, verse 90:

وَجَاوَزْنَا بِبَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ الْبَحْرَ

And We took the Children of Israel across the sea

and the other is the 'middle' of something (the jawz جَوْز of a thing is its middle).

So what, then, is the relationship between the meaning of a gift, and the original root meanings?

In this regard, Ibn Durayd mentioned in Jamharat al-Lughah that the word jaa'izah developed the meaning of 'gift' when a commander once took his army to meet the opposing force, but found a river laying between his men and the enemy. So he said to his troops,

من جاز هذا النهر فله كذا وكذا

Whoever crosses (jaaza) this river will receive such-and-such a thing [as a gift]

So whenever a man would reach the other side, he would receive a jaa'izah – or, a [token of] something that has crossed over'.

And Allaah knows best.

Kitty, Kitty, sleep sleep sleep.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

As seen previously, the Arabic language is very precise in its lexical references owing to its rich vocabulary. Often a single concept may be taken – such as love, infancy, bravery etc – and different words found corresponding to the subtle differences in the degrees of that concept. And perhaps this is the basis of the Arabic maxim:

خَيْرُ الكلامِ ما قَلَّ ودَلَّ

The best of speech is that which has the fewest words while retaining the desired meaning

for only one well-versed in the subtleties of the vocabulary would be able to achieve this.

It is especially important to be aware of these subtleties when their words appear in the Qur'an, for only then can one understand the true nature of the message. In this regard, I present the degrees of sleep in Arabic:

1. al-nu'aas النُّعاس – this is when a person's eyes becomes tired or drowsy and feels the need for sleep. This word was used by Allaah when he gave the Muslims at the Battle of Badr a break before the fighting began to strengthen them, as mentioned in al-Anfal, verse 11,

إِذْ يُغَشِّيكُمُ النُّعَاسَ أَمَنَةً مِّنْهُ وَيُنَزِّلُ عَلَيْكُم مِّن السَّمَاء مَاء لِّيُطَهِّرَكُم بِهِ وَيُذْهِبَ عَنكُمْ رِجْزَ الشَّيْطَانِ وَلِيَرْبِطَ عَلَى قُلُوبِكُمْ وَيُثَبِّتَ بِهِ الأَقْدَامَ

[Remember] when He covered you with a slumber as a security from Him, and He caused rain to descend on you from the sky, to clean you thereby and to remove from you the whisperings of Satan, and to strengthen your hearts, and make your feet firm thereby.

It is interesting to note that al-nu'aas was sent to them as opposed to al-wasan, perhaps indicating that while their eyes were given the chance to sleep and rest, their minds remained fit and alert. And Allaah knows best.

2. al-wasan الوَسَن – this is when the tiredness intensifies in the head, and it becomes heavy with its need for sleep. Some linguists said the distinction between al-wasan and al-nu'aas is extremely slight in degree, and they only differ in their place (al-nu'aas in the eyes, and al-wasan in the head). The verbal noun is sinah سِنَة as in al-Baqarah, verse 255,

اللّهُ لاَ إِلَـهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ لاَ تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلاَ نَوْمٌ

Allah! none has the right to be worshipped but He, the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists. Neither tiredness (sinah), nor sleep overtake Him.

3. al-tarneeq الترنيق which is when sleep pervades a person, without him actually sleeping.

4. al-ghumd الغُمض which is a state between sleep and wakefulness.

5. al-taghfeeq التَّغْفيق which is a state of sleep in which one still able to hear what others say.

6. al-ighfaa' الإغْفاء which is a very light sleep.

7. al-tahweem التهويم or al-ghiraar الغِرار or al-tihjaa' التهجاع all of which refer to a sleep of short duration.

8. al-ruqaad الرُّقاد which refers to a very long sleep, as in al-Kahf, verse 18,

وَتَحْسَبُهُمْ أَيْقَاظاً وَهُمْ رُقُودٌ

And you would have thought them awake, while they were asleep

and Yaseen, verse 52, [1]

قَالُوا يَا وَيْلَنَا مَن بَعَثَنَا مِن مَّرْقَدِنَا هَذَا مَا وَعَدَ الرَّحْمَنُ وَصَدَقَ الْمُرْسَلُونَ

They will say: "Woe to us! Who has raised us up from our place of sleep." (It will be said to them): "This is what the Most Beneficent (Allah) had promised, and the Messengers spoke truth!"

9. al-hujood الهُجود or al-hujoo' الهجوع or al-huboo' الهبوع which refer to a very deep sleep.

10. al-tasbeekh التسبيخ which refers to the strongest, deepest type of sleep.

11. al-subaat السبات which refers to a coma. [2]

[1] The marqad مرقد is the noun of place from the same root ر ق د.

[2] al-tasbeekh comes from the root س ب خ. In light of the previous post on ishtiqaaq note the relationship between the meaning of the word tasbeekh from this root, and the word subaat from the root س ب ت.

Not all questions require an answer.


al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

There is a rhetorical device in Arabic known as al-istikhbaar الاستخبار, which literally means 'to seek information'; in practical form, it is to ask a question and seek to know the answer. Yet there is a fine line between the essence istikhbaar and the clothes of the interrogative (al-istifhaam – الاستفهام) that most people see it as wearing: the linguists say that the first time you ask a question seeking to know the answer, it is known as istikhbaar because you are seeking khabar – information. Once the questionee responds, you may not have fully understood the answer, so you ask again (with a slight change in wording or without), and this is known as istifhaam because you are seeking fahm – understanding and clarification.

But as in many languages, not every question is a real question in Arabic, and the form of istikhbaar can be used for many intents. It is especially important to regard these intents when reading the Qur'an, to fully grasp the precise meaning of Allaah's words. Some examples of this are:

1. Istikhbaar to express the meaning of pain and anguish, as in al-Kahf, verse 49:

مَالِ هَذَا الْكِتَابِ لَا يُغَادِرُ صَغِيرَةً وَلَا كَبِيرَةً إِلَّا أَحْصَاهَا

What sort of Book is this that leaves neither a small thing nor a big thing, but that it has recorded it?!

i.e. We are in pain that everything we have ever done, seen, thought, heard, etc. has all been recorded and presented to us!

2. Istikhbaar to express the meaning of an affirmative statement, as in al-A'raaf, verse 172:

وإذ أخذ ربك من بني آدم من ظهورهم ذريتهم وأشهدهم على أنفسهم ألست بربكم قالوا بلى شهدنا أن تقولوا يوم القيامة إنا كنا عن هذا غافلين

And [mention] when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify as to themselves (saying): "Am I not your Lord?" They said: "Yes! We testify," lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: "Indeed, we were of this unaware."

i.e. Testify that you know I am your Lord.

3. Istikhbaar to express the meaning of repudiation and disbelief, as in Yunus, verse 68:

قَالُواْ اتَّخَذَ اللّهُ وَلَداً سُبْحَانَهُ هُوَ الْغَنِيُّ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَات وَمَا فِي الأَرْضِ إِنْ عِندَكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ بِهَـذَا أَتقُولُونَ عَلَى اللّهِ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ

They say: "Allah has begotten a son (children)." Glory be to Him! He is Rich (Free of all wants). His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. No warrant you have for this. Do you say against Allah what you know not?

i.e. How dare you speak about Allaah with no knowledge!

4. Istikhbaar to express the meaning of expressing a great number of something, as in al-A'raaf, verse 3:

وَكَم مِّن قَرْيَةٍ أَهْلَكْنَاهَا فَجَاءهَا بَأْسُنَا بَيَاتاً أَوْ هُمْ قَآئِلُونَ
ِAnd how many towns did We destroy (for their crimes)? Our torment came upon them (suddenly) by night or while they were sleeping for their afternoon rest.

i.e. 'We destroyed a great many towns'.

5. Istikhbaar to express the meaning of wonder and magnification, as in al-Waaqi'ah, verse 27:

وَأَصْحَابُ الْيَمِينِ مَا أَصْحَابُ الْيَمِينِ

And those on the Right Hand, Who will be those on the Right Hand?

i.e. What an amazing position will these people be in!

Also Yunus, verse 50:

قُلْ أَرَأَيْتُمْ إِنْ أَتَاكُمْ عَذَابُهُ بَيَاتاً أَوْ نَهَاراً مَّاذَا يَسْتَعْجِلُ مِنْهُ الْمُجْرِمُونَ

Say: "Tell me, – if His torment should come to you by night or by day, – for which [aspect] of it would the criminals be impatient?"