“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.

For Arabic is not a poor language, almost every creature, object or feeling has scores of names. A sense of continuity and unity of the universe might have been present in the desert community of Bedouin Arabs, but a sense of meaninglessness was not there. The way the ancient creators of the Arabic language celebrated the smallest details of their world is noteworthy: it is said that the great poet and linguist of the eleventh century, Abul-Ala al-Miary, who was blind, stumbled into one of the princes at the court of Saleh Ibn Mirdas, the autonomous ruler of Northern Syria. The noble guest lost his temper, especially because the poet was poor, and poor poets, are not supposed to stumble into rich nobility! So the guest called the poet an ignorant dog. Abul-Ala answered swiftly: "The dog among us is the one who does not know 70 names for the dog!" Of course the noble guest, the prince and half the linguists of the court could not come up with so many names.

Later on, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the preservation of the language became an obsession, all 70 names for the word "dog" were recorded. They were not quite synonymous, for they did not all simply mean dog. Rather, they were descriptions of a dog's conditions; an angry dog had a name different from a joyful one, the dog that had one ear pointing up and the other down had a name different from the one who had both ears up or both ears down. What is true of the dog is true of most other creatures. Up until this day the most famous seven names of the lion are taught to children in schools all over the Arab world: Laith, Sab, Asad, Qaswara, Ghadanfar, Dirgham and Usama.

"Love" has 77 names, each of which has a slight but crucial difference from the other. Hawa means light liking but also transfers an element of error, bias and irrationality. As the old pre-Islamic proverb goes: "Hawa is the downside of reason."

Then you have ishq, which comes from entanglement, like two pieces of wood and ivory in a work of arabesque, the two lovers are inseparable yet still independent and distinct. Then there is hayam, which comes from wondering thirsty in the desert, and fitna, which means love, infatuation, passionate desire, but also means civil war and illusion.

There is izaz, which is the kind of love that gives both lovers power and dignity, and sakan, which also means home and tranquility, the Quran uses this word to describe the relation between married couples. The highest stage of love is, paradoxically, fanaa, which means non-existence. This is the stage where the lovers lose their independent existences and actually become one another. This stage is usually used by Sufis in reference to divine love and the unity of existence.

With this wealth of words and meanings, the existence of the category of words that mean one thing and its opposite cannot be explained by desert born nihilism and lack of imagination. Taking a second look at those lists of antonyms, one can see that, with very few exceptions, most words relate to power and knowledge. The continuous fighting for water and means of livelihood among Arab tribes, the temporality of life and the cruel paradox of the desert coupling monotony and uncertainty, might have resulted in an instinctive position on power.

Power is temporary, and is in itself meaningless. Temporary power is therefore the same as weakness, master and salve will both die in the end, so would the seer and the blind, and the blind might be more of a seer than the one whose eyes are wide open. Those couples thus deserve the same names. Power and knowledge become meaningful only if they result is something that is not temporary. To Arabs, all physical objects will in the end vanish and turn to sand, but ideas, will remain. Thus power is necessary only to create legacies, memories, epics, legends and poetry. One could trace this idea well into the pre-Islamic era. After the advent of Islam, the concept of legacy was replaced with the concept of the afterlife.

The history of Arabic literature is full of anecdotes were antonyms and puns were used to mock unjust power and authority. After Haroun al-Rashid massacred his Persian ministers, one of their women told him "qarrat Aynok" which is an expression meaning "may god give you peace of mind," but the literal meaning of the words is "may your eye stand still" – in other words, "may you go blind." In the Arabian nights, Shahrazad continuously addresses the angry king Shariar, who kills a woman every day in revenge for his wife's betrayal, "Oh happy king, of wise judgment" in a context that means exactly the opposite.

Perhaps today we are in great need of such words (antonyms) in everything – from love to politics.

Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet who writes a weekly article for The Daily Star

46 responses to ““Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon.”

  1. Jazaakum Allahu khairan,

    Interesting article! Mashallah.

    Please keep me in your du’a

    Assalaamu 3alaikum

  2. Jazakallah,
    Very nice article!

  3. wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam,

    Wa iyyaakumaa. I liked it too alhamdulillaah.

  4. Very interesting article, although I keep thinking that the polarity of meaning may have more to do with Islam than Bedouin origins of the language. Every master of others is a slave of Allah, everyone who leads, is also a follower of the One. I wonder if these polarities existed before Islam. They all seem, at least to this darvish, to have a spiritual relationship.

  5. My arabic teacher mentioned this once in class. He said when someone looses something, the arabs refer to him as “Oh Finder”. It’s about being optimistic, he says. Making a prayer that he finds whatever it is he lost. Subhan Allah!!

  6. Assalaamu ‘alaikoum warahmatuAllaah,

    Your website, with the input of its avid contributors or commentators, would make a wonderful book — ever considered it? It could be quite a successful and beneficial one too — perhaps even chosen to be taught at schools or Universities wallaahu a’lam. May Allaah grant you all tawfeeq, ameen.

    Wa’alaikoum assalaam warhamatuAllaah.

  7. Wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam wa rahmat Allaah,

    Irving, thank you for your comment, it is a very interesting take on it. Most of the language did exist prior to Islam; the advent of Islam brought about a new semantic field to some words, mostly those directly related to the religion; zakaah originally meant ‘to purify’ but later came to be applied to the charity, as it purifies the wealth, and so on. Most of the ad’daad were also in existence too, as we can see from the inter-dialectical ones. There is a possibility though that some of the meanings developed after Islam; it would make interesting study, Jazaakum Allaahu khayran.

    H, that’s also an interesting take, and one could probably apply it to some of the ad’daad, but I would hesitate about making it a general rule. It does add alot of depth and beauty to the ones it applies to though, jazaakum Allaahu khayran.

    Umm Isaac, Jazaakum Allaahu khayran for the support and encouragment, and Ameen to the du’aa’. It may be a future project bi idhnillaah, when the contributors are slightly more freed up from their other commitments. We will keep it in mind though in shaa’ Allaah.

  8. Asalaam alaikum,

    I’d like to draw your attention to this snippet from your website:

    “The contributor/s aim to update the site frequently in shaa’ Allaah, with a minimum of 10 posts per month, circumstances permitting.”

    So far there are only 7 (technically 6, one was a copy and paste job) entries for this month. I hope you haven’t run out of things to write about.


  9. Assalamu 3alaikum,

    True, but don’t forget about the “circumstances permitting” part of the snippet. Also remember that the best things come with patience 🙂

    May Allah bless all the efforts of the contributor/s, and may He bless this website.

    Please keep me in your du’a.

    Assalamu 3alaikum.

  10. walaikum asalaam,

    Yes, I know. I meant it only in jest. The contibutor of the website knows that I consider the individual to be extremely intelligent and an excellent source of knowledge, alhumdullilah.

  11. as-salaam alaykum,

    Masha Allah, this is a nice site. barak Allahu feekum

  12. wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam,
    I apologise for not updating. Please have a little more patience, circumstances at the moment do not permit an update, due to limited net usage and travel. In sha’ Allaah there will be one in the next few days.
    tariqnelson, wa iyyaakum.

  13. Salamu’alaikum wa rahmatallah.

    Brothers arabic gems and Billo, have you heard of Shaykh abul hasan al nadawi, read any of his books?

    I recently bought one of his books called , “al Qira’ah al rashidah”, it has a great collection of simple stories, poems , and aqwal of famous ‘ulama. Another famous one of his is “qisas al nabiyyeen” – all these books were written to facilitate those in their beginning stages of arabic, to acquire more vocabulary through fun reading.

    Could you guys recommend such books, please, if you know of any?

    Jazakamullahu khairan,

  14. While in Arabic class today, we came across the “Transgression” or “‘Adl” rule for determining ghair munsarif. I thought of your site immediately when I realized that ‘adl can mean both transgression and justice. (I think…?)


  15. Another famous one of his is “qisas al nabiyyeen” – all these books were written to facilitate those in their beginning stages of arabic, to acquire more vocabulary through fun reading.

    Reading that book in my arabic class. helpful in learning vocab. and grammer.

    ‘adl can mean both transgression and justice
    I remember my arabic teacher mentioning the transgression business. You are right, they are both ‘Adl (i forgot the explaination behind it :S …. )

  16. al-Salaamu ‘alakum,

    Yusuf, I’m sorry, I do not know of any books by Abul Hasan other than Qisas al-Nabiyyeen. What I have found though, is that most books written these days with full vowelling are suitable for a beginner to practise on, as other books are not written with full vowelling. If you have an Islamic bookstore near you (or maybe even online) it would be an idea to take a trip there and check out if they have any books for children in Arabic, as these usually have the full vowelling. In shaa’ Allaah Billo may be of more help.

    Rehan, you are correct in a way al-hamdulillaah. The root ‘adala is a type of antonym in that it has two meanings, one that indicates something straight (from which you get the meanings of justice, fairness, equality etc), and one that indicates something crooked. As far as I am aware though, only the first is used in the Qur’an.

    H, jazaakum Allaahu khayran for your input and help.

  17. Good discussion.

  18. dear gems,

    i am linking to this site from my blog; would you kindly add me to your blogroll.

  19. Pingback: Eteraz » Blog Archive » Antonyms in Arabic

  20. Salaam ‘alaykum,

    I got here via Eteraz – thank you for re-posting this article here, it was absolutely fascinating.


  21. As salaam alaikum

    Found you via Lenin’s tomb. Ponder on the symbolism of that ?

    I wil forward this to my wife who is an Arabic teacher.

    Many thanks for this excellent site. Jazak Allah khair.

    wa salaam

  22. Really interesting article, and interesting blog overall. I don’t know the arabic language at all, but this makes me feel I have to find myself some arabic lessons. The wealth of the language seems really interesting, I’d love to be able to express myself in that exactly perfect way for each situation. And to read it.. Aw, I’m actually longing to be able to read Arabic nights in the original language right now.
    Uhm. Anyway. Just thought I’d drop a comment. 🙂


  23. al-Salaamu ‘alaykum,

    montag, thank you.

    eteraz, thank you for linking to the site. I’m afraid our blogroll only contains Arabic resources and sites though.

    Baraka, wa ‘alaykum as salaam. You are welcome, we are glad you enjoyed it.

    Nasser, wa iyyaakum. How did you get here via Lenin’s tomb. I could not find a link to it.

    Elda, thank you for your comment. The depth and breadth of the language is truly amazing, and 8 years after first learning it, whenever I open a book about the language I feel like I still know nothing.

    If you are successful in your pursuit, I can guarantee you will find in the Qur’an much more beauty than in Arabian Nights. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was first revealed the Qur’an the pagan Makkans at the time were masters of the language and held annual poetry competitions. When he was reciting it, one of the top poets of the time, al-Waleed ibn al-Mugheerah, overheard the recitation, about which he later commented, ‘‘I swear by God, there is none amongst you who knows poetry as well as I do, nor can any compete with me in composition or rhetoric – not even in the poetry of jinns! And yet, I swear by God, Muhammad’s speech (i.e. the Qur’ān) does not bear any similarity to anything I know, and I swear by God, the speech that he says is very sweet, and is adorned with beauty and charm. Its first part is fruitful, and its last part is abundant, and it conquers all other speech, and remains unconquered! It shatters and destroys all that has come before it!’

    Many Orientalists have also commented on the beauty and wonder of the Qur’anic language. I hope one day you, and all the visitors on the site, are able to read it and appreciate it as al-Waleed did.

  24. interesting, highly interesting. Especially your comment that describes what al-Waleed ib al-Mugheerah said. Intense words.

  25. Pingback: LIFE ETC » The power of expression

  26. al-Salaamu ‘alaykum,

    Momekh, thank you for your comment. The words of al-Waleed ibn al-Mugheerah are testimony to the revelation of the Qur’an from the Most High, for as Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, one of the tabi’in (successors) commented,

    “The difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation!”

  27. Does anyone know of a translation of nadawi’s qirat ar raashidah and qasas un nabiyeen? to aid with the learning process… Thanks.

  28. Qisas al-Nabiyyeen has been translated into ‘Stories of the Prophets’. A search for that titles and the author’s name will bring up places where you may purchase it in shaa’ Allaah.

    I do not personally know of a translation of al-Qiraa’ah al-Raashidah, sorry.

  29. Pingback: Ha Ana Za!: So what is this thing called 'Love'?

  30. Salaam Sister
    Do you know where can I find English translations of the following Lughats: Lisan al-Arab, Taj al-Arus, Qamus al-muhit, Mufradatul Quran.


  31. Wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam,

    I’m not sure what you mean by referring to them as lughats; the books you listen are classical dictionaries/lexicons of Arabic.

    There hasn’t been a complete translation of them all as far as I know, but Lane’s Lexicon (there is a link to the online version in the right bar) has done an excellent job of referring to them all in its compilation.

  32. i want to download Qisas an Nabiyeen by Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi

  33. I’m not sure where you can download it, sorry.

  34. It is a joy,finding this site by “mistake”…consider it a gift…so interesting and informative…just what I was needing. Hope to visit it often.Thank you, Ann

  35. Qasas al-Nabiyeen by Ml. Abul-Hasan al-Nadwi you can find here in 3 parts:

    (1) http://www.iu.edu.sa/edu/syukbah/qis2_1.htm

    (2) http://www.iu.edu.sa/edu/syukbah/qis2_2.htm

    (3) http://www.iu.edu.sa/edu/syukbah/qis2_3.htm

    ps. the texts do contain some typos esp. in terms of diacritical marks (harakaat & sakanaat)

  36. Pingback: A Visit to the Cosmopolis « Yesterday’s Salad

  37. Pingback: Arabic Antonyms « Nomad Out of Time

  38. Very informative article . Please keep this activity

  39. Asslamo Alaikum,

    Grand Qur’an has given this information:
    وَالْحَبُّ ذُو الْعَصْفِ وَالرَّيْحَانُ

    It says grain crop is possessor of الْعَصْفِ and possesor of الرَّيْحَانُ.
    I find that the basic perception infolded in the Root of الرَّيْحَانُ exactly corresponds to the nature of what in botony is called “phytolith” and it is found in all plants of the family of grain ذُو الْعَصْفِ . Am I right?

  40. Muhammad Faidullah

    Very good article! Mashallah.


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  42. Excellent work…

    May allah reward you for this

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  44. I teach my family a lots of things I learn from here
    thank you

  45. asalaamulaikum..any one knows where can i find an english translation of qasas nabiyeen part 3 n 4 …

  46. Pingback: The Blog of Kerati Balahs

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