Category Archives: Anecdotes

How the horse got his name.

horseal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The verb خالَ khaala has two different forms that also differ in pattern and meaning.

The first is the verb خال khaala (perfect tense) يَخُولُ yakhoolu (imperfect tense), خَولا khawlan (verbal noun), and it means ‘to do proficiently’ or ‘to perfect’. One may use it in the phrase خَوَّلَهُ اللهُ نِعمةً مِنْ عِنْدِهِ khawwalahu Allaahu ni3matan min 3indihi to mean ‘Allaah [proficiently] bestowed upon him blessings from Himself.’

This meaning also allows us to recognise the importance and status of the maternal uncle and aunt, and indeed our obligations as maternal aunts and uncles, who are called the خَالٌ khaal and the خالَةٌ khaalah because they are supposed to ‘take care proficiently’ of their family. And this may be one reason why the maternal aunt in Islam is afforded the status of the mother when the mother is absent.

Allaah used it in this way in the Qur’an,

وَتَرَكْتُم مَّا خَوَّلْنَاكُمْ وَرَاء ظُهُورِكُمْ

and you have left whatever We bestowed upon you behind you (al-An’aam, verse 94 )

The second form is the verb خالَ khaala (perfect tense) يَخالُ yakhaalu (imperfect tense) and it has two separate meanings. The first means ‘he came to possess much wealth’ including slaves, chattel and servants. The second meaning is ‘he supposed’ and it is one of the sisters of the verb طَنَّ dhanna.

Allaah also used the verb according to this meaning in the Qur’an, (Ta-Ha, verse 66),

فإذا حبالهم وعصيهم يخيل إليه من سحرهم أنها تسعى
And suddenly their ropes and staffs seemed to him from their magic that they were moving [like snakes]

and in Surah Luqman, verse 18,

إن الله لا يحب كل مختال فخور

Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.

Here, the word مًَُخْتال mukhtaal (which is the active participle from the verb اخْتالَ ikhtaala which is extremely closely related to the verb خالَ khaala) has been translated as self-deluded and as such is related to the first meaning of coming into possession of wealth, for too much of a good thing leads one to arrogance and feelings that they are self-sufficient.

Allaah also used a derivative of this word in (al-Nahl, verse 8 )

والخيل والبغال والحمير لتركبوها وزينة ويخلق ما لا تعلمون

And [He created] the horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and [as] adornment.

So what does a horse have to do with any of the meanings conveyed above? The same question was asked to Abu Hatim, one of the classical scholars of Arabic, but he was unable to answer. It was reported that a madman was walking by and heard the question, so he said, “I will tell you! The horse was called a خيل khayl due to the pride and arrogance (اختيال ikhtiyaal – the verbal noun from the verb اختال ikhtaala) it displays when it walks!” Upon which Abu Hatim said, “Note down this wise reply and pass on the knowledge, even if it is on the authority of a madman!”

A search in the dictionary al-Qamus al-Muhit shows that even al-Fayroozabadi wrote that the word خَيْل khayl means pride, arrogance, and vanity, so the madman’s reply could very well be how the horse got his name.


Swallow more than your pride.

*Post edited and corrected on 28-10-08

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

It has been narrated that a major scholar of the past [1] used to try and fault the Qur’an by searching for flaws in its language. His attempts and studies lasted months, during which time a group of men would frequent his house and ask him whether he had found anything yet. Eventually, he smashed his ink pot and broke his pen, and replied, “None can dispute that this is the Speech of Allah!” He then left the house and passed by a mosque, from which he heard the voice of a young boy reciting the verse,

وَقِيلَ يَا أَرْضُ ابْلَعِي مَاءكِ وَيَا سَمَاء أَقْلِعِي وَغِيضَ الْمَاء وَقُضِيَ الأَمْرُ وَاسْتَوَتْ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ وَقِيلَ بُعْداً لِّلْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
And it was said, “O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people.” (Hood, verse 44)

to which the man remarked, “It is not possible that a human could produce such words.”

The verse in question is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, rhetorical verses of the Qur’an, as the scholars of Arabic balaaghah (rhetoric) identified within it more than twenty-five different rhetorical devices (fann balaaghee) within just 17 words! [2]

When the Prophet (peace be upon him)  would pray in the Ka’bah in Makkah, the Qurayshis would laugh at him, curse him, throw rocks at him, and ridicule him. One day he was sitting with some companions around the Ka’bah and recited to them Surah al-Najm, within earshot of the Quraysh. Everyone listened intently until he (peace be upon him) went on to recite the last few verses of this chapter,

أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ * وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلَا تَبْكُونَ * وَأَنتُمْ سَامِدُونَ * فَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ وَاعْبُدُوا

Then at this statement do you wonder? And you laugh and do not weep? While you are proudly sporting? So prostrate to Allah and worship [Him].

By the time this last verse was recited, they all fell involuntarily into prostration as commanded in the verse, mesmerised by the beauty and truth of what they had just heard.

And the conversion story of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab is a well-known one. He was one of the staunchest enemies of Islam, one of the strongest men in Makkah, who was sworn to kill the man who called himself the Prophet of God. Sword in hand, he set about to accomplish the task he had set himself and on the way was asked by a man he passed on the street as to the nature of his mission. When ‘Umar told the man of his intentions, the man told him to worry about his own sister first. In a fit of rage, he went to his sister’s house to kill her first if the news was true. He asked her whether she had accepted Islam, and when she replied in the affirmative he slapped her so hard that blood fell from her face. He noticed some paper in her hand, so he asked her what she was carrying. When she told him she could not give him the papers as he was not pure, he tore them from her hands and began to read the words written on them (listen),

طه * مَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لِتَشْقَى * إِلَّا تَذْكِرَةً لِّمَن يَخْشَى * تَنزِيلاً مِّمَّنْ خَلَقَ الْأَرْضَ وَالسَّمَاوَاتِ الْعُلَى * الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى * لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا وَمَا تَحْتَ الثَّرَى  * وَإِن تَجْهَرْ بِالْقَوْلِ فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى* اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاء الْحُسْنَى

Ta, Ha. * We have not sent down to you the Qur’an that you be distressed * But only as a reminder for those who fear [ Allah ] * A revelation from He who created the earth and highest heavens, * The Most Merciful [who is] above the Throne established*  To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth and what is between them and what is under the soil. * And if you speak aloud – then indeed, He knows the secret and what is [even] more hidden * Allah – there is no deity except Him. To Him belong the best names.

Upon reading the words on the paper, ‘Umar’s eyes filled with tears. He demanded from his sister that she tell him where this man Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, and after making him promise not to harm the Prophet (peace be upon him) he set out to find him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) could tell who was at the door from the strength of his knock, so opened the door and greeted his visitor with the words, “Isn’t it about time you became Muslim, O ‘Umar?” to which he received the reply, “I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship other than Allaah, and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allaah.”

The question that remains to be asked is: What did these men have in common?

The answer (among other things)? They all had a deep, solid, understanding and appreciation of the Arabic language, its syntax, semantics, rhetorical and literary devices, poetry, prose, and all else a mastery of any language entails. An understanding that allowed them to immediately discern that the difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation itself. An understanding of the language that allowed them to recognise the truth and submit to it without giving another moment’s consideration to the issue at hand. An understanding that enabled them to recognise the miraculous nature of the Qur’anic text, and use this recognition as a base on which to build their faith.

Perhaps we will never be able to acheive the same appreciation and understanding of the language of the Qur’an as they did, but who can dispute that we owe it to our souls, to our faith, to at least try.

[1] It has been said that he was the well-known Ibn al-Muqaffa’. But the narration appeared without naming the man in  al-Jadwal fee I’raab al-Qur’aan wa Sarfuhu wa Bayaanuhu by Mahmood Safi (6/278).

[2] This is not a suitable place to discuss these rhetorical devices, as a background of balaaghah is first required. But if anyone is versed in Arabic and would like to read more, I recommend them to refer to the book Kifaayat al-Alma’ee Fee Ayat Yaa Ard Ibla’ee by Muhammad ibn al-Jazaree (published by Dar al-Afaq al-Jadidah in Bayrut, 2003), or to refer to Tafseer al-Bahr al-Muheet by Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi.

The correct combination.

padlock.jpgal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

I came across an amusing anecdote in Lisan al-‘Arab recently illustrating the dangers of engaging in naht haphazardly.

It is related from Ibn Mas’ood (may Allah be pleased with him) that his wife one day asked him to provide a jilbab (protective outer garment worn outside the house) for her. He replied, “I fear that you will then set aside the jilbab in which Allah has contained you.” She asked him, “What is that?” He said, “Your house.”

To which she replied,

أَجَنَّك من أَصحابِ محمدٍ تقول هذا؟
“Ajannaka from the Companions of Muhammad (peace be upon him), that you say this?”

The word of interest here is the first one in the sentence: ajannaka. At first glance it could render the sentence as ‘You have been made mad by one of the Companions of Muhammad (peace be upon him)’, based on it being from the root ج – ن – ن.

However, the wife of Ibn Mas’ood actually came up with her own form of naht here: what she intended to say was,

أَمِنْ أَجلِ أَنّك
Is it due to that fact that you are…

But she ommitted from this phrase:
– the word مِن
– the أ and ل from the word أجل
– the أ from the word أنّك

…resulting in the final combination: .أَجَنَّك

Mind over matter

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

Sibawahyi is the forefather of Arabic grammar, the Imam of the grammarians, the first person to systemize the rules of Arabic grammar and present them in a book form to be available to the masses for generations to follow. Although there is doubt whether the contents of his book al-Kitaab are his words or the words of his teacher, al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, there is no doubt that Arabic grammar is indebted to Sibawayhi.

There is an interesting story behind how he came to be the grammar genius he was though. As a young boy living in Basrah, he used to learn Fiqh and Hadith from the scholars there. One day he went to his shaykh Hamad al-Basri to learn hadith, but when he recited a hadith to his teacher he made a grammatical mistake [he made the khabar of laysa marfoo' instead of mansoob] which changed the meaning. His teacher interrupted him and said, "You made a grammatical error, O Sibawayhi!"

Sibawayhi did not like to have made such an error, so he made a promise, "By Allaah, I will seek out a type of knowledge by which nobody will be able to point out any errors I make!" He then went to learn from grammarians such as al-Khalil ibn Ahmad and others, and thus began the journey of Sibawahyi through grammar, which took him to the heights that it did.

Mind over matter.