Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī ("Abū Ḥayyān from Granada", full name Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf bin ‘Alī ibn Yūsuf ibn Hayyān an-Nifzī al-Barbarī Athīr al-Dīn Abū Ḥayyān al-Jayyānī al-Gharnāṭī al-Andalūsī,) was a commentator on the Quran. He has earned near universal recognition as the foremost Arabic grammarian of his era. He is also notable as the only known Arabic linguist to have taken a strong interest in languages other than Arabic, authoring a number of works both on comparative linguistics and extensively analyzing and explaining the grammars of other languages for native speakers of Arabic.
He was born in Spain in November of 1256 to a family of Berber origins. Gharnati's place of birth has been a matter of dispute, with historians having placed it both as Jaén and Granada, from which his appellation "Gharnati" was taken. Because Jaén was a dependency of Granada at the time, it is possible that there is no conflict between the two appellations.
Gharnati was considered tall and he had long hair. In his old age, his beard and hair turned grey, but he was generally described with handsome features.
At a young age, Gharnati left Spain and traveled extensively for the sake of his studies. Within Spain, he traveled to Málaga, Almería before moving on through Ceuta, Tunis, Alexandria, Cairo, Damietta, Minya, Kush and ‘Aydhab in Africa. Eventually, he reached Mecca for the sake of the Muslim pilgrimage and visited Medina before returning to Alexandria. Gharnati memorized the entirety of the famous Kitab of Sibawayh by heart; it was the first treatise ever written on Arabic grammar, and Gharnati held is as much an authority within the Arabic language as are Hadith, or the recorded statements of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, in Islamic law.
Gharnati was a student of Ibn al-Nafis, viewed as a redeeming quality in favor of Ibn al-Nafis by traditionalists such as Al-Dhahabi, who held positive views of Gharnati.
After traveling to Mamluk Egypt, Gharnati was appointed as a lecturer of the science of Qur'anic exegesis at the college named after the sultan of Egypt, Al-Mansur Qalawun, in Alexandria. Later, he also spent a period teaching the same subject in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo.
Gharnati was also favored in the court of an-Nasir Muhammad; he and Fatḥ al-Din Ibn Sayyid al-Nās were often the presiding "judges" during poetic contests during al-Nasir's reign. When Gharnati's daughter Nudhar died, he received special permission for her body to be interred at his family's property rather than a formal cemetery. Permission for such burials were not typically granted, though Gharnati's standing with the royal court allowed the bereaved father his request. Gharnati composed an elegy praising his daughter's standing among the era's intellectual circles, indicating the extent that her death affected him.
Gharnati died on a Saturday in July in the year 1344 in his home in Cairo, just after the last evening prayer. He was buried the next day in the cemetery of Bab al-Nasr in Islamic Cairo. When news of his death reached Damascus, the general public mourned his death due to his renown.
Gharnati was known for his preference for the Ẓāhirī madhhab of Sunni Islam, though it has also been claimed that he later switched over to the Shafi'i madhhab. Gharnati himself denied switching to the Shafi'i or any other view when asked toward the end of his life in Egypt, claiming that anyone who had known the Ẓāhirī school could never leave it.
He was known as a critic of Sufism, especially of Sufi metaphysics such as ibn Arabi, Mansur Al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Farid, Ibn Sab'in and Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari, all of whom Gharnati regarded as impious heretics. Gharnati saw his criticism of Sufism as a defense of laymen Muslims who might unwittingly follow it, a position with which most of the Muslim scholars of Andalus agreed.
In regard to the Arabic language, Gharnati was fond of the views of fellow Ẓāhirī and Andalusi, Ibn Maḍāʾ. Like Ibn Mada, Gharnati denied the existence of linguistic causality, instead holding the view that language, like all other things, is caused by God. His suspicion of Arabic grammarians was from a theological standpoint, just as those "eastern grammarians" supported linguistic causality from their own opposing, yet still Muslim, standpoints.
In regard to the Turkic languages, Gharnati entered Egypt when it was ruled by the Mamluk Sultanate and regarded their variety as the most superior form of the language. He was apparently also familiar with Kipchak and Turkmen languages, but considered them inferior to the primary dialect as it had evolved in Mamluk Egypt.
Gharnati's prowess in both the religious and linguistic fields has been noted. He was referred to as the king of his age in grammar, having known no rival during his lifetime. For that reason, historians have alternated between referring to him as Abu Hayyan "al-Gharnati" (the man from Granada) and Abu Hayyan "al-Nahwi" (the grammarian). Additionally, he was considered an expert in the fields of hadith, historiography and Sharia.
Gharnati's studies of grammar were governed by overarching principles he laid out such as "one must base rules of Arabic on frequency of occurrence" and "analogous formations that contradict genuine data found in good speech are not permitted." His approach to grammar has been described by Brill's Encyclopaedia of Islam as remarkably modern, and Gharnati's respect for facts and unusual objectivity have also been noted.
The total number of works attributed to Gharnati was 65, though today only 15 of those survive. Gharnati is famous for his book in explaining the linguistic meanings of Quran, called "al-Bahr al-Muhit," which was composed toward the end of his life. The voluminous book's composition was aided by Al Mansur. The work is extraordinarily rich in non-canonical qira'at or variant readings of the Qur'an, some of which were not contained in any prior commentaries.
Gharnati was also one of several grammarians to compose a commentary on ibn Malik's Alfiya, a seminal work in the field of Arabic grammar. Gharnati was also distinguished among linguists of the Arabic language by his interest in other languages, having also authored works on the grammars of Amharic, Middle Mongol, the Berber languages and the Turkic languages. Aside from him, virtually all other well-known linguists of the Arabic language showed almost no interest in other languages, and in many cases considered all other languages inferior. Gharnati would often illuminate Arabic grammatical concepts by quoting from other languages. He wrote Kitab al-Idrak li-Lisan al-Atrak a book on the Turkish language.