Sibawayh (Persian: سِيبَوَيْه; c. 760–796), whose full name is Abu Bishr Amr ibn Uthman ibn Qanbar al-Basri (أَبُو بِشْر عَمْروْ ٱبْن عُثْمَان ٱبْن قَنْبَر ٱلْبَصْرِيّ, ʿAbū Bishr ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān ibn Qanbar al-Baṣrīy), was a Persian leading grammarian of Basra and author of the earliest Arabic linguistics books. His famous unnamed work, referred to as Al-Kitab, or "The Book", is a five volume seminal encyclopedic grammar of the Arabic language.
Ibn Qutaybah, the earliest extant source, in his biographical entry under Sibawayh wrote simply:
He is Amr ibn Uthman, and he was mainly a grammarian. He arrived in Baghdad, fell in with the local grammarians, was humiliated and went back to some town in Persia, and died there while still a young man.
10th-century biographers, Ibn al-Nadim and Abu Bakr al-Zubaydi, and 13th-century Ibn Khallikan, attribute Sībawayh with contributions to the science of the Arabic language and linguistics was unsurpassed by those of former and latter times. He has been called the greatest of all Arabic linguists and one of the greatest linguists of all time in any language.
Born ca. 143/760, Sībawayh was from Shiraz, in Fars Province Iran. Reports vary, some say he went first to Basra, then to Baghdad, and finally back to the village of al-Baida near Shiraz where he died between 177/793 and 180/796, while another says he died in Basra in 161/777. His Persian nickname Sibuyah (Arabized as Sībawayh) - "odour of apples" - reportedly refers to his "sweet breath." A protégé of the Banu Harith b. Ka'b b. 'Amr b. 'Ulah b. Khalid b. Malik b. Udad, he learned the dialects (languages) from Abu al-Khattab al-Akhfash al-Akbar (the Elder) and others. He came to Iraq in the days of Harun al-Rashid when he was thirty-two years old and died in Persia when he was over forty. He was a student of the two eminent grammarians Yunus ibn Habib and Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, to whom, the latter, he was most indebted..
Despite Sībawayh's renowned scholarship, his status as a non-native speaker of the language is a central feature in the many anecdotes related in the biographies. The accounts throw useful light on early contemporary debates which influenced the formulation of the principle fundamental Arabic grammar.
Rival schools of Basra and Kufa
This is a story about the debate held by the Abbasid vizier Yahya ibn Khalid of Baghdad on the standard Arabic usage, between Sībawayh, representing the Basra school, and al-Kisa'i, one of the canonical Quran readers and the leading figure in the rival school of Kufa. It became known as al-Mas'ala al-Zunburīyah ("The Question of the Hornet").
Involved was the translation of the sentence: "I have always thought that the scorpion was more painful in stinging than the hornet, and sure enough it is." At issue was the form of the last word in the Arabic sentence.
Sībawayh proposed fa-'idhā huwa hiya (فإذا هو هي), literally "sure-enough he she", meaning "sure-enough he (the scorpion, masc.) is she (the most painful one, fem.)"; Arabic does not need or use any verb-form like is in such situations.
Al-Kisa'i argued instead for fa-'idhā huwa 'iyyaha (فإذا هو إياها), literally "sure-enough he her", meaning "he is her".
Sībawayh justified his position on theoretical grammatical grounds, arguing that the accusative form could never be predicate. To his dismay, however, al-Kisa'i ushered in four Bedouins who had 'happened' to be waiting by the door. In fact al-Kisa'i had bribed them earlier. Each testified that huwa 'iyyaha was the proper usage and Sībawayh's was judged incorrect. At this he left the court and was said to have returned in indignation to Shīrāz and died there, apparently either from upset or illness.
A student of Sībawayh's, al-Akhfash al-Asghar (Akhfash The Younger), accosted al-Kisa'i after his teacher's death and asked him 100 grammatical questions, proving al-Kisa'i's answers wrong each time. When the student revealed who he was and what had happened, al-Kisa'i approached the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and requested that he be punished for having a share in "killing Sībawayh."
Sībawayh's Al-Kitab was the first formal and analytical Arabic grammar written by a non-native speaker of Arabic, i.e. as a foreign language. His application of logic to the structural mechanics of language was wholly innovative for its time. Both Sībawayh and his teacher al-Farahidi are historically the earliest and most significant figures in respect to the formal recording of the Arabic language. Much of the impetus for this work came from the desire of non-Arab Muslims for correct interpretation of the Quran and the development of tafsir (Quranic exegesis); The poetic language of the Qur'an presents interpretative challenges even to the native Arabic speaker. In Arabic the final voiced vowel may occasionally be omitted, as in the Arabic pronunciation of the name Sībawayh where the name terminates as Sibuyeh. Discrepancies in pronunciation may occur where a text is read aloud (See harakat); these pronunciation variants pose particular issues for religious readings of Qur'anic scripture where correct pronunciation, or reading, of God's Word is sacrosanct.
Later scholars of Arabic grammar came to be compared to Sībawayh. The name Niftawayh, a combination of "nift", or asphalt - due to his dark complexion - and "wayh", was given to him out of his love of Sībawayh's works. Abu Turab al-Zahiri was referred to as the Sībawayh of the modern era due to the fact that, although he was of Arab descent, Arabic was not his mother tongue.
Al-Kitāb or Al-Kitāb al-Sībawayh ('Book of Sibawayh'), is the foundational grammar of the Arabic language, and perhaps the first Arabic prose text. Al-Nadim describes the voluminous encyclopedic work, reputedly the collaboration of forty-two grammarians, as "unequaled before his time and unrivaled afterwards". Sībawayh was the first to produce a comprehensive encyclopedia of Arabic grammar, in which he sets down the principles rules of grammar, the grammatical categories with countless examples taken from Arabic sayings, verse and poetry, as transmitted by Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, his master and the famous author of the first Arabic dictionary, "Kitab al-'Ayn", and of many philological works on lexicography, diacritics, poetic meter (ʻarūḍ), cryptology, etc. Sibawayh's book came from flourishing literary, philological and tafsir (Quranic exegetical) tradition that centred in the schools of Basra, Kufa and later at the Abbasid caliphal seat of Baghdad. Al-Farahidi is referenced throughout Al-Kitāb always in the third person, in phrases such as "I asked him", or "he said". Sibawayh transmits quotes, mainly via Ibn Habib and al-Farahidi, of Abu ʻAmr ibn al-ʻAlāʼ 57 times, whom he never met. Sibawayh quotes his teacher Harun ibn Musa just five times.
Grammarians of Basra
Probably due to Sībawayh's early death,"no one", al-Nadim records "was known to have studied Al-Kitāb with Sībawayh," and nor did he expound it as was the tradition. Sibawayh's associate and pupil, Al-Akhfash al-Akbar, or al-Akhfash al-Mujashi'i, a learned grammarian of Basra of the Banu Mujashi ibn Darim, transcribed Sibawayh's Al-Kitāb into manuscript form. Al-Akhfash studied Al-Kitāb with a group of student and grammarian associates including Abu 'Umar al-Jarmi and Abu 'Uthman al-Mazini, who circulated Sibawayh's work, and developed the science of grammar, writing many books of their own and commentaries, such as al-Jarmi's "(Commentary on) The Strange in Sibawayh". Of the next generation of grammarians, Al-Mubarrad developed the work of his masters and wrote an "Introduction to Sibawayh", "Thorough Searching (or Meaning) of the Book of Sibawayh" and "Refutation of Sibawayh". Al-Mubarrad is quoted as posing the question to anyone preparing to read the Book,
- "Have you ridden through grammar, appreciating its vastness and meeting with the difficulties of its contents?"
Al-Mabriman of al-'Askar Mukram and Abu Hashim debated educational approaches to the exposition of Al-Kitāb. Among Al-Mabriman's books of grammar was "An Explanation of the Book of Sibawayh" (uncompleted). Al-Mubarrad's pupil and tutor to the children of the Caliph al-Mu'tadid, Ibn as-Sarī az-Zajjāj wrote a "Commentary on the Verses of Sibawayh". Al-Zajjaj's pupil, Abu Bakr ibn al-Sarraj, also wrote a "Commentary on Sibawayh". In an anecdote about ibn al-Sarraj being reprimanded for an error, he is said to have replied "you have trained me, but I've been neglecting what I studied while reading this book (meaning the Book of Sibawayh) - because I've been diverted by logic and music, and now I'm going back to [Sibawayh and grammar]". And so he became the leading grammarian after al-Zajjaj, and wrote many books of scholarship. Ibn Durustuyah an associate and pupil of al-Mubarrad and Tha'lab wrote "The Triumph of Sibawayh over All the Grammarians" - this comprised a number of sections but was unfinished. Al-Rummani wrote a "Commentary on Sibawayh". Al-Maraghi a pupil of al-Zajjaj, wrote "Exposition and Interpretation of the Arguments of Sibawayh".
Al-Kitāb, comprising 5 volumes, is a huge highly analytic and comprehensive encyclopedia of grammar and remains largely untranslated into English. Due to its great unwieldiness and complexity the later grammarians produced concise grammars in a simple descriptive format suitable for general readership and educational purposes. Al-Kitāb categorizes grammar under subheadings, from syntax to morphology, and includes an appendix on phonetics. Each chapter introduces a concept with its definition. Arabic verbs may indicate three tenses (past, present, future) but take just two forms, defined as "past" (past tense) and "resembling" (present and future tenses).
Sibawayh generally illustrates his statements and rules by quoting verses of poetry; mainly from the Pre-Islamic Arabian and Bedouin poets and some from the early Umayyad Caliphate era.
Although a grammar book, Sibawayh extends his theme into phonology, standardised pronunciation of the alphabet and prohibited deviations. He dispenses with the letter-groups classification of al-Farahidi's dictionary. He introduces a discussion on the nature of morality of speech; that speech as a form of human behavior is governed by ethics, right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Many linguists and scholars highly esteem Al-Kitāb as the most comprehensive and oldest extant Arabic grammar. Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati, the premier grammarian of his era, memorized the entire Al-Kitāb, equated its value to grammar as the Hadith - the recorded statements of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, is to Islamic law.