The Importance of Nahw and Sarf

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

An excellent set of notes highlighting the importance of nahw and sarf and how changes of a harakah in the Qur’an can be very serious.  May Allaah reward the brother and sister who put these together for their efforts and granting me permission to share this.


NAHW: focuses on words and the harakah on the last letter of each word in a sentence

SARF: focuses on how different words are conjugated from one source and defines the harakah of every letter in a word except the last letter

How did the science of nahw come about? During the caliphate of ‘Ali ibn Abee Taalib, radhiyallaahu ‘anhu, a Bedouin man came from the desert to the town and was praying behind one of the Imaams and the Imaam was reciting soorah at-Tawbah and when he recited the following aayah:

(أَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِىءٌ مِّنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ وَرَسُولُهُ)

(And a declaration from Allah and His Messenger to mankind on the greatest day of Hajj that Allah is free from obligations to the Mushrikin and so is His Messenger.) [at-Tawbah aayah 3]

Instead of reading the last word as rasooluhu, he recited it as rasoolihi with a kasrah on the laam changing the meaning of the aayah to mean that Allaah, subhaanahu wa ta’aala, is free from the mushrikeen AND free from the Messenger of Allaah, ‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam. This was a grave mistake and the Bedouin man because of the fact that the lughah amongst the Bedouins was preserved and not perverted like the people of the town who mixed with people from all regions, the Bedouin man understood straight away this grave mistake and he broke his salaah and made a commotion. Some of the Muslims narrated this incident to the Ameer, ‘Ali, radhiyallaahu ‘anhu and due to his foresight, he wanted to prevent such an incident happening again. So he ordered for a man who was known to be highly learned in the lughah. His name was Abul-Asad ad-Duwalee and asked him to write down the foundations of the lughah and its sciences. And when ‘Ali requested this from him, he said to Abul-Asad:

انحو هذا النحو

“Unhoo haadha-nahw”

Meaning ‘Go forth in this direction’ and this is where the name NAHW came from.

And its clear from that incident just how important knowing nahw is because there are many other examples of the Qur’aan where simple changing the last harakah of one letter can have a grave implication on the meaning. Of these examples are:

(وَإِذِ ابْتَلَى إِبْرَهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِكَلِمَـتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ)

(And (remember) when the Lord of Ibrahim tried him with (certain) Words (commands), which he fulfilled) [al-Baqarah aayah 258]

If the harakaat on the two highlighted letters are interchanged it would change the meaning to being that Ibraaheem, ‘alayhis-salaam, is the one who tried Allaah, subhaanahu wa ta’aala.

Another example, in soorah faatir, aayah number 28:

(إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ)

(It is only those who have knowledge among His servants that fear Allah.)

Again in this aayah interchanging the highlighted harakaat will render the meaning of this aayah to be that Allaah, subhaanahu wa ta’aala, fears the people of knowledge!

So i think these examples suffice and it also suffices that no one who has treaded the path of ‘ilm has ever done so by learning the lughah without nahw so how can we all of a sudden think we can do that?

As for the knowledge of sarf, it also came about due to an incident involving a Bedouin passing through town. I cant remember fully but I believe it also took place during the caliphate of ‘Ali, radhiyallahu ‘anhu. Anyway this time in the salaah, the Imaam was reading soorah al-Baqarah, the following aayah, verse number 221:

…وَلاَ تَنْكِحُواْ الْمُشْرِكَـتِ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنَّ)

(وَلاَ تُنكِحُواْ الْمُشِرِكِينَ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنُواْ

(And do not marry Al-Mushrikat (idolatresses) till they believe … And give not (your daughters) in marriage to Al-Mushrikin till they believe ….

The two highlighted words were mixed up by the Imaam so he read the aayah as such:

…وَلاَ تُنكِحُواْ الْمُشْرِكَـتِ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنَّ

وَلاَ تَنْكِحُواْ الْمُشِرِكِينَ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنُواْ

What did this do to the meaning? Well, the aayah now said, ‘And do not give (ie your daughters) in marriage to the Mushrikaat (idolatresses) till they believe….and do not marry the mushrikeen till they believe’

So if we go with the new meaning it would mean Allaah is permitting marriage of men to men and women to women, wal-‘iyaadhu billaah! So the Bedouin who was praying behine the imaam exited the salaah and shouted in the masjid saying ‘Wallaahi I will never marry them even if they believe!’

The Imaam did not have knowledge of sarf so he didn’t realise the difference between the two verbs. The first one TANKIHOO is from the verb NAKAHA and it is thulaathi and means to marry (ie a man on his own witout being given away) whereas the verb TUNKIHOO is a derivative from NAKAHA and it is rubaa’ee upon the wazn AF’ALA and the past tense of the verb is ANKAHA which means to give away  in marriage.

So this time the Ameer of the Muslims when he heard of this set about preventing it by outlining the principles of conjugating words and verbs from three (or in few cases four) lettered roots. So for example the verb DARASA, it is through sarf that we learn and know the difference between all the following words that are derived from it:

درس, يدرس, ادرس, دراسة, مدرس, مدرسة, تدريس

Darasa, tadrusu, udrus, diraasah, mudarris, madrasa, tadrees

At the end of the dars our teacher explained to us what I’raab meant. When someone asks you to give the I’raab of an aayah or sentence what do they mean and what do they want from you. So this is what he told us:

I’raab is to state the type of the word (naw’ul kalimah), its hukm (ruling) and its ‘alaamah (its sign).

So these are three things that are requested and as a rough guide this is what each of the three things mean:

1.  Type of Word – Is it faa’il, maf’ool bihi, mudhaaf ilayhi etc

2.  Hukm of the word  – there are only four (marfoo’, mansoob, majzoom or majroor)

3.  The ‘alaamah – dhammah, fathah, kasra, sukoon, alif, waaw etc…

Then he gave us a brief mention about those words that do not have I’raab and how we do not say they have no I’raab, instead we say they are mabniyyun and have an alaamah but no hukm etc.

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