In Sura 9 (al-Tawba/التَّوْبةRepentance) of the Qur’an, there is a famous verse/ayah (9:3). It is just a short sentence which could lead to a terrible misunderstanding – if you get the case ending of a single word wrong.

Warm-up: the vocab we need

Before we go right into the analysis, let us first clarify two expressions so that the vocab is clear.

  • بَرِيءٌ مِنَ means to keep aloof of; devoid of, free from (obligation). In Arabic, we could say خالِصٌ نَقِيٌّ
  • الْمُشْرِكُونَ means polytheists

The verse (9:3) we are talking about

…وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِيءٌ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ وَرَسُوله

The crucial question: How would you pronounce the last word رَسُوله?

OPTION 1 – مرفوع/marfoua (nominative case): ُرَسُولُه (rasouluhu)
OPTION 2 – مَجْرُور/majrour  (genitive case): ِرَسُولِه (rasoulihi)
OPTION 3 – منصوب/mansoub (accusative case): ُرَسُولَه (rasoulahu)
The correct reading is OPTION 1:  رَسُولُهُ

A literal translation of the verse when we use OPTION 1 could be:

that Allah is disassociated from the disbelievers, and [so is] His Messenger.

The famous Qur’an expert Abdul Haleem rearranges the sentence and puts the expression رَسُولُهُ to the front in order to avoid any misunderstanding: Allah and His Messenger are released from [treaty] obligations to the idolaters.

The analysis of the first part of the sentence (إعراب)

So why do we need to place and pronounce a Damma (ضَمّة) indicating a nominative/marfoua case (مَرْفُوع)?

أَنَّparticle that changes the usual case endings (حَرْف نَسْخ).
اللَّهَ“subject” or noun of ‘anna (اسْم أنَّ). It has to be in the accusative case – mansoub (مَنْصُوب)
بَرِيءٌpredicate of ‘anna (خَبَر أَنَّ). It has to be in the nominative case – marfoua (مَرْفُوع).
مِنَpreposition (حَرْف جَرّ) + helping vowel.
الْمُشْرِكِينَnoun in the genitive case – majrour (مَجْرُور) – , dragged by the preposition.

OPTION 1: nominative case (مَرْفُوع)

Now let’s focus on the interesting part.

What about the last two words?

Let’s put وَ and رَسُولُهُ under the microscope.

وconjunction/coupler, so called atf (حَرْف عَطْف). It simply conveys the meaning of and.
رَسُولُهُSUBJECT – mubtada’ (مُبْتَدَأ) – of a NOMINAL sentence (جُمْلة اسْمِيّة)!

Okay, let’s stop here for a second. Why is that the mubtada’? And if we have a nominal sentence, shouldn’t there be a predicate, i.e., the khabar (خَبَر)?

Where is the predicate (خَبَر)?

It was deleted (مَحْذُوف)!

However, the predicate is implicitly and virtually understood. The sentence can be understood as follows (تَقْدِير الْجُمْلة):

وَرَسُولُهُ بَرِيءٌ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ

or

وَرَسُولُهُ بَرِيءٌ مِنْهُمْ

Why was the predicate (khabar) deleted?

That has to do with good style in Arabic. In the Qur’an you will often find that, for example, when you use the وَ to connect an entire sentence that conveys the some content (predicate) and tge only difference is the subjct. Thus, you don’t need to reiterate the information (predicate).

Now, what about the other two options?

OPTION 2: genitive/majrour (مَجْرُور) case

Let’s essay وَرَسُولِهِ and try to make it grammatically work. What do we eventually get?

If you recite …anna-llaha baree’un min al-mushrikeena wa-rasoulihi with a genitive ending, you end up producing a BLASPHEMOUS (كُفْر) sentence fragment:

…that Allah keeps aloof from the polytheists AND FROM His Prophet.

… أَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِيءٌ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ وَرَسُولِهِ

Is the genitive case here grammatically wrong?

No, grammatically speaking, it isn’t. But in an Islamic context, it simply doesn’t make sense at all! How can we end up with the genitive case? It is actually the easiest option.

We simply understand the word prophet (رَسُول) as the word after a conjunction (عَطْف). Grammatically speaking, such words are followers (تابِع) and get the same case as the word before و. In our example, this is the genitive case because the preposition مِن induces the genitive case in the word مُشْرِكُون.

In a nutshell, prophet is like the variable B in the the following example: He likes A AND B.

A small trick could save the reader: the oath (قَسَم)

How would that work? Well, you probably know the expression “wallahi” (وَاللهِ) which means: I swear by Allah! The و here is not a conjunction but a Waw of the oath (واو القَسَم).

I don’t wanna get into the details why this و goes along with the genitive case (it has to do with an underlying meaning of a verb that needs a preposition – I explain that in detail in both books Arabic for Nerds 1 and 2). We just apply this rule which would leave us with: وَرَسُولِهِ

In other words, the entire verse of the Qur’an then would convey the following meaning:

…that Allah keeps aloof from the polytheists, I swear by the prophet!

But watch out: Since the meaning is ambiguous, the scholars agreed that you must not read it with Kasra (genitive).

I know many people telling me things like “well, I don’t really need grammar, who cares and most people will understand the sentence anyway”. Okay, fair enough – this may work in many situations. But as soon as you enter sensitive terrain, you might terribly err if you don’t care about the correct vowels. Thus, in my opinion, having a sound basis of I’rab (إعراب) is essential for a good and correct understanding of Arabic. Especially if you read religious, holy scripts, you should really watch out and try to do the إعراب.

Damma or Kasra - How a wrong vowel may produce blasphemy 3

OPTION 3: accusative case – mansoub (مَنْصُوب)

Now, could we also say رَسُولَه?

Actually, this would work. The accusative case can be explained in two ways – and both are fine regarding the grammar and the intended meaning!

A. We assume that it refers to the “subject” – the ism ‘anna (اسْم أَنَّ).

In our examples, this is the word Allah. The و works as a conjunction. In Arabic, we would say عَطْفًا عَلَى لَفْظِ اسْمِ أَنَّ. The intended meaning then is: that Allah is… AND THAT his prophet is…

أَنَّ اللَّهَ بَرِيءٌ ، وَأَنَّ رَسُولَهُ بَرِيءٌ مِنْهُم

B. The expression is the object of accompaniment ( مَفْعُولٌ مَعَهُ)

That was an explanation of the famous scholar Zamakhshari (الزَّمَخْشَرِيُّ) who said that it would be safe to use it. Such objects often convey “with” (or when talking about a location: at, along, etc.) This would work as the meaning is pretty similar to the intended meaning when using the nominative case.

Excursus: What is unique about Sura 9 of the Qur’an?

Sura 9 of the Qur'an
It is the only Sura that does not begin with the Basmala (بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ). This has to do with the circumstances.

The Sura starts telling the reader about the severance of the treaty (relations) with the idolaters because they had broken it. The main content of the Sura deals with preparations and recruitment for the expedition to Tabuk which took place in the heat of the summer of 631 (9 AH). The hypocrites and those who stayed behind and failed to support the Islamic Prophet are all censured.

Did the misreading of Sura 9:3 start the development of Arabic grammar?

At least there are anecdotes about that.

The reading of Sura 9:3 with the genitive case is the source of many anecdotes. One refers to Abu al-Aswad (أَبُو الأَسْوَدِ) who is often said to be the “inventor” of Arabic grammar. You may have heard about the anecdote about his daughter and the sky.

But the same idea of that anecdote was used with Sura 9:3. When Abu al-Aswad heard a Muslim reciting verse 9:3 with the genitive case, he know he had to do something (مَا ظَنَنْتُ أَنَّ أَمْرَ النَّاسِ قَدْ صَارَ إِلَى هَذَا).

By the way: A similar story is told about Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab (عمر بن الخطاب) who was furious when he heard Muslims reciting the verse 9:3 with the genitive case. You can read more about that in the writings of Ibn al-Anbary (ابن الأنباري) in his famous work Nuzha al-Alba’ (نزهة الألباء).


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Picture credit: pixabay (stevepb)

Last updated: Jul 20, 2019 @ 12:41 – many thanks to Sven!

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