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Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi


Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi

Muslim lexicographer
Sculpture of al-Farahidi in Basra
Title ʻAbqarī al-lughah
Born 110 AH/718 CE [1]
Died 786 or 791 CE [1]
Basra, Iraq
Religion Islam
Main interest(s) Lexicography, Philology
Notable idea(s) Harakat, Arabic prosody
Notable work(s) Kitab al-'Ayn

Abu ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad ibn ‘Amr ibn Tammām al-Farāhīdī al-Azdī al-Yaḥmadī (Arabic: أبو عبدالرحمن الخليل بن أحمد الفراهيدي‎; 718 – 786 CE), more commonly known as Al-Farahidi or simply Al-Khalīl, was one of the earliest Arab lexicographers and philologists. His best known contributions are Kitab al-'Ayn (Arabic: كتاب العين‎) regarded as the first dictionary of the Arabic language,[2] the current standard for Harakat (vowel marks in Arabic script), and the invention al-'arud (the study of Arabic prosody),[3][4][5] musicology and metre.[6][7] His study also formed the basis for prosody in the Persian, Turkish and Urdu languages as well.[8] Al-Farahidi was considered the "shining star" of the Basran school of Arabic grammar and a legitimate polymath who was not only a scholar but a genuine man of original ideas.[9][10]


  • Life 1
  • Views 2
  • Legacy 3
  • Works 4
    • Cryptography 4.1
    • Diacritic system 4.2
    • Kitab al-'Ayn 4.3
    • Prosody 4.4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Born in 718 to Azdi parents of modest means, al-Farahidi was from southern Arabia (modern day Oman) and later moved to Basra, Iraq.[4][6][9][11] Originally a Kharijite from the Ibadi sect of Islam, he converted to Sunni upon his move to Iraq, where he lived a simple and pious life;[3][12] he was only a second-generation Muslim, his parents having converted to the faith.[6] It was said that al-Farahidi's father was the first person to be named "Ahmad" after the time of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.[13] His nickname "Farahidi" differed from his tribal name as one of his ancestors was named Furhud; a furhud is a young lion and the plural is farahid.[6] The modern-day descendants of his tribe are the Zahran tribe residing primarily in the Al Bahah Province of Saudi Arabia.[14]

While in Basra, he was a student of Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala'.[4][12] Unlike his contemporaries among Arab and Persian men of letters, al-Farahidi refused both lavish gifts from the ruling class and sinking to the level of maliciously slandering and rumor-mongering against his intellectual rivals.[8] While in Basra, he made a living as a language teacher.[15] He was said to have lived a pious and simple life, performing the pilgrimage to Mecca almost every year.[4] Al-Farahidi lived in a small house made of reeds and once remarked that once he shut his door, his mind did not go beyond it.[12][16] Although some of his students amassed wealth through their own teaching, most of al-Farahidi's income was from falconry and a garden he inheirited from his father.[17]

Al-Farahidi's date of death has been listed as both 786[1][11] and 791 CE.[3][5][18] His preoccupation with deep thoughts led to his death. It is said that one day, al-Farahidi was attempting to work out an accounting system in his head which would save his maid servant from being cheated out of money by a green grocer; he then absent-mindedly bumped into a pillar of a mosque he had wandered in to and sustained a fatal fall.[2][6][13][15]


Al-Farahidi's eschewing of material wealth has been noted by a number of biographers. In his old age, the son of Habib ibn al-Muhallab and reigning governor of the Muhallabids offered al-Farahidi a pension and requested that the latter tutor the former's son. Al-Farahidi declined, stating that he was wealthy though possessing no money, as true poverty lied not in a lacking in money, but in the soul.[19] The governor reacted by rescinding the pension, an act to which al-Farahidi responded with the following lines of poetry:

"He, Who formed me with a mouth, engaged to give me nourishment till such a time as He takes me to Himself. Thou hast refused me a trifling sum, but that refusal will not increase thy wealth."

Embarrassed, the governor then responded with an offer to renew the pension and double the rate, which al-Farahidi still greeted with a lukewarm reception.[19] Al-Farahidi's apathy about material wealth was demonstrated in his habit of quoting Akhtal's famous stanza: "If thou wantest treasures, thou wilt find none equal to a virtuous conduct."[13]

Al-Farahidi distinguished himself via his philosophical views as well. He reasoned that a man's intelligence peaked at the age of forty - the age when the Islamic prophet Muhammad began his call - and began to diminuish after sixty, the point at which Muhammad died. He also believed that a person was at their peak intelligence at the clearest part of dawn.[19]

In regard to the field of grammar, al-Farahidi held the realist views common among early Arab linguists yet rare among both later and modern times. Rather than holding the rules of grammar as he and his students described them to be absolute rules, al-Farahidi saw the Arabic language as the natural, instinctual speaking habits of the Bedouin; if the descriptions of scholars such as himself differed from how the Arabs of the desert naturally spoke, then the cause was a lack of knowledge on the scholar's part as the unspoken, unwritten natural speech of pure Arabs was the final determiner.[20] Al-Farahidi was distinguished, however, in his view that the Arabic alphabet included 29 letters rather than 28 and that each letter represented a fundamental characteristic of people or animals. His classification of 29 letters was due to his consideration of the combination of Lamedh and Aleph as a separate third letter from the two individual parts.[21]


Al-Farahidi was already a household name in the Arab world before his death; he was as respected as the possibly mythical figure Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali in Arabic philology, was the first person to codify the complex metres of Arabic poetry,[9] and has been referred to as the outstanding genius of the Muslim world.[11] Sibawayh and Al-Asma'i were among his students,[3][22] with the former having been more indebted to al-Farahidi than to any of his other teachers;[23][24] Sibawayhi quotes al-Farahidi 608 times in his infamous Kitab, more than any other authority.[25] At any point in the Kitab when Sibawayh says "I asked him" or "he said" without mentioning a name, he is referring to al-Farahidi.[2] Both the latter and the former are historically the earliest and most significant figures in respect to the formal recording of the Arabic language.[26]

In addition to the Arabic language, al-Farahidi was also well versed in astronomy, mathematics, Islamic law, music theory and Muslim prophetic tradition.[2][7][9][27] His prowess in the Arabic language was said to be drawn, first and foremost, from his vast knowledge of Muslim prophetic tradition as well as exegesis of the Qur'an.[17] The Al Khalil Bin Ahmed Al Farahidi School of Basic Education in Rustaq, Oman is named after him.[28]


In addition to his work in prosody and lexicography, al-Farahidi was also considered the first person to write about the rules governing the use of metre in Arabic poetry (ʻarūḍ) and musicology in the Arabic language.[29][30] He is often referred to as a genius by historians and was considered not only a scholar, but an inventor of ideas.[10]


Al-Farahidi was the first of many linguists who would author works on the topic of cryptography and cryptanalysis.[31] He wrote a book on cryptography titled the "Book of Cryptographic Messages."[32] The lost work contains many "firsts", including the use of permutations and combinations to list all possible Arabic words with and without vowels.[33] Later Arab cryptographers explicitly resorted to al-Farahidi's phonological analysis for calculating letter frequency in their own works.[34]

Diacritic system

Al-Farahidi is also credited with the current standard for Arabic diacritics; rather than a series of indistinguishable dots, it was al-Farahidi who introduced different shapes for the vowel diacritics in Arabic, which simplified the writing system so much that it hasn't been changed since.[35] He also began using a small letter shin to signify the shadda emphatic mark. Al-Farahidi's style for writing the Arabic alphabet was much less ambiguous than the previous system where dots had to perform various functions, and while he only intended its use for poetry it was eventually used for the Qur'an as well.[36]

Kitab al-'Ayn

Kitab al-Ayn was the first dictionary ever written for the Arabic language.[37][38][39][40] Ayn is the deepest letter in Arabic, al-Ayn also means a water source in the desert. It was titled "the source" because the goal of its author was to clarify those words which were composed the original or source Arabic vocabulary.


Al-Farahidi's first work was in the study of Arabic prosody, a field for which he is credited as the founder.[41][42] Reportedly, he performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca while a young man and prayed to God that he be inspired with knowledge no one else had.[16] When he returned to Basra shortly thereafter, he overheard the rhythmic beating of a blacksmith on an anvil, he immediately wrote down fifteen metres around the periphery of five circles which were accepted as the basis of the field and still accepted as such in Arabic language prosody today.[2][5][6][8] Three of the meters were not known to Pre-Islamic Arabia, suggesting that al-Farahidi may have invented them himself.[43] He never mandated, however, that all following Arab poets must necessarily follow his rules without question, and even he was said to have knowingly broken the rules at times.[44]


  1. ^ a b c d e Sībawayh, ʻAmr ibn ʻUthmān (1988), Hārūn, ʻAbd al-Salām Muḥammad, ed., Al-Kitāb Kitāb Sībawayh Abī Bishr ʻAmr ibn ʻUthmān ibn Qanbar, Introduction (3rd ed.), Cairo: Maktabat al-Khānjī, pp. 11–12 
  2. ^ a b c d e Introduction to Early Medieval Arabic: Studies on Al-Khalīl Ibn Ahmad, pg. 3. Ed. Karin C. Ryding. Georgetown University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780878406630
  3. ^ a b c d al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad at the Encyclopædia Britannica Online. ©2013, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc..
  4. ^ a b c d Abit Yaşar Koçak, Handbook of Arabic Dictionaries, pg. 19. Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler, 2002. ISBN 9783899300215
  5. ^ a b c Hamid Dabashi, The World of Persian Literary Humanism, pg. 64. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012. ISBN 9780674067592
  6. ^ a b c d e f Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 23.
  7. ^ a b Muhammad Hasan Bakalla, "Ancient Arab and Muslim Phoneticians: An Appraisal of Their Contrubition to Phonetics." Taken from Current Issues in the Phonetic Sciences: Proceedings of the IPS-77 Congress, Miami Beach, Florida, 17-19th December 1977, Part 1, pg. 4. Eds. Harry Francis Hollien and Patricia Hollien. Volume 9 of Current Issues in Linguistic Theory Series. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1979. ISBN 9789027209108
  8. ^ a b c John A. Haywood, Arabic Lexicography: Its History, and Its Place in the General History of, pg. 21. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1960. OCLC 5693192
  9. ^ a b c d John A. Haywood, Arabic, pg. 20.
  10. ^ a b Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, vol. 2, pg. 435. Trns. Franz Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. ISBN 9780691017549
  11. ^ a b c Paula Casey-Vine, Oman in History, pg. 261. London: Immel Publishing, 1995. ISBN 9781898162117
  12. ^ a b c Introduction to Early Medieval Arabic, pg. 2.
  13. ^ a b c Ibn Khallikan, Deaths, pg. 497.
  14. ^ Kathy Cuddihy, An A to Z of Places and Things Saudi, pg. 6. London: Stacey International, 2001. ISBN 9781900988407
  15. ^ a b John A. Haywood, Arabic, pg. 22.
  16. ^ a b Ibn Khallikan, Deaths, pg. 494.
  17. ^ a b Aujourd'hui L'Egypte, iss. #18-20, pg. 114. Egypt: Hayʾah al-ʻĀmmah lil-Istiʻlāmāt, 1992. Digitized by AbeBooks July 16, 2010.
  18. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 7.
  19. ^ a b c Ibn Khallikan, Deaths, pg. 495.
  20. ^ Yasir Suleiman, "Ideology, grammar-making and standardization." Taken from In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture, pgs. 13-14. Ed. Bilal Orfali. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011. ISBN 9789004215375
  21. ^ Gerhard Bowering, "Sulami's treatise on the science of the letters." Taken from In the Shadow of Arabic, pg. 349.
  22. ^ Florentin Smarandache and Salah Osman, Neutrosophy in Arabic Philosophy, pg. 83. Ann Arbor: American Research Press, 2007. ISBN 9781931233132
  23. ^ Khalil I. Semaan, Linguistics in the Middle Ages: Phonetic Studies in Early Islam, pg. 39. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1968.
  24. ^ Kees Versteegh, Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 39.
  25. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 21. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  26. ^ Toufic Fahd, "Botany and agriculture." Taken from Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Volume 3: Technology, Alchemy and Life Sciences, pg. 814. Ed. Roshdi Rasheed. London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415124123
  27. ^ Monique Bernards, "Pioneers of Arabic Linguistic Studies." Taken from In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture, pg. 213. Ed. Bilal Orfali. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011. ISBN 9789004215375
  28. ^ Abdullah Al Liwaihi , Outward Bound programme launched in Al Farahidi School, Oman Tribune.
  29. ^ Salma Jayyusi, Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, vol. 1, pg. 791. Volume 6 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1977. ISBN 9789004049208
  30. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 62. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. Paperback edition. ISBN 9780748614363
  31. ^ "Combinational analysis, numerical analysis, Diophantine analysis and number theory." Taken from Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Volume 2: Mathematics and the Physical Sciences, pg. 378. Ed. Roshdi Rasheed. London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415124115
  32. ^ Steven Brown, Implementing virtual private networks, pg. 344. New York: McGraw Hill Financial, 1999. ISBN 9780071351850
  33. ^ Broemeling, Lyle D. (1 November 2011). "An Account of Early Statistical Inference in Arab Cryptology". The American Statistician 65 (4): 255–257.  
  34. ^ "Combinational analysis," pg. 377.
  35. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 56.
  36. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 57.
  37. ^ Introduction to Arabesques: Selections of Biography and Poetry from Classical Arabic Literature, pg. 13. Ed. Ibrahim A. Mumayiz. Volume 2 of WATA-publications: World Arab Translators Association. Philadelphia: Garant Publishers, 2006. ISBN 9789044118889
  38. ^ Bernard K. Freamon, "Definitions and Concepts of Slave Ownership in Islamic Law." Taken from The Legal Understanding of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary, pg. 46. Ed. Jean Allain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 9780199660469
  39. ^ A. Cilardo, "Preliminary Notes on the Meaning of the Qur'anic Term Kalala." Taken from Law, Christianity and Modernism in Islamic Society: Proceedings of the Eighteenth Congress of the Union Européenne Des Arabisants Et Islamisants Held at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, pg. 3. Peeters Publishers, 1998. ISBN 9789068319798
  40. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 4. Part of the Landmarks in Linguistic Thought series, vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415157575
  41. ^ Ibn Khallikan, Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch, vol. 1, pg. 493. Trns. William McGuckin de Slane. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1842.
  42. ^ Khalid Furani, Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry, pg. 30. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012. ISBN 9780804782609
  43. ^ James T. Monroe, "Elements of Romance Prosody in the Poetry of Ibn Quzman." Taken from Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics VI: Papers from the Sixth Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics, pg. 63. Eds. Mushira Eid, Vicente Cantarino and Keith Walters. Volume 115 of Amsterdam studies en the theory and history of linguistic science, volume 6 of Perspectives on Arabic linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994. ISBN 9789027236180
  44. ^ Shmuel Moreh, Modern Arabic Poetry: 1800 - 1970 ; the Development of Its Forms and Themes Under the Influence of Western Literature, pg. 192. Volume 5 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Archive, 1976. ISBN 9789004047952

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