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Quran and Sunnah

Plurals in the Quran

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qurankareem.jpgA plural in Arabic can belong to one of a number of categories.  The most simplistic division would yield the following categories:1.       Standard Masculine Plurals جمع مذكر سالم such as مُسْلِمُوْنَ  or عالِمِيْنَ.

2.       Standard Feminine Plurals جمع مؤنث سالم such as تائِباتٌ or سائِحاتٍ.

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3.       Broken Plurals جمع تكسير such as عُلَمآءُ or سُيُوْفٌ

The vast majority of words in Arabic come with broken plurals.  For those of you that haven’t done much studying in the realm of Arabic grammar, here’s an easy to understand comparison between ‘standard’ plurals vs. ‘broken’ plurals.  In English, the easiest way to make something plural is by adding an ‘s‘ at the end. The plural of book is books, that of car is cars and that of house is houses.  Is adding an ‘s’ at the end the only way of pluralizing a noun in English?  What about mouse, tooth, goose and phenomenon? The plurals of such words are unpredictable and for any that are new to the English language, they represent a real challenge because they can’t be guessed using a straight forward formula like adding an ‘s’.  The ‘s’ therefore represents the standard plural in English and the rest of the plurals, those that are unpredictable in nature would be considered broken plurals.  In Arabic, there are at least four equivalents of adding an ‘s’. Those are oona & eena  for masculine plurals and aatun & aatin for feminine plurals. Broken plurals represent one of the toughest areas of vocabulary building for Arabic students as they take the lion’s share of plurals in the language and are relatively unpredictable.

The introduction above was necessary for me to write to you about the actual topic.  In some very interesting cases, the Arabic language offers multiple plurals for the same word.  Here are some examples:

1.       The wordنِعْمَةٌ   is known to have two broken plural نِعَمٌ and أَنْعُمٌ .

2.       The word سُنْبُلَةٌ is known to have the standard feminine plurals سُنْبُلاتٌ and سُنْبُلاتٍ but also the broken plural سَنابِلُ.

It is curious that the Qur’an uses both the plural renditions in each of the cases above. This necessarily leads to an inquiry into what differences there are between them. Is كُفّار the same as كافِرُوْنَ or نبِيُّوْنَ the same as أَنْبِيآءُ ? This article, based on the priceless work of Dr. Fadel Saleh Al-Samerai (priceless doesn’t even begin to capture what his work means to Qur’anic Arabic students), will explore some aspects of the differences in these plurals and their intricate usage in the Qur’an.

Here are two general rules:

a.        If a word has both a standard plural and a broken plural, the standard plural is less in number than the broken plural.  The standard plural in such cases is called the minimal plural جمع قلة while the broken plural is called the plentiful plural جمع كثرة .

b.       The broken plural is known to have 47 templates or patterns. Of these templates, only four are considered minimal plurals or جمع قلة . These are :

أَفْعُل               أَفْعال                    فِعْلَة                      أَفْعِل

The remaining 43 patterns are plentiful plurals  جمع كثرة .  If a word has two broken plurals, chances are one of the two belongs to the جمع قلة  templates.

Now let us look at two cases of varying plurals used in the Qur’an:

1.       نِعَمٌ and أَنْعُمٌ : Two Plurals for Blessings / Favors

Allah celebrates the great character of Ibrahim عليه السلام in 16:112 and of his noteworthy characteristics is the phrase

شاكِراً لِأَنْعُمِهِ .  The plural أَنْعُم matches the pattern of the minimal plural جمع قلة that is أَفْعُل.  We know that Allah’s favors cannot be counted.  Countless favors of Allah are visible and countless more are in the realm of the unseen.  This truth is even attested to in the divine word with the phrase: (16:18 & 14:34)

وَإِن تَعُدُّواْ نِعْمَةَ اللّهِ لاَ تُحْصُوهَا

If  you are to try and count Allah’s blessings, you won’t be able to account for them. (rough translation)

We are being taught that even though Ibrahim عليه السلام is remarkably grateful to Allah, his gratitude doesn’t extend to all of Allah’s blessings because that is impossible.  For how can anyone be grateful for what they can’t even count!

There is another instance of the minimal plural أَنْعُمْ  in the Qur’an.  Allah gives us the example of a town that had remained in peace & whose provision was freely flowing into it from every direction.  Before going on, take into consideration that the two universal requirements for a functional society are peace (law & order, security, protection of life & property) and prosperity (economic opportunity).  The absence of any one of these two basic societal needs lead to chaos.  If peoples businesses, lives and homes aren’t safe, the society will collapse.  On the other hand, even if they are safe but can’t find any means to provide for themselves and their families, the society can’t be sustained.  Allah mentions both of these favors in brief and then remarks about their ingratitude:

فَكَفَرَتْ بِأَنْعُمِ اللهِ

Then it (the town) was ungrateful/ was in denial of the blessings of Allah.

Of the countless favors of Allah, these two big favors; peace and prosperity; have been highlighted in the ayah and so the ‘blessings’ are mentioned in their minimal plural form.

On the other hand, when Allah mentions His blessings not in the context of human gratitude or ingratitude but rather as His gift upon us, He, rightfully so, uses the plentiful, maximal plural نِعَم in 31:20

وَأَسْبَغَ عَليْكُمْ نِعَمَهُ ظاهِرَةً وباطِنَةً

He has completely unleashed his favors upon you; both manifest and unseen.

The use of ظاهرة وباطنة (manifest and unseen) makes the use of نِعَم (the plentiful plural of blessing) even more appropriate in this context.

2.       Two Plurals of سُنْبُلَة : سُنْبُلاتٌ and سَنابِلُ

In 2:261, Allah gives an example in regards to those who spend in His path.  A grain yields seven ears (سَنابِلَ سَبْعَ) and each ear yields a hundred grains.  The word for ear (like an ear of corn) is the plentiful plural.  The king in the story of Yusuf عليه السلام sees a dream of seven ears but, his  dream is mentioned in the Qur’an using the minimal plural (سَبْعَ سُنْبُلاتٍ ) in 12:43.  Why mention the plentiful plural and then the minimal plural for the same number of ears?  Conventional expectation would be to use the minimal plural in both cases but since the first case is one of Allah multiplying the spending of the believer many fold, every component of the text illustrates the power of that multiplication & magnification.  The context calls for the use of the more powerful of the two plurals, سنابِل.   The subtle use of the word سنابِل also tells us that though He promises 7 ears coming out of one grain, those seven are mysteriously more than what we are accustomed to seeing in this world.

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Nouman Ali Khan is the director of the Bayyinah Institute. He is well known for his contributions in the fields of Arabic and Quranic studies - most recently starting a full time on-campus institute for this purpose in Dallas, TX.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. suhail

    October 27, 2008 at 7:27 PM

    Asalaamu alaikum,
    MashaAllah brother interesting piece, one thing though the first ayah is (16:121).

    • Ahmad Mohammad

      December 16, 2016 at 7:23 PM

      Thank you for pointing out that Allah SWT celebrates the great character of Ibrahim AS in 16:121 …

  2. Umm Reem

    October 27, 2008 at 8:23 PM

    mashaAllah…barikAllahu fika!

  3. AmatulWadood

    October 27, 2008 at 8:25 PM

    Jazakum Allahu khayran!

  4. Farhan

    October 27, 2008 at 9:55 PM

    Great post!….wish MM produced more articles like this….inshallah, both Sheikh Yasirs, Bro Nauman, Dr. Shehata and the other brothers/sisters who post quality articles like this will do so more oftern. All though i’m sure they all have super crazy insane schedules and commitments, the amount of people who would benefit would be countless. Kinda sad too see the ratio of articles like these to some of the other stuff on MM

  5. aarij

    October 27, 2008 at 11:08 PM

    Wow, subhan Allah! That is SO amazing. It’s like opening up a completely different dimension to these ayat that I never thought or knew existed. Ya Salaam.

    Ustadh, we are ANXIOUSLY awaiting your arrival here in Canada :)

  6. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    October 28, 2008 at 3:07 AM

    bismillah. mashaAllah, we’ve got brother Nouman as our teacher right now here in Houston! just finished night four, alhamdolillah.

    in comments in that other MM article i mentioned how we learned in class that ‘isms that end with an “N” (noon) sound are the general rule. and that there are specific reasons why any ‘ism would lack that ending sound. well today we discovered that the most common reason in the Qur’an is Allah’s use of idhafah. we learned how to spot these pairs (or series of pairs) of ‘isms, such as “maliki yawm ud-deen” (which is three words, but two idhafahs).

    there are arguably many things that could be improved about how Muslims practice Islam — pointedly these are the faults of the Muslims and not of Islam. among them is too much reliance on translations, and too little emphasis on Qur’an-comprehension. it seems more and more clear to me that people who have tied themselves to translations have cut themselves off from much of the beauty and wonder of the Qur’an.

    i pray that Allah will increase us in our benefit from this class, and increase the opportunities for Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world to read the Qur’an with comprehension, and make the Muslims who are alive now the ones responsible for revitalizing the study of the Qur’an in Arabic all over the world, now and for generations to come. ameeeen.

  7. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    October 28, 2008 at 3:10 AM

    bismillah. also, i’m not sure if there is any way to fix this. but the article would benefit if the font-size of the arabic text were increased relative to the rest of the text on the page. it might be OS/browser dependent, but in Firefox on my Mac, the arabic text is really tiny.

    • Ahmad Mohammad

      December 16, 2016 at 7:13 PM

      Sorry, just come across your comment on the article. Try pressing the “Reading View” icon that looks like a book on the top, right hand corner of the page. Hope this helps

  8. umtalhah

    October 28, 2008 at 5:31 AM

    as salam alaikum,
    mashaAllah very beneficial….jazakumAllahu khairan to everyone involved in bringin g it to us.

  9. H

    October 28, 2008 at 10:22 AM

    Alhamdulillah, a brilliant article showing the vastness of the Qur’an, which our small minds would take 100 life times to comprehend. I look forward to more articles of this nature from the brother, and hope to see him in the UK for a course inshaAllah.

  10. MR

    October 28, 2008 at 10:28 AM

    bayyinah.com – Ustadh Nouman’s Arabic Institute

  11. ahmed

    October 28, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    as salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu Br Nouman,

    Is there a central location for all of Dr Fadel as-Samarrai’s material? I have seen some of his videos on youtube, and they are very impressive mashaAllah.

    I’m trying to find out if he has written a book compiling all of this material, or if there is some other central resource.

    jazakum Allahu khairan

  12. AmatulWadood

    October 28, 2008 at 12:20 PM

    brother Ahmed, check out this site: http://www.islamiyyat.com/lamsat.htm (for some reason it’s not working for me now, but it has a lot of work by Dr Faadil on a lot of surahs…I think it’s his website, not sure though Allahu a’lam)

    and brother Nouman sent me his book in word doc, I searched around and alhamdulillah it’s available online here: http://www.saaid.net/book/open.php?cat=2&book=2445

    The youtube videos can be found on this channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/llamast

    may Allah ta’ala bless Dr Fadel!

    (NOTE: All of these are in Arabic)

  13. Farhan

    October 29, 2008 at 11:30 AM

    I always have to read these articles like 8 times before I understand them, but I really enjoy these the most out of any type of article on MuslimMatters

  14. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    October 30, 2008 at 3:06 AM

    bismillah. night five!

    Allah Describes the Qur’an as Mubeen, alhamdolillah. note to Qur’an-haters and other self-deluded peoples, clear ≠ simple.

  15. Mazin

    October 30, 2008 at 12:25 PM

    One more gem from Br. Nouman Masha Allah. Awaiting for more Insha Allah.

  16. nouman

    October 30, 2008 at 12:30 PM

    Dr. Fadel has written a few books. I’m trying hard to get my hands on all of them. We’re actually in the works of acquiring one of his top pupils in Bayyinah. Please make du’a!

    • Anhar Qassim

      July 7, 2016 at 10:08 AM

      Assalamualaikum,
      Afwan ustadzi, I’m Student of University of Darussalam Gontor Indonesia,
      I’m Very intersting about the topic that you wrote specially in the concept of minimal plural (جمع قلة) and Plentiful Plural (جمع كثرة) and I hope that I can chose that topic for my thesis. and its my pleasure if you would like to recommend me some references that related with that.
      Jazakumullah Khoiron Katsiron.

    • anrqsmhsn

      July 7, 2016 at 10:16 AM

      Assalamualaikum,
      Afwan ustadzi, I’m Student of University of Darussalam Gontor Indonesia,
      I’m Very intersting about the topic that you wrote specially in the concept of minimal plural (جمع قلة) and Plentiful Plural (جمع كثرة) and I hope that I can chose that topic for my thesis. and its my pleasure if you would like to recommend me some references that related with that.
      Jazakumullah Khoiron Katsiron.

    • Madeeha

      July 17, 2016 at 6:25 AM

      Wow mashaa Allah super helpful article!!! Qadr Allah that it was written in 2008 and I o lyrics stumbled across it now I 2016 when I’ve just started the Access course!!! Tabarak Allah ustaadh Nouman! Mashaa Allah Bayyinah has come a looong looong way from when you wrote this! One day I pray I can study and get my training Directly u Der your personal guidance and mentorship! Tabarak Allah in your life and time and resources!!!

  17. nouman

    October 30, 2008 at 1:32 PM

    Aarij, I don’t think I can personally come to Canada until 2010 but I sure hope to send some colleagues your way through Bayyinah in 09 insha Allah. Perhaps some you guys can attend a program being offered in Detroit in ’09.

  18. Mazin

    October 30, 2008 at 2:20 PM

    Br. Nouman how hard is to get the copy of one of those books. So that we have a reason to come to you to get it expalined for us ;)

  19. Pingback: Plurals in the Qur’an « ibn ayyub

  20. Ihsan

    January 2, 2014 at 1:18 AM

    Mashallah. And the intro was uber helpful.

  21. Bashyr

    October 30, 2015 at 12:10 PM

    Anybody with ustadh nouman personal email should pls for the sake of Allah help me. or direct me to someone who does .

    • Aly Balagamwala

      October 31, 2015 at 6:15 AM

      You may be able to get a response through his official facebook page or the Bayyinah page.

  22. Wahid

    March 30, 2016 at 12:15 PM

    Thought provoking Brother ma shaa Allah

  23. Fauziah

    May 18, 2016 at 9:26 PM

    This article is phenomenal. I thank my classmate Hakim and teacher Sajid for sharing this site. May Allah bless the writer/ researcher and all who spread the news to fellow Muslims. I live in Singapore.

  24. Noor

    December 8, 2017 at 1:05 PM

    Jazak Allah Khair for the article!

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