Arabic Grammar Question

Assalamu 3alaikum,

An arabic question was posted on my dear brother Zacharia's blog which stated:

"How would you define Subhan-Allah?"

Since this question was posted almost a week back, I decided to post the answer here instead of commenting over there (Also, it would be too long of a comment too!). Unless you are an Arabic grammar(Nahwu – نحو)/morphology(Sarf – صرف) geek like me, you may not find this post interesting at all :). Please note also that some of the english terms that I am using are terms that I made up in an attempt to translate the arabic term as accurately as possible. I prefer using the Arabic terms. And if you are not too familiar with English and Arabic grammar, you may find this hard to understand. You may also want to increase the font size to see the Arabic words. Let's begin!

As answered on Zacharia 's blog, Subhana-Allahi is actually two words:

1 – Subhaana سُبْحَانَ: It literally means to exalt and make something higher than and above all things that lower its status

2 – Allahi اللَّهِ – Subhanahu wa ta3aala

Subhaana is an infinitive form (in Arabic terminology known as the مَصْدَرْ) of the verb sa-ba-ha (سَبَحَ). An infinitive is part of a branch of nouns called (Verb-like nouns – الأَسْماء المُشَبَّهَة بالأَفعال). These nouns are similar to verbs in that they indicate an action which has been performed. This class actually consists of 9 different types of nouns:

a) The infinitve – المَصْدَر
b) The Subject Noun – اسْمُ الفاعِل
c) The Object Noun – اسْمُ المَفْعول
d) The Subject Noun-like Adjective – الصِّفَة المُشَبَّهَة باسْمِ الفاعِل
e) Exaggeration Forms – صِيَغُ المُبالغَة
f) Preference Nouns – اسْمُ التَّفْضيل
g) Positional Nouns – اسْمُ المَكان
h) Durational Nouns – اسْمُ الزَّمان
i) Nouns which describe machines – اسْم الاّلَة

Anyway, an infinitive form indicates an action without giving any reference to time, and it consists of the letters which make up its verb. Example:

Da-ra-ba ضَرَبَ (hit) —> Darban ضَرباً (act of hitting)

Qa-a-ta-la قاتَلَ (fought) —> Qitaalan قِتالاَ (fighting)

For those of you who are familiar with the sentence structure of the Arabic language, there are two types of sentences:

a) Verbal Sentences (جُمَلْ فِعْلِيَّة) which begin with a verb

b) Nounal Sentences (جُمَل اسمِيَّة) which begin with a noun

Subhaana is not a verb; it is a noun (an infinitive – مَصدَر) as stated above, and it has the form (وَزْن) "Fu3laan – فُعْلان". Another similar example would be gha-fa-ra غَفَرَ (forgave) —> Ghufraan غُفْران (Forgiveness). Since subhaana is a noun, then it should have the grammatical state of Raf3 (رَفْع) since it is the beginning of the Nounal sentence (called مُبْتَدَأ); i.e. it should have a Dammah (ضَمَّة) on the last letter making it subhaanu (َسُبْحانُ). This is obviously not the case. Hence the sentece is not a nounal sentence. The sentence must be verbal then. Where is the verb?? It is not mentioned (It must have been omitted – مَحذوف).

The phrase "Subhaana Allahi" is well known and has been used for a very long time, and as such, grammaticians know what this phrase means and what the omitted verb ought to be. The say that original phrase without omitting the verb should read أُسَبِّحُ سُبْحانَ اللهِ which can be translatied as "I praise Allah exalting Him above all attributes that do not suit His majesty". So the verb أُسَبِّحُ was omitted. The verb sa-ba-ha has many meanings but the most accurate one here is "to praise".

Obviously, the noun Subhaana in the state of Nasb نَصْب because of the Fatha فَتْحَة on the end. In a verbal sentence, nouns which are mansuub مَنْصوب are part of the family of Mafaaa3eel مَفاعيل . Without mentioning them all, I'll can say for sure that Subhaana is not an object مَفْعول بِهِ because subhaana is not the thing that that action of praise was done to. Instead, subhaana describes the type of praise (in this case it is exalting Allah above all derogatory attributes).

Coming to the answer (you are thinking: "OMG, this guy could have just said it from the beginning!"), an infinitve that indicates the number of times an action has been performed, or the type of action, or the repetitivity of the action, and which has the same form of the verb is called the absolute object مَفعول مُطْلَق . It is always Mansuub مَنْصوب and its verb can be omitted (this technique of omission is used in speeches as part of Arabic elequoence and conciseness).

So the answer is:

Subhaana is a مَفْعول مُطْلق. And it is obviously a mudaaf مُضاف like Zacharia said, and Allahi is Mudaaf Ilayh مُضاف إلَيْه. But just as a note, a mudaaf can have any harakah حَرَكَة on it, and by saying a word is a mudaaf, you are not specifiying its grammatical place in the sentence. Mudaaf Ilayh on the other hand fully speficies a nouns place in the sentences, and it always comes as Majruur مَجْرور.

(Note in another book I read, it says that Subhaana is نائِب مَفْعول مُطْلَق (something that substitues for the Absolute object)).
This question has motivated me to freshen up my Arabic. I intend to post some "lessons" every once and a while inshallah.

For real "Arabic Gems", go here. (Highly encourage you to look at this site, just wonderful!)

If anything I said is correct, then it is from Allah. If I said anything thing incorrect, then it is from myself.

Please keep me in you du'a.

Assalamu 3alaikum,

Your brother,



1) جامع الدروس العربية لمصطَفى الغلاييني

2) شرح كافية ابن الحاجب نأليف رضيّ الدين الأستراباذي

3) شرح شافية ابن الحاجب نأليف رضيّ الدين الأستراباذي

4) الشامل في النحو و الصرف و البلاغة و العروض و الإعراب تأليف الدكتتور محمد حسن الحمصي

6 Responses to “Arabic Grammar Question”

  1. anonymous Says:

    assalamu 3aliakum,

    wow, I searched this topic for hours and I didn’t find anything but the definition.

    It is an interesting post actually. I’ve always wondered what Subhan Allah meant, but I never asked because I thought it was one of those I’ll never understand.

    Jazak Allah Khair
    assalamu 3aliakum

  2. arabicgems Says:

    al-Salaamu ‘alaykum,

    This is an excellent post maa shaa’ Allaah. More like it would be appreciated, for similar frequently-used terms such as ‘maa shaa’ Allaah’, ‘al-Hamdu lillaah’, ‘Allaahu Akbar’ etc.

    Jazaakum Allaahu khayran.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Assalaamu ‘Alaikum

    Jazaakallaahu khairan for this! Maa shaa’ Allaah…

  4. salam alaykom Says:

    I just wanted to ask if you had any idea about making arabic phrase structure rules, because I searched in the net for hours and couldnt get any thing . For exampl, how can I write phrase structure rule to the following sentence:
    نامت نواطير مصر عن ثعالبها.
    which is taking from Diwan al-mutanabi.

    jazaka llah khayran.

  5. billo Says:

    Wa 3alaikum Assalaam,

    Firstly, I must tell you that I'm not a linguist. I am an engineering student 🙂

    I don't think Arabic has definite phrase structure rules that are applicable for all cases. Mainly because you can rearrange the same sentence in Arabic for linguistic purposes such as showing emphasis or for suiting metrics of poems, etc (There are some cases where you cannot do this though). The sentence you are asking about can also be written as:

    نامت نواطير مصر عن ثعالبها

    نواطير مصر نامت عن ثعالبها

    نواطير مصر عن ثعالبها نامت

    عن ثعالبها نامت نواطير مصر

    عن ثعالبها نواطير مصر نامت

    All these are grammatically correct, and compose full sentences (Allahu A3lam). So you can't always predict what comes next.

    I can say for sure that a "sentence" جملة must be at least composed of two things:
    1) Some judgement or attribute ascribed to something مُسْنَد
    2) That thing that the judgment or attribute was ascribed to مُسْنَد إلَيْه

    (This combination of Musnad and Musnad_Ilayh is called Isnaad إسْناد)

    eg. "Mohammed left"
    "Left" is the مُسْنَد (the action of leaving is ascribed to Mohammed)
    "Mohammed" is the مًسْنَد إلَيْه (Mohammed is the person who was judged as having left)

    We can say مُحَمَّد راح or راحَ مُحَمَّد. Both arrangements are valid. And as long as the two components are there (either explicitly or implicitly), then the sentence is grammatically correct. So if you try to assign a simple phrase structure rule for a "sentence", then you can't really specify any order can you?

    Sentence –> Musnad Musnad_Ilayh OR Musnad_Ilayh Musnad

    If we add the phrase "to school" إلى المَدْرَسَة we can say:

    مُحَمَّد راح إلى المَدْرَسَة

    إلى المَدْرَسَة مُحَمَّد راح

    راح مُحَمَّد إلى المَدْرَسَة

    إلى المَدْرَسَ راح مُحَمَّد

    Adding this phrase before of after doesn't remove the validity of a sentence. Perhaps some forms are used more often than others (#1 and #3), but all of these are grammatically correect.

    (A sentence in Aabic "can" start with a particle. You must have heard the poem of Al-Mutanabbi which goes: على قَدر أهل العزم تأتي العزائم)

    So the proposed "rule" would the rule become:

    Sentence –> Musnad Musnad_Ilayh phrase
    or phrase Musnad_Ilayh Musnad
    or phrase Musnad_Ilayh Musnad
    or phrase Musnad_Ilayh Musnad

    This is just a simplistic example showing the problem with setting a rule with a defintie order.

    Omissions are also very common and serve specific puposes (as I showed in my post above). Not all components of the sentence need to be there to it to be grammatically correct. You can have implicit components مُقدَّرة which are understood from context. For example, answering a yes/no question like "Did you go to school today?" with:

    "Yes" or نَعَم

    is a complete sentence. The essential components "I went" and the non essential components "to school" are implicitly understood. A specific phrase structure order would not be applicable here.

    In Arabic there are many types of "constructs" مُرَكَّبات like إسنادي, بياني, مزجي, عددي, عطفي, إضافي which can be arranged to form a sentence. The essential one is the إسنادي (which consists of مسند and مسند إليه); without it the sentence in incomplete. All other constructs are either subcatagories of the إسنادي or are extra components which add meaning to the sentence.

    You probably know more about linguistics than me. I had first heard of this topic in my computer courses when the instructor talked about syntax and rules of a language. I don't think that Arabic can be automated this easily using a parser (although I admit some parts of it have a tree like hierarchy). Maybe a different model is needed.  I have no clear answer for you. I hope what I said sheds some light on this topic (I really hope what I said made sense). I can refer you to someone more knowledgable than me. Ask the same question on this blog:

    You have made me curious. If I find anything relevant, I'll post it inshallah.

    Please keep me in your du'a.
    Assalaamu 3alaikum.

  6. assalam alaykom Says:

    jazaka allah khayran brother. You helped alot.

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