I’ve discussed how and when an Arabic student should formally begin to study Classical Arabic Syntax, as developed and codified by the medieval Arabic grammarians, (known as Nahw), in the article How to Learn Arabic.  Below is an annotated translation from Shawkani’s Adab al-Talab, in which he discusses how to go about studying the various sciences.

“[The student should] begin with the primers in syntax, such as Manzumat al-Hariri[1], called al-Mulhah, and its commentaries. When he has understood that, and knows it thoroughly, he should move on to al-Kafiyah of Ibn al-Hajib[2] and its commentaries, and Mughni al-Labib (of Ibn Hisham[3]) and its commentaries.

“This is in relation to Yemen, i.e. if the student happens to be here, for he find teachers for these works, and will not find teachers for other works in syntax, so would have to read them for himself, and would not be able to study them with a scholar. Should he be in some other land, in which they study other works, he should concern himself with what the scholars of those land study, beginning with what is easiest to grasp, and finishing with what is considered the highest text for experts in that science and in that field…

“And know that the student desiring to immerse himself in the sciences of Sacred Law (Sharia), determined to be from the highest level of students, will need to master the disquisitions and issues contained in Sharh al-Radi’ ‘ala al-Kafiyah (see note 2), and likewise the wondrous points addressed in Mughni al-Labib (see note 3). And he should concern himself with studying the commentaries on the primers with scholars after he has memorised the primers such that he can recite them from rote, and quote them with ease, and he should at the very least memorise one primer, which he finds addresses the most number of points, and covers the most useful issues.

“And he should not pass over the likes of al-Alfiyyah of Ibn Malik[4] and its commentaries, and Tashil al-Maqasid (of Ibn Malik) and its commentary (by the same author), and al-Mufussal of Zamakhshari[5], and al-Kitab of Sibawayhi[6], for he will find in these latter books such subtleties of syntax and refined disquisitions as he will not find in the former.”



[1] Qasim b. Ali al-Hariri (d. 516 AH). He is best known for his literary masterpiece Maqamat al-Hariri. He wrote several books on language. Manzumat al-Hariri, better known as Mulhat al-I’rab, is a didactic poem of about 375 lines, covering mainly syntax. It has many commentaries, the best known being that of the author himself, Sharh Mulhat al-I’rab.

[2] Abu ‘Amr ‘Uthman b. Hajib (d. 646 AH). Due to the popularity of al-Kafiyah, the author went on to versify it into a didactic poem, which he called al-Wafiyah. He then wrote a commentary on this poem Sharh al-Wafiyah Nazm al-Kafiyah. Many grammarians wrote commentaries on both al-Kafiyah and al-Wafiyah, the most important being Sharh al-Radi ‘ala al-Kafiyah of Radi’ al-Din al-Istarabadhi (d. 686 AH).

[3] Ibn Hisham al-Ansari (d. 762 AH). The book begins with, and much of it is devoted to, an analysis of 104 particles in Arabic (such as what we would call prepositions). The book assumes a good understanding of the Quran and its commentaries, particularly its linguistic commentaries.

[4] Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Malik (d. 672 AH). His most famous work, al-Khulasah, better known as al-Alfiyyah, is didactic poem comprised of, as the title suggests, just over 1000 lines of poetry. Of all the lengthy didactic poems, it is the most studied, and has attracted the greatest number of commentaries, the best known being those of Ibn Aqeel, Ushmuni, Suyuti, and Shatibi.

[5] Abu al-Qasim Mahmud ibn Umar al-Zamakhshari (d. 1143). His book al-Mufassal transformed and made much more systematic the presentation of Arabic Syntax, which until his time had closely followed the layout of Sibawahyi’s al-Kitab. The best known commentaries are those of Ibn Hajib and Ibn Ya’ish.

[6] Abu Bishr ‘Amr b. ‘Uthman al-Sibawayhi (d. 161). He was the first systematic grammarian of Arabic, and his magnum opus al-Kitab is the seminal work of Classical Arabic Grammar.