His Name and Upbringing:

His name was Abū Bishr ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān ibn Qanbar, the Leader of Arabic Grammar and the Proof (al-Ḥujja) of the Arabs. He was an Iranian living in Baṣra, Irāq, the author of the unparalleled book of grammar – al-Kitāb. Born in the year 140 AH in the city of al-Baydaʾ in Irān, eight parasangs away from the city of Shiraz. He is widely know as Siybawayhi – (Sib meaning apple in Persian) the apple scented one or the one with rosy apple cheeks, a nickname given to the young Siybawayhi by his mother. It is said that no one was called with such a name in history before him.

During his adolescence, his family decided to migrate to a city of knowledge as was custom in that era. The most popular of choices for Iranian migrants were the three neighbouring cities of Irāq;  Baṣra, Baghdad and Kūfa – his family set their eyes on the epicenter and capital of knowledge – Baṣra, a city which made Siybawayhi turn to religious law.

His Pursuit of Knowledge:

He turned to the people of ḥadīth (Ahl al-Ḥadīth), benefitting from the various gatherings and circles in which narrations and Prophetic traditions were discussed.  One particular circle was of a Ḥamād ibn Salamah, the great ḥadīth specialist of Irāq. al-Qufṭī said: “Siybawayhi was studious in his pursuit. One day during a study of the ḥadīth –

“ليس من أصحابي أحد إلا ولو شئت لأخذت عليه ليس أبا الدرداء”

Instead of reading “ليس أبا الدرداء” the young Siybawayhi read “ليس أبو الدرداء”  ignorantly reading Abā as Abū in a nominative state oblivious to the rule of laysa and its sisters. ‘Siybawayhi, you Iranian! you have erred’ said Ḥamād. ‘It is not what you have thought, but rather it is an exception.’ In a state of embarrassment, Siybawayhi replied; ‘I will go and seek knowledge of Arabic grammar until I do not make any mistakes.’ In another narration it is said that he broke his pen and said; ‘I will not write anything until I have become grounded in the knowledge of Arabic grammar.’ He spent the next 20 odd years studying the sciences of the Arabic Language.

His Teachers:

  1. Ḥamād ibn Salamah ibn Dinār al-Baṣrī. Perhaps this was his first teacher. He was the great worshipper and Muftī of Baṣra. He had no equivalent in the city. He met many of the successors of the Companions such as Ibn Jurayj, Sufyān al-Thawrī and ʿAbdullāh ibn Mubārak. He was a harsh opponent of the people of innovation and married 70 times, however his lineage ended with him. From his students were the two Imāms al-Bukhārī and Muslim, the great ḥadīth specialists. It was Hamād who made Siybawayhi change career and pursue the knowledge of grammar. He died in the year 167 AH.
  2. Abū al-Khaṭṭāb ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ibn ʿAbd al-Majīd commonly known as al-Akhfash al-Akbar was a notable Arab grammarian. He was an Imām of the Arabic language, religious and pious. He sought knowledge directly from the Arabian bedouins, re-introducing Arabic terminologies forgotten amongst the Arabs of the inner-city. He passed away in the year 177 AH.
  3. Yaʿqūb ibn ʾIsḥāq ibn Zayd ibn ʿAbdullāh al-Haḍramī. He was the leading expert of his time in the field of Qurʾānic recitation and language. He is one of the ten transmitters of schools of Qiraʾāt. He was eloquent, precise and well-versed. He died in the year 205 AH.
  4. Al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad ibn ʿAmr ibn Tammām al-Farāhīdī al-Azdī al-Yaḥmadī. It has been mentioned that his father was the first person to be named Aḥmad after the Prophet ﷺ. He was the greatest teacher of Siybawayhi. In fact, when Siybawayhi says in his book al-Kitāb, ‘I heard’ or ‘We were told’ or ‘I asked him’ he is referring to al-Khalīl. He died in the year 175 AH.

His Students:

  1. Abū al-Ḥasan Saʿīd b. Masada, known as al-Akhfash al-Awṣat. He was born in Balkh but moved to Baṣra where he became a client of Tamīm. He died in the year 207 AH.
  2. Abū ʿAlī Quṭrub ibn Aḥmad al-Mustanīr al-Baṣrī. He used to spend his days and nights benefitting from Siybawayhi. Sometimes Siybawayhi would walk out of his house and find Quṭrub waiting by the door. He died in the year 206 AH.

Perhaps the reason why Siybawayhi had so few students was due to a speech impediment he had. Muʿāwīyah ibn Bakr al-ʿIlmī  said; “I once saw ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān. He was a young man and I heard he was a student of al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad. I once heard him speak and noticed that he had a speech impediment. I had a look at his book and found that his knowledge was better than his speech.” Al-Farra mentioned; “I came to him and found that he was an Iranian and inarticulate in his speech. I heard him make a mistake in grammar so I left and never returned back to him again.” Nonetheless it should be noted that al-Farra was a friend of Abū al-Ḥasan, ʿAlī Ibn Hamzah al-Asadī, better known as al-Kisāʾī, one of Siybawayhi’s greatest opponents.

The Debate: The Question of the Hornet:

Siybawayhi set his sight on Baghdad which was governed by the vizier of Hārūn al-Rashīd – Yaḥyá ibn Khālid al-Barmakī. The Barmakīs, were a Persian family of great influence. They achieved great political power under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Yaḥyá fought alongside Hārūn al-Rashīd to capture the throne and rose to power as the most powerful man in the Empire. In Baghdad, Siybawayhi flourished. He started to build his own reputation as the founder of the Baṣrī school of thought. He was visited by scholars, visors, and notables. He won debates and gained mastery over Arabs in their own language,  whilst attracting hostility from rivals and counterparts. From Siybawayhi’s academic enemies was al-Kisāʾī, the founder of the Kūfī school of thought. Siybawayhi sought from Yahyá to set up a debate between him and al-Kisāʾī to which Yahyá advised against. However, with much persistence from Siybawayhi, the date was announced and the arena was chosen. Some of the companions of al-Kisāʾī such as al-Farra, al-Hishām and al-Aḥmar visited Siybawayhi before the main event, debating him and asking him questions. It was as though they were gathering for al-Kisāʾī all of Siybawayhi’s arguments and rebuttals in preparation for the main event.

Al-Farra said: “Siybawayhi persisted that a debate be held between him and al-Kisāʾī and so Yaḥyá organised the event. I and al-Aḥmar attended. There were some chairs in the centre of the court on which Yaḥyá and some grammarian Arabs sat. Al-Aḥmar began asking him questions related to Arabic Grammar and to each answer of Siybawayhi he would say, “You are wrong. Try again.” So I said (to myself) this Siybawayhi is a hasty one. So I began asking him questions to which he answered in error. He would try again, and continue to make mistakes. “I will stop talking to you two. Bring your friend al-Kisāʾī so I can debate him.” said Siybawayhi. al-Kisāʾī entered and said; ‘Will you ask a question or should I start?’ Siybawayhi said; ‘No, you ask.’ So al-Kisāʾī asked; ‘How or what do you say in the sentence of the Arabs;

قد كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةَ من الزُّنْبُوْرِ فَإِذَا هُوَ هِيَ أو فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيَاهَا

 I always thought that the scorpion’s sting was more severe than the hornet. And sure enough it is.’
Al-Kisāʾī’s argument was: are both فَإذَا هُوَ هِيَ and فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيّاهَا grammatically valid. The grammatical point is that هُوَ هِيَ means ‘He is she, while the other is هُوَ إِيّاهَا mean ‘He is her’. The difference of gender between the subject and predicate is a distraction and nothing to do with the issue. (The English equivalent of such sentence is ‘He is I’ and ‘He is me’).
The debate ended by referring the dispute to a group of bedouin Arabs who happened to be standing outside the courtyard. They all favoured al-Kisāʾī’s argument and as a result Siybawayhi was defeated. Broken-hearted due to the fact he was certain that he was correct, he was awarded with 10,000 dirhāms for his loss. It has been said that al-Kisāʾī had bedouin Arabs (Abū Faqas, Abū Ziyād, Abū Thirwān and other) waiting nearby to support him prior to the debate, and Allāh knows best.

His Return Home and His Death:

The defeat had scarred Siybawayhi and he could no long bear to remain in Iraq. Filled with grief and depression, he returned back to Shiraz shortly after the defeat. Ibn Abī Qutaybah said; “He is ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān, and he was a grammarian. He arrived in Baghdad, sat with the local grammarians, was humiliated and went back to some town in Iran, and died there young.” He died at the age of 35 in Shiraz in the year 180 AH.

Al-Kitāb:

Until today, nothing has been authored like it. His book “al-Kitāb” is the first complete book in Arabic grammar, upon which all other Arabic grammar books are based. It is studied all over the world. It is said that after the death of Siybawayhi, al-Kisāʾī studied al-Kitāb and came to appreciate the knowledge of Siybawayhi, and taught al-Kitāb out of respect for him. ʿUthmān al-Mazinī said; “Whosoever wishes to author something magnificent in Arabic Grammar after the Book of Sibawayh, then let him be ashamed of himself.”