Quranic Grammar Headache!
April 9, 2010 11:41 AM   Subscribe

What's going on grammatically in the opening verse of the Quran, which uses a sound masculine plural for the word "worlds"?

In the opening verse of the Quran (Al-Fatiha), the line which translates into English as "Lord of the worlds" or "Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds" uses the sound masculine plural form of "world" (see Arabic text (second half of second line)). In all of my experience of the language, admittedly only MSA and Levantine/Jordanian colloquial, plural nouns have nearly always been feminine with alif ta added at the end. There are of course exceptions, but then they go to broken plural, not sound masculine.

Full text in Arabic:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين
الرحمن الرحيم
مالك يوم الدين
إياك نعبد و إياك نستعين
اهدنا الصرط المستقيم
صرط الذين أنعمت عليهم غير المغضوب عليهم و لا الضالين

English Transliteration:

Bismillāhi r-rahmāni r-rahīm
Al-hamdu li-llāhi rabbi l-ʿālamīn
Ar-rahmāni r-rahīm
Māliki yawmi d-dīn
Iyyāka naʿbudu wa iyyāka nastaʿīn
Ihdinās ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm
Ṣirāṭ al-laḏīna anʿamta ʿalayhim ġayril maġdūbi ʿalayhim walā ḍ-ḍāllīn.

I appreciate this is a bit of an esoteric question to be asking, but hope you chaps are able to help. The matter has been causing me no end of frustration trying to understand.
posted by Biru to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Better yet it's animate plural, 'multiple living worlds.'

Traditionally the worlds are Nasut, Malakut and Lahut - the human world, the angelic world and the divine world.
posted by nangar at 12:10 PM on April 9, 2010

Apparently Sufi cosmology has five of them.
posted by nangar at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2010

Best answer: Biru, I ignored the fact that you were asking a grammatical question, not a theological one. I just jumped the to 'Oh, the "worlds" thing, I can answer that.' I apologize.

I've assumed that the form ʿālamīn was used because the worlds are defined by the beings live in and perceive them. Of course, it's quite likely that the theological explanations were made up after the fact to explain the odd phrasing of this verse. In which case, nobody really knows really knows why it says that.

All I can say is that the verse implies that a world is a living thing, like a person, and that there's more one of them. I'm not a mystic, or Muslim, and unlike you I don't actually speak Arabic. I've just learned a teeny little bit. I can't help more than that.
posted by nangar at 1:38 PM on April 9, 2010

Best answer: I'm a big fan of Muhammad Asad's commentary on the Qur'an; you can see the relevant section here (not very helpfully formatted). Unfortunately, he doesn't address the specific grammatical question, but he does say "In this instance, the term 'worlds' denotes all categories of existence both in the physical and the spiritual sense," if that helps.
posted by languagehat at 2:36 PM on April 9, 2010

I have always thought of it as meaning two, as in Lord of the two worlds. e.g. One car is "sayyara", two cars is "sayyaratein" and many cars is "sayyarat". I may be wrong though.
posted by xufasch at 2:41 PM on April 9, 2010

I've often wondered about this, too--and was thinking of it only the other day after some mefite or other made a radically (and doubly!) misguided claim about the Egyptian place name El Alamein.

However, I don't know the answer--if there really is an answer other than 'because'. Nangar's suggestion certainly sounds plausible. If no-one else here has any better ideas, have you tried the Arabic forum over on wordreference.com?
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:04 PM on April 9, 2010

Response by poster: I've not yet tried wordreference, wasn't aware of it. As for the Alamein thing, that was my immediate response too upon first reading it, but then I looked again and the vowelling is a kessra and not a fatha.

I think in this case, languagehat and nangar describing the worlds as living things too is perhaps the only way to make this make sense.
posted by Biru at 2:24 AM on April 10, 2010

Perhaps the author was influenced by the cognate terms used in Hebrew and Aramaic, which would be רבון העולמים and ריבון עלמין - "ribon ha-olamim" and "ribon almin". I can see other cognate terms there, like "Māliki yawmi d-dīn" - not that this is necessarily unusual Arabic, just that a similar phrase crops up in Jewish prayers.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:07 AM on April 10, 2010

Best answer: I've never thought about this before so I might be way off:

- It is "Rabb Al-'Alameen" - rhyming with "al rahman al raheem" [as opposed to xufasch's "Rabb Al 'Alamein": 'Alamein would be the dual form]

- 'Alameen is referring to the people/beings of the worlds which is why it gets that plural form using "een". [humans/jinns/other]

[non-muslim arabic speaker]
posted by xqwzts at 11:29 AM on April 10, 2010

In case anyone's interested, I posted a question on WordReference about this--there've been a couple of useful answers, one in Arabic and one in English. The thread is here.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:54 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

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