The Arabic Language Academy in Cairo vis-à-vis a New Grammatical Phrase: al-ism al-ṯulāṯī (The Case of sāfara Muḥammad ʿAlī Ḥasan)

In: From Sībawayhi to ʾAḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt: New Angles on the Arabic Linguistic Tradition


The regular Arabic pattern of a person’s proper name was essentially formed as a chain of pedigree introduced by the names of the person’s ancestors with the word ibn between them, such as Fayṣal (i)bn Ḥusayn (i)bn ʿAlī.

In modern times, in Egypt under Western rule, a new model began to prevail. The proper name became a combination of a first name and an additional name, but the word ibn was omitted even though the relationship between the two names was usually of a son and his father (or grandfather), as, for example, in the name of the famous writer Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (originally Ṭāhā (i)bn Ḥusayn). Moreover, sometimes the official proper name became a combination of three juxtaposed names with no ibn in between. Thus, it turned into ism ṯulāṯī, three names coming together while the word ibn is absent, as in Muḥammad ʿAlī Ḥasan instead of Muḥammad (i)bn ʿAlī (i)bn Ḥasan.

This phenomenon actually created a new grammatical pattern in which the status of its components and their ʾiʿrāb were doubtful.

In his efforts to find a reasonable solution to the problem, ʾAḥmad Ḥasan al-Zayyāt, one of the members of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, proposed to avoid the case endings in this new pattern and to enable taskīn of the doubtful components. Al-Zayyāt’s proposal created a long discussion inside the Academy, lasting for more than two decades and ending with a solution whereby the user was given the right to choose between the use or avoidance of the case endings in the new pattern. By doing so, the Academy remained faithful to its ideology and did not renounce its adherence to the heritage of Arabic grammar but provided the Arabic language with an additional optional model.