In a recent study I argued that the tradition of Imruʾ al-Qays’ death, from a poisoned robe sent to him by Caesar as revenge for seducing his daughter, did not incidentally resemble that of Heracles. In support of that claim it was briefly suggested that the “greatest Arab poet” (ashʿar al-shuʿarāʾ) was not the only founding figure of early Islamic culture to die a mythological Greek death, and that the demise of Sībawayhi, the “leading imām of grammar” (imām a'immat al-naḥw), was also based on a legendary Greek model.Footnote 1 I will here examine this suggestion in detail. Following a discussion of Sībawayhi's biography and the stakes involved in its elaboration in early Islam, I focus on his death, arguing that it is an Arabic adaptation of the tradition of Homer's death, also paralleled in Syriac historiography. I conclude by considering the significance of this Greek death with regard to the old question of Greek influence on early Arabic grammar.
1. The life of Sībawayhi
Even Sībawayhi's earliest biographers knew little about his life. It is not clear exactly when or where he was born, but he was undoubtedly of Persian origin, his name apparently meaning “little apple”. It has been estimated that he arrived in Basra circa 145/762 to study either hadith or Islamic law. Whichever it was,Footnote 2 it did not go well: while studying with Ḥammād b. Salama (d. 167/784) he bungled the recitation of a hadith concerning the piety of Abū l-Dardāʾ (d. 32/652), a Companion of the Prophet, using the nominative (abū) instead of the accusative (abā). Disgraced, he turned to the study of grammar, determined to avoid such humiliation in the future. He proceeded to establish a reputation for himself in his new field and travelled to the newly established capital of Baghdad. There he engaged the famous Kufan grammarians al-Kisāʾī (d. 189/805) and al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) in a public debate highlighted by the infamous “question of the hornet” (masʾalat al-zunbūr), namely: should the final pronoun in qad kuntu aẓunnu anna l-ʿaqraba ašaddu lasʿatan min al-zunbūri, fa-idhā huwa hiya/iyyāhā (“I have long thought that the scorpion is more powerful in terms of its sting than the hornet, and indeed it is”), be nominative (hiya) or accusative (iyyāhā)? Sībawayhi again opted for the nominative, not without justification, but al-Kisāʾī introduced four Bedouin who happened to be outside and confirmed that Sībawayhi was wrong. Humiliated yet again, Sībawayhi returned home to Persia, where he died a young man.
The artifice of Sībawayhi's biography is manifest. Ring composition structures his life symmetrically: just as he left his initial field of study in Basra in disgrace over his choice of the nominative, so in Baghdad the same choice led to public humiliation, marking his departure from the field. It also resulted in his departure from Iraq, adding another ring to his biography, his birth and death in Persia framing a failed attempt to establish himself in the heartland of the Abbasid empire.Footnote 3
Sībawayhi's biography is not simply an elegant piece of storytelling. The stakes for the biography of the founder of the Arabic grammatical tradition, whose practitioners wielded considerable authority, were high.Footnote 4 According to modern and – more importantly – ancient narratives, the raison d’être of the science of grammar was religious.Footnote 5 In the telling of Ibn al-Nadīm (d. 385/995), Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī (d. 69/688) – whose knowledge of grammar was due to none other than ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib – was asked by Ziyād b. Abīhi (d. 53/673), who was governor of Basra and the eastern provinces and well-known for his oratory, to compose a guide to aid believers in accurately reciting the Quran. Abū l-Aswad demurred, but when he overheard someone mangling Q 9:3, disastrously declaring that God was “free of his messenger”, he realized the threat posed to Arabic – and, by extension, Islam – by the people they had conquered.Footnote 6 The belief in their responsibility for the corruption of the language of the Quran echoes throughout the Islamic tradition, as well as in modern scholarship.Footnote 7
Sībawayhi would thus appear an unlikely founder for the Arabic grammatical tradition. In another version of the foundation narrative reported by Ibn al-Nadīm, it was a Persian's malapropism, proclaiming a limping (ẓāliʿ) horse “strong” (ḍāliʿ), which prompted Abū l-Aswad to exclaim: “these mawālī … entered Islam and became our brothers; if only we had taught them how to speak”.Footnote 8 Such a sentiment would have been out of place, however, in the time of Sībawayhi and the reception of his work in Abbasid Baghdad, which was marked by Arab-Persian tension, reflecting Arab anxieties as well as increasing attention to Persian identity.Footnote 9 One of the targets of the strident anti-Arab polemic, associated with a Persian-led Shuʿūbiyya movement,Footnote 10 was Arabic oratory, and the Arabic language more generally.Footnote 11 It was therefore easily perceived as a threat to Islam, for instance by al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/868).Footnote 12 The same al-Jāḥiẓ interpreted the traditional claim for the Quran's inimitability (iʿjāz al-Qurʾān) in linguistic terms, a thesis that gained in strength during the third/ninth century, partially in response to Shuʿūbī claims.Footnote 13
The status of Arabic on the one hand, and of Persians on the other, were then both matters of some sensitivity in Islamic society in this period, and they merged in the figure of Sībawayhi. We find Sībawayhi's work being used alongside that of Homer, Euclid and Ptolemy, as well as icons of Persian identity, in contemporary polemic against the inimitability of the Quran.Footnote 14 One participant in this polemic was Ibn al-Rāwandī of Khurasan (d. 298/910?), who was considered a heretic and either died in hiding in Baghdad or returned to Persia.Footnote 15 The pressure on Persians (or those of Persian descent) who by contrast sought to fit in is apparent in the virulent anti-Persian polemic for which they were responsible, as in Ibn Qutayba's (213–70/828–89) The Excellence of the Arabs; among grammarians, Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004) went to greater lengths than his Arab colleagues in his insistence upon the superiority of Arabic.Footnote 16 Sībawayhi was hardly unusual in being an Arabic grammarian of non-Arab descent,Footnote 17 but the large number of mawālī would have placed pressure on grammarians to establish the standing of their nascent discipline. Furthermore, as the dichotomy between “Islamic” and “foreign sciences” hardened, it would have been in their interest to align their tradition with Islam and dissociate it from foreign influence.Footnote 18 It has indeed been suggested that the substantial effort involved in establishing Abū l-Aswad as the founder of Arabic grammar was motivated by the need for an Arab founder, perhaps in response to Shuʿūbī criticism.Footnote 19
Abū l-Aswad was especially attractive as a founder for the “school” of Basra, because Basran grammarians were traditionally depicted as radical and as departing from the religious tradition that the Kufans were reputed to uphold.Footnote 20 Conversely, the Kufans claimed that it was Abū l-Aswad who had made the crucial grammatical mistake that launched Arabic grammar.Footnote 21 The figure of Sībawayhi, author of the “Quran of grammar”,Footnote 22 could not but play a central role in the struggles over disciplinary history. His book was far from being an immediate success, even among Basrans, but by the fourth/tenth century a chain of transmission had been constructed to lead from Sībawayhi all the way back to Abū l-Aswad.Footnote 23 The Kufans for their part claimed that Sībawayhi had a speech defect and didn't know how to speak Arabic.Footnote 24 The derision directed at him focused on his Persian descent,Footnote 25 which notably was also a source of controversy in the case of both of his Basran teachers, al-Khalīl (d. 160–175/776–791) and Yūnus b. Ḥabīb (d. 182/798).Footnote 26 Sībawayhi's nemesis al-Kisā’ī was of Persian ancestry as well, and like Sībawayhi is said to have sought out grammatical instruction in Basra following some difficulties in Arabic; but he rejected the Basran doctrine, and his reading of the Quran came to be recognized as one of the seven canonical readings.Footnote 27 Whereas the Persian identity of al-Kisā’ī and others was elided, Sībawayhi's was emphasized, as the predominance of his distinctly foreign name – in place of an Arabic patronymic – demonstrates.Footnote 28
Sībawayhi's biography, as we have seen, similarly stresses his foreignness to Iraq and to Islamic scholarship and his rejection by its foremost authorities.Footnote 29 Within the contexts of his work in the second/eighth century and its reception in the third/fourth and ninth/tenth centuries, these biographical traditions clearly did not form randomly and were not shaped by purely aesthetic considerations. They were rather a resource which in these charged circumstances was manipulated to inflect the history of Arabic grammar in the service of competing interests. In an attempt to partially recover the process of these traditions’ formation, we now turn our attention to the tradition of his death.
2. The death of Sībawayhi
Sībawayhi's death, variously dated somewhere between 161/778 and 194/810, was already a matter of controversy in the third/fourth and ninth/tenth centuries. The earliest extant account of Sībawayhi's life and death is by the aforementioned Ibn Qutayba in his al-Maʿārif:
هو عمرو بن عثمان . وكان النحو أغلب عليه، وكان قدم بغداد فجمع بينه وبين أصحاب النحو، فاستذل، فرجع ومضى إلى بعض مدن فارس، فهلك هناك وهو شاب.Footnote 30
He is ʿAmr b. ʿUthmān. He was primarily a grammarian. He came to Baghdād, and a meeting was arranged between him and the grammarians. He was humiliated, returned [to Baṣra]Footnote 31 and departed for a city in Persia, where he died a young man.
It is easy to see how the opaque reference to Sībawayhi's premature death could invite speculation as to what might have happened.Footnote 32 On the other hand al-Zajjājī (d. c. 340/950), who prided himself on mediating between the Basran and Kufan schools, though agreeing that Sībawayhi left for Persia immediately after his loss and remained there until his death, made no mention of him dying young.Footnote 33 Meanwhile al-Sīrāfī (d. 368/979), of Persian descent and famous for his voluminous commentary on Sībawayhi's work, discussed the date of his early death at length, but did not address its cause.Footnote 34
Others did, however. Al-Marzubānī (297–384/910–94), whose family came to Baghdad from Khurasan and who studied with Kufan and Basran grammarians, reported an anonymous tradition according to which a drunken Sībawayhi fell while trying to scale a fence and smashed his head. He also reported an anonymous tradition that had him dying of sickness.Footnote 35 A different fourth/tenth century source, Abū Bakr al-Zubaydī (316–79/928–89), a follower of Sībawayhi, reported a tradition that goes back to al-Mubarrad (c. 210–86/826–900), the leading Baṣran grammarian of his time, as well as his Kufan rival, Thaʿlab (200–91/815–904), according to which Sībawayhi died of sorrow shortly after returning home.Footnote 36 Al-Zubaydī related a similar tradition going back to al-Akhfash al-Awsaṭ (d. 210–21/825–35), the teacher of Al-Mubarrad's teachers and the exclusive transmitter of Sībawayhi's work, in which Sībawayhi succumbed to an incurable illness (dharab) shortly after returning home; it was his sorrow (ghamm), al-Akhfash emphasizes, that killed him.Footnote 37 This tradition dominates later biographies, which frequently feature the phrase ghamman bi-l-dharab.Footnote 38
The death of a young man from heartbreak appears suspect, to say the least; and if such an account was current already at the beginning of the third/ninth century, it was apparently already regarded with suspicion by Ibn Qutayba and the fourth/tenth-century sources who did not include it in their accounts of Sībawayhi's life. Where, then, did the story come from and, more importantly, how did it gain widespread acceptance? While some of his biographers were content to leave his premature death unexplained, others will have had a stake in his possessing a more robust biography. If Sībawayhi was to serve as a founder for the “school” of Basra, at least, it was a problem that there was so little to say about him, and especially about his death.Footnote 39 The most economical way to construct a death tradition out of the spare available biographical material was offered by emplotment, that is, the causal connection of two events – his humiliation and his death – which in Ibn Qutayba and some of the later sources were kept separate.Footnote 40
This move evidently struck the fancy of the audiences of Sībawayhi's biography. A tragic air pervades later versions of his biography, which frequently describe him as handsome and narrate in pathetic detail the tears of his brother, in whose bosom he perished. Neither the economy of the emplotment nor its aesthetic qualities appear entirely sufficient, however, to explain the success of this incredible death in driving competing traditions (e.g. al-Marzubānī's) out of circulation and establishing its own authority. Its force, I submit, resided in its resonance.
Dying as a penalty for failing to solve a riddle is a well-attested motif of folk literature, but we can be more specific here, for dying of sorrow over such a failure is a variation that is apparently unattested outside of Hellenistic culture.Footnote 41 The sphinx famously committed suicide after Oedipus solved her riddle, and while it is not clear that she did so out of sorrow, some Greek sources had the seer Calchas perish, heartbroken after his colleague Mopsus, Tiresias’ grandson, correctly answered a riddle about figs (or piglets).Footnote 42 In these cases it is the one who posed the riddle who died, not the one who failed to solve it, but Homer's case is different.
Homer's rich biographic traditions, which circulated widely in late antiquity and beyond, prominently included a public competition with his most important rival, Hesiod.Footnote 43 Like Sībawayhi, Homer surprisingly – perhaps unfairly – lost.Footnote 44 The loss had little impact on him, but he later found himself on the losing end of a rather more fateful wisdom competition, having forgotten that the oracle at Delphi – familiar also from the deaths of Calchas and the sphinx – had warned him of a children's riddle on the island of Ios.Footnote 45 As he sat there by the sea, he noticed some boys returning from fishing; addressing them in riddling form as hailing from (landlocked) Arcadia, he asked what they caught.Footnote 46 The boys responded with a riddle of their own: “what we caught, we left behind; what we didn't catch, we carry with us”.Footnote 47 Homer was at a loss, and when the boys explained that they caught no fish but partially deloused themselves, he recalled the oracle and realized his days were numbered. According to one tradition, on his way back from the sea he slipped in the mud and subsequently died.Footnote 48 Another version, however, which pointedly claims that Homer was already ill when he arrived on the beach,Footnote 49 shows the tradition of his fall to be a rationalizing attempt to indirectly connect the boys’ riddle with Homer's death in order to avoid directly associating them.Footnote 50 The tradition to which such rationalizing versions are responding is found in numerous sources, which present his death as a result of his sorrow over the failure to solve the riddle.Footnote 51
We thus find both Homer and Sībawayhi to have died of heartbreak stemming from defeat in a wisdom competition decided by a question concerned with animals who were themselves (traditionally) agents of death.Footnote 52 But did Arabic-speakers know Homer and the story of his death? These are two separate questions; the answer to both is affirmative. Graeco-Arab contact had a long history going back well over a millennium before the time of Sībawayhi, and Hellenistic culture persisted under Islamic rule and in Baghdad, in particular, was buttressed by Syriac scholars immigrating from Edessa.Footnote 53 Theophilus of Edessa (695–785), who served as an astrologer in the Abbasid court in Baghdad around the time of Sībawayhi, was said to have translated into Syriac “two books on the conquest of the city of Ilion [Troy] … by the poet Homer”, and while he was most likely not translating from the Iliad, Syriac excerpts of that work were circulating in Mesopotamia in the third/ninth century.Footnote 54 The famous translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq was known not only to recite Homeric poetry in the court of Hārūn al-Rashīd in Baghdad only a few decades after Sībawayhi's death, but was even conversant with Homeric exegesis.Footnote 55 Though the Arabic translation movement focused on philosophical and scientific texts, the texts that were translated not infrequently mentioned Homer, and even quoted him. Through such quotations Homeric verses made their way into Arabic literature, at which point some began to circulate independently, appearing in original Arabic works such as al-Bīrūnī's Description of India.Footnote 56 It matters little for our purposes that not all such quotations attributed to Homer were actually from the Iliad or the Odyssey; as with the Syriac Homer, so too the Arabic Homer was not merely the author of the two epics. When al-Sijistānī (d. c. 379/985) noted that some Homeric poetry had been translated into Arabic, he was in fact referring to a gnomological collection which the Greeks attributed to the comic playwright Menander.Footnote 57 Just as Homer usurped the latter's sayings, so his biography in al-Mubashshir b. Fātik's collection of sages’ lives takes over elements from Aesop's.Footnote 58 Whatever transformations he underwent, he nevertheless remained a figure of venerable authority, and only a vague awareness of Hellenistic culture would have been required in order to be familiar with his name: he was referred to as “the Greek Imruʾ al-Qays”.Footnote 59
The story of Homer's death travelled east, too. A version of his death, related in Pseudo-Nonnus’ scholia to Gregory of Nazianzus’ First Invective Against Julian, was translated into Syriac, probably during the sixth century ce.Footnote 60 Some three or four centuries later, Homer's exchange with the boys is quoted in Antony of Tagrit's Rhetoric.Footnote 61 But Homer's death tradition not only circulated in early Islamic Mesopotamia, it was also appropriated and creatively adapted in Syriac historiography.Footnote 62 Three Syriac chronicles, with some differences in detail, relate the events of the battle of al-Qādisiyya (c. 14–17/635–38), the turning point in the Islamic conquest of Iraq, as follows. As the Arabs and Sasanians set up camp on the banks of the Euphrates, near Kufa, the Sasanian king sends a local Christian spy from al-Ḥīra (or Ḥirtā) to the enemy camp. When he sees a Maʿaddī tribesman bent over, urinating or defecating, eating bread and delousing himself, he asks him what he is doing. The tribesman responds: “as you can see, I am bringing in the new, removing the old, and killing my enemies”. The spy immediately understands: a new people is about to enter, the old people will depart, and the Sasanians will be killed. Inevitably, they are routed and chased all the way to Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital.Footnote 63
The anecdote of the spy and the tribesman repays close reading. The Christian spy, caught between the Muslim and Persian armies, stands for the Syriac reader, who is granted privileged access behind the scenes of history. As the spy decodes the tribesman's message, so the reader is called to interpret the narrative of the battle of al-Qādisiyya as bearing more general significance, which was a convention of late antique historiography.Footnote 64 Alongside the Syriac perspective, the tribesman's speech gives expression to a Muslim point of view. He in fact embodies a variation on the Islamic topos of the pre-battle meeting between a representative of the imperial – Byzantine or Persian – power with the “poor and pious” Muslim warrior, which subverted the pre-Islamic dynamic whereby the Romans would dispose of the Arab by disdainfully bribing him.Footnote 65 The tribesman's oracular response fittingly signals that agency is now his, that it is his speech which requires interpretation. The one viewpoint that is missing is appropriately that of the imperial representative, who is removed from the scene while the tribesman appropriates and rewrites a piece of Hellenistic lore.
The Syriac chronicle writers’ source for this incident will have been Dionysius of Tellmahre (d. 845)Footnote 66 who, for the events of the seventh century, may well have relied on the aforementioned Theophilus, the “Hellenophile” translator of Homer whose chronicle has been described as “classicizing”.Footnote 67 In spite of differences in detail, the Syriac anecdote, as Sebastian Brock has observed,Footnote 68 is derived from the tradition of Homer's death. Both revolve around riddles which serve an oracular function, are concerned with lice and founded on the opposition between what enters or adheres to the body and what is removed from it. To be sure, Homer fails where the spy succeeds, but both realize that the riddle presages demise – only the victim changes.Footnote 69 Homer's death tradition would thus have been useful for the purpose of representing the end of the Persian empire because Homer could stand for Hellenism itself.Footnote 70
Sībawayhi's death, which I am arguing to be an Arabic iteration of Homer's death tradition, can be found to function similarly to the Syriac iteration, and is interestingly related to it. As the approximate starting point of the battle of al-Qādisiyya, Kufa was entwined with its end-point, Ctesiphon; after the latter's fall, Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ, the commander of the Arab army at al-Qādisiyya, founded Kufa and was said to have built his own palace there on the model of Ctesiphon's White Palace.Footnote 71 Kufa thus links the narrative of the battle of al-Qādisiyya and Sībawayhi's biography: just as Arabs setting out from Kufa drove the Persians out of Iraq, so it was an attack by Kufans that brought about the departure of the Persian Sībawayhi. Kufans indeed appear to have played an instrumental role in both traditions,Footnote 72 and it is therefore significant that in both cases we have Arabs making their way from Kufa to the capital city situated on the banks of the Tigris (first Ctesiphon, later Baghdad), achieving the establishment of Kufa (literally, or as the pre-eminent grammatical school), as well as the expulsion of the Persians from Iraq. If in the case of the battle of al-Qādisiyya they were explicitly fighting in the name of Islam, in the case of Sībawayhi, as we have seen, they were doing so implicitly.Footnote 73 As in the case of Imruʾ al-Qays, where the exile of the king of Kinda from Arabia to Byzantium laid the ground for the rise of Islam,Footnote 74 Homer's death tradition is employed in both the Syriac and Arabic traditions to signify the banishment of Persians who were hostile or at least foreign to Islam.
While it is clear why the Homeric death tradition would be of use to Sībawayhi's rivals, it appeared above that the author of the Homeric emplotment of Sībawayhi's death may have been the Basran al-Akhfash. But we can see why a Homeric death would also be valuable to al-Akhfash, in whose account Sībawayhi's sad story of rejection is transformed into a narrative of redemption. In the tradition preserved by al-Zubaydī, Sībawayhi himself told al-Akhfash of his loss when he came to bid him farewell on the “bank” (shāṭiʾ) of Basra before departing for Persia. Al-Akhfash then set out for Baghdad, where he went to al-Kisāʾī's mosque and put to him 100 questions, all of which al-Kisāʾī failed to answer.Footnote 75 Al-Akhfash's account thus produces a new layer of ring composition for Sībawayhi's story: as al-Akhfash came to Sībawayhi's aid after he was first humiliated by accepting him into his majlis, so he avenged his second humiliation. He in fact accomplished more than mere revenge, for al-Kisāʾī was so struck by al-Akhfash's performance that he entrusted his children's education to him, which plainly serves to signify the Kufans’ acceptance of Basran grammar. It is significant that al-Akhfash concludes his lengthy narrative by abruptly returning to Sībawayhi, reporting that he died of sorrow: if by means of this tradition al-Akhfash glorified himself,Footnote 76 he also turned Sībawayhi from an unfortunate victim of tribalism or bribery into a heroic, Homeric victim. In the event that the story of Sībawayhi's humiliation was already established, one way of salvaging his reputation – indeed, of cementing his authority and legacy – would be to have him die of sorrow à la Homer.Footnote 77
The Homeric death tradition would thus have been useful both to Sībawayhi's rivals and his followers. It is not necessary that this death should have been specifically associated with Homer,Footnote 78 only that it be recognized as fitting for a founding figure. What is important is that this narrative, in one form or another, was current in Mesopotamia and accessible to Arabic-speakers,Footnote 79 and in many ways attractive as a death tradition for Sībawayhi. There was certainly no contradiction in assigning a Greek death to a Persian, for in late antiquity Hellenism was broadly equivalent to paganism.Footnote 80 As in the case of Imruʾ al-Qays, Sībawayhi's death tradition could be of service both within Islamic culture and without: while internally it denied the notion that a non-Arab not sufficiently versed in Islam could found Arabic grammar, thereby legitimizing it, externally it crafted a founding figure worthy of competition with rival traditions.Footnote 81
3. The origins of Arabic grammar
Recognizing the death of the founding father of Arabic grammar as Greek is significant not only for the reception of Hellenism in early Islam, but also because it has long been claimed that Arabic grammar itself was built on Greek foundations. This claim has encountered staunch opposition; critics prominently argue that Islamic law rather served as a model for Arabic grammar.Footnote 82 But the two claims are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are both embedded in Sībawayhi's biography.
The role of Islamic law features in it quite explicitly: Sībawayhi's grammatical studies, we recall, were preceded by religious studies and fuelled by his failure at them, echoing the widespread narrative about the religious roots of grammar, and in particular the Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī foundation narrative which is similarly concerned with a grammatical mistake with theological implications.Footnote 83 This article has argued that the claim concerning the foreign roots of Arabic grammar is also implicit in Sībawayhi's biography. It is notable that he is not the only figure who, after being expelled by an exasperated teacher, proceeded to establish himself as the pre-eminent authority in a different field of study; this evidently was a topos, one that links him with another outsider who attained mastery of Arabic, the Nestorian Ḥunayn. After being banished from his medical studies, a driven Ḥunayn embarked – like Sībawayhi – on linguistic studies, primarily Greek but also Arabic, acquiring a profession that consisted in importing Greek material into Islamic culture.Footnote 84 According to one tradition of his death he too perished of sorrow (ghamm) following a debate of a linguistic nature.Footnote 85
That both claims regarding the origins of Arabic grammar are to be found in Sībawayhi's biography cannot be considered incidental. Its artful and artificial structure, in addition to its affinity with the Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī foundation narrative, suggests that the biography of the founder of Arabic grammar was also constructed in part as a biography of the discipline he founded.Footnote 86 Sībawayhi's biography thus offers another avenue by which to approach the question of the origins of Arabic grammar, indicating that in discussing the possibility of Greek influence it is not sufficient to look for its traces – or the absence thereof – in Sībawayhi's theory.Footnote 87 We must also ask what, within the environment in which Arabic grammar developed, was the significance of the stories that were told about its foundation? The fact that both Sībawayhi's biography and the Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī foundation narrative are intent on showing that non-Arabs could only contribute to the development of grammar negatively implies that there was some concern about foreign influence, or the appearance of such influence, in the formation of Arabic grammar.
There was good reason for concern. The Arabic grammatical tradition did not develop in a vacuum.Footnote 88 It was but one of three contemporary grammatical traditions in Mesopotamia, along with Syriac and Hebrew, driven by the demands of reading scripture.Footnote 89 A letter written in 168/785 by Timothy I, Catholicos of the Church of the East, to Sergius, head of the monastic school of Abraham in Mosul, bears witness to a sense of rivalry between the Syriac and the Arabic and Greek grammatical traditions.Footnote 90 The three traditions are demonstrably related: the Syriac tradition drew deeply from the Greek, and made no attempt to deny doing so;Footnote 91 and numerous features of the Arabic tradition, including the names of the vowels and their signs – whose invention was attributed to Abū l-Aswad – betray contact with Syriac grammar.Footnote 92
What of Arabic and Greek? While the Syriac tradition was not averse to acknowledging its Greek debt, if Arabic grammar were to safeguard the purity of the language of the Quran, it clearly could not admit to any foreign source, just as early Islamic culture more broadly endeavoured to present itself as having formed in sublime isolation from its neighbours.Footnote 93 In the third/ninth century, the need for Arabic grammar to distance itself from foreign traditions would have grown especially pressing as Greek philosophical and logical texts began to be translated into Arabic en masse. In the fourth/tenth century, a time of both Hellenization and “Islamicization”,Footnote 94 Greek logic was perceived as a threat to Arabic grammar, resulting in the celebrated fourth/tenth-century debates over the merits of logic and grammar.Footnote 95 In contrast with Arabic grammar, the Syriac tradition – following the Greek – did not distinguish grammar from logic;Footnote 96 insisting on the distinction between them thus also served to set the Arabic tradition apart.
Significantly, the fourth/tenth century is also the point at which the authority of Sībawayhi's Homeric death was established. It was at the same time that the traditional biography of another Perso-Islamic founding figure, Salmān al-Fārisī, the Persian Companion of the Prophet and a symbol of Persian acceptance of Islam, developed in a way that reflects concern with the place of Persians in Islam. Like Sībawayhi, Salmān too left Persia in search of religion, then changed course and was accepted by a new group. But whereas Sībawayhi in joining the Basran grammarians moved away from religion, Salmān switched from Christianity to Islam and was taken in by the Prophet as part of his own family. Having successfully adopted a Muslim identity, Salmān was buried in Iraq, in Ctesiphon, where his tomb is frequented to this day. Conversely, Sībawayhi's hijra to the garrison town of Basra failed.Footnote 97 He thus returned to Persia to die a Greek death, the premature death of an outsider, like Imruʾ al-Qays, alone and in anguish.