Grammatically Understanding Surat al-Tawhid

This is a guest post that has been taken from the Light of the Furqan blog.

In the previous term, I had the opportunity to spend some time on focused exegetical discussions on sūrat al-Tawḥīd with some colleagues. We covered many different aspects of sūrat al-Tawḥīd, but one aspect that I found to be the most interesting was the grammatical discussion surrounding the first verse.

The following is an attempt to grammatically understand the first verse of this chapter. I have relied heavily on a lot of grammatical jargon and have tried to explain it as best as I can so as to facilitate readers not well versed in Arabic grammar.

The first verse of sūrat al-Tawḥīd is as follows,

ٌقُلْ هُوَ اللهَ أَحَد

(Tentative Translation) Say,” He is Allah, the One… 1

Defining the Text

Before, attempting to understand the verse grammatically, the actual verse and any other potential variant readings must be defined. Works documenting the 7, 10 or 14 readings of the Qurān indicate that most scholars of the readings of the Qurān were in agreement over the popular recitation of the verse that is present in the Qurān today, that is, “قل هو الله أحد”.

Further evidence of the fact that the text of the verse has been correctly preserved is that some books of history have recorded that this verse was minted in the same form on Syrian coins between the years 42 A.H. and 49 A.H. during the caliphate of Marwān bin al-Ḥakm2.

Zamakhsharī and Variant Readings

In light of this, it is interesting to note that Zamakhsharī (d. 538 A.H.) mentions some differences in reports of the recitations of this verse3.

  1. It has been reported that Ibn Mas’ūd and Ubay bin Ka’b read the verse without the word “قل”, thus reading it as “هُوَ اللهُ أَحَد”
  2. A’mash read the word “أَحَد” as “وَاحِد”. Thus the verse would be, “قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ وَاحِد”
  3. It has been reported that the Prophet read the verse without the words, “قُلْ هُو”. Thus the verse would simply be, “اللهُ أَحَد”. This has apparently been recorded in a narration that says, “To read ‘اللهُ أَحَد’, is equitable to reading the whole Qurān”.

The first two differences that Zamakhsharī presents have not been recorded in most other works. In fact, earlier works that have recorded these readings are works that recorded generally unheard of readings of the Qurān such as Ibn Khālaway’s (d. 370 A.H.), “Mukhtaṣar fī Shawāẓ al-Qirā’āt4”. Interestingly enough, Zamakhsharī narrates the exact readings for this verse that Ibn Khālaway does. As mentioned, these readings are generally unheard of. For example, the recitation by A’mash of the word wāḥid has not been recorded by any other scholar who has recorded ‘Amash’s recitation5. Overall, it can be said that these recitations are not reliable and there is enough evidence pointing to the fact that the verse is correct as it has been preserved.

As for the third difference that Zamakhsharī has reported, the previous discussion applies to it, as well as some additional problems. It seems that the narration that he quotes has not been mentioned in other hadith sources and does not possess any chain of narration going back to the Prophet. This has been pointed out by some of the editors of Zamakhsharī’s exegesis in different prints6 7. Furthermore, it was very common to refer to a chapter of the Quran using part of a well-known verse, thus this narration’s reference to “الله أحد” may in fact just be a reference to the chapter as a whole.

Overall, it seems that the readings pointed out by Zamakhsharī are weak and unreliable. It may be surprising that he decided to point out these specific readings seeing as other famous exegetes did not make mention of them in their discussions on the qirā’āt. This raises some interesting questions, for example, what was Zamakhsharī’s purpose for mentioning such rare and unheard of recitations? Furthermore, what were his sources for these?

One answer to the first question, why Zamakhsharī mentions these recitations, has been provided by Andrew J. Lane in his work entitled, “Al-Zamakhsharī and his Qur’ān Commentary Al-Kashshāf”. In terms of Zamakhsharī’s presentation of different recitations of the Qurān, he concludes that, “Al-Zamakhsharī presents his qur’ānic variants in an almost perfunctory way. There is a store of qirā’āt to which he has access and on which he draws as he composes, with little interest as to the lineage of any given variant. The variants are not important in themselves; nor are they of consequence to him. They change in no significant way the meaning of the text and, while he usually takes the time to explain the slight changes they cause, that is the extent of his interest in them8.”

In terms of the second question, a lot of work remains to be done. As Andrew Lane mentions, “[A] survey of the study of the sources of the Kashshaf in the contemporary literature on al-Zamakhshari is, on the whole, rather disappointing9“. It is difficult to determine what Zamakhsharī’s sources were for most things that he mentions. This is due, in part, to the nature of the classical exegetical tradition where most scholars would not heavily quote their sources or books that they referred to. It is also difficult because a lot of the works of the contemporaries of Zamakhsharī, such as his teachers, whose books he may have accessed, do not exist anymore10.

Grammatical Understandings

Upon establishing the text of the verse, one can attempt to grammatically understand and identify the composition of the words within the verse. However before doing so it is necessary to be familiar with some principals related to Arabic grammar that can be applied within this discussion.

Pronouns in Arabic

In the Arabic language, there are typical pronouns that have an antecedent; that is, they have meanings and functions equivalent to pronouns such as he, she, it etc. in English. The following is an example of a pronoun in a sentence,

Arabic رَأَيْتُ عَبَّاسَ و هُوَ يَضْحَكُ
يضحك هو و عباس ت رأي
Predicate Subject Direct Object Subject Verb
Pronoun Antecedent
Translation I saw ‘Abbās while he was laughing

There is also another type of pronoun which is called a ḍamīr al-sha’n (hereon d.s.), this is a non-referential pronoun, that is, it has no antecedent11. It is used to emphasize the importance of the clause that comes after it12. An extensive survey of its uses and functions can be found in classical works of Arabic grammar or Yishai Peled’s paper, “Non-Referential Pronouns in Topic Position in Medieval Arabic Grammatical Theory and in Modern Usage”.

The utility of such a pronoun was that by starting a sentence with a pronoun that had no immediately obvious antecedent, one could draw the attention of nearby listeners, thus creating an air of importance around what was to be said13. The usage of this pronoun does not really change the meaning of the sentence it is used in, this can be seen in the following example of 2 sentences, one that does not contain a d.s. and one that does,

Sentence #1 زَيدٌ قَائِمٌ
قائم زيد
Predicate Subject
Translation Zayd is standing
Sentence #2 هُوَ زَيدٌ قَائِمٌ
قائم زيد هو
Predicate Subject
d.s., Pronoun of the fact
Translation Zayd is standing/(It is such that) Zayd is standing

As evident, the second sentence that contains a d.s. does not add anything to the translation of the sentence, although an air of importance would be understood through the use of the d.s. In any case, the difference in between these two pronouns is important insofar as it leads to interesting grammatical consequences as will be seen.

Essentials of Sentence Structure in Arabic Grammar

Another important principal that has a lot of application in Arabic grammar is that predicates that are clauses themselves for another subject are required to somehow refer back to the subject14.  For example, the predicate may contain a pronoun whose antecedent is the subject. The following statement can be taken as an example of this concept,

Arabic زيدٌ أبوهُ عالمٌ
عالم ه ابو زيد
Predicate 2 Subject 2 Subject 1
Pronoun Antecedent
Predicate 1
Translation Lit. Zayd, his father is knowledgeable

Here, the subject is “Zayd” whilst it’s predicate is the clause, “His father is knowledgeable”. Since the predicate is a clause here, it has a pronoun that refers back to the subject.

This structure is necessary in most cases where the predicate of a subject is a clause. One of the only exceptions to this rule is if the subject is a d.s. in which case this rule does not apply15. The application of this exception will be seen in the coming discussion.

Appositions (Badal)

Similar to English, the concept of an apposition exists in Arabic grammar. In Arabic this is called Badal, and, generally speaking, this occurs when there are two words (or clauses), each of which has the same syntactic function, where the second word is intended to replace, specify or clarify the first word. Typically, the two words are not separated by another word although this can occur16.

An example of an appositive in English is as follows,

The phone, an iPhone, was stolen

The following example can be taken in Arabic,

Arabic اِهْدِنَا الصِرَاطَ المُسْتَقِيمَ صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ اَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ…
عَلَيهِم اَنْعَمْتَ الَّذِينَ صِرَاطَ المُسْتَقِيمَ الصِرَاطَ اِهْدِنَا
Preposition + genitive noun Verb + Subject Pronoun Appositive Adjective Direct Object Verb + Subject
Translation Guide us on the straight path, the path of those whom you have blessed

Here, the word صِرَاطَ is an appositive for الصِرَاطَ which comes before it. In this instance, the second word, along with the clause that comes after it, specifies the type of path that one wants guidance towards. Here, both words have the same grammatical function, and one word can really effectively replace the other.

Grammatical Evaluations

Upon establishing the above grammatical concepts and principals, the following grammatical analyses may be proposed for the first verse of sūrat al-Tawḥīd,

Grammatical Analyses قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ أَحَدٌ
احد الله هو قل
1 Predicate 1 Apposition
Subject 1
Translation Say: He, Allah, is one
2 Apposition Predicate 1 Subject 1
Translation Say: He is Allah, [the] one
3 Predicate 2 Subject 2 Subject 1
Predicate 1
Translation Say: He is Allah (who) is one
4 Predicate 1.B Predicate 1.A Subject 1
Translation Say: He is Allah, [and] is one
Analyses 1 & 2
Grammatical Analyses قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ أَحَدٌ
احد الله هو قل
1 Predicate 1 Apposition
Subject 1
Translation Say: He, Allah, is one
2 Apposition Predicate 1 Subject 1
Translation Say: He is Allah, [the] one

The first two analyses are instances where a word is taken to be an appositive of the word before it17.. In the first analysis “الله” is an appositive for Subject 1 whilst in the second analysis “أحد” is an appositive for “الله”.

Both of these analyses presume that Subject 1 is not a d.s. In the first analysis this is because there is a principal that there can be no appositive for a d.s.18. Thus, “الله” cannot be an appositive for Subject 1. Even if it were, this would leave the d.s. without any clause following it which it requires, as previously outlined. That is, “أحد” by itself, in the case where “ألله” in an appositive, cannot form a clause for the d.s. In the second analysis, Subject 1 cannot be a d.s. because of the same latter reason. That is, there would be no clause left to follow the d.s. which is necessary.

Thus it must be presumed that Subject 1 is a typical pronoun in both of the analyses. Peled, who also treats some grammatical analyses of this verse in his paper, proposes that the second analysis is incorrect because, “…an indefinite noun (aḥadun) cannot function as an appositive to a definite noun (Allah)19”. This criticism is technically incorrect as it is well established and agreed upon that an indefinite noun can function as an appositive to a definite noun. Ibn Hishām has mentioned that there is no difference of opinions in between Arab grammarians that two nouns can differ insofar as one can be indefinite and another definite, and one can still be an appositive of the other20. A more accurate critique would be that in the case that an indefinite noun does function as an appositive to a definite noun, the indefinite noun must possess some sort of modifier such as an adjective for the sentence to be grammatically correct. Both al-Raḍī and ‘Abbās Ḥasan, among other grammarians, have mentioned this point 21. This is something that is present in many verses of the Quran such as the following verse,

Arabic لَنَسْفِعَام بِالنَاصِيَةِ نَاصِيَةٍ كَاذِبَةٍ خَاطِئَةٍ
خَاطِئَةٍ كَاذِبَةٍ نَاصِيَةٍ النَاصِيَةِ بِ لَنَسْفِعَنْ
Adjective Adjective Appositive Genitive noun Preposition Verb
Translation …We shall seize him by the forelock, a lying, sinful forelock!

As indicated the word, “ناصية” which is indefinite because it does not possess a definite article is an appositive to “الناصية”. At the same time, it does have an adjective. Works analyzing Arabic grammar within the Quran have also pointed out that this is an appositive 22. Thus, the second grammatical analysis where “أحد” functions as an appositive to “الله” would be incorrect. However, the first analysis is grammatically correct and plausible. The only criticism that may be proposed for the first analysis is that it may not be in line with the historical context of this verse.

One question that does remain, in relation to these analyses, is what the antecedent of the pronoun in Subject 1 is? This will be addressed in the fourth analysis.

Analysis 3
Grammatical Analyses قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ أَحَدٌ
أحد الله هو قل
3 Predicate 2 Subject 2 Subject 1
Predicate 1
Translation Say: He is Allah (who) is one

The third analysis of this verse is the most popular understanding of this verse. Here, the clause, “الله أحد” which consists of a subject and predicate is taken as a whole to be the predicate of Subject 1. This is based on the presumption that Subject is a d.s., otherwise this analyses would be grammatically incorrect. This is because of the principal discussed before, that is, if the predicate of a subject is a clause, the clause must have some sort of reference to the subject such as a pronoun if the subject is not a d.s. Here, Predicate 1 contains no reference to Subject 1 and thus it is necessary that Subject 1 be taken to be a d.s. for this analysis to be grammatically correct. As with the two above analyses, this understanding is plausible, but as will be mentioned, it may not be in line with the historical context of this verse.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the use of a d.s. after “قل” within the Qurān is unprecedented. That is, no grammarian has interpreted the “هو” in any other verse of the Quran where it comes along with “قل” to be a d.s. The words “قل هو” have come together 9 times apart from the instance in sūrat al-Tawḥīd, the following is a list of all the verses where these two words have come together (apart from the instance in Sūrat al-Tawḥīd): al-Baqrah 2:222, Āl ‘Imrān 3:165, al-An’ām 6:65, al-Ra’d 13:30, Ṣād 38:67, Fuṣṣilat 41:44, al-Mulk 67:23, al-Mulk 67:24, al-Mulk 67:29. As mentioned, in each of these instances there was some sort of antecedent for the pronoun.

It should be noted, for anyone who adopts this grammatical understanding, that in translation the d.s. would not be typically translated. Therefore, the first verse of sūrat al-Tawḥīd would be translated as, “Say: Allah is one”. It may be possible to translate it according to some understandings in which case one would translate it as, “Say: It is such that Allah is one”.

Analysis 4

Grammatical Analysis قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ أَحَدٌ
أحد الله هو قل
4 Predicate 1.B Predicate 1.A Subject 1
Translation Say: He is Allah, [and] is one

The fourth and final analysis is what I would like to argue is perhaps the most plausible grammatical understanding of the verse, albeit an unpopular one. Here, there are two predicates for one subject. This is something that is common in Arabic and has been mentioned in different works on classical Arabic grammar.

It is not possible for Subject 1 to be a d.s. in this grammatical analysis because, as mentioned before, a d.s. would require a clause after it. Over here, there is no clause after Subject 1, rather there are two individual predicates.

Thus Subject 1 must be a pronoun that requires an antecedent. As evident, there is no verse before this where an antecedent could be found. However, it is possible that the antecedent may be implied in narrations about the historical context of the revelation of this verse. There are many narrations that indicate this verse was revealed when certain religious groups asked the Prophet about the nature or relation of God. The following narration from Al-Kāfī is one such example,

Muḥammad bin Ya’qūb narrated from Aḥmad bin Idrīs from Muḥammad bin ‘Abd al-Jabbār from Ṣafwān bin Yāḥyā from Abī Ayyūb from Muḥammad bin Muslim from Abī ‘Abdallah that he said, “The Jewish people said to the Prophet, ‘Trace the ancestry of your lord for us.’ The Prophet waited 3 days without responding to them after which Sūrat al-Tawḥīd was revealed23.

Here it is clearly indicated that sūrat al-Tawḥīd was revealed in response to a question. Therefore, the antecedent of the pronoun can be taken to be implied in the question. Thus, for example, the antecedent could be, “My Lord”.

In another narration mentioned by al-Ṭabrisī, someone asks the following of the Prophet, “Tell me about your lord, what is he?” The Prophet replies to this question with the first verse of Sūrat al-Tawḥīd.

There are multiple narrations which indicate that some sort of incident occurred where the Prophet was approached and asked about his lord upon which he responded with the first verse of Sūrat al-Tawḥīd. As such, it is very plausible that the antecedent of the pronoun in this case is implied by the question. This is a possibility that Ibn ‘Āshūr, the famous grammarian and exegete of the Qurān, also points out. He mentions that, “it is permissible for ‘هو’ to refer to his lord…[in response to their question] ‘trace the ancestry of your lord for us24’”

As such, the fourth grammatical understanding seems to be the most plausible of the 4 analyses presented. This is primarily because, when put into context, the use of the pronoun in Subject 1 is not to create an air of importance or to draw attention through the use of a pronoun without an antecedent. Rather, the pronoun is used to respond and refer to the question that is being asked.

This understanding is also more plausible than the first and second grammatical understandings where appositives are used. This is because appositives are typically used for clarification or to replace other words whilst predicates are typically used to convey or establish new information. Here the Prophet is establishing and conveying the fact that his lord is referred to as “Allah” and that he is “one”, with no ancestry. That is, facts are being established and conveyed as opposed to clarification being offered.


Overall, regardless of which understanding is the most plausible, I hope this discussion demonstrates the differences in translation that small grammatical differences can bring about. In the future I hope to publish other research or findings related to sūrat al-Tawḥīd.


  1. Al-Tawḥīd 112:1 
  2. Details about this can often be found in entries about Marwān, refer to Ibn al-Athīr, Asad al-Ghābbah fī Ma’rifat al-Ṣaḥābah, v. 4 pg. 348 
  3. Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf ‘an Ḥaqāiq Ghawāmiḍ al-Tanzīl v. 4 pg. 817 – 818 
  4. Ibn Khālaway, Mukhtaṣar fī Shawāẓ al-Qirā’āt pg. 183 
  5. His recitation is popularly narrated by either Muṭṭawwi’ī or Ibn Shanbūẓī. The recitation of this verse in such a manner has not been attributed to either of them in the famous books on the Qirā’āt 
  6. See the Dār al-Iḥyā al-Turāth al-‘Arabī print that comes with Kitāb al-Intiṣāf fī mā Taḍammanahū al-Kashshāf min al-‘Itiẓāl 
  7. For a discussion on Zamakhsharī’s attitude towards traditions and why he may have incorporated weak traditions in his exegesis see, Lane, Al-Zamakhsharī and his Qur’ān Commentary Al-Kashshāf pg. 278 
  8. Lane, Al-Zamakhsharī and his Qur’ān Commentary Al-Kashshāf pg. 230 
  9. Lane, Al-Zamakhsharī and his Qur’ān Commentary Al-Kashshāf Pg. 361 
  10. Lane, Al-Zamakhsharī and his Qur’ān Commentary Al-Kashshāf pg. 363 
  11. A technical definition of this pronoun, as provided by Peled, is as follows, “A pronoun which refers to no specific noun phrase… (which) must be followed by some sentence-constituent function as an exponent (tafsīr) to it”, Peled, Non-Referential Pronouns in Topic Position in Medieval Arabic Grammatical Theory and in Modern Usage pg. 2 
  12. The d.s. was originally described in Sībawayh’s al-Kitāb albeit not by this name, Sībawayh, Kitāb Sībawayh v. 1 pg. 350 
  13.  ‘Abbās Ḥasan, Al-Naḥw al-Wāfī v. 1 pg. 226 
  14. This is called a rābiṭ or ‘Āid in Arabic grammar 
  15. Differing reasons as to why this exception is made have been provided, refer to Barakāt, al-Naḥw al-‘Arabī v. 1 pg. 88 for an extensive discussion. Also, see ‘Abbās Ḥasan al-Naḥw al-Wāfī v. 1 pg. 226 
  16. ‘Abbās Ḥasan, Al-Naḥw al-Wāfī v. 3 pg. 664 
  17. I have not treated a third further analysis where “أحد” would serve as an appositive for Subject 1. One of the reasons for this will be mentioned (أحد has no modifier as will be discussed). However, it is also uncommon for the appositive and the noun that it is specifying/replacing to have another word or clause in between them which further weakens this analysis. Refer to footnote #2 in ‘Abbās Ḥasan, Al-Naḥw al-Wāfī v. 3 pg. 664 for an explanation to an exception for this rule 
  18. See Ibn Hishām, Mughnī al-Labīb v. 2 pg. 491 
  19. Peled, Non-Referential Pronouns in Topic Position in Medieval Arabic Grammatical Theory and in Modern Usage pg. 5 
  20. See Ibn Hishām, Mughnī al-Labīb v. 2 pg. 455 
  21. Al-Raḍī, Sharḥ al-Raḍī ‘ala al-Kāfīyah v. 2 pg. 388; ‘Abbās Ḥasan, Al-Naḥw al-Wāfī v. 3 pg. 675 
  22. Ṣāfī, Al-Jadwal fī I’rāb al-Qurān v. 30 pg. 370 
  23. Kulaynī, Al-Kāfī v. 1 pg. 71” 
  24. Ibn ‘Āshūr, al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr v. 30 pg. 536

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