The different facets of Alif Lam

ال /Alif Lam (ta’rif)/ is a prefix found1 in some isms2; its closest English equivelant is perhaps 'The' but not necessarily so. Here is an outline of some of its types. Know that Alif Lam may have a clear function (ghayr za’id - see note 4) in which case it will either function as a harf (see note 2) or an ism (see note 3). Alternatively, it may simply be zā’id (surplus - see note 5); that also has its uses.

(2) Alif Lam is of four types (when functioning as a harf); Jinsi, Istighraqi, Ahd Zihni and Ahd Khariji.

(2.1) A word has a definition (haqiqat) and constituents (Afrad) which are members or entities which fit that definition. For instance, Rajul (man) is a concept whilst Zayd, Amr, Bakr etcetera are constituents of this concepts. When saying a word such as ‘rajul’ one may want to focus on the concept itself or perhaps all, some or a specific member of its constituents. For example, “Man is stronger than a boy”, “Man is doomed unless they believe”, “I fear that man may harm you”, and “the man has come”. In all these cases, the focus of the word man is different. In Arabic Alif Lam is one of the devises used to vary attention and depending on this Alif Lam is given different names.

(2.2) Alif Lam may be added (1) to focus on the concept of the word itself and not its constituents or (2) to focus on the constituents of the word. The first is called Alif Lam Jinsi. The second (2) is of two types; the Alif Lam may refer to (2.1) all of the constituents of the word or (2.2) some of the constituents. The former (2.1) is called Alif Lam Istighraqi whilst the latter (2.2) is called Alif Lam Ahdi. Thereafter, Alif Lam Ahdi may be of two types; it may refer (a) to some unknown constituents or (b) to some known constituents.

(2.3) Examples are as follows:

Name Example Translation Note
Alif Lam Jinsi الرجل قوي من الصبي Man is stronger than a boy Here the focus is on the man as a concept rather than a specific person.
Alif Lam Istighraqi إن الإنسان لفي خسر إلا الذين أمنوا Indeed, [hu]man is in peril unless they believe Here the focus is not on the concept rather on all the constituents of [hu]man from whom some may save themselves
Alif Ahd Zihni أخاف أن يأكله الذئب I fear the wolf might eat him Here the reference to an unspecified constituent. Not all the wolves will eat rather one or some but specific wolf is unimportant
Alif Ahd Khariji عصي فرعون الرسول Firawn disobeyed the prophet Here the reference is to a specific constituent namely the prophet Musa (peace be upon him)

(2.4) Note: The default meaning for Alif Lam is Alif Lam Ahdi and according to some Alif Lam Ahd Khariji. If Ahd meaning is not possible or there is evidence to the contrary, one may resort to jinsi or istighraqi accordingly.

(3) Alif Lam may sometimes function as an ism; it gives the meaning of “الذي” (trans: who, that, which). This is when it when comes upon an ism fā’il or ism maf’ul. For example, الناصر is short for “الرجل الذي نَصَرَ” (trans: the man who helped) or المنصور is short for “الرجل الذي نًصِرَ” (trans: the man who was helped).

(4) The types of Alif Lam mentioned thus far had a clear function and have a clear impact if omitted; thus they all fall under the category called Alif Lam Ghayr Zayidah.

(5) There is another type of Alif Lam which has no clear impact on meaning if omitted; it is called Alif Lam Zā’idah. Such as الحسن and الحسين - these are proper names and so the meaning will not change significantly if the Alif Lam was omitted. Note! Being ommitable is not equivalent to it being without benefit.


Muhammad Saifur Rahman Nawhami
3 Dhul Qa’da 1434
Monday, 9 September 2013

  • 1. Some poets sometimes break this rule. يقول الخَنى وأبغَضُ العُجْمِ ناطقا – إلى ربنا موتُ الحِمارِ اليُجَدّعُ . The use of Alif Lam on Mudari’ here has been criticised and considered poor practice
  • 2. An independent word which has no tense such as a noun, pronoun, adverb, adjective etecetra