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Arabic philologist and grammarian (probably 110-209/728-824, but the sources have other, slightly different dates).

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Volume I, Fascicle 4, pp. 355-356

ABŪ ʿOBAYDA MAʿMAR B. AL-MOṮANNĀ, Arabic philologist and grammarian (probably 110-209/728-824, but the sources have other, slightly different dates). His father and grandfather came from Bāǰarvān, but he himself was born in Baṣra, a mawlā of the clan of Taym of Qorayš. The assertion that his family was of Jewish origin is probably a calumny of his enemies; more probably it was of Mesopotamian or Persian stock, since the Fehrest applies to him the Persian nickname Saḵt, “the powerful, overbearing one”. He studied under the leading philologists of the Basran school, but made his life’s work an investigation of the history, culture, and literature of the early Arabs, collecting and classifying materials on them from diverse sources. The titles of many of his numerous works—said to total something like 200—have been preserved in the biographical notices of him by Ebn al-Nadīm, Ḵaṭīb Baḡdādī, Yāqūt, and others; these show the immense range of his erudition, including Arabic grammar, theology, tribal history, and the animals and plants of the Arabs.

Many of his investigations revealed the vices and the sordid side of early Arab life, as well as its virtues and laudable achievements. He also was careful to point to the truism that there were non-Arabs, e.g., Persian and Greek, elements in the fabric of Islamic civilization. Hence Abū ʿObayda’s researches were eagerly utilized by the anti-Arab party in the literary debates of the Šoʿūbīya (q.v.) partisans, who cited his writings on the maṯāleb or defects of the Arabs, and this gave Abū ʿObayda himself a reputation for being anti-Arab. Thus an older generation of philologists followed I. Goldziher (Muhammedanische Studien, Halle, 1888-89, I, pp. 194-206; Eng. tr., Muslim Studies, London, 1967-71, I, pp. 179-80) and regarded Abū ʿObayda as a protagonist of the Šoʿūbīya. Yet it is by no means certain that his basic attitude was pro-Šoʿūbī, as H. A. R. Gibb subsequently pointed out. There is nothing to show, he asserted, that Abū ʿObayda was more interested in the maṯāleb than the mafāḵer (glories) of the Arabs, or that he misinterpreted in any way their history; rather, he stands out as a disinterested scholar, some of whose results were, however, selectively used by the pro-Persian Šoʿūbīs in the later 3rd/9th century, well after his death. If he made light of certain Arab pretensions to nobility, it was more as an adherent of the equalitarian Ḵāreǰīs than as an anti-Arab pure and simple (Gibb, “The Social Significance of the Šuʿūbiyya,” Studia orientalia Ioanni Pedersen dicata, Copenhagen, 1953, pp. 105-14; also in Studies on the Civilization of Islam, Boston, 1962, pp. 62-73). His composition of works on Koran interpretation and on the rare words in Tradition hardly show him as anti-Muslim in any way; his Ketāb ḡarīb al-ḥadīṯ seems to have been a pioneer work in this genre. Certainly, much of later generations’ knowledge of early Arabic poetry stemmed from Abū ʿObayda’s work, seen at its best in the compilation of the Naqāʾeż of Jarīr and al-Farazdaq.

Abū ʿObayda’s personal habits and character were apparently not very attractive, and it is said that when he died, no one attended the funeral, because all had suffered from his barbed tongue; whether or not he was guilty of practicing unnatural vice, as certain sources (e.g., Ebn Ḵallekān) state, can not be proven, but accusations of this were of course as common as accusations of Jewish origins for disliked and unpopular persons.


The main biographical notices are: Ebn Qotayba, Maʿāref, ed. T. ʿOkkāša, Cairo, 1960, p. 543.

Fehrest (Tehran1), pp. 58-60; tr. Dodge, I, pp. 115-18.

Taʾrīḵ Baḡdād XIII, pp. 252-58.

Yāqūt, Odabāʾ VII, pp. 164-70.

Ebn Ḵallekān (Beirut), V, pp. 235-43; tr. de Slane, III, pp. 388-96.

Ebn al-ʿEmād, Šaḏarat al-ḏahab, Cairo, 1931-32, II, pp. 24-25.

See also Zereklī, Aʿlām2 VIII, p. 191.

H. A. R. Gibb in EI2 I, p. 158.

G. Flügel, Die grammatischen Schulen der Araber, Leipzig, 1862, pp. 68-69.

Many references to Abū ʿObayda are scattered through works on biography or adab, such as Aḡānī and ʿEqd al-farīd. For his extant works, see Brockelmann, GAL I2, p. 102-3; S. I, p. 162. Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 36, 43, 48; II, see index.

Cite this page
C. Edmund Bosworth, “ABŪ ʿOBAYDA MAʿMAR”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 16 July 2024 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_4652>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 19831215

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