Native name ʿAbd al-Malik b. Quraib al-Aṣmaʿī
Born 740
Basra, Iraq
Died 828
Residence Arabia
Other names أبو سعيد عبد الملك ابن قريب الأصمعي الباهلي
Academic background
Influences Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala'
Academic work
Main interests Natural science, zoology
Notable works Fuhulat, Book of Distinction, the Book of the Wild Animals

Al-Asmaʿi (Arabic: أبو سعيد عبد الملك ابن قريب الأصمعي, ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Quraib as-Aṣmaʿī ; c.740-828, also known as Asmai) was one of the earliest Arabic lexicographers and one of the three leaders of the Basra school of Arabic grammar.[1][2][3][4]

He was also a pioneer of natural science and zoology.[5] He is considered as the first Muslim scientist to study animals in detail. He wrote many works such as: Kitab al-Khail (The Book of the Horse), Kitab al-Ibil (The Book of the Camel), Kitab al-Farq (The Book of Rare Animals), Kitab al-Wuhush (The Book of Wild Animals), Kitab al-Sha (The Book of the Sheep) and Kitab Khalaq al-Insan (The Book of Humanity). He also provides detailed information on human anatomy and was credited with composing an epic on the life of Antarah ibn Shaddad.


Al-Asmaʿi was born in 740, though his exact place of birth has been disputed.[6] He was a member of the Arab tribe of Bahila.[7] Some authors have reported his birthplace as Basra in what is now Iraq, while others have listed it as Merv in what is now Turkmenistan.[6] Whatever the case, during his life al-Asmaʿi was undoubtedly a representative of the Basran school of Arabic grammar, and was a pupil there of Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi and Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala',[2] as well as a contemporary of Abu ʿUbaidah and Sibawayhi.[8][9] He seems to have been a poor man until by the influence of the governor of Basra he was brought to the notice of Harun al-Rashid, who enjoyed his conversation at court and made him tutor of his sons Al-Amin and Al-Ma'mun.[2][9] Al-Rashid, who suffered from insomnia, once held an all-night discussion with al-Asmaʿi on pre-Islamic and early Arabic poetry.[10] Al-Asmaʿ proved popular with the influential Barmakid viziers as well.[3] He became wealthy and acquired property in Basra, where he again settled for a time.[11] Al-Asmaʿi died in the year 828, though the exact location is, again, a matter of dispute; some have listed the place of death as Baghdad, while others claim he had returned to Merv at that time.[6]

Al-Asmaʿi was also a student of language and a critic, his book Fuhulat having been one of the first works of Arabic literary criticism.[12] It was as a critic that he was the great rival of Abu ʿUbaidah. Whereas the latter, a member of the Shu'ubiyya movement, esteemed non-Arabic (chiefly Persian) culture, al-Asmaʿi believed in the superiority of the Arabs over all peoples, and of the freedom of their language and literature from all foreign influence. Some of his scholars attained high rank as literary men.[11] Due to his intense interest in cataloging the Arabic language, he spent a period of time roaming the desert with Bedouin tribes in order to observe their speech patterns.[8]

In one incident recounted by numerous historians, the Caliph al-Rashid brought forth a horse and asked both al-Asmaʿi and Abu 'Ubaida (who had also written extensively about zoology) to identify the correct terms for each part of the horse's anatomy. Abu 'Ubaida excused himself from the challenge, saying that he was a linguist and anthologist rather than a veterinarian; al-Asmaʿi then leaped onto the horse, identified every part of its body and gave examples from Bedouin Arab poetry establishing the terms as proper Arabic vocabulary.[5] Yahya, a Barmakid vizier of the Caliph, took pity on al-Asmaʿi, who was a perennial bachelor and was not considered to be a handsome man. Yahya attempted to buy al-Asmaʿi a slave girl, but she was so repulsed by al-Asmaʿi's appearance that Yahya bought her back due to her rejection.[6]


Of Asmaʿi's many works mentioned in the catalogue known as the Fihrist, only about half a dozen are extant. These include the Book of Distinction, the Book of the Wild Animals, the Book of the Horse, and the Book of the Sheep.[11] Most existing collections of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry were compiled by al-Asmaʿi's students based on the principles he taught.[3] In the modern era, German Orientalist Wilhelm Ahlwardt collected and republished al-Asmaʿi's magnum opus Asma'iyyat, considered to be one of the primary sources of early Arabic poetry.[13]

He also authored a botanical work, Plants and Trees, in which he names 276 plants, many of which are collective designations. He also names all the plants which grow in the different parts of the Arabian Peninsula.[14]

Al-Asmaʿi's biography has been collected by Ibn Khallikan, who referred to him as a complete master of the Arabic language and the most eminent of all transmitters of the oral history and rare expressions of the language.[6]

See also


  1. Kees Versteegh, Greek Elements in Arabic Linguistic Thinking, pg. 110. Volume 7 of Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1977. ISBN 9789004048553
  2. 1 2 3 al-Aṣmaʿī, Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  3. 1 2 3 "Asma i, al-" in Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature, pg. 78. Merriam-Webster, 1995. ISBN 9780877790426
  4. Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Linguistic Tradition, pg. 25. Part of Landmarks in Linguistic Thought series, vol. 3. New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415157575
  5. 1 2 Housni Alkhateeb Shehada, Mamluks and Animals: Veterinary Medicine in Medieval Islam, pg. 132. Volume 11 of Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9789004234055
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Ludwig W. Adamec, The A to Z of Islam, pg. 43. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009. ISBN 9780810871601
  7. Caskel, W. (1960). "Bahila". In Lewis, B; Pellat, Ch; Schacht, J. The Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume 1 A-B (2nd ed.). Leiden: Brill. p. 921. ISBN 90-04-08114-3.
  8. 1 2 Anwar G. Chejne, The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, pg. 43. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. ISBN 9780816657254
  9. 1 2 M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 22. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  10. Wen-chin Ouyang, Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition, pg. 81. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780748608973
  11. 1 2 3  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Thatcher, Griffithes Wheeler (1911). "Aṣma'ī". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 763. Endnote:
    • For life of Aṣma‘ī, see Ibn Khallikān, Biographical Dictionary, translated from the Arabic by McG. de Slane (Paris and London, 1842), vol. ii. pp. 123-127.
    • For his work as a grammarian, G. Flügel, Die grammatischen Schulen der Araber (Leipzig, 1862), pp. 72-80.
  12. G. J. H. Van Gelder, Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, pg. 2. Volume 8 of Studies in arabic literature: Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1982. ISBN 9789004068544
  13. Shady Nasser, The Transmission of the Variant Readings of the Qurʾān: The Problem of Tawātur and the Emergence of Shawādhdh, pg. 210. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9789004241794
  14. Toufic Fahd, "Botany and agriculture." Taken from Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Volume 3: Technology, Alchemy and Life Sciences, pg. 814. Ed. Roshdi Rasheed. London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415124123
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