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Abu Ubaidah (scholar)

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Subject: Al-Asma'i, 825 deaths, 728 births, Akhtal, Mu'allaqat
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Abu Ubaidah (scholar)

Abu Ubaida, Obaida, or Ubaydah (Arabic: أبو عبيدة‎; AD 728–825) Ma’mar ibn ul-Muthanna was an early Muslim scholar of Arabic philology.[1] Abu Ubaida was a controversial figure; later scholar Ibn Qutaybah remarked that Abu Ubaida "hated Arabs," though his contemporaries still considered him perhaps the most well-rounded scholar of his age.[2] Whether or not Abu Ubaida was truly a supporter of the Shu'ubiyya is a matter of debate.


Abu Ubaida was said to have originally been Jewish.[3] In his youth, he was a pupil of Abu 'Amr ibn al-'Ala', Yunus ibn Habib and Al-Akhfash al-Akbar,[4] was later a contemporary of Al-Asma'i,[5] and in 803 he was called to Baghdad by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. In one incident recounted by numerous historians, the Caliph al-Rashid brought forth a horse and asked both al-Asma'i 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-Asma'i 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.[6]

He was one of the most learned and authoritative scholars of his time in all matters pertaining to the Arabic language, antiquities and stories, and is constantly cited by later authors and compilers. Al-Jahiz held him to be the most learned scholar in all branches of human knowledge, and Ibn Hisham accepted his interpretation even of passages in the Qur'an. Although Abu 'Ubaida couldn't recite a single verse of the Qur'an without committing errors in pronunciation, he was considered an expert on the linguistic meanings of the verses, especially in regard to rarely used vocabulary.[7] The titles of 105 of his works are mentioned in the Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, and his Book of Days is the basis of parts of the history of Ibn al-Athir and of the Kitab al-Aghani of Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, but nothing of his (except a song) seems to exist now in an independent form.

He died in Basra in 825.


The exact nature of Abu Ubaida's religious and ethnocentric views is a matter of debate. Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb holds that prior to Ibn Qutaybah's accusation centuries later, none had accused Abu Ubaida of prejudice against Arabs; rather, Gibb holds that this was as a result of his status as a Kharijite, a Medieval sect of Muslims different from both Sunnis and Shi'as.[8] Hugh Chisholm disagrees, holding that Abu Ubaida was neither a Kharijite nor a racist but simply a supporter of Shu'ubiyya and opposed the idea that Arabs were inherently superior to other races. In Chisolm's description, he delighted in showing that words, fables, customs, etc., which the Arabs believed to be peculiarly their own, were derived from the Persians. In these matters he was the great rival of al-Asma’i.[9] Abu Ubaida's views differed sharply in regard to Arabic and the Qur'an; he denied that the Qur'an contained any non-Arabic vocabulary, a position to which later commentators such as Al-Suyuti were opposed.[10]

Regardless of any controversy, Abu Ubaida's influence is well-known. Almost half of all information about Arabia before Islam reported by later authors was by way of Abu Ubaida, and he wrote the earliest extant Tafsir or commentary on the Qur'an, which was the basis for explaining any verses in the prophetic biography written by Ibn Hisham.[8]


  1. ^ Günter Lüling, A Challenge to Islam for Reformation: The Rediscovery and Reliable Reconstruction of a Comprehensive Pre-Islamic Christian Hymnal Hidden in the Koran Under Earliest Islamic Reinterpretations, pg. 31. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003. ISBN 9788120819528
  2. ^ Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, Studies on the Civilization of Islam, pg. 67. Volume 21 of Routledge library editions: Islam. London: Routledge, 2013. ISBN 9781135030346
  3. ^ Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, "Abū ʿUbayda Maʿmar b. al-Mut̲h̲annā." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2007. Brill Online. 11 April 2007 [1]
  4. ^ Ibn Khallikan, Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch, vol. 4, pg. 586. Trns. William McGuckin de Slane. London: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland, 1871.
  5. ^ M.G. Carter, Sibawayh, pg. 22. Part of the Makers of Islamic Civilization series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 9781850436713
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Anwar G. Chejne, The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, pg. 43. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. ISBN 9780816657254
  8. ^ a b Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, Studies, pg. 68.
  9. ^ Hugh Chisholm, Encyclopædia Britannica. 11th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911.
  10. ^ Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language, pg. 61. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. ISBN 0748614362
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