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Abu l-Aswad al-Du'ali

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Companion of Imam (a)
Abu l-Aswad al-Du'ali
Full Name Zalim b. 'Amr b. Sufyan b. Jandal al-Du'ali
Companion of Imam Ali (a)
Birth Unkown
Place(s) of Residence Basra
Death/Martyrdom 69/688
Cause of
Activities Said to be the founder of Arabic syntax

Abū l-Aswad al-Duʾalī (Arabic: أبوالأسْوَد الدُؤَلی) was a well-known poet and Tabi'i who is mostly known as a companion of Imam Ali (a) and the founder of nahw (Arabic syntax). Very little is known about his life, which is mixed with historical contradictions. After the beginning of the Battle of Jamal when Aisha had headed towards Basra, Abu l-Aswad and another person were sent by 'Uthman b. Hunayf to negotiate with Aisha.

Abu l-Aswad's companionship of Imam Ali (a), his participation in the Battle of Jamal, and pieces of poems he composed in the praise or elegy of Imam Ali (a) and Imam al-Husayn (a) led to the widespread view that he was fond of Ali (a).

According to some historical sources, he was the inventor of the science of nahw. He was also the first person who added diacritical marks to the Qur'an.

There is a disagreement in sources about the date of Abu l-Aswad's death, just like the rest of his biography. According to the majority of sources, he died in 69/688-89 when a lethal plague outbroke in Basra as a result of which many people died.


Ẓālim b. 'Amr b. Sufyan (Arabic: ظالِم بن عَمْرو بن سُفْیان), known as Abu l-Aswad, was born in the period of Jahiliyya. However, he is quoted as saying that he was born in the year in which the Conquest of Mecca occurred.

He was from the clan of Banu Kinana Mudar, which was known in Basra as "Ahl al-'Aliya" (the Highlanders or Medinan army regiment of Basra). His tribe was known as "Du'al". People of Hijaz pronounce "Du'al" as "Dayli". People of his tribe lived in Hijaz near the city of Mecca. They are mentioned in some events of the early years of Islam in the period of the Prophet (s).

Abu l-Aswad's mother was from the clan of Banu 'Abd al-Dar. According to a view which is not much reliable, his father was in the army of polytheists in one of the Prophet's (s) ghazwas where he was killed. Probably there is a confusion in this view.

Abu l-Aswad died in Basra. According to most sources, he died in 69/688 when a lethal plague outbroke in Basra and many people died as a result. There are other views about the year of his death which are not considerable.

Abu l-Aswad had two sons, 'Ata' and Abu Harb. 'Ata' had no offspring, but Abu Harb, who was a poet and a scholar of nahw (Arabic syntax) and was appointed by al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf as a ruler of a region, had an offspring.

The Period of the Prophet (s)

According to some views, Abu l-Aswad was one of the Sahaba, but as Ibn Athir has pointed out, the view that he was one of the Sahaba is rooted in a distortion in the text of a hadith.

Moreover, it is said that he lived for 85, or even 100 years, and given the widely accepted view about the year of his death, he could not have met the Prophet (s).

However, none of these dates are reliable enough.

The Period of the Three Caliphs

Abu l-Aswad met, and talked with, Abu Dhar al-Ghifari in al-Rabadha where he was in an exile. The meeting was narrated by Musa b. Maysara who was from the Du'al tribe.

The Period of Imam Ali's (a) Caliphate

Participation in the Battles

Abu l-Aswad accompanied Imam Ali (a) in the Battle of Jamal. When Aisha headed towards Basra, Abu l-Aswad and someone else were commissioned by 'Uthman b. Hunayf to negotiate with her. In these negotiations, Abu l-Aswad was a little tough on Aisha.

Governmental Positions

In the Battle of Siffin, at the command of Imam Ali (a), Ibn 'Abbas ordered Abu l-Aswad to mobilize the forces, then he departed to join the Imam (a), and appointed Abu l-Aswad as his successor in Basra to be the Imam of congregational prayers and serve as a judge, and appointed Ziyad b. Abih as the supervisor of bureaucratical affairs and taxes. During this period, they were hostile to each other, leading Abu l-Aswad to compose libels against Ziyad.

On one account, which is not reliable, in the Battle of Siffin, Imam Ali (a) wanted to choose Abu l-Aswad for Arbitration. After the battle, Ibn 'Abbas returned to Basra, and when Khawarij began their seditions, he—as the ruler of Basra—sent Abu l-Aswad to combat them. After a while, Abu l-Aswad accused Ibn 'Abbas of frauds in the Treasury, as a result of which Imam Ali (a) reprimanded Ibn 'Abbas. After this, Ibn 'Abbas left Basra and went to Hijaz. The attempts by Abu l-Aswad and his tribe to dissuade Ibn 'Abbas from leaving Basra was to no avail. Before leaving the city, Ibn 'Abbas appointed Ziyad b. Abih as his successor. Abu l-Aswad was angry that Ibn 'Abbas did not appoint him as his successor.

Ziyad b. Abih's rule in Basra lasted until a person was sent to Basra by Mu'awiya. His presence in Basra led to conflicts and Ziyad escaped from Dar al-Imara (House of the Emir). Later in 39/659, he was sent by Imam Ali (a) to Fars where he stayed until the martyrdom of the Imam (a). During this time, the administration of the city was probably undertaken by Abu l-Aswad al-Du'ali though in a non-official way, or at least, he was busy with his previous tasks.

The Period of Imam al-Hasan (a)

When the news of the martyrdom of Imam Ali (a) and people's allegiance to Imam al-Hasan (a) was spread in Basra, Abu l-Aswad went on top of the minbar and said that one of the Mariqun martyred the caliph. He called everyone to pledge their allegiance to Imam al-Hasan (a). The Shi'as pledged their allegiance to him, but a group of 'Uthman's advocates refused to do so and fled to Mu'awiya. In the meanwhile, Mu'awiya sent someone to Abu l-Aswad in order to fool him into thinking that Hasan (a) had made a compromise with Mu'awiya, asking him to call people of Basra to pledge their allegiance to Mu'awiya. In an elegy for the martyrdom of Imam Ali (a), Abu l-Aswad referred to Mu'awiya as being responsible for the Imam's (a) martyrdom.

After this event, Abu l-Aswad's roles faded away.

The Period of Mu'awiya

In 44/664, Ibn 'Amir, the ruler of Basra, sent delegates from Basra to Mu'awiya. Abu l-Aswad was one of the delegates. He and Ahnaf b. Qays went to Mu'awiya and talked harshly to him.

In 45/665, Mu'awiya appointed Ziyad b. Abih as the ruler of Iraq. While Abu l-Aswad was not on good terms with him since a long time ago, he still visited Ziyad frequently and whenever he was offended by him, he composed a poem and reproached him. Moreover, he was not much respected probably because of his associations with Imam Ali (a).

There are stories about his relationships with Ziyad and the foundation of the science of Arabic syntax. On some accounts, Abu l-Aswad was tutor of Ziyad's children. It seems that in light of the peace resulted from Ziyad's tyranny in Iraq, Abu l-Aswad was engaged in business or composing romantic poems.

The Period of Yazid

On some accounts, after the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (a), Abu l-Aswad composed some poems in the elegy of the Imam (a) and libeled against 'Abd Allah b. Ziyad. According to some reports which are said to be not much reliable, he helped Durrat al-Sadaf to retake the head of Imam al-Husayn (a) near Aleppo and quarreled with Khawli's agents. According to some reports, during Ibn Ziyad's rule, Abu l-Aswad still asked him and even one or two of his agents in southern Iran for help, and as suggested by his poems, he traveled to Gundeshapur, Jay, and Isfahan, although his requests were ignored.

The Zubayrid Period

The last evidence regarding Abu l-Aswad's life concerns the story of 'Abd Allah b. Zubayr's uprising. In 65/684, Ibn Zubayr appointed Harith b. 'Abd Allah al-Makhzumi, known as Quba', as the ruler of Basra. In a piece of poem, Abu l-Aswad libeled the new ruler of Basra.

Scholarly and Cultural Significance

Significance in Hadiths

Abu l-Aswad transmitted hadiths from 'Umar b. al-Khattab, Imam Ali (a), and Abu Dhar al-Ghifari. His hadiths were mostly transmitted by his son, Abu Harb, as well as Yayha b. Ya'mur, from the clan of Banu Kinana Mudar, and 'Abd Allah b. Burayda. His reliability in the transmission of hadiths has been confirmed by all sources, in particular the sources of rijal.

Significance in Theology

Abu l-Aswad wrote a monograph in Islamic theology (Kalam). Al-Baghdadi attributed an essay against "Qadaris"—which ironically refers to the Mu'tazila—to Abu l-Aswad. However, the Mu'tazila themselves have mentioned him among the Mu'tazila as a believer in justice and monotheism.

Significance in Nahw

Abu l-Aswad is mostly known as the founder of the Arabic syntax or grammar (nahw). He is usually referred to as the person who invented the Arabic diacritic.

The Diacritic of the Qur'an

Abu l-Aswad was the first person who added diacritics to the Qur'an. According to Abu l-Faraj al-Isfahani, he was ordered by Ziyad to punctuate the volumes of the Qur'an. He did so, and then wrote some materials about nahw.

Style of Diacritic

According to sources, Abu l-Aswad's style of diacritic was as follows: he selected an eloquent, intelligent man from the 'Abd al-Qays clan to recite the Qur'an for him. He then asked him to put a dot on the letter if he opened ("fatahtu", from which "fatha" is derived) his mouth while pronouncing it, to put a dot below the letter if he broke down ("kasartu" from which "kasra" is derived) his mouth or lower jaw, and to put a dot in front of the letter if he pronounced it while bringing his lips together ("damamtu" from which "damma" is derived).

Thus, the invention of other diacritic marks was sometimes attributed to him, and added to the story.

Al-Qalqashandi believes that the majority of scholars only attribute the invention of the three main diacritic marks—fatha, kasra, and damma—as well as the mark of nunation (tanwin) to Abu l-Aswad.

Significance in Arabic Poetry and Literature

Today the majority of researchers believe that Abu l-Aswad's poetry was devoid of any artistic value, though in the past, he was deemed as important in all respects. His aphorisms have been cited by many scholars from Ibn Salam, Ibn Sa'd, Jahiz, Ibn Qutayba, and Ibn 'Abd Rabbah to sources in the 19th century, and many others have mentioned him as a well-known and prominent figure among poets and the wise, or the witty, or the stingy, or the lame. Prominent Shiite scholars have quoted many stories concerning each of these characterizations. Abu l-Tayyib al-Lughawi exaggerated about Abu l-Aswad's mastery of the Arabic language, claiming that he was able to speak in any Arabic dialect (of any Arabian tribe).

There are some accounts of his knowledge of Arabic poems. 'Abd Allah b. al-'Abbas, himself one of the most knowledgeable people about Arabic poems, asked Abu l-Aswad to introduce the best poem to him. In another case, he commented on the best Arabic poem in the presence of Amir al-Mu'minin (a). Al-Yaghmuri quoted Ibn al-A'rabi as saying that Abu l-Aswad was one of the four most eloquent Arabs.

What adds to his credibility is the great number of his poems cited in the most reliable literary works: three times in Sibawayh, two times in Ibn Durayd, Jahiz, Ibn Qutayba, Mubarrad, Bahtari, and all later sources have appealed to his poems and aphorisms. One of his verses has become a well-known Arabic proverb.

He composed poems in the praise or the elegy of Imam Ali (a) and Imam al-Husayn (a) which led to the widely held belief that he was a passionate supporter of Imam Ali (a). According to some accounts, his support of Imam Ali (a) was a reason why he was overlooked.