Rootology: Cut It into Pieces

Cuts of Meat by lasard

In our last post, we talked about the complexities of Arabic's root system which gives the language great depth and beauty. Since all Arabic word forms are derived from a particular root, many of them are connected. By investigating roots and their derived forms we can uncover the nuances and subtleties that have enchanted linguists, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, for centuries.

Today we will look at the verb shara7a شرح.

Shara7a is a triliteral root which is commonly used as 'to explain'. However, when we look at the dictionary we see that explanation is really a secondary definition. Hans Wehr defines shara7a first as, "to cut into little pieces". From here we get the word tashri7 تشريح, which means "to dissect".

By sharing the same root, 'cutting into pieces', 'dissection' and 'explanation' all contribute to our understanding of shara7a. Like dissection, shara7a connotes revealing the inner workings of some idea or process. It also suggests that this explanation will examine a given subject gradually, focusing on explaining its constituent parts.

We see this in the shar7 شرح genre of Classical literary commentary. In a shar7 text, the author dissects a piece of literature, particularly a poem, line by line, explaining and expanding on a given phrase's meaning.

These subtleties set shar7 apart from other verbs meaning 'to explain'.

Tafsir تفسير is one such verb and is also a literary term used to describe exegeses of the Qur'an. According to Lane's Lexicon and Lisan al-Arabtafsir, unlike shara7a, conveys discovering and revealing the hidden meaning of a "dubious expression" or difficult to understand idea. It can also mean to elucidate. Both of these meanings differ slightly from that of shara7a, which is why commentaries of the Qur'an are labeled tafsir rather than shar7.

I think this distinction stems from the relative ambiguities connoted by each verb. Shara7a شرح seems to describe a more straightforward process than the type explanation expressed by tafsir. Dissection, by its nature, implies the strong possibility of understanding a whole by systematically investigating and understanding its constituent parts. Tafsir, on the other hand, makes no such guarantees. Additionally, tafsir literature deals with the word of God, something that people may never be able to fully understand.

Looking into shara7a's derived forms, we can glimpse the potential for a root's meaning to change in the verb inshira7 انشراح. This form connotes the passive, and so inshira7 comes to mean 'to be opened'. However, it is used more commonly to mean 'to be relaxed' or 'to be happy'. This more figurative meaning stems from the Quranic verse:

فمن يُرِد اللهُ أَن يَهْدِيَه يَشْرَحْ صدرَه للإِسلام 
And whomever God desires to guide, he opens his chest to Islam.

Here inshira7 connotes becoming receptive to Islam's tenets and beliefs. Thereby, it suggests being in a state of calm and receptiveness, and, because Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and Islam, a state of happiness.

And when you consider the image, you can understand this sense of calm. If your heart was revealed to you and you were made to understand the emotions and feelings that drive you, you would certainly enter a state of calm and joy.

References for this piece include: Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Lane's Lexicon, Lisan Al-Arab, and Thackston's Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic


  1. Mehdi! I am very excited about your blog. You are exploring the ways in which the Arabic language has touched me personally and so many others. Mabruk. And have a wonderful Eid.



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