Demonstrative pronoun as the subject of an Arabic sentence

In this lesson on ilm ul ma’aani, we are going to learn the benefits of expressing the subject of your sentence as a demonstrative/ إشارة phrase. 

The grammar of the ism ul-isharah in Arabic is covered in our Arabic pronouns tutorial. As a quick refresher:

About the Demonstrative Pronoun (إسم الإشارة /ism ul-ishara/) in Arabic

In Arabic grammar, a demonstrative pronoun (إسم الإشارة /ism ul-ishara/) is a noun (اسم) which is used to point to something that has already been mentioned in some form or another. The pointing is either near (“this”), medial, or distant (“that”).

For example هذا كتاب مبين which means ‘This is a clear book’, and:

كلما رُزقوا منها … قالوا هذا الذي رُزقنا من قبل

Whenever they are to be given sustenance therein, they shall say, “this (i.e. this sustenance) is what we have been given prior.”

Expressing the Subject as a Demonstrative Phrase

A demonstrative phrase consists of a demonstrative pronoun such as the word: “this” or “that” plus the thing you are pointing to. 

For example: This Zaid is the evil twin. 

In Arabic we say:

  • “This” is the demonstrative pronoun – اسم إشارة /ismul ishara/
  • “Zaid” is the thing that you are referring to – مشارٌ إليه /musharun ilaih/

Why would you use this structure to express the subject? 

For Differentiation 

The basic reason of using demonstratives is that “this” is used to differentiate between various instances of the same thing. Let’s say there is a pair of twins, both named “Zaid”. If I want to unambiguously refer to a specific one of them, I would say “This Zaid is the evil twin”, pointing to the one I am talking about. 

Another thing about using demonstratives is that you get the additional benefit of distance. Obviously, there is a difference between saying: “This is my friend” and “That is my friend”. 

With “this” you have indicated that the subject is near you. With “that” you have indicated that he is relatively further away. 

To Ridicule Your Audience 

The second reason you would use a demonstrative to express the subject is to ridicule your audience. To understand this let’s first take an example. The famous poet Al-Farazdaq says to another famous poet, Jareer

Using a demonstrative pronoun in Arabic to ridicule your audience

Al-Farazdaq says: “Those are my forefathers …”. Whereas it would have been even better to say: “They are my forefathers …”, using a pronoun

What Al-Farazdaq is doing is he is taking something that is not physically present [his forefathers] and he is making it seem as though it is physically present by using a demonstrative [those], thus insinuating that Jareer can’t even understand anything unless he can physically sense it. That is how you ridicule your audience using these demonstratives. 

It is really hard to relate this to English, but Urdu has a parallel we can use. In Urdu you would translate: “Those are my forefathers as”: “wo hain merai baap dada beta”. For those of you who speak Urdu, you can see the mockery and the condescendence in that sentence. 

To Belittle the Subject

The third benefit of demonstratives is that you can use the near demonstrative (the word “this”), to belittle the subject. The reason this can be used to belittle the subject is because you are indicating that the subject is near. Now, when something is near, it is already achieved. And when something is already achieved, or quite free, it is often worthless.  

By referring to the subject as “this”, you are essentially calling it worthless. 

For example, imagine you and I aren’t on very good terms. In fact, you completely hate my guts. If you run into me in the masjid, and you see me crying. You might ask someone: “What’s wrong with this one?”. Instead of saying: “What’s wrong with him?”. By saying “this one”, you are treating the subject as a worthless commodity. 

An example of this is found in the Qur’an where Allah quotes Abu Jahl as saying the following about the Prophet (peace be upon him): 

Using a demonstrative phrase to belittle the subject in Arabic

To Marginalize 

Similar to that, instead of using the near demonstrative (the word “this”), to belittle the subject, you can use the distant demonstrative (the word “that”) to marginalize and insult the subject. 

How this works is that whether the subject is near or far, you refer to it as if it is far. This gives the impression that you think of the subject as so worthless that it doesn’t even deserve to be in your presence. Formally, we say that you consider the subject to be far below you, then you interpret that figurative distance as a literal distance. This is called rank reduction

In English we do this all the time. 

We use “this” to belittle someone, when we consider them inferior. Like: “This clumsy oaf isn’t worth my time”. 

And we use “that” to marginalize someone when they anger us. Like: “That rat is going to get what’s coming to him”. 

To Honour 

We have used distant demonstratives to insult our audience. We have used near demonstratives to belittle the subject. And we have used distant demonstratives to marginalize the subject. 

Demonstratives used to honour the subject

Now we are going to use the distant demonstrative again, but this time to honour the subject. 

How this works is that you consider the subject very high and elevated. You then use rank reduction to interpret that figurative distance as a literal distance. Like sometimes you see in movies an astronomical coincidence saves the day. A religious person says: “You see, that is my God”. Something is very high and in a very venerable position so you refer to it using the distant demonstrative. 

We find this in the Qur’an also where Allah says: 

Quranic example where an ism al isharah is used to show distance in rank

First of all, the Qur’an is here with us. But the written book itself is in اللوح المحفوظ which is in the Heavens. That is partly why the distant demonstrative was used. But more than that, the Qur’an is very elevated. It is not your day to day speech. It has a very high position and so that is why the distant demonstrative was used. 

To Show Worthiness 

The final benefit of using a demonstrative to express the subject is pretty interesting. To understand this, first notice the similarity between demonstratives, like “this” or “that”, and third person pronouns, like “he”, “she”, “they”, “it” and so on. They are very similar.

Both are used to refer to third person entities. Both reflect gender and plurality. Both can be used for animate and inanimate objects as we have seen today. In fact the only difference you might be able to think about is that demonstratives indicate on distance. That is pretty much it. Well there is actually another crucial difference. You see, a personal pronoun refers to an entity and nothing more. 

For example if I say: “I love the Muslims who were so kind to me. They are always in my du’as”. 

The word “they” here refers to the Muslims, mentioned in the sentence. But just the Muslims themselves, not including any of the qualifiers, such as the fact that they were kind to me. 

A demonstrative refers to an entity as well as all the qualifiers that were made to it. 

For example, if I say: “I love the Muslims who were so kind to me. Those are always in my du’as”. 

Here the word “those” refers to the Muslims who were so kind to me. All the qualifiers are included in the reference. 

When you include the qualities in the reference, the predicate of the sentence is said to be because of those qualities? So, in our example: “Those are always in my du’as, because they were so kind to me”. Whereas: “They are in my du’as”, for who knows what reason. Possibly because they were so kind to me, but possibly for some other reason. 

An example of this from the Qur’an is where Allah says: 

Quranic example to highlight the difference between a personal pronoun in Arabic and a demonstrative

The Qur’an has been sent “as a guidance for the righteous”. Who are the righteous? “Those who believe in the unseen, those who pray etc. It is those that are on guidance from their Lord”. 

The sentence in question is أُولئِكَ عَلى هُدًى مِّنْ رَبِّهِمْ  (Those are the ones on guidance from their Lord). Notice the subject is a demonstrative which is referring to الْمُتَّقِينَ, but because it is a demonstrative pronoun and not a personal pronoun, it refers to the righteous along with all the qualities Allah mentions about them in the subsequent verses. And that is that they believe in the unseen, they pray etc. This means that the righteous are on guidance because of the very fact that they believe in the unseen, establish prayer and so on. It is because of these things that they deserve the guidance.