Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the mustathnā in Arabic Grammar.
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Introduction on the mustathnā in Arabic Grammar
In Arabic grammar, استثناء is the process of excluding a subset from a set, as in كل درر تلمع إلاّ هذه (all the pearls are sparkling except this one). In the example, كل درر (all the pearls) is the set from which the exclusion is happening, and it is termed the مستثنى منه /mustathna minhu/. And هذه (this one) is the thing being excluded, and it is termed the مستثنى /mustathna/. The word إلا is the equivalent of the word ‘except’ in English that separates the مستثنى and the مستثنى منه.
the thing excluded
the group from which the مستثنى is being excluded
Just as there are many alternatives to the word ‘except’ in English – such as ‘save’, or ‘but not’, and so forth – so, too, in Arabic are there many methods of achieving exclusion. Some of these involve the use of verbs, as in the following.
· لا يكون
· ما عدا
· ما خلا
Other methods involved the use of particles, such as the following.
And yet other methods involve the use of nouns. A few examples follow.
Type of Exclusion /mustathnā/
There are many angles from which we can consider exclusion and each results in a different categorization. The first angle we will consider is that of the relationship between the مستثنى and the مستثنى منه; either the مستثنى is actually part of the مستثنى منه, or it is not part of it. In the first example below, the thing being excluded is actually part of the group from which the exclusion is being made. And in the second example, the thing being excluded is actually not part of the group.
﴿ولا يلتفت منكم أحد إلا امرأتك﴾
And let not any among you turn back except your wife
Notice that ‘your wife’ is indeed within the group ‘any of you’
﴿لا يسمعون فيها لغوا ولا تأثيما إلا قيلا سلاما سلاما﴾
They shall not hear therein any frivolous talk nor sin, except the saying “peace, peace”
Notice how ‘saying peace’ is not actually part of ‘frivolous talk or sin’
exclusion wherein the thing being excluded is indeed part of the group
exclusion wherein the thing being excluded is actually not part of the group
If we consider the parity of the sentence, exclusion can again be divided into two categories. The first is exclusion occurring in an affirmative sentence and the second is exclusion occurring in a non-affirmative sentence. Notice that the real difference here is whether the مستثنى is being excluded or included. In an affirmative structure, exclusion helps remove the مستثنى (everyone except Zaid). And in a negative structure, exclusion helps include the مستثنى (no one except Zaid; i.e. he’s the only one). An example of each category follows.
﴿… يجتنبون كبائر الإثم والفواحش إلا اللمم﴾
They avoid the major sins and shameful whims, except maybe minor mistakes
﴿ما فعلوه إلا قليل منهم﴾
They didn’t do it, save a few among them
Or: only a few among them did it
an affirmative sentence
كلام غير موجب
a non-affirmative sentence (not necessarily negative; e.g. prohibitive, interrogative, etc)
Another angle from which we can consider exclusion is the order of the مستثنى and مستثنى منه. The default order is for the مستثنى منه to precede the word ‘except’ and for the مستثنى to follow it. Alternatively, the مستثنى منه may be delayed until the very end, resulting in the order ‘except’ followed by the مستثنى followed by the مستثنى منه. An example from each of the two categories follows.
﴿لا يغادر كبيرة ولا صغيرة إلا أحصاها﴾
It doesn’t forgo anything major nor minor (i.e. sin) except that it enumerates it
فما لي إلا آلَ أحمد شيعةٌ وما لي إلا مذهبَ الحق مذهبُ
For me, other than the family of Ahmad, there is no alliance
And for me, other than the religion of truth, there is no religion
exclusion wherein the thing being excluded comes after the group
exclusion wherein the thing being excluded comes before the group
The final angle we will consider is that of whether the group from which the exclusion is occurring – the مستثنى منه – is actually mentioned or whether it has been omitted. Two examples follow.
﴿فلا كاشف له إلا هو﴾
Then there will be no one to remove it except Him
﴿لا يعلمها إلا هو﴾
[No one] knows of them except Him
exclusion wherein the group has not been mentioned
مستثنى غير مفرَّغ
exclusion wherein the group has been mentioned
Notice that a مستثنى مفرغ cannot occur in an affirmative sentence; the sentence must be negative. Imagine just how awkward the following sentence would seem were it to be valid.
يعلمها إلا هو
[Everyone?] knows about them except him
The table below lists a few examples of exclusion. Try to determine which of the two categories each sentence belongs to for each of the above four classifications.
فَإِنَّهُمُ يَرْجُوْنَ مِنْهُ شَفاعَةً إذا لَمْ يُكُنْ إلاّ النَبِيُّوْنَ شافِعُ
ومن يقنط من رحمت ربه إلا الضالون
Grammatical Rules Related to al-mustathnā
Rules of Exclusion using Verbs
In the case where the word ‘except’ is expressed in Arabic using a verb, such as ليس, لا يكون, and so forth, the مستثنى will be its direct object and therefore in the accusative case.
Whatever animal’s blood has flown and God’s name has been recited over it, eat it but the teeth and nails
ما أنهر الدمَ وذكر اسم الله عليه فكلوا ليس السنَ والظفْرَ
Lo, everything save God is void (i.e. mortal). And every benefactor will inevitably vanish
الا كل شيء ما خلا اللهَ باطلُ .. وكل نعيم لا محالةَ زائلُ
Rules of Exclusion using Particles (other than إلا)
In the case where the word ‘except’ is expressed using a particle such as عدا and خلا (provided the particle is not إلا), the particle will be a preposition and thus the مستثنى will be in the genitive case.
Rules of Exclusion using Nouns (other than غير)
In the case where ‘except’ is expressed using a noun such as سوى, the noun will be مضاف and the مستثنى will be مضاف إليه. Since the word used to express ‘except’ is a noun, it has its own grammatical state and that state will be determined by its position in the sentence.
Rules of Exclusion using إلا
The grammatical rulings surrounding exclusion deal with the grammatical case of the مستثنى. Given the fourfold bifurcation discussed in the previous section, the chart below shows the 16 resulting cases for استثناء, and it is based on these cases that the rulings will be given. There are only three rulings. (If you’re on a mobile, flip your phone sideways to view this chart)
In case 13, there are two options; the مستثنى may be accusative, or it may adopt the same grammatical case as the مستثنى منه. The better choice is typically the one that results in the least amount of confusion – although there are other factors for choosing which to use. The table below gives a few examples for case 13.
ولا يلتفتْ منكم أحدٌ إلا امرأتَك/امرأتُك
هل مررت بأحدٍ إلا زيداً/زيدٍ
In case 15, notice that the مستثنى منه has not been mentioned. Here the مستثنى will be given the grammatical case that the مستثنى منه would have had were it to be mentioned. A few examples follow.
ما جائني [أحدٌ] إلا زيدٌ
ما رأيت [أحدا] إلا زيدا
ما مررت [بأحد] إلا بزيدٍ
However, in case 15, it is not permissible for the مستثنى to be any of the follow three things.
· مفعول مطلق
· مغعول فيه
One will not, for instance, say لا تعثوا في الأرض إلا مفسدين. Nor will one say هل ضربته إلا ضربا واحدا؟.
In all other cases apart from 13 and 15, the مستثنى will be accusative. In fact, we can deduce a very concise rule given this information:
The مستثنى can always be accusative except in case 15, where its grammatical state will be determined by the governing agent acting on the assumed مستثنى منه
A few Details on إلا
There is somewhat of an irregularly large amount of disagreement between the grammatical camps surrounding the rules of إلا. What we have discussed in the previous subsection are the most widely used rules.
On another note, the particle إلا cannot be used for double exclusion. For example, when one says ما جائني أحد إلا أصدقائي إلا أحمد, the meaning is not understood as “no one came to me except my friends save Ahmad). What we desire to say is that only the friends came, but Ahmad, one of the friends, did not come. But we have not achieved this meaning. In fact, when إلا is repeated, it only serves to emphasize the negation on the second مستثنى. What we’ve expressed from the example above is “no one came to me except my friends, especially Ahmad [who came enthusiastically]).
Rules of Exclusion using غير
The word غير is a noun and it acts as a مضاف while the مستثنى is its مضاف إليه. This is a simple issue. But the point of interest with غير is what grammatical state it itself gets.
So غير usually acts as an adjective (صفة). Where إلا is used to afford the sense of ‘except,’ غير is used to afford the sense of ‘non-‘, as in غير صنوان (non-twinned; i.e. single). As such, غير together with its مضاف إليه tends to form the صفة for a preceding موصوف and hence receives its grammatical state. For example, مذهب غير سديد (an inappropriate stance). This is the most common usage, but it need to necessarily be a صفة. It may be a predicate, as in هذا غير سديد (this is inappropriate).
But sometimes غير can be used in the same manner as إلا; that is, in order to afford the sense of ‘except’. In this case, the word غير will not form a صفة. Instead, its grammatical state will be the same state the مستثنى would have received were we to have used إلا. For example, in the statement لا ينفعهم إلا شفاعةُ النبيين, the thing being excluded is شفاعة النبيين and it is in the nominative case as per the mentioned rules. Now, if we were to replace the إلا and use غير, we would have لا ينفعهم غير شفاعةِ النبيين. The question now comes to mind as to what state the word غير should be in. And the answer is that, since شفاعة was nominative when we used إلا, غير will also be nominative here.