Types of ما (ma, maa) in Arabic – a tutorial explaining in detail all the ways in which the word ما can occur, with apt references to Qur’anic examples.
What is This Tutorial About?
There are approximately ten types of ما in the Arabic language. That is to say, these are ten homonyms. Some of these ما are nouns while others are particles, and their meanings and functions can be vastly different. Therefore, being able to recognize which ما is which is an essential skill for grammar and comprehension, the lack of which can lead to major errors in reading and comprehension.
This tutorial discusses each type of ما with respect to its meanings and provides some helpful clues on how it will be used in sentences. Knowing them will help you learn Arabic quickly and will immediately enhance your comprehension of Qur’anic verses.
The Types of ما
Interrogative – ما الاستفهامية
This ما is a noun which is used to ask a question and it is typically translated as “what …?” For example, we may ask “what is wrong with you?” Consider the example below.
What is wrong with you that you do not fight in the way of God?
ما لكم لا تقاتلون في سبيل الله؟
It will be the very first word in the sentence unless it is preceded by a particle such as “and” or the like. Consider the example below.
And what is wrong with me that I do not worship the one who created me?
وما لي لا أعبد الذي فطرني؟
We usually find this ما before nominal sentences, but it may come before a verb. Often in this situation, the ما acts as the direct object of the verb, as in the following example.
What will you worship after me?
ما تعبدون من بعدي؟
And often the word ذا comes between ما and the verb, in which case the ما is the subject of the nominal sentence. Consider the following.
What is it that God intends with this as an example?
ماذا أراد الله بهذا مثلا؟
A final point to note is that this particular ما will lose its aleph when in the genitive case. This applies to both being preceded by a genitival particle as well as being in a possessive structure. Consider the following.
Regarding what do they question each other?
عمَّ [عن ما] يتساءلون؟
Pronominal – ما الموصولة
This ما is a relative pronoun (a type of noun) used for inanimate objects. Consequently, it is translated as “that which”, or simply “that/what/which”. This is a very popular usage of the word. Consider the following.
Follow that which has been revealed to you.
اتّبع ما أوحي إليك
Often there will be a pronoun in the relative clause that refers back to this ما. This will indicate that this word is in its pronominal function. However, even if the pronoun has been dropped, the context is almost always clear and sufficient to deduce which ما is being used. In the example above, we would never employ the translation “follow…. what has been revealed to you?” This is quite clear from the context.
Negative – ما النافية
This ما is a particle used to negate the perfect (past tense) verb. It almost invariably comes before such verbs; consider the following.
They would not have added to you (anything) except disorder.
ما زادوكم إلاّ خبالا
Although this ما is almost always followed by a past tense verb, it does not mean that every ما followed by such a verb is negative; it may be pronominal, for example, as in the following example.
Then for them is two thirds of what he has left.
فلهنّ ثلثا ما ترك
Finally, this ما is sometimes followed by an imperfect verb. This has minor rhetorical considerations and is somewhat rare. An example follows.
Say: I do not ask you for a reward for it.
قل ما أسئلكم عليه من أجر
The one that Resembles ليس – المشبهة بـ”ليس”
This ما, too, is negative. The difference is that this one enters upon a nominal sentence, not a past tense verb. It acts like ليس in both meaning as well as in the fact that it leaves the subject of the sentence nominative and it renders the predicate accusative.
Although this ما is relatively scarce, the accusative predicate can be used as a clue to determine that it is this ما. Consider the following.
This is not a man.
ما هذا بشراً
Like ليس, if the predicate is a single word or a short phrase, an extra باء comes before it in order to emphasize the negation. Consider the example below.
I am not at all responsible for you.
ما أنا عليكم بحفيظ
And many a time we find the subject preceded by مِن also for the purposes of emphasizing the negation. In such a situation, the predicate is often omitted. See the following example.
There is absolutely no creature (in existence) except that He has a hold on its forehead.
وما من دابّة إلاّ هو آخذ بناصيتها
Adverbial – ما الظرفية
This ما is widely considered to be a particle and it gives the meaning of “as long as”. It comes before both perfect and imperfect verbs, and specifically, it is popularly brought before an imperfect verb with لم. But this does not mean that every ما in this position will be ما الظرفية.
If you divorce women so long as you have not touched them
إن طلّقتم النساء ما لم تمسوهنّ
And it is also popularly brought before the verb دام, in which case the ما is both ظرفية and مصدرية. Consider the following.
And He enjoined prayer and charity on me so long as I am alive.
وأوصاني بالصلوة والزكوة ما دمت حيا
Gerundival – ما المصدرية
Much like the particle أنْ, this ما renders the following perfect or imperfect verb into the gerund meaning. And it is a particle just like ان. Below is an example of its usage.
And the land became constricted upon you despite it being vast.
وضاقت عليكم الأرض بما رحبت
It is quite often seen after locative nouns such as بعد, قبل, عند, حين, and others. Below is an example.
So whoever changes it after having heard it
فمن بدّله بعدما سمعه …
And, in this capacity, it does not necessarily have to be followed by a verb. Below is an example where it is followed by a nominal sentence.
While I was walking
بينما أنا أمشي …
Indefinite Adjectival – ما النكرة الموصوفة
This ما connects with the indefinite word prior to it, becoming an adjective for it, and exaggerates the indefiniteness. It is a noun. For example, compare “meet me at some time” and “meet me at any time at all.” The Arabic equivalent is below.
Meet me at any time at all.
لاقني في وقت ما
Indefinite Complete – ما النكرة التامة
This ما is a noun and it is used in the place of the word شيء (thing) or something similarly abstract. It is used in very particular situations, one of which is after the verb نعم. In the example below, the ما that connects to the verb نعم could have been replaced by the abstract word “thing”:
What a great thing the Arabic language is!
نِعِمّا لسان العربية
Another instance, and perhaps the only other one, is the use of this ما before a verb of astonishment (فعل التعجب). In the example below, the ما is in the place of the abstract word “person”. The deeper translation of the example would be “what person (or even thing) is greater than Zaid?!”
How great Zaid is!
ما أحسن زيدا
Preventative – ما الكافة
This ما comes after the حروف مشبهة بالفعل. It is a particle and it stops these حروف from carrying out their typical grammatical influence. In the case of إن especially, even the meaning is altered from “indeed” to that of restriction. Below is an example.
Say: I am only a man like yourselves.
قل إنّما أنا بشر مثلكم
Extra – ما الزائدة
This is the ما that comes extra and it is considered a particle. It typically comes extra before particles and nouns of condition, as well as after genitival particles. An example of the first as follows.
And the witnesses should not refuse when they are called upon.
ولا يأب الشهداء إذا ما دعوا
And an example of the second is seen below. In some cases, the ما coming after a genitival particle has no effect, yet sometimes it stops the particle from rendering the following word genitive. In the example below, the ما does not stop the effect of the particle.
So it is due to a mercy from God that you were lenient towards them.
فبما رحمةٍ من الله لنت لهم
used to ask a question
introduces a relative clause
negates the past tense verb
resembles ليس in meaning and function
“as long as”
turns the following verb/sentence into a gerund
emphasizes the negation of a preceding noun
in place of the word “thing”
comes after the particles that resemble verbs
Identify all the instances of ما from the following sentences and describe the function of each one.
a. ما قلتُ لهم إلاّ ما أمرتَني به أن اعبد الله ربي وربكم. وكنتُ عليهم شهيدا ما دمتُ فيهم
b. وجعلني مباركا أين ما كنتُ وأوصاني بالصلوة والزكوة ما دمتُ حيا
c. سنلقي في قلوب الذين كفروا الرعب بما أشركوا بالله ما لم ينزِّل به سلطانا
d. إنْ تُبدوا الصدَقاتِ فنِعِمَّا هي
e. قل إنّما حرّم ربي الفواحش ما ظهر منها وما بطن
f. وما هو بمزحزحه من العذاب أن يُعمَّر. والله بصير بما يعملون
g. لها ما كسبت ولكم ما كسبتم. ولا تُسئلون عما كانوا يعملون
h. قال عما قليل ليُصبحنّ نادمين
i. ويقولون هو من عند الله وما هو من عند الله
j. وقال الإنسان ما لها