Recently, I had a fascinating discussion with Kenan Kalajdzic from Sarajevo, Bosnia. Kenan is the operator of arabic.ba

The topic in a nutshell:

Why is كَأَنَّ listed explicitly as a sister of إِنَّ
but بِأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ are not?

Neither of us had a good answer right away. We both looked into the classic works of Arabic grammar, but couldn’t find a clear conclusion. That’s why we decided to share our ideas with others and invite them to join the discussion and share their thoughts.

So let’s get you on board and see what it’s all about.


How we ended up discussing كَأَنَّ

It all started with an email I got from Kenan with the following line:

There is an issue regarding إِنَّ and its sisters that I have been dealing with for a couple of days and have not been able to solve yet.

“It seems that the old grammarians somehow understood that كَأَنَّ should be a single particle, whereas بِأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ are combinations of two particles.”

Start of our discussion about the so-called Sisters of إِنَّ

Now let’s break down this thing and see what’s going on here.


In the following paragraphs, we will describe in more detail the thought process that led us to the original question: Why is كَأَنَّ a sister of إِنَّ but لِأَنَّ is not? Then we will examine the components and functions of كَأَنَّ and see how كَأَنَّ differs from, for example, بِأَنَّ. Finally, we want to share our ideas why the classical grammarians explicitly listed كَأَنَّ as the sister of إِنَّ.


Deep dive: Questions regarding كَأَنَّ

Let’s begin by discussing the reasons why we decided to write this article.

  • Namely, traditional Arabic grammarians, such as Ibn Malik (اِبْنُ مَالِكٍ), have defined إِنَّ and its sisters (إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا) to include إِنَّ and أَنَّ and كَأَنَّ and لٰكِنَّ and لَيْتَ and لَعَلَّ.

    Ibn Malik (~ 1204/600 AH – 1274/672 AH) was a renowned Arabic grammarian who is best known for his seminal work, the Alfiyya (أَلْفِيَّةُ ابْنِ مَالِكٍ). The Alfiyya, with its one thousand lines of poetry, serves as a comprehensive guide to Arabic grammar and morphology, and has been revered as a key resource for students of the Arabic language for centuries.

  • Sibawayhi (سِيبَوَيْهِ), the founding father of a formalized grammar of Classical Arabic, differs only in that he views إِنَّ and أَنَّ as one single particle.
  • What is intriguing, however, is the question of كَأَنَّ, which can be considered the combination of the preposition كَ and the particle أَنَّ.
  • Kenan’s line of reasoning: بِأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ are treated as combinations of the prepositions (بِ and لِ) and the particle أَنَّ. So why not كَأَنَّ?
  • The old grammarians, as we can read in their works, treated كَأَنَّ as a single device, whereas بِأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ were considered combinations of two particles.
  • This is especially interesting given that بِأَنَّ is used extensively in the Holy Qur’an (see below), which was one of the primary sources for the earliest formal Arabic grammar works.

We both searched the Internet for discussions about it, checked some classical Arabic grammar sources, to no avail. We both were surprised that we couldn’t find any discussion regarding this issue, neither with old grammarians nor on the web, nor in academic papers. (Note: Of course, it is entirely possible that we were not aware of works dealing with this, so if anyone knows a source discussing this issue, kindly let us know or use the comment section.)

If you don’t know about the sisters, or it’s been a while, you can learn about them in the next paragraph. Otherwise, you can move on to the next headline.


Quick refresh: “inna and its sisters” – إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا

The devices that are called إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا – inna and its sisters – are super important in Arabic grammar. They help give emphasis, nuance the meaning and add some kind of feeling to sentences.

The following words and devices are usually treated as inna and its sisters (إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا):

  1. إِنَّ (certainly): This one makes a statement stronger or more certain. For example: Sura 22:38: إِنَّ ٱللّهَ يُدَٰفِعُ عَنِ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓا۟ – Indeed, Allah defends those who have believed.
  2. أَنَّ (that/certainly): This word does a similar job as إِنَّ but it’s placed differently in a sentence. For example: سَمِعْتُ أَنَّ الْمُعَلِّمَ مَرِيضٌ – I heard that the teacher is sick.
  3. كَأَنَّ (as if, like): This one is like saying something or someone is similar to something else. It can express comparison, but also doubt. For example: لَقَدْ تَصَرَّفَ كَأَنَّهُ غَنِيٌّ – He acted as if he were (like) rich.
  4. لٰكِنَّ (but): For contradictions, contrasts. The word indicates that there is an exception or even the opposite of what was previously assumed in the sentence. For example: إِنَّ ذٰلِكَ لَيْسَ بِشِفَاءٍ وَلٰكِنَّهُ دَاءٌ‏ – That is not a cure, it is a disease.
  5. لَيْتَ (if only; would that): This rare word is used to express a wish or regret. For example: لَيْتَهُ كَانَ هُنَا – If only he were here.
  6. لَعَلَّ (perhaps/maybe): This word introduces hope or uncertainty. It’s like saying maybe or it is possible that. For example: لَعَلَّ الطَّقْسَ بَارِدٌ – It is perhaps cold outside.

Things to watch out in grammar with إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا

In Arabic grammar, when you encounter one of the devices that are called inna and its sisters (إِنَّ وَأَخَوَاتُهَا), you have to watch out! These tiny devices profoundly affect the grammatical cases that follow.

We don’t want to go into the grammatical implications here, but just briefly summarize the most important rules:

Basically, there are two ingredients:

  • a “subject” (اِسْمُ إِنَّ) which takes the accusa­tive case (مَنْصُوبٌ);
  • a predicate (خَبَرُ إِنَّ) which has to be in the nomina­tive case (مَرْفُوعٌ).

The gram­marians say that إِنَّ and its sisters resemble verbs (حَرْفٌ مُشَبَّهٌ بِالْفِعْلِ) which is one explanation for the accusative case (مَنْصُوبٌ) which can be interpreted as the object of a virtual, estimated verb. What does that mean? Well, إِنَّ, for example, can be understood as expressing the meaning of a verb: I confirm (= أُؤَكِّدُ).

An example:

The student is clever. الطَّالِبُ ذَكِيٌّ 1
Indeed, the student is clever. Note: The word student gets the accusative case (مَنْصُوبٌ). إِنَّ الطَّالِبَ ذَكِيٌّ 2
Sentences with إِنَّ and cases

To understand whether we can separate the ك in كَأَنَّ, we need to first know more about the nature of ك and what it stands for. We’ll begin by posing a simple question that is not easy to answer.

The nature of ك

The deeper and better you know Arabic, the more often you ask yourself questions like these:

Is ك a preposition?
Answer: Well, yes and no.

The ك is a tricky letter. To better understand the كَافٌ, let’s take a look at its three main uses:

1 Comparing things (كَافُ التَّشْبِيهِ). Such a َك conveys a similar meaning to مِثْل. It is there­fore usually translated as: like, as. Note: Some people do not treat this type as a اِسْمٌ but as a حَرْفٌ – see below. اِسْمٌ مَبْنِيٌّ
2 Possessive pronoun (for nouns) or pronominal suffix (for verbs). ضَمِيرٌ مَنْصُوبٌ / مَجْرُورٌ
3 Particle of address; used for the demonstra­tive noun. It does not have a position in إِعْرَابٌ. حَرْفُ خِطَابٍ مَعَ اِسْمِ الْإِشَارَةِ
The three main uses of ك

Let’s look at an example of each option to better understand how it works.

1 Or [like people who, under] a cloudburst from the sky… (Sura 2:19) أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ
2 Your Lord has not forsaken you. (Sura 93:3) مَا وَدَّعَكَ رَبُّكَ
3 That… ذٰلِكَ
Examples of the three main uses of ك

For our question, we need to deal with number 1. So, is the ك in number 1 a noun (اِسْمٌ) or a preposi­tion (حَرْفٌ)? This has been a long debate.

  • The grammarians agree that the ك operates on another word and induces the genitive case (مَجْرُورٌ).
  • If the ك is a اِسْمٌ (noun), they say that the ك is the first part of a إِضَافَةٌ. What comes after the كَ is the second part (مُضَافٌ إِلَيْهِ) and therefore takes the genitive case (مَجْرُورٌ).
  • If the ك is treated as a حَرْفٌ (particle; ~ preposition), then the ك also in­duces the genitive case in a following word. The re­sult is the same.

Let’s see what the grandmasters had to say about that:

  • Sibawayhi (سِيبَوَيْهِ) stated that the كَافُ التَّشْبِيهِ is a حَرْفٌ and not a اِسْمٌ. Only in poetry, it can be treated as a اِسْمٌ.
  • al-Farisi (الْفَارِسِيّ) and al-‘Akhfash al-‘Ak­bar (الْأَخْفَش الْأَكْبَر‎) both said that the َك could be treated as both, اِسْمٌ or حَرْفٌ.
  • Others say it must be a اِسْمٌ because it has the meaning of مِثْل (like).
  • Nowadays, grammarians like to avoid a clear definition and state that the كَافٌ substitutes a اِسْمٌ‎ with­out call­ing it a اِسْمٌ. They call it an instrument of comparison (أَدَاةُ التَّشْبِيهِ).Within the grammatical framework of the classics, however, the term أَدَاة makes little sense. Such grammatical terms do not resolve the problem, but rather give you an indication that you are dealing with a rather complicated matter. It is not a big deal anyway, as most grammari­ans accept to treat the كَ in either way.

Now that we have the two essential parts, the كَ and أَنَّ, let’s put them together and see what we get. It might seem strange, but after combining them, we’ll take them apart once more to better understand and make more progress in our study.

To determine whether we can separate the كَ from كَأَنَّ, it’s important to explore the various functions of كَأَنَّ. Let’s delve into this further.


The most common use cases and meanings of كَأَنَّ

Classical grammarians have studied the situations in which كَأَنَّ appears and the meanings it can express. If we look at all the important works on the subject and summarize them, we can identify the following two main applications:

Comparison and similarity (التَّشْبِيهُ)

➤ The predicate (خَبَرٌ) is a noun that was not derived from a root (اِسْمٌ جامِدٌ).

كَأَنَّ زَيْدًا عَمْروٌ.

It is as though Zayd were Amr, i.e., Zayd is like Amr.

Let’s look at Sura 37:65 (الصَّافَاتُ – those who rank themselves in order):

طَلْعُهَا كَأَنَّهُ رُءُوسُ ٱلشَّيَـٰطِينِ.

and its fruits are like devils’ heads.

Doubt and uncertainty(الشَّكُّ)

➤ The predicate is a derived noun (اِسْمٌ مُشْتَقٌّ).

What does that mean? Well, the noun has a connection to the core action of the root. This happens, for example, when such a noun is an active participle (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ), a passive participle (اِسْمُ الْمَفْعُولِ), a pseudo participle (الصِّفَةُ الْمُشَبَّهَةُ), etc.

كأَنَّ زَيْدًا غائِبٌ.

As if Zaid was absent.

كَأَنَّكَ خَارِجٌ.

It seems that you are going out.


Grammatical surgery: a dissection of كَأَنَّ

Both major schools of Arabic grammar, Basra and Kufa (especially al-Farra’), held that كَأَنَّ is composed of a Kaf of comparison (كَافُ التَّشْبِيهِ) and أَنَّ.

It is interesting what Sibawayhi has said about this:

“I asked al-Khalil about كَأَنَّ and he asserted that it was إِنَّ and before it a Kaf of Comparison. But together with إِنَّ it got the status of one word.”

سألت الخليل عن (كَأَنَّ) فزعم أنها (إِنَّ) لحقتها الكاف للتشبيه ولكنها صارت مع (إِنَّ) بمنزلة كلمة واحدة

Sibawayhi on the device كَأَنَّ

Given the complexity of the matter at hand, how can we comprehend this?

Let’s do a little thought experiment and see if and how we can split and move كَأَنَّ. We found this example in a 682-pages book called الْجَنَى الدَّانِي فِي حُرُوفِ الْمَعانِي by the famous grammarian al-Muradi (الْحَسَنُ بْنُ قاسِمٍ الْمُرادِيّ). This book is considered one of the most important books about حَرْف.

Ibn Umm Qasim al-Muradi (ابن أم قاسم المرادي) was an Egyptian scholar who lived in Morocco. He was renowned for his work in Arabic grammar and interpretation of religious texts. He studied under prominent scholars like Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi (أبو حيان النحوي), a famous grammarian of Andalusia. His most notable works include his explanation of Ibn Malik’s Al-Alfiyya (شرح ألفيَّة ابن مالك) and “Al-Jana Al-Dani fi Huruf Al-Ma’ani” (الجَنَى الداني في حروف المعاني). He passed away in the year 1348 AD (749 Hijri) in the city of Siryakus (سرياقوس) in Egypt.

Al-Muradi, full name: Abu Muhammad al-Hasan bin Qasim bin Abdullah bin Ali al-Muradi (أبو محمد الحسن بن قاسم بن عبد الله بن علي المرادي المصري المراكشي), is also known as Badr al-Din (بدر الدين) and Ibn Umm Qasim (ابن أم قاسم). His lineage traces back to the town of Asfi (آسفي) on the Moroccan Atlantic coast.

Regarding the name Ibn Umm Qasim (ابن أم قاسم), this is a form of attribution in Arab culture that translates to “son of the mother of”. In this case, “Umm Qasim” refers to his paternal grandmother, Zahra (زهراء). It is also suggested that “Umm Qasim” could be a woman who adopted him from the Sultan’s house (من بيت السلطان).

As if Zayd were your brother. كَأَنَّ زَيْدًا أَخُوكَ
Example of كَأَنَّ

Originally, this could have been:

Verily, Zayd is like your brother. إِنَّ زَيْدًا كَأَخِيكَ
Example of how we can break apart كَأَنَّ

This is quite interesting as we see a striking feature of the كَ. The َك has been moved to the front, still conveying the idea of showing a comparison (تَشْبِيه).

Let’s take a closer look again. We see that in the second sentence, after we have split up كَأَنَّ and pulled one part forward, it suddenly says إِنَّ at the front, i.e., with the vowel “i”. Why is that? Why did we “convert” إِنَّ to أَنَّ? In other words, why did we go from “i” (كَسْرَة) to “a” (فَتْحَة)?

  • The Kasra-“i”-version إِنَّ cannot take a preposition (حَرْفُ الْجَرِّ) before.
  • The same logic is applied to the phrases قَالَ إِنَّ and قَالَ بِأَنَّ when we change from direct to indirect speech.

➤ The difference between using كَأَنَّ and reconstructing the original sentence is that كَأَنَّ puts more emphasis on the comparison.

This has been quite a ride so far. We will now examine how كَأَنَّ differs from بِأَنَّ.


Examples of بِأَنَّ in the Qur’an

In the Qur’an, there are examples which clearly demonstrate that بِأَنَّ is not a single particle, but rather a combination of the preposition بِ and the particle أَنَّ. This is best seen in cases where بِ acts upon a distant instance of أَنَّ, as in the following examples.

Sura The Table (الْمَائِدَة), 5:82:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ مِنْهُمْ قِسِّيسِينَ وَرُهْبَانًۭا وَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ

… that is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

Sura The Heights (ٱلْأَعْرَاف), 8:53:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَمْ يَكُ مُغَيِّرًۭا نِّعْمَةً أَنْعَمَهَا عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا۟ مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۙ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌۭ

That is because Allāh would not change a favor which He had bestowed upon a people until they change what is within themselves. And indeed, Allāh is Hearing and Knowing.

Sura The Bees (النَّحْل), 16:107:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمُ ٱسْتَحَبُّوا۟ ٱلْحَيَوٰةَ ٱلدُّنْيَا عَلَى ٱلْأَخِرَةِ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَهْدِى ٱلْقَوْمَ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ

That is because they preferred the worldly life over the Hereafter and that Allāh does not guide the disbelieving people.

Sura The Pilgrimage (الْحَجّ), 22:6:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلْحَقُّ وَأَنَّهُۥ يُحْىِ ٱلْمَوْتَىٰ وَأَنَّهُۥ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍۢ قَدِيرٌۭ

That is because Allāh is the True Reality and because He gives life to the dead and because He is over all things competent

Sura The Pilgrimage (الْحَجّ), 22:61:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُولِجُ ٱلَّيْلَ فِى ٱلنَّهَارِ وَيُولِجُ ٱلنَّهَارَ فِى ٱلَّيْلِ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ سَمِيعٌۢ بَصِيرٌۭ

That (i.e., Allāh’s capability to give assistance or victory to the oppressed) is because Allāh causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and because Allāh is Hearing and Seeing.

Sura The Pilgrimage (الْحَجّ), 22:62:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلْحَقُّ وَأَنَّ مَا يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِهِۦ هُوَ ٱلْبَـٰطِلُ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلْعَلِىُّ ٱلْكَبِيرُ

That is because Allāh is the True Reality, and that which they call upon other than Him is falsehood, and because Allāh is the Most High, the Grand.

Sura Luqmān (لُقْمَان), 31:30:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلْحَقُّ وَأَنَّ مَا يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِهِ ٱلْبَـٰطِلُ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلْعَلِىُّ ٱلْكَبِيرُ

That is because Allāh is the True Reality, and that what they call upon (in worship) other than Him is falsehood, and because Allāh is the Most High, the Grand.

Sura Muhammad (مُحَمَّد), 47:3:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ ٱتَّبَعُوا۟ ٱلْبَـٰطِلَ وَأَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱتَّبَعُوا۟ ٱلْحَقَّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ

That is because those who disbelieve follow falsehood, and those who believe follow the truth from their Lord.

Sura Muhammad (مُحَمَّد), 47:11:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَوْلَى ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَأَنَّ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ لَا مَوْلَىٰ لَهُمْ

That is because Allāh is the protector of those who have believed and because the disbelievers have no protector.


Now, what can we learn from this?

What we see here is how a single preposition بِ at the beginning acts upon multiple nominal sentences. Each of these sentences begins with أَنَّ which is the “attached” variant of إِنَّ.


But there are a few other things we should look at in connection with بِأَنَّ.

Let’s take a look at the following example:

Sura 2 The Cow (الْبَقَرَة), 2:176:

ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ نَزَّلَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ بِٱلْحَقّ وَإِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ٱخْتَلَفُوا۟ فِى ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ لَفِى شِقَاقٍۭ بَعِيدٍ

That is [deserved by them] because Allāh has sent down the Book in truth. And indeed, those who differ over the Book are in extreme dissension.

By contrast, the second nominal sentence in the above example begins with إِنَّ instead of أَنَّ. This signifies that the preposition بِ from the initial بِأَنَّ has no effect on the sentence followed by إِنَّ.

  • One lesson we learn from this is that أَنَّ always has to be attached (مُتَعَلِّقٌ) to something that comes before it.
  • We see in the above examples that each أَنَّ connects back to the preposition بِ at the beginning.
  • إِنَّ, on the other hand, is used to start a new thought and is not attached to anything else.

Examples of بِأَنَّ in Arabic poetry

The following verses by ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm (عمرو بن كلثوم)1, a pre-Islamic poet, contain an example of بِأَنَّ followed by multiple instances of أَنَّ, all of which are attached to the preposition بِ from بِأَنَّ.

The lines which we are going to examine belong to the so-called Muʿallaqāt (المُعَلَّقاتُ).

The Muʿallaqāt, translated as The Suspended Odes, represent the zenith of Arabic poetry from the time before Islam took root. Consisting of ten canonical poems, they are highly regarded for shaping the Arab linguistic heritage and are still considered the quintessence of Arabic literary brilliance.

What about the name? The oldest and best-known interpretation of the term Mu’allaqāt dates back to the beginning of the 9th century. According to this, these poems were considered so excellent that they were embroidered in golden letters and then hung in the Kaaba (الْكَعْبَةُ) in Mecca. However, the term may also be linked to the Arabic word ʿilq (عِلْقٌ) which means: something precious. The term would then mean: poems that are valued as precious.

So what is the correct meaning? Unfortunately, we will never know the exact meaning at that time because we cannot travel back in time…

Note that we have translated the verses as verbatim and comprehensible as possible.

وَقَدْ عَلِمَ الْقَبَائِلُ مِنْ مَعَدٍّ إِذَا قُبَبٌ بِأَبْطَحِهَا بُنِينَا

The tribes (of Ma’ad) have known (that) if we settle in a place (when their tents are pitched in the well-watered valleys), we settle it.

بِأَنَّا الْمُطْعِمُونَ إِذَا قَدَرْنَا وَأَنَّا الْمُهْلِكُونَ إِذَا ابْتُلِينَا

And that we are the givers of food when we are able, And that we are the destroyers when we are tested.

وَأَنَّا الْمَانِعُونَ لِمَا أَرَدْنَا وَأَنَّا النَّازِلُونَ بِحَيْثُ شِينَا

And that we prevent what we desire, And that we settle wherever we please.

وَأَنَّا التَّارِكُونَ إِذَا سَخِطْنَا وَأَنَّا الْآخِذُونَ إِذَا رَضِينَا

And that we abandon when we are angry, And that we take hold when we are pleased.

وَأَنَّا الْعَاصِمُونَ إِذَا أُطِعْنَا وَأَنَّا الْعَازِمُونَ إِذَا عُصِينَا

We are the protectors when we are obeyed, And we are determined when we are disobeyed.

  • In these examples, the preposition بِ is attached to the verb عَلِمَ and affects several sentences, each beginning with أَنَّ.
  • In the first of these sentences, بِ is directly prefixed to أَنَّ giving بِأَنَّ.
  • However, the connection between بِ and أَنَّ in this بِأَنَّ is loose, almost non-existent. This is because بِ is part of the verb عَلِمَ and is strongly bound to it, so it cannot be part of another indivisible particle, in this case بِأَنَّ.
  • We therefore conclude that بِأَنَّ is not a standalone particle and cannot be one of the sisters of إِنَّ.

Now that we have familiarized ourselves with some issues and problems, let’s move on to the most exciting and crucial part.

Does كَأَنَّ behave like بِأَنَّ?

To determine whether كَأَنَّ is a single indivisible particle or simply a combination of كَ and أَنَّ, we will apply the same logic as in the preceding analysis of بِأَنَّ.

Let’s introduce an example that explains how we thought we could understand the difference between بِأَنَّ and كَأَنَّ:

CASE 1 He said that this was a strange matter and that they did not understand it. قالَ بِأَنَّ هٰذا أَمْرٌ عَجِيبٌ وَبِأَنَّهُمْ لا يَفْهَمُونَهُ

In this example, بِ is used to introduce indirect speech. The speech here consists of two separate statements (إِنَّ هٰذا أَمْرٌ عَجِيبٌ) and (إِنَّهُمْ لَا يَفْهَمُونَهُ). The preposition بِ is repeated before each of the two statements, and both instances of بِ are connected back to the verb قَالَ.

Now let us modify the example by removing the بِ from the second statement:

CASE 2 He said that this was a strange matter, and that they did not understand it. قالَ بِأَنَّ هٰذا أَمْرٌ عَجِيبٌ وَأَنَّهُمْ لا يَفْهَمُونَهُ

Now there is only a single بِ used with قَالَ for indirect speech, and both statements making up the speech are connected only by a simple وَاوُ الْعَطْفِ. How come?

💡 We should not forget that it is theoretically possible to delete a preposition in Arabic without changing the meaning.

The sentence after the now deleted preposition must be an interpreted infinitive, formed by أَنْ plus verb or by أَنَّ and its governed factors. However, then we do have to assume that the part with أَنَّ is in the position of a genitive case induced by the deleted preposition (فِي مَحَلِّ جَرٍّ بِحَرْفٍ مَحْذُوفٍ).

➤ The important question here is this: Are cases 1 and 2 equivalent? In other words, can we use both constructs interchangeably to express (exactly) the same thing?

Now let’s repeat this exercise with كَأَنَّ using the same sentence (with only the initial verb قَالَ replaced by عَمِلَ to provide a meaningful context):

CASE 3 He acted as if this were a strange matter, as if they did not understand it. عَمِلَ كَأَنَّ هٰذا أَمْرٌ عَجِيبٌ وَكَأَنَّهُمْ لا يَفْهَمُونَهُ

By removing the كَافٌ from the second sentence, we get:

CASE 4 He acted as if this were a strange matter and (as if?) they did not understand it. عَمِلَ كَأَنَّ هٰذا أَمْرٌ عَجِيبٌ وَأَنَّهُمْ لا يَفْهَمُونَهُ

➤ Again, the question is whether cases 3 and 4 are equivalent, whether these constructs can be used as such, and whether both examples convey (exactly) the same meaning.

🯄 The underlying, general question is whether this is possible in Arabic!

If we can find a definite answer to this question, we may be able to resolve the very issue we have been struggling with all the time.

The only way we can figure this out is by looking into the primary sources of classical Arabic, such as the Qur’an, Arabic poetry, as well as various books written in classical Arabic. This is what we are going to do in the following section.

Examples from the Qur’an

The Qur’an does not contain any examples of such a construct. We can only find examples where the device is repeated, either in its bold (كَأَنَّ) or light (كَأَنْ) form.

Sura Luqmān (لُقْمَان), 31:7:

وَإِذَا تُتْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِ ءَايَـٰتُنَا وَلَّىٰ مُسْتَكْبِرًۭا كَأَن لَّمْ يَسْمَعْهَا كَأَنَّ فِىٓ أُذُنَيْهِ وَقْرًۭا ۖ فَبَشِّرْهُ بِعَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

And when Our verses are recited to him, he turns away arrogantly as if he had not heard them, as if there was in his ears deafness. So give him tidings of a painful punishment.

In the above verse, the form كَأَنْ (light version) is used instead of كَأَنَّ (bold/regular version) because it is followed by a verbal sentence: كَأَنْ لَمْ يَسْمَعْهَا. If this sentence were a nominal one (جُمْلةٌ اِسْمِيّةٌ), then كَأَنَّ would appear at its front (كَأَنَّهُ لَمْ يَسْمَعْهَا). In simple words, you can lighten the doubled Nun (نُونٌ) of أَنَّ if certain conditions apply. This works well here because we have لمْ after كَأَن to avoid misunderstandings.

The use of the lightened form كَأَنْ is necessary after dropping the subject from the “original” (hypothetical) sentence with كَأَنَّ at its front. In this particular case, that “original sentence” would be كَأَنَّهُ لَمْ يَسْمَعْهَا.

If we remove the subject هُوَ from this sentence, we are left with كَأَنَّ لَمْ يَسْمَعْهَا, which does not work because كَأَنَّ no longer has a visible subject (since كَأَنَّ is a sister of إِنَّ, it must come in front of a nominal sentence, so the subject must be visible). At this point, كَأَنَّ is replaced by the lightened form كَأَنْ which works with a hidden subject and a visible predicate in form of a verbal sentence, so we have كَأَنْ لَمْ يَسْمَعْهَا.

If the “original” hypothetical sentence was affirmative rather than negative, i.e. كَأَنَّهُ سَمِعَهَا, and we dropped the subject هُوَ again, by analogy, the result would be كَأَنْ سَمِعَهَا. It is, however, not possible to use كَأَنْ in this way, i.e., directly in front of a verb. To make this sentence work, we need to insert قَدْ between كَأَنْ and the verbal sentence that follows it. The final result reads as كَأَنْ قَدْ سَمِعَهَا.

This is how we understand the inner workings of كَأَنْ and كَأَنَّ based on what we read in various grammar texts. On a higher level, without going into a profound analysis, we can say that the lightened form كَأَنْ is used instead of كَأَنَّ under certain conditions, especially when it is directly followed by لَمْ or قَدْ.

Now, what about Arabic poetry?

Examples from Arabic poetry

We extracted examples of poems using special queries based on regular expressions. What we were able to achieve with the queries was to find neighboring couplets that both contain an instance of كَأَنَّ.

A quick analysis of a corpus of early Arabic poetry (B. Pietrzak) yielded the following examples, in which كَأَنَّ is repeated in neighboring verses. It seems, based on these examples, that كَأَنَّ is always treated as a single particle and appears wherever التَّشْبِيهُ (see above for further explanation) needs to be expressed.

➤ In the following examples, كَأَنَّ appears in both verses of the same couplet:

Here is a line by ʿAntarah ibn Shaddad (عنترة بن شداد) of هاج الغرام:

فَكَأَنَّ مَنْ قَدْ غَابَ جَاءَ مُوَاصِلِي وَكَأَنَّنِي أُومي لَهُ بِسَلَامِ

~ As if the one who had been absent came wanting a reunion with me,
and as if I am giving him/her a sign with a greeting of peace.

Note that we are dealing with two sentences, not one! Since each أَنَّ comes before an independent nominal sentence, the subjects in the two sentences are not necessarily related and can be different.

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Explanation of the above verse of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddad

Let’s look at some lines of the well-known pre-Islamic poet ʿAmr ibn Kulthūm (عمرو بن كلثوم):

كَأَنَّ سُيُوفَنَا مِنَّا وَمِنْهُمْ – مَخَارِيقٌ بِأَيْدِي لَاعِبِيْنَا

As though our swords, ours and theirs, were wooden swords/kerchiefs twisted for beating therewith2, in the hands of players3.

كَأَنَّ ثِيَابَنَا مِنَّا وَمِنْهُمْ – خُضِبْنَ بِأُرْجُوَانِ أَوْ طُلِينَا

As if our garments and theirs were dyed with the juice of the Judas Tree4 or besmeared with it.

Now, an example taken from the pre-Islamic poet Zuhair Ibn Abi Sulma (زهير بن أبي سلمى):

➤ In the following example, كَأَنَّ appears within two adjacent couplets.

فَآضَ كَأَنَّهُ رَجُلٌ سَليبٌ عَلى عَلياءَ لَيسَ لَهُ رِداءُ

Then he returns home as if he were a man undressed on a hill, without a robe.

كَأَنَّ بَريقَهُ بَرَقانُ سَحلٍ جَلا عَن مَتنِهِ حُرُضٌ وَماءُ

He shines almost like a white dress, the lye and water making its back shiny.

بَرَكَتْ عَلَى جَنبِ الرِّدَاعِ كَأَنَّـما بَرَكَتْ عَلَى قَصَبٍ أَجَشَّ مُهَضَّمِ
then my camel knelt at Ridāʿ’s waters, groaning as if kneeling on deep, husky reed flutes;

وَكأَنَّ رُبًّا أَو كُحَيلًا مُعقَدًا حَشَّ الوَقودُ بِهِ جَوانِبَ قُمقُمِ
and sweat syrupy thick, like molten pitch that’s used by smiths to heat the sides of pots,

Poet: Antarah ibn Shaddad (عنترة بن شداد); translation by Kevin Blankinship5


Note: We do not give the translation of the following lines because our research was mainly done to see if and how كَأَنَّ was used. If you want to translate them or know of a good translation, feel free to send us a note.

إِذا أَرقَلَت كَأَنَّ أَخطَبَ ضالَةٍ عَلى خَدِبِ الأَنيابِ لَم يَتَثَلَّمِ
كَأَنَّ بِذِفراها عَنِيَّةَ مُجرِبٍ يَحُشُّ بِها طالٍ جَوانِبَ قُمقُمِ

الشاعر : بشر بن أبي خازم


يَومًا يَظَلُّ بِهِ الحَرباءُ مُصطَخِمًا كَأَنَّ ضاحِيَهُ بِالنارِ مَملولُ
كَأَنَّ أَوبَ ذِراعَيها وَقَد عَرِقَت وَقَد تَلَفَّعَ بِالقورِ العَساقيلُ

الشاعر : كعب بن زهير


كَأَنَّ أَعْيُنَ غِزْلَانٍ ، إِذَا اكْتَحَلتْ بالإثْمِدِ الجَوْنِ ، قد قرضْنَها حِينا
كَأَنَّهُنَّ الظِّبَاءُ الأُدْمُ أَسْكَنَهَا ضالٌ بغُرَّةِ ، أوْ ضالٌ بدارِينا

أَنَاةٌ كَأَنَّ المِسْكَ دُونَ شِعَارِهَا يُبَكِّيهِ بالعَنبَرِ الوردِ مُقطبُ
كَأَنَّ خُزَامَى عَالِجٍ طَرَقَتْ بِهَا شَمَالٌ رَسِيسُ المَسِّ ، بَلْ هِيَ أَطيَبُ

الشاعر : تميم بن أبي بن مقبل


Examples from other books

By analyzing a corpus of vocalized Arabic texts6, we extracted the following examples from several books, which indicate that it may be possible to use كَأَنَّ in the same way بِأَنَّ is used (…كَأَنَّ… وَأَنَّ).

Let’s look at a paragraph of the book معالم القربة في طلب الحسبة which is often roughly translated as The Clear Exposition of Principles of Accountability. The author, most commonly known as Ibn al-Ukhuwwa (اِبْنُ الْأُخُوَّة), 1258 (648 AH) – 1328 (729 AH), wrote an important manual on Hisba (حِسْبَة). Hisba generally means to “promote good and forbid evil”, but in a more concrete context, it denotes the function of the person who is entrusted in a town with the supervision of moral behavior and more particularly on the markets.

Now let’s check this paragraph:

… حُكِيَ عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عُمَرَ – رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ – وَجَمَاعَةٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ قَالُوا كُنَّا نَدْعُو اللَّهَ تَعَالَى أَنْ يُرِينَا عُمَرُ فِي الْمَنَامِ فَرَأَيْته فِي النَّوْمِ بَعْدَ اثْنَيْ عَشْرَ سَنَةَ كَأَنَّهُ قَدْ اغْتَسَلَ وَأَنَّهُ مُتَلَفِّعٌ بِإِزَارٍ فَقُلْت يَا أَمِيرَ …

… It was narrated on the authority of Abdullah Ibn Omar – may God be pleased with him – and a group of the people of Medina who said: We were praying to God Almighty to show us Omar in a dream, and I saw him during my sleep after twelve years as if he had bathed and was wrapped in a garment. So I said, O Commander of the Faithful…

➤ It looks like the sentence is implying that the words “as if” should be kept in mind when reading the later part of the sentence as well.

From the book: حاشية السندي على سنن ابن ماجه :

… أَيْ مَعَ كَثْرَة سَمَاعِي وَهُوَ مَعْلُوم بِكَثْرَةِ السَّمَاع حَتَّى كَانَ أَبُو هُرَيْرَة يَعُدّهُ عَدِيلًا لَهُ وَكَأَنَّهُ مَا أَرَادَ بِهِ تَكْذِيب مُعَاذ وَأَنَّهُ تَعَمَّدَ الْكَذِب فَإِنَّ مِثْل هَذَا الظَّنّ بِمُعَاذٍ مِمَّا يُسْتَعَاذ مِنْهُ لَكِنْ أَرَادَ أَنَّهُ يُورِث الشَّكّ وَاحْتِمَالُ السَّهْو وَالْخَطَأ فِي رِوَايَته وَالْإِنْسَان لَا يَخْلُو عَنْ ذَلِكَ …

From the book حاشية الدسوقي على الشرح الكبير :

… وَقِيلَ إنَّ كُلًّا مِنْ الْبِنَاءِ وَالْقَضَاءِ نَفْسُ الْفَائِتِ فَالْفَائِتُ بَعْدَ الدُّخُولِ مَعَ الْإِمَامِ بِنَاءٌ وَالْفَائِتُ قَبْلَ الدُّخُولِ مَعَ الْإِمَامِ قَضَاءٌ وَكَأَنَّ الشَّارِحَ الْتَفَتَ فِي الْبِنَاءِ لِلْفَائِتِ وَفِي الْقَضَاءِ لِلْعِوَضِ إشَارَةً لِلْقَوْلَيْنِ وَأَنَّ فِي كَلَامِهِ احْتِبَاكًا فَحَذَفَ مِنْ كُلِّ مَا أَثْبَتَهُ فِي الْآخَرِ ثُمَّ إنَّ تَفْسِيرَ الْبِنَاءِ وَالْقَضَاءِ بِنَفْسِ الْفَائِتِ أَوْ بِعِوَضِهِ تَفْسِيرٌ بِالْمَعْنَى الِاسْمِيِّ إذْ كُلٌّ مِنْهُمَا حِينَئِذٍ بِمَعْنَى اسْمِ الْمَفْعُولِ …

From the book البحر الرائق شرح كنز الدقائق :

… وَإِنْ شَاءَ ضَمَّنَ الْمُدَبِّرُ الْمُعْتِقَ ثُلُثَ قِيمَتِهِ نِصْفَيْنِ إذَا كَانَا مُوسِرَيْنِ وَالْوَلَاءُ بَيْنَهُمَا نِصْفَانِ ؛ لِأَنَّهُمَا لَمَّا جَهِلَا التَّارِيخَ يُجْعَلُ كَأَنَّ هَذِهِ التَّصَرُّفَاتِ وَقَعْنَ مَعًا وَأَنَّهَا مُتَجَزِّئَةٌ عِنْدَ أَبِي حَنِيفَةَ فَصَحَّتْ ، ثُمَّ لَا شَيْءَ لِلْمُعْتِقِ عَلَى أَحَدٍ وَإِنْ أَعْتَقَ وَاحِدٌ وَكَاتَبَ الْآخَرُ وَدَبَّرَ الثَّالِثُ مَعًا لَيْسَ لِوَاحِدٍ الرُّجُوعُ …


First conclusions

That was quite a journey into the golden age of the Arabic language. Let’s take a moment to summarize the key observations from our discussion before we continue to the final part.

  • We should look closely into these examples to determine whether the أَنَّ is connected back to the كَ in كَأَنَّ (it is also possible that it is attached to something else).
  • If this is so, the assertion of Sibawayhi (see below) and those who follow his line of reasoning could be correct, in that كَأَنَّ is composed of كَ and an emphatic device. In that case, there would be no reason to treat كَأَنَّ differently from بِأَنَّ , لِأَنَّ , عَلَى أَنَّ , إِلَى أَنَّ , مِنْ أَنَّ etc., and no reason to treat كَأَنَّ explicitly as a sister of إِنَّ.
  • Most of the examples from the Qur’an and poetry, however, seem to support the opposing opinion, namely, that كَأَنَّ by itself is a particle which acts as a sister of إِنَّ.
  • The main problem is that these examples are scarce, so in order to draw a decisive conclusion about the status of كَأَنَّ, a further analysis of potentially large corpora of classical Arabic texts may be required.

Now we have almost all the ingredients we need to take the final step and find an answer to our initial question:

Why did many classical grammarians write in their works that كَأَنَّ is a sister of إِنَّ, but لِأَنَّ or بِأَنَّ are not?


How كَأَنَّ differs from لِأَنَّ and بِأَنَّ

In principle, لِأَنَّ and بِأَنَّ follow a similar logic as كَأَنَّ in terms of construction. However, there is a notable difference. It is almost impossible to reconstruct/rebuild the sentence because the meaning would be lost or even be different or not make sense. Why is that?

➤ It seems like كَأَنَّ has a more unique, independent character than just a combination of a preposition and إِنَّ/أَنَّ.

  • The strongest argument for why كَأَنَّ may be considered different from بَأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ is that كَأَنَّ stands in front of a complete sentence, unlike the other two devices, which appear at the beginning of a subordinate clause.
  • Several grammarians argue that if the كَ in كَأَنَّ were a preposition, it would form a prepositional phrase and would have to be مُتَعَلِّقٌ to something (if you are not familiar with this term, see below). Based on this argument, they conclude that كَأَنَّ must be a simple particle and not a combination of كَ and إِنَّ.
  • The others, such as Sibawayhi, who do consider كَأَنَّ a combination of كَ and إِنَّ, also seem to think that after combining كَ with إِنَّ, it becomes a single indivisible particle.

Let’s summarize the milieu in which a verb is actually located: The verb points to the action (حَدَثٌ). The action, however, does not happen in a vacuum (فَراغٌ). Moreover, the action occurs in a time frame (زَمانٌ) or at a place (مَكانٌ).

The term التَّعَلُّقُ denotes the connection of the prepositional or adverbial phrase (شِبْهُ الْجُمْلةِ) to the event (حَدَثٌ) to which the verb or alike is pointed.

Some grammarians also call it “attachment” since a preposition is “attached” to a verb or a derived noun. The preposition not only drags the noun into the genitive case – it also links it to the verb.

In addition to that, a شِبْهُ الْجُمْلةِ provides an indication of scope, domain, or sphere (الْحَيْزُ) in which the verb happens. Fine, but what happens when there is no verb?

Some (mainly Western) grammarians call adverbs and prepositional phrases in nominal sentences (جُمْلَةٌ اِسْمِيّةٌ) simply the predicate itself. In their view, they are not linked to the deleted, “real” predicate (أَيْ لَيْسَ مُتَعَلِّقًا بِخَبَرٍ مَحْذُوفٍ). For native English speakers, this concept is easier to understand.

We shouldn’t go as far as saying that this view is wrong; in fact, there is some truth in it, but strictly speaking, adverbs and prepositional phrases are not the real predicate (لَيْسَ هُوَ الْخَبَرَ حَقِيقِيّةً). They must be connected with a word that conveys or points to an action (حَدَثٌ). We call that ominous thing التَّعَلُّقُ.

In Arabic, as often happens, the verb or word with verbal power is deleted – so we have to reconstruct a possible situation where we have a verb that is needed to make the prepositional phrase make sense.


Final conclusions about كَأَنَّ

We now would like to summarize our thoughts.

  • We can consider كَأَنَّ to be إِنَّ with a prefixed كَ in the sentence, which turns it into كَإِنَّ, which in turn becomes كَأَنَّ because إِنَّ cannot take a preposition in front of it.
  • In the case of لِأَنَّ and بِأَنَّ, this cannot be done because لِ and بِ are often used as prepositions together with certain verbs (e.g., مَرَّ بِ ,قَالَ لِ, etc.). So they cannot be separated from the object of the verb and arbitrarily moved around in the sentence.
  • That’s different regarding the ك as the ك is never bound to a verb. We could imagine the ك as a kind of independent preposition that can therefore move freely.
  • There is another difference, that we noticed, namely, in the way كَ and لِ and بِ affect pronouns: Whereas لِ and بِ can be put before a pronoun (لَهُمْ , بِكَ, etc.), كَ cannot directly affect a pronoun (كَهَا does not work).

Summary of the article

This article explores the intriguing question of why كَأَنَّ is explicitly listed as a sister of إِنَّ in Arabic grammar, while بِأَنَّ and لِأَنَّ are not.

It contains some of our thoughts and observations regarding the topic of similarities and differences between بِأَنَّ and كَأَنَّ and is by no means to be considered a result of rigorous scientific research.

What we hope for, however, is that experts in Arabic grammar and literature who read this will come forward and provide all of us with more insight into why كَأَنَّ is included among the sisters of إِنَّ, whereas بِأَنَّ is not.

If we have made a mistake in our analysis or reasoning, or if any other errors have crept in, please let us know so we can correct them. We are all here to learn and expand our knowledge.


Footnotes

  1. Source: B. Pietrzak. Corpus of Early Arabic Poetry. https://sourceforge.net/projects/ceap-bp/ (accessed on April 14, 2024). ↩︎
  2. Note: مخاريق is the plural of مِخْرَاقٌ which usually denotes a wooden sword with which boys play. However, by looking at the context, we are not sure what the author here really meant. ↩︎
  3. The first English translation by William Jones (1782) can be found here: https://archive.org/details/bim_eighteenth-century_the-moallakt-or-seven-_1782/page/86/mode/2up. For a modern rendering, see Kevin Blankenship’s translation, which can be accessed here: https://www.ithra.com/files/6516/0984/6883/Al_Muallaqat.pdf ↩︎
  4. Note: أُرْجُوَانٌ often just denotes intensely red/purple. It is the name of a tree with red flowers, in English commonly known as Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum). According to Lane’s lexicon, it is said also that أُرْجُوَانٌ is an arabicized word, from the Persian أَرْغَوَان, which means a sort of trees having a red blossom, of the most beautiful kind. ↩︎
  5. Kevin Blankenship’s translation of the poetry of Antarah ibn Shaddad can be accessed here: https://www.ithra.com/files/6516/0984/6883/Al_Muallaqat.pdf ↩︎
  6. Source: T. Zerrouki and A. Balla. “Tashkeela: Novel corpus of Arabic vocalized texts, data for auto-diacritization systems”. Data in brief (2017): 147-151. ↩︎

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