A plural in Arabic can belong to one of a number of categories. The most simplistic division would yield the following categories:
1. Standard Masculine Plurals جمع مذكر سالم such as مُسْلِمُوْنَ or عالِمِيْنَ.
2. Standard Feminine Plurals جمع مؤنث سالم such as تائِباتٌ or سائِحاتٍ.
3. Broken Plurals جمع تكسير such as عُلَمآءُ or سُيُوْفٌ
The vast majority of words in Arabic come with broken plurals. For those of you that haven’t done much studying in the realm of Arabic grammar, here’s an easy to understand comparison between ‘standard’ plurals vs. ‘broken’ plurals. In English, the easiest way to make something plural is by adding an ‘s‘ at the end. The plural of book is books, that of car is cars and that of house is houses. Is adding an ‘s’ at the end the only way of pluralizing a noun in English? What about mouse, tooth, goose and phenomenon? The plurals of such words are unpredictable and for any that are new to the English language, they represent a real challenge because they can’t be guessed using a straight forward formula like adding an ‘s’. The ‘s’ therefore represents the standard plural in English and the rest of the plurals, those that are unpredictable in nature would be considered broken plurals. In Arabic, there are at least four equivalents of adding an ‘s’. Those are oona & eena for masculine plurals and aatun & aatin for feminine plurals. Broken plurals represent one of the toughest areas of vocabulary building for Arabic students as they take the lion’s share of plurals in the language and are relatively unpredictable.
The introduction above was necessary for me to write to you about the actual topic. In some very interesting cases, the Arabic language offers multiple plurals for the same word. Here are some examples:
1. The wordنِعْمَةٌ is known to have two broken plural نِعَمٌ and أَنْعُمٌ .
2. The word سُنْبُلَةٌ is known to have the standard feminine plurals سُنْبُلاتٌ and سُنْبُلاتٍ but also the broken plural سَنابِلُ.
It is curious that the Qur’an uses both the plural renditions in each of the cases above. This necessarily leads to an inquiry into what differences there are between them. Is كُفّار the same as كافِرُوْنَ or نبِيُّوْنَ the same as أَنْبِيآءُ ? This article, based on the priceless work of Dr. Fadel Saleh Al-Samerai (priceless doesn’t even begin to capture what his work means to Qur’anic Arabic students), will explore some aspects of the differences in these plurals and their intricate usage in the Qur’an.
Here are two general rules:
a. If a word has both a standard plural and a broken plural, the standard plural is less in number than the broken plural. The standard plural in such cases is called the minimal plural جمع قلة while the broken plural is called the plentiful plural جمع كثرة .
b. The broken plural is known to have 47 templates or patterns. Of these templates, only four are considered minimal plurals or جمع قلة . These are :
أَفْعُل أَفْعال فِعْلَة أَفْعِل
The remaining 43 patterns are plentiful plurals جمع كثرة . If a word has two broken plurals, chances are one of the two belongs to the جمع قلة templates.
Now let us look at two cases of varying plurals used in the Qur’an:
1. نِعَمٌ and أَنْعُمٌ : Two Plurals for Blessings / Favors
Allah celebrates the great character of Ibrahim عليه السلام in 16:112 and of his noteworthy characteristics is the phrase
شاكِراً لِأَنْعُمِهِ . The plural أَنْعُم matches the pattern of the minimal plural جمع قلة that is أَفْعُل. We know that Allah’s favors cannot be counted. Countless favors of Allah are visible and countless more are in the realm of the unseen. This truth is even attested to in the divine word with the phrase: (16:18 & 14:34)
وَإِن تَعُدُّواْ نِعْمَةَ اللّهِ لاَ تُحْصُوهَا
If you are to try and count Allah’s blessings, you won’t be able to account for them. (rough translation)
We are being taught that even though Ibrahim عليه السلام is remarkably grateful to Allah, his gratitude doesn’t extend to all of Allah’s blessings because that is impossible. For how can anyone be grateful for what they can’t even count!
There is another instance of the minimal plural أَنْعُمْ in the Qur’an. Allah gives us the example of a town that had remained in peace & whose provision was freely flowing into it from every direction. Before going on, take into consideration that the two universal requirements for a functional society are peace (law & order, security, protection of life & property) and prosperity (economic opportunity). The absence of any one of these two basic societal needs lead to chaos. If peoples businesses, lives and homes aren’t safe, the society will collapse. On the other hand, even if they are safe but can’t find any means to provide for themselves and their families, the society can’t be sustained. Allah mentions both of these favors in brief and then remarks about their ingratitude:
فَكَفَرَتْ بِأَنْعُمِ اللهِ
Then it (the town) was ungrateful/ was in denial of the blessings of Allah.
Of the countless favors of Allah, these two big favors; peace and prosperity; have been highlighted in the ayah and so the ‘blessings’ are mentioned in their minimal plural form.
On the other hand, when Allah mentions His blessings not in the context of human gratitude or ingratitude but rather as His gift upon us, He, rightfully so, uses the plentiful, maximal plural نِعَم in 31:20
وَأَسْبَغَ عَليْكُمْ نِعَمَهُ ظاهِرَةً وباطِنَةً
He has completely unleashed his favors upon you; both manifest and unseen.
The use of ظاهرة وباطنة (manifest and unseen) makes the use of نِعَم (the plentiful plural of blessing) even more appropriate in this context.
2. Two Plurals of سُنْبُلَة : سُنْبُلاتٌ and سَنابِلُ
In 2:261, Allah gives an example in regards to those who spend in His path. A grain yields seven ears (سَنابِلَ سَبْعَ) and each ear yields a hundred grains. The word for ear (like an ear of corn) is the plentiful plural. The king in the story of Yusuf عليه السلام sees a dream of seven ears but, his dream is mentioned in the Qur’an using the minimal plural (سَبْعَ سُنْبُلاتٍ ) in 12:43. Why mention the plentiful plural and then the minimal plural for the same number of ears? Conventional expectation would be to use the minimal plural in both cases but since the first case is one of Allah multiplying the spending of the believer many fold, every component of the text illustrates the power of that multiplication & magnification. The context calls for the use of the more powerful of the two plurals, سنابِل. The subtle use of the word سنابِل also tells us that though He promises 7 ears coming out of one grain, those seven are mysteriously more than what we are accustomed to seeing in this world.