Tareekh Tabari – Relative Clauses

Question from the website:

First, great website. I am shocked search engines don’t put websites like this at the top of the results. I read your section on relative clauses but there is one clause I have come across which I cannot seem to categorize or make sense of. Hopefully you could shed some light on this. The clause appears in Tareekh Tabari and is as follows الرقيم هو الكتاب الذي كان القوم الذين منهم كان الفتية كتبوه I understand the first relative clause but the second one which is كان القوم الذين منهم كان الفتية has left be baffled. Based on this sentence structure would the following be possible البيت الذي فيه كان الولد البيت الذي به مر الولد Thank you.


An excellent question and three cheers to anyone who enjoys reading al-Tabari in the original. Here’s the text in question in context and highlighted in red. I have taken the text from here.

وكان أصحاب الكهف فتية آمنوا بربهم ، كما وصفهم الله , عز وجل , به من صفتهم في القرآن المجيد ، فقال لنبيه مُحَمَّد , صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَابَ الْكَهْفِ وَالرَّقِيمِكَانُوا مِنْ آيَاتِنَا عَجَبًا سورة الكهف آية 9 والرقيم هو : الكتاب الذي كان القوم الذين منهم كان الفتية كتبوه في لوح بذكر خبرهم وقصصهم ، ثم جعلوه على باب الكهف الذي أوواإليه , أو نقروه في الجبل الذي أووا إليه ، أو كتبوه في لوح وجعلوه في صندوق خلفوه عندهم , إِذْ أَوَى الْفِتْيَةُ إِلَى الْكَهْفِ سورة الكهف آية 10 .

Before I explain, be aware that الكتاب in this passage doesn’t mean “the book” but rather means “the writing” or the “the words”. And the context is the story of the People of the Cave – the initial story in Surat al-Kahf in the Koran. In the story a group of young men hid themselves away in a cave and awoke about 3 centuries later. They are said to have had a dog with them, so I guess the dog had aged about 2,100 years. . . Anyway let’s get to the Arabic.

The syntax is probably what caused trouble for the questioner. I’m going to rearrange the words a bit to make it clearer.

الكتاب الذي كان القوم الذين كان الفتية منهم كتبوه

The words in blue have been moved a bit to show what Tabari is trying to say. The relative clause

القوم الذين كان الفتية منهم

means literally “the people whom the young men were from them” which of course is really awful English but fine in Arabic. The meaning is “the people from which young men came”. The pronoun هم refers back to the word القوم and is the عائد.

The verb كتبوه “they wrote it” has القوم الذين as its subject and the ه refers back to الكتاب . If we were to remove all references to the young men in the sentence it would look like this:

الكتاب الذي كان القوم كتبوه

Meaning “the words that the people wrote”.

Now we will return the young men to the sentence:

الكتاب الذي كان القوم الذين كان الفتية منهم كتبوه

Meaning “the words that the people from which the young men came wrote”.

We are almost done.

Now lets restore Tabari’s syntax by moving منهم back to where Tabari had it.

الكتاب الذي كان القوم الذين منهم كان الفتية كتبوه

Meaning literally “The words that the people who from them were the young men wrote” with “wrote” have “people” as its subject.

I hope this clarifies what is going on. You have two relative clauses, the first one “embracing” the second. The first one begins with الكتاب and ends with كتبوه. The internal one starts with القوم and ends with الفتية.

Now if you really want to have fun, go read in the tafsirs the different interpretations of the word الرقيم. Also, you can go here and find a nice translation of the passage and read more of what Tabari had to say about this great story.

5 comments… add one
  • I enjoyed reading your explanation of the sentence. Are you Jim?

  • I understand now, except for one thing. what is the role of the first كان in this clause? What´s wrong with just saying this:
    الكتاب الذي القوم الذين منهم كان الفتية كتبوه
    the words that the people (from whom the young men were) wrote

  • The sentence simply means
    الكتاب الذي كتبه القوم الذين كان منهم الفتية

    • Oh, thats easier.

  • use the letter ‘e’ – a native English sound t denote the long ‘e’ as in ‘me’. The arabs and persians are very ignorant using ‘e’ for the sound in ‘pit’; and ‘i’ for the sound in ‘he’. hence tarekh tabare. islame etc


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