By Mohammad Nawaz (3rd Year ʿĀlim Student, DarusSalam Seminary)
As one studies and researches the Arabic sciences, he will notice that some words and prepositions have a myriad of meanings and usages. By understanding these differences in meaning, one will firmly grasp the language and apply his understand of it while negotiating texts. Herein, I will review ten meanings and usages for the Arabic preposition fī.
Its ten usages are (1) ẓarfiyyah, (2) muṣāḥabah, (3) taʿlīl, (4) istiʿlāʾ, (5) muqāyasah, (6) being synonymous to bāʾ, (7) being synonymous to ilā, (8) being synonymous to min, (9) taʿwīḍ, and (10) tawkīd.
The first usage, ẓarfiyyah, is the default usage of fī according to the legal theorists and the grammarians. Ẓarfiyyah is when the preposition indicates that its object (ar. al-ism al-majrūr) is in a specific time or place. Additionally, when the ism majrūr is in a specific time, it is known as ẓarfiyyah zamāniyyah. And when the it is a place, it is known as ẓarfiyyah makāniyyah. Therefore, the preposition fī, when used for ẓarfiyyah, can be translated as in, within, or another word with a similar meaning.
An example illustrating this is found in the following verses of the Quran:
غُلِبَتِ الرُّومُ فِي أَدْنَى الْأَرْضِ وَهُمْ مِنْ بَعْدِ غَلَبِهِمْ سَيَغْلِبُونَ فِي بِضْعِ سِنِينَ
“The Byzantine Empire has been defeated (by the Persians) in the nearby land (of Syria). Yet,
after their defeat, they shall be triumphant (over them) within several years.”
In these verses, the first fī is used for ẓarfiyyah makāniyyah because the “nearby land” is the place where the Byzantine Empire was defeated. The second fī is also for ẓarfiyyah, although it is zamāniyyah. “Several years” is when the Empire shall be triumphant.
Furthermore, the usage of ẓarfiyyah can be literal (ar. ḥaqīqī) or figurative (ar. majāzī). An example of fī being literally used for ẓarfiyyah is:
المال في الكيس
“The money is in the bag”
In the above sentence, the bag is the actual place where the money is being kept. An example of a figurative ẓarfiyyah is the statement:
سأنظر في الأمر
“I will look into the matter.”
In this example, “the matter” is what one is reviewing. The ism majrūr in this case is not a physical location; thus, it is figurative.
Moving on, the preposition’s second usage is muṣāḥabah. Muṣāḥabah is when a preposition’s object accompanies that which precedes the preposition. A quick way to see if the fī is for muṣāḥabah is by substituting the fī with the particle maʿa (the English equivalent of maʿa is the word with). If the meaning is valid, the fī is for muṣāḥabah. For instance, Allāh taʿālā says regarding Qārūn:
فَخَرَجَ عَلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ فِي زِينَتِهِ
“He came forth to his people with his adornment.”
In this verse, the fī is for muṣāḥabah because Qārūn did not actually come forth inside his adornment, rather, he came forth with his adornment. By replacing fī with maʿa, the meaning is sound.
Continuing, the third way that fī can be used is taʿlīl. Taʿlīl means that the ism majrūr is a cause for that which precedes the preposition. Essentially, the fī means because (ar. li ajlihi). An example of this is found in the following narration related on Ibn ʿUmar’s authority:
عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، قَالَ : دَخَلَتِ امْرَأَةٌ النَّارَ فِي هِرَّةٍ رَبَطَتْهَا ، فَلَمْ تُطْعِمْهَا ، وَلَمْ تَدَعْهَا تَأْكُلُ مِنْ خَشَاشِ الأَرْضِ
The Prophet ﷺ said, “A woman entered the Fire because of a cat she had tied up. She neither gave it food nor set it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.”
In this narration, the fī is for taʿlīl and means because. It would be improper to translate the narration as, “A woman entered the Fire in a cat.” This is something the scholars mentioned in their commentaries, including the eminent scholar Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī.
The next usage of the preposition fī is istiʿlāʾ. Here, the preposition comes with the meaning of “on” (ar. ʿalā). A common example given for this is found in Sūrah Tāhā 71:
وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ فِي جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ
“Moreover, I shall, most surely, crucify you on the trunks of date palms!”
In this verse, the word fī cannot maintain its default meaning of ẓarfiyyah as it is impossible to crucify someone inside a tree. Therefore, the grammarians and the exegetes stated that it is for istiʿlāʾ.
The fifth function of fī is muqāyasah. Muqāyasah is to compare two things. When fī comes with the meaning of muqāyasah, whatever precedes the preposition is being compared to the ism majrūr. Additionally, the ism majrūr will be yet to come and better than whatever precedes fī. For example, Allah taʿālā says in Sūrat al-Tawbah:
فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ
“Yet, the enjoyment of the life of this world is so little (as compared) to (the endless abundance of) the Hereafter.”
In this example, the fī is used to compare the ephemeral delights of this world to the Hereafter; the bounties and pleasures of the Hereafter are far superior to this world.
The preposition fī also comes with the meaning of the arabic preposition bāʾ. The bāʾ is typically translated as with, but it has different meanings just like the preposition fī. So, to translate the fī that comes in the meaning of bāʾ, one would have to look at the context and determine a suitable translation. For example, the noble companion, Zayd al-Khayr (raḍiya Allāhu ʿanhu), once recited the following couplets:
ويَركبُ يومَ الروعِ مِنا فَوارسُ
بصيرون في طعنِ الأباهرِ والكُلى
And the cavalry rode away from us on the day of battle,
fully aware of stabbing the aortas and kidneys.
The fī in the second line is in the meaning of bāʾ. The reason, in this case, is the syntactic nature of the word baṣīrūn. The word baṣīrūn and words from its root letters are typically transitive through the preposition bāʾ. Thus, to preserve this word’s transitivity, the grammarians ruled that the fī is in the meaning of bāʾ.
The sixth function of fī is to come in the meaning of the preposition ilā. In English, ilā means “to” or “towards.” A good example demonstrating this usage is the verse:
فَرَدُّوا أَيْدِيَهُمْ فِي أَفْوَاهِهِمْ
“But they turned their hands to their mouths”
Here, if we were to take the standard meaning of fī and say it’s for ẓarfiyyah, the translation would be inaccurate. The correct translation for fī in this verse is that of ilā, meaning, “to.”
Another way that fī is used is with the meaning of the preposition min. In English, this preposition is generally translated as “from.” There are many instances of fī coming in the meaning of min, one of them being the following verse:
وَارْزُقُوهُمْ فِيهَا وَاكْسُوهُمْ
The fī in this verse is in the meaning of min. There are some scholars who state otherwise. Still, many grammarians and exegetes, such as Shaykh al-Samīn al-Halabī, say this is permissible.
The ninth usage of fī is taʿwīḍ. Taʿwīd is to substitute something. When fī is used for taʿwīḍ, the fī is substituting another fī that is omitted from the sentence. In addition, this fī is zāʾidah (extra); thus, it will not be translated. For example:
اشتريتُ فيما رغبتَ
“I bought what you desired.”
In this sentence, the fī is brought as a substitute for an omitted fī. The original sentence was:
اشتريتُ ما رغبتَ فيه
The fī from the original sentence was omitted and the fī zāʾidah was before the mā.
Finally, the tenth usage of fī is tawkīd (emphasis). In this case, the fī is zāʾidah. Also, this fī zāʾidah is different from the previous one because there is no taʿwīḍ taking place here. An example would be the following couplets of poetry by Suwayd b. Abī Kāhil:
أنا أبو سعد إذا الليلُ دَجا
يُخالُ في سوادِه يَرَنْدَجَا
I am Abū Saʿd. When the night darkens,
its blackness is thought to be a black coating.
The fī in the second line is not translated. It is only there for the purpose of corroboration. The subject of the verb is the ism majrūr. So, technically, the verse originally was:
يُخالُ سوادُه يَرَنْدَجَا
If the fī is translated, it may distort the meaning.
In conclusion, the arabic preposition fī has about ten different usages and meanings. It is important for a student of the Arabic language to know all of them. Many times, misconceptions regarding the Quran arise from to a lack of understanding. Knowing the meanings of words, especially oft-repeated ones, will aid one immensely in understanding the Quran, the Ḥadīth, poetry, and Arabic literature.
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 Q, 30:2-4. Ahmad Z. Hammad, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English,
(Lucent Interpretations, 2008), 689.
 Fāḍil Ṣāliḥ al-Sāmurāi. Maʿānī al-Naḥw, (Jordan: Dār al-Fikr, 2000), vol. 3 p. 57.
 al-Qurʾān (28:79).
 Ibn Dāwūd ʿAbd al-Wāḥid, al-Farḥ al-Kāmil, 19.
 al-Bukhārī, Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, (Damascus: Dār ibn Kathīr, 2002), 815.
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 al-Jurjānī, ʿAbd al-Qāhir b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. Sharḥ Miʿat ʿĀmil, (Karāchi: Maktabat al-Bushrā, 2016), 5.
 Q, 20:71. Ahmad Z. Hammad, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English, 128.
 Ibn Dāwūd ʿAbd al-Wāḥid, al-Farḥ al-Kāmil, 19.
 Q, 9:38. Ahmad Z. Hammad, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English, 316.
 Ibn Hishām, ʿAbd Allah b. Yūsuf. Awḍaḥ al-Masālik ʿilā Alfiyyat ibn Mālik, (Beirūt: al-Maktabat
al-ʿAṣriyyah), vol. 3 p. 39 .
 Ibid., 39.
 Q, 14:9. Ahmad Z. Hammad, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English, p.
 Ibn Hishām, ʿAbd Allah b. Yūsuf. Mughnī al-Labīb, 183.
 Q, 4:5. Ahmad Z. Hammad, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English, p.
 In this verse, Allah taʿālā is ordering the believers to provide the mentally incompetent from the wealth he assigned to them.
 al-Samīn al-Halabī. al-Durr al-Maṣūn fī ʿUlūm al-Kitāb al-Maknūn, (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2016), vol. 3 p. 583.
 Ibn Hishām, ʿAbd Allah b. Yūsuf. Mughnī al-Labīb, 184.
 Ibid., 184.