(qāfila, sayyāra)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

The Qurʾān refers to caravans directly with three terms: sayyāra (Q 5:96; 12:10, 19), ʿīr (Q 12:70, 82, 94), and rakb (Q 8:42). Two implied references occur as one of the two parties (Q 8:7) and journeys of summer and winter (Q 106:2).

Definitions and Usage

Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) says “al-sayr is to travel on earth, one who travels is called sāʾir and sayyār and al-sayyārais “a group[traveling together]” (Mufradāt, sub s-y-r). Abū al-FaḍlJamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad b. MukarramIbn Manẓūr (630-711/1233-ca.1312) explains sayyāraas a synonym of al-qāfila (Lisān) and Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Sayyid Muḥammad Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (1145-1205/1732-1790) defines it as “a traveling group (al-qawmyasīrūn)” (Tāj). Both al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) and al-Qurṭubī (600-671/1204-1273) draw together these lexical meanings and gloss sayyāra as “a group of people who traverses the road together” (Tafsīrs, sub Q 12:10).The term also appears in a hadith where it refers to groups of travelling angels: Abū Hurayra (d. 57/681), Allah be well-pleased with him, said: “The Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, said: ‘Verily, Allah, the Glorified and Exalted be He, has travelling Angels (li-Llāh malāʾikasayyāra), excellent [they are], who seek out assemblies of remembrance (majālis al-dhikr). When they find such assemblies in which there is remembrance [of Allah] they sit among [them], and encircle them with their wings until they fill the space between them and the lowest heaven. (…)” (Muslim, Dhikr wal-duʿāʾ wal-tawba wal-istighfār, faḍlmajālis al-dhikr)

The term sayyāra occurs once in the context of permitted game (see Food and Drink; Lawful and Unlawful) and twice in the story of Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace: Lawful for you is game from the sea and its food as provision for you and for travelers (wa-lil-sayyāra) (Q 5:96); One of them said: Do not kill Yūsuf, but throw him into the bottom of the well; some caravan of travelers (baʿḍu s-sayyārati) will find him (Q 12:10); and There came a caravan of travelers (sayyāratun) (Q 12:19).

The second term, ʿīr (pl. ʿiyarāt), a feminine noun,is defined as “a group of people bearing loads of provision (aḥmāl al-mīra); it is used for men and camels that bear loads” (Rāghib,Mufradāt, sub ʿ-y-r). Ibn Manẓūr glosses it as al-qāfila and says it also means a camel (al-ibil). Abū al-Haytham, however, rejects the restriction of the usage to camels only and says“al-ʿīr is any kind of animal, whether camels, asses, or mules, when goods are loaded upon them” (Lisān; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:70). Al-Zabīdīintegrates these earlier definitions: “al-ʿīr is a caravan (al-qāfila), its verbal form isʿāra/yaʿīru, in the sense of ‘to travel.’ The word al-ʿīrcan also mean a camel that carries commercial goods (al-mīra); some add to this that al-ʿīr is a caravan of asses (qāfilat al-ḥamīr)” (Tāj).

Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar b. ʿAlī Sirāj al-Dīn Ibn ʿĀdil (d. ca. 880/1475) says there are two opinions concerning the original meaning of the word ʿīr: (i) it denoted a group of camels (jamāʿat al-ibil), because they would go from one place to another; (ii) it denoted a caravan specifically of asses (qāfilat al-ḥamīr),as if ʿīr were the plural form of ʿayr (i.e., the domestic or wild ass), and then its usage extended to all kinds of caravans (Lubāb,sub Q 12:70).Al-Qurṭubī reports various opinions regarding the term in Q 12:70:“Mujāhid said: ʿīr is [a pace] of asses. Abū ʿUbayda stated: ʿīr is used to denote camels that are loaded up and mounted; and the meaning of [ayyatuha-l-ʿīru] isO caravan!It is a construction similar to And ask the town (wa-sʾal al-qarya) [Q 12:82]” (Tafsīr,sub Q 12:70). Such a construction is called dalālat al-itqidāʾi, where the genitive construction elides the possessed noun—hence its implied meaning is “O members of the caravan!” (al-Āmidī, al-Iḥkām, Part III, al-qism al-thānī fī dalālat ghayr al-manẓūm).

All three Qurʾānic occurrences of the word ʿīr are in the context of the story of Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace: So when he had furnished them with their provisions, he put the [golden] bowl in his brother’s saddle-bag. Then ancrier called out: O caravan (ayyatuhā l-ʿīr), indeed you are thieves! (Q 12:70); And ask the city in which we were and the caravan (wal-ʿīr) in which we returned. Verily we are speaking the truth (Q 12:82); and When the caravan (al-ʿīr) departed … (Q 12:94).

Finally, the noun rakbin Q 8:42 is glossed as ʿīr (caravan), referring to the caravan of Abū Sufyān (Ṭabarī; Rāzī,Tafsīrs; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Māwardī, Nukat;Makkī. Hidāya). Al-Rāghib writes that rukūb originally pertained to being on the back of an animal, but then also came to mean embarking on a sea-vessel (see also Q 18:71; 29:65; 43:12) (Mufradāt, sub r-k-b). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, defined the smallest rakb as comprising three travelers together, recommending that Muslims travel in company (Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Jihād, 2:102). In another hadith narrated by Saʿīd b. al-Musayyib, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “The devil concerns himself (yahummu) with [misleading] one or two persons; but if they are three, he does not” (al-Baghawī, Sharḥ al-Sunna, Jihād, karāhiyatu-l-safarwaḥdahu).

Three non-Qurʾānic terms which exegetes and linguists use in glossing the Qurʾānic usage of sayyāra, ʿīr, and rakb are: qāfila, laṭīma, and ʿasjadiyya. The most common Arabic term is qāfila, from the root q-f-l; the verbal form (qafala/yaqfulu). It is defined as a group’s return from a journey (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān), but al-Zabīdī quotes Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Azharī (d. 369/980) as saying, “Ibn Qutayba (213-276/828-885) thought that common people erroneously hold that qāfila was only used for a returning caravan. This is a mistake. The Arabs would use qāfila for those who begin a journey, hoping that Allah Almighty would make their return (al-qufūl) easy. This expression is widely used in the speech of the most eloquent amongst them up to our present day” (Tāj).

Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923) cites the gloss of al-Suddī (d. 127/745) in explaining Q 8:7 (And [remember] when Allah promised you one of the two parties…): “Abū Sufyān (d. 30/652) was returning with a caravan (ʿīr) from Syro-Palestine that carried the goods of Quraysh. This kind of caravan is called al-laṭīma” (Tafsīr). Ismāʿīl b. Ḥammādal-Jawharī (d. 393/1002) defines al-laṭīma as “a camel or a caravan that bears perfume” (Ṣiḥāḥ,sub l-ṭ-m); al-Zabīdī adds, “al-laṭīma is a container of musk, and its plural form is laṭāʾim” (Tāj).The word ʿasjadiyya (“golden”) refers to “the mounts of kings” (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ,sub ʿ-s-j-d). Al-Azharī (d. 369/980) cites Ibn al-Sikkīt in describing an ʿasjadiyya as “the camels of kings bearing fine things of high value” (Tahdhīb). Al-Zabīdī defines ʿasjadiyya as “a group of camels bearing gold” (Tāj).

Implied References

Summer and Winter Caravans of the Quraysh

The Quraysh had two annual trading caravans which used two routes: a winter caravan to Yemen and a summer caravan to the Levant (Syro-Palestine) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 106:2). These caravans were secured by treaties (see Alliance and Treaty): “The guarantors of this protection (aṣḥāb al-īlāf) were four brothers: Hāshim, ʿAbd Shams, al-Muṭṭalib, and Nawfal, sons of ʿAbd Manāf. Hāshim concluded a pact with the king of al-Shām so that his commercial goods were secured in the Syro-Palestine; his brother ʿAbd Shams entered into an agreement with the Abyssinian ruler; al-Muṭṭalib with leaders of Yemen; and Nawfal with Persia… this way the traders (tujjār) of Quraysh could travel [in safety] to the different regions (ilā-l-amṣār)” (Ibn ʿĀdil, Lubāb).

Q 106:2 (Their security in the journeys (riḥla) of winter and summer) refers to these caravans. The term journey (riḥla) is itself related to camels, in that the verbal noun raḥl (pl. riḥāl, arḥul) from the root r-ḥ-l refers to loads borne by camels (raḥl al-baʿīr) (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ) and most derived nouns refer to different types of camels: those suitable for long journeys (al-raḥūl, al-raḥūla) as well as those strong enough to bear heavy loads over a journey (al-rāḥila) (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān).Al-Rāghib defines al-raḥl as “that which is placed on camels when traveling (lil-rukūb) (i.e., saddlebags); sometimes it is also used to refer to the camels or to those seated on them… Its plural form is riḥāl, and the nominal form riḥla means al-irtiḥāl (leaving and setting out on a journey)” (Mufradāt). Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. al-Sirrī al-Zajjāj (d. 310/923) says the Quraysh made such journeys in safety (āminīn), and if they were attacked their response was, “We are the people of Allah’s Sacred House!” They are reminded elsewhere of this blessing: Or have they not considered that We have made a secure sanctuary while people are snatched away all around them? Do they believe in that which is false? And are they ungrateful for the blessings of Allah? (Q 29:67)” (Maʿānī, sub Q 106:1).The plural form of the noun appears in Q 12:62: And [Yūsuf] said to his young men, “Put their merchandise in their saddlebags (fī riḥālihim)”. Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1075) glosses saddlebags here as “vessels” (awʿiyatihim; see Cups and Containers) and observes that the noun al-raḥl is used to denote anything prepared for a journey (Wasīṭ; see also Q 12:70 and 12:75).

Pagan Caravans

Two verses (Q 2:217; 8:42) refer to mistaken raids on the pagan caravans: Q 2:217 (They ask you concerning fighting in the Sacred Months…) was revealed in connection with a scouting mission led by the Companion ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Jaḥsh which left Madina in the month of Jumādāʾl-Ākhira in 2/624. They were to track the movement of Qurayshite caravans, but at an oasis between Ṭāʾif and Makka, they came across and killed a Qurayshite polytheist ʿAmr b. al-Ḥaḍramī, took two captives, and returned to Madina with spoils. They did not know that the new moon had appeared that night and the sacred month of Rajab had already started. The Quraysh accused the Muslims of breaching the established norm of observing peace during the sacred months. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said to Ibn Jaḥsh and rest of the fighters, “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month” (Ṭabarī; Baghawī, Tafsīrs, Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Makkī, Hidāya). Those who had participated in the raid feared divine retribution, but Q 2:217 was revealed, confirming the sanctity of the sacred months (fighting therein is grave), but also reminding the Quraysh that turning [others] from the way of Allah—and disbelieving in Him—and from the Sacred Mosque, and expelling its people, is graver in the sight of Allah. Strife is graver than slaying.

Q 8:42 (And the caravan (wa-l-rakb) [was on the] lower [ground] than you) was revealed concerning the events of the Battle of Badr (2/624), and by exegetical consensus refers to the trade caravan of the Makkan leader Abū Sufyān which was returning from Syria (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). The Muslim army was dispatched to capture this caravan, while the Makkans marched out to protect it (see Badr) (Ibn Hishām, Sīra, Nuzūl sūrat al-Anfāl).


al-Āmidī, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Abī ʿAlī Muḥammad al-Taghlibī. al-Iḥkām fī uṣūli-l-aḥkām. Riyadh: Dār al-Ṣumayʿīlil-Nashr wal-Tawzīʿ, 1424/2003.

Azharī. Tahdhīb.

Baghawī. Tafsīr.

al-Baghawī, al-Ḥusayn b. Masʿūd. Sharḥ al-Sunna. Ed. Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾūṭ. Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1403/1983.

Ḥākim. Mustadrak.

Ibn ʿĀdil. Lubāb.

Ibn ʿAṭiyya. Muḥarrar.

Ibn Hishām. Sīra.

Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.

Jawharī. Ṣiḥāḥ.

Makkī. Hidāya.

Qurṭubī. Tafsīr.

Rāghib. Mufradāt.

Rāzī. Tafsīr.

Ṭabarī. Tafsīr.

Thaʿlabī. Kashf.

al-Wāḥidī, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad, al-Naysābūrī. Asbāb nuzūl al-Qurʾān. Riyadh: Dār al-Maymān, 1426/2005.

———. al-Wasīṭ fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-Majīd. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1415/1994.

Zabīdī. Tāj.

Zajjāj. Maʿānī.

See also

© 2023 CIS. All Rights Reserved