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This blog aims to unravel the mystery surrounding the so-called Disconnected Letters, or الحروف المقطعة as they’re often referred to in Arabic, which appear in Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.

Table of Contents

  1. Synopsis
  2. A Note on Dates
  3. A Note on Transliteration
  4. Introduction
  5. Theory One – Allāh alone knows their meaning
  6. Theory Two – mystical signs with a symbolic meaning
  7. Theory Three – mnemonic devices summarising the contents of the chapters which they prefix
  8. Theory Four – an example of the orthography of the early Arabic alphabet in the Qur’ān
  9. Theory Five – the numerological significance of the disconnected letters
  10. Theory Six – the letters are vocatives alluding to the Prophet
  11. Theory Seven – the letters hold a semiotic significance
  12. Theory Eight – the letters are abbreviations
  13. Theory Nine the letters were a means of ordering, redacting and editing the Qur’ānic corpus
  14. Theory Ten – the letters are names of redactors or readers of various chapters
  15. Theory Eleven – the letters are a doxological or liturgical device used to introduce the rhyme scheme of the chapters that they prefix
  16. Conclusion and Recommendations
  17. Appendix One: list of the Muqaṭṭa’āt in the Holy Qur’ān
  18. Appendix Two: list of the Muqaṭṭa’āt in the context of the verses that they precede
  19. Appendix Three: co-occurrence of the Muqaṭṭa’āt across chapters
  20. Bibliography

Synopsis

This expository paper treats the subject of the mysterious ‘Disconnected Letters’ (الحروف المقطّعة) in Islam’s most sacred text, the Qur’ān.  The subject is approached in the following manner: first, an explanation and overview of the letters and their importance are delineated.  Secondly, an overview of the main theories surrounding their significance and import are presented from historical and contemporary points of reference, and employing both Muslim and Orientalist scholarly research.  Finally, I expand on my own theory as to their importance and meaning, before making a few recommendations and proposals for future research in this area.

 

The central aim of this paper is to provide a comprehensive overview of the different theories, both traditional and contemporary; surrounding what is a fascinating and engaging topic in Qur’ānic and Islamic Studies.  It is hoped that interested parties conducting research in the areas of Arabic linguistics and comparative hermeneutics will find the information useful as a springboard for further research.  It is also hoped that pedagogues, students and researchers in the area of inter-religious dialogue will find this document useful as an aid to bridging the gap between what they know and what they ought to know about Muslim textualism.

 

This paper should be considered a general exposition of the subject matter and a guide as to the extent of research into the significance of these letters.  However, it is by no means exhaustive, and it does not claim to provide an in-depth treatment of the letters themselves from an orthographical, philological, semantic or semiotic point of reference.  Interested parties wishing to conduct further research into the topic with regard to one of these or other specialist academic disciplines should refer to the comprehensive bibliography and the suggestions for further research.

A Note on Dates

In accordance with standard academic practice, all dates are given in both the Hegira and Gregorian calendars, with the Hegira preceding the Gregorian date.

A Note on Transliteration

This paper is written using the Roman alphabet, but readers will also find Arabic equivalents of terms and proper nouns where it has been deemed necessary for accuracy and for reference purposes.  Where transliteration of the Arabic script is used, I have employed the most commonly used system amongst scholars of the Arabic language and orientalists; with the exception of accepted, long-established Anglicised versions of Arabic nouns such as Mecca and Medina (N.B. The spelling Qur’ān rather than Korān is employed, as the former is a more accurate transcription and is now the most commonly accepted transliteration of the Arabic word by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike), all other Arabic words have been transliterated according to the following system:

 

b        =       ب

 

t         =       ت

 

th       =       ث

 

j         =       ج

 

        =       ح

 

kh      =       خ

 

d        =       د

 

dh      =       ذ

 

r        =       ر

z        =       ز

 

s        =       س

 

sh      =       ش

 

        =       ص

 

        =       ض

 

         =       ط

 

        =       ظ

 

         =       ع

 

gh      =       غ

f         =       ف

 

q        =       ق

 

k        =       ك

 

l         =       ل

 

m        =       م

 

n        =       ن

 

h        =       ه

 

w       =       و

 

y        =       ي

 

For the hamza (ء), like the ‘ayn (ع), I use the apostrophe (‘).  However, the apostrophe will always follow the short vowel to which it refers when transliterating hamza, whereas it precedes the short vowel to which it refers when transliterating ‘ayn:

 

e.g.              ‘Amr   =       عمر

                   a’mr   =       أمر

 

For the long vowels, I have employed the following symbols:

ā = ا            ū = و            ī = ي

 

N.B. For alif maddah (آ) which in reality constitutes a longer vowel sound than the standard alif, I have used the same symbol as for the alif, with an apostrophe (e.g. Qur’ān = قرآن).

 

For the short vowels, I use:

 

a = َ              u = ُ             i = ِ   

 

For diphthongs:

 

ay = َ يْ                  aw = َ وْ

 

When ta’ marbūṭah (تاء مربوطة – ة) occurs, it is normally represented with an ‘h’.  However, where it suffixes the first word in a genitive construct (ﺇضافة), the ta’ marbūṭah is written as a ‘t’.

 

None of the names or terms employed are declined (i.e. the words are written without reflecting their declension endings – i‘arāb).

 

Finally, the Arabic definite article is always joined to the word it qualifies by a hyphen.  Where the Lām in the definite article precedes certain letters referred to by Arab grammarians as Sun Letters (الحروف الشّمسيّة); the assimilation of the article is reflected in the prefix by duplicating the Sun Letter.

Introduction

The study of texts both religious and secular with a view to understanding their full meaning, has engaged linguists from the earliest known civilisations to the present day[1][2].

 

Tanakh scholars developed a numerological code for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as a means to uncover what they posited to be divinely inspired enigmas hidden within the pages of their holy texts[3].  Modern day academicians and even authors of fiction[4] have also found the concept of an esoteric meaning other than the literal one intriguing.

 

Within the discipline of Islamology, an entire branch of study has been devoted to the exegesis of the primary Islamic text, the Qur’ān:  Tafsīr, or literal exegesis and commentary, is perhaps the oldest and most elaborate of the Islamic sciences[5].  It was developed, and continues to evolve, in the context of Muslim requirements for a comprehensive companion to their Holy Book; a guide that elucidates and provides background commentary on the text and its revelation.[6][7].

 

Nonetheless, Allāh states clearly in the text that the Qur’ān is, ‘A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail – a Qur’ān in Arabic for people who know.’ (Sūrat al-Fuṣṣilat – 41:3)[8].  The Qur’ān is referred to as a ‘clear proof’ (6:157)[9], ‘a manifest light’ (4:174; 42:52)[10] and it has been ‘fully explained to mankind’ (17:89; 18:54; 39:27)[11]; readers are also encouraged to ‘think deeply’ (47:24)[12] about the text.  In this particular verse, the Arabic verb ‘تدبر’ is used:  it means ‘to consider, reflect or meditate upon’[13].  In other words, although Allāh has stated categorically that the Qur’ān is a comprehensively revealed, unambiguous text, readers are encouraged to reflect on it.  Hence, the divinely inspired legitimacy of making a commentary on the text itself.

 

This brings us to the subject of al-Ḥurūf al-Muqaṭṭa’ah (الحروف المقطّعة) or ‘the disconnected letters’ in the Holy Qur’ān:  they provide perhaps one of the most enduring, intriguing and tantalising mysteries surrounding the revelation itself.  As the exegetes have tried to expound on the Holy Verses and give them a context to aid a fuller understanding of the afflatus as a whole, they have encountered various mysterious letters that prefix twenty-nine of the text’s 114 chapters (see Appendix One).

 

These Muqaṭṭa’āt (مقطّعات), as they shall be referred to from hereon, which are also known as Fawātiḥ as-Sūr/A’wā’il as-Sūr[14][15] (meaning the ‘openings of the chapters’), consist of fourteen different letters that occur singly or in combinations of two, three, four or five letters to form fourteen different arrangements.  Four separate combinations (الم, الر, طسم, حم) occur more than once and, with the exception of طسم, prefix several consecutive chapters to form groups.

 

The letters are always found at the beginning of the chapter as either a separate verse or forming the opening to the very first verse.  An exception is the combination حم/عسق, which occurs at the beginning of chapter forty-two: this combination is actually two separate arrangements with the first two letters حم composing verse one, and the second group, عسق, verse two.

 

Although it has been noted that the letters follow a strict order in terms of their co-occurrence[16], the suggestion that this is somehow related to the abjad or numerological order of the Arabic letters is without foundation.  The Abjadī or Levantine order, which is still used today for listing purposes in Arabic documents, was the original order for the Arabic letters at the time of the Qur’anic revelation[17].  The Arabs employed this particular arrangement and not the modern one as it mirrored the organisation of the Nabatean abjad, the precursor to Arabic abjad.

 

 

In 310/922, Ibn Muqallah (272/885 ‑ 328/940) invented the Naskh script, which displaced all other scripts from the scene; his serial ordering of the abjad, the Hajā’ī order, replaced the previous one.  His arrangement, also known as the ‘Abtath’, placed letters with similar graphemes together.  The name derives from ث ,ت ,ب ,أ, the first four letters of the new serial order[18].  However, the exploitation of the abjad for numerical purposes and the elaboration of chronograms based on the verses of the Qur’ān, did not occur until the Buwayhid period[19].  Therefore, not only does the co-occurrence of the Muqaṭṭa’āt violate the Abjadī sequence, but the Arabs did not recognise any numerological significance in their serialisation.

 

Another proposal, which has gained credence, is that the fourteen letters that compose the Muqaṭṭa’āt, represent a definitive list of the Arabic graphemes at the time of the Qur’ānic revelation[20][21].  This theory presupposes that the diacritical marks employed to distinguish letters like خ , ح ,ج were not in common usage at the time of revelation, and draws on the evidence of Qur’ānic manuscripts dating from the first century A.H.[22], which are devoid of these same diacritical marks.  This theory, however, can be at best only speculation given recent research and the evidence of the earliest known post-revelation manuscript, known as PERF 558, which features these very same diacritical marks[23].  In the absence of a complete collection of ‘Uthmānic codices, or indeed any authentic commentary on Arabic orthography dating from the period of revelation, this proposition is seriously flawed.

 

With the exception of the letters that prefix chapters two, three and thirteen, all of the letters head chapters that were revealed in Mecca[24][25].  Moreover, in all but three cases (chapters 29, 30 and 68), the Muqaṭṭa’āt precede an explicit reference to the Qur’anic revelation (see Appendix Two).

 

Furthermore, with regards to the actual recitation of the Qur’ān, the art of Tajwīd or ‘lengthening’ of the letters of individual words, , recommends not only that these letters should be pronounced separately, but also that they should be considerably lengthened in recital.  This is similar in principle to the art of cantillation applied to the recital of the Torah[26].

 

Whilst contemporary scholars have proffered a number of theories regarding the significance of the Muqaṭṭa’āt, their co-occurrence and placement, traditional Muslim scholarship has also tried to account for their meaning.



[1] Bjørn Ramberg and Kristin Gjesdal.  ‘Hermeneutics’.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition).  Edward N. Zalta (Ed.).  http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2005/entries/hermeneutics/ (19 April 2008).

 

[2] Wikipedia contributors.  ‘Hermeneutics’.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hermeneutics&oldid=205518195 (19 April 2008).

 

[3] Ernst Muller.  1946.  History of Jewish Mysticism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press p.62.

 

[4] Michael Drosnin.  1997.  The Bible Code.  UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

 

[5] Mahmoud M. Ayoub.  1984.  The Qur’an and Its Interpreters (Vol. I).  New York: State University of New York Press pp.20-27.

 

[6] Ibid., p.27.

 

[7] Andrew Rippin (Ed.).  1988.  Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  p.13.

 

[8] Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali.  1999.  Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’ān in the English Language.  Riyadh: Darussalam.  p.622.

 

[9] Ibid., p.203.

 

[10] Ibid., pp.148/639.

 

[11] Ibid., pp.380/390/603.

 

[12] Ibid., p.667.

 

[13] Hans Wehr.  1980.  A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: Arabic-English.  J. Milton Cowan (Ed.).  Beirut: Librairie du Liban.  pp.270-271.

 

[14] A. Welch.  1993.  ‘Al-Kur’ān’ (4d ‘The Mysterious Letters’).  The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Vol. V: Khe-Mai).  C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, B. Lewis and C. Pellat (Eds.), F.T. Dijkema and S. Nurit (Ass.).  Leiden: E.J. Brill.  p.412.

 

[15] Keith Massey.  2005.  ‘Mysterious Letters’.  The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān (Vol. iii: J-O).  Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.).  Leiden: E.J. Brill.  p.472.

 

[16] Keith Massey.  1996.  ‘Mystery Letters of the Qur’ān’.  Arabica 43.  pp.498-9.

 

[17] Dr. Hasanuddin Ahmed.  2004.  Ulm-ul-Qur’an: An Introduction to the Science of the Qur’an (How to Study and Understand the Quran).  New Delhi: Goodword Books.  pp39-40.

 

[18] Ibid., p.45.

 

[19] Ibid., p.298.

 

[20] Welch, op. cit., p.414.

 

[21] Massey ‘Mysterious Letters’, op. cit., pp.472-473.

 

[22] Beatrice Gruendler.  2005.  ‘Arabic Script’ pp139-140.  The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān (Vol. I: A-D).  Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.).  Leiden: E.J. Brill.

 

[23] Alan Jones.  1998.  The Dotting Of A Script And The Dating Of An Era: The Strange Neglect Of PERF 558.  Islamic Culture 32/4.  p.97.

 

[24] Ahmad Von Denffer.  2003.  Ulum Al-Quran: an Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran.  Leicester: Islamic Foundation.  p.146.

 

[25] Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi.  1980.  Al-Burhan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (2nd ed.) Vol. I.  Beirut: Dār al-Fikr.  pp.193-194.

 

[26] Kareema Carol Czerepinski.  2004.  Tajweed Rules of the Qur’ān.  Jeddah: Dar al-Khair.  pp.77-78.

 

The first theory is not really a theory, but rather the accepted position of Muslim commentators.  In the absence of any clear and authentic explanation of these letters either in the Qur’ān itself, or in the collected traditions of the Prophet Muḥammad, scholars, whilst availing themselves of proposing theories about the Muqaṭṭa’āt, have always attributed ultimate knowledge of their meanings to Allāh[27][28].  They draw this conclusion based on the numerous mentions or allusions in the Qur’ānic text made to knowledge of the Unseen or al-Ghayb (see for example 16:77, 27:75), which Allāh states lies with Him alone.

 

Another very important injunction in the Holy Book, which commentators have used to justify their position, originates from the early verses in chapter three (3:4-8): here, Allāh distinguishes between the entirely clear verses of the Book (Muḥkamāt) and others which are left deliberately ambiguous (Mutashābihāt).  Allāh makes it clear that none know the Qur’ān’s hidden meanings save Him alone, and that anyone seeking a cryptic significance to the verses (ta’wīl) is a ‘deviator from the truth’.

 

Scholars of the Qur’an have classified the Muqaṭṭa’āt as being part of these Mutashābihāt[29].  Hence, the reluctance amongst commentators to ascribe any particular meaning to them.

 

Of all the explanations given by various intellectuals, the one, which is most widely supported, is outlined in Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr[30]:

 

“The human body is composed of various fundamental elements that are found in nature.  Clay and dust are composed of the same fundamental elements.  Yet it would be absurd to say that a human being is exactly the same as the dust.  We can all have access to the elements that are found in the human body; if we add a few gallons of water, this provides us with the body’s constitution.  We know the elements in the human body and yet we are at a loss when asked to characterise the secret of life.”

 

Similarly, the Qur’ān addresses those people who reject its divine authority.  It tells them that the Qur’ān, is in their own language, a language in which the Arabs took great pride.  It is composed of the same letters that the Arabs used to express themselves so eloquently.

 

Arabic was at its peak when the Qur’ān was revealed.  With the Muqaṭṭa’āt, the Qur’ān challenges mankind to produce a sūrah in any way comparable to it in beauty and elegance if they doubt its authenticity.

 

Initially, the Qur’an challenges all of mankind to produce a work of literature like the Qur’ān and adds that they would not be able to do so even if they supported each other (17:88, 52:34).  Later, the Qur’ān repeats the challenge in Sūrat Hūd (11:13) by challenging mankind to produce ten chapters like it, and in Sūrat Yūnus (10:38) to produce one sūrah like it.  Finally, the least demanding challenge is given in Sūrat al-Baqarah:

 

“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a sūrah like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there are any) besides Allah if your doubts are true.  But if ye cannot – and of a surety ye cannot – then fear the fire whose fuel is men and stones – which is prepared for those who reject faith.” [2:23-24]

 

To compare the skill of two artisans, they must be given samples of the same raw material and their performance evaluated in completing the same task.  If they are tailors, they must be provided with the same fabrics.  The raw materials of the Arabic language are the letters of the Muqaṭṭa’āt.  The miraculous nature of the language of the Qur’ān does not lie only in the fact that it is God’s word, but also in the fact that despite being composed of the same letters in which the pagan Arabs took pride, its metrics and versification are unrivalled.

 

The Arabs were noted for their rhetorical ability, eloquence and meaningful expression.  Just as the constituents of the human body are known to us and can be obtained by us, the letters comprising the Qur’ān, such as Alif Lām Mīm are known to us, and used frequently to formulate words.  Life cannot be created by us, even if we possess knowledge of the constituents of the human body.  Similarly, we cannot capture the same eloquence and exquisiteness of expression that we find in the Qur’ān, despite knowing the letters that constitute it.  The Qur’ān thus proves its divine origin.


[27] Jalal Al Din al-Suyuti.  2000.  Al Itqan fi ‘Ulum Al Qur’an Vol. II.  Beirut: Dār Al Kutub Al ‘Ilmiya.  pp.8-13.

 

[28] Abū al-Fidā’ Ibn Kathīr.  1999.  Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Aẓīm (Vol. I).  Damascus: Dār Ṭayyibah lilnashr wa Tawzī’a.  pp52-54.

 

[29] Von Denffer, op. cit., p.142.

 

[30] Ibn Kathīr, op. cit., pp.52-54.

 

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