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. 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. 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:
“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.