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The unanswered question of the significance of the Muqaṭṭa’āt, in spite of the unambiguous prohibition of mystical interpretation in the Qur’ān, has provided Sufis and Baha’is in particular with both devotional material and evidence of the mystical nature of the Holy Book[31][32].

 

Sufis, whose worship involves intense devotional rituals, have meditated on the meaning of the Muqaṭṭa’āt and interpreted their significance and prime position prefixing the twenty-nine chapters[33].  The meanings they assign to them differ from Ṭarīqah to Ṭarīqah (Sufi chapter or movement), but their essential import remains the same: the Muqaṭṭa’āt are attributes of the Divine.  They prefix the various chapters as both a demonstration to the Prophet of their authentic origin during the revelation, and as a message to all who hear them concerning His qualities.  Sufis see them as an adjunct to the well-documented ninety-nine Asmā’ al-Ḥusnā (glorious names) found throughout the Qur’ān, and a further manifestation of Allāh’s virtues[34].

 

Numerous Sufi clerics and adherents have advanced theories as to the meaning of the disconnected letters.  Many suggest that by expounding on their ‘hidden’ meaning, one can attain a closer relationship with God[35].  One such interpretation advanced by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani of the Naqshabandīyah[36], employing the letters in an invocation together with their posited meanings, is given below.

 

“O Allah! Bestow blessings, peace and honour; and give nobility, power and greatness; and have mercy on the one who is lofty in power and towering in grandeur, and is the high-aspiring light and the clear truth:

 

The letter “Alif” is for might and power,

Ḥā’” is for the realm of mercy,

Mīm” is for sovereignty,

Lām” is for hidden kindness,

Rā’” is for hidden compassion,

Noon” is for perfect benevolence,

‘Ayn” is for care and concern,

Kāf” is for sufficiency,

Yā’” is for headship and becoming master,

Sīn” is for happiness,

Qāf” is for nearness,

Ṭā’” is for the sultanate,

Hā’” is for the tie or bond (of friendship)

And “Ṣād” is for preservation…”

 

This appears to be an arbitrary allocation of attributions to the various letters rather than the establishment of concrete meanings, based on the first letter of the attribute in Arabic, for example:

 

“Wa ‘ayn  il-‘ināyah wa kāf il-kifāyah       و عين العناية و كاف الكفاية

 

As for the Bahā’is, they too attach a mystical significance to these letters, drawing on the teachings of the central figures in their religion, Baha’u’llah and the Bab[37].

 

Bahā’u’llāh wrote a commentary on the Muqaṭṭa’āt in response to a request from one of his adherents, Mirza Aqay-i-Rikab-Saz.  This commentary became known as the Lawḥa-i-Ayiy-i-Nūr (Tablet of the Verse of Light)[38] in Persian, and has remained the subject of serious scholarship amongst Bahā’is to this day.  In it, Bahā’u’llāh comments on the creation of the letters themselves; something of a departure from traditional scholarship.  He then proceeds to relate their formation to the so-called ‘Verse of Light’ (24:35) in the Qur’ān, before offering an explanation of their meanings.  His central preoccupation, and that to which he ascribes the most important role, is with the letter Alif.  Bahā’u’llāh, in his Kitāb-i-Iqān[39], writes:

 

“In the beginning of His Book He saith: “Alif. Lām. Mīm. No doubt is there about this Book: It is guidance unto the God-fearing (Qur’ān 2:1).”  In the disconnected letters of the Qur’an, the mysteries of the divine Essence are enshrined, and within their shells, the pearls of His Unity are treasured.  For lack of space, we do not dwell upon them at this moment.  Outwardly, they signify Muhammad Himself, Whom God addressed saying: “O Muhammad, there is neither doubt nor uncertainty about this Book which hath been sent down from the heaven of divine Unity.  In it is guidance unto them that fear God.” Consider how He hath appointed and decreed this self-same Book, the Qur’an, as guidance unto all that are in heaven and on earth. He, the divine Being, and unknowable Essence, hath, Himself, testified that this Book is, beyond all doubt and uncertainty, the guide of all mankind until the Day of Resurrection.”

 

For Bahā’u’llāh, the Alif, being a single vertical stroke, forms the basis for all the other letters and hence represents Allāh.  The other Muqaṭṭa’āt are not so much qualities of the Divine Himself, but outward manifestations of his guidance and trusteeship on the temporal plane; the other Muqaṭṭa’āt sometimes represent His prophets and sometimes represent other facets of his worldly manifestations.

 

A constant metaphor employed by Bahā’u’llāh throughout his writing is that of the ‘Primordial Pen’[40].  He uses it to encapsulate all aspects of Allāh’s Creation.  According to Bahā’u’llāh, it is this Pen that through God’s will orchestrates all that is Creation.  By means of this metaphor, Bahā’u’llāh theorises that all of Creation testifies to its conception through its own reality; that this is their purpose for being.  Therefore, the Muqaṭṭa’āt are but further examples of God’s omneity, placed in the Holy Qur’ān to bear witness to His Presence (See Qur’ān 51:56).

 

The Bāb, who was the forerunner to the Bahā’i faith, wrote a literary composition entitled Qayyūm al-Asmā’ (Maintainer of the Divine Names)[41].  In it, he includes a set of disconnected letters in the third verse of almost all of the 111 chapters.  Some of these letters mirror the Muqaṭṭa’āt in the Qur’ān, whilst others are composed of different combinations.  What is clear is that the Bāb, who claimed to have received a revelation, is trying to mimic the style of the Qur’ān; perhaps in order to engender support for his prophethood.

 

Evidently, amongst Sufi orders and Bahā’is, the Muqaṭṭa’āt form part of the authentic revelation.  Their utilization in invocations and in literature has enshrined their mystic function; any interpretation of their meanings has been largely arbitrary and has not sought to explain their relative positions, frequency or co-occurrence.


[31] Abdurrahman Habil.  1987.  ‘Traditional Esoteric Commentaries on the Quran’.  Islamic Spirituality: Foundations.  Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Ed.).  State University of New York Press: New York.  pp.24-47.

 

[32] Baha’u’llah. 1994.  The Kitab-i-Iqan: The Book of Certitude.  Shoghi Effendi (Trans.).  Wilmette: Baha’I Publishing Trust.  pp.202-204.

 

[33] Elmer H. Douglas (Trans.) and Abu Rabi.  1993.  The Mystical Teachings of al-Shadhili – A translation from the Arabic of Ibn al-Sabbagh’s Durrat al-Asrar wa Tuhfat al-Abrar.  New York: State University of New York Press.  pp.24-25.

 

[34] Juan R.I. Cole.  1994.  ‘The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa’I’.  Studia Islamica 80.  pp.9-10.

 

[35] Ibid., p.10.

 

[36] Siddiq Osman Noormuhammad. 2004.  Salawaat by Sufi Mashaaikh.   Chapter 1: Salawaat of Gauth u’l A’zam Muhyudeen (Shaykh ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani).  Nairobi: Iqra Islamic Publications.

 

[37] Smith, Peter.  1987.  The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions – from messianic Shi’ism to a world religion.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  pp.76-77.

 

[38] Stephen N. Lambden (Trans.).  2004.  Tafsīr al-ḥurūfāt al-muqaṭṭa`āt (Commentary on the Isolated Letters) or Lawḥ-i āyah-yi nūr (Tablet about the Light Verse).  http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/BAHA’-ALLAH/L-hurufat.htm (3 January 2008)

 

[39] Baha’u’llah, op.cit., pp.203-204.

 

[40] Bahá’u’lláh.  1988.  Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.  Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust.

 

[41] Todd Lawson.  1997.  ‘Reading Reading Itself: The Bab’s Sura of the Bees.  A Commentary on Qur’an 12:93 from the text of Sūrah Joseph.  Translation and Commentary’.  Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha’i Studies 1/5.

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A number of scholars have tried to relate the occurrence of the Muqaṭṭa’āt to the contents or theme of the chapters which they prefix[42].  This theory takes as inspiration the presence of ‘groups’ of Muqaṭṭa’āt, which suggests some connection between chapters prefixed by the same letters (see Appendix Two).

 

For there to be any support for this hypothesis chapters that are prefixed by the same groups of letters, or by other groups containing the same letter, should be linked thematically.

 

Al-Sayyid aṭ-Ṭabāṭabā’i mentions very briefly the significance of these letter symbols at the beginning of his exegesis of Sūrat Maryam (chapter 19)[43], although a comprehensive discussion of the letter symbols appears in his exegesis of Sūrat ash-Shūrā (chapter 42)[44].  He says:

 

“…those chapters of the Holy Qur’ān that start with the Muqaṭṭa’āt have a correlative link to their context through these letters.  In other words, those letter symbols that are common to different chapters tell us that there is a logical relation with the context of those chapters also. The proof of the above statement is the similarity that can be seen between Sūrat Maryam (chapter 19) and Sūrat Ṣād (chapter 38) in which both relate the story of the Prophets.”

 

The same common theme can be seen linking Sūrat ashShu arā’ (chapter 26), an-Naml (27), al-Qaṣaṣ (28) and Ṭā-Hā (20) through the story of Moses and his encounter with the Pharaoh.  Each of these chapters is prefixed by the letter Ṭa among other letters.

 

Let us now examine more scrupulously, for instance, two such chapters prefixed by the same letters: Sūrat Maryam and Sūrat Yā-Sīn are both prefixed by the letter Yā’.

 

The general theme of Sūrat Maryam is mentioned at the end of the chapter in verse 97[45]:

 

So We have made this (the Qur’ān) easy in your own tongue (O Muḥammad), only that you may give glad tidings to the pious and warn with it the most quarrelsome people.’

 

The overriding premise is one of admonishment and the conveyance of glad tidings.  In the beginning of the chapter, the adventures of I’brāhīm, I’sḥaq, Y’aqūb (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the episode of Hārūn and Mūsā (Aaron and Moses) and the story of I’smāī’l (Ishmael) and I’drīs (Enoch) are related together with their share of the blessed and ordained leadership that has been given to them.  The chapter goes on to mention some examples of the mistakes of the people in the state of delusion, their oppression and their unreasonable ideas, such as denying the resurrection of the body and the future life in the Hereafter, accusing God of having a son, idol worship, etc.  The punishment for this behaviour is also mentioned.

 

Sūrat Yā-Sīn replicates and links the theme of Sūrat Maryam in the same manner: the chapter begins by affirming the prophethood of Muḥammad, who came as a petitioner, and then recalls those who had belied the Messengers, and rejected God’s message.  It then goes on to recount the various signs of Allah, before describing the events surrounding the day of resurrection. At this stage, the recompense for the pious and the miscreants is explained in some detail.  Powerful arguments are presented to those who doubt and deny the event of resurrection before the chapter ends with a profound reminder that with Allah is the reality of the whole creation, and everyone will eventually return to Him to account for their deeds.

 

The letter that links both, the letter Yā’, could represent al-Yaqīn, which signifies complete and unwavering faith, something of a common thread between the chapters.

 

The letter symbols:

Kāf-Hā’-Yā’-‘Ain-Ṣād. (19:1)[46]

 

Yā’-Sīn. (36:1)[47]

 

Polytheism and Allah’s Decree:

It beseems not Allāh that He should take to Himself a son, glory be to Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it “be” and it is. (19:35)[48]

 

And they have taken gods besides Allāh that they may be helped. (36:74)[49]

 

His command, when He intends anything, is only to say to it ‘be’ and so it is. (36:82)[50]

 

Serving Allah, the Right Path:

And surely Allāh is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path. (19:36)[51]

 

And that you should serve Me; this is the right way. (36:61)[52]

 

Serving Satan, your enemy:

O my father!  Serve not Satan; surely Satan is disobedient to the Beneficent Allāh. (19:44)[53]

 

Did I not charge you, O children of Adam, that you should not serve Satan?  Surely, he is your open enemy. (36:60)[54]

 

The Return to Allah:

Surely, We inherit the earth and all those who are on it, and to Us they shall be returned. (19:40)[55]

 

Therefore, glory be to Him in Whose hand is the reality of all things, and to Him you shall be brought back. (36:83)[56]

 

The Resurrection:

And says man: What! When I am dead shall I truly be brought forth alive?  Does not man remember that We created him before, when he was nothing? (19:66-67)[57]

 

And he strikes out a likeness for Us and forgets his own creation.  Says he: Who will give life to the bones when they are rotten?  Say: He will give life to them Who brought them into existence at first, and He is cognisant of all creation. (36:78-79)[58]

 

Destruction of previous generations:

And how many of the generations have We destroyed before them who were better in respect of goods and outward appearance! (19:74)[59]

 

And how many a generation have We destroyed before them!  Do you see any one of them or hear a sound of them? (19:98)[60]

 

Do they not consider how many of the generations have We destroyed before them, because they do not turn to them? (36:31)[61]

 

As far as other chapters prefixed by the same letters are concerned, particularly those such as the A L M, A L R and Ḥ M groups, more research is needed to extrapolate the common themes, as well as to allocate definite attributes to the Muqaṭṭa’āt in order to explain their precise arrangement across multiple chapters.  The theory linking the letters and their immediate contexts is appealing and plausible, and has certainly aroused the interest of numerous scholars.


[42] Welch, op. cit., pp.412-414.

 

[43] Al-Sayyid al-Ṭabāṭabā’i.  1980.  Tafsīr 19:1.  Tafsīr al-Mīzān fi Tafsīr al-Qur’ān  http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=56&tSoraNo=19&tAyahNo=1&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0.  (3 March 2008)

 

[44] Al-Sayyid al-Ṭabāṭabā’i.  1980.  Tafsīr 42:1.  Tafsīr al-Mīzān fi Tafsīr al-Qur’ān  http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=56&tSoraNo=42&tAyahNo=1&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0.  (3 March 2008)

 

[45] Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, op. cit., p.409.

 

[46] Ibid., p.399.

 

[47] Ibid., p.573.

 

[48] Ibid., p.402.

 

[49] Ibid., p.580.

 

[50] Ibid., p.581.

 

[51] Ibid., p.402.

 

[52] Ibid., p.579.

 

[53] Ibid., p.403.

 

[54] Ibid., p.579.

 

[55] Ibid., p.403.

 

[56] Ibid., p.581.

 

[57] Ibid., p.406.

 

[58] Ibid., p.581.

 

[59] Ibid., p.407.

 

[60] Ibid., p.409.

 

[61] Ibid., p.577.

According to Welch[62], when viewed in the context of the earliest written versions of the Qur’ān, the Muqaṭṭa’āt could have represented a complete record of the Arabic alphabet for readers.

 

The Arabic alphabet consists of eighteen distinct graphemes (ا ب ج ر س ص ط ع ف ق ك ل م ن ه و ي) when each letter is viewed in isolation.  These eighteen can further be reduced to fifteen separate graphemes if we count the graphemes of ب ن ي and ف ق respectively as homographs when written in the non-final position.  In combination with diacritics or dots to distinguish between the various letters that are allographs, the Arabic script expresses a total of twenty-eight phonemes.

 

In the earliest versions of the Arabic script, and hence in the earliest written versions of the Qur’ān[63], there were no diacritics to distinguish between graphemes which represented different sounds.  Furthermore, the letters ف ق و as well as د ذ ك were allographs, in contrast to their representation in the modern Arabic script.  This further reduction to fourteen distinct graphemes as represented by the Arabic script of the seventh century C.E. provides a complete representation of the Arabic alphabet at that time[64].

 

The fourteen letters which make up the Muqaṭṭa’āt represented in the Qur’ān therefore provide a definitive version of the early Arabic script.  Welch proposes that their placement at the beginning of twenty-nine of the Qur’ān’s chapters, when coupled with the numerous references in the Quran (6:98, 41:2, 12:2 et al.) to it being a guide for those who understand and to its revelation in clear Arabic, is evidence that the Muqaṭṭa’āt are there to demonstrate the clarity of the language, to function as a pronunciation guide, or for use as a pedagogical tool.[65]

 

There are several inconsistencies in this theory, not the least of which is the fact that it does not explain the placement of the Muqaṭṭa’āt before these particular twenty-nine chapters.  Neither does it explain the order of the letters and their arrangement in each particular occurrence, both of which seem to contradict the established order of the Arabic alphabet’s ‘abjad’, which was used at that time and continued to be the established order until at least a century after the Prophet’s death[66], or for that matter, the revised order which is still in use today.

 

Generally accepted theories of the evolution of the Arabic script[67] (for a widely held view see Hitti’s History of the Arabs), hold that the dotting or diacritical marks were developed during al-Hajjaj bin Yūsuf’s governorship of Iraq.  In contrast, contemporary researchers such as Alan Jones have drawn different conclusions based on the earliest papyrus featuring the Arabic script (PERF 558)[68].  From this early epigraph, it is clear from the use of the diacritical marks within the text, that the system of diacritics for distinguishing between allographs was available to the scribes charged with producing the first manuscripts of the Qur’ān during the ‘Uthmanic caliphate.  The fact that these diacritics are not found in the earliest extant copies is a moot point, given that any representation of the Arabic abjad within the pages of the Qur’ān (the Muqaṭṭa’āt) would likely have used the diacritics to distinguish between the 14 graphemes and the 28 phonemes of the Arabic language.  This should have been the case so as to provide a complete record of the Arabic phonemic range if Welch’s theory were correct.

 

Furthermore, we know from anthropological and linguistic research into the pre-Islamic period, as well as from the name of the Qur’ān itself, that the Arabs pursued an oral tradition.  God’s word, in keeping with the tradition of its oral revelation, was initially destined for recitation and memorisation, as opposed to its eventual codification or inlibration in the written Qur’ān[69].


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

 

[63] M A S Abdel Haleem.  1994.  ‘Qur’ānic Orthography: The Written Representation Of The Recited Text Of The Qur’ān’.  Islamic Quarterly 38/3.  p.172

 

[64] Gruendler, op. cit., p.139.

 

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

 

[66] Ahmed, op. cit., p.40.

 

[67] Phillip K. Hitti.  2002.  History of the Arabs (Rev. 10th ed.).  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.  p.219.

 

[68] Jones, op. cit., pp.97-98.

 

[69] Alan Jones.  2005.  ‘Orality and Writing in Arabia’.  The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān (Vol. III: I-O).  Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Ed.). Leiden: E.J. Brill.  p.590.

One theory for God’s establishment of these letters in the Qur’ān holds that the letters themselves are part of a deliberate numerical structure underlying the text, revealed as an integral part of the revelation.  According to the theorists, God has woven this code into the Qur’ān not only for those with diligence and insight to discover, but as a further proof of the Qur’ān’s divine origins[70].

 

An Egyptian scientist and computer expert named Dr. Rashad Khalifa entered the Quran into his computer in an attempt to search for any design that could account for the Muqaṭṭa’āt.  The result of his extensive research was the discovery of an intricate mathematical system that pervades the whole Quran and governs every possible parameter, including these letters[71].

 

The theory of the number nineteen being the basis for this inherent mathematical structure to the Qur’ān derives its origin from chapter 74, verses 30 and 31 of the Qur’ān[72]:

 

 

﴿عَلَيْهَا تِسْعَةَ عَشَرَ﴾

 

(74:30) – Over it are Nineteen.

 

﴿وَمَا جَعَلْنَا أَصْحَابَ النَّارِ إِلَّا مَلَائِكَةً وَمَا جَعَلْنَا عِدَّتَهُمْ إِلَّا فِتْنَةً لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِيَسْتَيْقِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ وَيَزْدَادَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِيمَاناً وَلَا يَرْتَابَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَلِيَقُولَ الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِم مَّرَضٌ وَالْكَافِرُونَ مَاذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ بِهَذَا مَثَلاً كَذَلِكَ يُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشَاءُ وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَاءُ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ جُنُودَ رَبِّكَ إِلَّا هُوَ وَمَا هِيَ إِلَّا ذِكْرَى لِلْبَشَرِ﴾

 

(74:31) – And We have set none but angels as guardians of the Fire; and We have fixed their number only as a trial for Unbelievers, in order that the People of the Book may arrive at certainty, and the Believers may increase in Faith, and that no doubts may be left for the People of the Book and the Believers, and that those in whose hearts is a disease and the Unbelievers may say, What symbol doth Allah intend by this? Thus doth Allah leave to stray whom He pleaseth, and guide whom He pleaseth: and none can know the forces of thy Lord, except He.  And this is no other than a warning to mankind.

 

In verse 30, God proclaims that the number of angels guarding the gates of hell is nineteen.  In the subsequent verse (31), this number is established as a test to distinguish between believers and unbelievers.

 

Proponents of the theory of the importance of this number hold that, with simple arithmetic, by adding the number of chapters prefaced by the letters (29) to the number of letters (14), then adding the sum of these two numbers to the number of combinations in which the letters occur (14), a multiple of nineteen is obtained (29 + 14 + 14 = 57 [3 × 19])[73].

 

Further calculation of the number of occurrences of each letter, in each chapter prefaced by the letters, provides some startling evidence of the extent to which this number permeates the Arabic text.  That said, various anomalies in the elaboration of this number have surfaced if one attempts to continue the analysis of the entire Qur’ān based on this figure.[74]

 

Suffice to say that the theory does not provide any answer to the placement of the letters before these particular chapters, other than their usage as an arithmetical challenge; for theorists, the role of these particular chapters is immaterial, as their contents and remit do not appear to correspond to the numerical findings.


[70] Dr Rashad Khalifa.  1981.  The Computer Speaks: God’s Message to the World.  Tucson: Renaissance Productions.  p.9.

 

[71] Dr Rashad Khalifa.  1982.  Qur’ān: Visual Presentation of the Miracle.  Tucson: Islamic Productions.

 

[72] Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, op. cit., p.765.

 

[73] Dr Rashad Khalifa, ‘The Computer Speaks’ op. cit., p.199.

 

[74] See, for example, the following website for a number of articles criticising the theory of 19 in the Qur’ān: http://answering-islam.org.uk/Religions/Numerics/ (19 March 2008).  For further information regarding the numbering theory and its proponents, visit: http://www.19.org (19 March 2008).

The use of vocatives to introduce important sections of the Qur’ān is an established fact.  Allāh communicates with the Prophet, ‘Banī I’srā’īl’ (the Children of Israel) and ‘those who believe’ (يٰأيّها الّذين أمنوا…) inter alia[75], through the medium of the text by way of various stylistic and grammatical devices such as vocative particles:

 

 

﴿يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُواْ رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ﴾

(2:21) – O ye men! worship your Lord Who created you and those who were before you, that you might guard against evil.

 

 

﴿يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّ أَرْضِي وَاسِعَةٌ فَإِيَّايَ فَاعْبُدُونِ﴾

 

(29:56) – O My servants who believe! verily, My earth is vast; so worship Me alone.

 

One proposed explanation for the Muqaṭṭa’āt, which would go some way to explaining their consistent placement at the outset of chapters, is that they are vocative formulas for attracting the attention of the Prophet or his audience.  As-Suyūtī, in his I’tqān[76], mentions a number of alternative explanations for each formula, drawing the conclusion that each one refers in some way to the Prophet of Islam:  for example, Ṭa-Ha is supposed to have meant ‘O man’ in one of the early Arabic dialects of the ‘Akk, and by analogy was used to attract the attention of Muḥammad.  Yā-Sīn is also related as denoting ‘O man’ in the dialect of the Ṭayy, and according to Ibn ‘Abbās, was used as a term of esteem or affection to refer to the Prophet.

 

The thesis of the Muqaṭṭa’āt being vocatives is further supported by the fact that in every case, the text following them is couched in the second person singular, a rhetorical device that is not employed anywhere else in the Qur’ān:

 

 

﴿الم /اللّهُ لا إِلَـهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ /نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقاً لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالإِنجِيلَ﴾

(3:1-3) – Alif, Lām, Mīm.  Allah is He besides Whom there is none worthy of worship, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining.  He has sent down to thee the Book containing the truth and fulfilling that which precedes it; and He has sent down the Torah and the Gospel before this, as guidance to the people; and He has sent down the Criterion.[77]

 

 

﴿طسم /تِلْكَ آيَاتُ الْكِتَابِ الْمُبِينِ /لَعَلَّكَ بَاخِعٌ نَّفْسَكَ أَلَّا يَكُونُوا مُؤْمِنِينَ﴾

(26:1-3) – Ṭa, Sīn, Mīm.  These are verses of the Book that makes things clear.  Haply thou wilt grieve thyself to death because they believe not.[78]

 

By substituting the Muqaṭṭa’āt in each case with the Arabic يا محمّد, we notice that the meaning of the accompanying text is not altered in any way.  It would not be fanciful to suggest that, whilst the Muqaṭṭa’āt themselves changed form depending on the concomitant message being relayed, the essential import of them as forms of address or vocative devices remained the same.

 

Special mention here must be made of Alan Jones’ assertion that the letters were battle cries used by the Prophet of Islām in order to arouse the attention of the Arabs.  He draws on traditions related by ar-Rāzī, amongst others, that the Muqaṭṭa’āt Ḥa-Mīm were employed to communicate the message of the Qur’ān more effectively by way of rousing oaths in the vernacular known intimately by the Hijāzī Arabs.[79]

 

Whilst this is a plausible explanation for the manifestation and incidence of the Muqaṭṭa’āt, it does not account for the various combinations or provide an answer as to their occurrence in some cases across multiple successive chapters.


[75] Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali: see, for example, Sūrat al-Baqarah pp.14-76.

 

[76] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī.  2000.  al-Itqan fī ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān (Vol. II).  Dār Al Kutub Al ‘Ilmiya.  pp.15-21.

 

[77] Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, op. cit., pp.77-78.

 

[78] Ibid., p.479.

 

[79] Jones, Alan Jones.  1962.  ‘The Mystical Letters of the Qur’an’.  Studia Islamica 16.  pp. 5-11.

Ḥamiduddīn Farāhī (d. 1930 AD) elaborated an intriguing solution which might hold the key, at least to the significance of the Muqaṭṭa’āt[75].  We shall briefly delineate his theory here.

 

Any cursory investigation into the origins of the Arabic abjad would reveal that it has much in common with the Hebrew abjad, which itself has roots in the Syriac and Aramaic abjads.  Farāhī is of the opinion that the letters of this parent abjad did not just represent phonetic sounds, but also symbolised the shape of certain concrete objects from which the script was ultimately elaborated.  He goes on to assert that this acrophonic origin of the letters was influenced by the Phoenicians who had borrowed the concept for the elaboration of their own abjad from the early Egyptians whose hieroglyphic system was primarily based around pictograms.

 

The science which deciphered the meanings of these letters is now extinct.  However, there are some letters whose meanings have persisted to this day, and the way they are written somewhat resembles their ancient forms.  For example, it is known about the Arabic letter Alif that it was first used to mean a cow and represented a cow’s head; the letter Bayt in Hebrew means ‘house’; the Hebrew letter Gimel meant camel; Ṭa stood for a snake and its shape resembles that of a serpent; and Mīm represents a water wave and has a similar form.

 

Farāhi presents Sūrat al-Qalam (also known as ‘Sūrat Nūn’) in support of his theory.  The letter Nūn still denotes a fish.  In this Sūrah, the Prophet Jonah has been addressed as Ṣāḥib al-Hūt or he who has been swallowed by a whale.  Farāhī opines that it is because of this reference that the Sūrah is often referred to by the letter Nūn, which appears disconnected at the beginning of the first verse.  He goes on to theorise that if one considers the example given above, it is quite likely that the Muqaṭṭa’āt by which other chapters commence are placed so as to symbolise a relation between the topics of a particular sūrah and their own ancient connotations.

 

Some other names of the Qur’ānic chapters reinforce Farāhi’s theory.  Sūrat Ṭa-Ha, for example, begins with the letter Ṭa, which represents a serpent.  After a brief introduction, the tale of Moses and his staff, which is transformed into a snake, is depicted.  Chapters 26, 27 and 28, which are also prefixed by Muqaṭṭa’āt containing the letter Ṭa, portray this aforementioned miraculous episode.

 

Sūrat al-Baqarah, which begins with the letter Alif, is another example that further buttresses Farāhī’s claims.  It has been indicated before that the letter Alif was analogous with the cow and represented a cow’s head.  Sūrat al-Baqarah contains an anecdote about a cow and its sacrifice.

 

More research is needed to substantiate this theory across the other chapters prefixed by Muqaṭṭa’āt, and to elaborate the original pictographic meanings of the other letters employed.  Nevertheless, given what we know about the origins of early orthography, such an explanation would not be beyond the realms of possibility.


[75] Islahi, Amin Aḥsan.  2004. Taddabur-i-Quran.  Karachi: Faraan Foundation.  pp.82-85

A wide variety of traditional Muslim scholars have concluded that the Muqaṭṭa’āt were principally abbreviations for God’s qualities.  Academics as diverse as as-Suyūtī[81], aṭ- Ṭabāṭabā’i[82] and aṭ-Tabarī have opined that the letters’ mysteries are enshrined in their function as attributes of Allāh.  For instance, Ibn Kathīr relates on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās and Ibn Mas’aūd that the letters ALM represent a’nā Allāhu a’’alam (أَنَا اللهُ أعلمُ), ‘I, God, know full well’; ALR represent a’nā Allāhu a’rā (أنا اللهُ، أَرَى), I, God, can see’; and ALMṢ represent a’nā Allāhu a’fīl (أنا اللهُ، أَفْصِلُ), I, God, can discern’[83].

 

Three modern hypotheses regard them as either abbreviations of invocations, chapter inscriptions, redactional ciphers or names of the amanuenses themselves.  Massey[84] has classified these theories into two categories:  abbreviationist and redactional.

 

One suggestion is that the letters were almost certainly abbreviations of well-known Qur’ānic expressions, e.g. that ALMṢ stood for ṣirāt ALMuStaqīm[85].  Such proposals are completely arbitrary as there is no established rationale for abbreviating such words before random chapters; the aim of an abbreviation should be to help clarify a text, not obfuscate the meaning and render it unintelligible, as would be the case with such a random attribution of catchwords.

 

Another more plausible supposition assumes the Muqaṭṭa’āt, which are used as the titles of chapters (viz. YS, Ṣ, Q, ṬH, and N, which is an alternative heading for Ṣūrat al-Qalam), were employed because they represent memorable phrases or catchwords taken from the chapters they prefix[86].  Based on this premise, the other Muqaṭṭa’āt would also represent abbreviations of important lexis within the Qur’ānic codex.  Some possible solutions were suggested by Bauer:

 

  • YS of Sūrah 36 could represent an abbreviation of YaS‘aā (يسعى – he who runs), from verse 20.

 

  • of Sūrah 38 might be an abbreviation for as-āfināt of verse 31 (الصّافنات – the well-trained horses).

 

  • Q of Sūrah 50 possibly refers to Qarīnuhu (قرينه – his companion) from verses 23 and 27.

 

  • ṬH of Sūrah 20, he suggests, refers to two separate entities: the is for Ṭūwā (طوى) of verse 12, the holy valley in which God appeared to Moses; and H is for Hārūn (هارون – Aaron, brother of Moses), who is mentioned in verses 30, 70, 90 and 92.

 

  • N of Sūrah 68 is for majNūn (مجنون – demented) in verses 2 and 51.

 

Despite these postulates being nothing more than conjecture, the catchwords are well chosen, and play a significant role in the narrative of each chapter concerned.  The problem lies with the other Muqaṭṭa’āt, which in some cases as we have seen span multiple chapters.  As yet, no suitable catchwords have been elaborated to fit each occurrence within multiple chapters.

 

Another thesis is that of Goosens[87] which purports to be less arbitrary than others.  He draws on the evidence of there being alternative titles for some chapters in different parts of the world:  for instance, Sūrat at-Tawbah is also known as Sūrat al-Bara’a; Sūrat al-I’srā’ as Sūrat Bānī I’srā’īl; and Sūrat al-I’khlāṣ as Sūrat at-Tawḥīd.  He suggests that the Muqaṭṭa’āt are contractions of now defunct chapter titles, given their invariable presence at the start of 29 chapters.

 

Goosens[88] further theorises that the names, which the Muqaṭṭa’āt represent, are to be found within the chapters themselves, as this is the basis for the titles of the majority of chapters:

 

Muqaṭṭa’āt

Posited Meaning

N (Sūrah 68)

al-Nūn

Q (50)

Qur’ān

YS (36)

al-Yāsa/al-Yāsīn

Ṣ (38)

aṣ-āffāt

ALR (10,11,12,14,15)

ALRusul

ALMR (13)

ALMuRsal

ALM (2,3,29,30,31,32)

ALMathal

ALMS (7)

ALMuawwir

KHY’Ṣ (19)

al-KaHf/Yaḥyā/’Īsā/aḍ-alāl

ṬH (20)

ūwā/Hārūn

ṬSM (26)

awd/ashSHu’arā’/Mūsā

ṬS (27)

aṭ-ayr/Sulaymān

ṬSM (28)

aẓ-ill or aṭ-ūr or aṭ-īn/ashSHāṭī’/Mūsā or Madyan

ḤM (40,41,43,44,45)

al-aMīm

ḤM/’SQ (42)

al-aMīm/as-Sā’at Qarīb

 

Although the majority of lexis suggested by the author to represent the Muqaṭṭa’āt has been extracted from the texts of their respective chapters in line with his ‘title thesis’, all too many of the proposed titles have been concocted by means of suggesting the reconstitution of concurrent chapters (viz. YSal-Yāsīn from Sūrah 37)[89]; positing words beginning with different letters but with the same grapheme in pre-diacritics codices (viz. KHY’Ṣ – with the Ṣ coming from aḍ-Ḍalāl)[90]; and by analogy (viz. NNūn/’large fish’ from ḥūt/’whale’ as Nūn is not mentioned within the text of Sūrah 68)[91].  Once again, we are led to the conclusion that these proposals are rather too arbitrary and obscure to explain the denotation of the Muqaṭṭa’āt.

 

Bellamy[92] proposed a theory in line with some classical commentators[93], that the majority of mysterious letters are abbreviations for ar-raḥmān and/or ar-raḥīm, which compose the Basmallah and are amongst the 99 names of God[94].

 

He suggested that the letters such as ALR, ALM, and ḤM that make up the majority of the Muqaṭṭa’āt, are patent abbreviations of God’s attributes from the Basmallah.  Whilst the Muqaṭṭa’āt, which prefix the remainder of the chapters, also represent these two divine names but require emendation.[95]

 

The basis for his theory is that the abbreviations were introduced in the Meccan period by the Prophet’s scribes who, failing to recognise them as abbreviations, inserted the Basmallah in addition to the Muqaṭṭa’āt.

 

Welch[96] criticises Bellamy’s theory as not being consistent with the chronology of the Qur’ānic revelation (the letters almost certainly originate from the Medinan period according to current textual research) and further argues that Bellamy does not explain the relationship of the Muqaṭṭa’āt to their context before these particular chapters.  Moreover, it is highly unlikely that so many different abbreviations would have been used as it violates the fundamental principle behind an abbreviation.


[81] al-Suyūtī, op. cit., pp.8-13.

 

[82] al-Sayyid al-Ṭabāṭabā’i.  1980.  Tafsīr 42:1.  Tafsīr al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=56&tSoraNo=42&tAyahNo=1&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0.  (3 March 2008).

 

[83] Abū al-Fidā’ Ibn Kathir.  1999.  Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-‘Aẓīm (Vol. I).  Damascus: Dār Ṭayyibah lilnashr wa Tawzī’a.  pp.156-157.

 

[84] Massey, ‘Mysterious Letters’ op. cit., p.473.

 

[85] Arthur Jeffrey.  1924.  ‘The Mystic Letters of the Koran’.  Muslim World 14.  pp.249.

 

[86] Ibid., pp.251-252.

 

[87] Ibid., p.256.

 

[88] Ibid., pp.256-260.

 

[89] Ibid., pp.257-258.

 

[90] Idem.

 

[91] Idem.

 

[92] James A Bellamy.  1973.  ‘The Mysterious Letters of the Koran: Old Abbreviations of the Basmalah’.  Journal of the American Oriental Society 93/3.  pp.267-285.

 

[93] al-Suyūtī, op. cit., p.9.

 

[94] For a critical examination of the ’99 names’ literature, see: Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo.  1994.  ‘The Hadith Naming the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah’.  al-Basheer, 8/2.  c.f.  Muḥammad bin ‘Abdallāh al-Tabrīzī.  1980.  Mishkāt al-Maṣābīḥ (Vol. II).  Beirut: al-Maktab al-I’slāmī.  p.15.  Muḥammad bin I’smā’īl al-Bukhārī.  1990.  Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Vol. III) Ḥadīth No. 2277.  Riyādh: Dār al-Ṭūq al-Najāh.  p.197.

 

[95] See Bellamy’s follow-up article for a list of proposed emendations: James A. Bellamy.  1993.  ‘Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran’.  Journal of the American Oriental Society 113/2.  pp.562-573.

 

[96] Welch, op. cit., p.413.