“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” —Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild
Like the Bible, the Quran is meant to be the direct word of God (or Allah), a perfect text delivered from a perfect being. But this interpretation raises several mysteries; chief among them why 29 chapters begin with a cascade of random letters.
If you’ve ever flicked through an Arabic copy of the Quran, you’ll know about the mysterious letters. Starting 29 separate chapters of Islam’s holy text, including the first, they’re seemingly disjointed, random, and very confusing.
Known as the Muqatta’at, these “disjointed letters” have been puzzling scholars for centuries. Taken together, they make up exactly half of all letters in the Arabic alphabet, but spread out on the page they make literally no sense. Imagine if we’d opened this article with “AQRFF KGEX” and then acted like you all knew what it meant and you’ll get some idea of the weirdness involved.
Aside from being a puzzle, the Muqatta’at have historically been used to disparage Mohammed. Christian writers have at different times accused the founder of Islam of suffering from a stutter or even having 29 separate epileptic attacks while writing. Although nobody takes these theories seriously anymore, debunking them still leaves the central mystery of why a “perfect” text would start with an unreadable mess.
Some Islamic scholars think there’s a secret message encoded in the letters, revolving around the number 19 (based on a verse that they think is connected to it). Others think the letters are evidence of the inherent mysteries in the Quran and can only be understood by Allah. Yet others think they’re simply poetic, a means for the author to show how divine truth can be assembled from the raw building blocks of imperfect human language. Short of Allah himself dropping by to clear things up, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know for sure.
Muqatta’at (Arabic: مقطعات) are unique letter combinations that appear in the beginning of 29 suras (chapters) of the Qur’an.Muqatta’at literally means abbreviated or shortened. Their meanings remain unclear and are considered by most Muslims to be divine secrets.
They are also known as fawātih (فواتح) or “openers” as they form the opening verse of their respective suras. Other names include the broken, dis-joined, initial, or isolated letters of the Qur’an.
In the Arabic language, these letters are written together like a word, but each letter is pronounced separately. Muqatta’at have been and continue to be a topic of intense research and academic discussions in Islamic literature and Qur’anic studies.
A few examples of Muqatta’at:
- Alif Lam Mim (الم) Sura Al Baqarah, Sura As-Sajda, etc.
- Alif Lam Ra (الر) Sura Yunus and Surah Hud
- Alif Lam Mim Ra (المر) Sura Ar Raa’d
- Kaaf Ha Ya Ain Saad (كهيعص) Sura Maryam
- Ya Seen (يس) Sura Ya Seen
- Ha Mim (حم) Sura Ha Mim Sajda
Of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one half appear as muqatta’at, either singly or in combinations of two, three, four or five letters. The fourteen letters are: أ ح ر س ص ط ع ق ك ل م ن ه ي (alif, ha, ra, sin, sad, ta, ain, qaf, kaf, lam, mim, nun, ha, ya).
Certain co-occurrence restrictions are observable in these letters; for instance, alif is invariably followed by lam. The substantial majority of the combinations begin either alif lam or ha mim. See the diagram for fuller information.
In all but 3 of the 29 cases, these letters are almost immediately followed by mention of the Qur’anic revelation itself (the exceptions are suras 29, 30, and 68); and some argue that even these three cases should be included, since mention of the revelation is made later on in the sura. More specifically, one may note that in 8 cases the following verse begins “These are the signs…”, and in another 5 it begins “The Revelation…”; another 3 begin “By the Qur’an…”, and another 2 “By the Book…” Additionally, all but 3 of these suras are Meccan suras (the exceptions are suras 2, 3,13.)
The suras that contain these letters are: sura 2, sura 3, sura 7, sura 10, sura 11, sura 12, sura 13, sura 14, sura 15, sura 19,sura 20, sura 26, sura 27, sura 28, sura 29, sura 30, sura 31, sura 32, sura 36, sura 38, sura 40, sura 41, sura 42, sura 43, sura 44, sura 45, sura 46, sura 50, sura 68.
Laam and Meem are conjoined and both are written with prolongation sign/Mark. One letter is written in two styles. [Refer 19:01 and 20:01] Letter 20:01 is used only in the beginning and middle of a word and that in 19:01 is not used as such. الم is also the First Ayah of Sura 3, 29, 30, 31 and 32 [total 6].
Tomes have been written over the centuries on the possible meanings and probable significance of these ‘mystical letters’ as they are sometimes called. Opinions have been numerous but a consensus elusive. There is no reliable report of Muhammad having used such expressions in his ordinary speech, or his having thrown light on its usage in the Qur’an. And, more importantly, none of his Companions seemed to have asked him about it. This apparent lack of inquisitiveness is cited as proof that such abbreviations were well known to the Arabs of the time and were in vogue long before the advent of Islam.
One opinion is that these letters stand for words or phrases related to God and His Attributes. The Companions Ibn Abbas and Ibn Mas’ud are said to have favored this view, as cited by Abu Hayyan Al Gharnati in his Bahr Al Muhit. As plausible as it may sound, this opinion does not find favor among other classical commentators, because the possible combinations of letters are virtually infinite and the Attributes they represent seem to be chosen arbitrarily. For example, the translator Maulana Muhammad Ali translates these letters in his editions of the Holy Qur’an as follows:
- Alif (ا): an abbreviation for Ana (أنا, I am)
- Ḥā (ح): an abbreviation for Al-Ḥamīd (الحميد, the Praised),
- Rā (ر): an abbreviation for the Seeing (رائي / رأى / رؤيا / يرى / بصير )
- Sīn (س): as either an abbreviation for Man or an abbreviation for As-Samī’ (السميع, the Hearing),
- Ṣād (ص): an abbreviation for As-Ṣādiq (الصادق, the Truthful),
- Ṭā (ط): as either an abbreviation for the Benignant or an interjection equivalent to O (in dialect),
- ʿAyn (ع): an abbreviation for Al-‘Alīm (العليم, the Knowing),
- Qāf (ق): an abbreviation for Al-Qādir (القادر, the Almighty),
- Kāf (ك): an abbreviation for Al-Kāfi (كافي, the Sufficient),
- Lām (ل): an abbreviation for Allāh (الله, using the second letter),
- Mīm (م): as either an abbreviation for Al-‘Alīm (العليم, the Knowing, using the ending letter) or for Al-Majīd (المجيد, the Glorious),
- Nūn (ن): a word meaning Inkstand,
- Hā (ه): as either an abbreviation for Al-Hādīy (الهادي, the Guide) or an abbreviation for Man (in dialect), and
- Yā (ي): an interjection equivalent to O.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, a classical commentator of the Qur’an, has noted some twenty opinions regarding these letters, and mentions multiple opinions that these letters present the names of the Surahs as appointed by God. In addition, he mentions that Arabs would name things after such letters (for example, ‘money’ as ‘ع’, clouds as ‘غ’, and fish as ‘ن’).
Amin Ahsan Islahi, a renowned exegete of the Qur’an, has mentioned that since Arabs once used such letters in their poetry, it was only appropriate for the Qur’an to use that same style. He agrees with Razi and mentions that since these letters are names for Surahs, they are proper nouns. As such, they do not necessarily refer to other matters. At the same time, he cites research from Hamiduddin Farahi, a Quranic scholar from the Indian subcontinent, on how these letters must be appropriately chosen according to the content and theme of the surahs. Farahi links these letters back to the Abjad-ordered Arabic Alphabet, Hebrew Alphabet as well as Classical Akkadian philology, in the sense that all of these make use of alphanumerical correspondence, as in Greek and Latin (use of the letters “V” for “5”,etc.). He also suggests that those letters not only represented phonetic sounds but also had symbolic meanings, and Qur’an perhaps uses the same meanings when choosing the letters for surahs. For instance, in support of his opinion, he presents the letter Nun (ن), which symbolizes fish and Surah Nun mentions Prophet Jonah as ‘companion of the fish’. Similarly, the letter Ta or Tuay (ط) represents a serpent and all the Surahs that begin with this letter mention the story of Prophet Moses and serpents.
Western scholars have only occasionally attempted to explain them. In 1973, it was proposed that the letters are the remnants of abbreviations for the Bismillah. In 1996, Keith Massey proposed new evidence for an older theory that the “Mystery Letters” were the initials or monograms of the scribes who originally transcribed the suras . As evidence for this, he demonstrated that the letters themselves occur in a specific order, suggesting a hierarchy of importance. This idea has not yet gained wide acceptance. Other explanations have similarly failed to satisfactorily explain the letters.A recent PhD on the subject claims that there is phonological, syntactic and semantic link between the letters and the text of the chapters.The research is carried out by Prof. Ahsan ur Rehman in his PhD thesis; Morpho Phonemic Patterns in the Prefixed Chapters of the Qur’an.
The complete Muqatta’at letters and their appearance in the Quran
- Chapter 2, Surah Al-Baqara (The Cow) : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 3, Surah Āl-Imran : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 7, Surah Al-Aʿarāf : ʾAlif Lām Mīm Ṣād
- Chapter 10, Surah Yunus : ʾAlif Lām Rāʾ
- Chapter 11, Surah Al-Hood : ʾAlif Lām Rāʾ
- Chapter 12, Surah Yusuf : ʾAlif Lām Rāʾ
- Chapter 13, Surah Al-Raʿd : ʾAlif Lām Mīm Rāʾ
- Chapter 14, Surah Ibrahim : ʾAlif Lām Rāʾ
- Chapter 15, Surah Al-Ḥijr : ʾAlif Lām Rāʾ
- Chapter 19, Surah Maryam : Kāf Hāʾ Yāʾ ʿAin Ṣād
- Chapter 20, Surah Ṭāʾ-Hāʾ : Ṭāʾ Hāʾ
- Chapter 26, Surah Al-Shua’ra (The Poets) : Ṭāʾ Sīn Mīm
- Chapter 27, Surah Al-Namal (The Ant) : Ṭāʾ Sīn
- Chapter 28, Surah Al-Qaṣaṣ : Ṭāʾ Sīn Mīm
- Chapter 29, Surah Al-Ankabut (The Spider) : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 30, Surah Al-Rom (The Romans) : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 31, Surah Luqmān : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 32, Surah Al-Sajda (The Adoration) : ʾAlif Lām Mīm
- Chapter 36, Surah Yāʾ-Sīn : Yāʾ Sīn
- Chapter 38, Surah Ṣād : Ṣād
- Chapter 40, Surah Al-Mu’min (The Believer) : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 41, Surah Fuṣṣilat : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 42, Surah Al-Shūrā : Ḥāʾ Mīm; ʿAin Sīn Qāf
- Chapter 43, Surah Al-Zukruf (The Embellishment) : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 44, Surah Al-Duqqan (The Smoke) : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 45, Surah Al-Jasiya (The Kneeling) : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 46, Surah Al-Ahqaf (The Sandhills) : Ḥāʾ Mīm
- Chapter 50, Surah Qāf : Qāf
- Chapter 68, Surah Al-Qalam (The Pen) : Nūn