The Qur’an’s Disjointed Letters Revisited
Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the final revelation sent down by Allah, the Creator, to humankind. This revelation started in the year 610 CE. It continued to be sent down to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) over a period of 23 years and a few months. These 23 years of revelation resulted in a book of 114 surahs (chapters) containing 6,236 ayahs (verses).
Muslims also believe that the Qur’an is preserved by Allah and is protected from any form of corruption or alteration. It has been preserved so well (both in minds and on paper) that the Arabic text we have today is identical to that revealed to the Prophet 1,400 years ago. Not even one single letter has ever been subject to distortion over time, and so the Qur’an will remain intact forever by the grace of Allah.
It is well known that when the Arabs read the Qur’an, they found no difference between its terminology and the terminology they themselves use. However, the way the terms of the Qur’an had been put together and even the way the letters comprising these terms had been joined were all novel to the Arabs.
That is why they failed to imitate it. They realized that the style of the Qur’an is unlike that they had been familiar with. Hence, it was impossible for them to produce anything like it. To them, the Qur’anic style was too perfect to be imitated or copied. Almighty Allah says,
(Say, “If the whole of humankind and jinn were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.”) (Al-Israa’ 17:88)
Indeed, discussing the issue of inimitability of the Qur’an is in itself miraculous, as whenever any researcher reveals the secrets of one aspect, the secrets of other aspects are revealed with the passage of time. There seems to be a great resemblance between the Qur’an, with its inimitable style, and the system of this vast universe, which scientists examined from every different angle with various perspectives. Yet, the universe is still, to them, a new creation that cannot be easily understood.
Coming to the meaning of the disjointed letters with which some surahs start, one has to remember that this issue has never been settled by scholars and commentators on the Qur’an. Also known as muqatta`at or fawatih, these letter combinations have been the subject of extensive research aimed at revealing their meanings. However, the real purpose of mentioning them in this fashion was never revealed.
Caliph Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) said,
“In every divinely revealed book, there is a divine secret; in the Qur’an, it is these letters.”
Some scholars are of the view that these letters comprise the names of the surahs in which they are mentioned. While, some linguists say that they are indeed letters from the alphabet, clarifying that simply Allah did not cite the entire twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet. These linguists say that, for example, when a child says, “Alif, baa’, taa’, thaa’,” he or she refers to the entire alphabet, though he or she does not mention the rest of the letters.
In fact, while reading the many writings on the meanings of these letter combinations, one observes that there is a great variety of views held by scholars and commentators on the Qur’an. However, among the torrent of interpretations, only three views could be convincing. These views are explained in the sequel.
These disjointed letters may have been meant for drawing the attention of audience, so that they become heedful of what will be said thereafter. The polytheists of the Prophet’s time perfectly knew that he was an unlettered man who had never read or written anything before the revelation of the Qur’an unto him. These letters may have acted as an alert aimed at notifying them that the Prophet’s articulation of these disjointed letters (in a way that can be mastered only by professional readers or scribes) was an unusual thing requiring the highest degree of attentiveness on their part.
Reference to the Qur’an’s Miracle
These letters can also serve as a reference to the inimitability or miraculous nature of the Qur’an. It is as if these letter combinations implied a message to the polytheistic Arabs of the time: Although these terms, phrases, sentences, and ayahs are composed of these simple letters, which you all surely know, you all fail to produce something that even approaches the uniqueness of such a composition.
This is how it is, even though you do master the Arabic language and therefore have the raw material this whole Qur’an is composed of (i.e., the Arabic alphabet). Given this, you should admit that this Book, which is composed in such a way, is nothing but Allah’s word; it is not man’s product, as some do falsely claim.
Hence, one can say that these disjointed letters testify to the miracle of the Qur’an, in reference to the Arabs’ inability to produce something like it, though the Glorious Qur’an was revealed in the same letters with which they speak.
Reference to the Value of Writing
These letter combinations can also be regarded as a reference to the value, merit, and nobility of the act of writing. It is a fact that the invention of writing was an indication of man’s transition from one phase to a higher one in the history of human progress. In the same vein, finding guidance in the last divine message (i.e., the Qur’an) is a giant leap toward a much higher stage on the scale of human civilization and social development.
Apparently, in the Qur’an, Almighty Allah emphasizes the importance of reading and writing as tools of learning and acquiring knowledge. Surat Al-`Alaq, which was the first to be revealed, starts with the following ayahs:
(Read in the name of your Lord, Who created. He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable. He Who taught (to write) with the pen — taught man what he knew not.) (Al-`Alaq 96:1–5)
These are the three views the author feels comfortable with; most of the other views mentioned by various scholars and commentators on the Qur’an are nothing but mere speculations that have no added value at all.
Before the conclusion, it is important to say that some commentators tried hard to get “something” out of all these disjointed letters. In so doing, they first removed all the repeated letters; then they found that the number of letters mentioned at the beginnings of the surahs is 14: alif, haa, ra, sin, saad, ta, `ain, qaf, kaf, lam, mim, nun, ha, and ya.
Then, they composed a phrase or more that mean in English, “A text so wise, so absolute that is full of secrets,” as a description of the Qur’an. Other commentators proposed, “So Glorious is He Who made everything subtly reflect His wisdom,” as a description of Almighty Allah. However, both interpretations are groundless; there is nothing that supports them.
There is no doubt that Almighty Allah revealed these letters for a specific wisdom. Some people claim that some parts of the Qur’an do not mean anything, hinting at these disjointed letters. Surely, these people are making a major mistake. On the contrary, these letters have a specific meaning, but they may be among those things whose knowledge is kept by Almighty Allah only for Himself.In addition, Muslim scholars did not agree on one opinion or explanation regarding this subject. Therefore, according to a jurisprudential rule, whoever thinks that one scholar’s opinion is correct, he or she is obliged to follow it, otherwise it is better to refrain from making any judgment as regards this matter. The views explained in this article are no exception to this.
(This article by Dr. Ali Al Halawani is taken from onislam.net)
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