Muqatta`āt (مقطعات), are unique letter combinations that begin certain chapters of the Qur'an. Muqatta`āt literally means abbreviated or shortened. They are also known as Fawātih (فواتح) or openers as they form the opening verse of the respective chapters.
In Arabic language, these letters are written together like a word, but each letter is pronounced separately. None of these combinations actually form a meaningful Arabic word. These letters appear joined together. 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 Lām Mīm as in Surah Al Baqara and Surah Al Imran among others
- 'Alif Lām Rā' Sura Yunus and Surah Hud
- 'Alif Lām Mim Rā' Sura Ar Raa'd
- Ḥā' Mīm Surah Ha Mim Sajda
- Kāf Ḥā' Yā' `Ayn Ṣād Surah Maryam
Of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one half, that is 14 letters, appear as muqattā`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. Notably, each of these letters has a unique rasm. (The apparent hamza in ك is a graphical device to reflect its original form, as does its variant ﻛ and its initial and medial cases, ﻛ and ﻜ, respectively.)
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 lām or hā 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 surahs 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 surah. 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 surahs are Makkan surahs (the exceptions are surahs 2, 3, 13.)
The surahs that contain these letters are: surah 2, surah 3, surah 7, surah 10, surah 11, surah 12, surah 13, surah 14, surah 15, surah 19, surah 20, surah 26, surah 27, surah 28, surah 29, surah 30, surah 31, surah 32, surah 36, surah 38, surah 40, surah 41, surah 42, surah 43, surah 44, surah 45, surah 46, surah 50, surah 68.
Classical Islamic Opinions
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 report in the Ahadith or Sirat of Muhammad's having used such expressions in his ordinary speech, or his having thrown light as to its usage in the Qur'an. And, more importantly, none of his Companions seemed to have asked him, regarding it. This apparent lack of inquisitiveness is cited as proof that the usage of such abbreviations were well known to the Arabs of the time and were in vogue long before the advent of Islam.
Some of the better known opinions are:
Alif Lām Mim stands for 'Anā Allāhu `ālim or I am Allah the All Knowing
Alif Lām Rā stands for 'Anā Allāhu Rā'i or I am Allah the Seer
The Companions Ibn Abbas and Ibn Mas'ud are said to have favored this view as cited by Abu Hayyan al Andalusi 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
The Classical Islamic Fallacy
The classical Muslim scholars considered the text of the Qur'an to be unchanged. Thus, they were not willing to admit that the muqattā'at were possibly added after the Ahadith were compiled, or, at least, were little known. That is, the absence of evidence was really evidence of absence.
Modern Islamic Research
In 1974, an Egyptian biochemist named Rashad Khalifa claimed to have discovered a mathematical code in the Qur'an based on these initials and the number 19, which is mentioned in Surah 74:30 of the Qur'an. (However, Günter Lüling claims that the number is really 7, as in the 7 gates of the Christian Hell. See "Above it are neither nineteen nor seventeen.") According to his research, these initials which prefix 29 chapters of the Qur'an occur throughout their respective chapters in multiples of this very number, nineteen. He has noted other mathematical phenomena throughout the Quran, all related to what he describes as the "mathematical miracle of the Qur'an." Although subsequently dismissed as a heretic by Muslim scholars, his work did receive some acclaim by notable sources:
Scientific American of September 1980, p. 22. Martin Gardner wrote of Khalifa's initial publication in the West: "It's an ingenious study of the Quran,...Nineteen is an unusual prime. For example, it's the sum of the first powers of 9 and 10 and the difference between the second powers of 9 and 10."
Three years later the Canadian Council on the Study of Religion reported in its Quarterly Review of April 1983 that the code Khalifa discovered is "an authenticating proof of the divine origin of the Quran." Since 1983, little notice has been taken of this work.
See "The Miracle of 19" for a thorough refutation of Khalifa's work.
Amin Ahsan Islahi stated that Arabs used to use such letters in their poetry and since Qur'an addressed them in their own linguistic style, it was only appropriate for Qur'an to use the same style. He agrees with Rāzi and mentions that since these letters are names for Surahs, being proper nouns they are not bound to have a meaning. At the same time, he cites research from Hamiduddin Farahi, a Qur'anic 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 Hebrew alphabet and suggests that those letters not only represented phonetic sounds but also contained a symbolic meaning to them, 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 Jonah as 'companion of the fish'. Similarly, the letter Ṭa (ط) represents a serpent and all the Surahs that begin with this letter mention the story of Moses and serpents.
Yūsuf `Alī in Appendix 1 of his translation of the Qur'an adduced some statistical evidence regarding the Muqatta`āt (p. 124). This is in addition to some pedantry about the miracles in the Qur'an and the false statement that "vocal sounds arise from the expulsion of air from the lungs" (p. 122). This is clearly false in the case of the glottal stop, which is a cessation of breath. In English, this is known as "cutting", reflecting the "cutting" of the airflow from the lungs. Moreover, other languages use sounds produced by inhalation, such as the click languages of Africa and Sindhi in Yusuf `Ali's native India.
Yūsuf `Alī's evidence can be summarized in the table below.
|'Alif Lām Mīm||2, 3, 29-32|
|'Alif Lām Mīm Ṣād||7|
|'Alif Lām Rā'||10-15|
|'Alif Lām Mīm Rā'||13|
|Kāf Hā' Yā' `Ayn Ṣād||19|
|Ṭā' Sīn Mīm||26, 28|
|`Ayn Sīn Qāf||42|
The secular view begins with three lines of evidence:
1. The rasm of each of the muqatta`āt is unique. In the case of ي, it is only found initially, so its rasm is unique, too. Except for ي and ن, each letter has no dots. In the case of ن, the dot is usually omitted in handwriting in the final and isolated cases.
2. The muqatta`āt are not mentioned in an early Muslim writings, notably, the ahadith and sirat.
3. The muqatta`āt are not distributed at random. 'Alif Lām Mīm occurs in two consecutive sets of surahs: 2-3 and 29-32. 'Alif Lām Rā' occurs in the consecutive surahs 10-15. Ḥā' Mīm occurs in the consecutive surahs 40-46. Ṭā' Sīn Mīm occurs in the nonconsecutive surahs 26 and 28. However, if Ṭā' Sīn is really Ṭā' Sīn Mīm, then the latter also occurs in consecutive surahs.
From 1 and 2, we can conclude that the muqatta`āt were written in the original, defective Arabic script without any diacritics to distinguish consonants or vowels. Moreover, they were written after the Ahadith and Sirat were compiled, or, at least, were unknown to the writers of those works.
From 3, we can conclude that the muqatta`āt date to or shortly after the recension of the Qur'an that produced its modern, longest-to-shortest organization.
The question now becomes what do the muqatta`āt represent? We have two hypotheses:
1. A relic of a now lost filing system
2. Scribal initials
If hypothesis 1 were true, we would expect no muqatta`āt between the ranges of other muqatta`āt and no overlaps. This is refuted by:
1. The presence of 'Alif Lām Mīm Ṣād (sura 7) and 'Alif Lām Rā' (suras 10-15) between the ranges of 'Alif Lām Mīm (suras 2-3 and 29-32). Even if 'Alif Lām Mīm Ṣād is really 'Alif Lām Mīm, the presence of 'Alif Lām Rā' refutes the hypothesis.
2. The presence of two sets of muqatta`āt in Surah 42. This appears to indicate the work of two scribes.
Thus, we conclude that the muqatta`āt are scribal initials. The consecutive appearances of some sets indicates that some scribes were given consecutive surahs to copy.
- Michael R. Rose; Casandra L. Rauser; Laurence D. Mueller; Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, Shehzad Saleem (July 2003). "Al-Baqarah (1-7)". Renaissance.
- Rashad Khalifa, Quran: Visual Presentation of the Miracle, Islamic Productions International, 1982. ISBN 0-934894-30-2
- Qur'an, Chapter 74, Verse 30
- Islahi, Amin Ahsan. Taddabur-i-Quran. Faraan Foundation. pp. 82-85, 2004.
- Yūsuf `Alī, `Abdullah, The Holy Qur'ān: Text, Translation and Commentary, New Revised Edition, Amana Corporation, Brentwood, MD, USA, 1989. ISBN 0-915957-033-5