Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad (1980)

Appendix II

Al-Muqaṭṭaʿāt

About one-quarter of the Qurʾanic sūrahs are preceded by mysterious letter-symbols called muqaṭṭaʿāt (“disjointed letters”) or, occasionally, fawātiḥ (“openings”) because they appear at the beginning of the relevant sūrahs. Out of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one-half – that is, fourteen – occur in this position, either singly or in varying combinations of two, three, four or five letters. They are always pronounced singly, by their designations and not as mere sounds – thus: alif lām mīm, or ḥā mīm, etc.

The significance of these letter-symbols has perplexed the commentators from the earliest times. There is no evidence of the Prophet’s having ever referred to them in any of his recorded utterances, nor of any of his Companions having ever asked him for an explanation. None the less, it is established beyond any possibility of doubt that all the Companions – obviously following the example of the Prophet – regarded the muqaṭṭaʿāt as integral parts of the sūrahs to which they are prefixed, and used to recite them accordingly: a fact which disposes effectively of the suggestion advanced by some Western orientalists that these letters may be no more than the initials of the scribes who wrote down the individual revelations at the Prophet’s dictation, or of the Companions who recorded them at the time of the final codification of the Qurʾān during the reign of the first three Caliphs.

Some of the Companions as well as some of their immediate successors and later Qurʾān-commentators were convinced that these letters are abbreviations of certain words or even phrases relating to God and His attributes, and tried to “reconstruct” them with much ingenuity: but since the possible combinations are practically unlimited, all such interpretations are highly arbitrary and, therefore, devoid of any real usefulness. Others have tried to link the muqaṭṭaʿāt to the numerological values of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, and have “derived” by this means all manner of esoteric indications and prophecies.

Yet another, perhaps more plausible interpretation, based on two sets of facts, has been advanced by some of the most outstanding Islamic scholars throughout the centuries:

Firstly, all words of the Arabic language, without any exception, are composed of either one letter or a combination of two, three, four or five letters, and never more than five: and, as already mentioned, these are the forms in which the muqaṭṭaʿāt appear.

Secondly, all sūrahs prefixed by these letter-symbols open, directly or obliquely, with a reference to revelation, either in its generic sense or its specific manifestation, the Qurʾān. At first glance it might appear that three sūrahs (29, 30 and 68) are exceptions to this rule; but this assumption is misleading. In the opening verse of sūrah 29 (Al-ʿAnkabūt), a reference to revelation is obviously implied in the saying, “We have attained to faith” (amannā), i.e., in God and His messages. In sūrah 30 (Ar-Rūm), divine revelation is unmistakably stressed in the prediction of Byzantine victory in verses 2–4. In verse 1 of sūrah 68 (Al-Qalam) the phenomenon of revelation is clearly referred to in the evocative mention of “the pen” (see note 2 on the first verse of that sūrah). Thus, there are no “exceptions” in the sūrahs prefixed by one or more of the muqaṭṭaʿāt; each of them opens with a reference to divine revelation.

This, taken together with the fact that the muqaṭṭaʿāt mirror, as it were, all word-forms of the Arabic language, has led scholars and thinkers like Al-Mubarrad, Ibn Ḥazm, Zamakhsharī, Rāzī, Bayḍāwī, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Kathīr – to mention only a few of them – to the conclusion that the muqaṭṭaʿāt are meant to illustrate the inimitable, wondrous nature of Qurʾanic revelation, which, though originating in a realm beyond the reach of human perception (al-ghayb), can be and is conveyed to man by means of the very sounds (represented by letters) of ordinary human speech.

However, even this very attractive interpretation is not entirely satisfactory inasmuch as there

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Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ān; Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad, Dar Al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar, Consulted online at “Quran Archive - Texts and Studies on the Quran” on 12 Aug. 2022: http://quran-archive.org/explorer/muhammad-asad/1980?page=1010