The mysterious letters (muqaṭṭaʿāt, Arabic: حُرُوف مُقَطَّعَات ḥurūf muqaṭṭaʿāt, "disjoined letters" or "disconnected letters") are combinations of between one and five Arabic letters figuring at the beginning of 29 out of the 114 chapters (surahs) of the Quran just after the Bismillāh Islamic phrase. The letters are also known as fawātiḥ (فَوَاتِح) or "openers" as they form the opening verse of their respective surahs.
The original significance of the letters is unknown. Tafsir (exegesis) has interpreted them as abbreviations for either names or qualities of God or for the names or content of the respective surahs. The general belief of most Muslims is that their meaning is only known to Allah.
Muqatta'at occur in Quranic chapters 2–3, 7, 10–15, 19–20, 26–32, 36, 38, 40–46, 50 and 68. Multiple letters are written together like a word, but each letter is pronounced separately.
|al-Baqarah||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|Āl Imrān||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|al-Aʿrāf||ʾAlif Lām Mīm Ṣād المص|
|Yūnus||ʾAlif Lām Rā الر|
|Hūd||ʾAlif Lām Rā الر|
|Yūsuf||ʾAlif Lām Rā الر|
|Ar-Raʿd||ʾAlif Lām Mīm Rā المر|
|Ibrāhīm||ʾAlif Lām Rā الر|
|al-Ḥijr||ʾAlif Lām Rā الر|
|Maryam||Kāf Hā Yā ʿAin Ṣād كهيعص|
|Ṭā Hā||Ṭā Hā طه|
|ash-Shuʿārāʾ||Ṭā Sīn Mīm طسم|
|an-Naml||Ṭā Sīn طس|
|al-Qaṣaṣ||Ṭā Sīn Mīm طسم|
|al-ʿAnkabūt||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|ar-Rūm||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|Luqmān||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|as-Sajdah||ʾAlif Lām Mīm الم|
|Yā Sīn||Yā Sīn يس|
|Ghāfir||Ḥā Mīm حم|
|Fuṣṣilat||Ḥā Mīm حم|
|ash-Shūrā||Ḥā Mīm; ʿAin Sīn Qāf حم عسق|
|Az-Zukhruf||Ḥā Mīm حم|
|Al Dukhān||Ḥā Mīm حم|
|al-Jāthiya||Ḥā Mīm حم|
|al-Aḥqāf||Ḥā Mīm حم|
There are 14 distinct combinations; the most frequent are ʾAlif Lām Mīm and Ḥāʾ Mīm, occurring six times each. 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: ʾalif أ, hā هـ, ḥā ح, ṭā ط, yā ي, kāf ك, lām ل, mīm م, nūn ن, sīn س, ʿain ع, ṣād ص, qāf ق, rā ر. The six final letters of the Abjadi order (thakhadh ḍaẓagh) are unused. The letters represented correspond to those letters written without Arabic diacritics plus yāʿ ي. It is possible that the restricted set of letters was supposed to invoke an archaic variant of the Arabic alphabet modeled on the Aramaic alphabet.
Certain co-occurrence restrictions are observable in these letters; for instance, ʾAlif is invariably followed by Lām. The substantial majority of the combinations begin either ʾAlif Lām or Ḥāʾ Mīm.
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 surat al-ʻAnkabūt, ar-Rūm and al-Qalam); 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 suras are Meccan surat (the exceptions are surat al-Baqarah, Āl ʾImrān and ar-Raʻd.)
Lām and Mīm are conjoined and both are written with prolongation mark. One letter is written in two styles. Letter 20:01 is used only in the beginning and middle of a word and that in 19:01 is not used as such. Alif Lām Mīm (الم) is also the first verse of Surah Al-Baqara, Surah Al-Imran, Surah Al-Ankabut, Surah Ar-Rum, Surah Luqman, and Surah As-Sajda.
Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Abdullah ibn Masud, as cited by Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati in his Bahr al-Muhit, are said to have favored the view that these letters stand for words or phrases related to God and His Attributes.
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, 'eye' as 'ع', clouds as 'غ', and whale as 'ن'). Amin Ahsan Islahi supported al-Razi's opinion, arguing that since these letters are names for Surahs, they are proper nouns. Hamiduddin Farahi similarly attaches symbolic meanings to the letters, e.g. Nun (ن) symbolizing "fish" identifying the sura dedicated to Jonah, or Ta (ط) representing "serpent" introducing suras that mention the story of Prophet Moses and serpents.
Scribal intrusion or corruption
Among Western orientalists, Theodor Nöldeke (1860) advanced the theory that the letters were marks of possession, belonging to the owners of Qur'ānic copies used in the first collection by Zayd ibn Thābit during the reign of the Caliph 'Uthmān. The letters ultimately entered the final version of the Qur'ān due to carelessness. It was also possible that the letters were monograms of the owners. Nöldeke later revised this theory, responding to Otto Loth's (1881) suggestion that the letters had a distinct connection with the mystic figures and symbols of the Jewish Kabbalah. Nöldeke in turn concluded that the letters were a mystical reference to the archetypal text in heaven that was the basis for the revelation of the Qur'ān. However, persuaded by Nöldeke's original theory, Hartwig Hirschfeld (1902) offered a list of likely names corresponding to the letters. Keith Massey (1996), noting the apparent set ranking of the letters and mathematical improbability that they were either random or referred to words or phrases, argued for some form of the Nöldeke-Hirschfeld theory that the "Mystery Letters" were the initials or monograms of the scribes who originally transcribed the sūras. Though, Massey explains that "the letters, which appear alone (qaf, nun), may not have the same purpose as the collection themselves", he furthermore admits that the "Mystery Letters" in Surah 42 violate his proposed ranking-theory, thus offering 2 possible scenarios for his theory.
The Hebrew Theory assumes that the letters represent an import from Biblical Hebrew. Specifically, the combination Alif-Lam would correspond to Hebrew El "god". Abbreviations from Aramaic or Greek have also been suggested.
Christoph Luxenberg in The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran (2000) proposed that substantial portions of the text of the Qur'an were directly taken from Syriac liturgy. His explanation of the disjoined letters is that they are remnants of indications for the liturgical recitation for the Syriac hymns that ended up being copied into the Arabic text.
There have been attempts to give numerological interpretations. Loth (1888) suggested a connection to Gematria. Rashad Khalifa (1974) claimed to have discovered a mathematical code in the Qur'an based on these initials and the number 19, namely the Quran code or known as Code 19. According to his claims, these initials occur throughout their respective chapters in multiples of nineteen. which is mentioned in Sura 74:30
The Báb used the muqaṭṭaʿāt in his Qayyúmu'l-Asmáʼ. He writes in an early commentary and in his Dalá'il-i-Sab'ih (Seven Proofs) about a hadith from Muhammad al-Baqir, the fifth Shiʻi Imam, where it is stated that the first seven surat's muqaṭṭaʿāt have a numerical value of 1267, from which the year 1844 (the year of the Báb's declaration) can be derived.
Sufism has a tradition of attributing mystical significance to the letters. The details differ between schools of Sufism; Sufi tradition generally regards the letters as an extension to the ninety-nine names of God, with some authors offering specific "hidden" meanings for the individual letters.
In 1857–58, Baháʼu'lláh, founder of the Baháʼí Faith, wrote his Commentary on the Isolated Letters (Tafsír-i-Hurúfát-i-Muqattaʻih, also known as Lawh-i-Áyiy-i-Núr, Tablet of the Light Verse). In it, he describes how God created the letters. A black teardrop fell down from the Primordial Pen on the "Perspicuous, Snow-white Tablet", by which the Point was created. The Point then turned into an Alif (vertical stroke), which was again transformed, after which the Muqatta'at appeared. These letters were then differentiated, separated and then again gathered and linked together, appearing as the "names and attributes" of creation. Baháʼu'lláh gives various interpretations of the letters "alif, lam, mim", mostly relating to Allah, trusteeship (wilayah) and the prophethood (nubuwwah) of Muhammad. He emphasizes the central role of the alif in all the worlds of God.
By removing the duplicate letters (leaving only one of each of the 14 initials) and rearranging them, one can create the sentence "نص حكيم قاطع له سر " which could translate to: "A wise and conclusive text has a secret".
Devin J. Stewart argues the letters are integral to the text and establish a rhyme and a rhythm, similarly to rhyming chants such as "abracadabra", "ing bing fing" (used in Egyptian Arabic) or ("ajji majji la tarajji" in Persian), intended to introduce spells, charms or something connected to the supernatural.
- Sale G Preliminary Discourse 3
- مقطعات is the plural of a participle from قطع "to cut, break".
- Massey, Keith. "Mysterious Letters". In Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.). Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Vol. 3. p. 242. doi:10.1163/1875-3922_q3_EQCOM_00128.
- "Fawātiḥ | Islam". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
- nun ن and qaf ق have no variant written without dots in modern script; Steward (2012): "the mysterious letters include no letters with dots. There is an apparent exception to this rule, the occurrences of ya in [suras 19 and 36 ...]"
- Devin J. Steward, "The mysterious letters and other formal features of the Qur'an in light of Greek and Babylonian oracular texts", in: New Perspectives on the Qur'an ed. Reynolds, Routledge (2012), 323–348 (p. 341).
- Quran 19:01
- Quran 20:01
- Quran 2:1
- Quran 3:1
- Quran 29:1
- Quran 30:1
- Quran 31:1
- Quran 32:1
- Michael R. Rose; Casandra L. Rauser; Laurence D. Mueller; Javed Ahmed Ghamidi; Saleem (July 2003). "Al-Baqarah (1–7)". Renaissance.
- Amatul Rahman Omar and Abdul Mannan Omar, "Derivation of Vocabulary from its Root Alphabets", Exegesis of the Holy Qur'an – Commentary and Reflections, 2015
- Islahi, Amin Ahsan (2004). Taddabur-i-Quran. Faraan Foundation. pp. 82–85.
- Ahsan ur Rehman Archived 26 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine, "Morpho Phonemic Patterns in the Prefixed Chapters of the Qur'an: A Stylistic Approach" (2013) lasjan.page.tl A stylistic study of the consonant Șād (ﺹ) in three Qurʼanic chapters:Șād (38), Maryam (19) and Al Aʻrāf (7) (2013)
- Nöldeke, Theodor; Schwally, Friedrich; Bergsträßer, Gotthelf; Pretzl, Otto (2013). The History of the Qur'ān. Translated by Behn, Wolfgang. Boston: Brill. pp. 270–273. ISBN 978-9004212343.
- Hirschfeld, Hartwig (1902). New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Qoran (2010 reprint ed.). London: Royal Asiatic Society. pp. 141–142. ISBN 978-1-166-29458-8.
- Massey, Keith (1996). "A New Investigation into the 'Mystery Letters' of the Quran". Arabica. 43 (3): 499. doi:10.1163/1570058962582804. JSTOR 4057368 – via www.academia.edu.
- Sajah Suaeed. "Muqatta'at". www.academia.edu. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
- Bellamy, James A. (1973) The Mysterious Letters of the Koran: Old Abbreviations of the Basmalah. Journal of the American Oriental Society 93 (3), 267–285.
- A. Welch, "al-Ḳurʾān" in: Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd ed. (1978).
- Luxenberg, Christoph (2009). The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran 1st Edition.
- Otto Loth, "Tabaris Korankommentar" ZDMG 35 (1888), 603f.
- Rashad Khalifa, Quran: Visual Presentation of the Miracle, Islamic Productions International, 1982. ISBN 0-934894-30-2
- Quran 74:30
- Lawson, Todd. "Reading Reading Itself: The Bab's 'Sura of the Bees,' A Commentary on Qur'an 12:93 from the Sura of Joseph". Retrieved 19 March 2007.
- See the following source for more about Bábí letter symbolism: Editors (2009). "Letters of the Living (Hurúf-i-Hayy)". Baháʼí Encyclopedia Project. Evanston, IL: National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháʼís of the United States.
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- Lambden, Stephen N. A note upon the messianic year 1260 / 1844 and the Bābī-Bahā'ī interpretation of the isolated letters of the Qur'an Archived 28 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- Saiedi, Nader (2008). Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. pp. 109–110. ISBN 978-1-55458-035-4.
- An example is given by Siddiq Osman Noormuhammad of the Naqshbandi order in Salawaat by Sufi Mashaaikh Nairobi (2004).
- Marshall, Alison. "What on earth is a disconnected letter? - Bahaʼu'llah's commentary on the disconnected letters". Retrieved 19 March 2007.
- Lambden, Stephen N. "Tafsír-al-Hurúfát al-Muqatta'át (Commentary on the Isolated Letters) or Lawh-i Áyah-yi Núr (Tablet of the Light Verse) of Mírzá Husayn ʻAlí Núrí Baháʼ-Alláh (1817–1892)". Retrieved 29 January 2022.
- Stewart, Devin J. (2008). "Notes on Medieval and Modern Emendations of the Qur'an". In Reynolds, Gabriel Said (ed.). The Quran in its Historical Context. Routledge. p. 234.
- A comprehensive exposition of the theories surrounding the Muqatta'at
- The consonant şād in three Qur'anic chapters: Sād, Mary and al-A'rāf