TUESDAY, 24 JUNE 2003 17:19 ASIF IQBAL HITS: 2304
At the beginning of 29 Qur’anic suras we find a letter or a group of letters, read separately, which are generally called “Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat” (i.e. broken, i.e., separately read letters). Thus we have sura 2 beginning as: Â«Alif Lam Mim (or ALM) This is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the godfearing…Â» (Arberry’s tr.)
These Initials have long attracted the attention of scholars, both Muslim and Western, many of whom have spent a great deal of time and ingenuity in trying to explain their meaning, but what they have come up with does not entirely satisfy all of the textual evidence, such as the context of these Initials, or explain all these enigmatic letters in a coherent fashion.
Thus, for instance, in the article by Mr. Shehzad Saleem, which may be viewed at:
In this article, Mr. Saleem has endeavored to present one such approach, by HamÆ’Ã†â€™Â®d ud DÆ’Ã†â€™Â®n FarahÆ’Ã†â€™Â® (1863-1930, subcontinent), which views these letters as the symbolic representation of certain concrete entities, like N (NÆ’Ã†â€™Â»n) symbolizing for fish, since Jonah is referred to, in 21:87, as “Dhu’n-NÆ’Ã†â€™Â»n,” while 37:139-148 describe him of being swallowed by a big fish and having remained inside its belly. In the sura, which begins with the enigmatic letter NÆ’Ã†â€™Â»n, we find a reference to Jonah in 68:48-50 as the “Companion of the Fish.” This, according to FarahÆ’Ã†â€™Â®, is enough to prove his theory.
But while FarahÆ’Ã†â€™Â® does not give an elaborate and consistent explanation of all the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat, he, instead, goes on to speculate, as in the words of Mr. Saleem:
Â«… it was these letters which the early Egyptians adopted and after adapting them according to their own concepts founded the hieroglyphic script from them. The remnants of this script can be seen in the tables of the Egyptian Pyramids.Â»
Clearly, the idea that the ancient Egyptians inferred from these very Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat their hieroglyphic script, — besides being extremely difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate by means of convincing parallels in the remnants of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the Qur’anic Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat, — rests on the assumption that the entire Qur’anic Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat can consistently be explained as being the symbolic representation of certain concrete entities.
Besides FarahÆ’Ã†â€™Â®, many others have attacked this problem from various aspects. For instance the Egyptian TantÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢wÆ’Ã†â€™Â® JawharÆ’Ã†â€™Â® believed that the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat have been put down with the divine purpose that people be shown the necessity of reducing words into letters, since there’s no other method of learning a language. (al-JawÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢hir fÆ’Ã†â€™Â® TafsÆ’Ã†â€™Â®r al-Qur’Æ’Ã†â€™Â¢n al-KarÆ’Ã†â€™Â®m, ii, 11 f.)
Much more fascinating and imaginative solutions than these have also been presented and consequently the problem of the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat has remained to be a puzzle.
In the following, I would like to re-state the earlier explanations of the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat as being mystical letters, whose real meaning is known only to the Divine.
In my opinion, this explanation, together with its substantiation in the narratives, in fact may serve as perhaps the most plausible explanation of this riddle of the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat.
The best reference in this regard, of course, is as-Suyuti’s ItqÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢n, in which he has collected and discussed the various possibilities, mostly by the early authorities, to explain these letters. In the end of his presentation, as-Suyuti concludes that the full knowledge of these letters, their nature and effects are known only to God. (as-Suyuti, al-ItkÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢n fi `ulÆ’Ã†â€™Â»m al-Qur’Æ’Ã†â€™Â¢n, Cairo, 1951, vol. ii, p. 12Æ’Â¢Â¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Â¬Â¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Â13).
Not inconsistent with this final judgment of as-Suyuti, is the evidence of the historian Ibn HishÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢m, as well as of the traditions contained in the Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal, according to which the Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat indeed were employed for certain purposes which testify on their being mystical in nature.
Thus we read in the SÆ’Ã†â€™Â®ra of Ibn HishÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢m:
Â«At the battles of the Trench and B. Qurayza the cry of the apostle’s companions [shi`Æ’Ã†â€™Â¢r; i.e., their war-cry] “HÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢ mÆ’Ã†â€™Â®m, they will not be helped!” [i.e., LÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢ yunsarÆ’Ã†â€™Â»na].Â»
(Guillaume, Alfred, The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Ibn IshÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢q’s SÆ’Ã†â€™Â®rat RasÆ’Ã†â€™Â»l AllÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢h, London: OUP, 1967, p. 764. The Arabic text in: Ibn HishÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢m, SÆ’Ã†â€™Â®rat RasÆ’Ã†â€™Â»l AllÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢h, Cairo, 1955, vol. ii, p. 226.)
The Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal records two narratives, the first one is as follows:
Â«I am sure that they will attack you in the night. If they do so, let your watchword be: “HÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢ mÆ’Ã†â€™Â®m, they will not be helped!”Â»
(Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, (in 6 vol.), Cairo, 1311 AH, vol. iv, p. 65; again in vol. v, p. 377.)
The second narrative is a slight variation with a different chain of authorities:
Â«You will meet your enemies tomorrow and your watchword shall be: “HÆ’Ã†â€™Â¢ mÆ’Ã†â€™Â®m, they will not be helped!”Â»
(Musnad, vol. iv, p. 289.)
It is quite clear from this evidence that the only possible use of these Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat as the watchwords in battles could be owing to their mystical connotation.
Furthermore, the similar use of such initials can be widely observed in Judaism as well. For instance it’s believed that there are four basic layers to the interpretation of Torah, and they are indicated by the summation of the initials of the names of those layers — viz., Pashut, Remez, Drash, Sod; meaning: plain, symbolic, homiletic, esoteric respectively — in one Hebrew word, pronounced as “Pardes.”
The Talmud also refers to “serugin” (Yoma 38a, etc.) — a system of prÆ’Ã†â€™Â©cis called trellis-writing, whereby only the initial word or letter is used when quoting a biblical verse.
Likewise many such initials employed in Kabbala (Jewish Mysticism) are also considered as possessing particularly profound and secret qualities.
All this would compel one to conclude that the Qur’anic Huroof-e-Muqatta`aat were perhaps basically of the same nature, as the mystical symbols and figures of the Jewish Kabbala, to which, as the narratives indicate, certain dynamic powers were attributed, but whose real meanings, of course, would only be known to God.