The Holy Qur'an/Appendix 1

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The Abbreviated Letters (Al-Muqaṭṭa’āt)

Certain Sūras have certain initials prefixed to them, which are called the "Abbreviated Letters”. A number of conjectures have been made as to their meaning. Opinions are divided as to the exact meaning of each particular letter or combination of letters, but it is agreed that they have a mystic meaning.

Mystic meaning, not intelligible at first sight, is not inconsistent with the character of the Qur'ān as a "plain book". The book of nature is also a plain book, but how few can fully understand it? Every one can get out of the Qur'ān plain guidance for his life according to his capacity for spiritual understanding. As his capacity grows, so will his understanding grow. The whole Book is a Record for all time. It must necessarily contain truths that only gradually unfold themselves to humanity. Even parables and tales of mystic meaning employ symbolism. The plain man may find the symbolism helpful, as a soldier finds his National Flag helpful. But what proportion of British soldiers or citizens understands the full symbolism of the British Union Jack?

This is not a mystery of the same class as "mysteries" by which we are asked to believe against the dictates of reason. If we are asked to believe that one is three and three is one, we can give no intelligible meaning to the words. If we are asked to believe that certain initials have a meaning which will be understood in the fullness of time or of spiritual development, we are asked to draw upon Faith, but we are not asked to do any violence to our reason.

I shall try to discuss some of the probable meanings of any particular abbreviated letter or set of abbreviated letters on the first occasion on which it appears in the Qur'ān. But it may be desirable here to take a general view of the facts of their occurrence to help us in appreciating the various views which are held about them.

There are 29 letters in the Arabic alphabet (counting hamza and alif as two letters), and there are 29 Sūras which have abbreviated letters prefixed to them. One of these Sūras (S. 42.) has two sets of abbreviated letters, but we need not count this Sūra twice. If we take the half of the alphabet, omitting the fraction, we get 14, and this is the number of letters which actually occur in the Muqaṭṭa’āt.

The 14 letters, which occur in various combinations, are :—

ا ص ك ه
ح ط ل ي
ر ع م
س ق ن

The science of phonetics tells us that our vocal sounds arise from the expulsion of the air from the lungs, and the sounds are determined by the way in which the breath passes through the various organs of speech, e.g., the throat (guttural), or the various positions of the tongue to the middle or front of the palate or to the teeth, or the play of the lips. Everyone of these kinds of sounds is represented in these letters.

Let us now examine the combinations.

Three of these letters occur alone, prefixed each to only one Sūra. The letters and Sūras are:—

S. 38.     ص
S. 50.     ق
S. 68.     ن

The combinations of two letters occur in ten Sūras as shown below. Three of them occur only once each, but the fourth (حم) occurs in seven consecutive Sūras.

S. 20. طه
S. 27. طس
S. 36. يس
S. 40. }    حم
S. 41.
S. 42.
S. 43.
S. 44.
S. 45.
S. 46.

Note that S. 42. has a double combination of abbreviated letters, one of two followed by one of three. See under combinations of five.
There are three combinations of three letters each, occurring as follows in 13 Sūras:—

S. 2. }    الم
S. 3.
S. 29.
S. 30.
S. 31.
S. 32.
S. 10. }    الر
S. 11.
S. 12.
S. 14.
S. 15.
S. 26. }  طسم
S. 28.

Combinations of four lettres occur twice, each only once:—

S. 7.     المص
S. 13.*     المر * Note that the three preceding and the two
following Sūras have the triple letters الر.

Finally there remain the combinations of five letters, each of which occurs once only, as follows:—

S. 19.     كهيعص
S. 42.     حم عسق

In S. 42. the حم and عسق are put in separate verses. From that point of view they may be considered two separate combinations. The first combination has already been listed under the group of two-letter combinations.

This arithmetical analysis brings certain facts into prominence. I do not know how far they have a bearing on the inner meaning of the Muqaṭṭa’āt.

The combinations of abbreviated letters that run in a series in consecutive Sūras is noticeable. For example, حم occurs in seven consecutive Sūras from 40. to 46. The combination الر occurs in six consecutive Sūras 10. to 15., but in one of them (S. 13.) it is modified to المر, connecting it with the الم series. The الم series covers 6 Sūras. It begins with S. 2. and S. 3., which are practically the beginning of the Qur-ān, and ends with the four consecutive Sūras 29. to 32. I call S. 2. and S. 3. practically the beginning of the Qur-ān, because S. 1. is considered a general introduction to the Qur-ān, and the first Sīpāra is commonly known as الم, the first verse of S. 2. The combination طسم is prefixed to S. 26. and S. 28., but the intervening S. 27. has the combination طس, which may be considered a syncopated form, or the three-letter combination طسم may be considered an extended form of طس. Again the question arises does the م in حم ,الم, and طسم, stand for the same signification, or does it mean a different thing in each case? We may generalize and say that there are three series of six, and one series of three, and the others occur all singly.

We should logically look for a common factor in the Sūras bearing the same initials, and this factor should be different for Sūras bearing other initials. In all cases where the abbreviated letters occur, there is some mention of the Qur-ān or the Book. The Itqān makes an exception in the case of the three Sūras, ‘Ankabūt (S. 29), Rūm (S. 30), and Nūn (S. 68). But a close perusal will show that these Sūras are no exceptions. In 29:27 we have a reference to the Book remaining in the family of Abraham, and later on we have a whole Section, (Rukū’ No. 5), devoted to the Book, with special reference to the continuity of revelation in the previous Books and the Qur-ān (29:45-51). In 30:58 there is express mention of the Qur-ān, and the whole argument of the Sūra leads up to the intimate relation between God's “Signs” in nature (30:20-27) and His revelation in the Qur-ān. In S. 68. the very first verse begins the theme with the Pen as the instrument of writing, exhorts Muṩṭafā to stand forth boldly to proclaim the Message, and ends (68:52) with the declaration that it is a Message for all the worlds.

These are general considerations, which I have thought it most convenient to present in the form of an Appendix.