By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam
The Abbreviated letters are known as the Al-Muqattaat. There are 29 letters in the Arabic language (taking Hamza and Alif as two letters). Out of the 114 Surahs (Chapters) of the Quran, 29 Surahs also contain these abbreviated letters. Sometimes it occurs individually, sometimes in combination of twos, threes, fours and maximum of five.
If we analyse we get to know that it occurs alone in three Surahs: Sad (38), Quaff (50), Nun or Qalam (68). It occurs in combination of two in ten different Surahs as in Ta Ha (20), Ta Seen (27), Ya Seen (36); Ha Meem occurs in seven Surahs, and they all are consecutive: it occurs in Gharif (40), Fussialt (41), Shura (42), Zukhruf (43), Dukhan (44), Jathiyah (45), Ahqaf (46).
Alif Laam Meem occurs in six Surahs: Bawarah (2), Imran (3), Ankabut (29), Rum (30), Luqman (31), Sajdah (32). From Surah 10 to 15, Alif Laam Ra occurs consecutively: Yunus (10), Hud (11), Yusuf (12), Rad (13), Ibrahim (14), Hijr (15).
There have been volumes and volumes written on these abbreviated letters trying to demystify its meaning. Some say that it is a short form for some words, for example ‘Nun’ is a short form for ‘Noor’; some say that it is a sign of Allah; some say it is a short form for Allah; some say it is a name for the title of the surah,like ‘Ya seen’; some say it is used for rhyming purposes to make the Quran more musical; some also say that these letters have got numerical value and it indicates a numerical code; and there also some who say that these abbreviated letters were used by Gabriel to attract the attention of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)and today it is used to attract the attention of the readers and listeners of the Quran.
According to Maulana Muhammad Ali these letters have the following meaning in the Holy Qur'an. They are as follows:
Alif (ا): an abbreviation for Ana (أنا, I am)
Ḥā (ح): an abbreviation for Al-Ḥamīd (الحميد, the Praised),
Rā (ر): an abbreviation for the Seeing,
Seen (س): as either an abbreviation for Man or an abbreviation for As-Samī' (السميع, the Hearing),
Ṣāad (ص): an abbreviation for As-Ṣādiq (الصادق, the Truthful),
Ṭā (ط): as either an abbreviation for the Benignant or an interjection equivalent to O (in dialect),
ʿAyn (ع): an abbreviation for Al-'Alīm (العليم, the Knowing),
Qāf (ق): an abbreviation for Al-Qādir (القادر, the Almighty),
Kāf (ك): an abbreviation for Al-Kāfi (كافي, the Sufficient),
Lām (ل): an abbreviation for Allāh (الله, using the second letter),
Mīm (م): as either an abbreviation for Al-'Alīm (العليم, the Knowing, using the ending letter) or for Al-Majīd (المجيد, the Glorious),
Nūn (ن): a word meaning Inkstand,
Hā (ه): as either an abbreviation for Al-Hādīy (الهادي, the Guide) or an abbreviation for Man (in dialect), and
Yā (ي): an interjection equivalent to O.1
There are various reasons given but the best and most acceptable reason is the same which was also given and agreed upon by Ibne-Kathir, Zamakshari and Ibne-Taimiyyah. The Quran says in Ch3 verse 7 :
“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental clear (in meaning); they are the foundation of the Book; others are not entirely clear. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not entirely clear. Seeking discord and searching for its interpretation, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding”.
For example “Say: God is one and only” is fundamentally clear, there is no doubt about it. Some Ayats are not well-established like ‘Alif Laam Meem’, ‘Ya Seen’, ‘Ta Seen’, ‘Quaff’ etc. But the Quran says in ch 54 verse 17:
“And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition?”
So all these not so well-established Ayats their meaning is based on some other well-established and fundamentally clear verses of the Quran. The best commentary of the Quran is the Quran itself. The answer to these not so well-established Ayats is to be found somewhere else in the Quran.
The reason given by Ibne-Kathir, Zamakshari and Ibne-Taimiyyah is that when the Quran was revealed, the Arabic language was at its peak. The Arabs were very proud of their language. Arabic was at its zenith. So Allah say ‘Alif Laam Meem’, ‘Ta Seen’, ‘Ya Seen’ etc, like how we say (in English) ‘a,b,c,d, etc’ Allah is telling them that these are your (Arabs) letters, this Arabic is your language, you are so proud of it.
Allah gives a challenge in numerous places in the well-established Ayats whose meaning is fundamentally clear, to produce a Quran like this (17:88), then the challenge is made easier in 11:13 to produce just 10 Surahs like the Quran, then the challenge is made easier still to produce just one verse of the Quran (10:38) and finally in Ch 2, verse 23 and 24:
“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there are any) besides Allah, if ye are truthful.
But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is Men and Stones- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.”
So Allah says that with your (Arabic) alphabets I have produced a Quran, Allah challenges the Arabs to produce a Surah somewhat similar like the Quran (“produce a Surah like thereunto”). And that is the reason whenever these abbreviated letters are mentioned in the Quran, immediately after that some quality of the Quran is mentioned. For example in Ch 2 verses 1-2:
“Alif Laam Meem”
This is a Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah”.
In Ch 14 verse 1:
“Alif Laam Raa. A Book which We have revealed unto thee, in order that thou mightiest lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light.”
These are all guesses of the human mind. The best answer is ‘Allah knows best’. One more inference can be drawn from these verses: it is that Allah is indirectly reminding us that humans have a limited capacity to understand the working of God’s mind. We think we know everything but it is not the case, Allah is telling us that we should not be too rigid in anything (bring to mind that Allah wants us to shun extremities- “do not go to extremes in your religion”). And the Quran says “let not the former make fun of the latter because the latter may be better than the former”. Many Muslims say with great authority that non-Muslims will go to hell, no matter what, please bring to mind the above quoted verse “for the latter may be better than the former”. We should, before criticising others, look within.