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Last Updated: 2009/10/22
Summary of question
What do the separate letters (Huruf Muqatta’ah) in the Quran mean?
What do the separate letters (Huruf Muqatta’ah) in the Quran mean? Are they an unknown secret between Allah (swt) and His prophet (pbuh)? Also, some say if these letters are placed next to each other they form the phrase “صراط علی حق نمسکه”; is this true?
Concise answer

The ‘Huruf Muqatta’ah’ are the separate letters located in the beginning of some surahs of the Quran that have no independent meaning. There are different viewpoints regarding these letters; the best one being that they are a secret between the prophet (pbuh) and Allah (swt) that only the prophet (pbuh) and the imams are aware of. The phrase “صراط علی حق نمسکه” has been mentioned by some scholars and doesn’t come from hadiths.

Detailed Answer

There are separate letters in the beginning of 29 surahs of the Quran; sometimes a surah will start with one separate letter and sometimes with several. These letters total to 79, which are actually 14 without counting repetitions (which is half the number of the hija’ alphabet). These letters are referred to as the Huruf Muqatta’ah (Separate letters) or the “luminous letters”.

There are different viewpoints regarding these letters; we will point to some here:

1- These letters are reminding us that this heavenly book which has left all Arabs and non-Arabs in awe and total astonishment, and scholars are helpless when it comes to challenging it, has been compiled using the simple letters of the Arabic alphabet that everyone has access to.

2- These letters are of the Mutashabihat verses of the Quran which are totally vague and ambiguous and impossible to comprehensively understand in any way.

3- These are just normal unjoined letters that bear no meaning, nor are a secret or point to anything, they are just there for vocal reasons. The reason these letters have come in the beginning of surahs is because pronouncing them in that time would gather the attention of those present so they would listen to the verses being recited, because the enemies of Islam were always trying to make noise so that passersby wouldn’t hear the recitation of the Quran.

4- These letters show that they have been used more in the surah, which is a miracle. Badruddin Zarkeshi says: “One of the delicate secrets of these letters is that the letters used most in every one of the surahs are the ones mentioned in the beginning of the surah. For instance, the letter “ق” has been repeated 57 times in the two surahs of Qaf and Ha Mim Ein Sin Qaf (surah Shura)…”. An Egyptian researcher has done complex calculations with computers on this same subject and has reached the conclusion that these letters signify that they have been used more in the surahs that begin with them, which is a miracle.

5- These letters have been used for swearing; Allah (swt) has sworn by these letters because letters are the basis of all languages.

6- There is a connection between these letters and the contents of the surahs that begin with them; the reason being that when one concentrates on the surahs that begin with similar “separate letters”, he will see that thy share the same contents.[1]

7- Some of these letters are short signs that point to a name of Allah (swt), and some are symbols that point to the prophet (pbuh); each of Allah's (swt) names is a combination of several letters, one letter is chosen out of the letters of each name and has been mentioned separately in the beginning of selected surahs. Sufyan Al-Thawri has been narrated saying: “It was said to Imam Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn Ali ibnil-Husein (as): “O son of Rasulullah (pbuh), what is the meaning of the letters such as “الم”…?” The imam (as) answered: “الم”, which has come in the beginning of surah Baqarah means “انا الله الملک” (I am Allah, the Sovereign). As for the “الم” in the beginning of surah Ale-Imran, it means “انا الله المجید” (I am Allah, the Glorious)…”.

8- These letters are the ones that make up the “Great Name” of Allah (swt).

9- These letters are pointing to the number of surahs in the Quran.

10- Every surah that begins with these letters is named after them, as is the case with surahs Yasin (یس), Taha (طه) and Sad (ص).

11- These letters are telling us of how long the nation of Islam will last.

12- These letters are to indicate that the previous surah has ended and that a new one has begun.

13- These letters are like the summary and overall message of the surah.

14- These letters are referring to the names of those who had a copy of the Quran. For instance, “س” stands for Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas.[2]

15- These letters were secrets between the prophet (pbuh) and Allah (swt), and no one is aware of their true meaning. This is the chosen viewpoint amongst most scholars.[3]
Imam Sadiq (as) has been narrated saying: “الم is a secret between Allah (swt) and His prophet (pbuh) and since He hasn’t wished for anyone else to become aware of this secret, he has made it in the form of letters so that “outsiders” don’t learn of it and it only remains disclosed to “friends”.”[4]

Thinkers have put these letters next to each other to make different phrases that are in accordance with their beliefs and tastes. For instance, Badruddin Zarkeshi has made the phrase “نص حکیم قاطع له سر”, or Faydh Kashani (rah) has put together the phrase “صراط علی حق نمسکه” (The path of Ali (as) is the truth that we grasp)[5]; nevertheless, none of these phrases have been pointed to in our hadiths.

[1] Al-Mizan, under verse six of surah Shura.

[2] For further information, see the article on Huruf Muqatta’ah in the Farhang va Ma’arafe Qurani (فرهنگ و معارف قرآنی) website.

[3] Hadi Ma’refat, Ulume Qurani, pg. 138.

[4] Ibn Tawus, Sa’dul-Sa’ud, pg. 217.

[5] Tafsirul-Safi, vol. 1, pg. 91.

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