Share on facebook
Share on twitter

The Garbled Up Quran Pt. 2

We continue from where we previously left off

Muslim scholar Farid Esack mentions the problem that Muhammad’s community faced in trying to explain the appearance of non-Arabic words in a text claiming to be written in clear Arabic:

The Qur’an itself repeatedly asserts that it is a unique and inimitable “Arabic Qur’an” (12.2, 13.37, 16.103) in order to communicate its meaning in a perfect manner to a people who took great pride in the expressive quality of their language. Much of the early discussion about the linguistic components of the Qur’an centred on the presence, or otherwise, of non-Arabic words in it – of course, based on the premise that it was essentially an Arabic text. The verses referred to above became the key supportive texts for those who argued that the Qur’an did not contain any non-Arabic terms. The earliest exegetes, particularly those associated with ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/67-68), a cousin of Muhammad, freely discussed a large number of non-Arabic words in the Qur’an. Hadith literature credits Ibn ‘Abbas and “his school” with having a special interest in seeking their origin and meaning. Later eminent scholars of the Qur’an such as the philologist/exegete Abu ‘Ubayd (d. 838), however continued to argue that the Qur’an contained foreign words. Others such as Ibn ‘Atiyyah (d. 541/1146), Suyuti (d. 911/1505), and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Tha’labi (d. 1468) tried to reconcile theology with linguistic principles. They argued that the foreign words in the Qur’an came into Arabic through the ancient Arab’s contacts with other languages in foreign travel and commerce but that they had been thoroughly Arabized by the time of the Prophet. Various theories were evolved to resolve THE CONTRADICTION between the notion ascribed to Ibn ‘Abbas and the one which subsequently gained greater acceptance, i.e., that the Qur’an does not contain any foreign terminology. To deal with the actual occurrence of words in the Arabic language that were also found in non-Arabic languages, some of these scholars, such as Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi (d. 204/819) and Tabari, developed the notion of tawafuq (coincidence). They argued that both Arabic and other languages employ the same words with identical meanings and that this uniformity of meaning was purely coincidental.

The idea of any language or discourse being absolutely free from expressions or words used in another language is alien to one of the most basic linguistic principles, i.e., the inter-relatedness of human speech. While this may sound trite, two factors, however, ensured that this notion was rejected by the “orthodoxy”: first, the Qur’an is not really regarded as human speech but rather God’s and God’s speech CANNOT BE SUBJECTED TO ANY LINGUISTIC PRINCIPLES. Indeed, as is commonly known, Qur’anic Arabic became the standard of Arabic grammar. (The problem of God’s speech of necessity having to coincide with human speech for effect and meaning remains.) Second, for the “orthodoxy”, God’s own eternalness and self-subsistence fused with those of His revelation. The Qur’an and its language thus came to be viewed as equally timeless and independent of any “non-divine” elements, non-Arabic included. The fact of God’s revelation occurring in Arabic (or any other language for that matter) alongside the insistence that this is the unmediated medium which was used by God raises an interesting question: If all comprehensible language and speech is the result of social interaction then does this imply that God is also “limited” or confined to the limitations of language? If so, then what does this imply for the all-powerful nature of God? (The Qur’an – A Short Introduction, pp. 68-69; bold and capital emphasis mine)

A chief problem with the assertion that the Quran’s alien vocabulary really isn’t foreign because those words had been Arabicised is that this would have been common knowledge to native Arab speakers like Ibn Abbas. That an explanation was needed to explain why foreign words appear in the Quran demonstrates how weak this Muslim claim actually is!

Besides, this still leaves Muslims with the problem of believing that a speech, which is supposed to be beginningless and divine, contains loanwords from languages that didn’t even exist

This is just the start of this neophyte’s woes since he must also contend with the fact that the Muslims had a hard time explaining the following letters that are found at the beginning of certain chapters:

Alif Lam Ra- Suras 10, 11, 12, 14, 15.

Alif Lam Mim- Suras 2, 3, 29, 30, 31, 32.

Alif Lam Mim Ra- Sura 13.

Alif Lam Mim Sad- Sura 7.

Ha Mim- Suras 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46.

Ha Mim ‘Ain Sin Qaf- Sura 42.

Sad- Sura 38.

Ta Sin- Sura 27.

Ta Sin Mim- Suras 26, 28.

Ta Ha- Sura 20.

Qaf- Sura 50.

Ka Ha Ya ‘Ain Sad- Sura 19.

Nun- Sura 68.

Ya Sin- Sura 36.

The late Muslim polemicist and translator Muhammad Asad admits:

“About one-quarter of the Qur’anic suras are preceded by mysterious letter-symbols called muqatta’at (‘disjointed letters’) or, occasionally, fawatih (‘openings’) because they appear at the beginning of the relevant suras. Out of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one-half- that is, fourteen- occur in this position, either singly or in varying combinations of two, three, four, or five letters. They are always pronounced singly, by their designations and not as mere sounds – thus: alif lam mim, or ha mim, etc.

The significance of these letter-symbols has perplexed the commentators from the earliest times. There is no evidence of the Prophet’s having ever referred to them in any of his recorded utterances, nor any of his Companions having ever asked him for an explanation. None the less, it is established beyond any possibility of doubt that all the Companions – obviously following the example of the Prophet – regarded the muqatta’at as integral parts of the suras to which they are prefixed, and used to recite them accordingly: a fact which disposes effectively of the suggestion advanced by some Western orientalists that these letters may be no more than the initials of the scribes who wrote down the individual revelations at the Prophet’s dictation, or of the Companions who recorded them at the time of the final codification of the Qur’an during the reign of the first three Caliphs.

“Some of the Companions as well as some of their immediate successors and later Qur’anic commentators were convinced that these letters are abbreviations of certain words or even phrases relating to God and His attributes, and tried to ‘reconstruct’ them with much ingenuity; but since the possible combinations are practically unlimited, all such interpretations are highly arbitrary and, therefore, devoid of any real usefulness…” (Asad, The Message of the Qur’an [Dar al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp Gibraltar, rpt. 1993], App. II, p. 992; bold emphasis ours)

After summarizing several different interpretations, Asad concludes:

“… and so, in the last resort, we must content ourselves with the finding that a solution of this problem still remains beyond our graspThis was apparently the view of the four Right-Guided Caliphs, summarized in these words of Abu Bakr: ‘In every divine writ (kitab) there is [an element of] mystery – and the mystery of the Qur’an is [indicated] in the openings of [some of] the suras.” (Ibid., p. 993; bold emphasis ours)

Even the late Quranic translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali had to acknowledge:

“As shown in Appendix I (Sipara 3), the Abbreviated Letters are mystic symbols, about whose meaning there is no authoritative explanation. If the theory advanced in n. 25 to ii. 1 has any validity, and the present group A.L.R. is cognate to the group A.L.M., we have to consider and form some idea in our minds as to the probable meaning of the variation… But no one should be dogmatic in speculation about mystic Symbols.” (Ali, The Holy Qur’an – Introduction to Sura X [Yunus], p. 481; bold emphasis ours)

And here is what he further states in footnote 25, p. 17, regarding the meaning A.L.M.:

“… Much has been written about the meaning of these letters, but most of it is pure conjecture. Some commentators are content to recognize them as some mystic symbols, of which it is unprofitable to discuss the meaning by mere verbal logic. In mysticism we accept symbols as such for a time being: their esoteric meaning comes from the inner light when we are ready for it…” (Bold emphasis ours)

And even long before these men ever showed up on the scene, we have medieval Muslim scholar Ibn Kathir, considered one of the greatest commentators that ever lived, acknowledging the problem of the meaning of these letters. Ibn Kathir candidly admitted that these Arabic letters left the entire world of Islamic scholarship baffled as to their precise interpretation and purpose:

The ‘ulama do not agree as to the interpretation of <Alif-Lam-Mim> and other similar letters at the beginning of some suras. They have been given the following interpretations:

  1. The letters belong to Mutashabih (allegorical) verses, whose meaning is known only to Allah.
  2. They are the names of Allah.
  3. They have meaning, and Allah did not reveal them in vain and without a purpose. Those ignorant people who say that the Qur’an contains words for mere worship, that have no meaning whatsoever – are certainly in great error. There is no doubt that the letters at the beginning of some Surahs have a meaning: we say about them only what is authentically said about them by the Prophet. Otherwise, we say nothing further about them and recite the verse <‘We believe in it; it is all from our Lord.’>(3:7).

“As for the wisdom behind these letters, some scholars have said it is:

  1. To alert the polytheists so that they might listen to the words of Allah. This is a very weak reason in light of the fact that such disconnected letters do not appear at the beginning of every Surah. Besides al-Baqarahand al-‘Imranthat follows it, both start with these letters, and both were revealed in Madinah where there were no polytheists.
  2. Others believe that they are an example of the miraculous wonder of the Qur’an and the people are unable to confront it. This opinion is held by many scholars, including the Sheikh of Islam, Ibn Taymiyya. This opinion is borne out by the fact that all disconnected letters mentioned in the Qur’an are followed by a mention of the Qur’an itself and its revelation by Allah, Lord of the worlds. For example: <Alif-Lam-Mim. This is the Book …>(2:1), <Ha. Mim. By the Book that makes things clear, that is this Qur’an)>(43:1), <Alif-Lam-Mim. Allah! There is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Subsistent. He has revealed to (Muhammad) the Scripture> (3:1-3). <Alif-Lam-Ra. (This is) a Scripture which We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad) …> (14:1) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir – Part 1 Surah Al-Fatiha Surah Al-Baqarah, ayat 1 to 141, Abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib Ar-Rafa’i [Al-Firdous Ltd., London 1998], pp. 55-57; bold emphasis ours)

That Ibn Kathir’s second explanation is unconvincing can easily seen by the fact that certain suras begin by mentioning the Quran without the mysterious letters preceding it:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Who hath sent His Servant the Book, and hath allowed therein no Crookedness. S. 18:1 – cf. S. 24:1; 25:1; 39:1-2; 52:1-3; 55:1-2; 97:1)

In other suras, we find the letters appearing without any reference to the Quran:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Kaf. Ha. Ya. Ain. Sad. (This is) a mention of Zakariya. S. 19:1-2


In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Alif-Lam-Mim. Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, “We believe”, and that they will not be tested? S. 29:1-2 – cf. S. 30:1-2; 68:1)


Since Muslim renowned Muslim scholars like Muhammad Asad plainly confessed that there is no report suggesting that Muhammad spoke about these mysterious letters in his recorded utterances, why then would Allah make them part of his “revelation” which the Muslims had to reciting seeing that these letters left them perplexed and confused?

Furthermore, no report has come down to us indicating that the Companions had inquired of Muhammad on the meaning of these mysterious letters. This is indeed strange since, had these letters really been part of the original revelation, why then would the Companions not have asked about their meaning? This seems to suggest that scribes added these letters much later and hadiths were then forged to establish their authenticity.

Finally, do you really want us to believe that these letters are a part of the uncreated speech of Allah, when this implies that the speech of your lord has eternally contained incoherent, unintelligible words, phrases, sentences etc., and in Arabic to boot!?

So I challenge this neophyte to please explain the mystery of these “revealed” letters, especially since the Quran itself claims to be a perspicuous book that provides a detailed explanation for everything:

Shall I seek other than Allah for judge, when He it is Who hath revealed unto you (this) Scripture, fully explained? Those unto whom We gave the Scripture (aforetime) know that it is revealed from thy Lord in truth. So be not thou (O Muhammad) of the waverers. S. 6:114 Pickthall

And the day We shall raise up from every nation a witness against them from amongst them, and We shall bring thee as a witness against those. And We have sent down on thee the Book making clear everything, and as a guidance and a mercy, and as good tidings to those who surrender. S. 16:89 Arberry

A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail; A Qur’an in Arabic for people who know. S. 41:3 Hilali-Khan

We have more for this Muslim greenhorn in the next part of our refutation

Related articles