The study of texts both religious and secular with a view to understanding their full meaning, has engaged linguists from the earliest known civilisations to the present day.
Tanakh scholars developed a numerological code for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as a means to uncover what they posited to be divinely inspired enigmas hidden within the pages of their holy texts. Modern day academicians and even authors of fiction have also found the concept of an esoteric meaning other than the literal one intriguing.
Within the discipline of Islamology, an entire branch of study has been devoted to the exegesis of the primary Islamic text, the Qur’ān: Tafsīr, or literal exegesis and commentary, is perhaps the oldest and most elaborate of the Islamic sciences. It was developed, and continues to evolve, in the context of Muslim requirements for a comprehensive companion to their Holy Book; a guide that elucidates and provides background commentary on the text and its revelation..
Nonetheless, Allāh states clearly in the text that the Qur’ān is, ‘A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail – a Qur’ān in Arabic for people who know.’ (Sūrat al-Fuṣṣilat – 41:3). The Qur’ān is referred to as a ‘clear proof’ (6:157), ‘a manifest light’ (4:174; 42:52) and it has been ‘fully explained to mankind’ (17:89; 18:54; 39:27); readers are also encouraged to ‘think deeply’ (47:24) about the text. In this particular verse, the Arabic verb ‘تدبر’ is used: it means ‘to consider, reflect or meditate upon’. In other words, although Allāh has stated categorically that the Qur’ān is a comprehensively revealed, unambiguous text, readers are encouraged to reflect on it. Hence, the divinely inspired legitimacy of making a commentary on the text itself.
This brings us to the subject of al-Ḥurūf al-Muqaṭṭa’ah (الحروف المقطّعة) or ‘the disconnected letters’ in the Holy Qur’ān: they provide perhaps one of the most enduring, intriguing and tantalising mysteries surrounding the revelation itself. As the exegetes have tried to expound on the Holy Verses and give them a context to aid a fuller understanding of the afflatus as a whole, they have encountered various mysterious letters that prefix twenty-nine of the text’s 114 chapters.
These Muqaṭṭa’āt (مقطّعات), as they shall be referred to from hereon, which are also known as Fawātiḥ as-Sūr/A’wā’il as-Sūr (meaning the ‘openings of the chapters’), consist of fourteen different letters that occur singly or in combinations of two, three, four or five letters to form fourteen different arrangements. Four separate combinations (الم, الر, طسم, حم) occur more than once and, with the exception ofطسم, prefix several consecutive chapters to form groups.
The letters are always found at the beginning of the chapter as either a separate verse or forming the opening to the very first verse. An exception is the combination حم/عسق, which occurs at the beginning of chapter forty-two: this combination is actually two separate arrangements with the first two letters حم composing verse one, and the second group, عسق, verse two.
Although it has been noted that the letters follow a strict order in terms of their co-occurrence, the suggestion that this is somehow related to the abjad or numerological order of the Arabic letters is without foundation. The Abjadī or Levantine order, which is still used today for listing purposes in Arabic documents, was the original order for the Arabic letters at the time of the Qur’anic revelation. The Arabs employed this particular arrangement and not the modern one as it mirrored the organisation of the Nabatean abjad, the precursor to Arabic abjad.
Another proposal, which has gained credence, is that the fourteen letters that compose the Muqaṭṭa’āt, represent a definitive list of the Arabic graphemes at the time of the Qur’ānic revelation. This theory presupposes that the diacritical marks employed to distinguish letters like خ , ح ,ج were not in common usage at the time of revelation, and draws on the evidence of Qur’ānic manuscripts dating from the first century A.H., which are devoid of these same diacritical marks. This theory, however, can be at best only speculation given recent research and the evidence of the earliest known post-revelation manuscript, known as PERF 558, which features these very same diacritical marks. In the absence of a complete collection of ‘Uthmānic codices, or indeed any authentic commentary on Arabic orthography dating from the period of revelation, this proposition is seriously flawed.
With the exception of the letters that prefix chapters two, three and thirteen, all of the letters head chapters that were revealed in Mecca. Moreover, in all but three cases (chapters 29, 30 and 68), the Muqaṭṭa’āt precede an explicit reference to the Qur’anic revelation.
Furthermore, with regards to the actual recitation of the Qur’ān, the art of Tajwīd or ‘lengthening’ of the letters of individual words, , recommends not only that these letters should be pronounced separately, but also that they should be considerably lengthened in recital. This is similar in principle to the art of cantillation applied to the recital of the Torah.
Whilst contemporary scholars have proffered a number of theories regarding the significance of the Muqaṭṭa’āt, their co-occurrence and placement, traditional Muslim scholarship has also tried to account for their meaning.