Prepared by the Research Committee of IslamToday.net under the supervision of Sheikh `Abd al-Wahhâb al-Turayrî
Initial, disjoined letters introduce 29 chapters of the Qur’ân. Different chapters begin with different letters: Alîf Lâm Mîm… Kâf Hâ Yâ `Ayn Sâd… Tâ Sîn Mîm… among other combinations. People often wonder about their meaning. In truth, we cannot ascribe any particular meaning to these letters. Any particular meaning that these letters might have is known only to Allah. Ibn Kathîr, in his Tafsîr, informs us that Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman, `Ali and Ibn Mas`ud all said that “the disjoined letters in the beginning of some chapters are among those things about which Allah has reserved knowledge to Himself.”
However, this does not imply that these letters are meaningless or that they do not serve a clear and discernable function for those who read and listen to the Qur’ân. There is a general meaning that can be understood from all of the letters. These letters serve to highlight the literary nature of the Qur’ân.
Ibn Jarîr al-Tabarî, in his Tafsîr, gives us a survey of what early scholars of the Arabic language have explained about this stylistic device.
Some language scholars state that these are letters of the alphabet and that Allah suffices with them for the entire alphabet of twenty-eight letters…
Others say that the chapters begin this way in order to draw the attention of the polytheists – who had called each other to ignore the Qur’ân – so that when their attention was gotten, they would listen to what was understandable.
Others say these letters are a means of introducing the chapters. Allah begins his discourse by using them.
If one were to argue that this implies that the Qur’ân contains meaningless words, they explain that this is not the case. The meaning here is that the discourse is starting, so it is known that a new chapter is beginning and the previous one has ended. It serves to distinguish between speech acts. This is something known in the speech of the Arabs.
Introducing a speech with disjoined letters as a stylistic means for beginning an eloquent discourse was not strange to the people at the time that the Qur’ân was revealed. This is why the unbelievers in Mecca never made an issue out of these letters, though they would go to great pains to find whatever they could to criticize Islam.
The mention of disjoined alphabet letters introduces to the listeners the idea that what follows is constructed from mere letters and words. This literary device is used to precede a discourse of literary eloquence. The one who introduces his discourse in this way is emphasizing that he is going to bring forth a feat of great eloquence from such simple materials.
We find that the Qur’ân often uses this stylistic device when it begins chapters in which it refers to itself. “Alîf Lâm Mîm… This is the Book in which there is no doubt.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 1-2]
“Alîf Lâm Mîm… Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal. It is He Who sent down to thee, in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Torah and the Gospel before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).” [Sûrah Âl `Imrân: 1-3]
“Alîf Lâm Mîm Sâd… A Book revealed unto thee,- So let thy heart be oppressed no more by any difficulty on that account,- that with it thou might warn (the erring) and teach the believers. [Sûrah al-A`râf: 1-2]
“Alîf Lâm Râ… These are the verses of the Book of Wisdom.” [Sûrah Yûnus: 1]
“Alîf Lâm Râ… (This is) a Book, whose verses are made decisive, then are they made plain, from the Wise, All-aware.” [Sûrah Hûd: 1]
“Alîf Lâm Râ… These are the verses of the Book that makes (things) manifest.” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 1]
“Alîf Lâm Mîm Râ… These are the verses of the Book; and that which is revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, but most people do not believe.” [Sûrah al-Ra`d: 1]
“Alîf Lâm Râ… A Book which We have revealed unto thee, in order that you might lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of their Lord – to the Way of (Him) the Exalted in power, worthy of all praise!” [Sûrah Ibrâhîm: 1]
“Alîf Lâm Râ… These are the verses of the Book and (of) a Quran that makes (things) clear.” [Sûrah al-Hijr: 1]
“Kâf Hâ Yâ `Ayn Sâd… (This is) a recital of the mercy of your Lord to His servant Zachariah.” [Sûrah Maryam 1-2]
“Tâ Hâ…We have not sent down the Qur’an to thee to be (an occasion) for thy distress, but only as an admonition to those who fear (Allah) – a revelation from Him Who created the earth and the heavens on high.” [Sûrah Tâ Hâ: 1-4]
“Tâ Sîn Mîm… These are verses of the Book that makes (things) clear.” [Sûrah al-Shu`arâ’: 1-2]
“Tâ Sîn Mîm… These are Verses of the Book that makes (things) clear. [Sûrah al-Qasas: 1-2]
This should give us a feeling of how this stylistic device is used. The Qur’ân also uses this device on occasion to introduce chapters where it does not directly refer to itself, but goes straight into making its exposition. Even in these cases, however, the use of these letters is a reference to the nature of the Qur’ân as a literary entity. The device essentially foregrounds the linguistic nature of the message being imparted.
Some Muslims began speculating as to why certain letters are used to introduce certain chapters and other letters to introduce others. This is needless speculation, since it does not bear upon the fundamental purpose or meaning of the literary device itself. We should leave to Allah the knowledge of why He chooses certain letters over others in various chapters.
A problem arose in the Muslim world when some people began reading cryptic meanings into the letters. This led scholars of those generations to re-emphasize the fact that we do not know the “meaning” of these letters and must not try to concoct baseless interpretations. Such statements should never be understood to mean that these letters are meaningless and serve no function. The statements of those scholars merely warns against supplying specific interpretations to the letters, when we have no basis or authority for doing so
Of course, there may be aspects to the wisdom behind these opening letters other than the one we have mentioned here. However, aside from their clear and apparent literary function, we need to be cautions about speculating on what these letters mean.
Ibn Kathîr gives us good advice when he says:
If we find an authentic narration leading to the Prophet (peace be upon him) that explains these letters, we will embrace the Prophet’s statement. Otherwise, we will stop where we were made to stop and will proclaim:
“We believe in it. All of it is from our Lord.” [Sûrah Âl `Imrân: 7]
The scholars did not concur on a single opinion or explanation on this topic. Therefore, whoever thinks that one scholar’s opinion is correct, he can follow it; otherwise it is better to refrain from making any judgment on this matter.
And Allah knows best.