Abbreviated letters in the Holy Qur’an
Chapter 2 is the first chapter that begins with three letters, the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet – Alif Lâm Mîm الم. There are a few more chapters of the Holy Qur’ân that also have the same beginning (cf. 3:1; 29:1; 30:1; 31:1; 32:1). There are others where we find letters: Alif Lâm Mîm Sâd المص (7:1), Alif Lâm Râj»E (10:1; 11:1; 12:1; 14:1; 15:1), Alif Lâm Mîm Râ آلر(13:1), Kâf Hâ Yâ ‘Ain Sâd كهيعص (19:1), Tâ Sîn Mîm طسم(26:1; 28:1), Tâ Sîn طس ( 27:1), Sâd ص (38:1), Hâ Mîm حم (40:1; 41:1; 42:1; 43:1: 44:1; 45:1;46:1), ‘Ain Sîn Qâf عسق (42:1) and Qâf ق (50:1); in total there are 29 chapters. These letters are called muqatta‘ât (مقطعات) or abbreviations. They are also known as fawātih (فواتح) or “openers “as they form the opening verse of their respective chapters (Sûrâ). Fawātih or muqatta‘ât are written together like a word, but each letter is pronounced separately. Of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one half appear as fawātih of the Holy Qur’ân, either singly or in combinations of two, three, four, or five letters. Some examples are:
Nun ن in chapter al-Qalam (Ch. 68)
Hâ Mîm حم in chapter Hâ Mîm Sajda (Ch. 41)
Alif Lâm Mîm الم in chapter Al-Baqarah (Ch. 2)
Alif Lâm Mîm Râ المر in chapter Al-Ra‘ad (Ch. 13)
Kâf Hâ Yâ ‘Ain Sâd كهيعص in chapter Maryam (Ch. 19)
The majority of the combinations begin either with Alif Lâm Mîm or Hâ Mîm. In all but 3 of the 29 cases, these letters are almost always immediately followed by mention of the Qur’ânic revelation or a great prophecy as in 30:1. Some argue that Sûras 29, 30, and 68 are exceptions. When read carefully what follows, these three cases make no exception, since mention of the revelation is made later in the Sûrah. All but 3 of these Sûras are of Makkan origin. The exceptions are Sûras 2, 3, and 13.
Many modern translators and scholars of the Holy Book are reticent in to discuss the significance of these letters. There are some who think that these alphabets are meaningless. Others believe that their meaning is a sacred secret of Allâh and His mystic symbols, and that the purpose of this mystery cannot be known to human beings; further, any attempt to translate them will make one liable for Divine punishment. However, these scholars are unable to justify Allâh’s intent to hide and punish. There are others who say that perhaps the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) knew their meaning but was prohibited from telling his followers in order to protect the mystery. However, these scholars give no rational reason as to why He was prohibited from revealing their meaning, and they cite no Tradition relating back to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), to support this view. To anyone who is seriously interested in understanding the message of the Holy Qur’ân, such confused explanations can be a source of irritation and may even create doubts in the minds of seekers of Divine knowledge.
Most if not all widely used languages of the world make use of abbreviations, and Arabic is not an exception. Imâm Râzî says that Arabs would name things after letters; for example, money as ع, clouds as غ, and fish as ن. In the books of Islamic Traditions (-ahâdîth), abbreviations are common. For example anâ انا for akhbarna اخبرنا; Hâ for hawalnâ al-Sanad and nâ نا for hadathnâ حدثنا are frequently used by well-known compilers of the Traditions, such as Tirmidhî, Nisaî, Abû Dâ’ûd, Abû Muslim and Bukhârî. In the science of Islamic jurisprudence (‘ilm al-Fiqah), medicine (‘ilm al-Tib), syntax (‘ilm al-Nahaw علم نحو), administration (‘ilm al-Saraf صرف علم) and other fields of knowledge, abbreviations are always present; For example: Sîn س for Sam‘a سمع Yasm‘a یسمع; Kâf ک for Karam کرم; Nûn ن for Nasr نصر; Dz ض for Dzarb ضرب; Fâ ف for Fatah فتح Yaftahu یفتح; Tâ ط for Ataf عطف; Mâf مف for Maf ‘ûl مفعول etc. Knowing their meanings is mandatory for any student of these fields.
A powerful feature of the Qur’ânic and classical Arabic is the derivation of its vocabulary from its root alphabets. All root words of this language, without any exception, are composed of either one letter or a combination of two, three, and extremely seldom of four alphabets. For example, the alphabet alif is used for asking questions (“â” sound); alphabet mîm م similarly, as in mâ مٱ (what?) and mann من (who?). Lâm ل is often used for negation, as in la لا (no) and lâmm لم (not). Imâm Râzî says that Arabs would name things after letters; for example, money as ع, clouds as غ, and fish as ن. In short, the letters of the Arabic alphabet are words, and each one of them has its own simple meaning [see also commentary on verse 2:1, p. 278]
Another characteristic of this language is that many words with similar letters either agree in meaning or are approximate in it. For example, where in a word, nûn ن and fâ ف come together, their combination gives an indication of the meaning of khurûj خروج (- going out or letting out); like nafara نفرا(to go out in a group; to run away from fight; go forth from any business); nafatha نفث (- to blow on a thing and spit out of the mouth; to whisper out evil suggestion). Nafaha نفح (- to blow out; to diffuse and disperse). Nafakhaنفخ (- to blow or breathe out). Nafaqa نفق (- to come out of a hole or tunnel). Nafida نَفِد (- consumed out; spent out) and nafadha نفذ (- to escape; to go beyond; to pass through a place). Also, for example, where fâ ف and lâm ل combine in a word, the combination indicates the meaning of “opening up”, such as falaqa فلق (- to split open; break of a day; to cleave through the darkness); falaha فلح (- to cleave a thing; to unfold something in order to reveal its intrinsic properties; to till and break open surface of the earth and make its productivity powers active), and falaja فلج (- to split; to open up water reservoirs into water channels).
Mostly three consonants form the root of each Arabic word, and the permutation of these root elements opens up a rich and complex world of meanings and associations. The door opens for the student of the Holy Qur’ân to a wealth of potential meanings, both lexicological and symbolic, for every word or phrase. It is from here that masters in literature know that many a time the Arabs use one word in different shades of meaning by substituting similar letters as is found in daqq دقٌ and dakk دكٌ (to knock; to crush and broken into pieces;), and in laj لج and laz لظ (to insist). This is the science of the language of the Arabs of the time of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Many of those who have studied modern Arabic are fallen short of understanding these minute details in classical Arabic of the Holy Qur’ân.