The Disconnected Letters

Alif Lam MimThe ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭaʿa or “disconnected letters” of the Qur’an appear at the beginning of 29 suras. The letters appear either as solitary letters, like (ṣād) (Q. 38:1), Q (qāf) (Q. 50:1), and N (nūn) (Q. 68:1), or  more often than not in groups. These groupings include pairs, ṬH (Q. 18:1), ṬS (Q. 27:1), YS (Q. 36:1), and ḤM (Q. 40:1, 41:1, 43:1, 44:1, 45:1, 46:1), groups of three, ALM (Q. 2:1, 3:1, 29:1, 30:1, 31:1, 32:1), ALR (Q. 10:1, 11:1, 12:1, 14:1, 15:1), ṬSM (Q. 26:1, 28:1), groups of four, ALMṢ (Q. 7:1), ALMR (Q. 13:1), and groups of five, KHYʿṢ (Q. 19:1) and ḤM ʿSQ (Q. 42:1).  When recited in the Qur’an, each letter is pronounced individually according to its proper alphabetic designation rather than altogether as a morphologic word. For example, ḤM is recited as ḥāʾ mīm rather than as a word like ḥamma.

These distinctive and recurrent letters in the Qur’an have received a great deal of scholarly attention. Unfortunately, western scholarly attempts to ‘de-mystify’ the letters have largely been revisionary in nature in that 1) little to no attention is paid to traditional Muslim interpretations and/or 2) the Muslim theological narratives concerning the Qur’an and its compilation are disregarded.

In an attempt to address the lacuna, I have written an article that documents many, though far from all, the Sunni attempts to interpret the letters.  The article has been published in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, volume 14, no. 2 (2012), pp. 1-28. The article can also be directly accessed here.

The following Muslim authors and works were referenced in researching this article:

Ibn ʿAbbās (?) (d. 68/687-8) Tanwīr al-miqbās min tafsīr Ibn ʿAbbās
Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767) Tafsīr Muqātil b. Sulaymān
al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) Maʿānī al-Qurʾān
ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 211/827) Tafsīr al-Qurʾān
al-Akhfash al-Awsaṭ (d. 215/830)  Kitāb Maʿānī al-Qurʿān
Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889)  Taʾwīl mushkil al-Qurʾān
al-Tustarī (d. 283/896) Tafsīr al-Tustarī
al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) Jāmiʿ al-Bayān ʿan ay taʾwīl al-Qurʾān
al-Zajjāj (d. 311/923) Maʿānī al-Qurʾān wa-iʿrābuh
Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī (d. 327/938) Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿaẓīm
al-Māturidī (d. 333/944) Taʾwīlāt ahl al-sunnah
al-Jaṣṣāṣ (d. 370/981) Aḥkām al-Qurʾān
al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) Baḥr al-ʿulūm
al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021) Ḥaqāʾiq al-tafsīrZiyādat al-ḥaqāʾiq
al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035) al-Kashf wa’l-bayān
al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) al-Nukat wa’l-ʿuyūn
al-Bayhaqī (d. 458/1066) Kitāb al-Asmāʾ wa-al-ifāt
al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt
al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1076) al-Wajīz, al-Wasīṭ & al-Basīṭ
al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122) Maʿālim al-tanzīl
al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144) al-Kashshāf
Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 543/1148) Aḥkām al-tafsīr
Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200) Zād al-masīr fī ʿilm al-tafsīr
Rūzbihān al-Baqlī  (d. 606/1209)  ʿArāʾis al-bayān
Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) Mafātiḥ al-ghayb
Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (d. 626/1229)  Muʿjam al-buldān
Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya
al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272) al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qurʾān
al-Bayḍawī (d. 685/1286) Anwār al-tanzīl wa-asrār al-taʾwīl
Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) al-Tafsīr al-kabīral-Tafsīr al-mawḍūʿī
al-Qāshānī (d. 730/1329) Tafsīr Ibn ʿArabī
Ibn Juzayy (d. 741/1340) Tafsīr Ibn Juzayy
Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1374) Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿaẓīm
Ibn Khaldūn (d. 780/1378-9) Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldūn
al-Zarkashī (d. 794/1392) al-Burhān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān
al-Thaʿālibī (d. 873-5/1468-71) al-Jawāhir al-Ḥisān fīr tafsīr al-Qurʾān
Jalāl al-Dīn al-Maḥallī (d. 864/1459) Tafsīr al-Jalalayn
al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505) Tafsīr al-Jalalayn, al-Durr al-manthūr & al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān
Ibn ʿAjība (d. 1224/1809) al-Baḥr al-madīd
al-Shawkānī (d. 1255/1839) Fatḥ al-qadīr
al-Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854) Rūḥ al-maʿānī
Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1323/1905) Tafsīr al-manar
Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1354/1935) Tafsīr al-manar
Pickthall (d. 1354/1936) The Glorious Qur’an
Zakī Mubārak (d. 1371/1952) al-Nathr al-fannī fī al-qarn al-rābiʿ
Sayyid Qutb (d. 1386/1966) Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʾān
Daryābādī (d. 1397/1977) Tafsir-ul-Qur’an
Mawdūdī (d. 1399/1979) Tafhīm al-Qurʾān
Muhammad Shafīʿ Usmani (d. 1399/1979) Maʿārif al-Qurʾān
ʿAlī Naṣūḥ al-Ṭāhir
(d. 1402/1982) Awāʾil al-suwar fī al-Qurʾān al-karīm & “Abbreviations in the Holy Qur’ān”
Hashim Amir ʿAlī (d. 1407-8/1987) “The Mysterious Letters of the Qur’ān”
Rashad Khalifa (d. 1410/1990)  Qur’an: The Final Testament
Muḥammad Asad (d. 1412/1992) The Message of the Qur’an
al-Shaʿrāwī (d. 1419/1998)  Tafsīr al-Shaʿrāwī
Muḥammad Mohar Ali (d. 1428/2007) A Word for Word Meaning of the Qur’ān
Muḥammad al-Ṣābūnī (b. 1348-9/1930) Ṣafwat al-tafāsīr
Ahmad von Denffer (b. 1368-9/1949) ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān
ʿĀʾisha ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (Bint al-Shāṭiʿ) – al-Tafsīr al-bayānī li’l-Qurʾān al-karīm
M. Taqi Usmani – Maʿārif al-Qurʾān
M. M. Khatib – The Bonteous Koran
Camille Helminski – The Light of Dawn
Farid Esack – The Qur’an: A Short Introduction
M.A.S. Abdel Haleem – The Qur’an: A New Translation
Ali Ünal – The Qurʾān with Annotated Interpretation 

Two acknowledgements are in order. First, I presented an earlier version of this work at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and would like to thank my colleagues in attendance for their helpful advice and insights. Second, I shared this piece again in a departmental seminar at Fairfield University where I benefited immensely from the inquiries and comments of my fellow faculty members.

The image used, which  depicts the letter alif lām mīm from Q. 2:1, was found on the tumblr site of its creator.


2 thoughts on “The Disconnected Letters

  1. Pingback: A Study on the Disconnected Letters of the Qur’an | Islamicana

  2. Dear Martin,

    Thank you for posting one gem after another.

    I’d like to encourage you to add an email subscription feature to the blog in order that I may receive immediate updates when a new post is published.

    I look forward to hearing from you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s