The first time I gave some serious thought to the mystical letters (like ‘alif laam meem’, collectively called ‘al-muqata’at’ in the Quranic sciences of the Traditionalists) was due to the 19ers. A rather obscure book on the 19 theory in Malay (‘[Rahsia 19 dalam Al-Quran’ – The Secret of 19 in the Quran) said that these letters all had some 19 pattern running through their occurrences and now, after 1400 years, they have been revealed.
That seemed to have sealed the deal for me for the next decade or so. I was satisfied that the mystical letters were in fact for the purposes of some code. However, as I became familiar with the notion of a structured reading (a reading which places great importance on context) , it became clear that these letters were not about any code. Contextually, they had a variety of associated ideas such as:
– In Ch 2, they are linked with ‘that book, no doubt in it’ (so they are a writ/book/system in themselves)
– In Ch 3 , they are linked with Allah’s oneness and His attributes of the living and establishing (al-hayy al-qayyum)
– In Ch 7, they are linked with following revelation
– In Ch 10, they are linked with the judiciousness of the book
– In Ch 29, they are mentioned with the captivating trials we go through
– In Ch 30, they are mentioned with the so-called ‘Romans’.
– In Ch 40, they are linked with the descent of the book
– In Ch 68, they are linked with the pen which men write.
Generally speaking, these contexts are ignored in translation. If we looked at comparative translations of 2/1-2, they generally believe that ‘that book, no doubt in it’ refers to Quran itself. This is to me in a severance of the context. Alif laam meem clearly starts the chapter and therefore must be vital for understanding it. Furthermore, the word ‘that’ (dhalika) would be hanging in the air without the alif laam meem. This to me is unacceptable in reading. One simply does not ignore a word let alone a whole verse (2/1 in this case) simply because it does not fit one’s understanding. Rather, one needs to take into account every element possible in making deductions.
A natural question that would arise about the mystical letters is why would the Author of Quran – Allah – not just say what He meant rather than inspire a bunch of letters which remains a mystery even to Traditionalist Muslims who claim that the Prophet guided them in every detail of Quran? I believe the answer to this lies in that very fact – its ambiguity as letters is its strength. The creative freedom we have in interpreting these letters help our mental faculties and prepare us for the philosophical tasks ahead.
From these mental exertions, there has risen a number of theories regarding the mystical letters. The foremost theory is that they are the ‘miracles of the Quran’ and no one knows their meanings except Allah. This to me is a very dogmatic statement with no intent let alone method of proof. It is no wonder that this is propagated by the Wahabi faction of the Traditionalists who dare not engage in ‘ta’wil’ (esoteric interpretations) but rather stick to the literal meanings.
Other understandings of the Mystical Letters include the notion that they are primordial sounds of the universe. While this sounds attractive, how can we identify this or fit them into context. Seems rather difficult. Some say that they are the 7 pairs (mentioned in 15/87 according to some interpretations) but again, what do we with these pairs? There is simply too much conjecture in these ideas, in my opinion.
For me, the best way to discover the meaning of the mystical letters is to minimise conjecture as much as possible. All the theories above except the first one had far too much conjectural material. I felt that the best way would be to see how letters functioned in the language of Quran itself. Since we derive coherence of meaning through the acknowledgement of certain linguistic rules, those rules must therefore be acceptable to the Author of Quran Himself. Being an entity of infinite knowledge, He must therefore have associated these letters with their uses in the Quranic language.
I will demonstrate this with the first set of the mystical letters – alif laam meem (2/1). These letters are relatively easier to understand in terms of function in the Quranic language. This is due o the fact that their functions are much more obvious compared to some other letters.
For the alif, one of its functions is to turn a verb into a question. For example, the verb ‘tu’minoo’ (you (in plural) believe) is turned into a question ‘atu’minoo’ (do you believe?) in 2/85. This shows that a function of alif is to pose a question. I therefore think of alif as ‘Questioning’
For the laam, its function in terms of being a preposition is as ‘li’ (for). We exist ‘lillah’ , for example (2/156) or ‘for Allah’. Another one of its functions is as ‘la’ emphasis ‘innahu la quranun kareem’ (56/77). From these functions, I therefore think of laam as ‘Focussing’.
For the meem, it functions as a description of a doer of a concept when it appears as ‘mu’. The word ‘silm’ (wholeness) becomes ‘muslim’ (doer or agent of wholeness). It can also act to show the manifestation of a space. Sajda (submission) becomes ‘masjid’ (space of submission). I therefore think of meem as ‘Enacting’ as in making things happen.
Alif laam meem becomes ‘Questioning, Focussing, Enacting’. Fitting in context of 2/1-2, that book (dhalika al-kitab) refers to this process of posing questions, focussing on particular elements and acting upon one’s hypotheses. This then amounts to the state of ‘no doubt in it’ (laa rayba fihi) because only through this process we can be certain. The final part of 2/2 tells that this is ‘progress for the preservant’ (hudan lil muttaqeen) as people who are concerned with self-preservation (opposing disintegration) will keep applying this alif laam meem process. This seems to fit the rest of the context (2/3-5) very well too acts as point of reference for those who reject this process whose description are outlined in 2/6-20.
This study of mystical letters is still in its infancy. There are many letters whose meanings are not easy to surmise (Ha, ra and qaf especially!). The point however, is to engage with them. Perhaps you may not agree with the meanings offered above but at least it will set your mind working. Whatever the case, the letters will help keep discussions on Quran alive indefinitely.