There are at the beginning of some surahs in the Qur’an a series of letters. These have been a mystery which I think I may have solved.
The key is that they must be recited as their letter names but that doing so is actually reading words. Often when we read a text we are obsessed with the visual dimension and so ignore the audio dimension. So these letters are telling us to listen not read only.
For example, we have word play in jokes where a word has two meanings but sounds the same and may be written differently. One example that works visually but really cannot be appreciated is about the builder who falls in love with falls in love with someone he meets when he starts his first ever job: “It was love at first site”. (Credit goes to my eldest son who came up with this one)
If you didn’t get it, the word site means building site, and “love at first sight” sounds the same but looks different.
The letters in the Qur’an are I think words written as letters. We have to think how they sound in connection to the following verses and not look but listen.
It is a lot like in SMS/ whatsapp today where texting finds shorthand ways to write whole words as letters. For example, we might write:
Which is cryptic until we read the sound of the letters and in this case a number also and now we understand it to mean “see you later”.
Let’s go through the mysterious letters and and see if they sound out words:
Surah 2 starts with
Alif lam mim
Often endings of words when recited in series lose their sounds and this is one of the rules of reciting the Quran, so words ending with a mim letter are usually blended with the following words.
So what are these three letters to mean?
Writing them out as transliterated words for the beginning of the surah and connecting it to the following words:
al Iflaah min thalika kitab…
“(success is from) this scripture, Have no doubt about it”
The meaning is perfect!
What about the next surah with letters surah 3 uses the same letters and reads
al Iflaah min allah, la ilaha ilah huwa…
“(success is from) God, there is no god but He”
Again a perfect meaning, let us continue…
Next we have surah 7
al iflah min saadiq – kitaab
the sound between saad and kitaab gives the word saadiq which means
“(success is from sincerity). A scripture is revealed to you…
Again a good powerful verse.
Let us see if we can understand the others. Onto the next one surah 10
al ifla(m) raa tilka ayaat
which I think means
“(success is to see) these verses of this scripture of wisdom”..
going on to the next set surah 11 is the same letters which we connect to the meaning of the rest of the verse:
al ifla(m) raa kitaab
“(success is to see) a book with verses of established meaning which are explained later from the present one who is wise and experienced.”
onwards to surah 12 where the same letters / words connect with the meaning as
“(success is to see) these verses of the clear scripture…”
onto surah 13, this is similar
al iflaah mi(m) raa tilka ayaat
“(success is from seeing) these verses of the scripture; that which has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth…”
The verb “ra a ya” means to see and like in the English it means to understand something without having to think about it – i.e. because it is so obvious.
onwards… surah 15 is similar to 12
“(success is to see) these verses of the scripture and a clear Quran”
The word Quran means something read out loud and so means a proclamation or public recitation.
onwards to surah 19
kaaf ha ya ‘ayn saad … thikru rahmati rabbika
What does this mean
“(?) remember the mercy of your Lord to his servant zakariyah
kaaf occurs as a verb in 39:36 it means protector
hayaa could then mean modesty, then ayn means eyes and then saad could have the last letter blended and be the verb sa aa ya which means to make a sound
Kaafaayah could also be the sound of the first three letters which would mean
“Sufficient”, then ‘ayn would mean the eye
So this phrase could mean something like
(Enough is the eye of sound) , remember…
Which would correlate well with what we are attempting here – to see with the eye of sound. It also has a connection to the story of Zakariya who was made unable to speak for some days and so had to communicated with sign language.
On to surah 20
this begins with the letters
Ta ha ma inzalnaa al quran…
the words following these two letters mean
“we did not send down this quran as cause of distress but as a reminder for such as are in awe (of God).
Tahawa as a verb means spread out
taa as a verb on its own means to fold up a bit like the English verb wrap it up, then the haa sound could be the pronoun “it”. So the phrase could mean taa ha “wrap it up”, In English that could be an expression of impatience, meaning get on with it, stop worrying about it etc. this would fit the context. It is also short and expresses annoyance which is the sentiment of the next few words which correct a worrying attitude.
onwards to surah 26 Here the letters are
ta sin mim
this could be the sound
taah si(r) min
taah would be wide and expansive
si(r) would mean “secrets”
mi(n) again means “from”
with blending of the ending of the words into the next words as part of normal recitation rules would be the meaning,
(wide are the secrets from) these verses of a clear scripture…
onto surah 27
this is similar without the “min”
(wide are the secrets of) these verses of the Qur’an (Proclamation) and a clear scripture…
onto surah 28
This is identical to surah 26
(wide are the secrets from) these verses of a clear scripture…
Onto surah 29
this is alif lam mim, but it is quite different in context
Il iflah min –
meaning “success is from” as before
seems disconnected with what follows which translated means “Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, “We believe”, and that they will not be tested?”
The phrase is like a familiar how to get success theme and a cut off thought, but it is then picked up in another way: What is success? You need to be tested to see who will be the successful.
Onto surah 30 this is similar in being an apparently cut off thought about what is the route to success, but is very much on that theme because it is talking about the success of the believers over the pagans in the prediction of the victory of the believers (Christian and Muslim) over their pagan foes in the future – definitely the theme of success.
Onto surah 31 and the same letters we think may represent the meaning “success is from”. Now again the beginning of the surah is talking about the guidance of the Quran.
(success is from) these verses of the wise scripture, a guide and a mercy for the doers of good. Those who establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity, and have (in their hearts) the assurance of the Hereafter. These are on (true) guidance from their Lord: and these are the ones who will prosper.
This returns to the theme of the first use of these letters which in full has the meaning:
(Success is from) this scripture, have no doubt. It is guidance for the careful (i.e. God conscious) : Those who believe is what is not yet revealed (i.e. the unseen) and establish regular Prayer and spend (in charity) from what we have provided for them. They believe in what has been revealed to you (i.e. Muhammad) and what was revealed before you and have (in their hearts) the assurance of the Hereafter. These are on (true) guidance from their Lord: and these are the ones who will prosper.
the last word in both these sections in surah 31 and surah 2 is about the “mulflhoon” those who are successful and ties back in to “Al iflah” which we are suggesting is how we say the words implied by the shorthand” alif la(m)”
Onto surah 32
Here we have the same “Alif lam mim” (Al iflah min)” and the meaning would be
(success is from) the revelation of the scripture in which there is no doubt from the lord of the worlds…
Onto surah 36
Ya Sin wal quran ul hakim
This seems to be the sound “seen” fully, as there is not blending with the next word here to hide the r of “sir” as we think we saw in earlier surahs. There is a clearer rhyme with hakim to suggest the “n” is clearly to be said.
Is “seen” a word on its own. “ya” functions in Arabic to grab someone’s attention like saying “oh” or “oy” as in “oy you there”.
This would seem to come from the word Sa Wa Ma with the nasal n pronounced like an “m” sound. This verb means something or someone “marked out” for distinction. As such it could be calling out to the prophet with something of the meaning “oh you special one”
The meaning of the beginning of the surah verses would then be
(oh you special one) (I swear) by the wise Quran, Thou art indeed one of the messengers.
Again we can see a good clear meaning for these letter read as words!
Onto Surah 38
this is just the single letter “Saad”
Followed by the meaning “By the Qur’an full of reminders/admonitions”
There is a verb sa wa ha which may be heard from the initial sound of Saad, which would mean to yell, shout or cry out; to hail, “Saah!” Could mean “Call out!”
This would fit the verse that follow which continue the theme of those who won’t listen:
(Call out!)”By the Qur’an full of reminders/admonitions”, But the Unbelievers (are steeped) in self-glory and Separatism.
Onto Surah 40
Surahs 40 to 46 all start with these two letters.
There are a few candidates for what this would be.
There is a word hamim which means intimate friend, but this is a short fatha vowel. This is from a verb to mean protect, and haamee(m) means protector with an emphasis on a long ee sound this could mean “I am the protector” implicitly of the next thing mentioned.
so the meanings of these seven surahs would be
(I am the protector) the scripture is send down from God, exalted in power…
(I am the protector), A revelation from God, most gracious most merciful
42 has more letters in two verses
(I am the protector)
the second verse has
ayn seen qaaf
ayn would be “eye” or “sight”
seen would be what though?
it could be si(r) meaning secret
qaaf is then what? we have the verb qa fa wa, which means to follow as in to track someone by their footsteps.
this would then mean perhaps something like
(I protector of sight that tracks down secrets)
the surah continues “Thus doth (He) send inspiration to thee as (He did) to those before thee,- Allah, Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom.”
(I am the protector) “(I swear) by the book that makes things clear, We have made it a book in Arabic in the hope that you may use your reason.
(I am the protector) (I Swear) by the book that makes thing clear
(I am the protector) The revelation of the Book is from Allah the Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom.
46 is the same as 45
(I am the protector) The Revelation of the Book is from Allah the Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom.
Onto surah 50
we now have the letter Qaaf on its own.
This could mean “Follow it – track it down”, the same root also has a meaning of a single verse in a poem. Maybe meaning “a verse”, this could be a better explanation of letters surah 42
I protect sight of secret single verse
this idea of a single verse of poetry is close to the function of these letters themselves and maybe is what is being referred to.
Surah 50 then begins
(Just a verse) : By the Glorious Qur’an ….
on to surah 68 the last one with mystery letters at the front
It starts with the letter “Nuun”
this with letter blending could be most familiar with the meaning from the word Nuur meaning a light. perhaps as an imperative it could mean “enlighten”
Light, (I swear) by the pen, and the (Record) which (men) write,- You are not, by the Grace of thy Lord, mad or possessed. Nay, verily for thee is a Reward unfailing:And you (stand) on an exalted standard of character….
Anyway, these are just some speculations, It would take an expert in Arabic – which I am not – to validate what their ears could hear from the short hand that these letters could mean.
The sound is not exact in short hand it is an indicator only. Familiarity is what makes it work.
could be pronounced
sea yoo el eight er
only by blending words starts and endings and speeding them up to they sound like their shorthand meaning
see you later.