Is Alif-Lām-Mīm proof that you don’t need to understand the Qur’an?

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Following my article on the importance of understanding revelation (rather than concentrating on ritual sounds) and another on memorisation and articulating the Qur’an merely as phonemes, I’ve had it repeatedly put to me that surely the disconnected letters (hurūf al-muqatta’ah) prove that God doesn’t require us to understand the Qur’an since they’re letters that intrinsically do not mean anything, even to those who understand the Arabic language. So as long as we pronounce the Arabic phonemes that make up God’s words, we’ve met God’s expectations.

Now whilst I can sympathise with how laymen might reach such a conclusion, I find it surreal that those who claim to be learned posit such a bad argument and demonstrate such shar’ī illiteracy. In a normal world it’d be quite embarassing.

To keep it simple, the problem here is the assumption – or assertion – that the disconnected letters do not mean anything, as well as the claim that this is the orthodox position. Yet the vast majority of scholars have held that the disconnected letters do indeed have meaning and purpose. Citing some of them in his explanation of 2:1, the most famous exegete, al-Tabari, put it that the letters are disconnected from nouns and verbs, with “every letter having a meaning that isn’t the meaning of another letter.” And with the ethos of continuously searching for meaning, the scholarly tradition is replete with various positions that affirm this overarching tenet. Here I’ve limited the very brief presentation to early exegetes:

  • In al-Suddi’s narration, Ibn Abbas opined that the disconnected letters are acronyms that spell out the names of God.
  • In Sa’īd b. Jubayr’s narration, Ibn Abbas opined that the disconnected letters are abbreviations that spell out specific monotheistic statements. He said, “So Alif-Lām-Mīm means ‘I am God, I know’; Alif-Lām-Mīm-Ṣād means ‘I am God; I know and clarify’; Alif-Lām-Rā means ‘I am God, I see’; Alif-Lām-Mīm-Rā means ‘I am God; I know and see.'” This view reflects the use of letters to represent words in ancient Arabic, with a popular ancient stanza cited: I told her to qifī (stop), she said: qāf (to denote waqaftu – I stopped).
  • Ikrimah (and Ibn Abbas according to a narration) viewed the disconnected letters to be oaths (qasm) with al-Akhfush explaining that God made an oath with these letters to impart honour and stature to these, as they make up the core principles of His revealed books.

My point here is to undermine the superficial and specious claim that all of the salaf (early exemplars), or that the Islamic scholarly tradition has held the bizarre view that pronouncing the Qur’an’s Arabic phonemes meets God’s expectations of His servants.

But then what for the few scholars such as al-Sha’bī who opined that the disconnected letters are from the mutashābihāt (ambiguous) that God refers to in 3:7? al-Sha’bī and the others seem to have concluded this from the statement of the prophetic companion, Abū Bakr, who referred to the disconnected letters as “the secrets of God”. Al-Baghawī relates that Dāwūd b. Abū Hind asked al-Sha’bī’ about disconnected letters (referring to them as the “openings of chapters”) to which he replied: “Dāwūd, for every book there is a secret and the secret of the Qur’an is the openings of chapters, so leave them and ask about anything else.” There are two pertinent things to note about al-Sha’bī’s opinion from this:

1. That his view on the disconnected letters being mutashābih (and thus unintelligible to us) is based on his interpretation of Abu Bakr’s reference to “secrets”. Ultimately, this is al-Sha’bī’s personal interpretation of an equivocal statement made by a sahābī – and it certainly wasn’t a widely held interpretation of the statement.

2. al-Sha’bī clearly viewed the disconnected letters as a special case and affirmed the meaning of ALL other verses – “leave them and ask about anything else.” So to use his position on the disconnected letters to discount the need to understand the Qur’an is a gross misrepresentation of his position.

Yet the discussion doesn’t end there. As is the practice of actual scholars, those such as al-Tabari would tease out all possibilities: for argument’s sake, let’s say the disconnected letters aren’t an abbreviation. What then? al-Tabari wrote: “If it is said: Is there anything in the Qur’an that doesn’t have meaning? The response is: the meaning of this is that He begins the chapters with the disconnected letters so that it is known that the chapter before it has ended…”

So even if we hypothetically accept that the disconnected letters do not represent abbreviated words, al-Tabari infers that they’d still serve a meaningful purpose which is to demarcate between two chapters. They’re not just there for the sake of it. Along this line of thinking, Zaid b. Aslam and Mujahid opined that they were the names of the actual surah.

Whatever the case, there is neither a compelling argument to establish that the disconnected letters exist for the sake of it, nor that God sent a message that isn’t required to be understood by those able to do so – and the continued persistence of some to establish both, while disparaging those who reject phonemic ritualism for those that can do better, is incredibly odd.

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Now I acknowledge that there’s the argument affirming that the disconnected letters have meaning/purpose, but that we may not know them and still recite them, and that this may be indicative of a virtue (fadl) of reciting the book that is not dependent on understanding. Aside from having already dealt with what reciting means here, I make the following points:

1. Of course, there’ll be many things in a text that the laity don’t know, but it’s quite bizarre to conclude from this that the virtue of reading anything is not dependent on understanding. If one doesn’t know something s/he simply finds out! There are many Qur’anic terms that the sahābah would recite and not understand, so they would go and ask the Prophet (or other sahābah more learned). It’s quite bizarre that we take a binary position. And when the sahābah didn’t understand a word or phrase, they certainly didn’t conclude that the fadl of reciting the book is not dependent on understanding! In fact, the mere fact that they would go and ask tells us that they fully expected the Qur’an to have meaning and that the Quran’s primary objective was to guide them, not just be sung as divine sounds. Not knowing everything is understandable. Here my concern is that making ‘not knowing’ an acceptable norm that we should engender (across the board) is absurd and dangerous.

2. One of the major points of this article was to show that the initial assumption amongst the early mufassirin very clearly was that disconnected letters have meaning/purpose, which is why they sought to explore them.

3. As I pointed out with the hypothetical scenario above (where disconnected letters aren’t an abbreviation), we can still affirm that the disconnected letters have a purpose (as intimated by al-Tabari), such as acting as a marker between surahs. As an analogy, one might not know the meaning/purpose of a full stop but abide by it anyhow, and not knowing its meaning/purpose doesn’t mean that we ought not to understand the essay or article, and that there is virtue in doing so!

4. Even on viewing the disconnected letters as a “secret” that we don’t know, al-Sha’bī himself states that disconnected letters are disanalogous with the rest of the Qur’an – we shouldn’t infer anything about the rest of it from disconnected letters – they’re an exception. And as a point of usul: it’s irrational to extract general rules or an overarching attitude from exceptional cases; we extract general rules from generalities.

5. Following on, let’s for a moment imagine there were no disconnected letters in the Qur’an: would we still assert that the virtue of reciting the book is not dependent on understanding? So if not, as we’d then have little reason to, are we undermining a common-sense approach that affirms words are for meaning, based on approximately 6500 verses, with an approach that says reciting the book is not dependent on understanding because we literally have a few verses that make up the disconnected letters? It seems a very unbalanced method of reasoning.

6. Also, and relatedly: letters by their very nature do not mean anything – they only mean something when they come together to produce a word, or represent something (as an abbreviation for example). Thus, drawing an overarching approach to words and sentences based on letters is fallacious.

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I’d like to point out that this isn’t the full extent of opinions by early exegetes that establish my point. But it is meant to show how a paltry 15 minutes of reading around the topic would put any attempt to use the disconnected letters as an argument against understanding the Qur’an squarely to rest. My issue is not with the sincere laity for whom a simple idea might spring to mind (and for whom this article is primarily for), nor with those who are misinformed and can get sensitive when they hear things that go against their protracted miseducation (we can sympathise), but those who position themselves as scholars, religious leaders, and spokespersons for God who are clearly uninformed, and routinely misinform their lay followers on a host of basic matters, often emboldening them to argue with others, all the while claiming the mantle of “the salaf” or “tradition” which as we’ve seen here (and often elsewhere) goes in another direction!

If believers are being held back on even the most basic of matters of faith, such as the primacy of understanding God’s words, what are we meant to expect when it comes to more complicated matters of theology, law, ethics, politics or society?!

May God guide us all.

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