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The Abbreviated Letters: Farāhī’s Theory
Qur'anic Exegesis
Dr. Shehzad Saleem

More than a fourth of the Qur’ānic Sūrahs begin with certain abbreviated letters (huroof-i-muqatta`aat). These are actually the names of the respective sūrahs, as is evident from the Qur’ān. Many traditions as well as the pre-Islamic Arabic literature endorse this fact. There, however, remains the question of why the sūrahs are called so. Many scholars have attempted to answer the question but what they have come up with is not very satisfactory. Farāhī (d: 1930 AD) has presented an explanation which might hold the key to the problem. We shall briefly discuss his theory.

Those who are acquainted with the history of the Arabic alphabet know that it  has  been derived  from  Hebrew. The Hebrew alphabet itself has its roots in the alphabet which was in use in ancient Arabia. Farāhī is of the view that the letters of this parent alphabet, like English and Hindi, do not represent phonetic sounds only, but like the Chinese alphabet symbolize certain meanings and certain objects, and usually assume the shape of the objects or meanings they convey. He goes on to assert that it were these letters which the early Egyptians adopted and after adapting them according to their own concepts founded the hieroglyphic script from them. The remnants of this script can be seen in the tablets of the Egyptian Pyramids.

The science which deciphers the meanings of these letters is now extinct. However, there are some letters whose meanings have persisted to this day, and the way they are written also some what resembles their ancient forms. For example, it is known about the Arabic letter alif that it used to mean a cow and was represented by a cow’s head. The letter bay in Hebrew is called bait and means bait (house) as well. The Hebrew pronunciation of jeem is jaimal which means jamal (camel). Tuai stands for a serpent and is written in a serpent’s shape also. Meem represents a water wave and also has a similar configuration.

Farāhī presents Sūrah Noon in support of his theory. The letter noon still denotes its ancient meaning of a fish. In this sūrah, the Prophet Jonah (sws) has been addressed as Saahib-ul-Hoot ie. he who is swallowed by a whale. Farāhī opines that it is because of this reference that the Sūrah is called Noon. He goes on to say that if one keeps the above example in consideration, it is quite likely that the abbreviated letters by which other sūrahs commence are placed at the begining of the sūrahs to symbolise a relation between the topics of a particular sūrah and their own ancient connotations.

Some other names of the Qur’ānic Sūrahs reinforce Farāhī’s theory. Sūrah Taaha, for example, begins with the letter tuai which represents a serpent, as has been indicated before. After a brief introduction the tale of Moses and his staff which is transformed into a snake has been depicted in it. Other sūrahs like Taaseen and Taaseen Meem, which begin with the letter tuai also portray this miraculous episode.

Sūrah Baqarah which begins with the letter alif is another example which further strengthens Farāhī’s claims. It has been indicated before that the letter alif had the meaninng of a cow associated with it and was represented by a cow’s head. Sūrah Baqarah, as we all know, contains the anecdote of a cow and its sacrifice.

Another aspect of the sūrahs which begins with the same letter is a similarity in their topics and even in their style and construction. For example, sūrahs which begins with alif all basically deal with Tauheed (monotheism). It would be appropriate here to point out that the letter alif also stood for Allah, the One and Alone.

We have presented here Farāhī’s theory only because it is substantiated to some extent with sound arguments. Yet it must be conceded, that the theory needs to be developed and verified still further if it is to be accepted as the only logical explanation of why the Qur’ānic Sūrahs are so named.

(Adapted from Islahi’s "Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān")


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