The Background and Significance of Bábí-Bahá'í Interpretations of hurufat al-muqatta'at, the Mysterious Arabic Letters of the Qur'án

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28
London School of Economics: London, England
July 14–16, 2000
(see list of papers from #28)


    Both Sunni and Shí'í Islamic traditions and sources contain numerous passages which dwell upon the secret, mysterious nature of those letters of the Arabic alphabet which open or occur before 29 of the 114 (=6x19) súrahs of the Qur'án, the Islamic Holy Book. At the beginning of certain súras varying numbers of Arabic letters are set down, sometimes single letters ("N", súra 68) or groups of between two (e.g., "T-S", súra 27) and five letters (e.g., "A-L-M" = súras 2, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 and "K-H-Y-'-S", súra 19). In total fourteen different Arabic letters are used in this way. The phrase al-hurufát al-muqatt'át collectively designates these letters and has been variously translated into English; al-muqatta'ah indicates the letters as being, "isolated," "detached," or "mysterious," etc.

    The obscurity of these letters is registered, for example, in the clear, voluminous Tafsír of al-Qurtubí and in other Shí'í sources which relay a tradition of (among others) 'Alí ibn Abí TáIib (first lmám of the Shí'ah, d.40/661) or Sufyán al-Thawrí: "The [isolated letters] are the sirr Alláh (mystery of God) in the Qur'án. For God there is a sirr (mystery) in every [sacred] Book among His books." Tradition has it that the significance of these letters is known only to God. They are often classified among the mutashábbihít, the "ambiguous," "unclear," or "obscure" verses; as opposed to those of muhkamát, "unambiguous," of "established" significance. Despite the arcane nature of the letters, attempts to clarify and expound their significance are legion. While concrete sense have been allotted the letters by western orientalists and academics, they have also been given mystical, qabbalistic and esoteric meanings by Muslims. Deep and allusive senses have been thought to be implicit in these mysterious letters of the Qur'án.

    In a number of the alwáh ("Tablets") or writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, interpretations of the mysterious letters can be found. On occasion they likewise use similarly "detached" Arabic letters a( the beginning of their writings. Following qur'anic precedent and from the very outset of his mission (1844-50), the Báb in his neo-qur'anic Tafsír súrat yúsuf (Commentary upon the Surah of Joseph) set down disconnected letters before most of the named súrahs of this work; which is also known as the Qayyúm al-asmá' ("Self-Subsisting [Deity] of the Names"). Various other shorter works and alwáh of the Báb including his Kitáb al-fihrist (Book of the Index) commence with detached letters.

    The Báb also drew attention to the chronological and prophetic import of the mysterious letters found in the Qur'án and touched upon in Islamic tradition.

    He even corrected some abjad-numerologial speculations recorded in the Bihár al-anwár (Oceans of Lights) of the great Shí'í encyclopedist Muhammad Báqir Majlisí (d. 1699). In His Persian Seven Proofs (Dalá'il-i sab'ih), he refers to an IsIamic tradition as transmitted through Abí Labíd Makhzúmí from Imám Abú Ja'far (=Muhammad al-Báqir d. 126/743) in which the year 1260[7] AH is indicated in certain of the sets of disconnected letters of the Qur'án.

    This tradition was relayed by 'Ayyáshí and is recorded, for example, by Mullá Muhsin al-Fayd al-Káshání in his Qur'án Commentary, Tafsír al-Sáfí (on Q. 2:1). The Báb interpreted this tradition relative to the year (AH) of the coming of the Islámic promised one, the time of the advent of the Mahdí-Qá'im. This can be calculated from the chronological realization of the numerical value of the first seven sets of disconnected letters, those which occur between A-L-M (in Q. súra 2) and A-L-M-R (in Q. súra 13). Bahá'u'lláh, in his lengthy Lawh-i-hurufat al-muqatta'a (c. 1857?), refers to this or a similar tradition.

    Such chronological prophecies were early on utilized by Bahá'í apologists in Bahá'í teaching activity. The great Bahá'í apologist Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpáyigání (d. 1914), for example, clarified and used this lslámic proof text in several of his writings including his early Sharh-i áyát-i muvarrikhah ("Commentary upon the chronological proof texts") which was written in Hamadán (Iran) around 1888 CE.

    In this paper notes upon these and other Islamic and Bábí-Bahá'í significances of the mysterious, isolated letters of the Qur'án will be registered, as will examples of their use by the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh.

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