Quran Contradiction

The Perspicuity of the Quran and It’s Mysterious Letters

Sam Shamoun

The Quran makes the repeated assertion that it is a clear or perspicuous book which fully explains everything,

… Shall I seek a judge other than Allah while it is He Who has sent down unto you the Book (The Qur'an), explained in detail… S. 6:114 Hilali-Khan

… And We have sent down on thee the Book making clear everything, and as a guidance and a mercy, and as good tidings to those who surrender. S. 16:89 Arberry

A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail; A Qur'an in Arabic for people who know S. 41:3 Hilali-Khan

The problem with these statements is that many of the chapters of the Quran start off with specific Arabic letters which it nowhere explains:

Appealing to Muhammad’s Sunna won’t help since Muslim scholars admit that there are no reports from either their prophet himself or his companions where Muhammad commented or explained the meaning and purpose of these mysterious letters. The late Muslim translator and expositor Muhammad Asad was such a scholar since he candidly acknowledged that,

"About one-quarter of the Qur'anic suras are preceded by mysterious letter-symbols called muqatta'at ('disjointed letters') or, occasionally, fawatih ('openings') because they appear at the beginning of the relevant suras. Out of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet, exactly one-half - that is, fourteen - occur in this position, either singly or in varying combinations of two, three, four, or five letters. They are always pronounced singly, by their designations and not as mere sounds - thus: alif lam mim, or ha mim, etc.

"The significance of these letter-symbols has perplexed the commentators from the earliest times. There is no evidence of the Prophet's having ever referred to them in any of his recorded utterances, nor any of his Companions having ever asked him for an explanation. None the less, it is established beyond any possibility of doubt that all the Companions - obviously following the example of the Prophet - regarded the muqatta'at as integral parts of the suras to which they are prefixed, and used to recite them accordingly: a fact which disposes effectively of the suggestion advanced by some Western orientalists that these letters may be no more than the initials of the scribes who wrote down the individual revelations at the Prophet's dictation, or of the Companions who recorded them at the time of the final codification of the Qur'an during the reign of the first three Caliphs.

"Some of the Companions as well as some of their immediate successors and later Qur'anic commentators were convinced that these letters are abbreviations of certain words or even phrases relating to God and His attributes, and tried to 'reconstruct' them with much ingenuity; but since the possible combinations are practically unlimited, all such interpretations are highly arbitrary and, therefore, devoid of any real usefulness …" (Asad, The Message of the Qur'an [Dar al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp Gibraltar, rpt. 1993], Appendix II, p. 992; bold and underline emphasis ours)

After summarizing several different interpretations, Asad had to honestly admit:

"… and so, in the last resort, we must content ourselves with the finding that a solution of this problem still remains beyond our grasp. This was apparently the view of the four Right-Guided Caliphs, summarized in these words of Abu Bakr: ‘In every divine writ (kitab) there is [an element of] mystery - and the mystery of the Qur'an is [indicated] in the openings of [some of] the suras.’" (Ibid., p. 993; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Even the late Abdullah Yusuf Ali stated:

"As shown in Appendix I (Sipara 3), the Abbreviated Letters are mystic symbols, about whose meaning there is no authoritative explanation. If the theory advanced in n. 25 to ii. 1 has any validity, and the present group A.L.R. is cognate to the group A.L.M., we have to consider and form some idea in our minds as to the probable meaning of the variation… But no one should be dogmatic in speculation about mystic Symbols." (Ali, The Holy Qur'an - Introduction to Sura X [Yunus], p. 481; bold emphasis ours)

We are further told in one of his footnotes concerning the meaning A.L.M. that,

"… Much has been written about the meaning of these letters, but most of it is pure conjecture. Some commentators are content to recognize them as some mystic symbols, of which it is unprofitable to discuss the meaning by mere verbal logic. In mysticism we accept symbols as such for a time being: their esoteric meaning comes from the inner light when we are ready for it ..." (Ibid. p. 17, fn. 25; bold emphasis ours)

Nor is this a modern position since even the renowned medieval theologian and Quran expositor Ibn Kathir admitted that there was no unanimous opinion among the scholars concerning the meaning of these letters:

"The 'ulama do not agree as to the interpretation of <Alif-Lam-Mim> and other similar letters at the beginning of some suras. They have been given the following interpretations:

  1. The letters belong to Mutashabih (allegorical) verses, whose meaning is known only to Allah.
  2. They are the names of Allah.
  3. They have meaning, and Allah did not reveal them in vain and without a purpose. Those ignorant people who say that the Qur'an contains words for mere worship, that have no meaning whatsoever - are certainly in great error. There is no doubt that the letters at the beginning of some Surahs have a meaning: we say about them only what is authentically said about them by the Prophet. Otherwise, we say nothing further about them and recite the verse <‘We believe in it; it is all from our Lord.’> (3:7).

"As for the wisdom behind these letters, some scholars have said it is:

  1. To alert the polytheists so that they might listen to the words of Allah. This is a very weak reason in light of the fact that such disconnected letters do not appear at the beginning of every Surah. Besides al-Baqarah and al-'Imran that follows it, both start with these letters, and both were revealed in Madinah where there were no polytheists.
  2. Others believe that they are an example of the miraculous wonder of the Qur'an and the people are unable to confront it. This opinion is held by many scholars, including the Sheikh of Islam, Ibn Taymiyya. This opinion is borne out by the fact that all disconnected letters mentioned in the Qur'an are followed by a mention of the Qur'an itself and its revelation by Allah, Lord of the worlds. For example: <Alif-Lam-Mim. This is the Book ...> (2:1), <Ha. Mim. By the Book that makes things clear, that is this Qur'an)> (43:1), <Alif-Lam-Mim. Allah! There is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Subsistent. He has revealed to (Muhammad) the Scripture> (3:1-3). <Alif-Lam-Ra. (This is) a Scripture which We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad) ...> (14:1) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir - Part 1 Surah Al-Fatiha Surah Al-Baqarah, ayat 1 to 141, Abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib Ar-Rafa'i [Al-Firdous Ltd., London 1998], pp. 55-57; italic and underline emphasis ours)

Ibn Kathir's second explanation is rather unconvincing since there are certain suras that begin by mentioning the Quran without the mysterious letters preceding the references:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Who hath sent His Servant the Book, and hath allowed therein no Crookedness. S. 18:1; cf. S. 24:1; 25:1; 39:1-2; 52:1-3; 55:1-2; 97:1

And there are other suras where the letters appear without any mention of the Quran itself:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Kaf. Ha. Ya. Ain. Sad. (This is) a mention of Zakariya. S. 19:1-2


In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Alif-Lam-Mim. Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, "We believe", and that they will not be tested? S. 29:1-2; cf. 30:1-2; 68:1

In light of this confusion the following passage becomes all the more ironic since these unintelligible letters appear right before the assertion that the Muslim scripture is a clear book!

Alif Lam Ra. A Book whose verses are set clear, and then distinguished, from One All-wise, All-aware: S. 11:1

The fact is that these mysterious letters that are read or recited by Muslims everyday are an explicit reminder and an emphatic witness against the Quran’s claim that it is a perspicuous and fully detailed scripture. This assertion is blatantly false in light of these mysterious letters which has left the Muslim community perplexed and confused till this day concerning their exact purpose and meaning.

We must therefore say that, in light of the foregoing, the real miracle of the Quran is its ability to convince Muslims that it is supernatural in origin despite the fact that most of its text is incoherent and unintelligible, and is filled with gross errors and irreconcilable contradictions.

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