Huruf-i-Muqatta‘at: Farahi’s Theory
Shehzad Saleem

    More than one-fourth of the Qur’anic Surahs begin with certain abbreviated letters called Huruf-i-Muqatta‘at. These letters are actually the names of the respective surahs, as is evident from the Qur’an. Many Ahadith as well as the pre-Islamic Arabic literature endorse this view. However, there remains the question of why the surahs are called so. Many scholars have attempted to answer the question but what they have come up with is not very satisfactory. Farahi (d:1930 AD) has presented an explanation which might hold the key to the problem. We shall briefly discuss his theory.  
    Those who are aware of the history of the Arabic alphabet know that it has been derived from the Hebrew alphabet, which itself has its roots in the alphabet used in ancient Arabia. Farahi is of the view that the letters of this parent alphabet as English and Hindi do not represent phonetic sounds only, but as the Chinese alphabet symbolise certain meanings and objects and usually assume the shape of the objects and meanings they convey. He goes on to assert that it was 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 tables 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 somewhat resembles their ancient forms. For example, it is known about the Arabic letter Alif that it is used to mean a cow and was represented by a cow's head. The letter Ba in Hebrew is called Beth and means Bayt (house) as well. The Hebrew pronunciation of Jim is Gimel which means Jamal (camel). Ta stands for a serpent and is written in a serpent’s shape also. Mim represents a water wave and also has a similar configuration.  
    Farahi presents Surah Nun in support of his theory. The letter Nun still denotes its ancient meaning of fish. In this Surah, the Prophet Jonah (sws) has been addressed as Sahibu’l-Hut that is he who is swallowed by a whale. Farahi opines that it is because of this reference that the Surah is called Nun. He goes on to say that if one keeps in consideration the example given  above, it is quite likely that the abbreviated letters by which other Surahs commence are placed at the beginning of the Surahs to symbolise a relation between the topics of a particular Surah and their own ancient connotations.  
    Some other names of the Qur’anic Surahs reinforce Farahi's theory. Surah Taha, for example, begins with the letter Ta which represents a serpent, as has been indicated before. After a brief introduction the tale of Moses (sws) and his staff which is transformed into a snake has been depicted in it. Other Surahs as Tasin and Tasin Mim, which begin with the letter Ta, also portray this miraculous episode.  
    Surah Baqarah, which begins with the letter Alif, is another example which further strengthens Farahi’s claims. It has been indicated before that the letter Alif had the meaning of a cow associated with it and is represented by a cow’s head. Surah Baqarah, as we all know, contains the anecdote of a cow and its sacrifice.  
    Another aspect of the Surahs which begin with the same letter is a similarity in their topics and even in their style and construction. For example, all Surahs which begin with Alif  basically deal with Tawhid (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 Farahi’s theory only because it is substantiated to some extent with sound arguments. 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’anic Surahs are so named.  

(Adapted from Islahi’s ‘Tadabbur-i-Qur’an’)