¡ Alif. Lām. Mīm.
1 Of the 114 sūrahs of the Quran, 29 begin with individual letters of the Arabic alphabet. In this translation these letters are transliterated as recited (e.g., alif is the name of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet), although in other translations the corresponding Latin letters are used (e.g., A, L, M, which correspond phonetically to alif, lām, mīm). In recitation the names of the letters are used, not their sounds. Also, some letter names have two forms, e.g., rā and rāʾ. The Quran uses the former, the commentary, the latter.
The individual letters are one of the most enigmatic features of the Quran and have
been a subject of debate and speculation among Muslims since the revelation of the Quran. It is reported by many Quran commentators that Abū Bakr, the first Caliph, said, “Every book has a mystery (sirr), and the mystery of the Quran is the beginnings of the sūrahs.” ʿAlī, the fourth Caliph, is reported to have said, “Every book has a quintessence (ṣafwah), and the quintessence of this Book is the spelled-out letters.” Al-Rāzī discusses the metaphor of a great sea, which leads to a river, which leads to streams, which lead to rivulets; if the rivulet was made to carry all the water of the stream or the riverbed the entire contents of the sea, it would be overwhelmed and destroyed. He mentions the verse He sends down water from the sky, so that the riverbeds flow according to their measure (13:17). He further reports the saying: “The learned have a secret, the vicegerents (khulafāʾ) have a secret, the prophets have a secret, the angels have a secret, and beyond all of that God has a secret. If the ignorant came to know the secret of the learned, they would destroy them. If the learned came to know the secret of the vicegerents, they would break away from them. If the vicegerents came to know the secret of the prophets, they would oppose them. If the prophets came to know the secret of the angels, they would indict them. If the angels knew the secret of God they would fall down in bewilderment and pass away into ruin.” The commentator Ibn ʿAjībah is of the opinion that “only the elite of the greatest Friends of God (awliyāʾ) know the secrets of these letters.”
These sayings speak to the position that there are ineffable realities known only to some, and that the individual letters may be one of those mysteries whose true meaning is largely hidden, but not entirely so. Many theologians have objected to the notion that any part of the Quran is unknowable to people, adducing verses that describe the Quran as a clear Book (5:15) or Wise Book (10:1) and as a guidance (2:2) in clear, Arabic tongue (16:103). Moreover, if there were no way to gain knowledge of the Book, it would be as if one addressed Arabs in a language incomprehensible to them (R). The question of knowing the inner meaning of the Quran is discussed in detail in 3:7c.
Al-Rāzī tries for a compromise position by noting that, although we can know the wisdom in certain kinds of legislation, such as the prohibitions against alcohol and gambling, there are other actions required by religion whose wisdom we do not know, such as some of the rituals of the ḥajj (pilgrimage; see 2:196c). The part of the Quran that we cannot understand is analogous to those actions whose underlying wisdom we do not know; we perform them with trust and faithfulness, but without the transparency available to us in other aspects of religious practice. We allow them to remain mysteries, and al-Rāzī argues that this can have the positive effect of keeping one’s heart oriented beyond the world and beyond what one already knows.
Many of the interpretations see the letters as abbreviations that may represent Names or Qualities of God, phrases, or names of other objects. In this sūrah, some offer
the interpretation that the alif stands for Allāh, lām for Jibrīl (Gabriel), and mīm for Muḥammad, symbolizing the descent of revelation from God through Gabriel to the Prophet. Another interpretation states that the alif represents the origin of sound, the lām represents the middle of it, since it is produced in the mouth, and the mīm represents the consummation of sound, since it is produced on the lips. Others see the individual letters as representing the names of sūrahs, as is recognized universally in the case of Yā Sīn, Ṣad, Nūn, and Qāf, although other sūrahs with individual letters bear other names, such as al-Baqarah and Āl ʿImrān. Still others, like followers of the Islamic science called al-jafr (a kind of esoteric commentary akin to gematria in Hebrew), base interpretations on the numerical symbolism and value of the letters, since each Arabic letter has a corresponding numerical value (e.g., alif is 1, lām is 30, and mīm is 40).
Some have seen the letters as signals that the Book is made up of these letters and that they can be seen as an oath, as is so common in the Quran, such as in Sūrah 91, whose first seven verses start with God swearing an oath by created things. In the case of the letters, God would thus be swearing by the letters that make up the Quran, just as He swears by some objects of the world of creation. At a deeper level of meaning, the letters, in their multifarious forms, sounds, and loci of pronunciation in the mouth and throat, symbolize God’s Creative Act. In the same way that the letters and sounds make up words that make up the Book, the manifestation and interplay of God’s Names and Qualities make up creation. In this vein many Sufis have spoken of creation as “the Breath of the Compassionate” manifesting God’s Names and Qualities.