More than one-fourth of the Quranic Surahs begins with
certain abbreviated letters called Huroof-i-Muqatta'aat. These letters are
actually the names of the respective surahs, as is evident from the Quran. Many
Ahaadith 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 symbolize 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
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 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
Farahi presents Surah Noon in support of his theory. The
letter Noon still denotes its ancient meaning of fish. In this Surah, the
Prophet Jonah (sws) has been addressed as Saahib-ul-Hoot that is he who is
swallowed by a whale. Farahi opines that it is because of this reference that
the Surah is called Noon. 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
symbolize a relation between the topics of a particular Surah and their own
Some other names of the Quranic Surahs reinforce Farahi's
theory. Surah 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 Surahs as Taaseen and Taaseen Meem, which begin with the letter Tuai, also
portray this miraculous episode.
Surah Baqarah, which begins with the letter alif, is
another example which further strengthens Farah'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 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 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 Quranic Surahs are so named.
(Adapted from Islahi's