Letters of the Arabic alphabet such as Alif Laam Meem, Ya Seen and Ha Meem are considered to be ‘broken’ in the Quran. These so-called broken letters mark the beginning of 29 surahs (or chapters) and are identical in number to the letters of the Arabic alphabet. But what are their purpose and significance?
Of all the explanations given by various scholars, the one which is the most authentic, and supported by Abu Bakr, Ibn-Kathir and Ibn-Taiymiyah, is that they can easily be compared to the fundamental elements found in the human body.
Now consider this fact. While clay and dust may be composed of the same structural elements as the human body, it would be absurd to say that a human being is comparable to either clay or dust. We all have access to the elements that are found in the human body, but we cannot replicate the human body just by adding a few gallons of water. And although we have a better understanding of the elements which make up the human body thanks to modern science, we are still at a loss when asked to define the secret of life.
The Qur’an addresses those people who reject its Divine authority in the same manner.
The Qur’an tells its readers that it is written in their language; a language in which the Arabs took great pride and which was at its peak when the Qur’an was revealed. The Qur’an is composed of the same letters that the Arabs used to express themselves most exquisitely and yet, like the human body, it cannot be replicated.
Through the letters Alif Laam Meem, Yaa Seen, Ha-Meem, etc. the Qur’an challenges those who doubt its authenticity to produce a surah similar to the Qur’an in beauty and elegance. It asks every man and jinn to create a recital like the Qur’an and yet, in the same breath, contests that it is an impossible task even with each other’s support. This challenge is mentioned in Surah Isra chapter 17, verse 88 and Surah Tur chapter 52, verse 34.
قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا – 17:88
“Say, if mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were to each other assistants.”
Later the Qur’an repeats the challenge in Surah Hud chapter 11, verse 13 by asking everyone to come together to produce ten surahs.
أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ ۖ قُلْ فَأْتُوا بِعَشْرِ سُوَرٍ مِّثْلِهِ مُفْتَرَيَاتٍ وَادْعُوا مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ – 11:13
“Or do they say, he invented it? Say, then bring ten surahs like it that have been invented and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”
And again the challenge is handed out in Surah Yunus chapter 10, verse 38 when it asks them to produce one surah similar to the Qur’an.
أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ ۖ قُلْ فَأْتُوا بِسُورَةٍ مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُوا مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ – 10:38
“Or do they say [about the Prophet], he invented it? Say, then bring forth a surah like it and call upon [for assistance] whomever you can besides Allah, if you should be truthful.”
Finally, the easiest challenge is given in Surah Al-Baqarah chapter 2, verses 23 and 24.
وَإِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَىٰ عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُوا بِسُورَةٍ مِّن مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُوا شُهَدَاءَكُم مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ – 2:23
فَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلُوا وَلَن تَفْعَلُوا فَاتَّقُوا النَّارَ الَّتِي وَقُودُهَا النَّاسُ وَالْحِجَارَةُ ۖ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِينَ – 2:24
“And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful. But if you do not – and you will never be able to – then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.”
To compare the skills of two artisans, each one must be given samples of the same raw materials. Their performance then needs to be evaluated as they set about to perform the same task. If they are tailors, for example, they must be given identical fabrics and tools to complete the project. Similarly, the miraculous nature of the language of the Qur’an does not lie only in the fact that it is the Word of Allah, but also because it is made up of the same letters in which the pagan Arabs took pride. The letters of the Arabic language are the raw materials in which we can pen a masterpiece. However, to date, the text of the Qur’an has not been rivaled despite the fact that the Arabs are noted for their rhetoric ability and meaningful expression.
Just as the contents of the human body are known to us and can be obtained by us, the Qur’an cannot be replicated despite our knowledge of the letters and our ability to form words. Life cannot be created by us, even if we possess the understanding of the elements that make up the human body. Similarly, we cannot capture the same eloquence of expression that we find in the Qur’an, despite our understanding of the Arabic alphabet. It is through its incomparable beauty that the Qur’an thus proves its Divine origin.