Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verse One (Alif Lam Meem)
Alif lam Meem (A.L.M)
The chapter begins with three individual letters from the Arabic alphabet Alif, Laam and Meem. In any language, Letters have names and phonetic sounds. When people communicate they pronounce the sound of the letters and not their name. For example, when you say the word ‘drive’, you pronounce the sounds of the letters; but if you want to specify the letters by their names, you would spell the word and say “D”, “R”, “I” “V” “E”. Only an educated person can pronounce both the names and sounds of letters. As for the illiterate, he or she can only pronounce the sounds of letters while speaking. If you ask an illiterate person to spell a word, he or she won’t be able to.
This is an interesting fact that should draw our attention. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was illiterate, unable to read or spell. However, when the Quran was revealed to him, he started reciting verses with the names of the letters. The pronunciation of these letters indicates that the Prophet had heard the Quran, and was conveying what was revealed to him.
Perhaps more interestingly, we find some chapters of the Quran begin with words that are identical in their Arabic written form; however, these words are recited differently in each chapter. For example, in chapter 94 (The Consolation), the word الم is recited as a single word, while in chapter 2 (The Cow) the exact same word is recited by pronouncing each letter separately ‘alif laam meem’. What made the Prophet recite the same written word ‘الم’ differently in different chapters of the Quran? This clearly indicates that He was reciting the holy text, not from his knowledge or interpretation, but as conveyed to him by the Angle Gabriel.
Here, we should take note that the true essence of the Quran can only be obtained through listening to it being recited in the Arabic language. A person cannot recite it properly by reading alone. Only through listening can one determine the proper recitation of each word in any particular verse.
When we examine the Quran for verses similar to the first verse in “the Cow”, we find some chapters that begin with verses of a single letter, and others that begin with a verse that consists of four or five letters. At times, letters are in a separate verse, and in other chapters (such as Chapter 13) you find these letters as part of a larger verse. It becomes quickly evident that the letters that occur in the beginning of some chapters do not follow any certain rule or pattern.
Naturally, at this point you may ask: what is the meaning of these letters? We reply that the question in itself is incorrect, because linguistically -around the world- single alphabetical letters carry no meaning. Letters are building blocks for assembling words or denoting a sound.
Let’s, however, not forget what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told us when he said: "Whoever recites God’s Book will earn a reward for each letter. And that reward will be multiplied by ten. I am not saying that "Alif, Laam, Meem" is a letter, rather I am saying that "Alif" is a letter, "laam" is a letter, and "meem" is a letter."
So while you may not understand the meaning of a verse or two as you recite the Quran, you can rest assured that you will benefit from and be rewarded for its recitation. This is similar to layperson living in a remote village who benefits from electricity, television and mobile service although he or she may have no understanding about how they work. You also see this in the example of passwords used by the military which have no meaning to you, but could mean life or death for the commander who holds their key. So when you do not understand a verse, take it as God has intended. He has instilled within these letters unrevealed secrets and miracles that, at this point of time, we do not understand but can still benefit from.
In fact, the Quran holds many miracles and hidden treasures that encompass every area of human knowledge. Intellectual thinkers from all fields of study had pondered over God’s book and found it miraculous. A scholar of literature who studies the Quran will find literary miracles in its verses. While a medical doctor, or an astronomer will find the Quran miraculous scientifically and so on. Each one of us may possess a key of understanding according to his or her knowledge. But only Allah with His infinite knowledge possesses all the keys to the Quran. We do not wait to find out the wisdom behind the prohibition of consuming pork and drinking alcohol in order to refrain from them. Rather we refrain from them, knowing well that they are prohibited because God, through His knowledge and His love for us, has made them unlawful. Similarly, we say to those who question the wisdom behind beginning some Quran chapters with letters, that God Almighty holds the wisdom behind it, and we accept it from our Lord whether we understand it or not.
You can appreciate this point more when you look at the Meccan society at the time of revelation. When the Quran was revealed among the believers and the non-believers, none of them criticized these verses. Even the non-believers whose mission was to discredit the prophet and his message did not challenge the use of these letters. How could they have missed such an opportunity to attack the Quran unless deep down, through their fine Arabic and linguistic skills, they understood the value of such speech.
So, when you direct yourself to God in worship through reciting his book, don’t occupy your mind with pondering the meaning of these letters. You can reap the full reward of worship with the understanding that many of the miracles and treasures of the Quran are beyond the mind’s comprehension. On the other hand, when you set out to study the Quran, you can dedicate as much time as you need to research each word, and ponder over its meaning.
Keep in mind, however, that if you claim that you have understood all the meanings of the Quran, then you have confined the meaning of God’s speech. This is why these letters come as a mystery to you; So that you are reminded that you cannot limit the meanings of the Quran to your own understanding and interpretation. The spoken word holds within it the attributes of the speaker. In the case of the Quran, God is the speaker; His attributes of perfection are in every word of the Holy book. That is why; the human understanding cannot encompass the ultimate meaning of the Quran. If you think about the meanings of a single verse, you will certainly find something new every day. In fact, scholars have immersed into this subject, and each scholar’s interpretation was based on his own level of purity of mind. Yet no scholar has claimed that his or her view is the intended meaning behind a verse or a chapter. Rather each said ‘God knows best’.
Thus when you recite the first verse from “The Cow”, remember that just as eyesight has limitations, so do the ear, smell and perhaps more importantly, the human mind. But this does not close the doors of research and seeking further knowledge.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at this verse from another angle. Speech is a means of communication between the speaker and the listener. While the speaker has the initiative, many times the listener’s mind is occupied with something else that could result in missing the first few words of a conversation. Therefore, before delivering an important message, you can alert the listener by making sounds or saying letters to grab his or her attention.
The Prophet peace be upon him said: “Practice what you understand of the Quran, and believe in what you do not understand”.
God Almighty says:
It is He who has sent this Scripture down to you. Some of its verses are definite in meaning- these are the cornerstone of the Scripture- and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and to pin down a specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning. Those firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it: it is all from our Lord’- only those with real perception will take heed- (3:07)