Not a single Muslim scholar has disputed the number of letters in Bismillah before the evidence (bayyina) came to them, which is another fulfillment of the law (2:213; 3:19; 98:4). For instance, Fahraddin al-Razi, in his 30 volume commentary of the Quran, Al-tafsirul Kabir in his twenty third point on Bismillah acknowledges the 19 letters and tries to ascribe a meaning to this number. Interestingly, he refers to a Hadith which says: “The guardians of hell are 19, and God saves people from them through these 19 letters.” Qurtubi, another renowned Sunni scholar, in the 92nd page of his commentary of the Quran, Al-Jami Li Ahkami al-Quran, acknowledges the same simple fact and narrates from Ibn-i Masud who relate the 19 letters to the number of guardians of hell.
Muslims started developing theories regarding the number of the letters of Bismillah after the revelation of “one of the greatest” (74:35) miracles in 1974. Interestingly, after realizing the radical theological ramification of Code 19, contemporary Sunni and Shiite scholars started disagreeing on the number of letters contained in Bismillah. To deny the existence of the Code, every possible argument, regardless how ridiculous, is tried. Some clergymen increased the number of its letters to 20, 21 and even upto 22. Some preferred to reduce the letter count to 18. We will discuss this preposterous but common reaction to the mathematical structure of the Quran later.
The evening of 23 November 2002, millions of Turkish people witnessed this travesty on a live TV discussion program to which I was invited from Arizona. The host, Hulki Cevizoğlu, had also invited Dr. Süleyman Ateş, a well-known Muslim scholar and the former head of the Turkish Religious of Affairs, and Prof. Haluk Oral, a mathematician from the Bosphorus University who is considered an expert on codes. Despite the highly specialized content of our topic, our live discussion that lasted about three hours became a top-rated program by drawing millions of audience from Turkey and Europe.
I have to acknowledge that Süleyman Ateş is one of the most open-minded of Sunni scholars. He had showed the wisdom and courage to challenge many established Sunni dogmas. For instance, he defended the theory of evolution through the Quran. Nevertheless, still being a semi-follower of Hadith, he never came close to the idea of rational monotheism.
In that discussion, Dr. Ateş, the Turkish scholar who had written articles and books critical of the code 19, could not engage in a decent discussion with me; he lost his temper frequently and left the studio twice in the middle of the discussion. He was especially getting furious at my referring to the last prophet with his first name, as the Quran wanted me to do so (2:136). Perhaps he was using it as an excuse to avoid engaging in a face-to-face debate. Each time he ran away, he was stopped by the TV crew and brought back by the host who begged him during the breaks to stay on the panel. The host also privately asked me to be easy on him. I found myself in between of feeling pity for an arrogant and popular scholar, or stand for the truth. The Sunni scholar appeared so terrified that he could not even engage in short face-to-face dialogues; reminding the Quranic depiction of the reaction of the opponents of nineteen: a zebra encountering a lion. He was aware of my previous TV debates with other “experts” and most likely knew the power of my position and its performance. In one of the TV debates, the host of the show publicly complained that many religious scholars he approached were declining to debate with me in public. Prof. Ateş, a critic of my books, had declined debating live with me in the past, but somehow this time he had accepted.
Towards the end of the show, I decided to be easy on him; I did not even rebuttal this so-called Islamic expert when he made an absurd statement regarding Bismillah: looking in the eyes of millions of Turkish TV audience, he claimed that Bismillah did not have 19 letters! I let him incriminate himself in public with that outrageously false claim. Any adult with average IQ, regardless of their language, could easily see for themselves the falsity of his claim by simply checking Bismillah with the 28 Arabic letters. Millions of Turkish people witnessed another miracle, this time in negative sense: When they choose to deny a devine sign, college educated scholars could transform into innumerate and illiterate kindergarteners. Dr. Ateş later shared his experience at his website with his readers:
“The number 19 is the number of Bahai cult and has nothing to do with the Quran. It is modern cabbalism and nonsense. Quran’s first verse, Bismillah, does not have 19 letters as they claim, but it has 21 letters. I have written a book on this deviation… Recently numerous engineers and doctors started following this path. One of those who follow his imaginations is the guy who was once imprisoned for participating in terror activities in Turkey and now living in America. I met that guy first time during the Ceviz Kabuğu TV program and then I immediately understood that he had idolized his ego. He was rude and did not recognize any rules of etiquette. When he realized that I was going to debunk his claims he interrupted my words. I listened to him for half an hour, but when my turn came he would interject.”[i]
[i] Süleyman Ateş (76), former head of the Department of Religious Affairs in Turkey (1976-1978), theology professor and author, Turkey.