Was Muhammad Illiterate?
During the month of Ramadan, every evening, after the lengthy congregational prayers millions crowding the mosques ask God to bless the soul of his Nabbiyy-il Ummy, meaning, in the orthodox interpretation, “illiterate prophet.” “Illiterate” (or “unlettered”) is one of the most common titles used by Muslim clerics and imams to praise Muhammad, the deliverer of the Quran.
The Arabic word ummy, however, describes people who are not Jewish or Christian. The meaning of this word, which occurs six times in the Quran, has nevertheless been rendered as “one who can neither read nor write.” This deliberate manipulation by Muslim scholars has become widely accepted as the true meaning of the word. For example, Yusuf Ali and Pickthall follow this pattern, while Shakir prefers not to translate the Arabic word.
! Disputed passage: Orthodox sources distort the meaning of ummy to turn Muhammad illiterate.
|Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.” (7:158)||Say (O Muhammad): O mankind! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah to you all – (the messenger of) Him unto Whom belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no Allah save Him. He quickeneth and He giveth death. So believe in Allah and His messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, who believeth in Allah and in His Words, and follow him that haply ye may be led aright. (7:158)||Say: O people! surely I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, of Him Whose is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth there is no god but He; He brings to life and causes to die therefore believe in Allah and His messenger, the Ummi Prophet who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him so that you may walk in the right way. (7:158)||Say: “O people, I am God’s messenger to you all. The One who has the sovereignty of heavens and earth, there is no god but He; He gives life and causes death.” So acknowledge God and His gentile prophet, who acknowledges God and His words; and follow him that you may be guided. (7:158)|
DISCUSSION OF 7:158
The Quran itself provides guidance for the true meaning of ummy. If we reflect on the verse 3:20 below, we will easily understand that ummy does not mean an illiterate person:
“And say to those who received the scripture, as well as those who did not receive any scripture (ummyyeen)…” (3:20)
In this verse, the word ummy describes Meccan polytheists. It is obvious that ummy does not mean illiterate because it has been used as the counterpart of the people of the scripture. If the verse was ” … And say to those who are literate and illiterate,” then the orthodox translation of ummy would be correct. According to 3:20, the people of the Arabian peninsula consisted of two main groups:
- The people of the scripture, i.e., Jews and Christians.
- Gentiles, who were neither Jewish nor Christian.
If the people who were neither Jews nor Christians were called “ummyyeen” (3:20; 3:75), then the meaning of ummy is very clear. As a matter of fact, the verse 3:75 clarifies its meaning as Gentile.
Mecca was the cultural center of the Arabs in the 7th century. Poetry competitions were being held there. It is a historical fact that Meccans were not familiar with the Bible, thus making them Gentiles. So the verse 62:2 describes Meccan people by the word ummyyeen:
“He is the One who sent to the Gentiles (ummyyeen) a messenger from among them, to recite to them His revelations, purify them, and teach them the scripture and wisdom. Before this, they had gone far astray.” (62:2)
The unappreciative opponents claimed that Muhammad was quoting verses from the Old and New Testaments (25:5; 68:15). The verse below refutes their accusation and gives the answer:
“You did not read any previous scriptures, nor did you write them with your hand. In that case, the objectors would have had reason to harbor doubts.” (29:48)
This verse tells us that Muhammad did not read nor write previous scriptures. The word min qablihi (previous ) suggests that Muhammad did read and write the final scripture.
Muhammad was a literate Gentile (ummy)
After this examination of the true meaning of the word ummy, here are the reasons and proofs for the fact that Muhammad was a literate Gentile:
To magnify the miraculous aspect of the Quran, religious people thought that the story of illiteracy would be alluring.
The producer(s) of the illiteracy story found it relatively easy to change the meaning of ummy. Nevertheless, the word appears throughout the Quran, and consistently means “Gentile” (2:78; 3:20; 3:75; 62:2). In verses 3:20 and 3:75, the Quran uses the word ummy as the counterpart to the ehlil kitab (“People of the Book,” a phrase that in both of these verses equates to “Jews and Christians”).
The Quran describes Meccan people with the word ummyyeen (Gentiles) (62:2). According to the orthodox claim, all Meccan people must have been illiterate. Why then were the poems of pre-Islamic Meccan poets hung on the walls of the Ka’ba (the ancient monotheistic shrine of Abraham)?
The Arabs of the 7th century used letters as numbers. This alphabetical numbering system is called “Abjad.” The merchants of those days had to know the letters of the alphabet to record their accounts! If Muhammad was a successful international merchant, as is universally accepted, then he most probably knew this numbering system. The Arabs stopped using the “Abjad” system in the 9th century when they took “Arabic numbers” from India.
The different spelling of the word bism in the beginning of the Basmalah and in the first verse of chapter 96 is one of the many evidences supporting the literacy of Muhammad. It is not reasonable for an illiterate to dictate two different spellings of the same word which is pronounced the same.
The very first revelation from the Controller Gabriel was, Muslims believe, “Read!” And the first five verses of that revelation encourage reading and writing (96:1-5). The second revelation was “The pen and writing” (68:1). These facts compel some questions that orthodox scholarship would rather avoid. Does God command an illiterate man to “read”? If so, could Muhammad read after Gabriel’s instruction to do so? The story told in hadith books about the first revelation asserting that Muhammad could read only after three trials ending by an angelic “squeeze” contradicts the other stories claiming that Muhammad died as an illiterate!
Traditional history books accept that Muhammad dictated the Quran and controlled its recording. Even if we accept that Muhammad did not know how to read or write before revelation of the Quran, we cannot claim that he preserved this illiteracy during the 23 years while he was dictating the Quran! Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that Muhammad was illiterate before the revelation of the Quran. Why then did he insist on staying illiterate for 23 years after the first revelation: “Read!”? Did he not obey his Lord’s command? Did he receive another command forbidding him from reading and writing?
Was it so difficult for Muhammad to learn to read and write? If a person still does not learn to read and write after 23 years of careful dictation of a book, what kind of intellect is that?
If Muhammad was encouraging his followers to read and write (which he did when he recited 2:44 to them), then why should he have excluded himself?
Muslim scholars, who are in disagreement on a bewildering array of subjects, somehow have managed to agree on the story of Muhammad’s illiteracy. Perhaps the glorification of illiteracy, using it as a positive attribute of a worshipped figure, is one of the causes of the high current level of illiteracy in Muslim communities.
PS: There is another meaning of ummy, which does not exclude Gentile, is “the one who is the resident of the capital city.” Mecca was the capital city of medieval Arabia and it is referred in the Quran as “Umm ul-Qura” that is “the mother of cities” (42:7).
Do we Need Muhammad to Understand the Quran?