Muhammad and illiteracy

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Some Islamic apologists claim that Muhammad could not be the author of the Quran, because he was illiterate and it's somehow impossible to give made-up speeches if you're illiterate.

Is reading the only way to get information?

Humans have 5 senses for getting information from the outside world:

  • Hearing (!!!)
  • Sight
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

Human can receive information by listening (hearing). Verbal communication is a common way to get information. This point is probably obvious to everyone, except Islamic apologists.

During Muhammad's time, his critics called him "an ear" (أذن, udhun), which is confirmed in the Quran:

And among them are those who abuse the Prophet and say, "He is an ear (أذن, udhun)."


We also know that during Muhammad's time there was a man named Waraqa b. Naufal who studied the Bible and he wrote books in Arabic and he was close to Muhammad's first wife Khadija. He also became blind so we can expect he continued to teach the Bible verbally, when he could no longer write.

Khadija then took him to Waraqa b. Naufal b. Asad b. 'Abd al-'Uzza, and he was the son of Khadija's uncle, i. e., the brother of her father. And he was the man who had embraced Christianity in the Days of Ignorance (i. e. before Islam) and he used to write books in Arabic and, therefore, wrote Injil in Arabic as God willed that he should write. He was very old and had become blind Khadija said to him: O uncle! listen to the son of your brother.


So Muhammad could get information without being able to read and he could give speeches which contain these information. And besides that, he could also be inspired by himself, by his wishes and he could use his imagination.

Was Muhammad really illiterate?

The word ummiy in the Quran

The word ummiy (أمي) appears 6 times in the Quran. Two times in the singular (verses 7:157-158) and four times in the plural form (verses 2:78, 3:20, 3:75 and 62:2). [1] From the verses we will see that the word doesn't have to necessarily mean "illiterate", but can also mean "ignorant" or "pagan" or "gentile".

Verses 7:157-158

The two singular forms are in the verses 7:157 and 7:158 in the context of talking about Moses:

7:155 "And Moses chose from his people seventy men for Our appointment. And when the earthquake seized them, he said, "My Lord, if You had willed, You could have destroyed them before and me [as well]. Would You destroy us for what the foolish among us have done? This is not but Your trial by which You send astray whom You will and guide whom You will. You are our Protector, so forgive us and have mercy upon us; and You are the best of forgivers."

7:156 "And decree for us in this world [that which is] good and [also] in the Hereafter; indeed, we have turned back to You." [ Allah ] said, "My punishment - I afflict with it whom I will, but My mercy encompasses all things." So I will decree it [especially] for those who fear Me and give zakah and those who believe in Our verses -"

7:157 "Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered (الْأُمِّيَّ, al-ummiy) prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him - it is those who will be the successful."

7:158 "Say, [O Muhammad], "O mankind, indeed I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, [from Him] to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. There is no deity except Him; He gives life and causes death." So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the unlettered (الْأُمِّيِّ, al-ummiy) prophet, who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him that you may be guided."

7:159 "And among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice."


So the information about Muhammad's illiteracy was for some reason inserted into a passage which talks about Moses. "[O Muhammad]" was added by translators. This strange insertion could be interpreted in many ways. The context doesn't give us a hint what the word ummiy means.

According to tafsir Ibn Kathir, it is a description of Muhammad in Jewish and Christian scripture and that rabbis and priests "well know" it:

(Those who follow the Messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write whom they find written with them in the Tawrah and the Injil,) This is the description of the Prophet Muhammad in the Books of the Prophets. They delivered the good news of his advent to their nations and commanded them to follow him. His descriptions were still apparent in their Books, as the rabbis and the priests well know.


Tafsir Ibn Kathir on 7:157

Ibn Kathir doesn't specify where exactly this "well known" description of Muhammad in the Torah is.

"Prediction" of an illiterate prophet in the Bible

A popular Islamic preacher Zakir Naik proposed that an illiterate prophet is predicted in Isaiah 29:12 [2]. According to Zakir Naik, the verse says:

"The book shall be given to a person who is not learned. And when will be asked "Read this!", he will say "I am not learned".


"Isaiah 29:12" in Zakir Naik's imagination [3]

This could be a prediction of what Aisha described:

...suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, "I do not know how to read."...

But this is what Isaiah 29:12 actually says:

29:11 "For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say, “Read this, please,” they will answer, “I can’t; it is sealed.”"

29:12 "Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, “Read this, please,” they will answer, “I don’t know how to read.”"

29:13 "The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught."


Isaiah 29:11-13

So the verse 29:12 actually talks about hypocrites who give lame excuses for not reading the Bible.

Verse 2:78

One of the plural forms is in sura 2:

And among them are unlettered ones (أُمِّيُّونَ, ummeeoona) who do not know the Scripture except in wishful thinking, but they are only assuming.


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says about the verse:

And there are some of them the Jews that are illiterate unlettered not knowing the Scripture the Torah but only desires lies which were handed down to them by their leaders and which they relied upon; and in their rejection of the prophethood of the Prophet and fabrications of other matters they have mere conjectures and no firm knowledge.


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on 2:78

So here the word could mean "illiterate" or "ignorant".

Verse 3:20

Another is in the verse 3:20.

So if they argue with you, say, "I have submitted myself to Allah [in Islam], and [so have] those who follow me." And say to those who were given the Scripture and [to] the unlearned (وَالْأُمِّيِّينَ, wa-al-ummeena), "Have you submitted yourselves?" And if they submit [in Islam], they are rightly guided; but if they turn away - then upon you is only the [duty of] notification. And Allah is Seeing of [His] servants.


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on 3:20 says:

So if they the disbelievers dispute with you O Muhammad (s) concerning religion say to them ‘I have surrendered my countenance to God that is to say I have submitted to Him I and whoever follows me’ wajh ‘countenance’ is chosen here because of its noble character for the other parts of the body will just as soon surrender once the countenance has; and say to those who have been given the Scripture the Jews and the Christians and to the uninstructed the Arab idolaters ‘Have you submitted?’ that is to say ‘Submit!’ And so if they have submitted they have been guided from error but if they turn their backs to Islam your duty is only to deliver the Message; and God sees His servants and so requites them for their deeds — this statement was revealed before the command to fight them had been revealed.


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on 3:20[4]

So here, according to the tafsir Al-Jalalayn, the word ummiy means gentile/pagan.

Verse 3:75

And among the People of the Scripture is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it]. That is because they say, "There is no blame upon us concerning the unlearned (الْأُمِّيِّينَ, al-ummeena)." And they speak untruth about Allah while they know [it].


The tafsir Al-Jalalayn explains:

And of the People of the Scripture is he who if you trust him with a hundredweight that is with much money he will return it to you on account of his trustworthiness the like of ‘Abd Allāh b. Salām to whom a man entrusted 1200 plates of gold which he then returned to him; and of them is he who if you trust him with one dinar will not return it to you on account of his treachery; unless you keep standing over him not leaving him for one minute for as soon as you leave him he will deny it as was the case with Ka‘b b. al-Ashraf to whom a man from Quraysh entrusted a dinar and later denied it. That refusal to return things is because they say ‘We have no duty towards namely no possibility of acquiring sin because of the Gentiles’ the Arabs; for they considered it lawful to be unjust towards any person of a different religion and they attributed the source of this conviction to God exalted be He. God exalted be He says They speak falsehood against God by attributing such things to Him while they are aware that they are liars.


Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on 3:75

So from this verse it seem to indicate that ummiy means gentile.

Verse 62:2

62:2 "It is He who has sent among the unlettered (الْأُمِّيِّينَ, al-ummeen) a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom - although they were before in clear error -"

62:3 "And [to] others of them who have not yet joined them. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise."


In 62:2, according to the tafsir Al-Jalalayn, the word means illiterate and refers to the illiterate Arabs:

It is He Who sent to the unlettered folk among the Arabs ummī means ‘one who cannot write or read a book’ a messenger from among them namely Muhammad (s) to recite to them His signs the Qur’ān and to purify them to cleanse them from idolatry and to teach them the Book the Qur’ān and wisdom in the rulings that it contains though indeed wa-in in has been softened from the hardened form with its subject having been omitted that is to say understand it as wa-innahum before that before his coming they had been in manifest error.
Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on 62:2

Ibn Kathir says "other" in 62:3 means Persians:

The Prophet explained Allah's statement,

﴿وَءَاخَرِينَ مِنْهُمْ﴾

(And others among them) by mentioning Persia.


Tafsir Ibn Kathir on 62:3 [5]

The meaning of ummiy

The word is derived from the root أمم. There are 119 words in the Quran, derived from this root [6]. There are other words besides ummiy (أمي):

  • umm (أم) - mother
  • amam (امام) - in front of
  • imam (إمام) - leader (because he is "in front of" others)
  • ummah (أمة) - the (Islamic) community/nation

The Lane's lexicon says this about ummiy:

أُمِّىٌّ (T, M, Mgh, Mṣb, Ḳ) and ↓أُمَّانٌ (Ḳ) [the former a rel. n. from أُمَّةٌ, and thus properly meaning Gentile: whence, in a secondary, or tropical, sense,(assumed tropical:) a heathen;] (assumed tropical:) one not having a revealed scripture; (Bḍ in iii. 19 and 69;) so applied by those having a revealed scripture: (Bḍ in iii.69:) [and particularly] an Arab: (Jel in iii. 69, and Bḍ and Jel in lxii. 2:) [or] in the proper language [of the Arabs], of, or belonging to, or relating to, the nation (أُمَّة) of the Arabs, who did not write nor read: and therefore metaphorically applied to (tropical:) any one not knowing the art of writing nor that of reading: (Mgh:) or (assumed tropical:) one who does not write; (T, M, Ḳ;) because the art of writing is acquired; as though he were thus called in relation to the condition in which his mother (أُمَّهُ) brought him forth: (T:) or (assumed tropical:) one who is in the natural condition of the nation (الأُمَّة) to which he belongs, (Zj, * T, M, * Ḳ, *) in respect of not writing, (T,) or not having learned writing; thus remaining in his natural state: (M, Ḳ:) or (assumed tropical:) one who does not write well; said to be a rel. n. from أمٌّ; because the art of writing is acquired, and such a person is as his mother brought him forth, in respect of ignorance of that art; or, as some say, from أُمَّةُ العَرَبِ; because most of the Arabs were of this description: (Mṣb:) the art of writing was known among the Arabs [in the time of Moḥammad] by the people of Et-Táïf, who learned it from a man of the people of El-Heereh, and these had it from the people of El-Ambár. (T.) أُمِّيُّون لَا يَعْلَمُونَ, الكِتَابَ, in the Ḳur ii. 73, means Vulgar persons, [or heathen,] who know not the Book of the Law revealed to Moses: (Jel:) or ignorant persons, who know not writing, so that they may read that book; or, who know not the Book of the Law revealed to Moses. (Bḍ.) Moḥammad was termed أُمِّىّ [meaning A Gentile, as distinguished from an Israelite: or, accord. to most of his followers, meaning illiterate;] because the nation (أُمَّة) of the Arabs did not write, nor read writing; and [they say that] God sent him as an apostle when he did not write, nor read from a book; and this natural condition of his was one of his miraculous signs, to which reference is made in the Ḳur [xxix. 47], where it is said, “thou didst not read, before it, from a book, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand:” (T, TA:) but accord. to the more correct opinion, he was not well acquainted with written characters nor with poetry, but he discriminated between good and bad poetry: or, as some assert, he became acquainted with writing after he had been unacquainted therewith, on account of the expression “ before it ” in the verse of the Ḳur mentioned above: or, as some say, this may mean that he wrote though ignorant of the art of writing, like as some of the kings, being أُمِّيُّون, write their signs, or marks: (TA:) or, accord. to Jaạfar Es-Sádik, he used to read from the book, or scripture, if he did not write. (Kull p. 73.) [Some judicious observations on this word are comprised in Dr. Sprenger's Life of Moḥammad (pp. 101-2); a work which, in the portion already published (Part I.), contains much very valuable information.] ― Also, (Ḳ,) or [only] أُمِّىٌّ, (AZ, T, M,) applied to a man, (AZ, T,) Impotent in speech, (عَيِىّ, in the Ḳ incorrectly written غَبِىّ, TA,) of few words, and rude, churlish, uncivil, or surly. (AZ, T, M, Ḳ.)


Lane's lexicon on أُمِّىٌّ [7]

Online Arabic dictionary says about ummiy:

Translation and Meaning of أمي in Almaany English Arabic Dictionary

أُمّيّ ( اسم ):

illiterate ; uneducated ; unlettered - - illiterate - unable to read or uneducated - an illiterate person - not educated; illiterate - illiterate, not well educated

أُمّيّ ( اسم ):

maternal ; mother ; motherly - - maternal - typical of or connected with being a mother - of a female parent of a child or animal - of or relating to mother


Almaany.com on أمي [8]
  • اسم (ism) means "a noun".

So this word has a variety of meanings. We could speculate that it could even mean "motherly" (derived from umm - mother), because Muhammad's father died before Muhammad was born and he lived only with his mother.

Indications he was literate

Muhammad was employed by his first wife Khadija to travel as a merchant. It's hard to do trade business without being able to write. Besides this implicit indication to his ability to write, we have explicit hadiths talking about Muhammad writing stuff.

Hadiths

كتب (kataba) means "he wrote":

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

Once the Prophet (ﷺ) wrote (كَتَبَ) a letter or had an idea of writing a letter. The Prophet (ﷺ) was told that they (rulers) would not read letters unless they were sealed. So the Prophet (ﷺ) got a silver ring made with "Muhammad Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)" engraved on it. As if I were just observing its white glitter in the hand of the Prophet.


Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas:

The Prophet (ﷺ) wrote (كَتَبَ) a letter to Heraclius: "From Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, to Hiraql (Heraclius), Chief of the Byzantines. Peace be to those who follow the guidance." Ibn Yahya reported on the authority of Ibn Abbas that AbuSufyan said to him: We then came to see Hiraql (Heraclius) who seated us before him. He then called for the letter from the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). Its contents were: "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, from Muhammad the Messenger of Allah, to Hiraql, chief of Byzantines. Peace be to those who follow the guidance. To proceed."


Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab:

Sa'id said: Umar ibn al-Khattab said: Blood-money is meant for the clan of the slain, and she will not inherit from the blood-money of her husband. Ad-Dahhak ibn Sufyan said: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) wrote (كَتَبَ) to me that I should give a share to the wife of Ashyam ad-Dubabi from the blood-money of her husband. So Umar withdrew his opinion.

Ahmad ibn Salih said: AbdurRazzaq transmitted this tradition to us from Ma'mar, from az-Zuhri on the authority of Sa'id. In this version he said: The Prophet (ﷺ) made him governor over the bedouins.


Narrated Yazid ibn Abdullah:

We were at Mirbad. A man with dishevelled hair and holding a piece of red skin in his hand came.

We said: You appear to be a bedouin. He said: Yes. We said: Give us this piece of skin in your hand. He then gave it to us and we read it. It contained the text: "From Muhammad, Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), to Banu Zuhayr ibn Uqaysh. If you bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, offer prayer, pay zakat, pay the fifth from the booty, and the portion of the Prophet (ﷺ) and his special portion (safi), you will be under by the protection of Allah and His Apostle."

We then asked: Who wrote (كَتَبَ) this document for you? He replied: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).


وكتب (wa-kataba) means "and he wrote":

Narrated Abu Humaid As-Saidi:

We accompanied the Prophet (ﷺ) in the Ghazwa of Tabuk and the king of 'Aila presented a white mule and a cloak as a gift to the Prophet. And the Prophet (ﷺ) wrote (وَكَتَبَ) to him a peace treaty allowing him to keep authority over his country.


فكتب (fa-kataba) means "then he wrote":

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "The Jews should either pay the blood money of your (deceased) companion or be ready for war." After that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) wrote (فَكَتَبَ) a letter to the Jews in that respect, and they wrote that they had not killed him.


Narrated Al-Bara:

When the Prophet (ﷺ) intended to perform `Umra in the month of Dhul-Qada, the people of Mecca did not let him enter Mecca till he settled the matter with them by promising to stay in it for three days only. When the document of treaty was written, the following was mentioned: 'These are the terms on which Muhammad, Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) agreed (to make peace).' They said, "We will not agree to this, for if we believed that you are Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) we would not prevent you, but you are Muhammad bin `Abdullah." The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "I am Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) and also Muhammad bin `Abdullah." Then he said to `Ali, "Rub off (the words) 'Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)' ", but `Ali said, "No, by Allah, I will never rub off your name." So, Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) took the document and wrote (فَكَتَبَ), 'This is what Muhammad bin `Abdullah has agreed upon: No arms will be brought into Mecca except in their cases, and nobody from the people of Mecca will be allowed to go with him (i.e. the Prophet (ﷺ) ) even if he wished to follow him and he (the Prophet (ﷺ) ) will not prevent any of his companions from staying in Mecca if the latter wants to stay.'


The first revelation

The first sura was the sura 96, which begins as follows:

Read (اقرا, iqra) in the name of your Lord who created -

Created man from a clinging substance.

Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous -

Who taught by the pen (بالقلم, bil-qalam) -

Taught man that which he knew not.


  • The word iqra is sometimes translated as "recite", but "recitation" in Arabic is تِلاَوَة (tilawa) and the Quran uses form of that word for "recitation" [9].

There are two versions of the story of the first revelation. In the Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq it goes as follows:

When it was the night on which God honored him with his mission and showed mercy on His servants thereby, Gabriel brought him the command of God. "He came to me," said the apostle of God, "while I was asleep, with a coverlet of brocade whereon was some writing, and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ (وما اقرأ [10]) He pressed me with it so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it again so that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What shall I read?’ He pressed me with it the third time so that I thought it was death and said ‘Read!’ I said, ‘What then shall I read?’—and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same to me again. He said:

‘Read in the name of thy Lord who created, Who created man of blood coagulated. Read! Thy Lord is the most beneficent, Who taught by the pen, Taught that which they knew not unto men.’

So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart.
Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq [11]

It says وما اقرأ "and what (should I) read?". So in this story Muhammad can read, he just asks what should he read.

Ibn Ishaq died in 761. But in 810 was born Bukhari, who wrote a little different story in his Sahih Bukhari collection:

He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food likewise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, "I do not know how to read. (مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ)" The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.' Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?' Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous." (96.1, 96.2, 96.3)


  • If the iqra in 96:1 meant "recite" as some translators translated it, then here Muhammad says "I don't know how to recite".

This shift from "and what shall I read" (وما اقرأ) to "I don't know how to read" (مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ) seems to indicate that Muhammad's illiteracy was a later invention.

Muhammad, the Islamic role model

Muslims believe that Muhammad is their role model and at the same time they believe that he didn't learn how to read.

Muhammad said the the ummah (the Islamic community) is illiterate and it's not important to use astronomical calculations to determine beginning of a month and it should be rather determined primitively by sight [12]:

Ibn 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with both of them) reported Allah's Apostle as saying:

We are an unlettered people ( أُمَّةٌ أُمِّيَّةٌ, umma ummiyya) who can neither write nor count. The month is thus, and thus. folding his thumb when he said it the third time.


It is estimated that around 40% of the Muslim population today is illiterate [13]. The word ummah (أمة) itself is derived from the same root as ummi (أمي).

Conclusions

  • According to the hadiths, Muhammad could write.
  • The meaning of the word ummiy in the Quran is not clear, but if it means "illiterate", then the Quran is in contradiction with the sahih hadiths.
  • Muslims believe Muhammad was illiterate and they consider him their perfect role model for all times.
  • Muhammad could be the author of the Quran regardless if he could or couldn't read and write.

See also

Translations

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References