There is misconception around us about the literacy for prophet Muhammad who delivered the final scripture to humanity. It has been part of the Muslim’s belief, based on traditions that he was an illiterate person. Even though the 8th century historian Ibn Ishaq reported a written communication between prophet Muhammad and one of his contemporaries in his book “Sirat Rasool Allah” while his book predates hadith collections by at least a century. Moreover, it is a well-known historical fact that the prophet was a successful business man, who had to read and write a business transaction. Even our common sense tells us that God did not choose a prophet who was illiterate to deliver the final scripture to humanity to serve as guidance from his time to the end of the world. However, the Quran that he delivered has depicted him who he was in the matter of his literacy is the most authentic source to know the truth about it for those who believe in God and the Quran being certain of the Hereafter.
Alleging illiteracy for prophet Muhammad
The origin of illiteracy claim for prophet Muhammad is not only the traditions but the Muslim scholars also derived his illiteracy by misinterpreting the following verses of the Quran:
[29:51] Is it not enough for them that we sent down to you (Muhammad) the scripture, which is recited to them? In that (Quran), there is indeed, a mercy and a reminder (dhik’raa) for a people who believe.
Note: God says in the verse that the Quran itself is the miracle given to the prophet. By alleging illiteracy for him, the traditional Muslims were trying to make the claim even “more miraculous,” for a book of such excellent literary quality sent down to an illiterate man. This is despite the many assertions in the Quran to the contrary. However, the verse is a statement in response of the concern raised by the wicked found in the previous verse (29:50) about the miracles they wished to see to come down with the prophet, wherein there is indication of miracles in the Quran while it was obligatory for them to follow it to be guided to the right path. However, the Quran with full of miracles can be an opportunity for all the people of the world after him to be unveiled at appropriate time according to God’s plan that we know now, and there was a possibility of misinterpreting the verse by the early scholars who were unable to foresee.
[7:157] “Those who follow the messenger, the gentile prophet (al-rasuula al-nabiya al-ummiya) (Muhammad) whom they find written in the Torah and the Gospel with them; he (the gentile prophet) enjoins them with the truth, and forbids them from the evil, and makes lawful for them the good things, and makes unlawful for them the bad things, and removes their burden on them and the shackles that are upon them. So, those who believe in him, and honor him, and support him, and follow the light that was sent down with him; these are the successful ones.”
[7:158] Say: “O people, I (Muhammad) am a messenger of God to you all, the One to whom is sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no other god beside He, who gives life and causes death.” So you shall believe in God and His messenger, the gentile prophet (fa-aaminuu billahi wa-rasuulihi al-nabiyi al-ummiyi), who believes in God and His words, and follow him (the gentile prophet) so that you may be guided.
The Muslim scholars derived the illiteracy claim for Muhammad from the above verses (7:157-158) of the Quran. They say that the Arabic word “Ummy” means illiterate. It is true that in today’s standard Arabic, “illiterate” is one of the meanings of this word but this is not a compelling evidence that “Gentile” cannot be another meaning of it. In fact, if we study the Quran carefully where this word is found in the Quran, its usage has always been in the context of “the people of the scripture” vs. “the gentiles” to confirm its meaning to be “Gentile”.
Literacy evidence for prophet Muhammad from Quran
If we carefully review the relevant verses of the Quran, there is clear indication that Muhammad was not an illiterate person.
From 1st revelation
[96:1] Read in the name of your Lord who created. (iq’ra bi-is’mi rabbika alladhee khalaqa)
[96:3] Read, and your Lord is the Most Generous. (iq’ra wa-rabbuka al-akramu)
[96:4] The One who taught by the pen. (alladhee `allama bil-kalami)
From 2nd revelation
[68:1] Nun, the pen, and what they write (noon wal-kalami wa-maa yasturuuna).
The first Quranic revelation is “al-‘alaq – The Embryo” that came down to Muhammad is, “Read! in the name of your Lord who created” as well as “The One who taught by the pen”. It is very clear that God stresses the importance of literacy in the very first revelation mentioning the commandment of read as well as how He taught him is the pen. Furthermore, the second revelation is “al-kalam – The Pen” that came down to him is “Nun, the pen, and what they write” which indicates again the importance of written communication. This makes the importance of literacy even more compelling.
From Muhammad’s contemporaries
[25:5] And they said, “Tales of the previous people, he has written it as it is dictated to him morning and evening.” (wa-qaaluu//asaateeru al-awaaleena ik’tatabahaa // fa-hiya tum’laa alayhi buk’ratan wa-aseelan)
A more transparent picture emerges from the interesting incident described in this verse. Muhammad’s opponents who rejected the Quran accused him of fabricating narrations. This is a clear Quranic evidence that prophet Muhammad was a literate man. Not only was Muhammad accused of writing down what he heard, but one cannot dictate to an illiterate person. Some may have argued that this is not a solid proof, since the statement came from shady characters, i.e., from Muhammad’s enemies. We may have a good reason to suspect the material content of the allegation but there is no good reason to doubt the peripheral issue mentioned, i.e. Muhammad’s writing and his friends’ dictation to him, since they had no reason to lie on this issue. On the other hand, it sheds light of confirmation on the importance of reading and writing in God’s eyes, and the prophet’s adherence to it.
From the Arabic word “Ummy”
[2:78] And among them are the gentiles who do not know the scripture except from hearsay, and they do not do except guess. (wa-minhum ummiyyuuna // laa-ya’lamuuna al-kitaaba illaa amaaniyya // wa-in hum illaa yazunnuuna)
Note: The above verse explains the exact meaning of the “Ummy” and if it is meant “Illiterate”, the message in the verse will not make any sense.
[3:20] And if they have argued with you, then say, “I have submitted myself to God and whoever has followed me.” And say to those who have been given the scripture and those who do not know the scripture (wa-qul lilladheena uutuu al-kitaabi // wal-ummiyeena), “Have you submitted ?” And if they have submitted, then certainly, they have guided, but if they have turned back, then only on you is the conveyance. And God is Seer of His servants.
Note: The “Ummy” in the above verse means that who did not follow the scripture, and again if it is meant “Illiterate”, the message in the verse will not make any sense.
[3:75] And among the people of the scripture there is one whom if you entrust him with a treasure, he will return it to you, while among them there is one whom if you entrust with a dinar, he will not return it to you unless you are standing over him. That is because they said: “We have no obligation to the gentiles.” (laysa ‘alaynaa fee al-ummiyyeena) And they say the lie about God while they know (it).
Note: The message in the verse indicates the difference of the behavior between the people of the scripture and the people of outside the scripture.
[7:157] “Those who follow the messenger, the gentile prophet (al-rasuula al-nabiya al-umiya) (Muhammad) whom they find written for them in the Torah and the Gospel; he enjoins them with the truth, and forbids them from the evil, and makes lawful for them the good things, and makes unlawful for them the bad things, and removes their burden on them and the shackles that are upon them. So, those who believe in him, and honor him, and support him, and follow the light that was sent down with him; these are the successful ones.”
[7:158] Say: “O people, I am a messenger of God to you all, the One to whom is sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no other god beside He, who gives life and causes death.” So you shall believe in God and His messenger the gentile prophet (fa-aaminuu billahi wa-rasuulihi al-nabiyi al-ummiyi), who believes in God and His words, and follow him so that you may be guided.
[62:2] He is the One who raised a messenger in the gentiles from among themselves (huwa alladhee ba’atha fee al-ummiyyeena rasuulan minhum) to recite to them His revelations, and to purify them, and to teach them the scripture and the wisdom, although, before they had certainly been far astray.
Note: Muhammad has been referred as both messenger and prophet who was raised from the people who did not follow any scripture, i.e., not from among the Jews or the Christians.
There are 6 instances of “Ummy” in the above 6 verses of the Quran, which has been translated to “gentile”. The thorough review of the above verses indicates that the usage of the word “Ummy” has always been found in the context of “the people” vs. “the scripture” while we can also deduct “Illiterate” to be another meaning of this word. It is even possible to surmise that the “illiterate” meaning is secondary. It came to be used after the Quran was revealed, since it is reasonable to deduct “illiterate” as the opposite of “those who can read.” This in turn may well be coming from “those who read the book,” or “those who received the book,” or “the people of the scripture” (ahl al-kitaabi), which is precisely the opposite of “the gentiles.”
The messages derived from the 8 verses across 5 surahs in the Quran having the instances of “iqra” (96:1 and 96:3), “al-kalam” (96:4 and 68:1), “ik’tataba” (25:5) and “ummy” (7:157, 7:158 and 62:2) directly reflect the literacy of prophet Muhammad. If the relevant sura and verse numbers are added, the total is a multiple of 19 =>589 = 19x31 (see the details at the table below):
Note: This mathematical confirmation is an explicit proof that prophet Muhammad was not an illiterate person as the meaning of “Ummy” is not illiterate but gentile in the context including the verses, 2:78, 3:20 and 3:75 that are not in the mathematical confirmation, not being related to prophet Muhammad but are the context to understand that the Arabic word, “Ummy” means “the gentile” which is the opposite of “those who read the scripture,” or “those who received the scripture,” or “the people of the scripture”, or those who know the scripture.
It is also noteworthy that the verse, 29:48 as stated below implies that the prophet was an literate person while the verse is also an indirect proof from the Quran that prophet Muhammad not only read the Quran to his contemporaries but also he wrote it down by his own hand that came in connection to eliminate any doubt of the people of the scripture about the Quran to be divine:
[29:48] And you (Muhammad, being a singular masculine 2nd person) did not recite any scripture before it, nor did you write it (one) with your own hand. In that case, the deniers would have had doubted.
It is a well-known historical fact that Muhammad was a successful merchant before he had been called a messenger, the gentile prophet (7:157-158). As a matter of necessity, he obviously knew how to count. During his time, the numeral system as we know it today was not in use. The numerals that we use today, known as the Arabic numeral system, were invented after his time. Historically, letters were used to represent numbers before the modern numeral system was invented. This is true in all Semitic languages such as Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew, and other languages as well such as the Roman numerals came from the Roman alphabets. Therefore, since Muhammad knew how to count numbers as a merchant, he should also know how to read and write a transaction. This is a reasonable enough argument that made the prophet to be a literate person.
It is interesting that in the book “Sirat Rasul Allah,” the 8th century historian Ibn Ishaq born in Medina some 85 years after Hijra also recorded a written communication between Prophet Muhammad and one of his contemporaries, and his book predates hadith collections by at least a century. During the prophet Muhammad’s time, there were some people who also claimed to be God’s prophet and messenger. One of them was Musaylima b. Habib. The following is a quote from Guillaume’s book “The Life of Muhammad” translation of Ibn Ishaq’s book: “From Musaylima the apostle of God to Muhammad the apostle of God. Peace upon you. I have been made partner with you in authority. To us belongs half the land and to Quraysh half, but Quraysh are a hostile people…” and “From Muhammad the apostle of God to Musaylima the liar. Peace be upon him who follows the guidance. The earth is God’s. He lets whom He will of His creatures (to) inherit it and the result is to the pious…”
There were other instances in the history from time of the prophet that Prophet Muhammad sent many letters to kings and other heads of state, inviting them to embrace God’s religion. The only plausible conclusion is to realize the importance of written communication of the prophet what God has taught him in the earliest revelations provides a historical evidence to support the fact that Muhammad was indeed a literate prophet.
Collection of Quran into a book
On the 27th night of Ramadan 13 B.H. (610 A.D.), Muhammad the soul, the real person, not the body, was taken to the highest universe, and the Quran was placed into his soul. Subsequently, the angel Gabriel helped Muhammad over a period of 23 years release a few verses of the Quran at a time from his soul to his heart (memory). The prophet memorized and wrote down the verses just released into his memory while others also memorized the Quran as well when he read it to his contemporaries. When the prophet died, he left the complete Quran written down with his own hand in the chronological order of revelation, along with specific instructions as to where to place every verse. The divine instructions recorded by the prophet were designed to put the Quran together into the final format intended for God’s final scripture to the world.
However, the whole Quran was completely written down when the prophet died but not in one book, rather on pieces of woods, papers, palm leaves, bones…etc. It was the first Khalifa, Abu Bakr who collected the Quran into one book. The manuscript on which the Qur’an was collected, remained with Abu Bakr and then with Umar, and after him, it remained with Hafsa, ‘Umar’s daughter and one of the prophet’s wives. It is from that copy Uthman, the third Khalifa, made other copies to distribute to different regions of the Islamic Empire. Uthman returned Hafsa’s copy of the Quran to her, which was however later burned by Marwan b. Hakam (d.65/684), the peacetime ruler. But what we see later that different Qurans were written differently. The most standardized edition of the Quran in the world today is the one printed in Cairo, Egypt in 1924 approved in 1918 comparing the oldest copy of the Quran written in Kufic script also called Tashkent and Turkish edition as well as based on its verbal transmission, and after that the King Fahd edition in Saudi Arabia.
The prophet was a successful merchant. The “Muslim scholars” who fabricated the illiteracy lie forgot that there were no numbers during the prophet’s time; the letters of the alphabet were used as numbers. As a merchant dealing with numbers every day, the prophet had to know the alphabet, from one to one-thousand.
By alleging illiteracy for Muhammad, traditional Muslims were trying to make the claim even “more miraculous,” for a book of such literary quality sent down to an illiterate man, even supporting with the secondary meaning of the word of “Ummy” being “illiterate”. But this argument is in itself weak since Muhammad knew how to count numbers as a merchant, he should also know how to read and write a transaction, which is a reasonable enough argument. However, many literary giants did claim the ability to produce a literary work as excellent as the Quran. The latest claim came from Taha Hussein, the renowned Egyptian writer. Then the Muslim scholars decided to proclaim Muhammad an illiterate man! They figured that this would make the Quran’s extraordinary literary excellence truly miraculous. The word they relied on to bestow illiteracy upon the prophet was “Ummy” found in the Quran. Unfortunately, this word clearly means “Gentile” or one who does not follow or know or read the previous scripture while it does not mean “illiterate” except until modern time.
The first Quranic revelation is “al-`alaq – The Embryo” that came down to Muhammad is: “Read! in the name of your Lord who created” as well as “The One who taught by the pen” and the second revelation is “al-kalam – The Pen” that came down to him is: “Nun, the pen, and what they write” indicate the importance of literacy for the prophet. If indeed, Muhammad was an illiterate man when the Quran was first revealed to him, how would he be able to obey his Lord’s clear commandment to read and write during the twenty some years of his mission? Perhaps, it would be a more poignant question as well. It is clear that the commandment of read to all of us, including the prophet,
The review of the verses where the instances of “Ummy” found in the Quran indicates that the usage of the word has always been in the context of “the people” vs. “the scripture” while we can also deduct “Illiterate” to be another meaning of this word. It is even possible to surmise that the “illiterate” meaning is secondary, which came to be used after the Quran was revealed, since it is reasonable to deduct “illiterate” as the opposite of “those who can read.” This in turn may well be coming from “those who read the book,” or “those who received the book,” or “the people of the scripture” (ahl al-kitaabi), which is precisely the opposite of “the gentiles.”
Prophet Muhammad was given the whole Quran at once while the angel Gabriel helped him release a few verses of the Quran at a time over a period of 23 years. Thus, the prophet memorized and wrote down the verses just released into his memory. When he died, he left the complete Quran written down with his own hand in the chronological order of revelation, along with specific divine instructions as to where to place every sura and verse. The divine instructions recorded by the prophet were designed to put the Quran together into the final format intended for God’s final scripture to humanity, which was made possible since prophet Muhammad was an literate man.
There are enough evidences from the historical events and the collection of the Quran to derive the literacy of the prophet. But an explicit proof from the Quran is more authentic that he was literate but gentile who had no knowledge of the previous scripture to remove any doubt of any part of it has been copied from that as well. However, if the prophet had not written down the Quran by his own hand, it would not be possible to have the final format of it in perfect state that came down to us and will be used as guidance until the end of the world even upon verifying its divineness and intactness.
Peaceful Friday, salaam and God bless.