The Illiterate Prophet?

Whether Muhammad could read or write has for centuries been a controversial question. Today most Moslems deny it; some, however, affirm it, but we are especially interested in the denial, because it is generally used to fortify their argument for the miraculous character of the Quran.


Could Muhammad read and write?

General background of writing in Arabia

Due to the investigation of WeIIhausen, Wustenfeld, Cheikho, Lammens, Huart and others, we know more of the conditions of life at Mecca. The art of reading and writing was fairly common at Mecca at the time of Muhammad’s birth. According to later Moslem tradition the science of writing was not known in Mecca until introduced by Harb, the father of Abu Sufian, the great opponent of Muhammad, about a.d, 560! But this is evidently an error, for close relationships existed long before this between Mecca and Yemen through caravan trade, and in Yemen writing was well known for centuries. In another tradition Abd ul Muttalib is said to have written to Medina for help in his younger days, i.e. about A.D.520. Both Jews and Christians also dwelt in the vicinity of Mecca for two hundred years before the Hegira, and used some form of writing.

Muir says; “It is evident that writing of some sort was known and practised at Mecca long before A.D. 560. At all events, the frequent notices of written papers leave no room to doubt that Arabic writing was well known, and not uncommonly practised there in Muhammad’s early days. I cannot think with Weil, that any great want of writing materials could have been felt, even by the poorer Moslems, in the early days of Islam. Reeds and palm-leaves would never be wanting.”

He quotes an account from Katib al Waqidi, showing that Mecca was far in advance of Medina in the art of writing, so that after the battle of Badr many of the Meccan prisoners were compelled to teach the art of writing to the children of Medina. Each captive was assigned ten boys, and their tuition, when completed, was to be accepted as a full ransom (Cf. Muir vol 1 p. 8 and vol.3. P. 123).

Hartmann also, in a long note (vol. 2. p. 425 of Der Islamische Orient), shows that writing was very common in Yemen and North Arabia, and that there was close relationships between Mecca and both these provinces as well as with Persia. He says: “There is no doubt that writing on parchment was an ordinary custom for poets, merchants, etc.”

There are many traditions which show that writing was not uncommon in Mecca about Muham mad’s time, and the traditions which ascribe a prejudice on his part against writing appear to have no good foundation. We find mention of Abu‘l-Abbas, the uncle of Muhammad, having left behind him a camel-load of manuscripts. ‘Ali copied out certain precepts of the Prophet, and in order to have them constantly at hand, tied the roll round the handle of his sword. (Muir’s The Mohammedan Controversy, p. 114). Jaber and Yaser, two sword-makers in Mecca, are mentioned by the commentators as being in the habit of reading the Taurat and the Injil when Muhammad passed them, and he listened to their reading. On the first page of Al-Bukhari’s collection of traditions we read that Waraqa bin Naufal, Khadijah’s cousin, read the Gospel and copied it in the Hebrew character. Others say Arabic and Hebrew (Cf. Al Asqalani’s Fath-ul-Bari Commentary, vol 1. P 19).

The cursive Arabic script was in use as early as the time of Mutalammis and Tarafa, the second half of the sixth century A.H (Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol 1. P383). The rise of Islam no doubt helped to spread knowledge of writing, but did not originate it. Louis Cheikho, in his Arabic Studies on Christian Literature in Arabia before Islam, devotes a chapter to prove that the art of writing itself was introduced by Christians both in South and North Arabia long before the Hegira. The two kinds of characters used, namely, the Nabati and the Naskhi, which exist today in rock inscriptions, as well as in documents, owe their origin to Christians.

Muslim tradition is in this respect unreliable. We are told, for example, that at Mecca at the time of the Prophet only seventeen men were able to write. Their names are preserved for us by al-Baladhuri (see last chapter Arabic edition of the text, Cairo 1901). This statement seems very improbable, not to say impossible. The Fath-ul-Bari mentions the names of the amanuenses of the Prophet (Vol. 9 p.19), and says they numbered no fewer than forty-two (Casanova, Mohammad et la Fin du Monde, pp. 96, 97) and gives their names from five different authorities. While this may be an exaggeration, it certainly seems to prove that the art of reading and writing was not uncommon. Letters were written by the order of Muhammad to foreign rulers, and we even hear of a correspondence kept up in Hebrew with the Jews (See Abu Daoud under the heading Reports from the Ahl-al-kitab).

The Meccans, in fact, like the Egyptians in their fondness for writing, used all possible materials. Our information is fairly extensive and is derived from an account of the missionary epistles sent out by the Prophet and of the collection of the Quran. The chief materials were leather, palm-leaf, and the broad shoulder-blades of the camel, potsherds, flat w hite stones, wooden tablets, parchment and papyrus (Encyclopaedia of Islam, Article entitled “Arabic”).

In view of the facts given above and the statement that Muhammad himself had so many secretaries, there were doubtless more than seventeen persons in the religious capital, with its large pilgrim traffic, who were literate. Muhammad himself was a most intelligent man, and had acted for a long time as a mercantile agent for Khadijah. When we remember what this involves in wholesale caravan traffic with distant Syria, it is not unnatural to suppose that he may have had opportunity to learn to read and write.


The ummi Prophet – discussion on the word ummi.

On what, then, is the general Islamic denial of their Prophet’s ability to read or write based? On one word, ummi, used six times in the Quran, and on one obscure passage where the Angel Gabriel bids him “read” (iqra’) and he replies, ” I am not a ‘reader.’ “The word ummi occurs in the following verses in the Quran.

> “And there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing but conjecture. Al-Baqarrah 2:78)

> “To if they dispute with thee, say: “I have submitted My whole self to Allah and so have those who follow me.” And say to the People of the Book and to those who are unlearned (Al-Imran 3:20)

> “Those who follow the messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures),- in the law and the Gospel ………  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.” (Al-Araf 7:157,158)

> “It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom,- although they had been, before, in manifest error; (Al-Jamua 62:2)
All of these are Medina verses except 7: 157-158.

Lane {Arabic Lexicon, vol. 1 p. 92), who has collected the views of the Arabic lexicographers, begins by saying: “ummi properly means gentile — in a secondary sense a heathen; one not having a revealed scripture; or belonging to the nation of the Arabs, who did not write nor read, and therefore metaphorically applied to anyone not knowing the art of writing nor that of reading. Muhammad was termed ummi, meaning a gentile, as distinguished from an Israelite; according to most of his followers, meaning illiterate. Some assert that Muhammad became acquainted with writing after he had been unacquainted therewith, referring to the Quran (29:47), where it is said, ‘Thou didst not read before it from a book, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand.’ “

Rodwell also expresses the opinion that the word ummi (illiterate) was applied by the Jews to those unacquainted with the Scriptures. He says: “There could be no doubt that Muhammad in spite of his assertions to the contrary, with a view to proving his inspirations, was well acquainted with the Bible histories. He wished to appear ignorant in order to raise the elegance of the Quran into a miracle.”

Regarding the meaning of the word ummi, Al-Tabari says (vol. 3. p. 142),  “the ummiyyun are those among the Arabs who have no revelation.” We read in the Arabic dictionary Taj al Aroos that Muhammad was not altogether illiterate, but that “he could not distinguish between good and bad writing.” We are also told that some traditions state that he learned to read and write after he became a Prophet.

Fahr er-Razi, (vol. 8. p. 149),  says: “ummi means related to the people of the Arabs, because they are an ummi people, who have no book, and do not read a book or write.” Ibn-Abbas says the meaning is, “those who have no book and no prophet sent unto them.” Al-Tabari is more definite in his comment (vol. 28. p. 61) says “The people of Muhammad were called ummiyyun because no revelation had come to them.” This shows very clearly that the word ummi does not mean illiterate, but gentile.

Fahr er-Razi also says: “Concerning the word in question the learned differ in regard to the meaning of it: some of them say that ummi is he who does not confess belief in a book nor in an apostle. Others say it is he who does not know how to read and write skilfully. This second significance is more credited because there were ummi among the Jews, and they believed in a book and an apostle; and also because Muhammad himself said we are a people ummi: we do not write and we do not cypher. ” (vol. 1. p. 309).


The view of the Traditions

There are indications, we admit, in the Quran that some of its chapters existed in written form at a very early date. For example, Al-Waqiah  56:79, “None shall touch it (the written copy) save the purified.” Also the account of the conversation of ‘Omar who discovered a written copy of an entire chapter — the twentieth — in the house of Fatima. Why could not Muhammad himself have written it?

Noldeke (Geschiichte des Qurans, p.10) admits that Muhammad had no access to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as we understand them, and says that the question of Muhammad’s illiteracy is confused, because the references given by Muslims on this point are contradictory. The common tradition, he goes on to show, is due not to the fact that men were in search of the truth but rather to the fact that Muhammad’s illiteracy was manufactured to establish dogmatic or political opinions.

Generally speaking, the Sunnis deny his ability to read and write, while the Shia’s affirm it.

Tradition is likewise contradictory as to whether he could read and write after his assumption to the prophetical office. But there can be no doubt of his ability to do this, inasmuch as he knew all things by divine inspiration, and as by the power of God he could perform acts which were impossible to all others. He had his own wise reasons for not reading and writing himself, and generally ordered his attendants to read letters which he received.

One of the traditions which the Shia’s advance is the celebrated incident in connection on with the treaty made in the sixth year of the Hegra with the Qurraish at a place near Mecca, named Hudaibiya. The account is preserved by Bukhari and Muslim (vol. 2. p.170). Ibn Hisham has also recorded it at length in his Siratu r-Rasul (vol. 2. p. 175, ed. Bulaq, 1295 A.H.). The former tells us that ‘Ali was chosen as the prophet’s amanuensis on this occasion, and that when Muhammad bade him write the words, “A treaty between Muhammad the Prophet of God and Suhail bin ‘Amr,” the latter objected to the term “Apostle of God,” remarking that if the Qurraish acknowledged that, there would be no necessity for opposing Muhammad at all. The latter then turned to ‘Ali and told him to cut out the words “Apostle of God” and write in their stead the words suggested by Suhail, viz. “Son of Abdullah!” To this ‘Ali objected, saying, “By God I will never cut it out.” Then, the narrative proceeds: “The apostle of God took the writing and though he did not write well, wrote what he had ordered (‘Ali), viz. ‘Mohammed son of Abdullah.'”



Noldeke comes to the following conclusions (Geschichte des Qurans, pp. 12-14):

1. Muhammad desired to be known as one who did not understand reading and writing; he therefore employed a number of scribes and always had letters that came to him read out to him.

2. He did not have access to the Bible or other Christian books.

3. This does not exclude the fact that Muhammad used the oral traditions of Jews and Christians as well as the unwritten traditions current among his own people.

4. The frequency with which Muhammad feels it necessary to resent the charge of the Meccan idolaters that the Quran was a book composed by fraud is certainly indicative that they must have known something of his methods and of his sources.

< “But the misbelievers say:”Naught is this but a lie which he has forged, and others have helped him at it.” In truth it is they who have put forward an iniquity and a falsehood. And they say: “Tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening.” (Al-Furqan 25:4 ,5)  Compare also An-Nahl 16:103 where the same charge is made. < “”We know indeed that they say, “It is a man that teaches him.” The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear. In neither passage does Muhammad answer the charge by saying that he can neither read nor write.”

The tradition in regard to Muhammad’s calling for writing materials on his death-bed is given by Muir as follows: “About this time, recognizing ‘Omar, and some other chief men in the room, he called out, ‘Bring hither to me ink and paper, that I may record for you a writing which shall prevent your going astray for ever.’ ‘Omar said, ‘He wandereth in his mind, is not the Quran sufficient for us?’ But the women wished that the writing materials should be brought, and a discussion ensued. Thereupon one said, ‘What is his condition at this present moment? Come let us see if he speaketh deliriously or not.’ So they sent and asked him what his wishes were regarding the writing he had spoken of; but he no longer desired to indite it. ‘Leave me thus alone,’ he said, ‘for my present state is better than that ye call me to.’ “When the women were about to bring the writing material, ‘Omar chided them: ‘Quiet,’ he said, ‘Ye behave as women always do; when your master falleth sick ye burst into tears, and the moment he recovereth a little ye begin embracing him.’ Muhammad, jealous even on his death-bed of the good name of his wives, was aroused by these words, and said, ‘Verily they are better than ye are.’ If this tradition be true, it shows that Muhammad was only partially delirious at the moment.” (Muir’s The Life of Mahomet, vol. 4. Pp 271-272)

There is no reason, therefore, why Muslims should emphasize the illiteracy of the Prophet except to bolster up their theory of the Quran as a miracle. If Muhammad had been able to read and write well, there would have been a suspicion that he had examined earlier books and copied his revelations from them. The legend that Muhammad was illiterate grew with the centuries. Al-Ghazali, for example (Ihya, vol. 2. p. 250), says: “The prophet was ummi; he did not read, cypher, nor write, and was brought up in an ignorant country in the wild desert, in poverty while herding sheep; he was an orphan without father or mother; but God Himself taught him all the virtues of character and all the knowledge of the ancient and the modern world.”

5 thoughts on “The Illiterate Prophet?

  1. Dave

    Muhammad was surrounded with at least 2 poets a Christian neighbor a Christian slave and a Jewish friend, so yes he was aware of the Bible I have reason to believe that he wanted to be a poet but found out being a ruthless killer paedophile and a thief was more profitable then writing. The Koran is very similar to the writing of Zayd so did God write it…No… Did Muhammad write it.. No… 1000% says that the poets were forced to write it and swore on their life not to reveal its true Author.

    1. admin Post author

      It is generally admitted by Arabic scholars that the golden age of Arabic poetry was that immediately preceding or contemporaneous with Muhammad and then there was general decline. The seven poems of Ancient Arabia are called the Mu’allaqat or ‘suspended’ because they were suspended on the walls of the Ka’aba. They are also known as Muzahhbat or ‘golden’ because they written in gold. It is predominantly lyrical expressing the poet’s personal feelings and aspirations, his experience of love, nature relations in both peace and war, with friend and foe, his own tribe and outsiders. Muhammad repudiated the idea of being a poet (Al-Haaqa 69:40-43) and in the early part of his mission he despised the poets (Ash-Shuara 26:224-226). When Labid and Hassan accepted Islam the poets rose in his estimation.

      1. Dave

        If I was uneducated, and God refused to give me the ability to read or write (then I would pray for this ability). Muhammad asked God for other things but didn’t bother to ask for a little education. (There was a) need to write down and read what God wanted. If God wanted people to hear or read what he wanted them to know why didn’t he make the book himself?….. Oh I know, it had to be controlled by one man, like Moses and the ten commandments, which needed to be rewritten because Moses was mad and threw the tablets down. If I was God and I knew Moses was going to throw them, I would have made it so that I wouldn’t have to write them again. (Edited)

        1. admin Post author

          Yes, it would have been practically more helpful if Muhammad was not illiterate yet Islam seeks to enhance the miraculous nature of the Quran by pursuing this idea. Initially the Quran was expressed in recitation and it was left to others to write it down. Your comment regarding Moses leads into questions of sovereign choice and free will – issues that cannot be resolved under this subject heading.

  2. dan

    What about the Ancient World where its agreed that at most 10% of the population could read and even less write?
    Peter didn’t write 1st Peter or the 2nd Peter in the New Testament. The Bible says Peter couldn’t write, was an illiterate (Axe Chapter 4, verse 13), unable to read the letters, his language was Aramaic, he was a fisherman in Gallilee. 1st Peter was written in highly elegant Greek. Estimates of literacy in Palestine says that probably 3% of the population could read.
    There’s no basis that he dictated it and a scribe or a secretary wrote it down as there’s no evidence of it in the Ancient World. Plus the difference in style between 1st Peter and 2nd Peter are really different and so the vast majority of scholars agree that there were different authors for the 1st Peter and 2nd Peter.
    So here we have problems with the Bible and illiteracy.


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