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Was Prophet Muhammad illiterate?

May Allah rest his soul, a teacher of mine, from whom I took interpretation lessons, had said the following: “One of the greatest sins of the Ummah of Muhammad is making their prophet an illiterate and ignorant person. Furthermore, it is their bragging about him by calling him illiterate prophet”. I was shocked when I first heard about this sentence. It was not only breaking the mold for me, who is limited to 40-50 years of a lifetime, but also the centuries-old Ummah of Muhammad.

So, what is the truth? Was not the Prophet (PBUH) illiterate? In other words, did he know how to read and write? If he did, why the Ummah of Muhammad have been convinced for centuries that he did not? Moreover, there is a verse in the Quran that supports the general opinion of the Ummah and the claims of the orientalists. The Surah Al-Ankabut (29:48) reads the following: “Neither did you read any book before it (this Quran), nor did you write any book (whatsoever) with your right hand.” In that case, indeed, the followers of falsehood might have doubted.” Doesn’t this statement “did not read any book”, which refers to the pre-prophetic life of the Prophet, clearly mean “not being illiterate”? Or does the “book” mentioned in this verse have a special attribution? Maybe “nor did you write any book” means not the daily writings but the book that has the special meaning?

The Quran uses the relevant words on six occasions; singular (ummi) on two occasions, and plural (ummiyyun and ummiyyin) on four occasions. So, what meaning or meanings under what context does this word embody? And secondly, it is a must to refer to the works such as hadiths, prophetic biographies, and war stories and their authentic knowledge, which puts the life of the Prophet (PBUH) in the center and view every part of his life through a microscope so to speak. And finally, it must be known how this matter was perceived throughout the tradition starting from the period of sahaba (companions of Muhammad) since the revelation community, and then the Tabi’un (the generation after the sahaba), and then Tabi al-Tab’in (the generation after the Tabi’un).

Let’s start from the lexical meanings. The following are the meanings attributed to the word “ummi” in the narration interpretations such as Al-Isfahani’s Mufradat and Ibn Manzur’s Lisan al-Arab: the one belongs to mother, pure like born from mother, pure, not denatured, clear, limpid, fount, spring, beginning, fundamental, essential, soul and ore of something, member of a blind nation, an illiterate community, member of the Arabs, member of a nation or the one from Mecca, the one who was not educated by a person, Arab community excluded from the People of Quran, ignorant Arabs, mother of cities, leader, ummah, group, community that follows the prophet.

As it is seen, being illiterate is only one of the meanings attributed to the word “ummi”. However, we have to admit that this meaning is used more widely among the people compared to the other meanings in the dictionaries, and it is still used. But, this situation does not, cannot, and should not be an excuse to abandon the other meanings of the word. Because such an approach is not worthy of a mentality that pursues truth.

Here is another approach that needs to be emphasized. The majority of the community where the Prophet (PBUH) had existed in was really illiterate mainly because of the living conditions, especially nomadism, of the period. The need to read and write emerged together with the transition to an established and civilized lifestyle. This is a matter that academicians, who study the pre-Islamic Arab people, focus on insistently. The Arabs needed to read and write with their increasing trade capacities after they switched to settled life.

Furthermore, the following matter highlighted by Ibn Manzur is very important; “ummi” is an adjective attributed to the people who do not know the sciences learned through literacy, rather than who are illiterate. This is a comment that should not be ignored. Because on one hand, you would trade on a large scale throughout winter and summer with caravans from Yemen to Damascus, and on the other hand, you would not know how to read or write at least to carry out your trade business… It seems to be a piece of information that is not possible to be true. We have already mentioned that the word “ummi” is used on six occasions in the Quran; singular on two occasions, and plural on four occasions.

The first verse takes place in Surah Al-Baqarah. The following is the literal meaning of the verse: “And among them are unlettered ones who do not know the Scripture except in wishful thinking, but they are only assuming.” Now, who are “they” mentioned in the verse as the “ummi” people? What is the “scripture” they do not understand? The answer to both of the questions is clearly provided in the previous and also succeeding verses. “They” refers to the Jewish who lived inside and around Madinah during the revelation time, and the “scripture” refers to the Torah. After putting the subject and the object in place, we can now provide the full meaning of the verse: “Some of the Jewish are unaware of Torah. They only know what is their wishful thinking. Therefore, the things they talk about are full of mistakes, they are hypothetical and based on superstition things they believe.”

However, is it possible that some of the Jewish people, who are referred to as being illiterate in the verse, might actually be literate? Yes, that is a possibility. They would be unaware of their holy book since they are illiterate. Or they are literate but they are uninformed about the content of the Torah and the meanings provided by its verses. Therefore, their statements based around the Torah are not respected. Indeed, both interpretations exist in the exegesis. But the second view is predominantly defended in the exegesis, and moreover, examples from other verses in the Quran are provided as to which of these views are actually superstitious.

As a result, the word “ummi” is used in this verse of the Quran for the people who are uninformed about Torah, uneducated, and ignorant despite being among the People of the Book.

The second verse is from Surah Ali Imran (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, “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.”

There is no doubt here that the word “ummi” is indeed attributed to the Arab people. This information, which takes place in every single exegesis book since Muqatil ibn Sulayman’s Tafsir al Kabir that is recorded as the first exegesis of the Quran, is the greatest evidence for the “undoubtedly” outcome we mentioned above. In this respect, it is very accurate to translate this part as “the ones who are and are not given a Scripture”. Because what is intended here is the people who had not been contacted with any divine revelation until the Prophet (PBUH), unaware of the culture of revelation, and had not been sent a prophet before.

When it comes to whether these people were illiterate or literate; this can be evaluated as an interpretation as we have stated in the previous verse. Because the historical reality shows that the majority of the polytheist Arabs were illiterate. However, the emphasis in the verse is not that the Arabs in question had been illiterate or not, but rather that they had not been addressed with a divine revelation. Moreover, it is a separate historical reality that some of the Arabs were actually illiterate. Thus, we could say that the Quran used the “ummi” word in this verse as “the people who had not been sent a divine book, nor a prophet before”, which is also a widely common meaning used throughout the Arab community.

The third verse is from Surah Ali Imran (3:75). The word “ummi” here is spoken by the Jewish and the people referred is clearly stated without giving any chance to the interpretations or comments to assign different meanings. “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.

That is because they say, “There is no blame upon us concerning the unlearned.” And they speak untruth about Allah while they know [it].”

Some interpretations leave the word “ummi” as it is, some refer it to the illiterate, some refer to the people who do not know how to calculate, and some refer to the “Arabs from Mecca” based on the “Ummu’l kura” phrase mentioned in the succeeding verse, which we will focus on in this article and refers to “member of Mecca” and “Meccan” meanings. However, it is a certainty that the people addressed by the Jewish are actually the Arabs when we focus on the verse together with the set of verses it is included in and its revelation reason. In fact, almost all of the exegesis related to this subject clearly explain the same. 

According to the narrations, some Jewish religious functionaries take the properties of the non-Jewish without a valid and justifiable reason, arguing that it is not a sin to do so for the Jewish. Because the Jewish considered themselves as a chosen tribe by virtue of being addressed by the divine revelation, and they believed that it was a natural right granted for them to deceive non-Jewish in their trade relations.

Another approach led the people to perceive that every kind of cheating, tricks, and deceiving are legitimate and permissible against the polytheist Arabs who turned into apostates due to the fact that they had abandoned their old belief and embraced Islam. As a matter of fact, some Jewish owed to the Arabs when the Arabs were infidels and the Jewish did not pay after the Arabs became Muslims because of their beliefs. Verse 76 of Surah Ali Imran has a content that completes this meaning. Allah commands: “But yes, whoever fulfills his commitment and fears Allah – then indeed, Allah loves those who fear Him.” Thus, He states that breach of trust, acquiring the properties of the people in illegitimate ways due to their different religious beliefs, and all kinds of cheating and deceit within this framework are wrong.

As a result, the world “ummi” in this verse is used for the polytheist people who are not among the People of the Book or the Muslim Arabs; the Quran only reflects the meaning of this word as it was used in that particular community.

Turkish version of this article appeared at tr724.com

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Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a an author and scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Law.

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