Was our Prophet illiterate? What does illiterate prophet mean? If he could not read and write, how did he read?

Details of the Question
Was our Prophet illiterate? What does illiterate prophet mean? If he could not read and write, how did he read?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

In Arabic, illiterate (ummi) defines a person who is in the state as if he has just been born, who has not acquired any knowledge and who cannot read and write. It is the adjective form of umm (mother). In Arabic, umm (mother) also means the original form of something. (Firuzabadi, al-Qamusu'l-Muhit, Beirut 1987, 1891).

Apart from its lexical meanings, umm also has some metaphorical meanings. In the Quran, umm is used as the origin, that is, the place to be returned to, and a woman who suckles (Abdurrahman Ibnu'l-Jawzi, Nuzhatu'l A'yuni'n-Nawazır fi Ilmi'l-Wujuh wa'n-Nazair Beirut,1985,141-142).

The word ummi is used for people who cannot read and write in the Quran. That is its original meaning. In the following verse, that meaning is clear: “And there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing but conjecture”(al-Baqara, 2/78).

In the following verses, the word ummi is used for our Prophet.

“"Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (Scriptures);― in the Law and the Gospel;― for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil … 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 believed in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided."”(al-Araf, 2/157-158).

In the following verse, it is emphasized that Hazrat Prophet could not read and write and it is pointed out that the attribute ummi used for him has the same meaning: “And thou wast not (able) to recite a Book before this (Book came) nor art thou (able) to transcribe it with thy right hand: in that case, indeed, would the talkers of vanities have doubted.”(al-Ankabut, 29/48).

Our Prophet had two kinds of miracles. One of them is the ones seen on him and the other is the ones he showed on the universe. Some examples to the second kind are his dividing the moon into two, water flowing out of his fingers like a tap and making a lot of people full out of very little food. The brightest one of the first kind of miracles is his illiteracy, not being able to read and write. (at-Tafsiru’l-Kabir, 15:29.)

Our Prophet did not take lessons from any scholars; he did not read any books; he did not learn anything from a circle of knowledge; he did not write even one word. Although the Prophet was illiterate, he had knowledge about all kinds of sciences; there was nothing that he did not know. It was his Lord who taught him everything. Nobody claimed something like, “I taught him such an issue” after he started to tell people about Islam.

In tafsir (interpretation) books, the word umm is used in three senses:

1. “Umm” is a word that means mother. “Ummi” (illiterate) is a word derived from the word “umm”. Thus, ummi means a person who is in the state as if he has just been born, who cannot read and write and whose nature does not change when he learns something new.

2. The Arab nation was also defined as “ummi”. Arabs have been known as a nation that cannot read, write and calculate for a long time. The Prophet expresses this state as follows in a hadith: “We are a nation that does not calculate by looking at the movements of the stars and that does not write.” (Muslim, Siyam: 15.)

3. “Ummi” also means Ummu’l-Qura (Mother of the Cities), that is, a person from makkah. When all of the three senses are considered, it is understood that the Prophet was not involved in reading and writing. Besides, it is stated in the Quran that our Prophet was illiterate. Moreover, the phrase “illiterate prophet” is used in three verses. (al-Araf, 157, 8; al-Jumu’a, 2.)

Our Prophet could not read a book or writing but he could read the Quran by heart in a very nice way. Jibril (Gabriel) taught him to read the Quran. The following is stated regarding the issue in the Quran: “By degrees shall We teach thee to declare (the Message), so thou shalt not forget” (al-Ala, 6).

Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır makes the following explanation regarding the issue: "In all of those three senses, ummi is a person that has not tried to learn to read and write. When the word ummi is used for an ordinary person, it expresses a negative meaning; however, if an ummi person has more knowledge than literate people, if he is equipped with divine knowledge by Allah without trying to learn something, it expresses the loftiness of the nature of the Prophet. Loftiness and perfection in science, illiteracy of a prophet that surpasses literate people is an extraordinary quality leaving no doubt that he was sent by Allah; that is, it is a miracle on its own. Therefore, that he is mentioned as an illiterate prophet is more eloquent than being mentioned as a prophet whose prophethood is obvious and who has miracles." ( See Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır, Hak dinî Kur'an Dili, İstanbul, 1979, IV, 2297; Qurtubi, al-Jami' li Ahkami'l-Qur'an; Beirut, 1965, VII, 298-299)

It is accepted by all scholars that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) could not read and write. As a matter of fact, it is expressed clearly in the following verse: " And thou wast not (able) to recite a Book before this (Book came) nor art thou (able) to transcribe it with thy right hand: in that case, indeed, would the talkers of vanities have doubted. (al-Ankabut, 48).

It is known that Hazrat Prophet (pbuh) belongs to a community, in which illiteracy was common. It is a historical fact that the Prophet himself was illiterate, that is, he could not read and write. However, there are various kinds of information about many branches of science, scientific principles, results, references and signs in the Quran. If we take into consideration only the information regarding the religions of Judaism and Christianity and their holy books, we will see that they form a great amount of knowledge. To deal with those issues, to express one’s view regarding controversial subjects, to make decisions about them are things that even scholars cannot dare to do.

Then, a reference is necessary for the information in the Quran. It is definite that Hazrat Muhammad, who spent forty years of his life before prophethood among his fellow citizens, did not go to school, meet any teachers and could not write. The Quran addressed the people who opposed him with that verse but none of his enemies dared to claim that he could write. Then, it is definite that the Quran was sent down by Allah, who knows everything.  

There are many wisdoms behind the fact that our Prophet was illiterate. If the Prophet had been able to read and write, the Qurayshis would have said, “He read the previous books and learned from them; he wrote the Quran based on the knowledge in them. The following verse express the issue as follows: “And thou wast not (able) to recite a Book before this (Book came) nor art thou (able) to transcribe it with thy right hand: in that case, indeed, would the talkers of vanities have doubted.”  (al-Ankabut, 48.)

However, our Prophet wrote something, as Mawlana Jami puts it, “the illiterate Prophet, who did not write anything, wrote an ‘alif’ with the pen of the finger on the page of the sky; he turned one ‘forty’ to two ‘fifties’. As it is known, the full moon resembles to the round form of the letter “mim” of Arabic; when the moon was divided into two, it resembled to the letter “nun” without a dot. In abjad system (type of writing system in which each symbol always or usually stands for a consonant), ‘mim’ represents forty and ‘nun’ represents fifty. Mawlana Jami expressed that nice fact like that.

Please click on the links given below;

How should we take the phrase, “unlettered prophet (1)” ?

How should take the first command of the Holy Qur’an, which is “Read”? In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was illiterate?

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