Was the Prophet illiterate when Allah's angel said "iqra'/read"? Did the Prophet say, "I do not know how to read" or "What shall I read"?

Details of the Question
Was the Prophet illiterate when Allah's angel said "iqra'/read"? Did the Prophet say, "I do not know how to read" or "What shall I read"?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The angel of revelation, Jibril, appeared to the Prophet in the form of a good-looking man by emitting lights and in a dazzling brightness. He addressed the Prophet with a sweet but sonorous voice:

"Read!"
The Messenger of Allah was astonished and frightened. His heart shivered. He said,
"I do not know how to read."
Jibril caught him forcefully and pressed him hard; then, he released the Prophet and said,
" Read!"
The Messenger of Allah answered,
"I do not know how to read."
Jibril caught him again and pressed him hard; then, he released the Prophet and said,
" Read!"
This time, the Prophet said,
"I do not know how to read. What shall I read?"
Thereupon, the angel read the first verses of the chapter of al-Alaq, which he took from Allah to bring to the Messenger of Allah:

"Proclaim! (or Read!) In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created― Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful― He Who taught (the use of) the Pen―." (see Bukhari, Badul-Wahy, 3; Muslim, Iman, 252)

The Messenger of Allah, who was extremely excited and scared, repeated the verses that were sent down in the language he spoke word by word. The verses that were sent down settled in the tongue and heart of the Messenger of Allah. Jibril, whose duty ended for that time, disappeared suddenly.

Read in the name of your Lord! That is, read by starting with His lofty name, "Allah". Start reading. As it is mentioned above, when this order was sent down, the angel came to Hz. Muhammad, who was in the cave Hira, squeezed him very hard and said only "read". Hz. Muhammad did not know how to read; so, he said, "I do not know how to read"; that is, I cannot read; what shall I read? Thereupon, the angel said, "read" again by squeezing him hard. He said again, "I do not know how to read."

That is, the first two orders to "read" were not verses of the Quran; they were offers to make him ready to read like spelling. The Quran started with the order "Read in the name of your Lord" after the third squeezing. Then, this first order made the Prophet read in a creative manner though he could not read when it was sent down; it started to state what is read with its didactic style and it showed that his first duty was to make Allah, who created like that and who educated, known and to start reading with His name. In the beginning, it means as follows:

"You did not read up to this time.

"And thou wast not (able) to recite a Book before this (Book came)." (al-Ankabut, 29/48)

You did not know the quality of the book and what principles of belief consisted of:

"Thou knewest not (before) what was Revelation, and what was Faith." (ash-Shura, 42/52)

However, your Lord, who is the owner of the deed called creation, who created the universe and created you and brought you up and who owns you and all of your works made you read with His power and started to send the Quran, a book to be read. Read with the name of your Lord as you are taught."

"When thou dost read the Qur'an, seek Allah's protection from Satan the Rejected one." (an-Nahl, 16/98)

As it is mentioned in this verse, the reality of reading the Quran is to utter words in a nice and proper manner by combining the words; it means to read whether by heart or by looking, whether silently or aloud.

It is not a requirement for a book to be written to be a book; writing is not a requirement for reading.

It is a figurative use to call looking with eyes (silent reading) and reciting as reading. The perfect form of reading is reciting. As it is stated in the hadith of the Prophet, the reason why reading by looking at the Quran is rewarding and virtuous is that it helps understanding and memorizing. The reading (qira’ah) of the Messenger of Allah is reading the Quran, which was sent down to him by Allah, by heart perfectly without needing the written form; it also includes reading it by himself, in prayer or proclaiming it to others and making others read and dictating.  

Thus, with this order, the illiterate Prophet who had not read a book and written anything before started to be given a book to be read as a miracle and he was given the power to read without writing and the power to dictate. He was ordered to start it with the name of Allah. He was told that the wisdom behind it was divine necessity especially with the phrase "your Lord".

"How can such a miracle of qira’ah (reading) take place without reading any books and without learning to write with a pen?" In order to eliminate a doubt like this, the quality of creation, the beginning of creation and the decree of divinity are reminded before reading and writing as follows: Read in the name of your Lord, Who created; creation is His quality or He created you and everything.

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