Was the Prophet Muhammad ummi? What does "ummi prophet" mean? How did he read if he were illiterate?

Details of the Question

Could the Prophet (pbuh) read and write? Did he write anything with his hand? Did he read anything? He is said to have been "ummi" but the word ummi is debatable. Some interpret it as "He could not read and write according to the Quran" others as "He was not from the People of the Book." Would you explain the truth about it?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Ummi means remaining in the state of a person who was born from his mother, who has not learned anything, and who cannot read and write. The adjective form of the word "Umm" means belonging to "umm". In Arabic, umm means mother, and the origin of something. (Firuzabadi, al-Qamusuul-Muhit, Beirut 1987, 1891)

Along with its lexical meanings, it has some metaphorical meanings. In the Quran, it is used in the sense of mother, the source, the place to return to and the one who breastfeeds. (Abdurrahman Ibnul-Jawzi, Nuzhatul A'yunin-Nawazir fi Ilmil-Wujuh wan-Nazair Beirut, 1985,141-142)

In the Quran, the word “ummi” is used for those who cannot “read and write”. That is its real meaning.

“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)

This meaning is clear in the verse above.

In the following verse, the word “ummi” is used for the Prophet (pbuh) too:

“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 believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.’” (al-A'raf, 7/157-158)

“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)

It is emphasized in the verse above that the Prophet (pbuh) could not read and write and it is indicated that the attribute “ummi” used for him has the same meaning.

The Prophet (pbuh) has two kinds of miracles. One of them is the miracles seen in him in person and the other is the miracles he showed in the universe. The examples related to the second part are his splitting the moon into two, water gushing forth from his fingers like a tap and feeding a lot of people from a little food. The most impressive miracle related to the first part is his being ummi (illiterate), not being able to read and write. (at-Tafsirul-Kabir, 15:29.)

The Prophet (pbuh) did not take lessons from any scholars, did not read any books, did not learn anything in a scholarly session and did not write even a word. Despite being illiterate, the Prophet (pbuh) knew about all sciences; there was nothing he did not know. His Lord taught him everything.

After the Prophet (pbuh) started to teach and explain Islam to people, nobody said, “I taught him this or that.”

The word “ummi” is used in three senses in tafsir books:

1. “Umm” is a word meaning mother.  The word “Ummi” is a noun derived from it. Thus, ummi means a person who remained in the same state as he was born from his mother, who could not read and write, and whose nature does not change by learning something new. 

2. The Arab nation was called “ummi”. The Arab nation has been known as a nation that could not write and calculate. The Prophet (pbuh) expresses this facts as follows   in a hadith:

“We are a nation that does not make calculations based on the movements of the stars and that does not write.” (Muslim, Siyam: 15.)

3. “Umm” also means Ummul-Qura; it means “Makkan”. When all of the three senses are considered, it is understood that the Prophet did not read and write. Besides, the Quran clearly states that the Prophet was ummi (illiterate). The phrase “ummi Prophet” is used in three verses. (al-A'raf, 7/157, 1588; al-Jumua, 62/2.)

The Prophet (pbuh) could not read a book or a writing when he looked at it but he read the Quran very well by heart. Jibril taught him how to read the Quran. The following is stated in verse 6 of the chapter of al-A’la regarding the issue:

“By degrees shall We teach thee to declare (the Message), so thou shalt not forget.”

Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır states the following regarding the issue:

"In all of those three senses, ummi means a person who did not try to learn to read and write. When the word ummi (illiterate) is used for ordinary people, it is a negative attribute that expresses lack of knowledge but when it is used for a prophet, it indicates the loftiness of nature since an illiterate person knows more than literate people and since he is equipped with divine knowledge though he has not studied. Being illiterate for a prophet whose scholarly loftiness and perfection outdoes literate people is an extraordinary characteristic that eliminates all kinds of doubts and that proves that he was sent directly by Allah; that is, it is a miracle on its own. Therefore, describing him as "messenger, illiterate prophet" is a clearer example of rhetoric than describing him as "the prophet whose prophethood is clear and who has miracles." (see Elmalılı Hamdi YAZIR, Hak Dinî Kur'an Dili, Istanbul, 1979, IV/2297; Qurtubi, al-Jami' li Ahkamil-Quran; Beirut, 1965, VII/298-299)

It is accepted by all scholars that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) did not know how to read and write. As a matter of fact, this issue is stated 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, 29/48)

It is known that the Prophet (pbuh) belonged to a community where illiteracy was widespread. It is a historical fact that he was an illiterate person who did not study and who could not read and write. However, there is a lot of information, scientific principles, results, references or signs related to many branches of science in the Quran. If we consider the information about only about Judaism and Christianity and their holy books, they constitute a great amount. Even very knowledgeable scholars cannot deal with those issues, express their opinions related to debatable issues, criticize and reach a conclusion. 

In that case, a reference is necessary for this information in the Quran. It is definite that the Prophet Muhammad, (pbuh) who conveyed the message of the Quran, spent forty years of his life among the fellow citizens of his city, that he did not go to school or taught by a teacher and that he could not read and write. For, the Quran informed its antagonists about this verse but none of its enemies opposed and said that he could read and write. Then, it is certain that the Quran was sent down by Allah, who knows everything.

There are many wisdoms behind the Prophet’s becoming “illiterate”. One of them is as follows: If the Prophet had been able to read and write, Qurayshis would have said, “He read the previous books and learned his knowledge from the. He wrote the Quran based on the previous knowledge.” This issue is expressed as follows: by the verse that is has also been mentioned above: 

“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.)

However, the Prophet (pbuh) wrote such a thing that

“as Mawlana Jami says, ‘That literate person who did not write anything wrote an alif with the pen of his finger on the page of the sky and transformed one forty into two fifties.’”

As it is known, the standing of the moon in the form of full moon resembles the round part of the Arabic letter “mim” and when it is divided into two, each part is likened to “nun” without a dot. In abjad calculation, “mim” represents forty and “nun” represents fifty. Mawlana Jami expresses this nice reality like that.

How should we understand the phrase “ummi (illiterate) prophet”?

The word ummi means “the one who has not had worldly education”. His ummah has understood this fineness very well; when they utter salawat, especially after tarawih prayers, they mention his name with this attribute: "an-nabiyyul-ummiyyu".

That illiterate prophet did not have any evil thoughts. He was away from all of the worldly desires, tricks and traps. Allah prepared him as a spotless, dustless and bright mirror and educated him. Revelation became manifest on this pure mirror of illiteracy.

“As though with a fleet spirit reflecting divine revelation he traversed time and space and entered the depths of the past, then proclaimed [what was there] as though he had witnessed it.”(İşârat-ül icaz)

The Lord of the realms did not allow the Prophet (pbuh) to be taught by anyone. He prevented it with divine determination. His reading was postponed until the order to “read” came. The illiterate prophet received that order and taught the Quran to the realm of humanity. He read the book of the universe with the name of his Lord. He told people about the wisdoms, fine meanings and purposes in it. He told them the nature, truth and duty of man.

While he was reading the hereafter and the Preserved Tablet with the grace of his Lord, the polytheists were busy with worshipping the idols they themselves made. They could not read the universe or the idols they made. If they had been able to read, they would not have attributed themselves to those stones. Their literate ones were the most stubborn and ignorant ones among them.

If we did not understand Islam’s order to “read” well and did not benefit from it, we would have to declare all believers who do not go to school rebels, which is not possible. The Quran tells us that the illiterate Prophet, who read the universe and the Quran perfectly in the name of Allah, did not speak based on his own desire; Allah guarantees us about it. The Prophet, all of whose words were based on divine will, did not read (learn) anything from anybody

The Prophet (pbuh) was ummi (illiterate); he could not read and write. How should we understand Jibril’s saying "read" to the Prophet (pbuh) on Mount Nur?

Whenever and wherever reading books, knowledge, etc. are mentioned the following statement is definitely uttered: “Our religion gives great importance to reading. As a matter of fact, the first order of the Quran is ‘read’.”

It is true. The first order of the Quran is read. However, we almost always ignore reading what comes after the first order.

What is meant by the order “read” given to the illiterate Prophet (pbuh) and to all of us through his messengership? Is it reading and writing? Did the Prophet start to learn to read and write after he was given that order? If not, what is the lesson he took from the order “read”? Does this order mean” just read; it does not matter what and how you read”?

It is necessary to read what comes after the verse starting with “iqra” in order to find the answer to those questions.

“Iqra’ bismi rabbikalladhi khalaq.” That is, “Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created.”

The Quran does not tell us to read randomly. What is meant is not reading a printed book. What is meant is to read ”in the name of the Lord who created” whether one reads a book or the book of the universe, every sentence and letter of whose is full of endless wisdoms and meanings..

The Prophet (pbuh) to whom this order was given read the verse in that sense and tried to read everything “in the name of his Lord” after that. It was such a reading that as the German poet Rilke put it, “even the angels admired”. He was an illiterate prophet; he could not read and write but he read the book of the universe, the book of nature and the Quran in the best way.

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