Q. There is a verse in the Qur'an which talks about following the unlettered (ummi) Prophet, or that's how it is translated. We also know from the sunnah that the Prophet Muhammad would transmit verses to the companions; who would write the verses down and then read them back to him, so he could verify the wording. There is also the report that the angel Gabriel told the Prophet three times to "Read," and he said that he did not know how to read. Are these traditions about the Prophet being illiterate correct?
A. The thrust of modern research does not concur with this. Rather, it supports that the Prophet was a gentile, or one who could not read Hebrew. The Qur'an shows that the Prophet was not a scribe, and this was referring to the Hebrew writings (al ankabut). The concept of illiteracy was introduced to provide an artificial defense against the later Jewish and Christian claims that the Prophet had read their books. However, this is not even worth considering, because as I said, he could not read Hebrew. Even if he could, the mode of transmission was oral in those times for the most part. For this reason, the Qur'an has the accusations against the Prophet listed, wherein the people say that he sits with someone in the morning and the night, and then comes and relays that someone's message. The Qur'an rebuts this by saying that Muhammad's message is in Arabic, and not in a foreign tongue. This shows that the Prophet, even if he did spend time with the Rabbis, etc., did so on a basis speaking Arabic, and not speaking Hebrew, as he did not have access to the finer points of Jewish belief that would only be in Hebrew or Aramaic.
The Qur'an is extremely clear when we use that as the source, instead of some of the fairy tales attributed to some of the assumedly innocent companions. The verse in the Qur'an does not mean unlettered. That is the interpolation that the Arab mufassirs gave to the word to justify their position. The word still means gentile. As far as the reports of the companions, etc., the Prophets were never the writers of their own messages. This is what I mean about the Qur'an assuming a knowledge of custom and law, both Christian and Jewish. The Prophets' jobs were to receive revelations, the scribes' jobs were to transmit those revelations. It was almost sanctified.
Even if we assume that the Prophet was not able to read and write, this would mean on the level of a scribe, not a normal person. This is why the Qur'an says that he was not a scribe (Q29:48). Notice that the Qur'an says that he did not write, but does not say that he could not read. This is important, for the writing was a priestly function. The scriptures to which Allah is referring were in Hebrew, or even if we say Greek or Aramaic, these are languages unknown to the Prophet. The hadith on the matter are later fabrications or early ones, we do not know. Suffice it to say that they contradict each other. We can see that when the Prophet was supposedly dictating the truce of Hudaibiya, and Ali refused to erase Rasulullah, it was the Prophet himself who erased the term. Strange for a man who could not read, isn't it?
If we assume that Ali showed him the place, it is strange that the hadith doesn't mention this. If we assume that Khadija would employ an illiterate to do her business transactions, we have to assume that she was not too smart, in a time when business transactions were not quite as unsophisticated as we would like to think. It is strange too that the Qur'an states that contracts be written, and signed, etc., and the Prophet is supposed to exemplify this. The Qur'an does not say that the Prophet could not read. As the orientalists accuse us, the Muslims created the myth of an illiterate to say that he could not have read the Jewish books. They forgot to make him deaf too, so he couldn't hear the Jewish rabbis.
Regarding the report about the Prophet Muhammad saying to the angel Gabriel that he did not know how to read, let us accept the report at face value and analyze it only in terms of lexicology and logic. The word "qara'a" -- the root from which the imperative "iqra" comes, means "to recite" -- denoting an audible, vocal function. The word Qur'an also comes from this root, and we know that the Qur'an was revealed as an oral document, not a written one. On a logical basis, not a single report tells us that when Gabriel gave this order/request, that the Prophet had any material with him in order to read it.
Nothing tells us either that Gabriel had any material from which he himself read. Therefore, this indicates the pristine meaning of the word -- "to recite." The word's evolution into the meaning of "read" is a later one, something inevitable with the spread of literacy. However, the original meaning is still evident and used, which is why a reciter of the Qur'an, who does not read from a mushaf, is still known as a muqri' or a qari, and the manner of recitation is referred to as qiraa'a.
As I said, all non-Jews were regarded as gentiles, "tribes other than those of Israel." The Jewish concept of all non-Jews who did not read the Torah, or could not communicate in Hebrew was that they were illiterate, meaning that they were not able to communicate in the Hebrew language, that which God supposedly addressed to Moses. Note too that the Qur'an answers this contention by stating why the Prophet could not bring a Qur'an in Hebrew: were he to bring a Qur'an in a tongue foreign to the Arabs (i.e. Hebrew), they would have said: "What! An Arab bringing a foreign Qur'an." (41:44) So on the basis of what was perceived as "God's Language," certainly the Prophet was illiterate, i.e. he could not speak and read Hebrew, hence a gentile. So the Jews could not understand why the smart God who knew that they were the only people chosen to receive the message should give revelation to a lowly Arab.
Posted May 16, 1999