Was Muhammad Illiterate?

Thanks to Smple Trth for collecting and sharing this article in QRAC


The verse 7:157 states that Muhammad was a gentile:

“So you shall believe in God and His messenger, the gentile (ummy) prophet.”

The Arabic word “ummy” describes people who are not Jewish or Christian. The meaning of this word, which occurs six times in the Quran, has been changed to ” one who can neither read nor write”. This deliberate manipulation by Muslim scholars has become widely accepted as the true meaning of the word. For example Yusuf Ali, in his translation, follows this pattern: “… So believe in God and His Apostle, the unlettered Prophet,…”. Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation also reflects the same manipulation: “… So believe in Allah and His messenger, the prophet who can neither read nor write,..”.

The Quran explains the true meaning of “ummy”

Let’s examine the true meaning of “ummy” in the Quran. Anyone can easily understand that “ummy” does not mean an illiterate person by reflecting on the verse 3:20 below:

“And say to those who received the scripture, as well as those who did not receive any scripture (ummyyeen)…”

In this verse the word “ummy” describes Meccan idol worshipers. It is obvious that “ummy” does not mean illiterate because it has been used as the antonym of the people of the scripture. If the verse was ” … And say to those literate and illiterate”, then their above translation of “ummy” would be correct. According to the verse 3:20 the people of Arab peninsula were two main groups:

1. The people of the scripture, i.e., Jews and Christians.

2. Gentiles, who were neither Jewish nor Christian.

If the people who were neither Jews nor Christians were called “ummyyeen” (3:20; 3:75), then the meaning of “ummy” is very clear. As a matter of fact, the verse 3:75 clearly explains its meaning as gentile.

Mecca was the cultural center of the Arabs in the 7th century. Poetry competitions were being held there. It is a historical fact that Meccans were not familiar with the Bible, thus they were gentiles. So the verse 62:2 describes Meccan people by the word “ummyyeen”:

“He is the One who sent to the gentiles (ummyyeen) a messenger from among them, to recite to them His revelations, purify them, and teach them the scripture and wisdom. Before this, they had gone far astray.” (62:2)

The Quran does not classify the people of Arab peninsula as the literate and the illiterate, as Muslim scholars claim. The Quran classifies the people as people of the book (Jews & Christians) and gentiles. The second classification is the correct one, and the Quran supports it.

The disbelievers claimed that Muhammad was quoting verses from the Old and New Testaments (25:5; 68:15). The verse below refutes their accusation and gives the answer:

“You did not read any previous scriptures, nor did you write them with your hand. In that case, the objectors would have had reason to harbor doubts.” (29:48)

This verse tells us that Muhammad did not read nor write previous scriptures. The word “min qablihi = previous” proves that Muhammad read and wrote the final scripture.

Muhammad was a literate gentile (ummy)

After this examination on the true meaning of the word “ummy”, here are the reasons and proofs for the fact that Muhammad was a literate gentile:

ˆ To magnify the miraculous aspect of the Quran, religious people thought that the story of illiteracy would be alluring.

ˆ The producer of the illiteracy story found it easy to change the meaning of “ummy”, which in the entire Quran, consistently means “gentile” (2:78; 3:20; 3:75; 62:2).

ˆ The Arabs of the 7th century were using letters as numbers. This alphabetical numbering system is called “Abjed”. The merchants of those days had to know the letters of the alphabet to record their account. If Muhammad was a successful international merchant, then he most probably knew this numbering system. The Arabs stopped using the “Abjed” system in the 9th century when they took “Arabic numbers” from India.

ˆ The Quran’s spelling is unique. The mathematical miracle of the Quran, which proves that Quran is the word of God, confirms the unique spelling of the Quranic words. The different spellings of some words are not the personal preference of the scribes. For example, the words “salat”, “zakat”, “hayat” are written with “waw” instead of “alif”. In verse 3:96 the name of Mecca is spelled as “Bacca”. The word “bastatan” is written with “seen” throughout the Quran, except in 7:69 where it is written with “saad”.

ˆ If you write the first verse of the first revelation with Basmalah, you will conclude that Muhammad was literate. We know that Basmalah has 19 letters, the first revelation i.e., 96:1-5 consists of 76 (19×4) letters, this first chronological chapter consists of 19 verses and is placed first of the last 19 chapters and has 285 (19×15) letters. (The code 19 will be mentioned in the next questions). This information explains the different spelling of the word “bism” in the beginning of the Basmalah and in the first verse of chapter 96. You decide; is it reasonable for an illiterate to dictate two different spellings of the same word which is pronounced the same?

ˆ Traditional history books accept that Muhammad dictated the Quran and controlled its recording. Even if we accept that Muhammad did not know how to read or write before revelation of the Quran, we can not claim that he preserved his illiteracy during 23 years while he was dictating the Quran.

ˆ The first revelation was “Read,” and the first five verses of that revelation encourage reading and writing (96:1-5). The second revelation was “The pen and writing” (68:1).

Now, let’s ask our questions:

a) As you can see in verse 3:20 and 3:75, the Quran uses the word “ummy” as the antonym of the “ehlil kitab = people of the book”. Do you believe that Quran classifies people as literate and illiterate?

b) The Quran describes Meccan people with the word “ummyyeen = gentiles” (62:2). According to your claim, all Meccan people must have been illiterate. According to your holy books, who was writing poems in Mecca? Who was reading the poems hanging on the walls of the Kaba?

c) Which numbering system were the Arabs using in the 7th century? Did those who were making calculations with those numbers know how to read and write?

d) Is the unique spelling in the Quran the result of errors and personal opinions? How do you explain the different spelling of “bism” of the Basmalah and the first verse of chapter 96?

e) Does God command an illiterate man to “read”? Could Muhammad read after Gabriel’s instruction ? Does this story not contradict your claim that Muhammad died an illiterate?

f) Let us accept that Muhammad was illiterate before the revelation of the Quran. Why did he insist on staying illiterate for 23 years after the first revelation: “Read !”? Did he not obey his Lord’s command? Did he receive another command forbidding him from reading and writing?

g) Was it so difficult for Muhammad to learn to read and write? If a person still does not learn to read and write after 23 years of careful dictation of a book, what do you think about such a person? Is he stupid or a liar?

h) Was Muhammad encouraging his followers to read and write? If so, why did he exclude himself? How do you explain this strange attitude and verse 2:44?

i) How can an illiterate man insure the accuracy of a scribe?

j) You are trying to imitate Muhammad from his eating to his attire, from his beard to his toothbrush; why do you not imitate his illiteracy? Why do you not follow his sunnah?

k) You are the people who disagree on almost every subject; but you agree on the story of the illiteracy of Muhammad. How could you manage this agreement?

Why I over-analyse everything

I remember going to a Qur’an study circle (within a few days of reverting/converting) where there was no Qur’an present because (I was told) “it is too holy and we mere mortals cannot attempt to try to understand it” So that is why we have the Ahadith, so I was told. So the Scripture that had initially brought me to Islam (The Sublime Qur’an) was something I shouldn’t have been reading in the first place?! Something didn’t add up. And then my investigation started!

I think that the ahadith have a purpose, (which I will not go into here), and certainly for people who don’t know which hadiths are from the Qur’an and which ones are not, it must be terribly confusing. I heard a lot of weak/false/fabricated ahadith when I was first converted, and some of the more knowledgeable sisters at University were keen to point out that Ahadith could be either weak, strong, authentic etc, so I guess I learned early on to check what is in the Qur’an and what isn’t. I have heard some woppers of hadiths in my time, honestly, some of the most strange and most bizarre superstitions that people actively make place for in our beautiful deen, and (in my own opinion carelessly / heedlessly / disrespectfully) abrogating God’s final message to mankind. Alhamdulillah, having not been born into the religion with no dogma/pre-conceptions/falsehood already ingrained, it was fairly simple to “sort the wheat from the chaff” to use a very English expression, if I may!

So I guess I got into the habit (early on) of cross referencing or checking against the Master. So much so, that I found many many interesting topics. I remember reading about Hypocrites and Shirk and then suddenly I was seeing a lot of questionable practises everywhere, at university in the prayer rooms, and in islamic lectures; especially what I perceived to be “Shirk” – ascribing partners to God or outright worship of the Prophet, or discussing scholars as if the scholars were their “gods”. I carried on reading the Qur’an and the more I read, the more I believed that I was being warned. Not just about evil and the Shaytan, but also the ones who went astray when they didn’t obey the Message they were sent and corrupted it by adding / concealing /abrogating /twisting / disregarding / disobeying. It particularly struck me as odd when a lot of the lectures aimed at showing Christians that the Bible’s own words were telling people that Jesus never claimed to be God, but then when it comes to the Qur’an and what the Qur’an’s own words say, people are happy to do what they claim the Christians did and follow the hearsay / tradition / superstition and disregard the Scripture.

Nearly all the Muslims I’ve met in real life say the Sunnah+Ahadith is the 2nd divine source of guidance, the 1st being the Qur’an. But the Qur’an never mentions a second divine source.  “Sunnah”  is mentioned in the Qur’an (Sunnat’Allah). Ahadith are mentioned in the Qur’an. (The links show the verses that those words appear in). The Ahadith collection of Bukhari is not mentioned at all. It became apparent to me that God has given us instructions about the BEST hadith (see 39:23) to follow, which is the Qur’an, and asks us “which hadith other than THIS will you follow?” I fear the Day when I will be asked about all my actions and why I did them (or did not). From what I have learned, it is not going to look good if I say “because Scholar A said this and Sheikh B said that” in case it is seen that I am taking OTHER than God as my Lord. The Qur’an warns us not to take religious scholars/sheikhs/imams/priests/rabbis as our Lords. The Qur’an says Obey God and Obey the Messenger. The Messenger’s sole duty is to clearly deliver the message. So by obeying the Qur’an, I am obeying the Messenger, insha’Allah.

I fear God and I do my best to avoid the unforgiveable sin of commiting Shirk, insha’Allah.  I just want to worship Allah alone as instructed in the Qur’an (and previous Scripture) and obey the instructions. (Here is a good article on Reading and interpretation).

I have found there is a misperception that if you do not “accept” Bukhari’s Ahadith collection, then this is rejecting the Prophet/Messenger so it means we are not obeying the Messenger so we are not obeying God.

I am not “unwilling to accept” ahadith which correspond exactly with the Qur’an. Nor do I have a problem with “good advice” in general. I do however have a problem with ahadith / hearsay / gossip that are falsely attributed to the Messenger and labelled as divine guidance, as this does not respect him as the Servant, Messenger and Prophet like he ought to be respected, in my opinion. And I will not knowingly attribute anything falsely to God or lie about God, insha’Allah.  I like to think that, by not deviating from the Message the Prophet brought, that God protected/guarded, this is the best way to support and obey him, which is to obey God. The Qur’an tells us what to ignore, and also tells us to verify before we accept. The Qur’an is a book in which there is NO doubt, unlike the ahadith which are claimed to be weak, strong, authentic, fabricated, baseless etc which makes it surplus to requirements. Even the “strong” and “authentic” ones are questionable when you look into the “Science of Hadith” (see Wikipedia’s article on Criticism of Hadith) and what criteria/conjecture are used for determining/speculating about the authenticity. Even if the authenticity was not highly questionable, it still remains that there is no authority given in the Qur’an for judging by anything other than the Qur’an itself and the Qur’an warns us about fabricated/baseless ahadith and conjecture.

It is my belief that there are many ways in which we are tested. I am trying to pass the Test, insha’Allah. We know from what the Qur’an says about the Shaytan, who will come and try to make people stray from the right path, making their doings seem goodly to them. I guess this is why I tend to (over)analyse everything to make sure it is “bona-fide” and not Shaytan’s trickery. Insha’Allah.

If the Qur’an (the divine guidance) was from any other than God then it would be full of contradiction. And there is NO contradiction in the Qur’an. It is only in the “reported” sayings and actions of Rasulallah that there are contradictions, so therefore how can this be divine guidance from God? (don’t forget the reports are just that, and look at the newsreaders today and what they report – is it always accurate? no of course not – often propaganda, conjecture and bias with a socio-political agenda) I am not saying I believe ALL ahadith are conjecture / misreports. But I am saying that I believe that if they are NOT conjecture then they WILL be found in the Qur’an, and the Qur’an clarifies. So that’s what I try to establish, insha’Allah. The “sects” or schools of thought in Islam have one thing in common: the Sublime Guarded Qur’an. So how better to make sure I am NOT in a sect than by following the one common denominator? And of course because God commanded us to and to NOT follow conjecture.

see also
Why Quranism is not a sect – Justifying the Quranist / Quranism labels

Quranists and the term ‘Quranists’

Quranic Fundamentalism

Prophetic “Sunnah” in the Quran