I see little evidence to support the claim that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was illiterate. There, I said it. I plan to write on this topic more inshallah, but these are the preliminary thoughts I have been considering recently.
First, there are a few sound aḥādīth of Muhammad ﷺ suggesting he could read and write, and a few sound aḥādīth suggesting that he could not read. Nonetheless, there is no need to believe he was illiterate, nor is there any need that faithfulness to the Quran depends on the literacy of a 7th century Arabian prophet ﷺ. Some things to consider:
- Not one of his contemporaries considered his illiteracy a condition for the purported miraculousness of the Quran.
- It took at least a 150 years for anyone to consider his illiteracy a proof of the purported miracle of the Quran or ‘I’jāz.
- It was the literate non-Arabian societies of the Byzantine Levant and Persia – not the illiterate Bedouin poets, the guardians of linguistic purity – who first imagined that the Quran was miraculous on account of the Arabian prophet’s illiteracy.
Secondly, in my view, whether he was illiterate or not is a matter of trivia, and has no impact on the nature of the Quranic message. In fact, given the repetitive structure of the Quran, it is more likely the product of an illiterate Arabian than an Oxford professor. If one investigates the so-called ring structures of the Quran even in translation, he will see just what I mean. But suffice it to say, the Quran repeats its verses, themes, and formulaic expressions typical of oral texts. I will write more on this later, inshallah.
Thirdly, long before Muhammad ﷺ, there were plenty of axiomatic myths about an illiterate Moses, or an unlettered Jesus, or a blinded Apostle Paul, or a blind Tiresias, prophet of Apollo. Each of these figures and more are depicted as clairvoyants or “seers” whose “true vision” must be incorruptible from doctrines and dogmas (oh, the irony). That is to say they did not study the corrupted world of sensory perception. They did not learn to see; they were shown the Truth. They were not vulnerable to the enchantment of learnedness; they were free from the glamour of grammar. The historical alteration of the Latin word grammar to glamour illustrates our inherited fear of reading: our distrust for the gramma – Greek for “a letter of the alphabet, thing written”.
Fourthly, this dogma of Muhammad’s ﷺ illiteracy was born out of the largely non-Arabian Islamic tradition trying to make sense of the Arabian Quran. Centuries after the revelation, it became common for scholars to isolate the meanings of certain words to harmonize the content of the Quran with their beliefs about the Quran. However, this reductionist approach to language was a methodological deviation from the practices of earlier commentators whose task it was to collect all possible meanings. Their commentaries were encyclopedic in nature, unlike the translations that have been produced from them. Consequently, Muslim intellectuals began interpreting words like ‘ummī exclusively as illiterate, when it in fact it was used to signify much more, for example: unfamiliar with scripture, a gentile, even uncultivated. They reduced ‘iqra bismi rabbika to mean exclusively “Read in the Name of your Lord”, when there was in fact no precedence of iqra’ meaning “read!” in 6th century Arabic. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, iqra’ meant “gather, assemble” in the language of the “pure Arabs”: the Bedouin informants whose lugha was collected and recorded assiduously by 8th century lexicographers. Furthermore, no early commentators of Quran deemed it worth mentioning that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ could not read. Commentators like Muqatil, al-Tabari, and many others never define iqra’, but very plainly recount the famous and ambiguous hadith in which Muhammad ﷺ replies to Gabriel mā ana biqāri’ meaning “What shall I qāri’?” or “I am not a qāri’”. Another version casts the wording as mā ‘aqra’ with the same meaning. Thus, there are at least four interpretations of the Arabic wording, but the first two are used to satisfy the axiomatic belief that Muhammad ﷺ was illiterate.
- I am not a reader.
- What shall I read?
- I am not a gatherer.
- What shall I gather?
Finally, I have to confess I despise this dogma, mostly because it’s the product of laziness, and not the result of deep reading. It’s the antithesis of the Quranic voice which demands from its audience that we not base our beliefs on speculation we cannot substantiate through empirical evidence. And to make matters worse, the less literate someone is, the more likely he will consider it a heresy to believe Muhammad was literate!
Let that sink in for a bit. The torch-burners who themselves cannot read the Quran are gnashing their teeth right now, because someone who reads the Quran (incessantly) may believe Muhammad could read. They mouth the words that are etched on the paper and pray that at least God understands the jibberish they utter, because it would indeed be a miracle if they did. Who is illiterate again?
As for those who do understand the language of the Quran, which is not a native language to anyone, they are free to believe whatever they want. But if they investigate the poetry of the Jahiliyya period, they will discover that most, if not all of the bedouin poets were illiterate. In fact, when the early lexicographers first compiled the dictionaries of “pure” Arabic words, they would not include the lugha of any Bedouin suspected of being able to read. Literacy signified contact with other languages: language contact meant linguistic impurity. But since Muhammad was clearly not a Bedouin, and therefore his urban Qurayshi dialect impure, subsequent dogmatists had to consider the dialect of the Quraysh an exception to the rule. The Quraysh were imagined to be exceedingly (impossibly) selective on what words would enter their language.
Look at all these charades we play to establish an unnecessary axiomatic myth: that our prophet ﷺ was illiterate and consequently his language incorruptible.