A short commentary of Muslim scholars' claim of illiteracy for Muhammad
vs. evidence from the Quran to the contrary
and 8th century historian
Ibn Ishaq’s record
of the prophet’s written communications
It has been part of the Muslim’s belief, based on traditions, that Prophet Muhammad was illiterate. God says in verse 29:51 that the Quran itself is the only miracle of the prophet. By alleging illiteracy for him, traditional Muslims were trying to make the claim even "more miraculous," for a book of such literary quality was sent down through an illiterate man. This is despite the many assertions in the Quran to the contrary. The first Quranic revelation that came down to Muhammad is, "Read! In the name of your Lord who creates...." (96:1) It is clear that this is also a commandment. To all of us, including the prophet, God stresses the importance of literacy in the very first revelation. Furthermore, the second revelation is "The Pen" which indicates again the importance of written communication. This makes the importance of literacy even more compelling. If indeed Muhammad was an illiterate man when the Quran was first revealed to him, how could he not make himself learn to read and write during the twenty some years of his mission? Perhaps a more poignant question should be, "How dare he not to obey his Lord’s clear commandment to read and write?" Being a messenger of God, of course he would not dare disobeying his Lord.
A still more transparent picture emerges from the interesting incident described in Quran 25:4-5. In this verse, Muhammad’s opponents who rejected the divine source of the Quran accused him of fabricating narrations. "Tales from the past that he wrote down; they were dictated to him day and night," or so they alleged. This is a clear Quranic evidence that Prophet Muhammad was a literate man. Not only was Muhammad accused of writing down what he heard, one cannot dictate to an illiterate person. Some have argued that this is not a solid proof, since the statement came from shady characters, in this case from Muhammad’s enemies. But this argument is in itself weak. We may have a good reason to suspect the material content of the allegation (namely that Muhammad fabricated the Quran). However, there is no good reason to doubt the peripheral issue mentioned, i.e. Muhammad’s writing and his friends’ dictation to him, since they had no reason to lie on this issue. On the other hand, it sheds light of confirmation on the importance of reading and writing in God’s eyes, and the prophet’s adherence to it.
It was also a well known historical fact that Muhammad was a successful merchant before his call as a messenger prophet. As a matter of necessity, he obviously knew how to count. During his time, the numeral system as we know it today was not in use. The numerals that we use today, known as the Arabic numeral system, were invented after Islam. Historically, letters were used to represent numbers before the numeral system was invented. This is true in all Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, and other languages as well. For example, the Roman numerals came from the Roman alphabets. Therefore, since Muhammad knew how to count numbers as a merchant, he should also know how to read and write a transaction. This is a reasonable enough argument.
The Muslim scholars derived the illiteracy concept for Muhammad from verses 7:157-158 of the Quran. They say that the word ummy means illiterate. It is true that in today’s standard Arabic, "illiterate" is one of the meaning of this word. But this is not a compelling evidence, since "gentile" is also another meaning of it. In fact, if we study the Quran carefully where this word is found, its usage has always been in the context of "the people of the scripture" vs. "the gentiles" (see for example 3:20, 3:75, 62:2, 2:78). It is even possible to surmise that the "illiterate" meaning is secondary. It came to be used after the Quran was revealed, since it is reasonable to deduct "illiterate" as the opposite of "those who can read." This in turn may well be coming from "those who read the book," or "those who received the book," or "the people of the book" (ahl al-Kitab), which is precisely the opposite of "the gentiles."
It is interesting that in his book "Sirat Rasul Allah," the 8th century historian Ibn Ishaq also recorded a written communication between Prophet Muhammad and one of his contemporaries. Ibn Ishaq wrote one of the earliest chronicles of Islam (he was born in Medina some 85 years after the Hijra), and his book predates hadith collections by at least a century. Of course, as with any historical records (of which the hadith collection is one), we must apply a certain degree of judgment. Our primary criterion is of course information from God’s revelation, i.e. the Quran. Therefore, some things that Ibn Ishaq (or anyone else for that matter) wrote, which clearly disagree with the Quran, we can easily reject. On the other hand, other records that support the Quran can be accepted as part of history. What follows, therefore, is a historical record from early Islam.
During the prophet Muhammad’s time, there were some people who also claimed to be God’s prophet and messenger. One of them was Musaylima b. Habib. The following is a quote from Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq’s book:
MUSAYLIMA’S LETTER AND THE APOSTLE’S ANSWER THERETO
Musaylima had written to the apostle (Prophet Muhammad):
From Musaylima the apostle of God to Muhammad the apostle of God. Peace upon you. I have been made partner with you in authority. To us belongs half the land and to Quraysh half, but Quraysh are a hostile people...
Then he (Prophet Muhammad) wrote to Musaylima:
From Muhammad the apostle of God to Musaylima the liar. Peace be upon him who follows the guidance. The earth is God’s. He lets whom He will of His creatures (to) inherit it and the result is to the pious...
This was at the end of the year 10 (after Hijra).
There were other instances in the history of early Islam where Prophet Muhammad sent many letters to Kings and other heads of state, inviting them to embrace God's religion. The only plausible conclusion is that he realized the importance of written communication, as God has taught in the earliest revelation. Ibn Ishaq’s chronicle on this issue provides a historical evidence to support the fact that Muhammad was indeed a literate prophet.
Dr. G. Adisoma
Reference: Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad, a translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford, 1967, p. 649.