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Could the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) Read and Write?


Question

My questions regard Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) level of education. 

All my life I have been taught that he could not read (analphabetic), nor write... Later, I found some Muslims claiming that he could sign his name...Even later, I found others claiming that he can do both, read and write.  Some claimed that since he dealt with numbers (being a merchant) and numbers were written (numerals were not discovered by Muslims during his life) then he must've known how to read and write.  Here is one brother's explanation regarding the Prophet's ability to do both (read and write):

"Traditional translations mistranslate the word "ummy" as illiterate. Muslim scholars found the claim of illiteracy of Muhammad convenient for the argument of divinity of the Qur'an. They used this false claim for a cheap argument by saying that an illiterate man cannot author such a book. In "19 Questions For Muslim Scholars" I demonstrate that the real meaning of this word is "gentile" and I provide numerous reasons showing that Prophet Muhammad was a LITERATE man."

I don't know this man, nor have I read his book.  Although, he claims to have helped the "Nineteener", Rashad Khalifa (which minimizes his crediblity in my eyes) in translating the Glorious Qur'an.  My belief is that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was unlettered (not able to read or write.)  I believe that he couldn't even sign his name because there is no evidence of such a thing.  Besides, Arabs didn't keep records as is done today, and any transactions were bound to on the strength of men giving their words/oath.  Of course there were some written documents but from my understanding these were minimal in number.  I also heard that there is an incident when the Prophet himself scratched a line that glorified him, within a document...

These are my humble opinions.  Please enlighten me on these questions:

  • Was the Prophet unlettered:  "Not adept at reading and writing; deficient in the knowledge that can be acquired from books. b. Illiterate" (American Heritage Dictionary)

  • Did he use to sign his name?  What is the implication if he signed his own name even if it is only a few letters?

  • Is the person I quoted above accurate in his remark as to the translation of "ummy"?

Anything you can add would be of great help.  Your answers will be greatly appreciated.

Jazak Allah Khair,

Ron H.



Question from United States of America
Answer

The opinion as to whether or not the Prophet (pbuh) was illiterate should be formed in the light of the information provided in the books of history and Seerah. As for the meaning of the Arabic word "Ummi" is concerned, it is, in fact, 'unlettered', but it may not necessarily imply 'illiterate'. On the contrary, it seems that the word was used for the Banu Ishmael in a comparatively limited connotation of those who do not have knowledge of God's Laws and Revelations. It further seems that the word was initially used for the Banu Ishmael by the Israelites as a derogatory term, which, with the passage of time, came to be known as an appellation for the Ishmaelites.

As for my opinion regarding whether or not the Prophet (pbuh) was illiterate or not, I have not yet come across any reliable source of information which would confirm that the Prophet (pbuh) could read and write. There are, however, scattered references in history, which directly or indirectly indicate that he was not.

It is generally known that the Prophet (pbuh) used his ring as a stamp, on which the words "Muhammad, Messenger of Allah" were engraved, for signing documents. I cannot recall any narrative in which the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have written or signed his name.

To summarize, the word "ummi" for the Ishmaelites does not necessitate that the Banu Ishmael, including the Prophet (pbuh), were all completely illiterate. Thus, the Qur'an does not, necessarily say that the Prophet (pbuh), in particular, and the Ishmaelites, in general were completely illiterate. The referred question should be answered in the light of the information provided in history.

I hope this helps.

Regards,

Moiz Amjad
November 16, 2001




Answer published by Moiz Amjad