Was the Prophet an Illiterate?
What Allah and an Eyewitness Have to Say
Few verses in the Koran leave room for reflection or interpretation. That is the way Allah wanted it.
11:1 [This is] a Book with Verses which are elaborately formulated and clearly expounded from the Wise, the All-Aware.
This has not stop Islamic scholars and spiritual leaders from giving new meanings to Allah's well-chosen words if the word or words don't fit the narrative. Take for instance what the Angel Gabriel, Allah's Messenger to the Messenger, told Muhammad when they first met in that cave above Mecca, where the husband of Khadijah had gone to spend the night and meditate.
96:1 Read, in the Name of your Lord, Who created;
96:3 Read by your Most Generous Lord,
96:4 Who taught by the pen.
Islamic tradition holds that the self-styled Prophet Muhammad was an illiterate, could not read or write, and that this is the ultimate proof that the Koran was not something that was scribbled behind the scenes.
Allah had to know that his choice for ultimate spokesperson could not read. Why then are His first communications asking him to read from a book of instructions for mankind?
A question to that effect was asked Dr. Shabir Ali, the host of Let the Quran Speak, "a weekly show that promotes understanding and appreciation of Islam and Muslims", to quote the producer. The gist of Dr. Ali's somewhat contrived answer is that Gabriel was not telling the Prophet to read, but to remain silent while he read to him from Allah's Koran.
It has been my experience in reading and listening to Islamic scholars expound on a book whose instructions could not be clearer, that the objective is not so much to inform but to obfuscate so as to make the book fit the narrative. That the Prophet was an illiterate is part of that narrative.
It is to Dr. Ali's credit that he volunteered, not a verse, but a hadith (an eyewitness accounts of what God's Messenger said and/or did) about a telling occurrence at the signing of the Treaty of Hudaibiyah which has given rise to speculation that the former successful merchant could indeed read and write.
Prior to the signing, the narrator describes seeing God's Messenger re-write a section of the treaty after the Meccans have raised objections to the wording and after his scribe has refused to make the modification. How do you explain this?
Dr. Ali does not even try. Rather, he admits to his young questioner, that it is not inconceivable that the Prophet had learned how to write his name and that is all he did – the eye-witness account notwithstanding – and that would still make him an illiterate. The hadith in question:
When the Prophet intended to perform Umra in the month of Dhul-Qada, the people of Mecca did not let him enter Mecca till he settled the matter with them by promising to stay in it for three days only.
When the document of treaty was written, the following was mentioned: "These are the terms on which Muhammad, Allah's Apostle agreed (to make peace)."
They said, "We will not agree to this, for if we believed that you are Allah's Apostle we would not prevent you, but you are Muhammad bin Abdullah."
The Prophet said, "I am Allah's Apostle and also Muhammad bin Abdullah."
Then he said to Ali, "Rub off (the words) 'Allah's Apostle' ", but Ali said, "No, by Allah, I will never rub off your name."
So, Allah's Apostle took the document and wrote, "This is what Muhammad bin Abdullah has agreed upon: No arms will be brought into Mecca except in their cases, and nobody from the people of Mecca will be allowed to go with him (i.e. the Prophet) even if he wished to follow him and he (the Prophet) will not prevent any of his companions from staying in Mecca if the latter wants to stay."
The Koran only adds to the confusion.
25:5 And they say: “Legends of the ancients which he solicited their writing down. Hence they are dictated to him morning and evening.”
The first sentence of the quote from Allah would indicate that the Prophet could not write if he asked i.e. solicited others to write things down for him. The second sentence implies the opposite, that he was the one doing the writing, the one "dictated to".
Confusion actually may be the best evidence we have that Muhammad was probably an illiterate. The evidence is in the repetitions, inconsistencies and a haphazard delivery of Allah's revelations which Thomas Carlyle's [1795 – 1881] described as “a confused, jumble, crude, incondite (disorderly), endless iteration".
If the Prophet could not refer to previous written orations to avoid repeating himself or telling a slightly different version, it would explain Carlyle's characterization of the Koran.
One last piece of evidence that reading and writing were not the Prophet's forte is Allah's evident fascination with writing and books. An illiterate's fascination you might say.