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What evidences suggest the prophet Muhammad was illiterate?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
There are a number of Qur'anic, prophetic, traditional and rational evidences that give good reason to believe the Prophet (saw) was illiterate or unschooled.


Qur'anic Evidences

In a number of verses, Allah clearly states the prophet Muhammad (saw) was illiterate and he had no experience of reading or writing.

Clear Qur'anic Evidence

The Prophet did not write nor read

Allah says:

وَمَا كُنتَ تَتْلُو مِن قَبْلِهِ مِن كِتَابٍ وَلَا تَخُطُّهُ بِيَمِينِكَ إِذاً لَّارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ
"And you (O Muhammad) did not recite before it (the Qur'an) any book, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise, the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt." (Qur'an 29:48)

The verse argues if the Prophet had read or written previously, the falsifiers may claim he learned or read the Qur'an from other books and this is not true.

Ibn Abas (ra) commented on the verse saying:

كَانَ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أُمِّيًّا لَا يَقْرَأُ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَكْتُبُ.
"The Prophet (saw) was illiterate and he neither read nor wrote." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 51)

Ibn Muqatil (early exegete, d. 150 A.H.) commented on this verse and said:

ِوإذًا لشَكَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ يَعْنِي الكَاذِبِينَ يَعْنِي كُفَارَ اليَهُودِ إذًا لَشَكُوا فِيكَ يَا مُحَمْد، إِذًا لَقَالُوا إَنّ الّذِي نَجِدُ فِي التَوْرَاةِ نَعْتُهُ، هُوَ أُمِىّ لَا يَقْرَأُ الكِتَابَ وَلَا يَخُطُهُ بِيَدِه
"If Muhammad (saw) was so, the falsifiers and liars (the disbeliever Jews) would have doubted him, as they may say we find a similar account in the Torah. But (the Qur'an) says, he is an illiterate person who can't read nor write." (Tafseer ibn Muqatil, Vol. 3, p. 386)

Imam Tabari (310 A.H.) said:

ولَمْ تَكُنْ تَكْتُبْ بِيَمِينِكَ، ولَكِنَكَ كُنْتَ أُمِّيًّا
"You did not write with your right hand and you were illiterate." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 50)

Zamakhshari (d. 467) argued:

ِوَأَنْتَ أُمِىّ مَا عَرِفَكَ أَحَدٌ قَطْ بَتِلَاوَةِ كِتَابٍ ولَا خَطٍ إِذًا لَو كَانَ شَيءٌ مِنْ ذَلِكَ، أَىّ، مِنَ التِلَاوَةِ والخَطِ لَارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الكِتَاب
"You (O Muhammad) are illiterate and no one have experienced you reading or writing a book. If any of these matters happened (reading and writing), the falsifiers of the people of the book would doubt you." (Zamakhshari, al-Kashaf, Vol. 3, p. 485)


The Illiterate Prophet

Allah says:

الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوباً عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالإِنْجِيلِ ... فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُواْ النُّورَ الَّذِيَ أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ أُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ. قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا ... فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الْأُمِّيِّ
"Those who follow the Messenger, the illiterate ('Ummi) Prophet, for whom they find a written (prophesy) written in the Torah and in the Injeel, … So those who have believed in him, honoured him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him - it is those who will be the successful.
Say, (O Muhammad), "O mankind, indeed I am the Messenger of Allah to you all … So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him that you may be guided." (Qur'an 7:157-158)

The point here is that the People of the Book knew the Prophet would be an illiterate Prophet and Allah urges them to follow Muhammad (saw) the illiterate Prophet.

Al-Dahak (ra) said:

كَانَ نَبِيُ اللهِ لَا يَكْتُبُ ولَا يَقْرأُ، وَكَذَلِكَ جَعَلَ اللهُ نَعْتَهُ فِي التَوْرَاةِ والإِنْجِيلِ، أَنَّهُ نَبِيٌّ أُمِّيٌّ لَا يَقْرَأُ وَلَا يَكْتُب
"The Prophet of Allah used not to read nor write. He was described in the Torah and Ingeel that he is an illiterate Prophet who can't read nor write." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 52)

The same opinion was held by Mujahid (d. 104 A.H.), Zajaj (d. 311 A.H.) and others. (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 50-52, Zajaj, Ma'ani al-Quran, Vol. 4, p. 171, Razi, al-Qur'an al-'Adheem, Vol. 9, p. 307)

Unfmiliarity with Text

Allah says:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ رُوحًا مِّنْ أَمْرِنَا ۚ مَا كُنتَ تَدْرِي مَا الْكِتَابُ وَلَا الْإِيمَانُ وَلَٰكِن جَعَلْنَاهُ نُورًا نَّهْدِي بِهِ مَن نَّشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا ۚ وَإِنَّكَ لَتَهْدِي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
"And thus We have revealed to you an inspiration of Our command. You did not know what the book was or (what is) faith, but We have made it a light by which We guide whom We will of Our servants. And indeed, (O Muhammad), you guide to a straight path." (Qur'an 42:52)

The verse says, the Prophet (saw) did not know "what is a book or (what is) faith," which means he did not know how to read. (Qurttubi and Sa'di)

Probable Qur'anic Evidence

The people of Mecca did not like the teachings of the Oneness of Allah, equality amongst people nor Islam's moral teachings, so they asked the Prophet (saw) to bring them a different revelation so they may believe in him. The Qur'an condemned this request by saying, the Prophet (saw) had been living amongst them for decades and they knew he was not able to do so.

Allah says:

وَإِذَا تُتْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتُنَا بَيِّنَاتٍ ۙ قَالَ الَّذِينَ لَا يَرْجُونَ لِقَاءَنَا ائْتِ بِقُرْآنٍ غَيْرِ هَٰذَا أَوْ بَدِّلْهُ ۚ قُلْ مَا يَكُونُ لِي أَنْ أُبَدِّلَهُ مِن تِلْقَاءِ نَفْسِي ۖ إِنْ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰ إِلَيَّ ... قُل لَّوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مَا تَلَوْتُهُ عَلَيْكُمْ وَلَا أَدْرَاكُم بِهِ ۖ فَقَدْ لَبِثْتُ فِيكُمْ عُمُرًا مِّن قَبْلِهِ ۚ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ
"And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, those who do not expect the meeting with Us say, "Bring us a Qur'an other than this or change it."
Say, (O Muhammad), "It is not for me to change it of my own accord. I only follow what is revealed to me. Indeed, … Say (O Muhammad), 'If Allah had willed, I would not have recited it to you, nor would He have made it known to you, for I had remained among you a lifetime before it. Then will you not reason?'" (Qur'an 10:15-16)

Allah says he sent a Messenger for the illiterate nation (al-'Ummeen) and he was one of them. It may refer to the mere membership in the society or the common illiteracy between them. The latter is more probable in light of the rest of clear verses for his illiteracy.

Allah says:

هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آَيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الكِتَابَ وَالحِكْمَةَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا مِنْ قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ
"It is He who has sent among the illiterate nation a Messenger from among themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom - although they were before in clear error" (Qur'an 62:2)

A narration supports this probability as the Prophet defined the 'Ummiyah mentioned in the verse with illiteracy. (Nawawi, Sharh Muslim, Vol. 7, p. 192)

He (saw) said:

إِنَّا أُمَّةٌ أُمِّيَّةٌ، لاَ نَكْتُبُ وَلاَ نَحْسُبُ الشَّهْرُ هَكَذَا وَهَكَذَا ‏"‏‏.‏ يَعْنِي مَرَّةً تِسْعَةً وَعِشْرِينَ، وَمَرَّةً ثَلاَثِينَ‏.‏
"We are an illiterate (Ummiyah) nation; we neither write, nor know accounts. The month is like this and this, i.e. sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days." (Sahih al-Bukhari 1913)

Imam Tabari said:

يَعْنِي بِالأُمِيينَ الّذيِنَ لَا يَكْتُبُونَ وَلَا يَقْرَءُونَ
"He (Allah) means by the term Ummiyeen (illiterates) those who can not read nor write." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 1, p. 373)


Jibreel's request to read

During the commencement of revelation in the cave hira, angel Jibreel asked Muhammad (saw) to read and He replied 'I do not know how to read.'

Aisha (ra) narrated regarding the first revelation in the cave:

فَجَاءَهُ الْمَلَكُ فَقَالَ اقْرَأْ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ فَأَخَذَنِي فَغَطَّنِي حَتَّى بَلَغَ مِنِّي الْجَهْدَ، ثُمَّ أَرْسَلَنِي فَقَالَ اقْرَأْ‏.‏ قُلْتُ مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ‏.‏ فَأَخَذَنِي فَغَطَّنِي الثَّانِيَةَ حَتَّى بَلَغَ مِنِّي الْجَهْدَ، ثُمَّ أَرْسَلَنِي فَقَالَ اقْرَأْ‏.‏ فَقُلْتُ مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ‏.‏ فَأَخَذَنِي فَغَطَّنِي الثَّالِثَةَ، ثُمَّ أَرْسَلَنِي فَقَالَ ‏{‏اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ * خَلَقَ الإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ * اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الأَكْرَمُ‏}‏ ‏"‏‏.‏
"The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (saw) replied, "I do not know how to read." The Prophet (saw) added, "The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.'
Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read.'
Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous. (Qur'an 96.1-3)" (Sahih al-Bukhari 3)

So the prophet (saw) is saying he does not know how to read.

Inability to recognize his written name

The Prophet ordered Ali to write the treaty of al-Hudaybiyah and when the other party disagreed on labelling Muhammad (with) as the Messenger of Allah, he asked Ali (ra) to erase the title but Ali (ra) refused. The Prophet then asked him to show him the place on the paper sheet where his name is written. It is narrated in al-Bukhari:

فَقَالَ لِعَلِيٍّ ‏"‏ امْحُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ‏"‏‏.‏ فَقَالَ عَلِيٌّ وَاللَّهِ لاَ أَمْحَاهُ أَبَدًا‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ فَأَرِنِيهِ ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالَ فَأَرَاهُ إِيَّاهُ، فَمَحَاهُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِيَدِهِ
"He (the Prophet) asked Ali to erase the expression of Apostle of Allah. On that Ali said, 'By Allah, I will never erase it.' Allah's Apostle said (to Ali), 'Let me see the phrase. When Ali showed him the phrase, the Prophet (saw) erased the expression with his own hand." (Sahih al-Bukhari 3184)

In the narration of Muslim, it says:

فَأَمَرَ عَلِيًّا أَنْ يَمْحَاهَا فَقَالَ عَلِيٌّ لاَ وَاللَّهِ لاَ أَمْحَاهَا.‏ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ أَرِنِي مَكَانَهَا ‏"‏.‏ فَأَرَاهُ مَكَانَهَا فَمَحَاهَا وَكَتَبَ ‏"‏ ابْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ‏"‏ ‏.
"He (the Prophet) told Ali to strike out the words. Ali said: No, by Allah, I will not strike them out. The Messenger of Allah (may Peace be upon him) said: Show me their place (on the parchment). So Ali showed him their place and the Prophet struck them out; and Ali wrote: Ibn Abdullah." (Sahih Muslim 1783 c)

In the previous two narrations, the prophet could not recognize his written name asked Ali to show him the words.


The Prophet (saw) did not write Revelation nor Letters

The prophet (saw) assigned a number of literate companions, such as Zayd ibn Thabit, Mu'awiyah ibn Sufyan and others, to write the revelation and the letters to kings and rulers. If the prophet was literate, he could have written them himself for more certainty.


Meccan Literates numbered only Seventeen

A number of scholars, such as al-Balladhi (d. 279 A.H.) and al-Qilqishandi (d. 821 A.H.) traced the literate people in Mecca and they found they were seventeen literate men and the prophet is not one of them.

al-Balladhi said:

دَخَلَ الإِسْلَامُ وَفِي قُرَيْشٍ سَبْعَةَ عَشَرَ رَجُلًا كُلُهُم يَكْتُبُ
"Islam appeared when only seventeen literate men in Mecca who can write. (then he included their names)." (Futuh al-Buldan, Vol. 1, p. 453)

Abu Ja'afar Nahas, Egyptian linguistic, d. 338 A.H., argues:

(وذَلِكَ دَلِيلٌ عَلَى نُبُوَتِهِ ، لَأَنَّهُ لَا يَكْتُبْ وَلَا يُخَالِطُ أَهْلَ الكِتَابِ فَجَاءَهُمْ بِأَخْبَارِ الأَنْبِيَاءِ و الأُمَمِ و َزَالَتْ الرَيْبَة والشَّك​​​​​​​
"Therefore, this (the Prophet being illiterate) is an evidence for his prophethood because he does not write nor kept in touch with the People of the Book and then he told them the stories of the Prophets and (previous) nations, which ruled out doubting him." (Tafseer al-Qurttubi, Vol. 13, p. 351, Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 4, p. 207)

After an expanded discussion, ibn Kathir concluded:

وهَكَذَا كَانَّ، صَلَوَاتُ اللهِ وسَلَامُه عَلَيِهِ ...، لَا يُحْسِنُ الكِتَابَةَ ولَا يَخُطُ سَطْرًا وَلَا حَرْفًا بِيَدِهِ​​​​​​​
"As such, The Prophet (saw) did not know how to write nor did he wrote one written line by his hand." (Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-'Adheem, Vol. 6, p. 285)


Conclusion

There are a large number of Qur'anic, prophetic, traditional and rational evidences that demonstrate the illiteracy of the Prophet (saw).

References

Tafseer ibn Muqatil
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-'Adheem
Al-Qurttubi, al-Jami Li Ahkam al-Qur'an
Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir
​​​​​​​Al-Balladhi, Futuh al-Buldan
Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari
Zamakhshari, al-Kashaf


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