Muslim scholars over the first five centuries agreed on the illiteracy of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Towards the end of the fifth century, some Muslim scholars and jurists, such as Qadi al-Bajji (Maliki judge, jurist and muhadith, d. 474 A.H.) cited a statement of Sha'bi (d. 100 A.H.) suggesting the prophet was literate; Samnani (d. 444 A.H.) and others who followed them, argued the Prophet later learned reading and writing via revelation.
Arguments for the Prophet's Literacy
Scholars who follow this opinion cite a number of additional Qur'anic and prophetic evidences as well as rational arguments to support their opinion. Their main arguments comprise:
The Prophet (saw) wanted to write before his death
When the Prophet (saw) was ill before his death, he told people around his bed to bring him a writing sheet so he could write some instructions for them. It was narrated that he instructed:
ائْتُونِي بِالْكَتِفِ وَالدَّوَاةِ - أَوِ اللَّوْحِ وَالدَّوَاةِ - أَكْتُبْ لَكُمْ كِتَابًا لَنْ تَضِلُّوا بَعْدَهُ أَبَدًا
"Bring me a shoulder blade and ink-pot (or tablet and inkpot), so that I write for you a document (by following which) you would never go astray." (Sahih Muslim 1637 b)
The argument here then is he asked for writing materials to write something for them, so he must have been literate to do this.
However evidences suggest the Prophet (saw) was extremely ill as Aisha (ra) mentioned:
دَخَلَ عَلَىَّ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ وَهُوَ بَيْنَ رَجُلَيْنِ وَرِجْلاَهُ تَخُطَّانِ بِالأَرْضِ
"The Messenger of Allah (saw) entered, (supported) between two men, with his feet making lines along the ground." (Majah Hadith 1686)
In such a state, even if he had the ability to write, he would not have been able to do so, having to ask someone to write for him.
As regards his instruction, it is not uncommon to say something like, "the president wrote to so and so" meaning someone did so on his behalf.
Thus we see the prophet wrote to several kings and rulers and the narrations use the term wrote (كتب) but it is known from many evidences that the Prophet appointed secretaries for this job who wrote the letters in his name. (Tafseer al-Qurtubi, Vol. 13, p. 352)
The Shafi'i jurist Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani observes that in the normal course of events, the Prophet (saw) appointed writers to write the revelation, letters to kings/rulers and various contracts. It would be unusual to claim he now wanted to write himself in his last death throes especially given how ill he was. (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 7, pp. 504-505)
The Prophet (saw) wrote part of the Hudaybiyyah Treaty
It was narrated regarding the Hudaybiyyah treaty the prophet (saw) negotiated with the Meccans:
فَلَمَّا كَتَبُوا الْكِتَابَ كَتَبُوا، هَذَا مَا قَاضَى عَلَيْهِ مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ. قَالُوا لاَ نُقِرُّ بِهَذَا، لَوْ نَعْلَمُ أَنَّكَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ مَا مَنَعْنَاكَ شَيْئًا، وَلَكِنْ أَنْتَ مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ. فَقَالَ " أَنَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ، وَأَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ". ثُمَّ قَالَ لِعَلِيٍّ " امْحُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ". قَالَ عَلِيٌّ لاَ وَاللَّهِ لاَ أَمْحُوكَ أَبَدًا. فَأَخَذَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْكِتَابَ، وَلَيْسَ يُحْسِنُ يَكْتُبُ، فَكَتَبَ هَذَا مَا قَاضَى مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ
"When the agreement was being written, the Muslims wrote: "This is the peace treaty, which Muhammad, Apostle of Allah, has concluded."
The infidels said to him, "We do not agree with you on this, for if we knew that you are Apostle of Allah, we would not have prevented you from anything (i.e. entering Mecca, etc.), but you are Muhammad, the son of Abdullah."
Then he said to Ali, "Erase Apostle of Allah'."
Ali said, "No, by Allah, I will never erase you (i.e. your name)."
Then Allah's Messenger (saw) took the writing sheet, and he did not know a better writing, and he wrote the following: 'This is the peace treaty which Muhammad, the son of Abdullah…'" (Sahih al-Bukhari 4251)
The claim is this demonstrates the Prophet (saw) could write. Scholars however argue the term 'wrote' (كتب) appearing in this hadith has to be understood in light of other narrations, as narrations explain one another. (Tafseer al-Qrtubi, Vol. 13, p. 351)
The Prophet (saw) ordered Ali (ra) to write however he did not know where in the written line. 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)
The prophet could not recognise the written line and asked Ali to show him the words.
Scholars thus argue the sentence in the first hadith, "Then Allah's Messenger (saw) took the writing sheet" refers to the sentence in the other two clarifying narrations: "he (the Prophet) struck them out," then Ali wrote the rest. (al-Qurtubi, Ibn Hajar and Ibn Kathir)
Gabriel orders Muhammad (saw) to Read
Allah ordered the Prophet (saw) to read the first words of revelation, so how could Allah order something impossible. Why didn't Jibreel order him to repeat or recite instead of read?
Aisha (ra) narrated regarding the first revelation in the cave:
جَاءَهُ الْمَلَكُ فَقَالَ اقْرَأ ... فَقَالَ: اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ * خَلَقَ الإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ * اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الأَكْرَمُ.
"The angel came to him and asked him to read. … 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)
The rest of the hadith however contradicts this meaning - the Prophet answered:
مَا أَنَا بِقَارِئٍ
"I do not know how to read."
Furthermore, the Arabic term (اقرأ) 'read' carries different meanings, it could mean recite, repeat, read, utter, call and others. (Lisan al-Arab, al-Qamus al-Muhitt)
In this context read means to read the world and anything in it like a book albeit with the name of his lord - look at the signs, decode them, interpret them and draw out the meaning that the world is created by Allah.
Other meanings about too - for example, whilst Muslims read the Qur'an from memory in the prayer, hadiths use the term read (اقرأ-قرأ) in reference to the recitation in the prayer. The Prophet (saw) said to Mu'adh:
يَا مُعَاذُ أَفَتَّانٌ أَنْتَ اقْرَأْ بِسُورَةِ كَذَا وَسُورَةِ كَذَا
"O Mu'adh, do you want to cause hardship to the people (in the prayer)? Recite (اقرأ) such and such a Surah, and such and such a Surah." (Sunan an-Nasa'i 835)
Muslims also are required to seek the refuge of Allah against Iblis (Satan) whenever they recite the Quran whether by memory or when reading, but Allah says:
فَإِذَا قَرَأْتَ الْقُرْآنَ فَاسْتَعِذْ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
"So when you recite (قرأت - read) the Qur'an, (first) seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the expelled (from His mercy)." (Qur'an 17:98)
In another narration, the Prophet asked his companions to recite a short chapter before going to sleep - reciting from memory.
اقْرَأْ: قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ، ثُمَّ نَمْ عَلَى خَاتِمَتِهَا فَإِنَّهَا بَرَاءَةٌ مِنَ الشِّرْكِ
"Read (اقرأ) (the Surah): 'Say, O you disbelievers!' (Surah No. 109) and then go to sleep at its end, for it is a declaration of freedom from polytheism." (Abi Dawud 5055)
The Prophet (saw), in a similar situation, was teaching a companion a surah and asked him to read it without reading written words. This narration is interestingly similar to the first verse revealed. Uqbah narrated:
قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم لِعُقْبَةَ " اقْرَأْ " . قَالَ وَمَا أَقْرَأُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ "اقْرَأْ: قُلْ أَعُوذُ بِرَبِّ الْفَلَقِ، مِنْ شَرِّ مَا خَلَقَ" . فَأَعَادَهَا عَلَىَّ حَتَّى قَرَأْتُهَا
"The Messenger of Allah (saw) said to Uqbah: 'Read.' He replied: 'What should I read, O Messenger of Allah?' He said: 'Read: 'Say: I seek refuge with (Allah) the Lord of the daybreak, from the evil of what He has created.' (Qur'an 113:1-2) And he repeated it until I had read it." (Sunan an-Nasa'i 5433)
In this narration, the first three expressions for 'read' mean recite or repeat, but the last one means learned. So the word read (اقرأ) does not necessarily mean the literal reading but could mean repeat, recite, learn and others
The Prophet (saw) was a Trader
The prophet was a trader, so he must have known how to read and write, especially as currency had writing on them.
But this claim is weak - a child can recognise currency and may know it as having low or high value before reaching an age where they can read or write. There are millions of illiterate people across the world who can easily undertake financial dealings.
In addition, whilst most Arabs at the time of the prophet were traders, majority were illiterate.
Therefore, it is not necessary to be literate to undertake financial processes.
Recognition of Alphabet
Several narrations say the Prophet (saw) used to check his letters and read what administrators wrote before sending them to various rulers. Other narrations mention he knew the Arabic letters and even taught them to scribes and corrected the way they were writing the alphabet.
Majority of scholars however argue these hadiths are not authentic. (Tafseer al-Qurtubi, Vol. 13, p. 352)
The narrations were transmitted by 'Uyaynah ibn Hisn (عُييّنَة بن حِصن) and all his narrations are not authentic as he used to fabricate hadiths. (al-Asqalani, al-Isabah, Vol. 4, p. 767)
Description of al-Dajjal
Some argued the Prophet (saw) informed the companions about a word written on the forehead of al-Dajjal (Antichrist), 'a disbeliever' (كـ ا فـ ر), so he must have learned reading to recognize it.
But literacy is not necessary to be able to recognise such letters; it is possible Jibreel revealed it to him as he had done for the rest of the Qur'an, especially the disconnected letters (al-Huruf al-Muqata'ah) that appear at the beginning of a number of Qur'anic chapters.
In this narration, the Prophet (saw) said literate and illiterate people would recognise the word, so can be one of the illiterates who re able to recognise it.
مَكْتُوبٌ بَيْنَ عَيْنَيْهِ كَافِرٌ يَقْرَؤُهُ كُلُّ مُؤْمِنٍ كَاتِبٍ وَغَيْرِ كَاتِبٍ
"Between his eyes is written "disbeliever," which every believer will read, whether he is literate or illiterate." (Sahih Muslim 2934 b)
Whilst some modern writers, typically orientalists, argue the Prophet (saw) was literate, some 5th century A.H. scholars claim the angel Jibreel taught him reading and writing after initiation of revelation. Their arguments however are implausible often relying upon weak narrations and speculation.
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari
Ibn Ashur, at-Tahreer wa at-Tanweer
Great answers start with great insights. Content becomes intriguing when it is voted up or down - ensuring the best answers are always at the top.
Questions are answered by people with a deep interest in the subject. People from around the world review questions, post answers and add comments.
Be part of and influence the most important global discussion that is defining our generation and generations to come