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Does the Qur'an say the prophet is illiterate by calling him ummi?

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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:
Yes, the Qur'an's use of the term ummi suggests the prophet is illiterate or more accurately, unlettered, as illiterate has negative connotations;​​​​​​ many other evidences also demonstrate his illiteracy (or unlettered nature).


Background

Allah mentions the term ummi (أُمِيّ) which refers to illiterate (unlettered) and its plural form ummiyeen (أُمِيين) several times in the Qur'an.

Allah says concerning the Umiyeen:

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)

Allah called His prophet ummi:

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 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 proponents of the literacy of the Prophet (saw) argue both terms refer to the Mecca and the term comes from Mecca's title (أم القرى) Umm al-Qura, the name of Mecca as an opposite to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). The majority of scholars oppose this understanding as void of meaning and proof.

Linguistic meanings of Ummi

There are several explanations regarding the origin and the meaning of the term Ummi (أُمِيّ) and its plural form Ummiyeen (أُمِيين).

Most scholars and linguists argue its original meaning is the original state human beings after birth (أَصْلِ ولادَتِهَا) where they experience no learning of reading or writing, so they are born illiterate. Accordingly, the term is then said to originate from the root (أم) or mother as she is the beginning. (Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir, Vol. 1, p. 104)

The linguist and author of the famous lexicon of 'Lisan al-Arab' Ibn Mandhur (d. 711 A.H.) says:

معنى الأُميّ المنسوب إلى ما عليه جَبَلَتْه أمه أي لا يكتب فهو أمي لأن الكتابة مكتسبة
"The meaning of Ummi refers to the first character of a person when his mother gave birth to him; i.e. he does not write because he is illiterate and writing is an acquired skill." (Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab, Vol. 12, p. 34)

The linguist al-Zuhari (d. 124 A.H.) said:

قيل للذي لا يكتب و لا يقرأ أمي ، لأنه على حالته التي ولدته أمه عليها و الكتابة مكتسبة متعلمة و كذلك القراءة من الكتاب
"The one who does not write nor read is called Ummi because he still has the same state when his mother gave birth to him as writing and reading is an acquired and learning based skills." (al-Azhari, az-Zahir, Vol. 1. p. 109)

The same thing is said by Imam Shafi'i, the founder of the Shafi'i juristic school, in Tafseer ash-Shafi'i (p. 1354) and al-Matrudi, the founder of al-Matrudi theological school, in Tafseer al-Matrudi) (vol. 5, p. 54)

The tabi'een Qatadah said:

كان أُمِّيا، والأمّي: الذي لا يكتب
"He (the Prophet) was Ummi. Ummi means someone who can't write." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 51)

Ibn Ashur and other Qur'anic exegetes argued that according to this meaning the word was then generalized to refer to the Arabs as most of them did not read nor write.

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 was not one of them.

Al-Balladhi said:

دخل الإسلام وفي قريش سبعة عشر رجلا كلهم يكتب
"Islam appeared when only seventeen literate men in Mecca who can write (then he included their names)." (al-Balladhi, Futuh al-Buldan, Vol. 1, p. 453)

In support of this view, Ibn Abas (ra) says:

الأميون العرب كلهم ، من كتب منهم ومن لم يكتب؛ لأنهم لم يكونوا أهل كتاب
"Ummiyum is all the Arabs, whether literate or illiterate, because they were not people with book." (Qurttubi, al-Jami' Li'hkam al-Qur,an)

Ibn Qutaybah says regarding this notion:

قيل لمن لا يكتب أمي ، لأنه نسب إلى أمة العرب أي جماعتها و لم يكن من يكتب من العرب إلا قليل
"The one who does not write is called Ummi because he is attributed to the Ummah of the Arabs or its group and only few people of Arabs could write." (Ibn Qutaybah, Gharib al-Hadith, Vol. 1, p. 84)

In light of the above discussion, exegetes explain the meaning of the plural form Umiyeen mentioned in the Qur'an to refer to the Arab as a whole and the singular form Ummi to refer to the person who can't read or write; i.e. illiterate or unlettered.

A narration supports this probability as the Prophet defined the Ummiyeen 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 how to account. The month is like this and this, i.e. sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days." (Sahih al-Bukhari 1913)

So the Prophet (saw) explained the meaning as the illiterate or unlettered people who could not write nor count.

The Qur'anic exegete Imam Razi (d. 311) observed:

مَعْنَى الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي هُوَ عَلَى صِفَةِ أُمَّةِ الْعَرَبِ. قَالَ عَلَيْهِ الصَّلَاةُ وَالسَّلَامُ: "إِنَّا أُمَّةٌ أُمِّيَّةٌ لَا نَكْتُبُ وَلَا نَحْسُبُ
"The meaning of Ummi is the one who carries the character of the Arabs (as) the Prophet (saw) said: 'We are an illiterate (Ummiyah) nation; we neither write, nor know accounts.'" (Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 15, p. 380)

Imam Tabari commented:

يعني بالأميين الذين لا يكتُبون ولا يقرءون
"He (Allah) means by the term Ummiyeen (illiterates) those who can not read nor write." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 1, p. 373)

The same view is held by the linguist Imam Asfahani (d. 356 A.H.) in his book Gharib al-Qur'an.

Is Ummi someone belonging to Mecca?

Some writers and orientalists argue ummi could refer to the one who belongs to Mecca. According to this view, the word came from the term (أم القرى) or Umm al-Qura, Mecca, and the Ummi is the one who belongs to or is from Umm al-Qura.

To support this argument Imam ibn Attiyah (d. 542) is quote as saying the same, however this is a misquotation. The full quotate is reproduced below:

وقيل منسوب إلى أم القرى وهي مكة، وهذا ضعيف، لأن الوصف بـالأميين على هذا يقف على قريش، وإنما المراد جميع العرب،
"It has been said that it (Umm al-Qura) refers to Mecca but this is weak because (in that case) Ummiyeen would only be attributed to Quraysh while it refers to all the Arabs. (Then he quoted the above Hadith)." (Ibn Attiyah, al-Muharir al-Wajiz, Vol. 8. p. 300)

Even if we consider this view as correct, it would not be possible to argue the Prophet was literate, because there are many Qur'anic, Prophetic, traditional and rational evidences for the literacy of the Prophet (saw).

For example, 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)

Ibn Abas (ra) commented on the verse saying:

كان نبيّ الله صلى الله عليه وسلم أمِّيا؛ لا يقرأ شيئا ولا يكتب.
"The Prophet (saw) was illiterate; he neither read anything nor wrote." (Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari, Vol. 20, p. 51)

The most this view would suggest is the geographic origins of someone as information.

Conclusion

The Arabic term Ummi refers to an illiterate or unlettered man and its plural form ummiyeen refers to all Arabs because most were generally illiterate. When Allah refers to the prophet as ummi, it refers to him as illiterate or unlettered.

References

Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir
Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab
al-Azhari, az-Zahir
Tafseer ash-Shafi'i
Tafseer al-Matrudi
Tabari, Tafseer at-Tabari
Ibn Ashur, at-Tahreer was at-Tanweer
al-Balladhi Futuh al-Buldan
Qurttubi, al-Jami' li'hkam al-Quran
Ibn Qutaybah, Gharib al-Hadith
Nawawi, Sharh Muslim
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Asfahani, Gharib al-Qur'an.
Ibn Attiyah, al-Muharir al-Wajiz


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