In this article, I investigate the claim that Prophet Muhammad was illiterate or unlettered – i.e. he could not read and write – based on evidence from the Qur’an.
The English Qur’anic translations by Mohsen Khan, Yusuf Ali, and Pickthal do contain the word “unlettered”. I provide a link to the quoted verse in its original Arabic form.
Below are the verses that mention the word “unlettered” in its verses:
2. He it is Who sent among the unlettered ones a Messenger (Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم) from among themselves, reciting to them His Verses, purifying them (from the filth of disbelief and polytheism), and teaching them the Book (this Qur'an, Islamic laws and Islamic jurisprudence) and Al-Hikmah (As-Sunnah: legal ways, orders, acts of worship of Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم). And verily, they had been before in manifest error;
( سورة الجمعة, Al-Jumua, Chapter #62, Verse #2)
1. "Those who follow the messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures),- in the law and the Gospel;- for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him,- it is they who will prosper."
( سورة الأعراف , Al-Araf, Chapter #7, Verse #157)
2. Say: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided."
( سورة الأعراف , Al-Araf, Chapter #7, Verse #158)
3. It is He Who has sent amongst the unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom,- although they had been, before, in manifest error;-
( سورة الجمعة , Al-Jumua, Chapter #62, Verse #2)
2. He it is Who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow, and to teach them the Scripture and wisdom, though heretofore they were indeed in error manifest,
( سورة الجمعة , Al-Jumua, Chapter #62, Verse #2)
Without exception, and in all instances, the word “unlettered” was used for the word “Ummi” or “Ummiyyoon”. The accurate translation for this Arabic form is “gentiles” or non-Jews. True, the word “Ummi” in Arabic could mean “illiterate” or “a person who cannot read or write”. The word “Ummi” could equally mean “someone who is not from Jewish background”. “Ummiyyoon” is the plural form of “Ummi”. In context, all the above mentioned verses in the Qur’an mean a gentile or a person from non-Jewish background. When one looks at the context of the above quoted verses, it becomes easy to see that the word “Ummi” means “gentiles” or “non-Jews”. In fact, if you use the word “illiterate” instead of gentiles, the verse loses its meaning.
In short, the Qur’an states that prophet Muhammad was an Ummi prophet; a gentile, or a person who is not a Jew. The above Qur’anic translations got it wrong when they used the word “unlettered” instead of a more accurate word to stand for gentiles.
Why the trickery in the translation?
I do not know the background of the Qur’anic translators. I assume they should know Arabic very well. If this is the case, and I assume it to be, why deceit the reader in translating the accurate meaning of the verse. All the above verses clearly mean that Muhammad was not a Jew. Why translate that to say that Muhammad could not read or write (unlettered). This is just pure deception. It calls into question the moral character of the translator himself.
I believe this deception was done on purpose to promote Islam. If Muhammad was not able to read and write and came up with such an “eloquent” book like the Qur’an, then he must be a prophet of the almighty. This train of thinking is no more than a logical fallacy. Even if Muhammad was illiterate, and the Qur’an was the most eloquent book in the world, it does not necessarily follow that Muhammad was a prophet of the almighty.
Also, the assumption that the Qur’an is a linguistic “eloquence” is just a cheap lie to promote Islam to the masses. When read in Arabic, it is the most boring book one can ever read. How can such a book be eloquent. I’d rather read Nizar Qabbani or Jubran Khalil Jubran amongst many, than read the Qur’an. You see, because of the degree of boredom the Qur’an creates in the mind of its reader, Arabs had to resort to creativity and invented “recitation” to give to musical rhyme to that boring book.
Conclusion: There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that claims that Muhammad was illiterate or “unlettered”