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Debating Islam ( 23 Apr 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Was Prophet Mohammad unlettered? Holy Quran is the Document of the Right and the Wrong


A letter to Editor of an Urdu Monthly, Saut ul Haq, Karachi

By Hussain Amir Farhad

April, 2014

(Translated from Urdu by New Age Islam Edit Desk)

 Assalam u Alaikum,

Dear Farhad Saheb, You did an article some years ago in which you asserted that the angle Gabriel might have brought the first revelation on a plaque and asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to read (Iqra) but the Prophet (pbuh) replied: I am not able to read. On the other hand, majority of the Quran exegetes and scholars unanimously hold the view that the Gabriel orally uttered the words Iqra (read!)......So, Farhad Saheb, do you still hold on to your words? Moreover, you had also mentioned that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not unlettered, while Maulana Maududi translated the words “al-Nabi al-Ummi” as unlettered. I am eagerly waiting for your response!

Imam, Jama Masjid, Muhalla Gadan Wala Mandi

Dear Shamshuddin Saheb, an erroneous statement cannot be taken to be true even if it is collectively made by all the intellectuals of the subcontinent. Similarly, a true word has to be accepted in any case, even if it is uttered by a single person. As for your saying that Maulana Maududi translated the “al-Nabi al-Ummi” as unlettered, it implies that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was educated, but not as much as Mr. Maududi himself was. One should keep in view that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a successful trader who travelled as far as Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen etc. to promote his trade works. Having noticed his honesty and trustworthiness in his trade affairs, Hazrat Khadija bint Khuwailid proposed to marry him. Success in trade affairs can only be hoped if it is entirely based on writing. And it can be expected from an unlettered man.

I hold the view that the angle Gabriel might have brought the first revelation on a plaque and asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to read (Iqra) but the Prophet (pbuh) replied: I am not able to read. The word Iqra is a derivative of the root letters: Qaf, Ra’ and Alif (ق ر أ), which form the very name of the holy Qur’an (قرآن). These letters have appeared thrice in the same shape and numerous times in different shapes in the holy Qur’an: (1) [It will be said], "Read your record. Sufficient is yourself against you this Day as accountant." (17:14) (2) “Read in the name of your Lord who created” (96:1) (3) Read, and your Lord is the most Generous (96:3)

From the three above-mentioned verses, it is explicitly clear that there is considerable difference between the Urdu word “Padh” (read!) and the Arabic word “Iqra” (read!). While the former Urdu word is also used when a poet or singer just orally recites a poem or sings a song without looking at any written stuff, the latter Arabic word is confined to be used when one reads a written material. Going by this, it is not difficult to see why Gabriel used the word “Iqra” when he asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) to read. Had there been nothing written to read, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have necessarily said: What should I read? However, repetition is no difficult work. If I am asked to repeat words in a language I don’t know, I will certainly repeat them and will never say that I don’t know how to read them. The question is why did God and His angel Gabriel did not know that they were asking an unlettered man to read? It clearly suggests that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) must have been educated and lettered, that is why they asked him to read.

Gabriel must have brought a plaque carrying the written words and asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) to read but he replied: I don’t know how to read. If Gabriel had orally uttered some words asking the Prophet (pbuh) to repeat them, it would not have been difficult for him to do. Had it been the case, the Prophet (pbuh) would not have said he did not know how to read, because Gabriel was asking him to repeat some words and not to read them. For a person to repeat any words, it is not necessary to be literate and well-educated. 

Allah, the Almighty says in the Qur’an: Say, "Are those who know equal to those who do not know?" Only they will remember [who are] people of understanding. (39:9) He also says: Say, "Is the blind equivalent to the seeing? Then will you not give thought?" (6:50). Both the Qur’anic verses undoubtedly prove that God has elevated the status of knowledgeable people above that of the illiterate and uneducated people. If so, then it is beneath the dignity of the messenger of God to be chosen among the illiterate people?

There is no denying that one third of the Urdu vocabulary has stemmed from the Arabic language. It would be best if we put them in their right usage and meanings. We should not try to impose our own linguistic structures and expressions on the Arabic words. Surprisingly enough, this mistake is being perpetrated not only by the laymen of Pakistan but also by the Maulvis, who loudly claim to be well-versed in Arabic. For instance, they assume that the Arabic word “Izzat” is used in the same way (meaning respect or honour) as in our Urdu language, while the reality is that this word means power, influence, triumph etc. when used in Arabic. The Arabic meaning “respect or honour” is “Ikraam”, which is quite identically to the Urdu word “Izzat”. This usage can be seen in the following verses of the Qur’an:

إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ (49:13) (1)

(Indeed, the most honourable of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you)

وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آدَمَ (17:70) (2)

(And We have certainly honoured the children of Adam) 

However, there is an error commonly ignored in the translation of the following Qur’anic verse:

وَتُعِزُّ مَن تَشَاءُ وَتُذِلُّ مَن تَشَاءُ (3:26)

 (You honour whom You will and You humble whom You will.)

People, particularly those belonging to our areas, generally translate this verse as: “Allah honours whomsoever He wills and He humiliates whomsoever He wills”. By this translation, they knowingly or unknowingly say that if a person happens to be a criminal or mischief-maker, for instance, we should not hate him, because it is Allah, and not he himself, who humiliated him. But such a vile thing for Allah is unimaginable and a very grave sin. It does not befit the greatness of Allah, the most Gracious to take a person on the wrong path and thus humiliate him. The realistic understanding of this Qur’anic verse is that Allah, the Almighty has made both the right and wrong paths clear to man. Now, it is up to him or her whether he or she chooses to pursue the right or wrong course of action. In both the cases, man himself will be responsible enough for his fate and will be brought to justice accordingly.

Dear Maulana Shamshuddin, the long and short of this discussion is that when Gabriel brought the first revelation, he had a plaque with words written on it, so he asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to read (Iqra). But the traditions deny that Gabriel brought any words written on a plaque. As for the Qur’anic verse that entitled the Prophet as “Ummi” (unlettered), some people hold that Meccans had no book before the revelation of the holy Qur’an, so they were called “Ummiyun” i.e. the unlettered.

However, what strikes my mind is that since the city of Mecca was also named “Ummul Qura” meaning ‘mother of the cities’, people hailing from Mecca were called “Ummi”, whether they were literate or illiterate. As for the report saying that the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself asserted that he did not know how to read, it is not correct. The reality of the matter is that the Christians purported to propagate that the Prophet of Islam would not have known of his own prophethood, had he not turned to the Christian priest of his time, Warqah Bin Naufal al-Asdi. Thus, they try to give the credit of his prophethood to their priest. Nevertheless, one wonders why this Christian priest did not embrace Islam, even after he confirmed the divine messengership of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)!

I think the story of the Christian priest, Warqah Bin Naufal al-Asdi with regard to the authentication of Muhammad as a Prophet (peace be upon him) is nothing short of embellishment. How come Allah, the Almighty or Gabriel, the angel did not inform the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) of his prophethood? Doesn’t the story suggest that if Warqah Bin Naufal had not made the matte clear to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), he would not have been aware of it? In fact, this is one the fabricated reports that have been created with an aim to arouse doubts and confusions about the divine revelation to the Prophet (peace be upon him). If we rely on such traditions, we will be compelled to believe that the credit for the prophethood of our Prophet (peace be upon him) goes to a Christian priest.

Hussain Amir Farhad is the editor of Saut ul Haq, an Islamic Urdu monthly of Karachi. This appeared in the April 2014 Issue of the magazine.

 URL for the Urdu article:صحیح-اور-غلط-کی-کسوٹی-قرآن-کریم-ہے/d/66544