New Age Islam
Sat Jun 25 2022, 08:15 AM

Islamic Ideology ( 17 May 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Was the Prophet of Islam Literate or Unlettered?


By Nastik Durrani, New Age Islam

May 13, 2013

The first incident of the life of the prophet (pbuh) posed the question before the biographers of the prophet and historians if he (pbuh) was literate or not. It was the very incident about the prophet (pbuh) himself who narrated how Gabriel came in contact with him  and gave him the good tidings of prophethood. His biographers and historians have narrated two traditions with regard to the incident according to which the prophet (pbuh) himself gave details of this historical event that beckoned a new age in the history of man and a new divine religion came into existence vis a vis Judaism and Christianity giving shape to a new world called as the Islamic world today.

The tradition of Ibn-e-Ishaque

Let’s begin with Ibn-e-Ishaque’s tradition because his period was much closer (85-152 A.H.) The tradition is a little lengthy and so I will quote only the necessary part which is as follows:

“Gabriel came on the order of God. The prophet (pbuh) said, ‘He came in my sleep with a platter which was covered with a cloth decorated with Persian embroidery and on which a book was kept, and said, ‘Read’. I said, ‘What should I read?’ He held me and pressed me so hard that I felt I was dying and then left me and said, ‘Read’. I said, ‘What should I read?’ Then he held me and pressed me so hard that I felt I was dying. He then released me and said, ‘Read’. I said, ‘What should I read?’ I was saying this because I was afraid of what he was doing and wished he did not do to me what he was doing. Then he said, ‘Read in the name of thy lord who has created. Created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous - Who taught by the pen - Taught man that which he knew not.”

Then I read that and after he left and I woke up from my sleep. I felt as if it was written in my heart like a book.”

The Tradition In The Bukhari

“Until the truth came when he (pbuh) was in the cave of Hira. Therefore an angel came to him (pbuh) and said, ‘Read’. I said I do not know how to read. The prophet (pbuh) says that the angel held me and pressed me so hard that the pain became unbearable. He then left me and said, ‘Read’. I said I do not know how to read. He held me a second time and pressed me hard till I could not bear the pain anymore. He then released me and said, ‘Read’. I said I do not know how to read. The holy prophet (pbuh) says that he held and pressed me severely third time and then released me saying, ‘Read in the name of God...’ The holy prophet (pbuh) repeated it with him in a state of fear. Therefore he (pbuh) came to Hadhrat Khadija bint Khwaylid and said to her, ‘Cover me with a blanket, cover me with a blanket’. So people put blanket on me until my fear subsided.”

Apart from these traditions, Ibn Jareer al Tabari (224-310 A.H.) in his history (1) has narrated some other traditions and in all the traditions the reply of the prophet (pbuh), ‘What should I read?’ is quoted. Some of the traditions have the root exactly as in Bukhari that is the wife of the Prophet (pbuh) Hadhrat Aisha (r.a.)

Question or Denial

Here I would like to draw your attention towards two points. Firstly, the traditions of Ibn Ishaque and Tabari in which the reply of the prophet (pbuh) to Gabriel are slightly different, that is Ma Iqra and Ma za Iqra and secondly, the tradition of Bukhari in which the question of the holy prophet (pbuh), ‘What should I read?’ has two moods. One suggests question which means that the prophet (pbuh) knows reading and is only asking what to read and the other suggests that he does not know how to read (Ma ana biqari). The expression that has been mentioned in the tradition of Al Tabari and Ibn Ishaque can be considered a mere question and so the reply of the prophet (pbuh) to Gabriel is nothing but a question or inquiry. In other words, he (pbuh) is asking what he should read and it does not denote his inability to read.

It could be said that what is supposed to be read here are not words written in a book or page to be spelt out but merely spoken out. In other words, whatever is read should be learnt by heart and then read out. In this sense, when Gabriel said, ‘Read’ he meant ‘repeat what you hear from me’ and the appropriate reply can only be the question ‘what should I read? and not a refusal because it cannot be construed that the prophet (pbuh) does not have the ability to read out after hearing something and will refuse to do so. It is the most improbable thing. Now the point is that thinking that ‘ma ana biqari’ means ‘I am not literate’ that is, it is not possible for me to read out from a book because Gabriel had not asked him to read out from a book though we have seen that in the tradition narrated by Ibn Ishaque, the  word ‘book’ has been mentioned twice. Even if we suppose that Gabriel put a book before him (pbuh) and said to him, ‘Read’, the question is, why he will do so when he definitely knew that the prophet (pbuh) did not know how to read!

 As the Quran has called the prophet (pbuh), nabiyyil ummi which means one who is not literate, it is understandable that the question of Gabriel merely suggests reading. However, such an understanding is not required by us because to be a prophet, being unlettered is not a precondition, and secondly, our notion that whom God chooses to be a prophet may not be unlettered is not appreciable.

 Now saying that the Quran is the revelation of God and the person who was being given the revelation was unlettered which is supported by the verse: “And you did not read any book before this nor could you write it with your hands. If it were so, the idol-worshippers would have doubted you.” (Al Ankabut: 48). In our view, such an argument is not needed and, as we will find later, the meaning of this verse does not strengthen this argument.

The issue has yet another aspect in which the Prophet’s reply to Gabriel, ‘ma za aqra’ means reading out from a book and the reason for this understanding is the prophet’s narration: ‘He (Gabriel) came to me in my sleep with a platter covered with a cloth decorated with Persian embroidery and a book was kept on it.” Here a book is mentioned. Moreover, he (pbuh) says, ‘When I woke up I felt as if it had been written on my heart like a book’. So from the Hadith, it is clear that the issue is related to a person who knows how to read and write and the narrator wants to make his addressees aware of his feelings of the time when he was going through the experience with Gabriel. If you look at these two expressions from this aspect, we shall accuse the Prophet (pbuh) of telling a lie which we will definitely not want to do.

Unlettered prophet, unlettered Ummah and unlettered people in view of Quran and Hadith

This issue is not limited to Hadith. There are some verses in the Quran that call the prophet (pbuh) ‘Ummi’ (unlettered) and some other verses call the Arabs and those who call themselves the people of the book ‘al Ummiyyun’. The verses are following according to the order of revelation:

“Those who follow the prophet who is unlettered whose traits they find in the Gospel and the Torah. (Al Araf: 157)”

“And some of them are unlettered and so are not aware of the book of God except their desires and they take resort to guesses”: (2: 78).

 The verse is directed towards some Arabs who accepted Judaism but they did not have knowledge of the Torah. They concocted some verses and attributed it to the Torah.(8)

“And my followers have become obedient to God and say to the people of the book and the illiterate people, ‘do you become obedient to God and accept Islam?’(Al Imran: 20)

“And among the People of the Scripture is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it]. That is because they say, "There is no blame upon us concerning the unlearned." And they speak untruth about Allah while they know [it].” (Al Imran: 75)

“It is He who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom - although they were before in clear error “ (Al Jumuah: 2)

Here Ummiyyeen means Arabs and the excerpt means that if we resort to dishonesty with the Arabs, it is permissible.

It is generally understood that Ummi means unlettered, one who does not know how to read or write. Does this apply on the verses quoted above? Definitely not, because in the verses, there is a comparison between two parties. On the one hand, there are Ummi and Ummiyyun and on the other there are the people of the book, the Jews and the Christians. The difference between the two groups is that one group has the books, the Gospel and the Torah whereas the first group does not have any book. Therefore, Ummiyyun are those who do not have any divine book and for whom later the Quran was revealed.

Ummi and Ummiyyun in Dictionary

To solve this issue we will have to find out the literal terminological meaning of the words by consulting the dictionary.

Literal meaning of the word Ummi: one who does not know how to read a book and cannot write and was on the nature of his mother, that is, one who is in the condition when he was born. In this sense, the Arabs were called the Ummiyyun because they did not know how to write and it is said that the Ummi is less vocal.

This literal meaning is not attributed to the Arabs but in their parlance, it is ‘looking for the roots which constitute personal Ijtihad. This ‘root’ does not match with the verses and Hadith quoted above because this turns the ‘Ummi’ into such an illiterate person who is as ignorant as when he was born, and this trait does not correspond to the status of the prophet (pbuh) and his Ummah.

In fact, the word ‘Ummi’ is an Arabised word which has no origin in Arabic. This becomes clear from the contextual meaning.

Terminological meaning: Many etymologists and linguists are of the opinion that the word ‘Ummiyyun’ means those people who do not have any divine book and therefore are opposite to the people of the book, particularly the Jews whose divine book is the Torah and the Christians who have the Gospel. Raghibul Isfahani has quoted a statement of Alfara: “Al Ummiyyun’ are the Arab who did not have a holy scripture. On this issue, Shahrastani says: “The people of the book support the Deen of the offspring (of Abraham) and were on the Deen of Banu Israel and the Ummis support the Deen of the tribals and were on the religion of Bani Ismail.”(2)

Similarly, in view of many researchers the Jews used the word ‘al Umam’ for non-Jews, that is, the worshippers of idols. In this sense, the word Ummi is derived from al Umam in the same way as the word ‘Ajam’ is used for the non-Arabs. Similarly, the Jews used the word Ummiyyun for the non-Jewish communities or nations who did not have a divine book.

In the verses quoted above, the word Ummi or Ummiyyeen should be considered in the same terminological meaning. According to the verses, al Ummiyyun are the Arabs particularly the Arab tribals of Makkah. The verses that specify the Quran with the Arab are the witness to it. And some other verses link the book specially the Torah to Bani Israel such as

“And thus We have revealed to you an Arabic Qur'an that you may warn the Mother of Cities [Makkah] and those around it and warn of the Day of Assembly, about which there is no doubt. A party will be in Paradise and a party in the Blaze.”(Al Shoora: 7) and

“And before it was the scripture of Moses to lead and as a mercy. And this is a confirming Book in an Arabic tongue to warn those who have wronged and as good tidings to the doers of good. “ (Al Ahqaf: 12)

It becomes evident here that these verses are speaking about the Arabic Quran vis a vis the people of the book, the Jews and the Christians. There are some other verses that speak of Momineen who are the rivals of the people of the book, such as

“And We have not made the keepers of the Fire except angels. And We have not made their number except as a trial for those who disbelieve - that those who were given the Scripture will be convinced and those who have believed will increase in faith and those who were given the Scripture and the believers will not doubt and that those in whose hearts is hypocrisy and the disbelievers will say, "What does Allah intend by this as an example?"                                                    “(Mudassir: 31)

All these are Quranic texts that are related to our question, whether the prophet (pbuh) was literate. And definitely it became clear that the ummihood of the prophet (pbuh) does not mean that he was not literate. Moreover, when the Quran calls the Arabs, the Ummiyyun, it does not also mean that the Arabs were illiterate.

Now that after the consideration of the word Ummi mentioned in the Quran, it became clear that the word does not necessarily mean that the prophet (pbuh) was not literate, we should also find some testimonies which can finally decide the issue that is such testimonies that prove that the prophet (pbuh) was really literate.

A long list of the holy companions of the prophet (pbuh) who wrote on behalf of the prophet (pbuh) is the proof of the fact that literacy and education was common during the period of the prophet (pbuh). These companions are Hadhrat Abu Bakar, Hadhrat Ali and Hadhrat Uthman. According to some traditions, the holy companions also read the Torah. Hadhrat Malik narrates with reference of Hadhrat Umar that Hadhrat Umar said that holy prophet (pbuh) saw a scripture in my hand with its pages torn and asked, ‘what is it?’ I said, ‘A part of the Torah’. He (pbuh) became angry and said, ‘By God, even if Moses were alive, he would have to follow me.’(3) Apart from it, the story of the conversion of Hadhrat Umar is known to all through the narration of Ibn Ishaque, in which he reads the verse and says,’ Ma ahsan haza al kalam wa ikrama’. And that was the reason of his conversion to Islam. Not only that, traditions also say that the elder grandfather, Qusay bin Kalam was also literate and his grandfather Abdul Muttalib also was literate. (4) Moreover, a tradition of Ibn Ishaque also says that to fulfil one of his Mannats, Abdul Muttalib, made his ten sons write their names which show that the grandfather and all the uncles of the prophet (pbuh) were educated and literate.

It should also be taken into consideration that before attaining prophethood, the prophet (pbuh) would travel to Syria on business assignment on behalf of Hadhrat Khadija. It would be foolish to think that he fulfilled the responsibilities of business despite being unlettered while his colleagues who were inferior to him in all respects were literate. And I do not think this had any impact on his prophethood as being unlettered is not a precondition of prophethood. Prophethood depends on Wahi (revelations) and not on being literate.

The Agreement Of Hudaibiyah And Other Testimonies

The question is not only of arguments. There are many traditions that show, rather convince us that the prophet (pbuh) wrote on various occasions. The topmost tradition is that of agreement of Hudaibiyah which is famous as ‘Hadith of bara’ which has been quoted in Sahih Muslim. It says that the prophet (pbuh) entrusted the task of drafting the peace treaty with the Quraish with Hadhrat Ali Ibn Talib in which the prophet (pbuh) wanted to write his name as Muhammad Rasul Allah but the representative of the Quraish objected to it saying that ‘if we had accepted you as Rasool Allah (prophet of God) we would have been with you, so write Muhammad bin Abdullah.’  The narrator says that the prophet (pbuh) asked Hadhrat Ali to delete it. Hadhrat Ali said, ‘By God, I will not delete it.’ (Now what follows may cause confusion, so I would prefer to quote it word by word). Then the prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Show me the place’. Hadhrat Ali showed him the place so he deleted it and wrote ibn Abdullah (20). Sahih Bukhari has also quoted this tradition but with the addition made by the narrator. See: The prophet (pbuh) took the book, and he did not know how to write, and he wrote, ‘This decision has been taken by Muhammad bin Abdullah (5)

In his commentary, Qurtubi has made this comment: ‘Our Ulema have said, it appears that the prophet (pbuh) deleted the words with his own hand and wrote ‘Ibn Abdullah’ in its place.

Qurtubi further writes, ‘Naqash quoted Sha’bi that the prophet (pbuh) did not die until he wrote with his own hands. Qurtubi has also quoted a hadith which says that the prophet (pbuh) read out a scripture to Oainiyah bin Hisn and explained its meaning. Qurtubi adds that Qadhi Ayadh quoted that Muawiyah was writing by the side of the prophet (pbuh). The prophet (pbuh) said to him, ‘Drop the inkpot, twist the pen, put the letter ‘b’ vertically, Read  the letter ‘Sheen’clearly, do not bend the letter ‘Meem’ and say ‘Allah’ in a better way, drag the word ‘Rahman’ and speak the word ‘Raheem’ correctly. Some scholars comment on the Hadith that the prophet (pbuh) knew the forms of these letters. Similar traditions of Bukhari say that the prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Between the two eyes of Dajjal will be written kafir. Then he spelt the letters Kaaf, fay ray, which every Muslim would be able to read.(7) Bukhari and Muslim have also quoted a Hadith in which Ibn Abbas says: ‘When the pain of the prophet (pbuh) intensified (on death bed), he said, ‘Bring me, I will write you a book (document) so that you will not go astray and create a controversy after my death’.(8) Bukhari has quoted this in another way.

The prophet (pbuh) told people who paid their visit during his illness: ‘Come I will write you a book so that you will never go astray’. The narrator adds: Some people said, ‘The prophet’s pain has intensified and you have the Quran; the book of God is enough for us. It created differences among the ahl-e-Bayt (the members of the family). Some of them said, ‘Get it to him, he (pbuh) will write a document (book) for you, after which you will not be misled. And some people said something else. When the differences intensified and the debate became more heated, the prophet (pbuh) said to them, ‘Leave the place’. Hadhrat Abbas would say that the most painful point was that because of their differences and heated debate, the prophet (pbuh) did not write what he wanted to for the Muslims. (9). It is said that if people had agreed, the prophet (pbuh) would have recommended Hadhrat Ali to be made the caliph. However, it is only a guess. What is important to us is that the prophet (pbuh) expressed the desire to write a book and on one present there was surprised, but on the contrary some of them agreed that he (pbuh) should write.

Most of the scholars linked the ummihood of the prophet (pbuh) to the miracle of the Quran and created an argument for the miracle of the Quran by presenting him as unlettered. Therefore, it was difficult for them to believe that the prophet (pbuh) was literate right from his childhood. That’s why they show their discomfort over the Hadiths that show that the prophet (pbuh) was literate. In this context Allosi has collected many statements. He says:

“There is a dispute over whether the prophet (pbuh) knew how to read and write after attaining prophethood.” Therefore it was said, ‘The prophet (pbuh) did not know how to read. Baghawi also agreed to this. Some scholars said that the prophet (pbuh) initially did not know reading or writing but later he learnt. When the Quran was revealed and Islam became famous and doubts were raised, the he (pbuh) then he learnt writing. Allosi further says:  Ibn Abi Shayba and others narrated that the prophet (pbuh) did not die until he did not read and write and Ibn Maja has quoted Anas as saying: The Prophet said: On the night of Meraj I saw this written on the door of the heaven, ‘The reward for Sadaqua (charity) is tenfold while the reward for giving loan is eighteen fold’. And the narrator has said that, ‘the ability to read is a branch of the ability to write.’ Allosi further adds that those who had this belief (that the prophet pbuh was literate) were Abu Zar Abd bin Ahmad, Abul Fatah al Neshapuri, Abul Waleed Al Baji (the renowned jurist of the fifth century) who has also written a book on the topic. And before him, Abu Manih had the same belief and when Abul Waleed Al Baji said this he was cursed and abused from the pulpits and was called Satan. Then a meeting of the Ulema was held on the issue in which he proved his arguments and wrote to the Ulema of the adjoining areas who agreed to him.

On these developments, Allosi writes: ‘The ability of the prophet (pbuh) to write after his ummihood does not negate the miracle but it is another miracle because it is without any formal education’. And it is no secret that the saying of the prophet (pbuh) that ‘we are an Ummi Ummah, we neither write nor do we calculate’ is not such a text which justifies its negation and it was perhaps because he (pbuh) was sent to a people who were illiterate. They neither read nor wrote, nor did mathematical calculations. Therefore, there is no harm if the ummihood does not continue. And what is written in commentary of the Hadith of bara’ is against the apparent. Allosi further writes that the narrator of the tradition he has quoted says, ‘And he did not know how to write, and he wrote’. This is a text which means that the prophet (pbuh) himself wrote. There is no need to go further. Allosi further says, ‘All the sects disagreed on this issue and they abused each other.’ God knows best.

Now we come to the verse which most of the exegetes present as an argument of the ummihood of the prophet (pbuh) and it is: ‘Wa ma kunta tat tumin tablihi min...’ Only an excerpt from the commentary titled Tafseer Roohul Bayan will suffice on the confusion of the exegetes: Shias said that the prophet (pbuh) knew how to write before the revelation but after the revelation, he was prohibited from writing. Roohul Bayan further says: This view of the Shias is condemnable. The author has raised the question, how God could render his prophet an Ummi who does not know how to read and write whereas it is one of the abilities and not a defect.

In our view the reason behind this confusion in the commentary or explanation of the most of the verses – if there is no sectarian bias – is not seeing the verses in the right context and considering them in isolation. If the verses are considered in their context, the order of the preceding and succeeding verses, the addressee are kept in mind and the principle that Quranic verses explain each other’ is kept in mind then problems like these can be avoided.

For the verses we are discussing, we should keep the following in mind:

1.       We should keep it in mind that the Surah Al Ankabut which contains the verse is a Makki verse (revealed in Makkah) and also the last Surah to have been revealed in Makkah. It is therefore imperative to see the verses of this Surah (11)in context of the migration of the prophet (pbuh) to Madina where situations different from Makkah were to be unfolded. Jewish tribes formed a large population of Madina and so it was necessary for the prophet pbuh and the Muslims to decide a new course of action to deal with them. Jews were the people of the book and it was possible that they would debate with the prophet (pbuh) on the issues on which the Quran disagrees with their Book. The Jews had already advised the polytheists of Quraysh to put various questions before the prophet (pbuh) to test the knowledge of the prophet (pbuh), to debate with them or harass him. The verses which have revealed in reply to their question decide the style of address.

2.       This verse should be considered in the context of the succeeding seven verses of Surah Al Ankabut (from verse 46 to 52). Because of not keeping the context in mind, the exegetes raised the controversy of the ummihood or literacy of the prophet (pbuh) and presented many interpretations and arguments for and against their arguments. Some times their arguments had nothing to do with the verses.

3.       However, if the discussion is started with verse No. 46, the discussion will become lengthy. Therefore, we will discuss only the verse which forms our topic. God says, ‘And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt. (Al Ankabut: 48)’. This verse serves as an argument for all the exegetes for the prophet (pbuh) to be Ummi. Although some of them say that the prophet (pbuh) learnt how to read and write in a later phase of prophethood. We should consider that this verse is directly related to its preceding verse.

“And none reject Our verses except the disbelievers.” (Al Ankabut: 47)

Quran has mentioned a verse regarding the rejection of its verses on another occasion.

“And those who disbelieve say, "This [Qur'an] is not except a falsehood he invented, and another people assisted him in it." But they have committed an injustice and a lie.” (Al Furqan: 4)

Therefore, the Quran replies to them that this accusation of concoction of verses and the denial would have been correct if before the revelation of the Quran; the prophet (pbuh) was educated like the Christian bishops who used to read and write the Gospel and the Torah. But it did not happen. And it was never known or heard that the prophet (pbuh) ever read or wrote Torah or Gospel. Therefore, the books mentioned in the verse is actually one of the books of the people of the book because this is the book the attention of the people of the Quraish could have been diverted and they would think that the prophet (pbuh) had copied from them (perish the thought). Other verses also give the testimony.

“You knew neither the book nor Iman” (Al Shoora:52)

“And they say, "Legends of the former peoples which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon."(Al Furqan: 5)

“And We certainly know that they say, "It is only a human being who teaches the Prophet." The tongue of the one they refer to is foreign, and this Qur'an is [in] a clear Arabic language.” (Al Nahl: 103)

Moreover, these deniers of truth know it very well that the prophet (pbuh) did not copy from the Gospel and the Torah and they even know that the Quran has not been revealed as a complete book at once. They themselves see that it is being revealed to him verse after verse separately. The succeeding verse of the one we are discussing says this directly:

“Rather, the Qur'an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. And none reject Our verses except the wrongdoers.” (Al Ankabut: 49)

This verse assures the prophet (pbuh) that the Quran is revealed to him verse by verse which he (pbuh) recites to his companions and they preserve it in their breasts. This way the knowledge of the truth gets transmitted to them. Of course, those who deny this after witnessing the truth are but tyrants and wrongdoers.

Being Unlettered Is No Sign Of A Miracle

Therefore, there is nothing in the Quran that proves that the prophet (pbuh) was unlettered. We made it clear that calling him Ummi does not mean that he is unlettered but that he belongs to the al Umam (non-Jew) who do not have a divine book. The same can be said about the al Ummiyyeen which means Arabs in comparison to the people of the book, Jews and Christians. On the other hand we discussed it in detail that the verse “And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had [cause for] doubt” does not have any proof that the prophet (pbuh) was unlettered. This meaning is different from the context of the verse.

Although we think that what has been written above is enough in this context but it would not be inappropriate here that the opponents of Islam among the Quraish never accused the prophet (pbuh) of writing the Quran but they put the accusation that someone from the people of the book of Makkah was doing it on his behalf, particularly providing him with the stories as the prophet (pbuh) would sit in the company of some of them. But no narrator of Islam has noted that the enemies of Islam among the Quraish accused him of writing the Quran, not because they considered them unlettered but because to speak polished and sophisticated language, the ability to read or write was not necessary for them. The ability to read and write was not a condition for sophisticated speech. By flipping through the history of the Arab it becomes clear that the poets and orators of that era could speak sophisticated language extempore.

In the field of thought and language, habit plays the role of a killer. There are numerous words that we constantly use but we never care to know about their roots or origin. There are many words in old and modern Arabic that are not used according to their original meaning. The word Ummi is one of them.  This word is one of the many Quranic terms which have no origins in Arabic because no linguist or etymologist of Arabic has ever quoted any poetry or prose from pre-Islam Arab which has the meaning of Ummi as unlettered. All the etymologists have tried to associate this word with al umm and the etymologist, Al Zuzaj presented this proposal and explained the association of the word Ummi with al umm in the following words:

‘It is said so because the Ummi is in a condition in which a new born is, that is, he does not know how to read or write. Other etymologists owned this argument. Therefore, the people of Lisan ul Arab adopted this and this way it sort of found acceptability and al Ummi was known as a person who does not know how to read or write.

Therefore, the meaning of the word al Ummi as unlettered was publicized in an age when the scholars had no position as a reference in dictionary. But since the Quran described the prophet (pbuh) with this word, it was given the interpretational meaning presented by Zuzaj and the notion got embedded in the mind of the people that the prophet (pbuh) was unlettered and he did not know how to read or write. Soon, this meaning was used to prove the Quran a miracle in the sense that since the Quran challenged its opponents to bring a single verse like it and they could not, but the prophet (pbuh) who was unlettered brought an unrivalled book. This proved that the Quran was a miracle. This was an age when the linguists and etymologists were busy in the discussion of the issue of miracle of the Quran (11).

In this way, Zuzaj’s explanation was used to protect the sacred beliefs – the beliefs which the people accept without any scrutiny or criticism. Therefore, no one questioned if the linking of the word al umm to Ummi is correct. If anyone had questioned this to himself in the search of the truth, he would have consulted the standards of the dictionary, those standards with which the words of Arabic language are linked to their origins. In the roots, if the letters of the word are even misplaced, then no difference in meaning occurs. It is called Istiqaqul Akbar such as, Zarb, zabar, rabz, razb etc. (For further examples please consult Maqayis al lugah by Ibn Faras)

Many later day etymologists even tried to come out of the interpretation of Zuzaj because it was clear that his interpretation did not fit with many verses. So some Ulema said that God in ‘Nabiyil Ummi’, the word Ummi has a relation with ummal qura meaning Makkah and the Ummiyyeen are in fact the people of Makkah and presented the argument that “that you may warn the Mother of Cities and those around it. (Al An’am: 92) whereas some others were of the view that al nabiyil Ummi is related with ummil kitab as God says:

“That you may warn the Mother of Cities and those around it.”(Al Zukhruf:4)

Therefore, the word umm was related with ummi, even if the meaning is taken as mother instead of father or al umm means the origin of something.

The brains that were slave to the received ideas could give no importance to the arguments of scholars greater than Zuzaj such as Al fara’ (Abu Zakaria bin Ziyad) who had said that al Ummiyyun are those who do not have a divine book. It was the demand of justice that instead of Al Zuzaj, Alfara’ should have been followed because Alfara had passed away hundred years before Zuzaj. (Al Fara died in 207 A.H.) He authored many valuable books such as Ma’ani al Quran on which renowned etymologist Abul Abbas Sa’alab had commented:

“No one before him could achieve this and I do not know anyone can make any addition to it”.

It becomes clear that the enslaved brains of received ideas did not pay any attention to the greater Ulema, jurists or exegetes who were either not satisfied with the explanation of Zuzaj or had out rightly rejected him. Ibn Taimiyya is among these scholars who chose Al Fara’s opinion.(13)

Have we been able to get rid of the literal interpretation formed by Al Zuzaj?

I do not think so because when interpretations stick to the sacred, they themselves become sacred. And sacred is a miracle whose argument is surprisingly to be illiterate and unlettered.

However, it is not only Zuzaj’s interpretation regarding the meaning of nabiyyil Ummi which needs to be rejected. There are many others.


1. Abu Jafar Muhammad bin Jareer Al Tabari, Tarikhal umam wal muluk vol 1 p 531

2. Abul Fatah Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al Shahristani, Al Milal wal Nahl vol 2, p 13

3. Sunan al darimi and Musnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal HadithNo 14341

4. Abul Farj Muhammad bin Ishaque bin al Nadim Al Fahrist

5. Sahih Bukhari hadith no. 4005

6. Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Ahmad Al Qurtubi, Al Jamiul Ahkam Al Quran vol 13 p 351

7. Bukhari, Hadith no 5221

8. Bukhari Hadith No. 3089

9. Bukhari, Bab Marazun Nabi pbuh wa wafatahu Hadith No 423

10. Abul Sana Mahmud bin Abdullah Al Hussaini al Allosi Al Kabir, Ruhul Ma’ani fi Tafsir Al Quran al Azim was sabul mathani vol 21 p 4

11. Some declare the verses of this Surah Madani but the verses under discussion are not among them.

12. In that period, the books of the thinkers of prophethood had spread in great numbers. Muslim etymologists said that the proof of the prophethood of the prophet (pbuh) is that he brought such a wonderful book despite being an Ummi but the orators and scholars of Arab could not bring could not bring such a book. Thus the argument in favour of Ummi was only a temporary argument and it had nothing to do with the root of the Arabic language.

13. Abul Abbas Ahmad bin Abdul Halim bin Taiymiyyah Al Harafi, Al Qatawi, p 435