The “Ummi” [Unlettered] Prophet and the Miraculous Character of the Quran

The Light (Pakistan), 16th March 1923 Issue (Vol. 2, No. 6, pp. 2–4)

Dr Zwemer, the Editor of The Mos­lem World, has in a lengthy article dis­cussed the question whether the Holy Prophet [Muhammad] (may peace and blessings of God be upon him) could read or write.

The sub­ject, however, has not been dealt with from the historical point of view. The writer’s object is not to find out truth. He is anxious only to refute the “argument” for the miraculous character of the Holy Quran. He frankly admits that it has been, for centuries, a controverted question. He also recognises that some Muslims affirm it, while others deny it, yet he is especi­ally interested in the denial, because it is generally used to fortify their arguments for the “miraculous character of the Kuran.”

This reveals the spirit with which a typical Christian missionary studies Islam. He would not care to find out the reality. He would not examine the matter properly; he would not sift the chaff from grain, but he would gather together the material, whatever it may be, to strengthen his own perverted view. He would like to be feasted on fallacious arguments in order to satisfy his appetite for laying unfounded charges against Islam. In a word, in the study of our religion he would reject facts and take up fiction. He would, when the occasion demands, invent stories, and would draw farfetched inferences from simple and ordinary things Dr Zwemer’s article under review forms a typical illustration of this generalisation.


In the first section of his article, the writer lays stress on the point that reading and writing were fairly common at Mecca at the time of the Holy Prophet’s birth. He quotes Muir, who says:

“It is evident that writing of some sort was known and practised at Mecca long before A. D. 560.”

However, the historical evidence which he has produced on the point does not show that reading and writing were “common” at Mecca at the time of the Prophet. For instance, the tradition that Abul Abbas, the uncle of the Holy Prophet,

“left be­hind him a camel-load of Mss [manuscripts]”

does not necessarily prove that writing was “com­monly” practiced in Mecca, nor does Ali, Jaber and Yaser’s

“being in habit of reading the Taurat and the Injil”

prove it.

Almost in every society, however illiterate it may be, some people are found who do the clerical work, but their existence does not establish that reading and writing are commonly practised in that society.

The expression, “camel-load of Mss [manuscripts]” may appear at first glance to a prosaic mind a strong argument in favour of the writer’s conclusion; yet those who are familiar with the hyperbolical terms of the Oriental languages will not take it literally.

The writer himself is an Arabic scholar and appears to be guarded against exagger­ation of the chroniclers. It is for this reason, perhaps, that he questions the accuracy of the report that

“only seven­teen men were able to write”

at Mecca at the time of the Prophet, as he thinks this number to be underestimated, nor is he prepared to accept the report that the amanuenses of the Prophet

“numbered no less than forty two,”

because he consi­ders it to be too large a number.

Now, the safest course to determine the truth is to take the average of these two num­bers, by summing them up together and dividing the total by two. It will be something about twenty-nine.

Thus, if there were only twenty-nine men who could read or write in the whole city of Mecca, the place which was the commercial centre of the trade going on between Arabia and Syria, no impartial man will say that

“the art of reading and writing was not uncommon.”

Yet Dr Zwemer has got the audacity to arrive at such a strange conclusion because his only motive is to attack the “miraculous character of the Koran.”

The suggestion that among the wives of the Prophet

“Ayesha and Hafza [Hafsa] could read and write”

and therefore

“he might have learned the art from two of his wives,”

as he was

“himself an intelligent man”

is a mere conjecture, without any positive proof. There is not a single occasion in his whole life on which the Holy Prophet wrote a document or a letter with his own hand.


What then is the basis of Dr Zwemer’s supposition that the Holy Prophet knew reading and writing? It is, I think, the different significances which the word ummi [unlettered] conveys. His whole argument hinges on the point that the word ummi, on which the general denial of the Pro­phet’s ability to read and write is based, does not necessarily mean illiterate. He quotes Palmer and Radwell to show that the word is used in the sense of gentile; that is, the people who are not acquainted with any revealed book.

This is, however, contradicted by the Holy Quran itself, because in 2:78 we find that the Jews, who are spoken of as the “People of the Book” throughout the Holy Quran, are called Ummi. I will quote here Palmer’s Translation:

وَ مِنۡہُمۡ اُمِّیُّوۡنَ لَا یَعۡلَمُوۡنَ الۡکِتٰبَ اِلَّاۤ اَمَانِیَّ وَ اِنۡ ہُمۡ  اِلَّا یَظُنُّوۡنَ ﴿۷۸﴾

“And some of them (Jews) are illiterate folk; they know not the book but only idle tales.”

This is enough to prove that the word Ummi is not an equivalent to the English word gentile or non-Jew.

The word, in fact, carries three signi­ficances:

  1. one who himself does not know reading and writing;
  2. an Arab, or belonging to Arabs, because they were generally illiterate people; and
  3. one belonging to Um-ul-Qura, mother of the cities; that is, Mecca, hence Meccan.

The Holy Prophet was an ummi in all the three senses. He did not know how to read and write, he was an Arab, and he lived at Mecca.

The fact that the Prophet was unable to read and write before revela­tion came to him cannot be disputed. The Quran is conclusive on this point:

وَ مَا کُنۡتَ تَتۡلُوۡا مِنۡ قَبۡلِہٖ مِنۡ کِتٰبٍ وَّ لَا تَخُطُّہٗ  بِیَمِیۡنِکَ

“And you did not read before it any book, nor did you transcribe with your right hand” (The Holy Quran, 29:48).

The point that he learnt the art of reading and writing after revelation is controversial, and on this the Christian propagandist has concentrated his force of criticism.

But there is no historical evidence to prove that the Holy Prophet took lessons in reading and writing after his call. Such a thing would have been quite conspicuous. During his whole life the Prophet always ordered his attendants to read and write letters for him; even the verses of the Holy Quran, for whose preserva­tion he was very particular, were written by others. It seems impossible for a man who could read and write always to avoid it.

What for then did the Holy Prophet take the trouble of learning the art after the age of forty, because he was forty when the revelation came? Did he learn reading and writing never to make a use of it? Dr Zwemer says that

“he had his own wise reasons for not reading and writing himself.”

But after indulging in the indecent habit of ascribing motives to others, the writer forgets his own argu­ment, and quotes the single occasion on which the Holy Prophet is reported to have written or erased some words as conclusive proof of his literacy. Here, perhaps the writer has no “wise reasons” to expose the hollowness of his wicked suggestion that the Holy Prophet used to conceal his ability to read and write with a set purpose. It is true that in the treaty between the Prophet and the Quraish at Hudaibiyya, when Ali refused to erase the words

رسول اللّٰھ

“Apostle of Allah,”

the Prophet himself took the docu­ment and erased the words. The report given in Bukhari only mentions the erasing of the words

رسول اللّٰھ

“Apostle of Allah,”

while that given in Muslim [book of Hadith] adds that he wrote the words

ابن عبد اللّٰھ

“Son of Abdulla”


Now, let us take the latter case; that is, in which the Holy Prophet erased some words and wrote others instead. Dr Zwemer will not, I think, hesitate in admitting that the words which are said to be erased and written by the Prophet are the part of his name. The words

رسول اللّٰھ

“Apostle of Allah”

form the permanent epithet of the name of the Prophet, and the words

ابن عبد اللّٰھ

“Son of Abdulla”

are also a part of his name, as, according to the Arab custom, a man always wrote the name of his father with his own.

The Holy Prophet was not only a divine teacher, but also the head of the Muslim commonwealth, and as such he stood in need of signing impor­tant documents written on his behalf. It is but natural, therefore, that he could read or write his name. But this does not show that he knew the art of reading and writing. There are hundreds and thousands of people who are illiterate and yet can read and write their own names.

The report of Waqidi, which says that the Prophet wrote at the foot of the treaty about two lines with regard to the incumbency of its terms on both the parties may be rejected as unreliable because

  1. the most authentic works of Hadith, that is, Bukhari and Muslim, do not mention it; and
  2. because Waqidi is admittedly an untrustworthy reporter.


Finally, the writer makes a mention of the Prophet’s letter to the Makaukus, or Governor of Alexandria. A photo­graphic reproduction of this letter has already been published in various Islamic journals. Dr Zwemer is of the opinion that the letter is

“supposed to have been written by Mohammed himself,”

but he does not tell us on what ground his “supposition” rests.

It is true that after the truce of Hudaibiyya the Holy Prophet sent a number of letters to the various rulers of the world, and the letter in question is one of them, but, like others, it was written by any of the amanuenses of the Prophet. There is nothing to show that he wrote this par­ticular letter with his own hands.

There is a general concurrence on the point that the Holy Prophet could not read nor write.

“The most generally accepted view is,”

says the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

“that he could do neither … and the most probable theory is that he could do both but unskilfully.”


But with the editor of The Moslem World, it is not the point whether the Holy Prophet could not read nor write, or could do both unskilfully. His point is to attack the “miraculous character” of the Holy Quran. His argument is that because the Prophet could read or write, however unskilfully it may be, it is no wonder that he has produced a miraculous book like the Quran.

But perhaps he has forgotten the simple fact that every literate man cannot be a peerless author, and every author cannot claim the uniqueness of his pro­duction. The Holy Quran is admittedly the finest piece of work in the whole of Arabic literature, and even the hostile critics of Islam have recognised the wonderful beauty of its language. The Quran openly challenged its opponents to produce a chapter like it, and none among the educated so far has been able to come out successful in this test. Is this not miraculous?

Again, the Holy Book brought about a unique reformation first in Arabia and then in the whole world. It raised the “children of the desert” to such eminence that the great empires of Rome and Persia crumbled down under their feet. It spread light and learning throughout the old world — even to Europe, which at that time was labouring under darkness of ignorance and superstition. Is this not the miracle of miracles?

It should, however, be borne in mind that the Muslims do not base the miracul­ous character of the Quran on the illiteracy of the Prophet. It is the matchless beauty of the language, the profoundness of philosophy, the purity of teachings, and above all the great reformation brought about by it that make the Holy Quran a unique Book in the world.