THE “ILLITERATE” PROPHET
COULD MUHAMMAD READ AND WRITE?
WHETHER Mohammed could read or write has for centuries been a controverted question. Today most Moslems deny it; some, however, affirm it, but we are especially interested in the denial, because it is generally used to fortify their argument for the miraculous character of the Koran.
In investigating this question anew, we are not unmindful that our sources, viz. Mohammedan traditions, are no longer considered as authoritative as they once were. As Hurgronje says, this illusion has been disturbed by Prince Caetani and Father Lammens. “According to them, even the data which had been pretty generally regarded as objective, rest chiefly upon tendentious fiction. The generations that worked at the biography of the Prophet were too far removed from his time to have true data or notions; and, moreover, it was not their aim to know the past as it was, but to construct a picture of it as it ought to have been, according to their opinion.”
But while we may know less by the standards of trustworthy tradition, we know more of the conditions in Arabia and the life at Mecca, thanks to the investigations of Wellhausen, Wüstenfeld, Cheikho, Lammens, Huart and others.
The art of reading and writing was fairly common at Mecca at the time of Mohammed’s birth. According to later Moslem tradition the science of writing was not known in Mecca until introduced by Harb, the father of Abu Sufian, the great opponent of Mohammed, about A . D . 560! But this is evidently an error, for close intercourse existed long before this between Mecca and Yemen through caravan trade, and in Yemen writing was well known for centuries. In another tradition Abd ul Muttalib is said to have written to Medina for help in his younger days, i.e. about A . D . 520. Both Jews and Christians also dwelt in the vicinity of Mecca for two hundred years before the Hegira, and used some form of writing.
Muir says: “It is evident that writing of some sort was known and practised at Mecca long before A . D . 560. At all events, the frequent notices of written papers leave no room to doubt that Arabic writing was well known, and not uncommonly practised there in Mahomet’s early days. I cannot think with Weil, that any great want of writing materials could have been felt, even by the poorer Moslems, in the early days of Islam. Reeds and palm-leaves would never be wanting.”
He quotes an account from Katib al Waqidi, showing that Mecca was far in advance of Medina in the art of writing, so that after the battle of Bedr many of the Meccan prisoners were compelled to teach the art of writing to the children of Medina. Each captive was assigned ten boys, and their tuition, when completed, was to be accepted as a full ransom. 1
Hartmann also, in a long note (vol. ii. p. 425 of Der Islamische Orient ), shows that writing was very common in Yemen and North Africa, and that there was close intercourse between Mecca and both these provinces as well as with Persia. He says: “There is no doubt that writing on parchment was an ordinary custom for poets, merchants, etc.”
There are many traditions which show that writing was not uncommon in Mecca about Mohammed’s time, and the traditions which ascribe a prejudice on his part against writing appear to have no good foundation. We find mention of Abu ’l-Abbas, the uncle of Mohammed, having left behind him a camel-load of MSS. ‘Ali copied out certain precepts of the Prophet, and in order to have them constantly at hand, tied the roll round the handle of his sword. 2 Jaber and Yaser, two sword-makers in Mecca, are mentioned by the commentators as being in the habit of reading the Taurat and the Injil when Mohammed passed them, and he listened to their reading. On the first page of Al-Bukhari’s collection of traditions we read that Waraqa bin Naufal, Khadijah’s cousin, read the Gospel and copied it in the Hebrew character. Others say Arabic and Hebrew. 3
The cursive Arabic script was in use as early as the time of Mutalammis and Tarafa, the second half of the sixth century, A . H . 4 The rise of Islam no doubt helped to spread a knowledge of writing, but did not originate it. Louis Cheikho, in his Arabic Studies on Christian Literature in Arabia before Islam, devotes a chapter to prove that the art of writing itself was introduced by Christians both in South and North Arabia long before the Hegira.
The two kinds of characters used, namely, the Nabati and the Naskhi, which exist today in rock inscriptions, as well as in documents, owe their origin to Christians. Berger writes: “ L’écriture Arabe existait avant Mahomet, elle a été chrétienne avant d’être musulmane .” 5 And Wellhausen affirms the same: “ Die Christen haben des Arabischen wohl zuerst als schriftsprache gebraucht. Namentlich die Ibaedier von Hira und Anbar scheinen sich in dieser Beziehung Verdienste erworben zu haben .” 6
We also read in the Aghani 7 the tradition above quoted that Waraqa bin Naufal wrote portions of the Gospel record in Hebrew letters. Cheikho goes on to show that a great number of the Koran words, especially the names and attributes of God, the terms used in regard to the rewards and punishment of the future life, and the religious vocabulary in general (which are usually attributed to Mohammed’s genius) all occur in pre-Islamic Christian poetry. 8
Moslem tradition is in this respect unreliable. We are told, for example, that at Mecca at the time of the Prophet only seventeen men were able to write! Their names are preserved for us by al-Baladhuri (see last chapter Arabic edition of the text, Cairo 1901). This statement seems very improbable, not to say impossible. The Fath-ul-Bari mentions the names of the amanuenses of the Prophet, 9 and says they numbered no fewer than forty-two. 10 While this may be an exaggeration, it certainly seems to prove that the art of reading and writing was not uncommon. Letters were written by the order of Mohammed to foreign rulers, and we even hear of a correspondence kept up in Hebrew with the Jews. (See Abu Daoud under the heading Reports from the Ahl-al-kitab.)
Among the wives of the Prophet we are sure that at least Ayesha and Hafza could read and write. The frequent mention of “writing” and “the book” in the Koran (240 times) is striking in this connexion, especially if the speaker of the words was himself wholly unacquainted with either writing or reading, and did not have an abundance of material. The Meccans, in fact, like the Egyptians in their fondness for writing, used all possible materials. Our information is fairly extensive and is derived from an account of the missionary epistles sent out by the Prophet and of the collection of the Koran. The chief materials were leather, palm-leaf, the broad shoulder-blades of the camel (these are still used in Oman, Arabia, in the day schools), potsherds, flat white stones, wooden tablets, parchment and papyrus. 11 Moritz says: “It may be regarded as certain that in a commercial town like Petra the art of writing was in common use at the beginning of the third century.” 12
In view of the facts given above and the statement that Mohammed himself had so many secretaries, there were doubtless more than seventeen persons in the religious capital, with its large pilgrim traffic, who were literate. Mohammed himself was a most intelligent man, and had acted for a long time as mercantile agent for Khadijah. When we remember what this involves in wholesale caravan traffic with distant Syria, it is not unnatural to suppose that he may have had opportunity to learn to read and to write. 13 He might even have learned the art from two of his wives.
On what, then, is the general Mohammedan denial of their Prophet’s ability to read or write based? On one word, ummi, used six times in the Koran, and on one obscure passage where the Angel Gabriel bids him “read” (iqra’) and he replies, “I am not a ‘reader.’” Let us examine the words used, and see whether their significance by derivation or usage will bear the weight of the interpretation that has become current, or contradicts it.
The word ummi occurs six times in the Koran. We copy the passage in order and follow Palmer’s translation (and mistranslation):
The chapter of the Heifer (2:74): “and some of them are illiterate folk that know not the book but only idle tales.”
The chapter of Imran’s family (3:19): “and say to those who have been given the book and unto the Gentiles, are ye too resigned?”
The chapter of Al ‘Araf (7:155-158): “who follow the apostle the illiterate Prophet; whom they find written down for them in the law and the gospel. . . . Believe thou then in God and His Apostle the illiterate Prophet who believes in God and in His words.”
The chapter of the Congregation (62:2): “He it is who sent unto the Gentiles a prophet amongst themselves to recite to them His signs and to purify them and to teach them the book and wisdom, although they were before in obvious error.” 14
The words in italics in these passages are all the translations of one root-word in Arabic, ummi. Palmer hesitates to render them all with the word “gentile,” although his comment on chapter 3, verse 19, shows his opinion: “Mohammed seems to have borrowed the expression from the Jews; ummiyyun having the same significance as the Hebrew goyim” (Palmer, vol i. p. 48).
Lane (Arabic Lexicon, vol. i. p. 92), who has collected the views of the Arabic lexicographers, begins by saying: “ummi properly means gentile—in a secondary sense a heathen; one not having a revealed scripture; or belonging to the nation of the Arabs, who did not write nor read, and therefore metaphorically applied to anyone not knowing the art of writing nor that of reading. Mohammed was termed ummi, meaning a gentile, as distinguished from an Israelite; according to most of his followers, meaning illiterate. Some assert that Mohammed became acquainted with writing after he had been unacquainted therewith, referring to the Koran (29:47), where it is said ‘Thou didst not read before it from a book, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand.’”
Rodwell also in a note on chapter 7, verse 157, expresses the opinion that the word ummi (illiterate) is equivalent to the Greek ethnic and the Hebrew word goyim, and was applied by the Jews to those unacquainted with the Scriptures. He says: “There could be no doubt that Mohammed in spite of his assertion to the contrary, with a view to proving his inspirations, was well acquainted with the Bible histories. He wished to appear ignorant in order to raise the elegance of the Koran into a miracle.” Whether this be so or not, the manner in which this expression is thrown into the verse and the whole context raise the conjecture which, as Dr. Wherry points out, becomes almost a certainty that “this appellation came originally from the Jews who used it in expressing their contempt for the Gentile prophet. Mohammed would readily adopt the name under the circumstances.” 15
Regarding the meaning of the word ummi, Al-Tabari says (vol. iii. p. 142), commenting on the word in Surah Alu ‘Imran: “the ummiyyun are those among the Arabs who have no revelation.” We read in the Arabic dictionary Taj al Aroos that Mohammed was not altogether illiterate, but that “he could not distinguish between good and bad writing.” We are also told that some traditions state that he learned to read and write after he became a Prophet.
In the commentary called Al-Khazin (vol. ii. p. 146) the following interpretation of the word ummi shows the growth of the legend. “The Prophet could neither read nor write nor cypher, and this the authorities are agreed is evidence of the greatest miracle in the case of the Koran.”
Fahr er-Razi, however (vol. viii. p. 149), in commenting on chapter 7, p. 2, says: “ummi means related to the people of the Arabs, because they are an ummi people, who have no book, and do not read a book or write.” Ibn Abbas says the meaning is, “those who have no book and no prophet sent unto them.” He reiterates this explanation on Surah 3:19, but in obscure phrases (vol. ii. p. 426).
Al-Tabari is more definite in his comment (vol. xxviii. p. 61) on the same verse: “The people of Mohammed were called ummiyyun because no revelation had come to them.” This shows very clearly that the word ummi does not mean illiterate, but gentile. While on Surah 3:19, he says (vol. iii. p. 143): “Those to whom the Book (Revelation) came among the Jews and Christians and the ummiyin, who have no book, the Arab polytheists.”
Baidhawi (vol. i. p. 150) interprets: “The ummi is he who neither reads nor writes.” The commentary called Al-Khazin says (vol. ii. p. 147): “The ummi is he who is like the Arabs or the people of the Arabs because most of them neither write nor read.” Then he goes on to quote a tradition according to which Mohammed said: “We are an umma (people) ummiyya: we neither write nor cypher.”
Fahr er-Razi says: “Concerning the word in question the learned differ in regard to the meaning of it: some of them say that ummi is he who does not confess belief in a book nor in an apostle. Others say it is he who does not know how to read and write skilfully. This second significance is more credited because there were ummi among the Jews, and they believed in a book and an apostle; and also because Mohammed himself said we are a people ummi: we do not write and we do not cypher” (vol. i. p. 309).
The New Islam leaders are also perplexed in regard to this problem. Mohammed Ali, in his translation of The Holy Koran (Woking, 1917), commenting on chapter 2, verse 76, says that the word ummiyyun is specially applied to the Arabs who were generally unacquainted with reading and writing. He strongly objects to the definition of the word as given by Rodwell and Lane. In a long footnote (No. 950) he protests that the word ummi can never mean gentile, and says that Lane’s conclusion in his dictionary “is entirely without foundation.” In another passage, however, Suratu ’l-Jumu‘ah, he himself translates the same word as Meccan, and his conclusion (p. 362) is that there is ground for believing that Mohammed could write after revelation came to him, although he still had his letters written by scribes. In the preface to the same work there is a long, though very lame, argument to prove that “the Holy Prophet left at his death a complete written Koran with the same arrangement of the verses and the chapters that we now have.”
There are indications, we admit, in the Koran that some of its chapters existed in written form at a very early date. For example, Surah 56:77, “None shall touch it (the written copy) save the purified.” Also the account of the conversation of ‘Omar who discovered a written copy of an entire chapter—the twentieth—in the house of Fatima. Why could not Mohammed himself have written it?
Orientalist are disagreed on the subject. In discussing the question whether Mohammed used written sources for his “revelations,” Otto Pautz gives a list of authorities who have expressed an opinion on the question whether Mohammed could read and write, pro and con as follows:
Those who affirm it: “M. Turpin, Historie de la vie de Mahomet . I, p. 285-88. Boulainvilliers, S. 232 Anm. S.F.G. Wahl, D. Koran, Einl. S. LXXVIII f. A. Sprenger, D. Leb. u. d. Lehre des Mohammed . II, S. 398-402. G. Weil, Hist. krit. in d. Koran . 2 Aufl. S. 39 Anm. 1. H. Hirschfeld, Judische Elementa im Koran . Berlin, 1878, S. 22.”
Those who deny it he gives as follows: “Marracci, Ref. p. 535. M. Prideaux, La vie de Mahomet , p. 43. S. Ockley, The History of the Saracens, 3rd ed. The Life of Mahomet, p. 11. C. F. Gerock, Vers. e. Darst. d. Christologie des Koran . S. 9. A. P. Caussin de Perceval a. a. O. i, p. 353. J. M. Arnold, D. Islam. S. 230. E. H. Palmer, The Koran translt. I. Introduction. p. XLVII. L. Ullmann, D. Koran ubers. S. 129. Anm. 4 .” 16
Otto Pautz himself leaves the question unsettled; his argument being that once the question of Mohammed’s use of written sources is closed, the other is unimportant.
Nöldeke 17 shows that the word ummi is everywhere used in the Koran in apposition to Ahl ul-kitab, that is the Possessors of the Sacred Scriptures: therefore it cannot signify one who does not read and write; but (as we have seen from the Arabic authorities themselves) one who did not possess or who had no access to former revelations. Nöldeke, although he admits that Mohammed had no access to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as we understand them, says that the question of Mohammed’s illiteracy is confused, because the references given by Moslems on this point are contradictory. The common tradition, he goes on to show, is due not to the fact that men were in search of the truth but rather to the fact that Mohammed’s illiteracy was manufactured to establish dogmatic or political opinions. Generally speaking, the Sunnis deny his ability to read and write, while the Shia‘hs affirm it.
Sprenger speaks of one Mohammed bin Mohammed bin Nu’man (died 413 A . H .), who wrote a book on the subject establishing the literacy of the Prophet.
The testimony of the Shia‘hs is summed up in the celebrated collection called The Hyat-ul-Kuloob, translated by the Rev. James L. Merrick (Boston, 1850), under the title The Life and Religion of Mohammed. He correctly states in his preface that this is the most popular standard work in Persian:
“In regard to the Prophet’s title of ummi, traditions are contradictory. Some say he was so styled because he could not read or write. Others maintain that it referred to his ummet, or sect, conveying the idea that he was like the illiterate Arabs. Another party insist that the title is taken from umm (mother), denoting that the prophet was as simple as a newborn infant. There are traditions which state that the title is derived from Umm-ul-kora, an epithet of Mekka, and consequently that ummi would signify Mekkaite. There is nothing contrary to the position that the Prophet was never taught to read and write before his assumption of the prophetic office, and to this agrees a verse of the Koran, in which the Most High declares to him, ‘Thou couldst not read any book before this; neither couldst thou write it with thy right hand; then had the gainsayers justly doubted of the divine original thereof.’ 18 Tradition is likewise contradictory whether he read and wrote after his assumption of the prophetical office, but there can be no doubt of his ability to do this, inasmuch as he knew all things by divine inspiration, and as by the power of God he could perform acts which were impossible to all others. He had his own wise reasons for not reading and writing himself, and generally ordered his attendants to read letters which he received. The Imam Jafer-as-Saduk reckons it a special favour of heaven that he was raised up among a people, who, although they had letters, had no divine books and were therefore called ummi.
“It is related that a person inquired of the Imam Mohammed Taky, why the prophet was called Ummi. The imam demanded what the Sunnis said on this subject, and was answered,—The sect insisted he could not write. The imam gave them the lie, invoked a curse on them, and demanded how the Prophet could be ignorant when he was sent to instruct others. . . . On the authority of the Imam Saduk, it is related that when Abu Sufian marched for Ohod, Abbas wrote to inform Mohammed of the fact. He received the letter when in the garden of Medina with some of his companions. After reading the communication he ordered the people about him to enter the city, and then disclosed to them the news. The same imam also certifies that the Prophet read and wrote.” 19
Many educated Moslems in our day agree with the Shia‘hs that it would be unworthy of one who occupied so high a rank as God’s Messenger to be ignorant of the very elements of knowledge.
One of the traditions which the Shia‘hs advance is the celebrated incident in connexion with the treaty made in the sixth year of the Hegira with the Quraish at a place near Mecca, name Hudaibiya. The account is preserved by Bukhari and Muslim (vol. ii. p. 170). Ibn Hisham has also recorded it at length in his Siratu ’r-Rasul (vol. ii. p. 175, ed. Bulaq, 1295 A . H .). The former tells us that ‘Ali was chosen as the prophet’s amanuensis on this occasion, and that when Mohammed bade him write the words, “A treaty between Mohammed the Prophet of God and Suhail bin ‘Amr,” the latter objected to the term “Apostle of God,” remarking that if the Quraish acknowledged that, there would be no necessity for opposing Mohammed at all. The latter then turned to ‘Ali and told him to cut out the words “Apostle of God” and write in their stead the words suggested by Suhail, viz. “Son of Abdullah!” To this ‘Ali objected, saying, “By God I will never cut it out.” Then, the narrative proceeds: “The apostle of God took the writing and though he did not write well, wrote what he had ordered (‘Ali), viz. ‘Mohammed son of Abdullah.’” 20
This account is also found in the commentary by Al-Baghawi on chapter 48, verse 25, and at greater length in Tabari’s Al-Mawahib al-Laduniya. The question, however, arises, as Nöldeke indicates, whether even this is positive proof that Mohammed could write. The word kataba is sometimes used to signify “dictated”; the text also may have been corrupted.
Nöldeke comes to the following conclusions: 21 (a) Mohammed desired to be known as one who did not understand reading and writing; he therefore employed a number of scribes and always had letters that came to him read out to him. (b) He did not have access to the Bible or other Christian books, least of all to a book entitled Asatir al-Awalin. He proves that all the deductions of Sprenger regarding the use of this word in the Koran are at fault. The word is not derived from the Greek historia, but is a double plural from the Arabic satr—a line of script. (c) This does not exclude the fact that Mohammed used the oral traditions of Jews and Christians as well as the unwritten traditions current among his own people.
The frequency with which Mohammed feels it necessary to resent the charge of the Meccan idolaters that the Koran was a book composed by fraud is certainly indicative that they must have known something of his methods and of his sources. In chapter 25, verse 5, we read: “The unbelievers say, Verily this Koran is a mere fraud of his own devising, and others have helped him with it who had come hither by pillage and lie; and they say these are tales of the ancients that he hath put in writing, and they were dictated to him morning and evening” (Palmer’s translation).
Compare also Surah 16:105, where the same charge is made. In neither passage does Mohammed answer the charge by saying that he can neither read nor write.
Qastalani, according to Sprenger, gives the history of a dispute that took place in Spain in which the philosopher Avenpace held that Mohammed could both read and write; although he was condemned as a heretic for holding this opinion. In one of the disputes that arose on this question, a Koran passage (Surah 29:46) was used by the Moslems themselves to show that although Mohammed could not read before revelation came to him, he was able afterwards both to read and to write. Sprenger gives other proofs, which are not so conclusive, although they are cumulative. He quotes traditions according to which Mohammed gave instructions to one of his scribes in words that prove his knowledge, not only of penmanship, but of calligraphy. How else could he have said:
“Put down the ink pot, cut the pen, divide the strokes of the sîn and do not lengthen the mim so much.” He quotes the story in regard to the treaty at Hudaibiya, although the different versions do not agree in detail.
Ibn Abi Shaiba said: “The Prophet knew how to read and write before he died. I have known people who have affirmed this.” If this tradition is reliable, it is important, for Ibn Abi Shaiba died 105 A . H . The scene described by many authorities in the older biographies, which took place three days before Mohammed’s death on June 4, 632, would leave no doubt in the matter if we could trust Mohammedan tradition.
Shahrastani gives the words of the Prophet used on this occasion as follows: “Bring the inkstand and a sheet, that I may write something, in order that you will not be misled after me.” This tradition comes to us from the lips of an eye-witness and is preserved by different Companions and their followers. There is no version of the tradition in which Mohammed does not express the wish that he himself should use the pen. (See Ibn Sa’ad, p. 149, and vol. ii. p. 398, Sprenger’s Mohammed, who gives a list of no fewer than nine Isnads for the tradition.)
We will now examine the so-called earliest chapter of the Koran (Surah 96), which has suffered from mistranslation owing to a misconception of the story on which it is based. Hirschfeld 22 comments on the legend, after relating it, as follows:
“‘During my sojourn on Mount Hira,’ said the Prophet, ‘the archangel Gabriel appeared to me, seized me, and said: Iqra’! (proclaim). I replied, I am no proclaimer (reader).
The angel seized me again and repeated: Iqra’ . . . I said: I am no proclaimer. Finally he forced me to say: Iqra’ bismi rabbika.’
“I did not translate the word Iqra’ in my rendering of the legend, although I translated it in the verse by proclaim, my object being to call attention to the early misunderstanding of the word by traditionists and interpreters of the Koran as well as by modern translators and biographers of the Prophet. For the sentence in question is nothing but an Arabic version of the phrase in the Pentateuch (Gen. xii. 8, in connexion with iv. 26), ‘He proclaimed the name of the Lord.’”
Strange to say, the authenticity of this tradition has not been questioned, although it is called not a vision, but a dream by Ibn Ishak, Al-Baghawi, Al-Baidhawi, and others.
If Hirschfeld gives the true translation, another argument used to prove that Mohammed was illiterate utterly disappears, for the tradition is evidently an explanation of the Koran text, made later. The name of the angel Gabriel is not mentioned in any Meccan revelation at all, and was at that period apparently unknown to Mohammed. The tradition could therefore not have arisen until many years later.
The uncertainty regarding the text and its significance in the tradition mentioned is clear when we consult the commentaries. For example, the author of Fath-ul-Bari (vol. i. p. 18), in his comment on Bukhari’s text, states that “the meaning of the words ma ana biqari are, ‘I am not able to read well or readily.’” He goes on to say that the text itself is uncertain, and that according to one narrator Mohammed did not say “I cannot read,” nor “I am not a reader,” but “How can I read?”, or again, according to another account: “What shall I read?”
All this shows that the matter is uncertain, and God knows best, as the Moslems say.
Even if we admit that the word iqra’ signifies “to read” a book, it is not at all certain that the reply of the Prophet as given in the tradition signified “I cannot read.” Rather, as Sprenger shows (Life of Mohammed (Allahabad, 1851), p. 95), its signifies: “I am not reading at present.”
Sprenger’s arguments, although old, are not yet answered. He believes that Mohammed had access to portions of the genuine, and some of the apocryphal, Scriptures. Al-Tabari tells us that when Mohammed first gave his revelations even his wife Khadijah had read the Scriptures and was acquainted with the history of the Old Testament prophets.
“It is preposterous” (Sprenger concludes) “to suppose that though the Arabs in the north and west of the Peninsula were Christians, and had a great number of monasteries, no translation of the Bible, or at least of a popular work containing the Scriptural History, was then extant in Arabic. When the Musulmans conquered Hira, they found in the citadel young priests, who were Arabs, engaged in multiplying copies of the Bible. I have above asserted that the words of a tradition of ‘Aishah which made some persons believe that Waraqa first translated the Scriptures into Arabic, means simply that he knew how to write Arabic, and that he copied in Arabic parts of the Bible. I have since come into the possession of a copy of Al-Zarkashi’s commentary on Al-Bukhari. This author confirms the reading which I have chosen by observing on the words ‘He used to write Hebrew.’ This is the reading of Al-Bukhari in this passage; but the reading in Muslim is, ‘He used to write Arabic’; and this is also the reading of Bukhari in the chapter of Dreams; and this must be received as the correct reading, because both Bukhari and Muslim agree on it.” He further observes on the words ‘He wrote the Gospel in Hebrew’—the Qadhi says, this is the reading in this passage; but the correct reading is ‘in Arabic’; and this expression is an idiom. The reading in Muslim is also, ‘He wrote the Gospel in Arabic.’”
According to Fath-ul-Bari (vol. i. p. 19) Waraqa bin Naufal not only read and wrote Arabic, but Hebrew as well. Moreover, Cheikho (p. 153) gives an account of how Zuhra bin Kilab, Mohammed’s great-great-grandfather, wrote out the alphabet and taught it to others. Cheikho quotes from Baladhuri, who tells how the Arab merchants even in that day taught each other writing (al-khatt). One of Mohammed’s scribes, Zaid bin Thabit, learned the Hebrew characters in two weeks and carried on Mohammed’s correspondence in it with the Jews (Baladhuri, p. 480, Cairo ed., 1901). 23
There are two other important references to Mohammed’s writing. In regard to the treaty between Mohammed and the Koreish at Hudaibiya, known as the oath of Ridhwan, Muir (vol. iv. p. 33) gives a long account; although he does not mention the fact that when ‘Ali refused to write the words, “Mohammed the son of Abdullah,” Mohammed himself wrote these words. The following, however, is the tradition according to Waqidi (Muir’s footnote): Mohammed wrote at the foot of the treaty, “The same shall be incumbent upon you toward us, as is incumbent upon us toward you.”
The tradition in regard to Mohammed’s calling for writing materials on his death-bed, is given by Muir as follows:
“About this time, recognizing ‘Omar, and some other chief men in the room, he called out, ‘Bring hither to me ink and paper, that I may record for you a writing which shall prevent your going astray for ever.’ ‘Omar said, ‘He wandereth in his mind, is not the Koran sufficient for us?’ But the women wished that the writing materials should be brought, and a discussion ensued. Thereupon one said, ‘What is his condition at this present moment? Come let us see if he speaketh deliriously or not.’ So they sent and asked him what his wishes were regarding the writing he had spoken of; but he no longer desired to indite it. ‘Leave me thus alone,’ he said, ‘for my present state is better than that ye call me to.’
“When the women were about to bring the writing material, ‘Omar chided them: ‘Quiet,’ he said. ‘Ye behave as women always do; when your master falleth sick ye burst into tears, and the moment he recovereth a little ye begin embracing him.’ Mohammed, jealous even on his death-bed of the good name of his wives, was aroused by these words, and said, ‘Verily they are better than ye are.’ If this tradition be true, it shows that Mohammed was only partially delirious at the moment.” 24
Finally, we must mention a document known as a letter supposed to have been written by Mohammed himself, which, though in a somewhat damaged condition, has been accepted by Moslems in India as authentic, photographed by them and repeatedly published with translations in several languages.
Mr. Belin 25 describes the manner in which Mr. Barthelemy discovered the letter in a Coptic monastery, and gives the Arabic text. The following is the translation:
“In the name of God the Merciful, the Clement. From Mohammed the servant of God and His apostle, to Al-Makaukus, the chief of the Copts, Salutation to him who follows the right course. But after (this preliminary) I invite thee to accept Islam; make a profession of it, and be safe, God will give thee thy reward twice; but if thou refusest, the sin of the Copts will be upon thee. (Say) O people of the Scriptures, come to the word (of the profession) which will equalize us and you. We adore only Allah, and associate nothing with Him. Let us not take for ourselves lords besides God. If they refuse then say (to them) Bear witness that we are Moslems.”
There is no doubt that the Prophet sent such a letter to the Makaukus or Governor of Alexandria; in all the standard biographies of Mohammed he is always mentioned among the number of the potentates to whom envoys with such letters of invitations to profess Islam were sent. The ancient document is not a papyrus but a parchment, yet in such a state that the precise nature of the characters cannot be ascertained; to judge from the facsimile, they are more like Naskhi than Cufic, so that they may perhaps be considered as a hybrid between the two; nor can any points or other vowel marks be discerned. M. Belin is of the opinion that the document in question was not the production of a forger like the Letters Patent of Mohammed, preserved by the Armenians of Asia Minor (and presented to the Government of the Viceroy of Egypt in order to recover some rights and immunities conceded to them by the Prophet), but that it is undoubtedly genuine. 26
A copy of the letter referred to, together with a reproduction, was also printed at Cairo, 1909, in a little book on the history of Arabic writing, entitled Dalil ul-k atib, by Hassan Shahab. In the same book by this professor of the Azhar University (p. 46), we have a list of the women in Mecca who at the time of the Prophet could both read and write; namely, Shifa’, the daughter of Abdallah; Adowiya, one of the women who was present at the birth of Mohammed; Um Kulthum, the daughter of Akba; Ayesha, and others. The Prophet, we are told, ordered Shifa’ to teach Hafza, one of his wives, reading and writing.
Educated Moslems, therefore, have accepted the evidence and approved of the genuineness of the document. 27 A facsimile photograph of the letter was published by the sons of Mohammed Ghulam Rasul Surti, bookseller in the
Bhendi Bazaar, Bombay, several years ago. The photograph in my possession shows in the centre the original letter with the seal; on the right is an account of the discovery together with an Arabic translation of the ancient Cufic script. On the left the same appears in Urdu. The account given reads as follows:
“This is a photograph of the letter which Mohammed the Prophet sent and sealed with his seal, to the Mukaukus of the Copts in Egypt, in the seventh year of the Hegira. In the year 1275 A . H ., one of the French Orientalists discovered the original letter among some Coptic documents in the Monastery of Akhmim, Upper Egypt. He took it to the Sultan Abd el-Mejid Khan, who commanded that it should be kept among the relics of the Prophet in Constantinople. This reproduction has been done by photograph from the original which is in the safe-keeping of our present Sultan Abdul Hamid. This photograph was taken in the year 1316.”
Apparently among the Moslems of Bombay there is no doubt as to the genuineness of the letter.
There is no reason, therefore, why Mohammedans should emphasize the illiteracy of the Prophet except to bolster up their theory of the Koran as a miracle.
Fahr-al-Razi, for example, says (vol. iv. p. 298): “If Mohammed had been able to read and write well, there would have been a suspicion that he had examined earlier books and copied his revelations from them.”
The legend that Mohammed was illiterate grew with the centuries. Al-Ghazali, for example (Ihya, vol. ii. p. 250), says: “The prophet was ummi; he did not read, cypher, nor write, and was brought up in an ignorant country in the wild desert, in poverty while herding sheep; he was an orphan without father or mother; but God Himself taught him all the virtues of character and all the knowledge of the ancient and the modern world.”
In view of the evidence given above, there might still be some doubt whether Mohammed could read and write; but the fact remains that Mohammedan Tradition and the later Koran commentators have done their best to utilize the very slender material in proof of his illiteracy in order to build up a structure of miracle.
The fact is that in the later commentaries Mohammed is represented as being without any acquired intelligence, a sort of spiritual freak like some of the modern “saints” of Egypt. As Margoliouth remarks, 28“This sort of logic is found wherever resort is had to oracles; it is a condition of their genuineness and importance that they should not be capable of explanation as the fruit of ordinary speculation. Hence those who deliver oracles are madmen, children, jesters, persons to whose reflections no value could be attached; indeed the tendency to accentuate Mohammed’s illiteracy is evidence of the same theory.”
1Cf. Muir, vol. i. p. viii and vol. iii. p. 123.
2Muir’s The Mohammedan Controversy, p. 114.
3Cf. Al Asqalani’s Fath-ul-Bari Commentary, vol. i. p. 19.
4 Encyclopædia of Islam , vol. i. p. 383.
5 Histoire de l ’Écriture chrétienne en Arabie avant l’Islam , p. 287.
6 Reste Arabischen Heidentums , p. 232.
8See his book, Le Christianisme et la Littérature chrétienne en Arabie avant l ’Islam , vol. ii. pp. 158-195.
9Vol. ix. p. 19.
10 Casanova ( Mohammed et la Fin du Monde , pp. 96, 97) gives their names from five different authorities.
11 Encyclopædia of Islam , Article on “Arabic.”
13 Margoliouth (Mohammed, pp. 67-69) shows that he even had a shop at Mecca, and kept accounts.
14 All of these are Medina verses except 7:155-158.
15 “In any Arabic dictionary if we take all the meanings, and all the derived forms from the root word amma = qasada we cannot anyhow arrive at ‘illiterate.’ Not a shade, not a vestige of authority do we find except the Koran Commentators, who naturally had a theory to support.”—A. T. U PSON .
16 Muhammad’s Lehre von der Offenbarung (Leipzig, 1898), p. 257
17 Geschichte des Qurans , p. 10.
18 Surah 29:47.
19 Merrick, The Life and Religion of Mohammed as contained in the Sheeah Traditions of The Hyat-ul-Kuloob (Boston, 1850), pp. 86, 87.
20 Caetani ( Annali dell ’ Islam , vol. i. pp. 716-717) gives the account and the references in full.
21 Geschichte des Qurans, pp. 12-14.
22 New Researches into the Composition and Exegesis of the Koran (1902), p. 18.
23 His reference is to the Arabic text of Futuh ul-Buldan, p. 471. This passage at the close of the book is unfortunately omitted by Dr. Hitti in his translation of the work (Columbia University, N.Y.).
24 Muir’s The Life of Mahomet, vol. iv. pp. 271-272.
25 Journal of Asiatic Society (1854), vol. iv. pp. 482.
26 Traugott Mann, however, in his Der Islam (1914), p. 14, asserts that it is a forgery, although he gives no proofs.
27 In Tripoli, Syria, a different photographic reproduction of this letter was on sale at a book-shop. The bookseller, a Moslem Turk, assured me the letter was a genuine proof of Mohammed’s literacy!
28 Early Development of Mohammedanism , p. 70.
Studies in Popular Islam
Answering Islam Home Page