The Quran and the Unlettered Prophet:

Jesus or Muhammad?

Sam Shamoun & Jochen Katz

The Quran contains a speech of the prophet Moses where he prophesied the coming of an Ummi Prophet:

And Moses chose seventy of his people for Our place of meeting: when they were seized with violent quaking, he prayed: "O my Lord! if it had been Thy will Thou couldst have destroyed, long before, both them and me: wouldst Thou destroy us for the deeds of the foolish ones among us? this is no more than Thy trial: by it Thou causest whom Thou wilt to stray, and Thou leadest whom Thou wilt into the right path. Thou art our Protector: so forgive us and give us Thy mercy; for Thou art the best of those who forgive. And ordain for us that which is good, in this life and in the Hereafter: for we have turned unto Thee." He said: "With My punishment I visit whom I will; but My mercy extendeth to all things. That (mercy) I shall ordain for those who do right, and practise regular charity, and those who believe in Our signs; - Those who follow the apostle, the unlettered Prophet (al-nabiyya al-ummiyya), whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), - in the law and the Gospel; - for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him, - it is they who will prosper." Say: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Apostle of God, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in God and His Apostle, the Unlettered Prophet (al-nabiyyi al-ummiyyi), who believeth in God and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided." S. 7:155-158 Y. Ali

Muslims have traditionally understood the word ummi to refer to somebody who is illiterate, i.e. someone who can neither read nor write. Muhammad, according to Islamic tradition, was such a person, and the above passage is usually applied to him. There are two main problems with this assertion.

In the first place, the Quran never says that Muhammad was incapable of reading or writing. It merely says that Muhammad hadn’t recited or written any inspired Book besides the Quran:

Not before this didst thou recite any Book, or inscribe it with thy right hand, for then those who follow falsehood would have doubted. S. 29:48 Arberry

Secondly, an examination of how the Quran uses the term ummi shows that it doesn’t mean illiterate or, at least, is not employed in this meaning in the Quran. Rather, the Quran uses the word in reference to people who, unlike the Jews and Christians, had not received or been instructed in the inspired Scriptures:

"And if they argue with thee, (O Muhammad), say: I have surrendered my purpose to Allah and (so have) those who follow me. And say unto those who have received the Scripture and those who read not (al-ummiyyeena). Have ye (too) surrendered? If they surrender, then truly they are rightly guided, and if they turn away, then it is thy duty only to convey the message (unto them). Allah is Seer of (His) bondmen." S. 3:20 Pickthall

According to the Muslim expositors this next verse is speaking of how the Jews treated those labeled as ummi:

Among the People of the Scripture there is he who, if thou trust him with a weight of treasure, will return it to thee. And among them there is he who, if thou trust him with a piece of gold, will not return it to thee unless thou keep standing over him. That is because they say: We have no duty to the Gentiles (al-ummiyyeena). They speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. S. 3:75 Pickthall

As the above translation shows, this distinction made by the Jews has led some scholars to assume that the term refers primarily to Gentiles. But this needs to be qualified since the majority of Christians during the time of Muhammad were Gentiles who were obviously not ignorant about the contents of their Scriptures.

This means that if the word does refer to Gentiles then it is referring to specific Gentiles who had received no special revelation, especially in the form of Scriptures, an understanding that is confirmed by the following texts:

It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered (al-ummiyyeena) an apostle from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, - although they had been, before, in manifest error; - S. 62:2 Y. Ali

The unnamed apostle, whom Muslims take to be Muhammad, was sent to an unlettered folk in order to recite the scriptures to them. It is obvious from this that these people were unlettered in the sense of not having known or received inspired Scriptures.

Moreover, the Muslim sources report about a good number of people among the pagan Arabs who could read and write, some of whom later became scribes of Muhammad. Again, the point in the above passages is not that none of these people knew how to read or write, i.e. that they were an illiterate nation, but that they were uneducated about the Holy Scriptures.

This conclusion is also supported by this next passage:

And this is a blessed Book (the Qur'an) which We have sent down, so follow it and fear Allah (i.e. do not disobey His Orders), that you may receive mercy (i.e. saved from the torment of Hell). Lest you (pagan Arabs) should say: "The Book was only sent down to two sects before us (the Jews and the Christians), and for our part, we were in fact unaware of what they studied." S. 6:155-156 Hilali-Khan

The footnote 14 to Tafsir al-Jalalayn on Q. 7:157 makes the same point:

Muslim tradition generally understands the expression ummi as ‘illiterate’, or ‘who cannot read or write’, or ‘unlettered’. Some modern scholarship is critical of this meaning, suggesting that it actually referred to the Prophet’s status with regard to the Abrahamic tradition, namely, that ‘one not of those who read the Scriptures’, or ‘gentile’. (Source; underline emphasis ours)

There could even be a group called ummi among those who had been given revelation such as the Jews:

Among them are unlettered folk (ummiyyoona) who know the Scripture not except from hearsay. They but guess. S. 2:78 Pickthall

Clearly, this group among the Jews was not illiterate but uneducated about what the Holy Scriptures really taught, and were receiving information about their contents from secondhand sources.

The preceding data helps us come to a proper understanding of the meaning of the term ummi. An ummi is not an illiterate, at least as far as the Quran is concerned, but a person who has not read the Holy Scriptures and/or received any formal instructions about their contents.

The ummi Prophet would therefore be someone who hadn’t been taught the Holy Scriptures by learned scholars or teachers, but received his knowledge about them by direct revelation or inspiration. The Quran makes a similar claim regarding Muhammad, that he wasn’t taught by a human being but by one mighty in power:

Say: 'The Holy Spirit sent it down from thy Lord in truth, and to confirm those who believe, and to be a guidance and good tidings to those who surrender.' And We know very well that they say, 'Only a mortal is teaching him.' The speech of him at whom they hint is barbarous; and this is speech Arabic, manifest. S. 16:102-103 Arberry

By the Star when it plunges, your comrade is not astray, neither errs, nor speaks he out of caprice. This is naught but a revelation revealed, taught him by one terrible in power, S. 53:1-5 Arberry

With the foregoing in perspective we now propose what is in our opinion a more accurate rendering and understanding of the verses in question:

Those who follow the apostle, the Prophet who hasn’t received any formal instruction in the inspired Scriptures (but has been taught by God directly), whom they find written down with them in the Taurat and the Injeel (who)… therefore believe in God and his apostle, the Prophet who hasn’t received any formal instruction in the inspired Scriptures (but has been taught by God directly) who believes in God and his words, and follow him so that you may walk in the right way. S. 7:157-158

After having gone through the linguistic groundwork of clarifying the meaning of the word ummi, it remains to answer the question whether this passage really refers to Muhammad, as Muslims claim, or if it refers to someone else, specifically to the Lord Jesus. This leads us to the next section.

The Lord Jesus: The Unlettered Apostle from God

There are major problems with claiming that Muhammad is this ummi Prophet, not the least of which is that neither the Law of Moses nor the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ contains any predictions of his coming. According to the New Testament, the Lord Jesus is the main theme of the Holy Scriptures:

"You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." John 5:39-40

"For Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’ Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days." Acts 3:22-25

"All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Acts 10:43

Secondly, the context of Q. 7:157 is addressing the Israelites during the time of Moses and claims that even during this time they had the Gospel with them. This, again, only makes sense in light of the teaching of the NT that God had already proclaimed the Gospel, the Good News, of the Lord Jesus in advance to the OT prophets and saints:

"The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." Galatians 3:8-9

"Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, ‘So I declared on oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest."’ And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.’ And again in the passage above he says, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience." Hebrews 4:1-6

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things." 1 Peter 1:10-12

Thus, the Gospel that was with them would be the prophecies they received by prophets like Moses about the Christ to come.

This doesn’t make sense from an Islamic perspective since the Quran views the Gospel as a revelation given to Jesus Christ that came after Abraham and later than the Torah:

O People of the Scripture! Why will ye argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed till after him? Have ye then no sense? S. 3:65 Pickthall

Hence, the assertion that the Israelites during Moses’ time had the Gospel is a contradiction within the Quran (*) but fits in perfectly with the NT teaching that God had proclaimed the Gospel of his Son during the OT period.

More importantly, the Holy Bible as Muhammad knew it and as we have it in our possession today exposes him as a false prophet. Muhammad contradicted the core, essential doctrines of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Greek Scriptures. See the following articles for the details (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Clearly then, Muhammad cannot be the one mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel.

With this in mind we now provide the Biblical data, along with specific Quranic references, to support the view that the Lord Jesus, not Muhammad, is the Apostle and Prophet who wasn’t taught the Holy Scriptures by men, but by God himself.

Note: The reason we are quoting the Quran is not because we believe it is God’s word or authoritative. Rather, we cite from it simply to prove to Muslims that their own scripture supports our thesis that Q. 7:157 speaks of Jesus, not Muhammad.

1.   Those who follow the apostle, the Prophet

"The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’" Matthew 21:11

"… ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.’" Luke 24:19

"After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’" John 6:14

"Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess." Hebrews 3:1

And (appoint him) an apostle to the Children of Israel, (with this message): "I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God's leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by God's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe;" S. 3:49 Y. Ali

He said, ‘Lo, I am God's servant; God has given me the Book, and made me a Prophet.’ S. 19:30 Arberry

2.   who hasn’t received any formal instruction in the inspired Scriptures (but has been taught by God directly),

"The LORD said to me: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.’" Deuteronomy 18:17-19

"The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’ So Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.’" John 7:15-17

"So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’" John 8:28

"Jesus answered: ‘Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father"? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.’" John 14:9-11

"Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.’" John 14:23-24

Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God; He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: God createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be,’ and it is! "And God will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel," S. 3:45-48 Y. Ali

When God said, ‘Jesus Son of Mary, remember My blessing upon thee and upon thy mother, when I confirmed thee with the Holy Spirit, to speak to men in the cradle, and of age; and when I taught thee the Book, the Wisdom, the Torah, the Gospel; and when thou createst out of clay, by My leave, as the likeness of a bird, and thou breathest into it, and it is a bird, by My leave; and thou healest the blind and the leper by My leave, and thou bringest the dead forth by My leave; and when restrained from thee the Children of Israel when thou camest unto them with the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said, "This is nothing but sorcery manifest."’ S. 5:110 Arberry

At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought! O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!" But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?" He said… "And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"! S. 19:27-34 Y. Ali

3.   whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), - in the Law and the Gospel; -

"He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." Luke 24:25-27

"He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’" Luke 24:44-47

"Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’" John 1:45

"But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" John 5:45-47

4.   for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure);

"Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matthew 5:1-12

"You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:43-48

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John 1:14, 17

"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me." John 5:30

"The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood." John 7:18

"Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.’" John 8:14-16

"‘Just what I have been claiming all along,’ Jesus replied. ‘I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.’" John 8:26

"‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’" John 18:37

Such is Jesus the son of Mary, a statement of truth, about which they dispute. S. 19:34

5.   He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them.

"Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’" Luke 11:46

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town." Matthew 23:1-4, 33-34

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30

"He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Acts 15:9-11

"This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome," 1 John 5:3

"(I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me. And to make lawful to you part of what was (Before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear God, and obey me." S. 3:50 Y. Ali

6.   So it is those who believe in him, honour him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him, - it is they who will prosper.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God." John 3:16-21

"Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him." John 5:22-23

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’" John 8:12

"As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." John 9:4-5

"Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she told him, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.’" John 11:25-27

"Then Jesus told them, ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.’ When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.’" John 12:35-36

"Then Jesus cried out, ‘When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.’" John 12:44-50

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’" John 14:1-6

And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him in the Torah, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before I in the Torah - a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil). S. 5:46 Pickthall

And when Jesus perceived their unbelief, he said, 'Who will be my helpers unto God?' The Apostles said, 'We will be helpers of God; we believe in God; witness thou our submission.' S. 3:52 Arberry

O ye who believe! Be ye helpers of God: As said Jesus the son of Mary to the Disciples, "Who will be my helpers to (the work of) God?" Said the disciples, "We are God's helpers!" then a portion of the Children of Israel believed, and a portion disbelieved: But We gave power to those who believed, against their enemies, and they became the ones that prevailed. S. 61:14 Y. Ali

Further analysis

The Muslim consensus is that Muhammad is speaking in Q. 7:158, implying that this is a parenthetical break within the context that is referring to the story of the Exodus.

The evidence, however, makes it more reasonable to view this text as addressing Moses. After all, the immediate context (7:152-160) and the wider context (7:103-171) are clearly about the story of Moses, i.e. his conflict with Pharaoh and the subsequent Exodus of the people of Israel. It is more natural to see v. 158 as being part of this story line than being one verse in the middle of it that commands Muhammad to address all of mankind. This is simply against the flow of the story. Such an interpretation is counter-intuitive and would only provide further evidence for the chaotic structure of the Quran.

It is more natural that this verse addresses Moses and commands him to speak to his people, reinforcing what has already been said in verse 157. To be specific, in verses 156-157 we see Allah’s direct response to Moses’ prayer, in which Moses is given certain information, and in verse 158 he is then given the words of exhortation that he should speak to his people based on the information that was given in the preceding verses.

In the last section we have seen that the most reasonable interpretation of verse 157 is that it speaks of Jesus. And in context, it is most natural that verse 158 also refers to Jesus.

It would hardly be coherent to have statements about two different unlettered prophets embedded side by side in the Moses story.

Nevertheless, the traditional Muslim interpretation that Muhammad is commanded here to speak would actually support the view that he is not that Prophet. Notice what this verse says:

Say (O Muhammad): O mankind! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah to you all - (the messenger of) Him unto Whom belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no God save Him. He quickeneth and He giveth death. So believe in Allah and His messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, who believeth in Allah and in His Words, and follow him that haply ye may be led aright. Pickthall

The speaker identifies himself as Allah’s messenger but then refers to the unlettered Prophet in the third person. He doesn’t say, "Believe in Allah and in me his messenger, the unlettered Prophet." Even though the use of third person doesn’t conclusively prove that the speaker is someone other than the unlettered Prophet, it does provide additional support for the case we have already made showing that they are not one and the same person.

Moreover, the hadith literature provides further evidence for the plausibility that this text has two messengers in view, the one who is speaking and the unlettered Prophet that the people must believe in. Notice what Muhammad is reported to have said:

Narrated 'Ubada:
The Prophet said, "If anyone TESTIFIES that None has the right to be worshipped but Allah Alone Who has no partners, and that Muhammad is His Slave and His Apostle, and that Jesus is Allah's Slave and His Apostle and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit from Him, and that Paradise is true, and Hell is true, Allah will admit him into Paradise with the deeds which he had done even if those deeds were few." (Junada, the sub-narrator said, " 'Ubada added, 'Such a person can enter Paradise through any of its eight gates he likes.") (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 644)

Here, Muhammad personally singles out Jesus Christ from all the other prophets that a person must mention by name in his/her confession of faith. Thus, it is not enough for believers to confess their faith in Muhammad since they must also confess faith in Jesus Christ as well!

Should it, therefore, surprise us that Muhammad may be doing the same in Q. 7:158? Specifically, why could he not be called on in this verse to command people to believe in Jesus as the One who wasn’t taught by men but by God even from infancy according to the Quran itself, which is unlike Muhammad who had to wait until he was forty before receiving the so-called revelations?


In this paper we have presented a rather unusual[1] interpretation of Q. 7:155-158. Our interpretation is in sharp disagreement with the common and cherished Muslim understanding of this passage. In particular, we have proposed a new identification of "the unlettered prophet" as being a title for Jesus instead of Muhammad. We are convinced that we have made a strong argument, but want to put this into a wider perspective.

Assuming the traditional interpretation of Q. 62:2, Muhammad is called in that verse a prophet from among unlettered people and as such he would qualify to be called an unlettered prophet, yet not necessarily THE unlettered prophet who is spoken about in Q. 7:157-158.

The traditional identification would also fit well with the observations and conclusion made in the paper "I am all the prophets" in the sense that "the Quran is always about Muhammad". It is not at all surprising that Muhammad would put words in the mouth of Moses that speak about Muhammad as an important prophet who would come later and whom the people should follow and obey. In this sense, the traditional identification cannot simply be discarded and remains a possible understanding, but this traditional understanding also results in a clear historical error and contradiction in the Quran. Moreover, this text is then one more example of a rather chaotic structure in the Quran.

However, as we have carefully argued here, the specific description of this prophet that is given in Q. 7:157 fits Jesus much better, not on only on the basis of the Biblical data about him, but on the basis of the Quranic data as well. Moreover, this new identification also provides a solution to the apparent contradiction in this passage.

This alternative interpretation also supports and would in turn be supported by the theories of Christoph Luxenberg (*) and Günter Lüling (1, 2) who have made the case that substantial portions of the Quran are originally Christian texts whose true meaning was twisted by later Muslim interpretation, and/or which were corrupted by more or less editorial activity.[2]

Whatever may have been the original and intended identification of "the unlettered prophet", Q. 7:157-158 in its immediate context as well as its wider context of the entire Quran is formulated in a way that allows both interpretations, and as such it is another passage that exposes the chaotic and often incoherent nature of the Quran (*).

The observations and results arrived at in this paper may support either of these two main theories:

  1. Muhammad wanted to create an impressive prophecy about himself, using the somewhat mysterious title "the unlettered prophet". He placed this prophecy into the time and story of Moses and immediately provided the fulfillment of it in the next verse. However, he messed up. He not only created a historical error of placing the Injil into the time of Moses, but also formulated the prophecy in such a way that it ended up fitting the person of Jesus much better than his own.

  2. Despite the later Muslim misinterpretation of this text, it is a text about Jesus, a Christian text which became twisted and abused during the "formation of Islam". This text may well be further evidence in support of the thesis of Lüling, Luxenberg and others that much of the Quran consists of originally Christian texts.

However, our observations do certainly not support the orthodox Muslim understanding that the Quran is of divine origin and of unmatchable clarity and eloquence, a book about which there can be no doubt.


1. As far as we know, this interpretation is new. At least we have never seen it proposed before, though we have not specifically searched the academic literature in this regard.

2. We do not endorse or agree with the theories of Lüling and Luxenberg in every detail, but they present observations and provide insights that are certainly worth pursuing and which need to be studied further. The orthodox theory regarding the origin and formation of Islam has severe problems and alternative explanations regarding the origin and nature of the Quran have to be considered.

Articles by Sam Shamoun
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