Lecture 12 in the Ramadaan series:
Unpacking The Most Intriguing Questions In The Quran
Wednesday 6 May 2020 (12 Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider

In this discussion, we will unpack an issue related to the personality of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). It is also a question which comes in our minds after reading certain verses of the Holy Quran and therefore warrants a clear response. The question is, why does the Holy Quran call our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) by the word “ummi” – meaning someone who cannot read or write?

How do we explain the fact that our Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) was uneducated and somebody who taught the whole world, but was not even literate? Of course, this is a common question regarding him, as mentioned in the Holy Quran. 


The discussion circles around the word “ummi”, expressed in the Holy Quran as “ummi”, “ummiyoon” and “ummiyeen”. These words appear six times in the Holy Quran, twice as a title of our Nabi Muhammad (SAWA). Verses 157 and 158 of Surah A’araaf (chapter 7 of the Holy Quran) refer:

الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِنْدَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنْجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُمْ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنْزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

157. “Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them. He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is wrong. He will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear. Then those who believe in him, and honour him, and help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him: they are the successful.”

قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا الَّذِي لَهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ يُحْيِي وَيُمِيتُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الْأُمِّيِّ الَّذِي يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَكَلِمَاتِهِ وَاتَّبِعُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ

158. “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 Allah 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.”


These two verses have ascribed the title of “ummi” to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). Let us now understand what is meant by the term “ummi”. Scholars of Arabic grammar have given 3 possible meanings to this word. 

“Ummi” is derived from “Umm”, which means mother. Therefore, “ummi” means someone who is related to mother. This means someone who is still in the same status as that when he was born from his mother. In other words, one is illiterate at that juncture of starting life in this world. 

The second meaning provided is that “Ummi” is a derivative of “Ummah” ie. nation/community. Ummi therefore means that he is one from the masses. 

The third meaning provided is that “Ummi” refers to someone coming from the city of Mecca, because Almighty Allah (SWT) has called Mecca by the name “Ummul Qura” in the Holy Quran (mother of cities). Hence, someone coming from Mecca is “ummi”.

The following excerpt from verse 92 from Surah An’aam (chapter 6 of the Holy Quran) refers:

وَلِتُنْذِرَ أُمَّ الْقُرَىٰ وَمَنْ حَوْلَهَا ۚ

“That thou mayest warn the mother of cities and all around her.”

These are 3 verses from the Holy Quran with 3 different meanings of the word “ummi”.

Quite frankly, when we look at other verses of the Holy Quran and also the practical life of Rasulullah (SAWA), it is very clear that it is referring to the first meaning only, ie. he could not read and write. Now this becomes a very serious question. Why does Almighty Allah (SWT) attribute and praise Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) as illiterate, since being illiterate is a negative attribute. How can we attribute our Rasul (SAWA) to be illiterate? Hence, the reason for this topic for today’s discussion. 


In verse 157 of Surah A’araaf referenced earlier, we note that Almighty Allah (SWT) has mentioned numerous qualities of Rasulullah (SAWA). Let us list them in order noted in this verse:

  1. The Messenger (Rasul);
  2. The Prophet (Nabi); 
  3. The unlettered (Ummi);
  4. He is mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel;
  5. He enjoins good and forbids evil (Amr bil Ma’ruf wannahi anil Munkar);
  6. He makes good things lawful (Halaal) and filthy things unlawful (Haraam);
  7. He frees them from the shackles of ignorance.

Religious scholars have explained that other than Rasul and Nabi, these other attributes all in the same verse are proof of the genuineness of our Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). How does being unable to read and write prove the genuineness of his Prophethood?

Let us look for the answer to this question from the Holy Quran itself. Verse 48 of Surah Ankaboot (chapter 29 of the Holy Quran) explains very clearly that Rasulullah (SAWA) was not able to read or write before the Quran was revealed to him, otherwise the followers of falsehood would have tried to confuse the matter:

وَمَا كُنْتَ تَتْلُو مِنْ قَبْلِهِ مِنْ كِتَابٍ وَلَا تَخُطُّهُ بِيَمِينِكَ ۖ إِذًا لَارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ

“And you did not recite before it any book, nor did you transcribe one with your right hand, for then could those who say untrue things have doubted.”

What we understand from this is that if Rasulullah (SAWA) was literate, then it was a ground for accusation against him as people would have thought this is a book he wrote, rather than believing that it was revelation from Almighty Allah (SWT). This means that not being able to read and write was a means of adding clear evidence of the authenticity of his Prophethood and the Quranic commands he is presenting to the people.

Therefore, the Holy Quran emphasizes that he was unlettered ie. unable to read and write. 


People got stuck at the time when our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) conveyed the divine message of Almighty Allah (SWT) to the people in the most eloquent manner, and presented the book of Almighty Allah (SWT), which was on the peak of eloquence and accuracy, with historical facts and life-changing content. Since this was disturbing their bliss of ignorance, they were scrambling for excuses on how to doubt and reject the Prophethood of this man who is presenting such a remarkable message. 

In the time of Rasulullah (SAWA), it was known very well that he does not read or write. As a result, they could not accuse him of reading these stories somewhere and now writing a book of his own and calling it divine revelation. 

That said, they spared no opportunity. Since they could not accuse him of making up the divine revelation, they started accusing him of getting these ideas from listening to Christian and Jewish clergy, and then concocting his own message. This accusation was already there and evolved over the ages until our contemporary era where many orientalists with negative approach towards Islam started accusing him of getting all these ideas from meeting a Christian monk while on a business trip to Syria. This is absolutely basis.


The major response to nullify this accusation is that Rasulullah (SAWA) was unlettered. He wasn’t able to read and write. People then had to resort to very weak arguments, such as claiming that he knew how to read and write. However, the truth and reality is that this was not the case. 

A few points to place this in context. The Meccan Arab society at the time was an extremely ignorant and illiterate society. Hardly anybody in Mecca could read or write. As a result, those very few people who could read or write were well known. If Rasulullah (SAWA) would have been one of these individuals, then it would have been well known too. 

There is also no historical evidence that he has read or written even a sentence anywhere in history. In fact, there are examples in history such as the peace treaty of Hudaibiyyah when Imam Ali (a.s) wrote in the contract “Muhammadur Rasulullah”. The leaders of Quraysh objected to this as they do not want to accept that Muhammad is the Rasul of Allah (SWT) and insisted that it must be replaced with “Muhammad ibn Abdullah”.

Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) commanded Imam Ali (a.s) to erase what he had written (Muhammadur Rasulullah) and replace it with “Muhammad ibn Abdullah”. According to our narrations of history, Imam Ali (a.s) had great reservation doing this erase and replace and so Rasulullah (SAWA) made the change himself. 

There is also absolutely no record of Rasulullah (SAWA) being groomed in a scholastic setup by a teacher. 

After Rasulullah (SAWA) established the Islamic State of Madina, he naturally required people to write on his behalf. The first was revelation (wahi) which he received from Almighty Allah (SWT) and needed to be documented. This is when the chapter of transcribers opened. There was a special group of people who were transcribing the verses of the Holy Quran which were revealed. 

Similarly, they use to write the letters of Rasulullah (SAWA) to different heads of states/tribes. Financial accounts were also compiled by people with the required skillset, instead of by himself. Contracts he signed and pledges he made were also written by these transcribers. 


So, all this is clear proof that Rasulullah (SAWA) was not able to read or write. And the reason for this being the best proof of the genuineness of his Prophethood, is when we think how is it possible for someone who is unable to read or write, nor was traditionally schooled by a teacher, to present such a brilliant, comprehensive message to the world, such that this message continues to shine bright today, after 14 centuries?

Its teachings which included individual akhlaq, to society, politics, management, prayer, business ethics, and the list is endless. It therefore proves that it is not Rasulullah (SAWA) who created the Prophetic message he presented, but rather, directly from Almighty Allah (SWT). This further disproves the notion presented by some, which tries to portray the Quran as being the words of Rasulullah (SAWA) and not Almighty Allah (SWT). From this, we see that it is clearly not possible. 

Rasulullah (SAWA) has numerous sermons and sayings recorded for us in compilations of Hadith, which are truly outstanding. They are extremely eloquent and thought-provoking, but the distinction with Quranic language is clearly evident. 

Similarly, Nahjul Balagha, which is the peak of eloquence by Amir al-Mu’mineen Imam Ali (a.s), is a masterpiece on Arabic language and literature. While both, Hadith compilations recorded from Rasulullah (SAWA) and Nahjul Balagha are on the extreme levels of eloquence and beauty, they cannot come close to the Quranic language, as the Holy Quran is in a league of its own as the word of Almighty Allah (SWT) while Hadith compilations and Nahjul Balagha are the words of His greatest servants. 


This inability to read and write is therefore the proof of genuineness of the message of Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). In fact, it is not only proof of the genuineness of the message, but also the history. When the Holy Quran speaks about Nabi Adam, Nabi Nuh, Nabi Moosa and the other Prophets (a.s) mentioned therein, we find that many of these stories are similar to what is recorded in the old and new testament. 

How is that possible, since Rasulullah (SAWA) was never exposed to these books of revelation? The reality is that the Quran is complete and accurate when compared to those books of the old and new testament which have numerous contradictions and confusion on the stories of previous Prophets (a.s). However, the Quran presents a crystal clear message on the history of previous Prophets (a.s) and all other subjects. 

This is again a genuine proof, that the source of knowledge and information and divine message which Rasulullah (SAWA) conveyed to the people and world at large, was not from his own but he received it from his Lord (SWT) and conveyed it to us. This is again a proven fact beyond any doubt. 

These are the reasons why the Holy Quran insists on our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) being “ummi” or unlettered/illiterate. 


Now that we have addressed this, we need to revert to the original objection, which is not from the enemies’ side or from those who doubt the genuineness of Islam being the message of Almighty Allah (SWT). This objection is that reading and writing is a quality, and to regard our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) as illiterate is a form of deficiency or insult. How are we going to accept this? I am sure this objection/confusion comes in the minds of everyone at some stage of our lives. 

Indeed, education, reading and writing, are great qualities, beyond question. The Holy Quran and Rasulullah (SAWA) have directly commanded us to learn and educate ourselves. Hence, any education or academic excellence or intellectual development is not possible without reading and writing. While our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) did not read and write, it does not mean that he was ignorant. Unlettered and ignorant are completely different. 

Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) is “ummi” in the sense that he is untaught, and not in the sense that he is ignorant or does not know anything. He is the manifestation of divine intellect (akl), as we read in the first Hadith in the compilation of Usool al-Kafi that the first thing which Almighty Allah (SWT) created was the intellect. Intellect in this sense is the Muhammadean truth and reality (Hakeekate Muhammadia). That being said, it does not mean that he could read and write. It is two different matters. 

Reading and writing, while fundamental qualities, are a means to acquire knowledge, rather than being knowledge itself. If mere mortals like us want to acquire information and educate ourselves, we need to learn how to read and write. If we cannot read, then we cannot become educated. If we do not know how to write, then we cannot explain ourselves and exchange ideas with others.


Let me reiterate, reading and writing is the means for us to achieve knowledge, but if somebody does not need these means to achieve the same purpose, then these means are of no value. Knowledge of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) is divine knowledge and therefore he does not need to read. His knowledge is not scholastic knowledge, where reading books and writing articles and a thesis is required to achieve knowledge. 

Instead, he is connected to the source of knowledge and therefore does not need to travel through our journey of acquiring knowledge! This is different to the knowledge we accumulate, because for us, we cannot become knowledgeable without the means of reading and writing. 

The great Persian poet, Hafez Shiraz, explains so beautifully that “my beloved never went to a school nor did he write a line, but with one glance, he became the principal teacher of hundreds of schools.” He learnt everything with one glance, and all the schools became his students and followers. One reflection of the light of Almighty Allah (SWT) enlightened him to the point where the whole world became his students and he became the teacher of the whole of humanity. 

I hope this answers the question, that “ummi” means:

  • Nobody taught our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA); and
  • He did not require the skills of reading and writing to acquire knowledge, because his knowledge is directly from the source, being Almighty Allah (SWT).

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