Muhammad's illiteracy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Muslim scholars believe that Muhammad was illiterate, as mentioned in the Quran itself,

"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......"Quran 7:157.

Muhammad's illiteracy was taken as a sign of the genuineness of his prophethood. For example, according to Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, if Muhammad had mastered writing and reading he possibly would have been suspected of having studied the books of the ancestors. Some scholars such as Watt prefer the second meaning of "ummi" – they take it to indicate unfamiliarity with earlier sacred texts.

In Islamic theology, Muhammad's illiteracy is a way of emphasizing that he was a transparent medium for divine revelation and a sign of the genuineness of his prophethood since the illiterate prophet could not have composed the eloquent poetry and prose of the Qur'an. According to Tabatabaei (d. 1981), a Muslim scholar, the force of this challenge becomes clear when we realize that it is issued for someone whose life should resemble that of Muhammad namely the life of an orphan, uneducated in any formal sense, not being able to read or write and grew up in the unenlightened age of the jahiliyah period (the age of ignorance) before Islam.

The references to illiteracy are found in verses 7:158, 29:48, and 62:2. The verse 25:5 also implies that Muhammad was unable to read and write. The Arabic term "ummi" in 7:158 and 62:2 is translated to 'illiterate' and 'unlettered'. The medieval exegete Al Tabari (d. 923CE) maintained that the term induced two meanings: firstly, the inability to read or write in general and secondly, the inexperience or ignorance of the previous books or scriptures.

The early sources on the history of Islam provide that Muhammad especially in Medina used scribes to correspond with the tribes. Likewise, though infrequently rather than constantly, he had scribes write down, on separate pages not yet in one single book, parts of the Qur'an. Collections of prophetic tradition occasionally mention Muhammad having basic knowledge of reading and writing, while others deny it. For example, in the book Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of early sayings, it is mentioned that when Muhammad and the Meccans agreed to conclude a peace treaty, Muhammad made a minor change to his signature or in one occasion he asked for a paper to write a statement.

Fakhr Al-Razi, the 12th century Islamic theologian, has expressed his idea is his book Tafsir Al Razi:

...Most arabs were not able to read or write and the prophet was one of them. The prophet recited a perfect book to them again and again without editing or changing the words, in contrast when arab orators prepared their speech they added or deleted large or small parts of their speech before delivering it. But the Prophet did not write down the revelation and recited the book of God without addition, deletion, or revision...If he had mastered writing and reading, people would have suspected that he had studied previous books but he brought this noble Qur'an without learning and education...the Prophet had not learned from a teacher, he had not studied any book, and did not attend any classroom of a scholar because Mecca was not a place of scholars. And he was not absent from Mecca for a long period of time which would make it possible to claim that he learned during that absence.

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