The much publicised notion that the Prophet Mohammed was an unlettered person had a far-reaching impact on the Muslim mind. It not only discouraged attitude of scientific enquiry among muslims, in some Sufi circles, it even led to eulogising ignorance. In later centuries of Islam, the very concept of knowledge witnessed radical transformation. The Ilm Sharei, knowledge of religious sciences, that emerged mostly during the Abbasid Baghdad, attained prominence and a cloak of holiness surrounded those who mastered this knowledge. Since then, the Muslim world was never able to attain a unified vision of knowledge. The Qur,anic definition of an scholar took a back seat as the new rahban of Islam placed themselves on the high pedestal of Ahl-e-dhikr, ever willing to provide an answer to any question under the sky. At the root of the crises lay the common misconception that the prophet whom we as Muslims were supposed to emulate had nothing to do with the tradition of reading and writing, the basic tool of rational enquiry. This misconception about a prophet of pen- &-paper-age was mainly responsible in keeping the Muslim world at bay from its own divinely ordained Iqra tradition.
If the Prophet can be proved to be alienated from pen and paper, then oral transmission remains the only means for disseminating the Quranic message. Human memory, however retentive and powerful it may be, is always liable to error. That is why it would not have been considered desirable to depend on only oral retention for the preservation of a profound blessing like the Qur'an. We feel that for an individual of the Prophet’s stature, it is not only insulting to be branded as illiterate, but also such a notion runs counter to the Quranic concept where it has been asserted that, among the written books, the Prophet is capable of reading the Qur'an and writing the verses down: ماكنت تتلو من قبله من كتاب ولا تخطه بيمينك (Al-Ankaboot: 48), i.e. “before attaining Prophethood you were not capable of reading nor could you write anything with your own hand.” The misconception that the Prophet was illiterate spread because of the wrong interpretation of the word “ummi”, that has been generally taken by scholars and exegete to mean illiterate. As a matter of fact, on several occasions in the Qur'an the word “umm” points to “ummul qura”, a reference to Makkah. Referring to the Israelites, the Qur'an states that they are untrustworthy, they do not return what is kept in their custody; it also states about the polytheists of Mecca that – ليس علينا في الأميين سبيل(Aale Imran: 75). Referring to the Prophet, the Qur'an states in surah “Jum’a”: هو الذي بعث في الأميين رسولا منهم يتلو عليهم آياته ويزكيهم و يعلمهم الكتاب والحكمة(Al-Jum’a: 2). It is Allah who appointed a Prophet among the inhabitants of Mecca who reads out verses of Allah to them. If the Prophet of the Meccans were illiterate, how could he read out verses to them? At another place it is stated: وقل للذين اوتوا الكتاب والأميين ألسنتهم(Aale Imran: 20), i.e. “ask those who have been given the Book and those who live in Mecca whether they accept Islam?” In this context, the unlettered people that are being referred to along with the people of the Book certainly points to the fact that the people of the Book address others, i.e., those Arabs who were not among the people of the Book, particularly the descendants of Ismail, as “ummi”. It does not imply that the persons so addressed are illiterate, but that they do not have the honour of being included among the people of the Book. It is historically true that the people of the Book considered themselves superior to the Arab polytheists who had no sacred book given to them. Even if one extends the meaning of the word “ummi” it might be taken to mean those people whose cultural and historical inheritance is devoid of any direction from a Divine Text. But it is surprising that for a Guide to humanity about whose capability of reading and writing the Qur'an makes categorical pronouncements has been rendered illiterate by our exegetes. الذين يتبعون الرسول النبي الأمي الذي يجدونه مكتوباً عندهم في التوراة والانجيل(Al-A’raf: 157), or فآمنوا بالله ورسوله النبي الأمي الذي يومن بالله وكلماته(Al-A’raf: 158). On all such occasions, Allah appreciates the Prophet and asserts his purity, addresses him as “Al-nabi al-ummi”. But the translators and commentators have always taken the word to mean illiterate, and they considered it a great compliment for the Prophet. This notion had unintended consequences for the Prophet’s followers some of whom began to think that if the Prophet himself was illiterate, then illiteracy was no evil, but could even be a blessing and an honour. When Allah addresses the Prophet as “al-nabi al-ummi” with the objective of enhancing his honour, how could anyone say that illiteracy was an evil? As a matter of fact, as evident from historical facts, employing the prisoners of war in the battle of Badr to teach the children of Madina as a penalty is by itself demonstrative of the fact that reading and writing were highly valued among the followers of the Prophet. But those who insisted on presenting the Prophet as illiterate found it easy to project the view that for the Prophet’s acolytes illiteracy was a virtue and that knowledge is a “great veil” (hijab-e akbar). We feel that the notion that the Prophet was illiterate is the handiwork of exegetical and interpretive literature in Islam.
One tradition recorded by Bukhari from Asud bin Qaid Al-haqqi seems to have played a key role in transforming “al-nabi al-ummi” to the “illiterate Prophet”. It runs as follows: أنا امة امية لا نكتب ولا نحسب الشهر هكذا و هكذا هكذا وعقد الايام في الثالثة والشهر هكذا و هكذا هكذا This tradition, available through different sources, had Aswa bin Qais An-nakhei as its original reporter who recorded it with reference to Amar bin Sa’id and Abdullah bin Omar. The image of the Prophet projected by this tradition is that of a person who was illiterate and had no knowledge of the three R’s, and a member of a community that was ignorant and illiterate, whose members counted the days of the month on their fingers. This is the image that has effectively transformed “al-nabi al-ummi” to the “illiterate Prophet”. Firstly, this tradition has been reported by a person who is known to have been extremely unreliable, and who had a penchant for creating discord and disputes. It is said that Aswa bin Qais An-nakhei was at the vanguard of those who had come from Kufa to participate in the uprising against Othman. This is as far as the reputation of the transmitter is concerned. Secondly, to characterise the community of the Prophet as illiterate is a notion that flies directly in the face of historical facts and the assertions of the Qur'an. On the one hand, this tradition states that the Prophet did not know how to count even up to 30, and that even the entire community of Bani Ismail counted the days of the month on their fingers. On the other hand, in the Qur'an the references to numbers from one to one hundred thousand, and in the ayah Warasat (verses on Inheritance) the occurrence of words such as ‘half’, ‘one third’, ‘one fourth’ ‘one fifth’ etc. point to the fact that not only the Prophet but also the community to which he belonged were both quite familiar with the knowledge of numbers. Otherwise, how a Prophet who did not have the knowledge of the primary numbers could have discharged the responsibility of resolving complex computation? As to the question whether members of the Quraish tribe were illiterate, numerous arguments can be adduced to prove conclusively that they were not. The references to their sophisticated taste in poetry, their familiarity with calligraphy, the seven celebrated hangings ( sab’ muallaqat) on the walls of Ka’ba, the prisoners of war teaching the children of Madina, the instructions to believers in the Qur'an to write down business transactions for the sake of clarity, the written treaty between the Prophet when he entered the city and the people of Madina, and many other such instances falsify the claim made by this tradition. Interpreting “ummi” as “illiterate” is a fabrication of the enemies of Islam. It cannot be corroborated by the internal evidence contained in the Qur'an and the authentic history of the period.