An example of misunderstanding amongst Muslims is the question of whether the Prophet was literate or not. This misunderstanding is caused by allegations against the Prophet by his enemies. A religion that gives so much importance to knowledge – many verses of Quran and Hadith of the Ma’sumin (a) stress the importance of seeking knowledge – would not have as its leader and propagator a man who was illiterate.
Reading and writing are tools used to acquire knowledge and understanding. They are not goals in themselves but a means to a goal – knowledge. Since Allah has given the Prophet the required knowledge, therefore there is no need of such tools because the knowledge is already had. This kind of knowledge is called intuitive knowledge and has to include the ability to read and write if needed.
The Prophet achieved the highest level of knowledge in the history of mankind because he was taught by Allah, who told him in the Holy Qur’an 4:113,
“And Allah taught you everything which you did not know”.
The Prophet’s mind was untarnished by human teaching; he was a man who received his knowledge from God alone.
As Ayatullah Mutahhari states; One of the highlights in the life of the great Muhammad (s) is the fact that he was untrained and unschooled (ie, he did not attend any school). He had not been trained by any teacher and neither he had acquainted himself with any written work. It is important to note that unschooling does not equate to illiteracy and ignorance. The Prophet (s) was gifted divine knowledge through miracle. According to some scholars he knew how to read and write, not through learning from a teacher, but through divine inspiration and miracle.
According to Ayatullah Mutahhari, the Prophet (s) did not read and write, as he would then have been accused of copying the Quran from another source. Allah talks about this in the Quran – And you did not read before it any book, nor did you write one with your right hand, for then those, who say untrue things, could have doubted (29:48). This verse clearly proves that the Prophet did not read or write anything before the Quran.
What is clear is that the one who never learnt from any human teacher, presented this universally recognized truth – the Qur’an – which was never revealed to the great Apostles of the past, and could not have been possible without the direction and will of the Almighty. It is extraordinary that a man who was never taught by a mortal being was given the most eloquent Book, which propelled movements calling for science and free thought.
The belief in an ‘Unschooled’ Prophet rooted in an interpretation of the word ‘Ummi’
The Quran describes the Prophet (s) as ummi, sparking the debate about the literacy of the Prophet (s).
It says; those who follow the Apostle, the untaught Prophet . . . (7:157) and So have faith in Allah and His Apostle, the untaught prophet, who has faith in Allah and His words, and follow him so that you may be guided. (7:158).
It would be useful to first outline the three main interpretations of the word ummi:
- Unschooled or unacquainted with writing: Those who favour this interpretation say the word ummi is related to umm, meaning mother. The word ummi refers to a person who, by birth, is familiar with human written work and knowledge; it could also be related to the word ummah, i.e. who observes the customs of the majority, for the majority of people did not know about writing (Mutahhari).
- An Inhabitant of Umm al-Qura: The association of the word Umm al-Qura with Makkah. The Qur’anic verse 92 of Surah Al-An’am refers to Makkah as Umm al-Qura. The word Umm al-Qura signifies “centre of villages”, where any point which serves as a centre of villages is known as Umm al-Qura.
- Arab Polytheists who were not the followers of any revealed Book: In other words, the ummi also refers to the people who were not “Ahlul Kitab”. In this sense, the term does not mean that they were illiterate; it just means that they were not from the “Ahlul Kitab”.
To state that the Prophet (s) was ummi – in the sense that he did not read or write anything during his lifetime, is a proof that the Quran is indeed the word of God and a living miracle. When the Quran was revealed, its eloquence and depth of contents bewildered the people. Its teachings have triggered great learning and is the code of life for over billions of Muslims around the world. We should not misunderstand the word ummi as illiterate because the Prophet(s) had intuitive knowledge and his teacher was Allah Himself.
Mutahhari, M. (n.d.). The Unschooled Prophet. Retrieved from https://www.al-islam.org/printpdf/book/export/html/19228
Shaykh Muslim Bhanji. Authenticity of the Qur’an. Retrieved from
Was it the case that our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was illiterate? What is the difference between illiterate and unlettered? (2019, November 25). Retrieved from