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The Unschooled Prophet

The Unschooled Prophet

Publisher: www.alhassanain.org/english

The Unschooled Prophet

One of the highlights in the life of the Prophet (s) is the fact that he was untrained and unschooled. The scribes of the Prophet (s), Hudaybiyya, the word 'ummi', and the literacy of the Prophet.

Author(s): Ayatullah Murtadha Mutahhari

Publisher(s): Islamic Propagation Organization


Table of Contents

The Unschooled Prophet3

The Development Of Calligraphy In Hijaz4

The Prophetic Period (In Particular, The Madinah Period)6


The Scribes of The Prophet8


The Event Of Hudaybiyyah 11


A Strange Claim 14


Is The Belief In An "Unschooled" Prophet Rooted In The Interpretation Of The Word "Ummi"?15

The Meaning of the word "Ummi"17

(i) Unschooled and unacquainted with writing 17

(ii) An inhabitant of Umm al-Qura17

(iii) Arab polytheists who were not the followers of the Book 18


Is It Inferred From The Qur'an That The Prophet Used To Read And Write?22


Historical Facts And Ahadith 28


The Adversaries' Accusation 30

Conclusion 31


The Unschooled Prophet

One of the highlights in the life of the great Prophet Muhammad (SA) 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.

No historian, Muslim or non-Muslim, can be found who would claim that the Prophet (SA) had been taught to read or write by anyone in his childhood or youth, let alone during his old age, which was the time of his mission. No one has ever either indicated an instance of the Prophet (SA) having read or written a line.

The Arabs, particularly those from Hijaz, were generally unlettered during that period, and those of them who could read and write were very well-known and very few in number. It would, as a rule, be impossible for a man to learn this skill under such conditions and not be well-known for this virtue among the people.

As we know, and will be later discussed, at William James Durant remarks: "Evidently no one thought of teaching him (the great Prophet) reading and writing. At that time the art of reading, and writing was of little significance to the Arabs. For this very reason, there were no more than seventeen persons among the Quraysh tribe who could read and write.

It is not known that Muhammad himself should have written anything. After his appointment as Prophet, he had a special scribe for him. Yet the most popular and eloquent Arabic book was recited by him. He had a better acquaintance and grasp of the affairs than the educated ones".1

John Davenport in his book entitled: "Apology for Fault to Muhammad and Qur'an" observes: "As regards education, such as is usual throughout the world, it is the general belief that Muhammad had no education other than that which was commonly practiced in his tribe".2

Constante Vergil Giorgio in his book entitled: "Muhammad - a Prophet to Be Acquainted with Afresh" remarks: "Although he was unschooled, the early verses sent down to him spoke of the pen and knowledge; namely of writing, putting into writing, learning, and of teaching. In no other major religion has knowledge been so extensively appreciated, and no other religion can be found in which such an importance has been attached to knowledge, at its initial stage of development. Had Muhammad been a scholar, no surprise would be caused at the verses having been sent down into the Ghar Hira' (Hira' Cave), since a scholar appreciates knowledge, but the Prophet was neither schooled nor tutored. I congratulate the Muslims on their religion having so dearly regarded, at its inception, the acquisition of knowledge".3

Gustav Lébon in his famous work: "The Civilization of Islam and the Arabs" notes:

"It is well-known that the Prophet was unschooled. This stands to reason also by appealing to inductive generalization, that if he happened to be knowledgeable, the contents and paragraphs of Qur'an would have been better interrelated. Furthermore, if Muhammad was not unschooled, he would not have been capable of propagating a new religion, for an unschooled person is better aware of the needs of the common (illiterate) people and thus is more capable of helping them to the right path. However, whether the Prophet was schooled or unschooled, undoubtedly, he was possessing the highest degree of intellect, wisdom and awareness".4

Not being conversant with the Qur'anic concepts, materialistically oriented Gustav Lébon fabricates nonsensical words concerning the relationships of Qur'anic verses and the incapability of the educated to understand the needs of the uneducated, thus insults the Qur'an and the Prophet (SA). Yet he admits that there is no recorded evidence or indication concerning the Prophet (SA) having been able to read and write.

I am not intending to seek supportive evidence by quoting the above. The Muslims and the easterners themselves are better qualified to comment on the history of Islam and the east. My purpose in bringing in the above quotations is for letting the readers know that had there been the slightest indication to this effect, it would not have escaped the inquisitive and critical attention of non-Muslim historians.

In the course of his journey to Damascus, the great Prophet (SA), accompanied by Abu Talib (AS), stayed at a resting place on his way, during which he had a brief meeting with a monk named Buhayra.5

This meeting has diverted the attention of the orientalists to this question that the Prophet (SA) might have been taught through this short meeting. When an incident as insignificant as this, attracts the attention of his old and new enemies, had there ever been some record testifying the Holy Prophet's knowledge of reading and writing, it would have not remained hidden from them, but, it would rather have been magnified several times.

For clarification, the point will be discussed in two parts: (1) The Pre-prophetic period; and (2) The Post-prophetic period.

The post-prophetic period, will also be discussed in two parts: (i) Writing; and (ii) Reading

Later on, it will be concluded that it is unanimously agreed upon, by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, that before his prophetic mission the Prophet (SA) had not the slightest acquaintance with either reading or writing. However, during the post-prophetic period it is not very certain. During the post-prophetic period what is more certain is that he could not write; however, the fact that he could not read is not so certain. It can be concluded from certain Shi'i accounts that he could read but not write during the post-prophetic period. Although Shi'i accounts are also not unanimous in this respect. What can be inferred from the various pieces of evidence is that he neither read nor wrote during the post-prophetic period also.

In order to study the pre-prophetic period, we need to discuss the general conditions which prevailed in, what is now, Saudi Arabia during that period from the viewpoints of reading and writing.

It is inferred from historical accounts that those who could read and write at the advent of Islam were very few in number.

The Development Of Calligraphy In Hijaz

In the end of the book: "Futuh al-Buldan", Al-Baladhuri thus describes the early development of calligraphy in Hijaz: "First there were three men of the tribe `Tay' (in the vicinity of Syria) who initiated the Arabic handwriting and compared the Arabic alphabets to the Syriac ones. Later, some men from Anbar learned the alphabets from these men.

The inhabitants of Hirah learned the handwriting from the inhabitants of Anbar. Bushr ibn `Abd al-Malik al-Kindi, brother of Al-Ukaydir ibn `Abd al-Malik al-Kindi, ruler of Dumat al-Jandal, who was a Christian, learned the Arabic handwriting in the course of his trips to and from Hirah.

This same Bushr went on a business trip to Makkah, where he was seen writing by Sufyan ibn Umayyah ( Abu Sufyan's paternal uncle) and Abu Qays ibn `Abd Munaf Ibn Zuhrah. They asked him to teach them writing and he did so. Later, this very Bushr, accompanied by the other two, made a Business trip to Ta'if, where Ghaylan ibn Salamah al-Thaqafi learned the writing from them. Subsequently, Bushr parted from the other two for a trip to Egypt. `Amr ibn Zurarah, who later became known as" `Amr - the Scribe", learned writing from Bushr who then went to Damascus where many learned the writing from him."

In his book entitled: "Al-Fihrist", under the first part of the initial paper,6 Ibn al-Nadim makes reference to certain quotations of Al-Baladhuri. Ibn al-Nadim, quoting Ibn 'Abbas, notes that the first people to write in the Arabic script were three men from the tribe of "Bulan" in Anbar. Inhabitants of Anbar learned to write from the inhabitants of Hirah.

Ibn Khaldun too, in his introductory chapter: "Fi Annal-Khatta wa al-Kitabah min `Idad al-Sana'i ` al-Insaniyyah", refers to and confirms Al-Baladhuri's words.7

By quoting authentic narrations, Al-Baladhuri narrates that at the advent of Islam there were only a few literate persons. He says:

"At the advent of Islam there were only seventeen men who could write, namely: `Umar ibn al-Khattab, `Ali ibn Abi Talib (AS), `Uthman ibn `Affan, Abu `Ubaydah al-Jarrah, Talhah, Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, Abu Hudhayfah ibn Rabi'ah, Hatib ibn al-`Amiri, Abu Salamah al-Makhzumi, Aban ibn Sa'id al-'Umawi, Khalid ibn Said al-Umawi, `Abdullah ibn Sa'd ibn Abi Sarh, Huwaytib ibn `Abd al-`Uzza, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, Juhaym ibn al-Salt, and `Ala' ibn al-Hadirami who was not from the Quraysh but rather an ally of the Quraysh."

Al-Baladhuri names only one Quraysh lady, Shifa', the daughter of `Abdullah `Adawi, who could read and write in the Age of Ignorance concurrent with the advent of Islam. Later, she professed Islam and was regarded as one of the early emigrants.

Al-Baladhuri observes,:

"This lady is one and the same person who taught Hafsah, the wife of the Prophet (SA), to write. One day, the Prophet (SA) said to Shifa': `It will be a good thing if you teach Hafsah `Ruqyat al-Namlah,8 as you taught her writing'."

Then, naming some Muslim women who could both read or write, or both, Al-Baladhuri reports:

"Hafsah, the wife of the Prophet (SA), could write, so could Umm Kulthum, the daughter of `Uqbah ibn Abi Muit (one of the women who emigrated early). `A'ishah, daughter of Sa'd said that her father taught her to write. Karimah, daughter of Miqdad, could also write. `A'ishah (the wife of the Prophet) could read but not write, and Umm Salamah stood in a similar condition."

Continuing to mention the names of men who served as scribes for the Prophet (SA), Al-Baladhuri reports that at a time concurrent with the advent of Islam, there were only eleven men -whose names he mentions - from the two tribes Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj stationed in Madinah, who knew the art of writing.

It becomes clear that the art of writing had only recently been introduced into Hijaz, and that the circumstances were then such that, if anyone happened to know reading or writing, he would be known far and wide. Those in Makkah or in Madinah, who knew this art, at a time concurrent with the advent of Islam, were well-known, and very few in number. For this reason they had their names registered in history. If the Prophet (SA) had been among them he would have been regarded likewise. Since there has been no mention of the Prophet among the above, it becomes clear that he had nothing to do with either reading or writing.

The Prophetic Period (In Particular, The Madinah Period)

It can be inferred from the evidence available that the Holy Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote in the period of his prophethood. However, Shi'i and Sunni scholars have different opinions on this matter. Some have considered improbability of this issue as they say: "How is it possible that the wahy (revelation), which used to teach everything, has not taught him to read and write?9

It has been mentioned in several Shi'i narrations that the Prophet (SA) could read in the period of prophethood but could not write.'10

One of these narrations is in Saduq's book: `Ilal al-Shara'i`. It reads: "One of Allah's gifts to His Prophet was that he read but did not write. The time when Abu Sufyan headed for 'Uhud, Al-`Abbas, the Prophet's uncle, wrote a letter to him. He received the letter when he was in one of the gardens near Madinah. He read the letter but did not make his Companions aware of its contents. He ordered them to go to the city and there he let them know about that."''11

This story is different in Zayni Dahlan's book: "Sirah". It relates:

"As soon as the Prophet received Al-`Abbas's letter, he opened its seal and handed it over to Ubay ibn Ka'b to read. Ka'b read it, and the Prophet ordered him not to spread out the news. Then, the Prophet went to Sa'd ibn al-Rabi`, the famous companion, informed him of the contents of the letter and asked him too, not to reveal it. "12

Some others believed that the Prophet (SA) could both read and write in the period of prophethood. Sayyid Murtada - as is mentioned in Bihar al-Anwar - states: "A group of scholars hold the belief that the Holy Prophet did not die until he was able to read and write."13

Sayyid Murtada himself relies on the well-known tradition: `ink and pen' and says: "That the Prophet asked (those close to him) for ink and pen to write instructions lest they might go astray after his death, has been transmitted through reliable narrations and histories. "14

It is however inappropriate to rely on this tradition, for it does not openly indicate that the Holy Prophet (SA) intended to write with his own hand. Even if we assume that he intended to have someone write, in the presence of the people, and thus have them as witnesses, using the statement: "I want to write something for you lest you should go astray" is quite acceptable. In literature, this is called `metaphorical attribution'. It is one of the signs of eloquence and is used widely in Arabic as well as other languages.


1. William James Durant, "History of Civilization (Persian Version)", vol II, p 14.

2. John Davenport, "Apology for Fault to Muhammad and Qur'an", 3rd print, p 17 and 18.

3. Constante Vergil Giorgio, "Muhammad - a Prophet to be Acquainted with Afresh", 1st edition, p 45.

4. Gustav Lébon, "The Civilization of Islam and the Arabs", 4th edition, p 20.

5. Prof Massinion, the known Islamologist and orientalist, in his book: Salmane Pak (The Holy Salman) questions even the existence of such a person let alone his meeting with the Prophet (SA) and regards him as a fictitious character. He observes: "Buhayri Sergius, Tamimdari and others who have collected traditions concerning the Prophet are ghosts of a doubtful and intangible nature".

6. Ibn al-Nadim, Al-Fihrist, published by the Al-Istiqamah Press, Cairo, p 13.

7. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddamah (Introduction), Ibrahim Hilm'i Press, p 492.

8. In the book: Futuh al-Buldan, printed at Al-Sa'adah Press, Egypt, 1959, this word has been entered as 'Ruqnat al-Namlah', which is certainly a misprint. The correct term, as recorded 'Naml' in Ibn al-Athir's Al-Nihayah is "Ruqyat al-Namlah"'.

"Ruqyah" were sentences of the incantation type which were recited and believed to be effective in warding off evil, or diseases. As regards "Ruqa", Ibn al-Athir reports that certain accounts of the Prophet (SA) recommend and others prohibit the use of "Ruqa" Ibn al-Athir, himself claims accounts of the prohibitive type concern" seeking refuge in other than Allah's name, that man should shift his dependence on Allah and rely upon things other than seeking refuge in the name of Allah", accounts of the recommending type concern the fact that man should depend on divine names and seek His (Allah's) help.

As regards 'Naml', Ibn al-Athir reports: "What is known as 'Ruqyat al-Namlah' was not in reality of Ruqa like nature, rather they were well-known sentences which everyone knew would neither harm nor benefit. The Prophet (SA) addressed Shifa' in a jocular language with these words as a gesture to his wife Hafsah. The words were: "The bride sits hennaed with dark-dyed eyelids in the centre of the crowd, doing everything except disobeying her husband."

Such sentences were referred to as "Ruqyat al-Namlah". Apparently, in so saying, a kind of joke and satire has been employed. Ibn al-Athir maintains: "The great Prophet (SA) addressed Shifa' in jocular and satirical language, saying that it would be a good thing if she taught Hafsah "Ruqyat al-Namlah" as she had taught her writing , a. suggestion that Hafsah disobeyed the Prophet (SA) by disclosing the secret told her by the Prophet (SA).

9. Bihar al-Anwar, new print, vol. 16, p 134.

10. Ibid , p 132.

11. Ibid , p 133.

12. Zayni Dahlan, Sirah, vol 2, p 24.

13. Biharal-Anwar, new print, vol 16, p 135.

14. Ibid.

The Scribes of The Prophet

It follows from the texts of authentic ancient Islamic history that the Prophet (SA) had a number of scribes in Madinah. The scribes wrote the wahy, the Prophet's words, public contracts and transactions, the Prophet's agreements signed with pagans and with Ahl al-Kitab (the followers of the religions recognized by Islam to have existed earlier as true divine religions), the ledgers for sadaqat (charities) and taxes, the ledgers for war-spoils and for akhmas (plural of khums, an Islamic levy at the rate of one-fifth of one's savings and other items), and the numerous letters from the Prophet (SA) to various places.

In addition to the divine revelations and the Prophet's speeches, recorded, and remaining to this day, the agreements signed by the Prophet (SA) and most of the letters from the Prophet (SA) have been recorded in history. In his book: "Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra", Muhammad Ibn Sa'd quotes about one hundred letters, most of which he quotes in texts, from the Prophet (SA).

Some of these letters, addressed to the sultans and rulers throughout the world, to the chiefs of tribes, to the puppet Roman or Iranian rulers of the Persian Gulf, and to other persons, are invitations to accept the faith of Islam. Some other letters consist of circulars and procedures, which comprise fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Other letters serve different purposes. A good many of such letters expose their writers, as the scribes indicated their names at the bottom of the letters. It is said that the one who initiated the traditional practice of having the scribe's name entered at the bottom of a letter was Ubay ibn Ka'b, a known companion of the Prophet (SA).

None of these letters, agreements or books has ever been written in the Prophet's handwriting; that is to say, nowhere has it been reported that the Prophet wrote by his own hand. More important still, is the fact that there is no observed instance to indicate that the Prophet had written down a single verse of the Qur'an. At a time when each and every scribe of the wahy, wrote in the very Qur'anic style, would it be possible that the Prophet (SA) should write, but not in the Qur'anic style, or that he would not write a surah (chapter), or at least a verse, of the Qur'an?

In the books of history the names of the Prophet's scribes have been recorded. Al-Ya'qubi, in volume 2 of his historical work, reports:

"The Prophet's scribes, who wrote the wahy, letters, and agreements are `Ali ibn Abi Talib, `Uthman ibn `Affan, `Amr ibn Al-`As, Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, Shurahbil ibn Hasanah, `Abdullah ibn Sa'd ibn Abi Sarh, Al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah, Ma'adh ibn Jabal, Zayd ibn Thabit, Hanzalah ibn Al-Rabi`, Ubay ibn Ka'b, Juhaym ibn Al-Salt, Husayn Al-Numayri."1

In `Al-Tanbih wal-Ishraf", Al-Mas'udi describes in some detail, the nature of the task undertaken by the scribes, and indicates that they had a more developed sort of activity coupled with a kind of order, organization and work allocation among themselves.

He reports:

"Khalid ibn Said ibn Al-`As was at the Prophet's service. He recorded the various needs which came up, and so did Al-Mughirah ibn Shu'bah and Husayn ibn Al-Numayr. `Abdullah ibn Arqam and Al-`Ala' ibn `Uqbah recorded documents, contracts and transactions for the public. Al-Zubayr ibn Al-`Awwam and Juhaym ibn al-Salt wrote down taxes and sadaqat.

Hudhayfah ibn Al-Yaman was in-charge of entering the receipts (hirazah) of Hijaz, Mu'ayib ibn Abi Fatimah Dusi recorded war-spoils. Zayd ibn Thabit al-Ansari wrote letters to rulers and kings whilst serving as a translator to the Prophet. He translated Persian, Roman, Coptic and Ethiopian languages, all of which he had learned from those who knew these languages, in Madinah.2 Hanzalah ibn Al-Rabi` was a relief recorder who would take over the function of any one of the above-mentioned people who failed to attend. He had come to be known as: "Hanzalah al-Katib (the writer)".

During `Umar's Khilafah when Muslims had earned victories, Hanzalah went to "Raha", where he died. `Abdullah ibn Sa'd ibn Abi Sarh served as a scribe for a time, but later he lost faith and joined the pagans. Shurahbil ibn Hasanah Tabikhi also wrote for the Prophet and Aban ibn Sa'id and Al-`Ala' ibn Al-Hadrami also occasionally wrote for the Prophet. Mu'awiyah too wrote for the Prophet but only for a few months until the Prophet's death. These were the people who served as official scribes to the Prophet. However, we will not mention the names of those who have written a letter or two and who are not named among the Prophet's scribes."3

In this connection, Al-Mas'udi has made no mention of the "Book of Revelations" nor of the scribes of official documents; among them `Ali (AS), `Abdullah ibn Mas'ud and Ubay ibn Ka'b, etc. He seems to have meant naming those who held a title other than that of recording the wahy.

In the histories and ahadith of Islam, we come across a good many stories of the visiting enthusiasts from far and wide who sought, the Prophet's advice and to hear his preaching, the Prophet (SA) would respond with wise and meaningful words, recorded either concurrently or subsequently.

Here too, we find no instance of the Prophet (SA) himself writing a single word in response to the visiting enthusiasts. Obviously enough, if only one line written by the Prophet (SA) could have been found, it would have been preserved by the Muslims as a blessing and great honour for themselves and their families. Yet, in the case of Hadrat Amir al-Mu'minin, 'Ali (AS) and the other Imams (AS), we see many instances, where part of their manuscripts have been preserved in their own, or in their Shi`ah (friends) families. Nowadays, there are copies of the Qur'an, which had been written by these great personalities.

The story's widely known of Zayd ibn `Ali ibn Al-Husayn (AS), and that how they preserved "Al-Sahifah al-Sajjadiyyah", is a proof of this proposition.

Relating an interesting story in the first part of the second chapter, of his book: "Al-Fihrist" Ibn al-Nadim relates:

"I became acquainted with a Shi'ah of Kufah whose name was Muhammad ibn Al-Husayn nicknamed Ibn Abi Ba'rah. He owned a library the like of which I had not seen. He had taken over a library from a Shi'ah of Kufah. The strange thing was the fact that each book or each sheet of the book indicated the name of its scribe. A host of scholars had verified in writing the scribe's name. At that library were kept manuscripts of the two Imams, viz, Imam Al-Hasan ibn `Ali (AS) and Al-Husayn ibn 'Ali (AS). Also kept at the same place were documents and agreements written by `Ali (AS) and by other scribes of the Prophet (SA)."'4

It is true, that they have thus taken care of the blessed works. How could it be true therefore, that the Prophet (SA) should have written one line and that that very line should fail to remain, keeping in view the unbelievable regard which Muslims had for the protection of works, sacred ones in particular?

By analyzing the available evidence the question of the Prophet (SA) having written, (even during the period of his prophethood) is out of the question, even if there is a little evidence to indicate that he could read at this time. Rather, the greater portion of the available evidence testifies to his having not read, even in this period.


1. Al-Ya'qubi, Tarikh al-Ya'qubi vol 2, p 69.

2. In the book: Jami' al-Tirmidhi Al-Tirmidhi narrates from Zayd ibn Thabit that he said: "The Holy Prophet (SA) of Islam commanded me to learn the Syriac language. Also Al-Tirmidhi narrates in Jami' al-Tirmidhi from Zayd ibn Thabit that he said: "The Holy Prophet (SA) of Islam commanded me to learn the language of the Jews and said: "I swear by Allah that I cannot trust the Jews for my letters." I learned for about one-half of a month. After that whenever he (the Holy Prophet (SA) of Islam) wanted to write a letter to the Jews, I wrote it and whenever he received a letter from the Jews, I read it for him."

In Futuhal-Buldan Al-Baladhuri, says on p. 460: "Zayd ibn Thabit said: 'The Holy Prophet (SA) of Islam commanded me to learn the Book of the Jews (in the Syriac language). Zayd ibn Thabit also said that the Prophet (SA) told me 'I am worried about my Book because of the Jews.' Scarcely had one-half of a month or a year passed that I learned it. From then on, I wrote his letters to the Jews and also read to him (to the Holy Prophet (SA) of Islam) the letters the Jews wrote to him."

3. Al-Mas'udi, Al-Tanbih wal-Ishraf, p 245-246.

4. Ibn al-Nadim, Al-Fihrist, Al-'Istiqamah Press, Cairo, p 67.

The Event Of Hudaybiyyah

In the life-history of the Prophet (SA), there are events which bring to light the fact that even while in Madinah, the Prophet (SA) did not read or write. Among all such events, the event of Hudaybiyyah is the best known, for it is of particular historical significance. Historical accounts and ahadith, while in conflict, help to some extent, to explain the question.

In the month of Dhu al-Qa'dah, the sixth year after Hijrah, the Prophet (SA) left Madinah for Makkah to perform `Umrah and Hajj. He ordered that the camels for sacrifice be marked and be led along. However, as soon as they arrived at Hudaybiyyah, about two farsakhs (about 12 km) from Makkah, the Quraysh took sides to prevent the entry of the Muslims; this, although it was in the forbidden month, when in accordance with the law of Jahiliyyah (period of pre-Islamic ignorance in Arabia), even the Quraysh did not have the right to deny them admittance.

The Prophet (SA) explained that he did not mean to do anything other than to make a pilgrimage to the Ka'bah and that he meant to return home after completing his pilgrimage. The Quraysh disagreed. The Muslims demanded leave to enter Makkah by force, but he refused in order not to show disrespect for the Ka'bah. The Quraysh and the Muslims, finally agreed to sign a peace treaty. The Prophet (SA) dictated the peace treaty to `Ali (AS) who wrote it down. The Prophet (SA) ordered him to write: "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Suhayl ibn `Amr, representing the Quraysh, protested and said: "This is your slogan, with which we are not familiar. Write: `In your name, O Allah!"

The Prophet (SA) agreed and ordered `Ali (SA) to write accordingly. Then, the Prophet (SA) ordered him to write: "This is a contract being concluded between Muhammad, Allah's messenger and the Quraysh". The representative for the Quraysh objected saying: "We do not regard you as Allah's messenger." Only your followers regard you likewise. If we had regarded you as Allah's messenger, we would not have fought against you, nor had barred your entry to Makkah. Write your and your father's name". The Prophet (SA) said: "Whether or not you regard me as Allah's messenger, I am Allah's messenger".

Then, he ordered `Ali (AS) to write: "This is a treaty being concluded between Muhammad ibn `Abdillah and the people of Quraysh". It was at this point that the Muslims became angry. From this point on, the historical accounts differ in certain respects.

From Ibn Hisham's "Sirat Ibn Hisham" and also from Sahih Al-Bukhari1 (Bab Shurut fi al- Jihad wal-Musalahah ma'a Ahl al-Harb), it can be concluded that this objection was made before the words "Allah's messenger" were written, where-upon the Prophet (SA) agreed immediately to have "Muhammad ibn `Abdillah" written for "Muhammad, the Allah's messenger". Yet, it can be concluded from most accounts that the objection was made at a time when `Ali (AS) had already written the words. The Prophet (SA) then requested `Ali (AS) to erase the words, whereupon `Ali (AS) requested to be excused from doing so.

Here, again the texts differ. The Shi'ah ahadith's texts agree that upon `Ali's (AS) expressed refusal to erase the sacred words, the Prophet (SA) himself erased the words, in place of which `Ali (AS) wrote "Muhammad ibn `Abdillah ". In these texts and in certain Ahl al-Sunnah ahadith's texts, there is an explicit reference to the fact that the Prophet (SA) requested `Ali (AS) to show him the words by placing his hand on the words so that he might erase the words with his own hands.

`Ali (AS) did so and the Prophet (SA) erased the words "Allah's messenger" with his own hand. Then, `Ali (AS) wrote "ibn `Abdillah", instead. Therefore, it was `Ali (AS) who did the writing and not the Prophet (SA). Rather, in accordance with both Shi'i accounts, and those of the Ahl al-Sunnah the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote.

In the book entitled: "The Stories of the Qur'an", written in Persian in the 5th Centurv (Hijrah) by Abu Bakr `Atiqi Nayshapuri who adapted the work from his own exegesis of the Qur'an, the author relates the Hudaybiyyah event up to the point where Suhayl ibn `Amr, on behalf of the Quraysh, objected to the words "Allah's messenger". Suhayl ibn `Amr said "The Prophet said to `Ali to erase "Allah's messenger". `Ali disinclined to do this and felt uneasy at the Prophet's insistence. Then the Prophet said to `Ali; "Put my finger on the words so that I may erase them". Since Allah's messenger was untaught, and did not know how to write, `Ali placed the Prophet's finger on the words and the Prophet erased the words as Suhayl ibn `Amr meant.

Al-Ya'qubi too, in his book: `Tarikh al-Ya'qubi" writes: "The Prophet ordered `Ali to write "ibn `Abdillah" in place of "Allah's messenger".

Having written "`Ali refused to erase the words", in "Sahih Muslim", Muslim writes:

"The Prophet said to `Ali to show him the words. `Ali did likewise whereupon the Prophet erased the words and wrote Muhammad ibn `Abdillah".2

In this statement, on the one hand, Muslim writes: "The Prophet sought `Ali's help to erase the words", and on the other hand, he writes: "The Prophet erased the words and wrote". It might appear that the Prophet wrote after erasing the words, but the writer of the statement means that `Ali did the writing, for the text of the statement reads that the Prophet sought `Ali's help to erase the words.

It follows explicitly from "Tarikh al-Tabari" and "Kamil Ibn al-Athir" and Al-Bukhari's account under the chapter: "Al-Shurut" that the second word was written by the Prophet (SA) himself. It is on record that "The Prophet (SA) took the pen from `Ali's hand and wrote himself." In Al-Tabari's and Ibn al-Athir's statements, there is an additional sentence: "Allah's messenger took the pen from `All's hand and while it was not proper for him to write, he wrote."

Al-Tabari's and Ibn al-Athir's accounts confirm that the Prophet (SA) would not write, but that he did write exceptionally in Hudaybiyyah. This may confirm the view of those who observe that under divine instructions he could have written had he so wished; he never composed a poem nor recited anyone else's. If he ever wished to recite a couplet, he would utter it in prose form, disordering and adjusting the words to achieve this end; for Allah (SWT) would deem poetry below his dignity:

`And We have not taught him poetry, nor is it suitable for him; it is nothing but a reminder and a plain Qur'an (36:69). "

As is seen, the accounts on the Hudaybiyyah event do not tally. However, despite the fact that it can be concluded from certain accounts that the words" ibn `Abdillah" - an integral part of the Prophet's signature - would have been written by the Prophet (SA), these very accounts also confirm that this was exceptional.

In the book entitled: "Usud al-Ghabah", under the details regarding Tamim ibn Jarashah al-Thaqafi the author quotes a story about him, which suggests that even in the course of his prophethood, the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote. He narrates:

"I, along with a group of people from Thaqif, met the Prophet and embraced Islam. We requested him to sign an agreement with us and agree to our terms. The Prophet ordered us to write whatever we desired and then bring it to him to see. We requested for permission to practice usury and adultery. As we were unable to put it into writing, we visited `Ali ibn Abi Talib for the purpose. Seeing that we had such terms to include, `Ali refused to write. We made the request to Khalid ibn Said ibn Al-`As.

`Ali enquired from Khalid whether or not he knew what he had been requested to do. Khalid replied: "It does not concern me what it is. I will write whatever they will tell me: Once the writing is brought to the Prophet's attention, he will know what to do therewith". Khalid wrote the matter down and we took it to the Prophet who ordered someone to read it.

The reader had scarcely uttered the word "usury", the Prophet asked him to place his finger on the word which he erased with his own hand and recited from the Qur'an: "O believers! Practice taqwa (fear Allah) and give up usury." On hearing this verse we were imbibed with refreshed faith and assurance whereupon we resigned not to take usury. The reader continued reading till he uttered adultery whereupon again, the Prophet having had his hand placed on the word recited from the Qur'an: "Do not indulge in adultery, for surely it is an open indecency".3


1. Sahih al-Bukhari, vol 3, p 242.

2. Muslim, Sahih al-Muslim, vol 5, p 174.

3. `Usud al-Ghabah, vol 1, p 216.

A Strange Claim

It is a strange fact that in accordance with what a number of Iranian periodicals and publications1 recorded for years ago, Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif - an Indian Muslim scholar from Hyderabad, India, the President of the Institute of Indian and Middle Eastern Cultural Studies, and President of the Academy for Islamic Studies at Hyderabad -delivered a detailed lecture on this issue in an Islamic conference in India. In this lecture, published in English, he claimed that the Prophet (SA) read and wrote even before his period of prophethood.

Publication of Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif's speech evoked a peculiar excitement among Iranian readers who then visited the religious authorities and posed questions to them. At that time, I delivered a brief speech on the issue for the students.

Keeping in view the general public's interest in this matter, and the fact that in Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif's speech there were facts which were very unexpected from a scholar and researcher of his calibre, I will now quote and discuss his speech. He has claimed that:

"(1) The reason for the observation that the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote is simply the misinterpretation of the word "ummi" meaning "unschooled" or "untaught". This word has been used in verses 157 and 158 of Surah 7 "Al-A'raf" of the Holy Qur'an to describe the Prophet (SA) The verse 157 reads: "Those who follow the unschooled Messenger Prophet." The verse 158 reads: "Therefore believe in Allah and His untaught Prophet". He observes that the interpreters believe that "ummi" means "untaught", when it does not.

(2) In the Qur'an there are other verses which clearly suggest that the Prophet (SA) both read and wrote.

(3) A number of authentic accounts and historical descriptions have recorded the clear fact that the Prophet (SA) both read and wrote."

This is an outline of the claims made by Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif. We will in turn, discuss and analyse these in the next three parts.


1. "Rawshanfikr", issue no 8 and 15, October 1965 and the Publication of the Society of the Headclerks. November 1965 (copied from the Publication of the Ministry of Education and Training, September 1965).