To Read or Recite? That is the Question!

Was Muhammad Really Illiterate?

Sam Shamoun

The vast majority of Muslims have been taught to believe that the historical Muhammad was illiterate and therefore incapable of producing the Quran. The problem with such a claim is that it flies in the face of the Quran which actually indicates that Muhammad could read. After all, the following verses commanded Muhammad to read:

Read! (Iqra) In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists) … Read! (Iqra) And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen [the first person to write was Prophet Idrees (Enoch)], S. 96:1, 3-4 Hilali-Khan

The reference to the pen makes it rather apparent that Muhammad was being ordered to read something written, not simply to recite words which were uttered to him.

In fact, the Quran says that Allah will make Muhammad read the Quran so that he won’t forget it:

We shall make thee read (Sanuqri-oka) (O Muhammad) so that thou shalt not forget S. 87:6 Pickthall

Other places where Muhammad is commanded to read the Quran include:

When you read the Quran (qarata al-qurana), you shall seek refuge in GOD from Satan the rejected. S. 16:98 Khalifa

When you read the Quran (qarata al-qurana), we place between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter an invisible barrier. S. 17:45 Khalifa

A Quran that we have released slowly, in order for you to read it (litaqraahu) to the people over a long period, although we sent it down all at once. S. 17:106 Khalifa

And lo! it is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds, Which the True Spirit hath brought down Upon thy heart, that thou mayst be (one) of the warners, In plain Arabic speech. And lo! it is in the Scriptures of the men of old. Is it not a token for them that the doctors of the Children of Israel know it? And if We had revealed it unto one of any other nation than the Arabs, And he had read it (Faqaraahu) unto them, they would not have believed in it. S. 26:192-199 Pickthall

Your Lord knows that you meditate during two-thirds of the night, or half of it, or one-third of it, and so do some of those who believed with you. GOD has designed the night and the day, and He knows that you cannot always do this. He has pardoned you. Instead, you shall read (faiqraoo) what you can of the Quran. He knows that some of you may be ill, others may be traveling in pursuit of GOD's provisions, and others may be striving in the cause of GOD. You shall read (faiqraoo) what you can of it, and observe the contact prayers (Salat), give the obligatory charity (Zakat), and lend GOD a loan of righteousness. Whatever good you send ahead on behalf of your souls, you will find it at GOD far better and generously rewarded. And implore GOD for forgiveness. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful. 73:20 Khalifa

and, when the Koran (al-quranu) is read (quria) to them, do not adore? S. 84:21 Palmer

All of these references strongly indicate that Muhammad had access to a manuscript from which he could read to the people. Otherwise, what would he be reading from?

Lest a Muslim claim that the above texts do not necessarily imply that Muhammad was reading an actual book since there was no Quranic manuscript for him to read, note what the following passage states:

Those who disbelieve say: "This (the Qur'an) is nothing but a lie that he (Muhammad SAW) has invented, and others have helped him at it, so that they have produced an unjust wrong (thing) and a lie." And they say: "Tales of the ancients, which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon." S. 25:4-5 Hilali-Khan

Not only did Muhammad have the Quran written down, showing that he had access to an actual manuscript which he could read, the Quran even refers to pure pages that Muhammad was reading to the people:

A messenger from Allah, reading purified pages (yatlu suhufan mutahharatan) S. 98:1-2 Pickthall

The term suhuf refers to an actual scripture just as these next verses prove:

So let him who pleases mind it. In honored books (Fee suhufin mukarramatin), Exalted, purified, In the hands of scribes Noble, virtuous. S. 80:12-16 Shakir

And they say: If only he would bring us a miracle from his Lord! Hath there not come unto them the proof of what is in the former scriptures (al-suhufi)? S. 20:133 Pickthall

Nay, is he not acquainted with what is in the Books (suhuf) of Moses - S. 53:36 Y. Ali

The Books (suhuf) of Abraham and Moses. S. 87:19 Y. Ali

And here are other examples of the way the Quran uses the verb iqra:

And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read (yaqraoona) the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers. S. 10:94 Pickthall

The Jews and Christians had an actual text which they read from.

'Read (Iqra) thy book! Thy soul suffices thee this day as a reckoner against thee.' S. 17:14 Arberry

On the day when We shall summon all men with their record, whoso is given his book in his right hand - such will read (yaqraoona) their book and they will not be wronged a shred. S. 17:71 Pickthall

Then as for him who is given his book in his right hand, he will say: Lo! read (iqraoo) my book: S. 69:19 Shakir

People will be given a book or record to read on the Day of Judgment.

Or thou have a house of gold; or thou ascend up into heaven, and even then we will put no faith in thine ascension till thou bring down for us a book that we can read (naqraohu). Say (O Muhammad): My Lord be Glorified! Am I aught save a mortal messenger? S. 17:93 Pickthall

The unbelievers want Muhammad to bring a book from heaven to read.

The foregoing examples plainly demonstrate that the Arabic verb iqra means also "to read", not merely "to recite," and provide evidence that Muhammad was able to read and was in fact reading from a book which was in his possession.

In order to defend Muhammad’s illiteracy some Muslims will try to argue that the verb iqra doesn’t necessarily mean to read but can also refer to reciting. They will often appeal to the hadith literature to support their premise:

Narrated 'Aisha:

(the mother of the faithful believers) The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah's Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, "I do not know how to read."

The Prophet added, "The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.' Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?' Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous." (96.1, 96.2, 96.3) Then Allah's Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely… (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 1, Number 3)

There are a couple of problems with this report. First, this contradicts the testimony of the Quran which conclusively proves that Muhammad could and was reading an actual book.

Second, the foregoing hadith is rather strange since the spirit is asking Muhammad to read even though he has no book or manuscript in his hand for him to read from! Moreover, didn’t the spirit know that Muhammad couldn’t read? If so then why does he ask Muhammad three consecutive times to read when he clearly knew he couldn’t?

These problems perhaps account for why other Islamic narrations translated by Muslims into English render the verb as recite:

… There came to him the angel and said: Recite, to which he replied: I am not lettered. He took hold of me [the Apostle said] and pressed me, till I was hard pressed; thereafter he let me off and said: Recite. I said: I am not lettered. He then again took hold of me and pressed me for the second time till I was hard pressed and then let me off and said: Recite, to which I replied: I am not lettered. He took hold of me and pressed me for the third time, till I was hard pressed and then let me go and said: Recite in the name of your Lord Who created, created man from a clot of blood. Recite. And your most bountiful Lord is He Who taught the use of pen, taught man what he knew not (al-Qur'an, xcvi. 1-4)… (Sahih Muslim, Book 001, Number 0301)

Although this alleviates the problem of Muhammad being commanded to read when there was nothing for him to read from this introduces another difficulty. Why would Muhammad respond to the spirit by saying that he cannot recite? Why would Muhammad find it difficult to merely repeat the words uttered by this spirit? After all, even little children are able to repeat words that they hear even though they may not be able to read. And if children can recite what they hear are we to assume that Muhammad wasn’t capable of simply reciting or repeating what the spirit told him seeing that he was a fully grown man?

It seems that there were some Muslims who were aware of all of the above problems and so decided to fabricate a tradition where they had the spirit coming to Muhammad with some piece of writing!

… When it was the night on which God honoured him with his mission and showed mercy on His servants thereby, Gabriel brought him the command of God. ‘He came to me,’ said the apostle of God, ‘while I was asleep, with a coverlet brocade whereon was some writing, and said, "Read!" I said, "What shall I read?" He pressed me with IT so tightly that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said, "Read!" I said, "What shall I read?" He pressed me with IT again so that I thought it was death; then he let me go and said "Read!" I said, "What shall I read?" He pressed me with IT the third time so that I thought it was death and said, "Read!" I said, "What then shall I read?" – and this I said only to deliver myself from him, lest he should do the same to me again… So I read it, and he departed from me. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart…’ (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Karachi Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth Impression 1995], p. 106; bold, capital and italic emphasis ours)

This tradition would seem to support the Muslim contention that Muhammad was illiterate if it were not for some other problems that it raises. In the first place, this narrative actually proves that the verb iqra does not mean to recite but to read from a book! Secondly, this again leaves us with the problem of the spirit asking Muhammad to read three times, and then torturing him for not doing so, when he should have already known that Muhammad was not capable of reading. At the very least we would expect that once Muhammad told the spirit that he couldn’t read that the latter would realize that he was speaking to an illiterate and was therefore wasting his time insisting that the former read the writing which he had brought.

Thirdly, the fact that in this narrative Muhammad asks the spirit what he was supposed to read presupposes that he actually could read and introduces two additional problems as we shall see shortly.

What makes this rather amusing is that certain Muslims believe (1, 2, 3) that Isaiah 29:12 is actually a prophecy of Muhammad receiving the first "revelations" of the Quran, specifically Q. 96:1-5:

"And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ he says, ‘I cannot read.’" Isaiah 29:12

The passage uses the very Hebrew cognate of the Arabic verb iqra, specifically qara. In their zeal to prove Muhammad’s prophethood and illiteracy the Muslim polemicists have overlooked that this specific text is referring to someone who is incapable of reading a book, which means that if it is a prophecy of Muhammad’s experience then this proves that the spirit was commanding him to actually read a specific writing! In other words, this so-called prophecy provides additional attestation that Muhammad wasn’t being commanded to merely recite words which he heard orally. He was being told to read from a scripture.

If this weren’t confusing enough there are other traditions which cast doubt on whether Muhammad really told the spirit that he couldn’t read. Note, for instance, what the renowned Muslim historian and exegete al-Tabari wrote regarding Muhammad’s first encounter with the spirit:

Ahmad b. ‘Uthman, known as Abu al-Jawza – Wahb b. Jarir – his father – al-Nu‘man b. Rashid – al-Zuhri – ‘Urwah – ‘A’ishah: The first form in which revelation came to the Messenger of God was true vision; this used to come to him like the break of dawn.94 After that, he grew to love solitude and used to remain in a cave on Hira’ engaged in acts of devotion for a number of days before returning to his family. Then he would return to his family and supply himself with provisions for a similar number of days. This continued until the Truth came to him unexpectedly,96 and said, ‘Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God.’" (Describing what happened next,) the Messenger of God said, "I had been standing, but fell to my knees; and crawled away, my shoulders trembling. I went to Khadijah and said, ‘Wrap me up! Wrap me up!’ When the terror had left me, he came and said, ‘Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God.’"

He (Muhammad) said: I had been thinking of hurling myself down from a mountain crag, but he appeared to me, as I was thinking about this, and said, "Muhammad, I am Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God." Then he said, "Recite!" I said, "What shall I recite?"98 He took me and pressed me three times tightly until I was nearly stifled and was utterly exhausted; then he said: "Recite in the name of your Lord who created," then I recited it. Then I went to Khadijah and said, "I have been in fear for my life." When I told her what happened, she said, "Rejoice, for God will never put you to shame, for you treat your kinsfolk well, tell the truth, deliver what is entrusted to you, endure fatigue, offer hospitality to the guest, and aid people in misfortune." (The History of al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, translated and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1988], Volume VI, pp. 67-68; bold and italic emphasis ours)

As we mentioned earlier, this version of the event raises two additional problems. For instance, the report from Ibn Ishaq says that Muhammad saw the spirit appear with coverlet brocade that contained some writing. In light of this why did Muhammad ask what should he recite? Didn’t he realize that he was supposed to read from the writing that was in the spirit’s hand? Secondly, instead of torturing Muhammad and commanding him to read/recite why didn’t the spirit simply answer him by telling him to read from the writing which he brought?

As if this couldn’t get any more confusing than it already is, there is some doubt whether the Arabic should be rendered as "What shall I recite?" or "I cannot recite". The translator has some interesting notes which we include here since they help explain what we mean:

94. This probably refers to the two visions described in the Qur’an (53:1-18). These are now interpreted by Muslims as visions of Gabriel, but the use of the word ‘abd (slave) in verse 10 implies that Muhammad originally took it to be a vision of God, and this is allowed by some of the older commentators. See Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 151. (Ibid., p. 67)

96. In this usage, the Truth (al-haqq) is God, and the apparent declaration of Muhammad’s messengership by God supports the view that he originally took the visions to be of God. (Ibid.)

98. The words ma aqra’u can mean both "what shall I recite?" and "I do not (cannot) recite," and it is sometimes difficult to decide which meaning is to be preferred. The translations are given are thus in a sense conjectural. Muslim scholars debated the question, and some modified the phrase to madha aqra’u, which can only have the first meaning, others to ma ana bi-qarin, which can only have the second. Since qara’a can also mean "read," Muhammad’s inability to read was part of later apologetic. (Ibid., p. 68; underline emphasis ours)

Thus, not only is it uncertain whether Muhammad thought he initially saw God or an angel but it isn’t even clear whether Muhammad said that he couldn’t read or if he actually asked the spirit what he was supposed to read or recite!

It should be noted that, as the above source implies, later traditions such as those found in al-Bukhari changed ma aqra’u to ma ana bi-qarin ("I cannot read/recite") in order to alleviate any doubt concerning Muhammad being illiterate. Yet this introduces the problem we mentioned earlier, namely, the spirit asking an illiterate man to read four consecutive times when he should have already known that he was incapable of doing so.

Another so-called evidence which Muslims bring forth to prove Muhammad’s illiteracy is the following Quranic reference:

And thou (O Muhammad) wast not a reader (tatloo) of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted, who follow falsehood. S. 29:48 Pickthall

According to the typical Muslim interpretation this citation demonstrates that Muhammad wasn’t capable of reading or writing a book since if he could then the unbelievers would have a reason to object to his prophetic claims.

The problem with this proposed explanation is that that is not the plain reading of the text. The verse is not denying that Muhammad could read or write, but denying that Muhammad had read or written down an inspired Scripture prior to his receiving the Quran. In other words, the passage is simply saying that people couldn’t accuse Muhammad of making up the Quran by plagiarizing information that he had received from some holy book which he had read or wrote down, such as the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, since this Quran is the first so-called holy book that he has ever read and/or written.

That this is the meaning of the reference can be seen from what follows right after:

Is it not enough for them that We have sent down unto thee the Scripture which is read (yutla) unto them? Lo! herein verily is mercy, and a reminder for folk who believe. S. 29:51 Pickthall

Here, the author of the Quran says that Allah sent down the Scripture to Muhammad so that the latter would read it to the people, which obviously means that Muhammad could actually read.

Still some Muslims assume that the word yutla and its various forms refer to repeating something that is received orally, that Muhammad was being told to recite what he hears. This would be a valid objection if it were not for the fact that the Quran uses this word and its cognates in reference to persons who recite what they are reading from a book, from a scripture:

Enjoin ye righteousness upon mankind while ye yourselves forget (to practise it)? And ye are readers (tatloona) of the Scripture! Have ye then no sense? S. 2:44 Pickthall

And the Jews say the Christians follow nothing (true), and the Christians say the Jews follow nothing (true); yet both are readers (yatloona) of the Scripture. Even thus speak those who know not. Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differ. S. 2:113 Pickthall

Those to whom We have given the Book read it as it ought to be read (yatloonahu haqqa tilawatihi). These believe in it; and whoever disbelieves in it, these it is that are the losers. S. 2:121 Shakir

All food was lawful to the children of Israel except that which Israel had forbidden to himself, before the Taurat was revealed. Say: Bring then the Taurat and read it (faotlooha), if you are truthful. S. 3:93 Shakir

Not all of them are alike; a party of the people of the Scripture stand for the right, they recite (yatloona) the Verses of Allah during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer. S. 3:113 Hilali-Khan

All of these verses are speaking of the people of the book, i.e. Jews and Christians, and to their scriptures which they were reading.

These next citations speak of people who could read the Muslim scripture:

They ask thy instruction concerning the women say: God doth instruct you about them: And (remember) what hath been rehearsed (yutla) unto you in the Book, concerning the orphans of women to whom ye give not the portions prescribed, and yet whom ye desire to marry, as also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that ye stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which ye do, but God is well-acquainted therewith. S. 4:127 Y. Ali

Lo! those who read (yatloona) the Scripture of Allah, and establish worship, and spend of that which We have bestowed on them secretly and openly, they look forward to imperishable gain, S. 35:29 Pickthall

More importantly, as we saw earlier the Quran clearly speaks of Muhammad reading from a book that was allegedly revealed to him. Here are two more references which further substantiate this point:

Read (Waotlu) that which hath been revealed unto thee, of the book of thy Lord, [without presuming to make any change therein]: There is none who hath power to change his words; and thou shalt not find any to fly to, besides him, [if thou attempt it]. S. 18:27 Sale

He is the One who sent to the gentiles a messenger from among them, to recite (yatloo) to them His revelations, purify them, and teach them the scripture and wisdom. Before this, they had gone far astray. S. 62:2

To see other examples of yutla/tutla please consult the following citations: 2:102, 129, 151; 3:101, 164; 5:1; 7:175; 10:16, 61; 17:107; 19:58, 73; 22:30, 72; 23:66; 39:71; 28:53; 33:34; 34:43; 37:3; 45:8, 25, 31; 46:7; 65:11; 68:15; 83:13.

Muslims may appeal to the following texts which speak of Allah reciting the Quran to Muhammad:

These are the Verses of Allah, We recite them (natlooha) to you (O Muhammad SAW) in truth, and surely, you are one of the Messengers (of Allah). S. 2:252 Hilali-Khan

These are revelations of Allah. We recite them (natlooha) unto thee in truth. Allah willeth no injustice to (His) creatures. S. 3:108 Pickthall; cf. 3:58; 45:6

Stir not thy tongue herewith to hasten it. Lo! upon Us (resteth) the putting together thereof and the reading thereof. And when We read it (qaranahu), follow thou the reading (quranahu); S. 75:17-18 Pickthall

The Muslims will contend that these examples clearly demonstrate that verbs such as iqra and yutla do not necessarily refer to reading a book since Allah was obviously not reading from a scripture when he conveyed the message to Muhammad.

On the contrary, these references fail to prove the Muslim position since the Quran makes it clear that Allah was in fact reading or reciting from a scripture, specifically the mother of the book or the original tablet from which the Quran originates:

Allah blots out what He wills and confirms (what He wills). And with Him is the Mother of the Book (Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz) S. 13:39 Hilali-Khan

We verily, have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that you may be able to understand (its meanings and its admonitions). And Verily, it (this Qur'an) is in the Mother of the Book (i.e. Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before Us, indeed Exalted, full of Wisdom. S. 43:3-4 Hilali-Khan

That (this) is indeed an honourable recital (la-quranun kareemun) (the Noble Qur'an). In a Book well-guarded (with Allah in the heaven i.e. Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz). Which (that Book with Allah) none can touch but the purified (i.e. the angels). A Revelation (this Qur'an) from the Lord of the 'Alamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists). S. 56:77-80

Nay! This is a Glorious Qur'an, (Inscribed) in Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz (The Preserved Tablet)! S. 85:21-22 Hilali-Khan

The Quran also claims that Allah has a book in which he has recorded everything that will occur:

And no (moving) living creature is there on earth but its provision is due from Allah. And He knows its dwelling place and its deposit (in the uterous, grave, etc.). All is in a Clear Book (Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz - the Book of Decrees with Allah). S. 11:6 Hilali-Khan

No calamity befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees (Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before We bring it into existence. Verily, that is easy for Allah. S. 57:22 Hilali-Khan; cf. 22:70; 27:75; 33:6; 34:3; 35:11

The hadith literature provides further substantiation that there is a heavenly book:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet said, "When Allah created the Creation, He wrote in His Book -- and He wrote (that) about Himself, and it is placed with Him on the Throne -- 'Verily My Mercy overcomes My Anger.'" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 501)

Narrated 'Imran bin Hussain:
While I was with the Prophet, some people from Bani Tamim came to him. The Prophet said, "O Bani Tamim! Accept the good news!" They said, "You have given us the good news; now give us (something)." (After a while) some Yemenites entered, and he said to them, "O the people of Yemen! Accept the good news, as Bani Tamim have refused it." They said, "We accept it, for we have come to you to learn the Religion. So we ask you what the beginning of this universe was." The Prophet said "There was Allah and nothing else before Him and His Throne was over the water, and He then created the Heavens and the Earth and wrote everything in the Book." … (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 514)

In conclusion, there really is no good evidence to support that Muhammad was illiterate. The evidence actually proves the contrary, i.e. Muhammad could read and was actually reciting from a book that he had written or had others write down.

Articles by Sam Shamoun
Answering Islam Home Page