Muhammad (saw) couldn’t read, because he was unlettered!
What did it mean to be unlettered?
Was it the inability to read a line of letters?
According to the Quran, the Arabs were of two kinds:
- The People of the Book; that is, those who were able to read and write the Old and New Testaments…
- The unlettered: those who couldn’t read or write the Old and New Testament and thus couldn’t take part in reproducing them through writing.
In other words, the division, according to the Quran, was done according to the ability to read and write the Old and New Testaments. Those who couldn’t were called ‘unlettered’.
There were some people who not only read the Old and New Testaments, but also assumed their reproduction through writing a duty… While others didn’t read these books at all and worshipped various idols in the Kaaba.
A very small minority neither read/wrote these books nor worshipped idols; they were the Hanif.
Both Muhammad (saw) and Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (ra) were of the unlettered ones, i.e. they did not read and write the Old and New Testaments as they were not of the People of the Book, and thus they were called Hanif.
This is the why the Quran addresses Muhammad (saw) with the verses:
“His Rasul, the Ummi (unlettered) Nabi”
“Ask the People of the Book and the unlettered ones…”
“And you did not recite any book (like the Torah and the Bible) before (the knowledge we disclosed), nor did you inscribe it with your right hand...”
If we look objectively, we will see that the verse “Ask the People of the Book and the unlettered ones” clearly divides the people into two categories: the lettered ones as the People of the Book, i.e. those who can read and write the Old and New Testaments, and the unlettered ones as those who can’t read and write the Old and New Testaments.
The verse, “You teach the Book and the Wisdom even though you are of the unlettered ones” denotes, even though the Rasul did not read and write the Old and New Testaments, he taught people the knowledge contained in them; he informed them of past incidents recorded in these books. This proves he received news from the same source as these books, i.e. revelation, just as other Nabis did for the purpose of fulfilling their duty of Nubuwwah.
If he knew of and was able to narrate the information contained in the Old and New Testaments even though he was unlettered and thus hadn’t read these books before, then this meant his source of information was that of Moses’ and Jesus’. In other words, he was receiving divine revelation.
Another important distinction is in regards to the ability to read. What exactly did the word ‘iqra’ (read) mean? Let’s consider the place and conditions under which the command ‘READ’ was given to Muhammad (saw)… He was in front of a cave at the top of Mount Hira approximately 1,400 years ago and there was no written text in sight! Had there been and had Muhammad said, “I am not of those who can read,” we would know doubtlessly this was literally about ‘reading’ as we know it. But, since this wasn’t the case, and since, interestingly, Muhammad’s (saw) response was, “I am not of those who can read” rather than “What shall I read?”, which would have been the natural response of someone who didn’t know what he was being asked to read, it’s evident that Muhammad (saw) knew what he was being asked to read, yet he did not know how to! For his inability to read was not the inability to decipher a simple line of letters; it was not the inability to read and write in the literal sense!
So, what was it?