This is related to this question, as well as to this one and this one, which all seem to lean towards "The prophet of Islam was illiterate", which I find troubling.

Indeed, the very first commandment he got in the cave was "read!", and he had 23 years to obey that commandment (from the first revelation to his death).

Is anyone aware of any source or debate tackling this apparent incoherence?

Precision: This question is not about whether or not he was illiterate -- I am aware that this is not, in itself, a consensus, and that some people believe he actually was literate. This questions could be asked differently as : "How can those who do believe that he was illiterate until his death justify that he disobeyed the very first order he was given?".

  • @Sayyid well I never had problems with the mods and god knows I have had some harsh debates on this site, don't hesitate to speak your (source-justified, fact-supplied) opinion ;). Regarding what you said, there are numerous sources on the illiteracy: where he asks someone to write, or when Ali refuses to erase the name of Allah in the treaty of Hudha'ibia, and the prophet asks him to show him where it was written - because he couldn't read - so that he erases it himself. So while you are right in what you said on the meaning of "Umi", you cannot dismiss the view that he was indeed illiterate
    – ZakC
    Mar 26, 2016 at 18:43
  • Thus, someone deleted my comment. proving the oppression I go through :P
    – Sayyid
    Mar 26, 2016 at 20:52
  • Well, where exactly did this belief of him being Illiterate come from? If you can find its origin, you can find the problem.
    – Sayyid
    Mar 26, 2016 at 20:55
  • 1
    @ZakC A small note It would be respectful and better to add in the title mentioning "peace be upon him" or "SAW" after writing the name Muhammad (peace be upon him).JazakAllah
    – Syedah
    Mar 27, 2016 at 3:40
  • 1
    @servant, I appreciate your note, and I understand it. However, in the spirit of Stack Exchange, I am taking the study of Islam entirely independent of all religious, sacred, or mystic aspects, exactly in the same way I participate in the math or computer science sites. The only points of matter here are "what is the answer to this question in an Islamic context". As such, and considering Islam solely as a subject of study and not of veneration, I feel it is not the place to make extra formalities that are of a religious aspect.
    – ZakC
    Mar 27, 2016 at 18:48

3 Answers 3


One can only read if one has learnt to write! So both reading and writing are actions which we learn simultaneously!

On the illiterates of the Prophet

The Verse which underlines the illiterates of Mohammad (Peace be upon him) is (29:48) where the word used is تَتْلُو instead of تقرأ! Which means read and recite loudly. But from this Verse we can only conclude the certainty that Mohammad (Peace be upon him) was at least illiterate at the beginning of the revelation! Any time later needs strong evidence.
I strongly recommend you to read different translations as some translators used read while others used recite etc.!

Note that surat al-'Ankabut is makki and the 85th surah revealed according this link!

On the meaning of اقرأ

According to many Fatwas (I'll quote them later): This word or the order "اقرأ" is used in Arabic in two different meanings:

  1. to express the process of reading (from) a written text.
    This is the meaning used in Verse (17:14): as anyone of us would be asked to read what from his record on Judgement day! And as we might not know or have forgotten what we committed we are not prepared to recite it from our memory, so we may need to read it!
  2. to express the process of reciting from ones memory.
    Here we have many examples from Quran like (16:98) and (75:17-18). But for the Verse of surat an-Nahl the meaning in my opinion differs according to the person who will recite or read Quran if it's a hafidh/hafiz then he might recite from his memory if it's not a hafiz he may read the text!

"Al-‘Allaamah Taahir ibn ‘Ashoor (may Allah have mercy on him) says: The word “Iqra’ (read or recite)” is a command to read or recite. This word refers to speaking particular words that are either written or memorized by heart.
He afterwards quoted the Hadith of 'Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her) then he concluded:
It was in this sense that the angel said to him on the three occasions “Iqra’ (read or recite),” repeating the phrase that had been revealed by Allah, and it was a repetition intended to put him at ease with a recitation that he had not learned before.

No object is mentioned for the verb “read” (or “recite”), either because it came in the form of an intransitive verb; or it was because what was to be read or recited was clear from the context, and what was meant was: recite what We are going to send down to you of the Qur’an. "

From this we can conclude that the meaning of اقرأ here is recite from your memory:
As Mohammad (Peace be upon him) was asked several times to recite/read, he then understood that he was not meant to read something rather then to recite what he has been told/taught and repeated it. So he didn't disobey the first order which was given to him at all, but followed it once he knew what this order was all about!

About Verse (29:38) ibn 'Ashoor said that this Verse explicitly neglected the writing and reading/recitation to show and clear any possible doubt that the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) was illiterate!

See also this Fatawa in Arabic, English and again in Arabic.

And Allah knows best!

  • Thank you for your answer. Being the clearest, I accept it. Although, I don't really understand why you started with that bit about reading and writing. On the one hand, I disagree, we learn to read way before we learn to write, on the other, I don't see why it is part of the answer... Can you clarify ?
    – ZakC
    Mar 29, 2016 at 21:24
  • 2
    I think you might be comparing the situation to now, where we are confronted to letters everywhere-> On the streets, at Home .... But we only learn reading and writing when we go to school, and you can only learn to read a letter if you saw it written and the best way to memorize it is to write it yourself. And this is the basis on which you can say that somebody is illiterate: can he read and write? Not only read! That's why Verse 29:38 from surat al-'Ankabut is so important as it's the proof of his illiterates -at least at the beginning of the revelation-.
    – Medi1Saif
    Mar 30, 2016 at 5:32


اقرأ has 2 meanings - read and recite. When the Prophet (Saw) was told اقرأ he thought he was being told to read, and that is why he said ما انا بقارئ (i cannot read). when Jibraeel (as) recited the words, that is when he realised he was being told to recite (ie repeat the words being spoken to him) and that is what he did.

see Mawrid dictionary's entry at http://ejtaal.net/mr/img/maw/8/maw-0853.png

Hope that helps clear up the confusion.



Who said the verse was directed at him specifically?

The Quran is supposed to be a scripture for all humanity so many things in the Quran are aimed at all Muslims e.g. Fast ramadan, pray your salaat etc.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that everything is meant to be taken as a literal command for all Muslims. When this does happen, we get extremist groups like ISIS who try and justify their actions by interpreting everything literally.

According to Islamic tradition, during one such occasion while he was in contemplation, the archangel Gabriel appeared before him in the year 610 CE and said, "Read", upon which he replied, "I am unable to read". Thereupon the angel caught hold of him and embraced him heavily. This happened two more times after which the angel commanded Muhammad to recite the following verses:

"Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created-

Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,-
Who taught by the pen-
Taught man that which he knew not."


On reading the question again, I realise that you seem to be implying that the Prophet refused to "read". At the time, very few people actually could read or write Arabic and I suspect it wasn't as useful or necessary to be literate at the time than nowadays, more so by the fact there were people who could have just scribed for the Prophet like Aisha and Abu Hurraira.

It would also have most likely been harder for him to learn how to read even if he had tried - he was 40 years old when this verse was first revealed to him.

There is also the fact that the same Arabic word can have a variation of meanings. The word used for read in the quote is "اقرأ" which can also mean recite or even proclaim.

  • 1
    Let's take them one at a time: "The order was not specific" so what? He is, by his own words "the first of Muslims" (Aoualou al muslimine), he leads by example. "Yatta yatta ISIS" : this is the Muslim equivalent of the Godwin's Law. You say "not everything should be literal", unless you give a specific reason why this verse in particular is not meant to be literal, your point is invalid. Then a source that does not really add anything.
    – ZakC
    Mar 26, 2016 at 21:47
  • Then an insinuation that I am implying something, which I am not. Then "it was not useful": other than signing treaties, doing commerce, and checking on the writing of the Quran, yes, not much use. Then "it was hard", if no source, not valid, especially knowing that people learn to read all the time. Besides, when was that a reason to avoid doing god's will, the Quran says god never gives you a task that is impossible to you. And finally, give sources on the "variations of meanings". And overall, I realize you are new here, but answers with no sources whatsoever are frowned upon.
    – ZakC
    Mar 26, 2016 at 21:50
  • Ok. First off, I apologise for my noobiness. I kind of forgot this site prefers sources for reliability so let me offer some sources. Consider the following verse: Mar 27, 2016 at 15:56
  • "It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise - they are the foundation of the Book - and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah . But those firm in knowledge say, "We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord." And no one will be reminded except those of understanding. " Quran 3:7 Mar 27, 2016 at 15:57
  • This verse itself shows that there are verses that can be either literal or "Precise" and metaphorical/allegorical or "Unclear". More often than not, there can be verses where it's unclear whether it is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically. This is where we try and use our own common sense to distinguish or try to get other ideas or opinions on certain verses in the form of tafseers or commentaries of the Quran. About the idea of being literate not being useful, this is not what I meant. I said that it might not have been as useful as it is nowadays. Mar 27, 2016 at 16:08

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