Was Muhammad illiterate?

May God forgive me and guide me regarding any sign that would have been misinterpreted in this study and elsewhere. May He always guide us to a better understanding of His profound scripture so we can purify ourselves and increase our knowledge. 

This question may at first glance seem surprising for traditional Muslims who have been taught since childhood that Muhammad was and remained illiterate his entire life. Several reformist Muslims such as Rashad Khalifa have on the other hand argued, and with very powerful arguments, that Muhammad could not possibly be illiterate because the first verse revealed commands him to “read!” (96:1). In addition, if you study all verses which contain the word “ummi” (singular and plural), translated in Sunni and Shia Islam as “illiterate”, it is obvious, as we will prove, that “ummi” has a different meaning in the Quran.

We are first going to study the definition of the word “ummi” in the light of the Quran. We will then quote a major Biblical prophecy (Isaiah 29:10-12) which foretold the advent of a book revealed to an illiterate prophet, as well as an unequivocal Quranic verse (29:48) which demonstrates that, indeed, Muhammad was illiterate at the time he received the revelation.

How can we reconcile on the one hand that God commanded to Muhammad to “read” and that it is obvious that the word “Ummi” does not signify “illiterate” in Quran, and, on the other hand, that Muhammad most definitely had to be illiterate according to both the Bible and the Quran? We will demonstrate that the key to solve this apparent dilemma is that Muhammad was indeed illiterate at the time the Quran was revealed to him on the night of decree (sura 96-97), but that he had no other choice but to obey God’s command and learn how “read” and write afterwards. Finally, we will explain why the Quran was entirely revealed on the night of decree in Muhammad’s heart by Gabriel (2:97) and then revealed in stages (25:32), which is directly related to the crucial initial command to “read”.

Table of content

1. Definition of the word “ummi”

1.1 The definition in the Lane dictionary

1.2. The word “ummi” in the Quran

2. God commanded to Muhammad to “read!”

3. The Bible and the Quran concur that Muhammad was illiterate at the time God revealed the Quran to him.

4. How was the Quran revealed?


1. Definition of the word “ummi”

1.1 The definition in the Lane dictionary

We can therefore summarize the above definition of the word “ummi” (أُمِّىٌّ) as signifying:

– (1) “Gentile”, in the sense of a person who does not follow a revealed scripture or did not receive or acquire any knowledge of the Holy scriptures.

– (2) “Illiterate”, meaning that a person can neither read nor write.

Let us now study all words “ummi” (singular and plural) in the Quran:

1.2. The word “ummi” in the Quran

وَمِنْهُمْ أُمِّيُّونَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ إِلَّآ أَمَانِىَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَظُنُّونَ

(2:78) And among them are ummiyoona who do not know the book (ٱلْكِتَٰبَ = previous revelations) except through wishful thinking, and all they do is guessing.

In the context of the sura, the verse refers to the Jews, some of whom used to hear the word of God (the Torah) then distort it (2:75), and the verse teaches us that among them, some are “ummiyoona” (أُمِّيُّونَ) who do not know the book (God’s revelations) except through wishful thinking. The verse provides therefore the definition of the word “ummi” as “not knowing the book”, that is to say that you can be a Jew, and still be “ummi” if you do not have sound knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.

فَإِنْ حَآجُّوكَ فَقُلْ أَسْلَمْتُ وَجْهِىَ لِلَّهِ وَمَنِ ٱتَّبَعَنِ وَقُل

لِّلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ وَٱلْأُمِّيِّۦنَ ءَأَسْلَمْتُمْ فَإِنْ أَسْلَمُوا۟ فَقَدِ

ٱهْتَدَوا۟ وَّإِن تَوَلَّوْا۟ فَإِنَّمَا عَلَيْكَ ٱلْبَلَٰغُ وَٱللَّهُ بَصِيرٌۢ بِٱلْعِبَادِ

(3:20) And if they argue with you, then say: “I have submitted myself to God as well as those who follow me.” And say to those who received the book and the ummiyoona: “Have you submitted yourself? And if they submitted, then they are surely guided, but if they turn back, your sole duty is to convey [the message]; God is ever watchful of [His] servants.

In the verse, the two expressions “(1) those who received the book and (2) the ummiyoona” have opposite meanings: “Those who received the book” are primarily Jews, Christians and possibly Sabeans who studied and learned Holy scriptures, while “ummiyoon” are people who did not receive any knowledge of the scriptures such as the polytheists Arabs and sometimes even Jews who only have a vague, indirect knowledge of the scriptures as mentioned in 2:78.

وَمِنْ أَهْلِ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ مَنْ إِن تَأْمَنْهُ بِقِنطَارٍ يُؤَدِّهِۦٓ إِلَيْكَ

وَمِنْهُم مَّنْ إِن تَأْمَنْهُ بِدِينَارٍ لَّا يُؤَدِّهِۦٓ إِلَيْكَ إِلَّا مَا

دُمْتَ عَلَيْهِ قَآئِمًا ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَالُوا۟ لَيْسَ عَلَيْنَا فِى

ٱلْأُمِّيِّۦنَ سَبِيلٌ وَيَقُولُونَ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ ٱلْكَذِبَ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ

This verse likely refers to the treatises of Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin 57a), i.e. the Talmud, which is the Jewish equivalent of Hadiths and Sunna in Sunni Islam and states that a Jew can legitimately steal from a gentile (non-Jew). This is a blatant violation of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-17) and the word “al ummiyoona” (ٱلْأُمِّيِّۦنَ) in 3:75 refers here to “gentiles” (non-Jews), as understood by Jews themselves.

ٱلَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ ٱلرَّسُولَ ٱلنَّبِىَّ ٱلْأُمِّىَّ ٱلَّذِى يَجِدُونَهُۥ مَكْتُوبًا

عِندَهُمْ فِى ٱلتَّوْرَىٰةِ وَٱلْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَىٰهُمْ

عَنِ ٱلْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ ٱلطَّيِّبَٰتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ ٱلْخَبَٰٓئِثَ  وَيَضَعُ

عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَٱلْأَغْلَٰلَ ٱلَّتِى كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ فَٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ بِهِۦ

وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَٱتَّبَعُوا۟ ٱلنُّورَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أُنزِلَ مَعَهُۥٓ أُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْمُفْلِحُونَ

(7:157) Those who follow the Messenger, al ummiyya Prophet whom they find written down to their intention in the Torah and the Gospel. He commands them what is right and forbids them what is wrong. He permits them what is pure and prohibits them what is impure and relieves them from their obligations and shackles which afflicted them. Those who believe in him, assist him and protect him, and follow the light which was sent down with him; those will be the successful ones.

According to the above and preceding verses, “al nabiyya al ummiyya” (ٱلنَّبِىَّ ٱلْأُمِّىَّ = the ummi prophet) “whom they find written down in the Torah and the Gospel” signifies that Muhammad had no prior knowledge of any Holy Scriptures and does not contradict the fact that he may have been illiterate, but it is not part of the broad definition of the word “ummi” from a Quranic standpoint. In other words, “al nabiyya al ummiyya” should be translated here as “the gentile prophet” as he initially had no prior knowledge of Holy Scriptures.

قُلْ يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنِّى رَسُولُ ٱللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا

ٱلَّذِى لَهُۥ مُلْكُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ لَآ إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ

يُحْىِۦ وَيُمِيتُ فَـَٔامِنُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ ٱلنَّبِىِّ ٱلْأُمِّىِّ

ٱلَّذِى يُؤْمِنُ بِٱللَّهِ وَكَلِمَٰتِهِۦ وَٱتَّبِعُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ

(7:158) Say, “O people, I am GOD’s messenger to all of you. To Him belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no god beside Him. He controls life and death.” Therefore, you shall believe in GOD and His messenger, al ummiyyi Prophet, who believes in GOD and His Words. Follow him, that you may be guided.

Verse 158 follows 7:157, therefore “al nabiyyi al ummiyyi” (ٱلنَّبِىِّ ٱلْأُمِّىِّ) has the same meaning as in 7:157, i.e. “the gentile prophet” who initially had no prior knowledge of previous Holy Scriptures.

هُوَ ٱلَّذِى بَعَثَ فِى ٱلْأُمِّيِّۦنَ رَسُولًا مِّنْهُمْ

يَتْلُوا۟ عَلَيْهِمْ ءَايَٰتِهِۦ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ

وَٱلْحِكْمَةَ وَإِن كَانُوا۟ مِن قَبْلُ لَفِى ضَلَٰلٍ مُّبِينٍ

(62:2) He is the one who sent to al ummiyoona a messenger from among themselves in order to recite to them His verses, purify them and teach them the book and wisdom; this despite the fact that they were previously in manifest blunder.

The verse states that Muhammad was sent among his people (the Arabs) who were “gentiles”, meaning that they had not been initiated to any previous Holy Scriptures.

To conclude this section, the word “ummi” refers to non-Jews (gentiles) when the word is used by the Jewish community (3:75), but refers primarily in the Quran to “people not initiated to previous Holy Scriptures” (3:20, 62:2) or uneducated Jews who received only superficial knowledge of the Scriptures through hearsay (2:78). The prophet is called twice the “ummi” prophet foretold in previous Holy Scriptures (7:157-158), meaning that he had no prior knowledge of the Bible and was therefore initially a “gentile”.

Consequently, “ummi” never signifies “illiterate” in the Quran, despite the fact that “al ummiyoon” (the gentiles) can definitely be illiterate, but it is in no way part of the Quranic definition.

2. God commanded to Muhammad to “read!”

Rashad Khalifa was possibly the first Muslim to make a powerful argument against the claim that Muhammad was illiterate in appendix 28 of his translation of the Quran:

“The first revelation was “Read,” and included the statement “God teaches by means of the pen” (96:1-4), and the second revelation was “The Pen” (68:1). The only function of the pen is to write.” (end quote)

Let us read 96:1-4:

ٱقْرَأْ بِٱسْمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ

(96:1) Read! (O Muhammad) In the name of Lord who created.

خَلَقَ ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ

(96:2) He created the human being from a clinging embryo.

ٱقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ ٱلْأَكْرَمُ

(96:3) Read! (O Muhammad) And your Lord is the Most Generous.

ٱلَّذِى عَلَّمَ بِٱلْقَلَمِ

(96:4) The One who teaches by means of the pen.

In other words, God commands to Muhammad in the second person masculine singular of the imperative tense to “read!” (ٱقْرَأ), not just once, but twice (96:1, 96:3). Almost every time the Quran uses the second person masculine in the imperative, the commands are directly addressed to Muhammad who is the recipient of the revelation and whose duty was to transmit the revelation to mankind:

ٱقْرَأ = Read! (O Muhammad!).

Could Muhammad have disobeyed God Almighty and have remained illiterate his entire life after receiving this first and most primordial command for him and for future generations?!

Therefore, the extreme importance of learning is a core message in Islam and is strategically placed at the very origin of the revelation (96:1-3); God created us to work extremely hard and strive for goodness (5:48, 17:19, 53:39-40, 94:5-6, etc…).

Some translators and exegetes who understand very well how incoherent it would be for God to command to Muhammad to “read!” and that he would have remained illiterate his entire life assert that “iqra” (ٱقْرَأ = read!) signifies “recite!” and not “read!”. Such an argument is not valid because there is a different verb used to express “to recite” (تَلَىٰ = talâ, see 2:44, 2:102, 2:113, 2:121, 2:129, 2:151, 2:252…) throughout the Quran and which is used 61 times, for instance:

تِلْكَ ءَايَٰتُ ٱللَّهِ نَتْلُوهَا عَلَيْكَ بِٱلْحَقِّ

فَبِأَىِّ حَدِيثٍۭ بَعْدَ ٱللَّهِ وَءَايَٰتِهِۦ يُؤْمِنُونَ

(45:6) These are God’s verses which We recite (نَتْلُوهَا) unto you (O Mohammad) in truth. So, in which hadith other than (lit: beyond, after) Allah and his verses do they believe!

The verb “to read” is used in 17:14 to inform us that we all will have to “read” (not recite!) our record on the Day of Judgment:

ٱقْرَأْ كِتَٰبَكَ كَفَىٰ بِنَفْسِكَ ٱلْيَوْمَ عَلَيْكَ حَسِيبًا

(17:14) Read (ٱقْرَأْ) your record (literally: “your book”)! Today, you suffice as your own reckoner.

Note: The same verb in the imperative is also used in the same way in 69:19 and signifies “read My book!”.

Let’s give one more example to prove that the verb “qarâ” (قَرَأَ) means “to read” and not “to recite” (تَلَىٰ):

يَوْمَ نَدْعُوا۟ كُلَّ أُنَاسٍۭ بِإِمَٰمِهِمْ فَمَنْ أُوتِىَ كِتَٰبَهُۥ

بِيَمِينِهِۦ فَأُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ يَقْرَءُونَ كِتَٰبَهُمْ وَلَا يُظْلَمُونَ فَتِيلًا

(17:71) The Day We will call forth every people with their record [of deeds]. Then whoever is given his book in his right hand will be the ones who will read their book, and no injustice will affect them, [even] as much as a thread [inside the date seed].

The reason why we will be given our record in our right hand (God willing) is for the purpose of “reading” it (verb قَرَأَ), not reciting it (verb تَلَىٰ).

Rashad Khalifa continues in appendix 28: 

The Prophet was a successful merchant. The “Muslim scholars” who fabricated the illiteracy lie forgot that there were no numbers during the Prophet’s time; the letters of the alphabet were used as numbers. As a merchant dealing with numbers every day, the Prophet had to know the alphabet, from one to one-thousand. The Quran tells us that Muhammad wrote down the Quran – Muhammad’s contemporaries are quoted as saying,

[Quran 25:5] They also said, “Tales from the past that he wrote down; they were dictated to him day and night.”

You cannot “dictate” to an illiterate person. The Prophet’s enemies who accuse him of illiteracy abuse Verse 29:48, which relates specifically to previous scriptures.” (end quote)

Again, Rashad Khalifa makes two additional powerful arguments as numbers as we know them today did not exist at the time of the prophet and Arabs used the abjad system to count, assigning a numerical value (from 1 to 1000) to each of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet. Being a successful merchant for many years before he received the revelation, Muhammad could not possibly have ignored the Arabic alphabet. Does it necessarily imply that he knew how to read and write words and complete sentences? Clearly not; but Rashad’s arguments, especially the one pertaining to 96:1-4 are extremely convincing, including the one regarding 25:5 which shows that that his contemporaries asserted that an exegete was “dictating to him” (تُمْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِ = passive form) morning and evening. If it were not a well-known fact at the time the sura was revealed that Muhammad had learned how to read and write, his adversaries would not have bothered to make such a claim.

3. The Bible and the Quran concur that Muhammad was illiterate at the time God revealed the Quran to him.

Isaiah 29:10-12:

10 For the LORD has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep. He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. 11 All the future events in this vision are like a sealed book to them. When you give it to those who can read, they will say, “We can’t read it because it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot readsaying, “Read this”, he says, “I cannot read.

Isaiah 29:10-12 is one of many passages in the Old and New testament which prophecy the advent of the Quran and Muhammad. These verses foretell that a “book” will be presented to literate prophets and seers, but they will be unable to read it because “the book is sealed to them”. But when the book will be presented to a prophet who says, “I cannot read”, the passage implies that he will be the one who is destined to unseal the book and deliver it to mankind.

I challenge anyone to name one prophet among the ones sent to the people of Israel who was illiterate: You will not find a single one. On the other hand, it is a universally well-known fact that Muhammad was illiterate at the time the Quran was revealed to him.

The book of Isaiah is one of the many books found in the caves of Qumran and chapter 29 is entirely preserved. The various scrolls and fragments from the book of Isaiah were carbon dated between 350 and 50 BCE. The above passage corroborates the text found in the later versions of the book of Isaiah and we can therefore attest that the above prophecy is most likely unaltered.

Mirroring the major Biblical prophecy in Isaiah 29:10-12, the Holy Quran confirms that Muhammad was illiterate:

وَمَا كُنتَ تَتْلُو مِن قَبْلِهِ مِن كِتَابٍ وَلَا

تَخُطُّهُ بِيَمِينِكَ إِذًا لَّارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ

(29:48) You were not able to recite any book before this (the Quran), nor did you write down any with your right hand. Thus, those who nullify [their acts] could only be plagued by doubts.

In addition, the verse is written in a distinctive way which implies that Muhammad learned how to read and write after he was blessed with the revelation of the Quran: “You were not able to read any book before this (the Quran),…”. Muhammad could not read nor write before this (مِن قَبْلِهِ) Quran, but it does not indicate that it remained the case after this Quran was revealed to him. On the contrary, the particular way the verse is composed implies that Muhammad learned how to “read” and write (by means of the pen, 96:1-4) afterwards.

Muhammad’s illiteracy at the time he was blessed with the revelation was therefore a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah and 29:48 clarifies that his illiteracy was a sign meant to deny to the unbelievers the slightest pretext to reject that the Quran is the word of God. Muhammad had spent an entire lifetime (10:16) as an illiterate person among a polytheist tribe with no knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and he had no rational reason to attempt to dupe his peers.

4. How was the Quran revealed?

In my opinion, the entire Quran was revealed on the night of decree. Sura 96 is located directly before sura 97 which states that the Quran, meaning the whole Quran, was revealed on the night of decree:

إِنَّآ أَنزَلْنَٰهُ فِى لَيْلَةِ ٱلْقَدْرِ

(97:1) Indeed, We revealed it (the entire Quran) on the night of decree.

The Quran was revealed all at once by Gabriel (2:97, 16:102, 26:193):

قُلْ مَن كَانَ عَدُوًّا لِّجِبْرِيلَ فَإِنَّهُۥ نَزَّلَهُۥ عَلَىٰ قَلْبِكَ بِإِذْنِ

ٱللَّهِ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَهُدًى وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ

(2:97) Whoever is Gabriel’s enemy, then indeed, he has revealed it (the Quran) in your heart (O’ Muhammad) by God’s leave, confirming what was [revealed] before it and guidance and good news for the believers.

It was then released from Muhammad’s memory in a specific sequence:

وَقَالَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ لَوْلَا نُزِّلَ عَلَيْهِ ٱلْقُرْءَانُ جُمْلَةً

وَٰحِدَةً كَذَٰلِكَ لِنُثَبِّتَ بِهِۦ فُؤَادَكَ وَرَتَّلْنَٰهُ تَرْتِيلًا

(25:32) Those who disbelieved said: “Why wasn’t the Quran revealed to him all at once?” That way, We could strengthen your heart and We have rehearsed it gradually in well-arranged stages.

The disbelievers were wondering why the Quran was not revealed to Muhammad all at once. Paradoxically, it was. The Quran was revealed or “downloaded” in Muhammad’s heart by Gabriel all at once (2:97, 97:1), and it appeared to them that it wasn’t because it was subsequently released gradually in stages over about twenty years from his heart which functioned as cellular memory in order to coincide with future events and needs in the Islamic community.

According to well established, now mainstream scientific research, memory is stored in the brain, but also in organs, and most notably in the heart. We will mention here a true story related in a book entitled “The heart’s code”, by Dr Paul Pearsall. It is the story of an 8-year-old girl, not named for obvious reasons, who received a heart transplant from a 10-year-old girl recently deceased; she began having vivid nightmares of being murdered shortly after the surgery. A psychiatrist took her story so seriously that he hired a forensic artist to draw a portrait of the murderer in the dream. The portrait was given to the police which was able to identify and arrest a suspect who confessed being the murderer. The young girl was thus able to provide to the police a full description of the murderer, what he was wearing when the slaying occurred, as well as the time, place and murder weapon. She was even able to detail what the victim said to the murderer when she was killed. The murderer was thus arrested and convicted, we can say thanks to the cellular memory engraved in the heart of the deceased. This story and many others can be found in “The heart’s code” by Paul Pearsall, PhD. Editor: Harmony, 1999.

This case is by no means isolated and the fact that transplanted organs have the potential to convey elements of the memory and habits of a donor has been documented and well established for many years. Some patients who receive organs are sometimes capable of understanding words in a foreign language which they did not even learn, which demonstrates that the heart they receive stores information that is then communicated to their brain.

This illustrates why the Quran was revealed by Gabriel in Muhammad’s heart (2:97): Because it was the best way to store and retrieve the Quran gradually afterwards in a specific sequence (25:32). When it was time for a sura to be revealed to Muhammad’s contemporaries to coincide with a particular event or need, Gabriel and possibly angels could then unlock the information stored in his heart so he could recite and write a specific sura because he had learned how to “read” and “write” by means of the pen (96:1-4) after the initial revelation.

We can also see the revelation of the Quran in Muhammad’s heart as somewhat similar as what is observed through hypnosis when people do not apparently remember or are not conscious of something that they saw, but can provide exceptionally accurate details of events when their memory is accessed through hypnosis.


The word “ummiyun” (أُمِّىٌّ) is translated as either “gentile” or “illiterate” in classical dictionaries. The Quranic definition is different as it never signifies “illiterate” anywhere in the Quran but “gentile”, that is to say a person who does not have any knowledge or sound expertise of prior Holy Scriptures. From Jews’ standpoint in the Quran, “ummi” signifies a non-Jew (3:75), but the Quran considers uneducated Jews (regarding religious matters) as “ummiyoon” (gentiles) as well (2:78).

Some reformist Muslims such as Rashad Khalifa have asserted that Muhammad was not illiterate, while Sunnis and Shias claim that he remained in that state his entire life. Both are partially right and wrong as the truth stands exactly in between. The Bible (Isaiah 29:10-12) prophesied that a book would be revealed to an illiterate prophet, which is confirmed in the Quran in 29:48 and demonstrates that Muhammad could neither read nor write before the revelation of the Quran (on the night of decree), the language of the verse implying that he learned subsequently. 96:1 is the first verse revealed to Muhammad (after the Bismillah in 96:0) and the first word revealed to him commands him to “Read!”. The same command is repeated in 96:3. Muhammad could not possibly disobey God and he had no choice but to learn to “read” afterwards, God specifying in 96:4 that He is “The One who teaches by means of the pen”. Therefore, he learned how to read and write from then on which is manifest in 25:5:

(25:5) And they say: “Tales from the past from early generations that he wrote down; they were dictated to him morning and evening.”

Muhammad’s contemporaries all knew that he was illiterate before he was blessed with the revelation of the Quran (29:48), but they also witnessed firsthand the transformation in his life when he learned how to read and write afterwards, which allowed them to make the above claim.

The Quran was entirely revealed in Muhammad’s heart by Gabriel (2:97) on the night of decree (97:1) because the human heart has an exceptional capacity to store memory in its cells. Gabriel or angels could then gradually unlock specific suras from Muhammad’s heart so he could access them, recite them to his people and write them down.

Article published on 7/16/2020.