"Unschooled" Prophet And The Word "Ummi"? (1)

"Unschooled" Prophet And The Word "Ummi"? (1)

The claim of Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif (who observes that the source of belief in an "unschooled" Prophet (SA) has been in the interpretation of the word "ummi"), is unfounded. This is because, firstly, the history of the Arabs and the Mecca at the advent of Islam, is decisive evidence of the fact that the Prophet (SA) was untaught. Earlier, we have explained that the status of reading and writing in Hijaz at the advent of Islam, was such that the names of all the people familiar with reading and writing were recorded in the history, but no one had listed the Prophet (SA) among such people. Assuming that there was no reference to the question, nor any explanation thereof, Muslims following the unquestionable verdict of history, would have to accept that their Prophet (SA) was untaught.

Secondly, in the Holy Qur'an, there is another verse that is not less explicit than the verses of Surah "Al-Ar'af containing the word "ummi". On the concept of "ummi" used in the verses of "Surah Al-A'raf", the opinion is divided among the Islamic interpreters of the Qur'an; but on the concept of the following verse which indicates unschooled or untaught Prophet (SA), there is no difference of opinion: "And you did not read before it any book, nor did you write one with your right hand, for then those, who say untrue things, could have doubted."(1)

This verse makes it explicit that the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote before his prophethood. Islamic exegetes have generally given a similar interpretation of the verse. But Dr `Abd al-Latif claims that, the very verse has been misinterpreted. He claims that the word "kitab" used in this verse, has a reference to such sacred books as the Tawrat (Old Testament) and the Injil (Bible). He claims that the verse suggests that until the revelation of the Holy Qur'an, the Prophet (SA) was unfamiliar with any sacred book, for such books were not available in Arabic, and if the Prophet (SA) had read the books available then in a language other than Arabic, he would have been suspected and accused by the idle talkers.

This claim is not true. Contrary to its meaning nowadays widely used in Persian, the word "kitab" in Arabic language has been defined purely as "writing", be it a letter or a book, sacred or otherwise, or be it holy or otherwise. This word has been used in the Holy Qur'an repeatedly. Occasionally, this word "kitab" has been used (in the Holy Qur'an) to signify a letter sent by one person to another, such as the one concerning the "Queen of Saba": "O Noble Men! I have received a revered letter from Sulayman (Solomon) "; and occasionally it is used in connection with an agreement concluded as a document between the two parties: "Slaves who wish to be freed as per an agreement, accede to their requests to conclude such contracts".

At times the term has been used in connection with occult tablets and heavenly truths which tell scientific facts about the world events: "There is neither anything green nor dry but (it is all) in a clear book ...."(2) In the Holy Qur'an, only at places where the word "ahl" has been added to form "ahl al-kitab", a particular concept is meant. "Ahl al-Kitab" signifies "the followers of a heavenly book." In the Surah al-Nisa' of the Holy Qur'an, reads: "The followers of the heavenly book shall ask you to send unto them a letter from the heavens. " In this verse, the term has been employed at two places: at one place, in conjunction with the term "ahl" and at another place, it is used alone. Wherever the term "ahl" has been prefixed, it is meant "heavenly book" and wherever it is used alone it is meant "letter".(3)

In addition, the construction of the sentence: "You did not write with your right hand" suggests: "You did neither read nor write and if you knew how to read and write, you would have been accused of copying from some other source; but since you did not know how to read or write, there was no room for such an accusation". However, if the purport is that "You did not read the holy books since they were available in other languages", then, the verse would be under-stood as: "earlier you neither read nor wrote in other languages", which is not right, for only reading the books in those languages would have well justified the accusation, and also it would not have been necessary for him to have been able to write in those languages. If he had been able to write in those languages, it would have justified the accusation, even though he should have written in his own language. Admittedly, here, there is a point which may confirm Dr `Abd al-Latif's view, even though neither he himself nor any one of the exegetists has given attention to this point.

In this holy verse, the word "tatlu" has been used, a word derived from the root "tilawah" which, as referred to in Raghib's book: "Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur'an", is peculiar to reading the holy verses, and which contrasts with the generic term "Qira'ah" signifying "reading". Therefore, although the word "kitab" is applied commonly to "the holy and other books", the term "tatlu" is peculiar to reading "the Holy" verses.

Evidently, however, the reason that the word "tatlu" has been used here, is that the subject under discussion is the Qur'an. The term has been used in respect of all the texts for reading, ie, as if it should have been said to mean: "Now you read (tilawah) the Qur'an but you did not read any writing before the revelation of the Qur'an. Another verse indicating the unschooling of the Prophet (SA), is verse 52 of the "Surah al-Shura' " (The Counsel): "And thus We revealed to you a spirit by Our command. You did not know what a writing or a faith was ...".(4)

The verse suggests: "You were unfamiliar with the book or a writing until the Qur'an was revealed. "Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif has made no mention of this verse. He may observe that the term "kitab" as used in this verse, means "the holy texts", which existed in a language other than Arabic. The answer to this point, however, is the same as was referred to in the earlier verse. For some reason, not clear to us, Islamic exegetes have maintained that "kitab" particularly refers to the Qur'an. Therefore, the interpretation of this verse is out of the scope of our logic.

Thirdly, the Islamic exegetes been unanimous regarding the meaning of the term "ummi". On the contrary, all the Islamic exegetes and scholars without any exception, have been unanimous on the unschooling of the Prophet (SA) and his non-acquaintance with reading and writing prior to his prophethood. This in itself is a conclusive evidence of the fact that the source of the Muslims' belief in the unschooling of the Prophet (SA) has not been the interpretation of the term "ummi". However, we have to discuss about the meaning of the word "ummi".

The meaning of the word "Ummi"

Islamic exegetists have come up with three interpretations of the word "ummi ".

(i) Unschooled and unacquainted with writing

The majority of exegetes who favor this observation, have said that the word ummi is related to "umm" meaning "mother". The word "ummi" means a person who by birth is familiar with human written works and knowledge; or, it is related to "ummah" ie, who observes the customs of the majority, for the majority of people did not know about writing. Rather, only a few did. Likewise, the word " ummi" means, a man who is like the common people and ignorant.(5) Some have said that the meaning of "ummah" is "creation", and "ummi" is one who has remained in his original state, ie, the illiteracy. For evidence one should refer to a poem (6) by Al-A'sha. However, be it either a derivation of "umm" or "ummah" - or whatever meaning of "ummah" is preferred - the meaning of the term ummi is the same, ie, "untaught".

Continue in the next article: ( "Unschooled" Prophet And Word The "Ummi"? (2) )



1. (The Holy Quran 29:48)

2. (The Holy Quran 29:48 and 6:59)

3. (The Holy Quran 4:152)

4. (The Holy Quran 42:52)

5. Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur'an Al-Taqaddum al-'Arabi Press, November 1972, under the word "umm" and Exegesis of the Holy Quran : Majma' al-Bayan, under the verse 78 of Surat Al-Baqarah.

6. Exegesis of the Holy Qur'an: "Majma' al-Bayan, verse 78 of "Surat Al-Baqarah ".