"Unschooled" Prophet And The Word "Ummi"? (2)

"Unschooled" Prophet And The Word "Ummi"? (2)

(ii) An inhabitant of Umm al-Qura

Those who favour this view associate the word with "Umm al-Qura", ie, Mecca. The Qur'anic verse 92 of Surah Al-Anam refers to Mecca as "Umm al-Qura": ...And that you may warn the (inhabitants of) Mecca and those (who live) around it.”(1) This possibility(2) has, since ancient times, found its way in the interpretive literature, and is confirmed in a number of Shi'ah ahadith, although these very ahadith have been found to be un-authentic and have been said to be of Israelite origin.(3)This possibility has, however, been rejected on the basis of certain proofs.(4)

One reason is that the word "Umm al-Qura" is not a proper noun, and has been applied to Mecca as a common attribute and not as a proper noun of Mecca. The word "Umm al-Qura" signifies the "centre of villages". Any point which serves as a centre of villages is known as "Umm al-Qura". From another Qur'anic verse, ie, verse 59 of the Surah Al-Qasas, it becomes clear that the word carries a descriptive rather than a nominative function: "Your Lord is not like this that He kills the residents of the villages until He sends a prophet to them in the centre of the villages, reciting to them Our revelations."

It becomes evident that in the Qur'anic language, any point constituting the centre of an area(5) is called its "Umm al-Qura". Moreover, this word "Ummi" used by the Holy Qur'an, has been applied to non-Meccans. Verse 19 of Surah Ali `Imran says: "...And say to those who have been given the Book and the unlearned people (non-Jewish and non-Christian Arabs): `Do you submit yourselves?' ...."(6) It then becomes evident that according to the custom of the time; and also in the language of the Holy Qur'an, all the Arabs who did not follow a heavenly book were referred to as "ummiyyin ".

More important still is the fact that this word "ummi" was applied for the common Jews who were not educated. Verse 78 of Surah Al-Baqarah of the Holy Qur'an reads: ' "Some children of Israil are "ummi"; who do not know their Book except false hopes... ".(7)

It is obvious that the Jews whom the Holy Qur'an refers to as "ummi" were not the inhabitants of Mecca, but rather, most of them were residents of Medina or of its neighbourhood. Thirdly, if a word is associated with "Umm al-Qura", literary rules require that "qurawi" should be said in place of "ummi", for, according to the lexical rules governing attribution, when modifying the modifier or the modified, particularly when the modifier is "ab=father", "umm=mother", "ibn=son'", or "bint=daughter", it modifies the modified and not the modifier, just as when modifying "Abu Talib", "Abu Hanifah", "Banu Tamim", they are referred to as "Talibi", "Hanafi" and "Tamimi".

(iii) Arab polytheists who were not the followers of the Book

This view has existed among the exegetes of the ancient times. In Majma` al-Bayan, under verse 20 of Surah "Ali-`Imran" of the Holy Qur'an, "ummiyyin"has been placed against "Ahl al-Kitab" This view is described as that of the Companion and great exegete, `Abdullah ibn `Abbas. Under verse 78 of the Surah Al-Baqarah, Abu `Ubaydah states', a similar view. It follows from what is understood from verse 75 of Surah Ali-`Imran that Al-Tabarsi himself has selected the meaning for the verse. In his book: "Al-Kashshaf", AI-Zamakhshari has provided a similar interpretation of this verse and of verse 75 of the Surah Ali-Imran. Fakhr al-Razi mentions the same possibility under the verse 78 of the Surah al-Baqarah and verse 20 of the Surah Ali-`Imran.

But the fact is that this meaning is not different from the first one. However, it is not correct that a people who do not follow a divine book, be referred to as "ummi" although they may be literate. This term has been applied to Arab polytheists because they were illiterate. What constituted the basis for applying this term to Arab polytheists was their unfamiliarity with reading and writing rather than their not following a heavenly book.

Hence, wherever this word has been used in the plural form and applied to Arab polytheists, this possibility has been mentioned: but wherever it has been used in the singular form and applied to the Holy Prophet (SA), no interpreter has said that the significance is that the Prophet (SA) did not follow one of the heavenly book. In this case, the possibilities are only two at the most. One is that the Prophet (SA) was not familiar with handwriting, and the other was that he was from Mecca. Since, for the conclusive reasons enumerated above, the second possibility is ruled out, definitely the Prophet (SA) was called "ummi" because he had not been taught, nor did he know how to write.

Here, there is a fourth possibility in regard to the meaning of the word: this being that the word meant unfamiliarity with the texts of holy books. This possibility, is the one that Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif has innovated, and that he confused it with the third one that we have mentioned, quoting the ancient exegetes. The aforementioned person says: "The words "ummi" and "ummiyyin" have been used at several places (in the Holy Qur'an) but they have always been used to mean the same everywhere.

Lexicographically the term "ummi" means a "newly-born baby" from a mother's womb. It is with reference to this state of living and life, that the word "ummi" came to imply:" one who can neither read nor write. The word "ummi" also means "a person who lived in "Umm al-Qura"."Umm al-Qura" means "the mother of cities", "capital city", and "metropolis". This was the attribute the Arabs of the Prophet's (SA) time associated with Mecca. Therefore, whoever was from Mecca was referred to as "ummi ".

Another area of application of the word "ummi" is to a person who has not been conversant with Semitic texts nor been a follower of Judaism or Christianity which has been referred to as "Ahl al-Kitab" in the Holy Qur'an. In the Holy Qur'an, the word "ummiyyin" was applied to the pre-Islamic Arabs who neither had a holy book nor followed the New Testament and the Old Testament, and that the word was used for Ahl al-Kitdab ".

While there are so many meanings for the word "ummi" it is not known why the exegetes and translators of the Holy Qur'an, Muslim or non-Muslim, have picked up the meaning namely, "a newly-born baby unaware to his environment" and interpreted it as illiterate and ignorant, and as a consequence, have introduced(8) the pre-Islam inhabitants of Mecca as "ummiyyin", or "an illiterate people".

Firstly, since the earliest days, the Islamic exegetes have interpreted the words "ummi" and "ummiyyin" in three ways, and have come up with at least three possibilities Contrary to Dr Sayyid `Abd al-Latif, Islamic exegetes have not given one single meaning.

Secondly, no one has said that the word "ummi" means a newly-born baby unaware of his surroundings "whose connotation is that a person who can neither read nor write. Basically, this is not applied to a newly-born baby, but rather to an adult who knows as much about the skills of reading and writing as when he is just newly-born. As referred to by logicians, the word signifies "absence and second nature". Islamic logicians would always mention this word as one of the examples of "absence and second nature" in books of logic.

Thirdly, it is not true to say: "the word is also used to mean a person who has no familiarity with ancient Semitic texts". What can actually be inferred from the sayings of early exegetes and lexicologists is that the plural form of the word (ummiyyin) has been used for the Arab polytheists who were generally illiterate, as compared with the "people of the book". The polytheists were perhaps given this humiliating title by the Jews and the Christians.

On the whole, it is illogical to call a people "ummi" who can read and write in their own language, just on the basis of unfamiliarity with a certain book or language. The root of the word is "umm" or "ummah" and implies remaining in the same state as when one is born.

But why this word "ummi" has not been recognized as being rooted in "Umm al-Qura", although the possibility has been mentioned consistently, is because of numerous objections which have been mentioned earlier. The Indian scholar's amazement is therefore baseless. It is confirmed by the fact that in some other usages of this word, recorded in books of history and ahadith, there is no other meaning for it except "untaught". In the book: "Bihar al-Anwar", it is narrated from the Holy Prophet (SA): "We are a people who neither read nor write".(9) In vol 4 of his history book, under the biography of Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Malik, popularly known as Ibn Al-Zayyat, a minister of Al-Mu'tasim and Al-Mutawakkil, Ibn Khallikan writes: "Earlier he was among the secretaries of Al-Mu'tasim, the `Abbassid Caliph, and Ahmad ibn Shadi Al-Basri was the minister. Once a letter came to Al-Mu'tasim, which the minister read for the Caliph. The word "kala' " was in the letter and Al-Mu'tasim, who was not a knowledgeable person, asked his minister for its meaning. The minister didn't know the meaning either. The Caliph said: "An untaught Caliph and an ignorant minister". Then he asked for one of the secretaries to come. Ibn Al-Zayyat was present and came for explaining the meaning of the word. He explained through some other words which were closer to the meaning and stated their differences. This formed a prelude for him to become the Caliph's minister later on."

Here, the Caliph, who spoke the language of the ordinary people, meant "untaught" when he used the word "ummi".



1. (The Holy Quran 6:92)

2. Exegesis of the Holy Qur'an: Majma' al-Bayan, under the verse 75 of Surat Ali 'Imran and verse 157 of Surat Al-A'raf; and Tafsir al-Razi, under the verse 75 of Surat Al-A'raf.

3. The Magazine published by the Astani Qudsi Razavi, Mashhad, issue no 2.

4. Ibid.

5. One of the narrations confirms the word "ummi" as a derivative of "Umm al-Qura" meaning Makkah, although the word "Umm al-Qura" is a common attribute and not a proper noun. The narration states: "The Prophet was known as "Ummi" because he was an inhabitant of Makkah and Makkah is one of the "Umm al-Quras".

6. (The Holy Quran 3:20)

7. (The Holy Quran 2:78)

8. The publication of the society of the Headclerks, issue of October 1965 (copied from the publication of the Ministry of Education and Training, September 1965).

9. (vol 16, p 119)