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The Illiteracy of Mohammad

One major argument the Muslims give to prove the authenticity of their faith is as follows."Since Mohammad was not able to read or write, the only way he could deliver a book such as the Qur'an is that he received it from God".

I will seek to examine whether this claim has any solid foundations or not.

1) Firstly, we need to ask, what positive evidence to the Muslims have that Mohammad was indeed illiterate?.

The Qur'an says so?, the Hadith say so?, the Sirah says so?.But aren't all of these classified as "Islamic literature"?.In other words, only the Islamic books tell us that Mohammad was illiterate, as Muslims claim, and the same Muslims use the argument from illiteracy to prove the authority of the same books!.Can you see the weakness in the argument?.In order to first prove that Mohammad was illiterate, Muslims have to prove the authority of the Qur'an first and not the other way round.

2) What does the Islamic literature really tell us about Mohammad's illiteracy?
When we examine the books of Islam, we actually see that that the Muslim claims that Mohammad was completely illiterate is not true at all.Consider the following points:

a) Mohammad was a successful merchant.He used to manage his wife's, Hazrat Khadija's caravans and after returning from his journeys, he used to tell her about the financial records.All this suggests that Mohammad could read or write.

Muslims often tell us that illiterate people can own a business.Well, that's true, but Mohammad did not "own" the caravans, he used to "manage" them.How many times have you see illiterate people manage businesses such as caravan trading?.Infact, illiterate owners need the help of educated staff and not the other way round.

b) According to Islamic tradition, the first revelation of Mohammad was "Read, in the name of the Lord" (Sura 96).The question is, why would God tell a person who is illiterate to "read"?.Infact, Mohammad was actually physical forced by the "Angel" to read (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, p. 97).And it's confusing that Mohammad, who at first said "I cannot read" actually recited this verse later on. At least the Muslims should agree that Mohammad was able to repeat what he heard or saw.And you will see the significance of this point in a short while.

c) Does the word "ummi" only mean illiterate?.The Qur'an uses the word "ummi" for Mohammad in Sura 7:157.This verse along with Sura 29:48, becomes the basis of the Muslim claim that Mohammad was completely illiterate.

However, the word "ummi" in the Qur'an does not only mean illiterate."Ummi" can also mean someone who does not have divine revelation.Consider the following verse:

It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs (62:2)

As one can clearly see, the word "ummi" translated as "unlettered" is used for the Arabs, the people of Mohammad.Does this mean that the Arabs were illiterate people?.Or does it mean they were "unscriptured"?.The latter is more plausible.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali in commentary to this verse says:

C5451. The Unlettered: as applied to a people, it refers to the Arabs, in comparison with the People of the Book, who had a longer tradition of learning,

Furthermore, Ibn Kathir in his commentary to this verse quotes another verse, Sura 3:20, which says:

And say to those who were given the Scripture and those who are illiterates: "Do you submit yourselves If they do, they are rightly guided; but if they turn away, your duty is only to convey the message; and Allah is All-Seer of (His) servants."

Finally John Gilchrist says:

"In all fairness, however, it must be said that those who interpret ummi to mean illiterate appear to be forcing a meaning into the word which it does not readily yield." (Muhammad and The Religion of Islam)

And then he proceeds to give support to the view, by quoting various scholars, stated above, namely, that "ummi" in reference to Mohammad suggests that he was a prophet of the unscriptured Arabs, unlike the Jews and Christians.

3) Can an illiterate man produce a book like the Qur'an?

The whole thrust of the Muslim argument from illiteracy hinges on the claim that the Qur'an is such a superb document that it cannot be produced by an illiterate person.And to prove the amazing nature of this book, Muslims often use the argument from scientific accuracy and the literary excellence of the Qur'an.Although, when examined, these arguments also do not have any merit of their own, needless to say, the Qur'an makes many apparent errors which actually prove that whoever composed this must be illiterate.

I do not say this in a derogatory way and I don't mean to offend anyone on purpose.Whatever I say can be backed by historical proofs.

Qur'an, more than once, contradicts recorded history.For example, many Muslim scholars and commentators believe that the character of "Dhul-Qurnain" in Sura 18:86 is actually Alexander the Great.The problem is that the Qur'anic narrative speaks of him as messenger from God or as believer in monotheism. However, in reality, Alexander the Great would be defined as a "pagan".

Moreover, the Qur'an talks about existence of Samaritans before Israel's entry into Canaan.Sura 20:85 actually state that it was a Samaritan who created the golden calf as an idol for the Israelites in the absence of Moses.The Bible says that it was Aaron, Moses's brother who made that calf.

As of now, I am not claiming that the Qur'an is in error because it contradicts the Bible.The error lies in the fact that the Samaritans did not even exist at the time when the Qur'an speaks of them.

John Stott in "Understanding the Bible" writes:

The new king Shalmaneser V laid siege to Samaria, which capitulated three years later (probably in 722) to his successor Sargon II.The people of Israel were largely deported, and their country was colonized by Syrians and Babylonians.The resulting mixed population was the origin of the Samaritans. (Pg 69)

The date given above is 722 B.C while the date given for Israel's exodus is 1280 B.C.A gap of over 500 years, yet the Qur'an brings them together.

Thirdly, the Qur'an makes another error by claiming that the name "John" was first given to Hazrat Yahya, or John the Baptist (19:7).If Allah was indeed the author of the Qur'an, didn't he know about John Hyrcanus who lived in the inter-testamental period of Israel's history which was 400 years before Jesus was born?.And since John the baptist lived at the same time with Jesus, we have the very name centuries before he came into this world.

But if an illiterate man has written the Qur'an, then it makes perfect sense how this error crept in.

Finally, the Qur'an ascribes to the the Christian faith doctrines that are not found in the Bible.For example, the Qur'an makes mistakes on the Trinity, by claiming that the trinity comprises of God in third person (5:73) or that the trinity comprises of God, Mary and Jesus and that Christians worship Mary and Jesus and reject the worship of God (5:116).

The Qur'an also endorses stories about Jesus found in apocryphal Gospels such as the Infancy Gospel which were never canonized by the Church.These stories would include Jesus talking as a baby et cetera

Once again, God would know what Christians believe and what they reject.It only takes an illiterate man to make such mistakes.

The list of errors I gave above is not exhaustive.We can go and on.However, these few examples show that far from proving the Qur'an to be a miracle, the illiteracy argument actually backfires on the Muslims who make this argument, as the the Qur'an shows itself to be a book which can be composed by an illiterate man.

In fact, John Gilchrist (already quoted above) says:

Nevertheless, far from proving that he could not have composed the Qur'an, it paradoxically tends to strengthen the suggestion that he did! The Qur'an has a number of garbled accounts of historical events, contains many anachronisms, and often fails to distinguish between fact and myth (details will follow in the chapters on the sources of the Qur'an). These are all typical of the kind of errors we would expect to find in the oracle of a man who, being illiterate, simply relied on what he heard from others and could not correct himself by careful study of the relevant written sources.

(Muhammad and The Religion of Islam)

So, in summary we have seen that the argument from illiteracy does not stand on solid ground for the following reasons:

-There is no positive evidence for Mohammad's illiteracy.This argument simply can not be used to prove the truth of the Qur'an as it depends on the truth of the Qur'an.

-Islamic literature hints that Mohammad was not completely illiterate as Muslims claim.Even the word "ummi" has other meanings.

-The Qur'an contains serious errors which backfire the argument.

Think about these points, God Bless You.


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