The Qur’an, hadith and Islamic hagiography, in making the case for Muhammad’s prophethood, place paramount importance on three personal traits and attributes about him.
These three qualities are to explicitly give credence to the supernatural nature of Muhammad in himself as literally a miracle worker. Depending on which hagiographers, in what period, and which methodological approach we investigate the textual evidence through, we have documented at least ten incidents in which Muhammad is claimed to have suspended the laws of nature — Abu Nu`aym al-Isfahani’s famous Hilyat al-awliya'
expounds on these miracles of Muhammad of which the Qur’an is only one.
The three qualities of Muhammad also seek to give credence to the supernatural nature of the Qur’an, not because the Qur’an suspended the laws of nature, such might be the case in all his other miracles (like splitting the moon into two, and causing water to pour forth in the Battle of Tabouk for his soldiers to drink) but how the Qur’an came into being.
Thus, if any one of these three became unsustainable or doubtful, then the whole Islamic structure, including the trilateral Qur’anic chain of custody, should collapse on itself. These three are: A - That Muhammad was illiterate all his natural life, and did not know how to read and or write in any way shape or form, which can render him literate and or in possession of the means through which Muhammad could have increased his knowledge and awareness by written means,
B - That Muhammad did not know and was unable to learn, recite or memorise Arabic poetry, in anyway shape or form, and this learning disability remained the case for him throughout his natural life,
C – That in his geographical isolation, Muhammad did not have any external contact with Christians or any other faith groups of that time and this remained the case throughout his adulthood. Thus, Muhammad didn’t learn from and his knowledge wasn’t humanly transmitted to him by such others.
As for A, if memory serves, Hitchens in God Is Not Great
comments on the illiteracy of Muhammad for Islam as being essential to his miraculous prophethood as the virgin birth or parthenogenesis of Jesus is for Christianity.
The case for Muhammad’s absolute illiteracy has been made and consistently sustained to be so in all Islamic sources, primary or otherwise, and there isn’t one piece of textual evidence, as far as I know, which positively challenges or contradicts its veracity.
Here, I’m tempted to perfunctorily say “enough said” and move on to B. But that would be to let the reader down as this will be overlooking Muhammad’s Seal which was used singularly on the written documents Muhammad is said to have encountered in his contractual business as well as military dealings. An example of its use would be at the left bottom of Muhammad’s letter to al-Muqawqis (Alexandria’s ruler) which, according to ibn Ishaq, was delivered personally by ibn Abi Balta’ah in the intervening period to Muhammad’s death from the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.
If so, then the grounds on which the Seal of Muhammad is relevant to his illiteracy (precluding any chance of Muhammad getting taught by others, for example, the same biblical accounts — albeit with degrees of and often contradictory variation — as loosely found in JudeoChristian texts; and, his illiteracy precluding at the same time, by necessity, Muhammad’s ability to plagiarise had he come into contact with said texts) are not because Muhammad had as a matter of fact used, as his unique personal signature, any pictographic representation; such a thing being, at least theoretically, a workable alternative which sound reason would advance in his case. All this trouble was absolutely necessary to have been gone into, of course, in order to maintain as well as protect Muhammad’s illiteracy from being doubted because such a notion would pose considerable danger to a host of other things built on its incontestable basis.
It is safe to say that there is no evidence in the available Islamic primary texts that illiterate Muhammad signed any documents using logography or a pictogram which he subsequently went on to facsimiliously and faithfully reproduce.
Rather, Muhammad is reported to have opted for a seal which contained three undotted Arabic words written horizontally so that they *literally* read in the descending order of
The syntax and order of these three words should ordinarily not matter in Arabic and it is not uncommon to witness in its calligraphy and even in its earlier angular Kufic script.
Because written Arabic is read from right to left, this unusually horizontal order engages the reader’s imagination to actively interpret the phrase as “Muhammad” being the first word, “Messenger” the second, and finally “Allah” – this imposed order of reading it from bottom to top is common sense if by that we want to mean that any other directional order of the phrase will result in making Allah the messenger.
Therefore, it is not far-fetched to assert that Muhammad did encounter how his first name was written as well as how the other two words were written (Messenger and Allah) in Arabic.
If so, then it is very difficult to argue that Muhammad did not have any conception of and did not see and know these three written words, or that he did not sufficiently know his own official seal’s content (which must have been made on his orders) so that a simple pointing and telling from a scribe or Wahhi writer would have been impossible or wouldn’t have done the trick of learning them individually by Muhammad.
(Bear with me. If the inquisitorial case being made here looks terribly gradual, then that should be taken as the first steps of a mind trained in common law reasoning towards methodically building a case, or in this case, disproving a positive case by mounting and casting doubt on it, bit by bit, for the case’ absolute certitude to become untenable.)
Further, if it were to be accepted that Muhammad’s illiteracy was absolute throughout his prophethood, thereby he did not know these three words in their written form, then that would pose some difficulty in explaining how did Muhammad personally manage to rub the three-word phrase off from the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah?
The account of Ali ibn Abi Talib refusing to personally rub and erase the phrase attributing messenger-hood to Muhammad from the document, when the phrase had proven contentious because the other Meccan signatories didn’t accept Muhammad was a messenger, is in both Sahih Bukhari and Muslim.
Muhammad rubbed off the phrase himself because he was being accommodating to his enemies and the textual accounts try to suggest that Muhammad needed the ten year truce as a political solution from where he could start approaching tribes that were other than Qureysh. This, then, is an instance in which Muhammad could be said to have edited a written document by himself even if his contribution is deletion.
I have refrained from defining what the word <illiterate> means, but this could cause confusion because the adjective has come to be used away from its conclusive reference to reading and writing in modern times (e.g. computer illiteracy). In Muhammad’s case, the textual evidence refers to his complete inability to read or write as a matter of historical fact; this was a learning disability for Muhammad which could not have been mitigated or remedied throughout his natural life.
It is true that Muhammad’s deletion of a short phrase does not make him an expert on Arabic writing and reading. However, it is also the case that Muhammad certainly knew about writing, based on the following authenticated hadith narrated by ibn Mas'ud in Sunan at-Tirmidhi:
“Whoever reads a letter from the Book of Allah gets a Hassana. I say not AlifLaamMeem is a letter. Rather, Alif is a letter and Laam is a letter and Meem is a letter.”
Clearly, this was a man who at least knew the segmental units of Arabic writing. Muhammad knew a letter was smaller than a word and was trying make this distinction clear in the quoted hadith.
Further, if the argument being made for Muhammad’s illiteracy does not include Muhammad’s innumeracy at the same time, then it is already weaken. If Muhammad was innumerate in the sense of not being able to read or write numbers as well, then that challenges the reports about him being able to trade on his first wife’s behalf and to manage her financial affairs for at least a decade.
The hagiographic accounts for Muhammad’s marriage to Khadijah bint Khuwaylid suggest that Muhammad was asked by Khadijah to join her in matrimony when he had returned from an unusually successful business trip to the Levant/Sham with Maysarah. Maysarah, a male slave, was employed by Khadijah alongside Muhammad to go on one of Khadijah’s caravans; the two are said to have travelled from Mecca to Syria (Bosra) and undertaken the same journey back, talking to each other a lot, which had allowed Maysarah to know Muhammad better.
Some accounts say that up to this point, Muhammad’s work experience revolved around shepherding and he did not have any personal business or trading experience. Although the textual evidence does refer to Qurayshi tribesmen’s collective business acumen, there is nevertheless no evidence that Muhammad himself had been an entrepreneur or anything suggestive of his being versed in business matters. Rather, Muhammad was initially hired by Khadijah for his reputation as trustworthy, and this quality was clearly appreciated by the businesswoman Khadijah and would likely to be due to her historically disadvantaged gender in 7th century Arabia.
However, Khadijah was impressed by the profit Muhammad’s trading trip on her behalf had brought her.
The hagiographic accounts do not quantify Muhammad’s success in monetary terms; they only say Muhammad had made Khadijah more money from that first caravan trip than she ever had from similar arrangements, presumably, using Maysarah and or other men.
Therefore, in his capacity as a merchant, Muhammad must’ve entered into numerous trade negotiations, transactions and contracts with other people between Hijaz and Sham regions. These commercial activities must at least have triggered and or engaged Muhammad’s use of as well as becoming familiar with weighing scales of one type or another.
Additionally, if Muhammad’s trustworthiness were to be accepted wholeheartedly, then the possibility of trade deals being made by him with others through set time frames (i.e. via appointments), on a yearly or seasonal basis, cannot be excluded. That is to say, Muhammad must have been compelled to using a ledger and must have kept a written record, if not for his own benefit then for his employer’s and other parties with whom he had entered into commercial contracts. (In Reply#5
, an argument has been made that Muhammad’s humanity meant he was not above forgetfulness in religious as well as non-religious matters.)
It is reasonable, therefore, to think that such trading wasn’t retailed and wasn’t a simple, repeated sale in which products were specific and known, and exchange prices would be pre-set on smooth terms and conditions to the satisfaction of everyone involved all the time. No.
Given the textual evidence supports the notion that Muhammad did not lead an entirely uneventful, secluded life from the age of 25 to 40 (that is, the duration for which Muhammad was married to Khadijah prior to his prophethood — Khadijah died ten years into his prophethood at the age of 65), Muhammad could not have humanly avoided recording things and keeping them in written form. It would otherwise seem that this has remained the case from the age of 25 onwards when Muhammad could be said to have undergone a career change, away from shepherding for his relatives to becoming a roving merchant.
To be sure, that is not the same as saying Muhammad was able to write and or read documents himself. But the traditional reductive argument which makes Muhammad’s involvement with written documents as passive and limited as the case of “a donkey carrying books on its back” [62:5] is not incontestable in light of his non-social interactions with others above.
The traditional Sunni accounts which claim that prior to prophethood, Muhammad was known as “the trustworthy” (الأمين) by the Meccans, also claim that everybody entrusted safekeeping their money to Muhammad; the only other thing which was used as a communal deposit box apart from Muhammad being the Kaaba, according to these accounts. If so, then there’s no textual evidence to suggest that this was a business enterprise in which Muhammad played a fiduciary role by guarding and looking after people’s valuables and monies for a fee.
The significance of this lies in that although Muhammad probably did not profit from intentionally becoming known as trustworthy and or from naturally having the personal quality of trustworthiness in relation to his wider socio-economic milieu, it is nevertheless the case that such an attribute then became the explicit reason why Khadijah should hire him in the first place.
However, it is not inconceivable that Muhammad continued to be known as the trustworthy by the Meccans even after he declared himself the Final Messenger of Allah. Ayisha’s hadith — in Al-Bayhaqi’s Al-Sunan Al-Kubra
, and in Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidāya wa-n-nihāya
and in ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s History of the Prophets and Kings
— explains that the reason why Muhammad had had to stay longer before his Hijrah to Medina, three extra days to be precise, was because he still had people’s deposits and valuables to return back to them in person.
“There was nobody in Mecca
” says Aayish “who had anything valuable whose loss or theft he or she feared without them leaving their property with the Prophet PBU.
Therefore, if this account is accepted, in terms of the possibly large quantity of the Meccan deposits Muhammad was tasked with looking after, relative to Mecca’s population at the time, then it is reasonable to assert that people’s valuables and deposits must have consisted of currency and monetary items.
Thus, Muhammad could not have humanly kept track with the inventory (i.e. how much belonged to whom, why and where was it located in his humble Meccan house) without the necessary aid of writing everything down. What could be inferred from all this is that Muhammad must have had numerous occasions, in multiple personal capacities (such as a roving merchant and a human savings account and when writing to other tribes post Hudaybiyyah's hostility cessation), in which he resorted himself and or was compelled to by circumstances as well as other parties to avail himself of written documentation as a communication means when distance was concerned, or as written receipts where Meccan deposits were concerned in particular.
Finally, when it comes to (ووجدك عائلاً فأغنى) [93:8], it is some Mufisroon’s contention that that was in reference to Muhammad growing rich on Khadijah’s wealth, and not the other way around. This would mean that Muhammad had played the role of a trusted accountant as far as Khadijah’s business management was concerned. If so, then Muhammad’s illiteracy problem still persists, no matter how small the volume of trade was and the length of journeying he had had to undertake, in months or kilometres, as an accountant for his then new employer.