فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الْأُمِّيِّ
So have faith in Allah and His Apostle, the ummī prophet.
Sūrat al-A’rāf, No. 7, Āyat 158
One of the miraculous aspects of the Noble Quran is that it was revealed upon an individual who was untaught. By all apparent means, the Messenger of Allah sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam should have been an illiterate person. He never went to school and is never recorded to have read or wrote anything prior to his prophethood. For this reason, in a verse of the Quran, it explicitly says:
وَمَا كُنتَ تَتْلُو مِن قَبْلِهِ مِن كِتَابٍ وَلَا تَخُطُّهُ بِيَمِينِكَ ۖ إِذًا لَّارْتَابَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ
You did not recite any scripture before it, nor did you write it with your right hand, for then the falsifiers would have been skeptical. (Q 29:48)
The Prophet (s) hailed from an uncivilized society wherein literacy was a rare ability, so much so that the few individuals who were able to read and write have been recorded in the books of history. For example, it is narrated in the third century Hijrī book of history called Futūh al-Buldān of Balādhari, that when Islam appeared only seventeen members of the Quraysh were literate, and their names are mentioned (as quoted in Shahid Mutahhari’s Payambare Ummi, p 19). Nowhere has any such claim been made about the Prophet (s) himself. Or for example in the centuries after the Prophet’s (s) demise, Muslims preserved manuscripts of the Quran and letters attributed to the Prophet’s scribes or to the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt ‘alayhimus-salām, but nowhere was there a claim of anything preserved that had been written by the Prophet himself.
In any case, the level of eloquence and profound knowledge that is found in the Noble Quran is such that even an educated scholar could not have written it, let alone someone who was untaught! In this manner, Allah further manifested the miraculous nature of the Quran for all mankind to recognize. Will Durant says in his work:
They gave him [Prophet Muhammad s] affection and care, but no one seems to have bothered to teach him how to read or write; this feeble accomplishment was held in low repute by the Arabs of the time … Mohammed was never known to write anything himself; he used an amanuensis. His apparent illiteracy did not prevent him from composing the most famous and eloquent book in the Arabic tongue.(Will Durant, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, p 162).
It is worthy of mention that a small number of conflicting narrations do exist in Shī‘ah and Sunni sources that indicate that the Prophet of Allah (s) did read and write on certain occasions, after his prophethood. However, firstly these narrations are generally contradicted by other narrations and therefore their authenticity may not be accepted. Secondly, if they are to be accepted, they can be explained as being a miracle. In the words of ‘Allāmah Majlisī, we can combine the two conflicting groups of narrations by saying that those narrations that indicate the Prophet (s) did not read and write mean that he did not learn to do so from other men. But those narrations that indicate that he did do so mean that he had the miraculous ability to do so. The ‘Allāmah says:
How can he not be able to know this, when he has all the knowledge of the earlier and later civilizations … one who is able to split the moon with the power of Allah and do even more than that, how can he be unable to draw these letters and words … and Allah knows best (Bihār, 16:134).
On a final note, in two verses of Sūrat al-A‘rāf such as the one quoted at the onset of this writeup, the Prophet (s) is described with the word ummī. While differences exist amongst the exegete (Mufassirūn) as to the exact meaning of the word ummī, it can be concluded that the strongest and most logical opinion is that the word ummī refers to someone who was not taught. It is as if Allah ‘azza wajall wants to emphasize this reality that the Prophet (s) was exclusively taught by Him alone. He reached the highest level of perfection and was given all knowledge, without being taught by other men.
We pray to Allah to strengthen our belief in the Quran and its lofty teachings. We beseech Him by His most beloved creation, the Noble Messenger (s) and his family, to allow us to develop more love and understanding of this blessed scripture.
Sources: Martyr Murtadā Mutahharī, Payāmbar-e Ummī (The Unschooled Prophet)