Do Shi’a scholars say that the Prophet (may Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him and his purified progeny) is not illiterate? I have read the book of Allama Murtaza Mutahhari, The Unschooled Prophet, and it is explained that the Imams (peace be upon them) stated that the word “Ummi” in the Qur’an does not mean illiterate but ‘the mother of towns,’ in reference to where the Prophet is from, i.e., Makkah.
The Quranic verse of Surah Ankaboot: ‘’Neither did you (O’ Muhammad) read any book before it (this Qur’an), nor did you write any book (whatsoever) with your right hand. In that case, indeed, the followers of falsehood might have doubted.’’
Please shed some light on this topic, including references to Shi’a and ‘Sunni’ sources.
In the Name of Allah, the All-Beneficent, the All-Merciful.
May Allah bless Muhammad and his Family and damn their enemies.
The infallible Imams (peace be upon them) stated that their grandfather, the Prophet of Islam, (peace be upon him and his purified family) was not only able to read and write, but he was fluent in seventy-three languages. However, despite his phenomenal literacy, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his pure family) did not show this ability in front of the non-believers of Quraish because had he shown it, he would have been accused of having acquired his knowledge via tutors rather than being divinely inspired and taught.
Regarding the word ‘Ummi’ mentioned in the Holy Qur’an:
Those who follow the Messenger-Prophet, the Ummi, whom they find written down with them in the Torah and the Gospel
Imam Muhammad al-Jawad (peace be upon him) has adequately explained its meaning in the following narrations:
Al-Saffar (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: Narrated Ali bin Asba’t or [and] others who had said:
O Messenger of Allah, I I said to Abu Jafar (al-Jawad): ‘People claim that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his pure family) could neither read nor write!’ So, he (peace be upon him) denied that and said: ‘They have lied, May the wrath of Allah be upon them! How would that be when Allah (the Exalted) has said: ‘(It is) He who raised among the Ummīyīna (i.e. maternals) a Messenger from amongst them, reciting upon them His signs and purifying them and teaching them the Book and the wisdom; even though beforehand they were in a clear straying’ How did he teach them the Book and the Wisdom while he could neither read nor write?
Then Ali bin Asba’t asked the Imam (peace be upon him): ‘Why was he called ‘al-Nabi al-Ummi’? The Imam (peace be upon him) replied: ‘Because he was ascribed to Makkah. That is according to the words of Allah (the Most Exalted): ‘That you may warn Umm al-Qura (i.e. the mother of villages) and those around it.’ Umm al-Qura means Makkah. So, he was called Ummi.
Basair al-Darajat, By al-Saffar, vol. 5, p. 246
Furthermore, al-Saduq (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: Narrated Ja’far ibn Muhammad al-Sufi:
’I asked Abu Ja’far Muhammad, son of Ali al-Rida (peace be upon them both), saying: ‘O son of Allah’s Apostle, why was the Prophet called ‘Ummi’?’ He answered: ‘What do the people say?’ I said: ‘They claim he was called Ummi because he was illiterate.
He replied: ‘They lie! May the curses of Allah be upon them, Allah has clearly said in His Book: ‘(It is) He who raised among the Ummīyīna (i.e. maternals) a Messenger from amongst them, reciting upon them His signs and purifying them and teaching them the Book and the wisdom’ How would he teach what he, himself, could not do?’
By Allah, Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him and his pure family) used to read and write in 72, or he said 73, languages. He was called Ummi because he was from Makkah. Makkah is one of the mother towns, and this is why Allah (the Most Exalted) has said: ‘So that you (Muhammad) may warn the mother of villages (i.e. Makkah) and whoever is around it.
Ma’ani al-Akhbar, By al-Saduq, p. 53
The holy Prophet (May peace be upon him and his pure family) was called ‘Ummi’ in reference to Umm al-Qura, which is Makkah. In other words, ‘al-Nabi al-Ummi’ means a Prophet from Makkah. Similarly, one may notice that Allah (the Most Exalted) has also referred to the inhabitants of Makkah as “Ummīyīna” as in the following verse:
(It is) He who raised among the Ummīyīna (maternals)
However, the inhabitants of Makkah at the time were not all unable to read or write, but they were called so in reference to the holy city of Makkah.
Regarding the Qur’anic verse quoted in the question:
And you did not recite before it any book, nor did you transcribe one with your right hand, for then could those who say untrue things have doubted
In this passage, Allah (the Most Exalted) denied that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his pure family) had shown his ability to read and write in the presence of non-believers, but did not state that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his pure family) was incapable of reading or writing.
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