Muhammad – Literate Still!

A Response to a Muslim’s Attempt of Proving that his Prophet was Illiterate

Sam Shamoun

Bassam Zawadi wrote a short "rebuttal" (*) to my thorough documentation that Muhammad was literate and was able to read (*).

Zawadi thinks that his explanation,

The answer is simply that Gabriel asked Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to recite (since Iqraa' could mean recite) and the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied back and said "What shall I recite?" (Shamoun himself shows us that ma aqra'u could mean this) three times. During this, Prophet Gabriel was squeezing him. Some scholars said that the reason why Gabriel squeezed the Prophet three times was to ensure that he wasn't dreaming and that this was a real experience. Some said that it was done in order to empty/prepare/purify the receptacle of revelation.

Answers all of my objections! On the contrary, let us see how Zawadi’s points raise more problems for him. In the first place, there was no need for the spirit to torture Muhammad three consecutive times in order to convince him that he wasn’t simply dreaming (even though the text says that he was!). After all, didn’t Muhammad immediately respond back to the spirit and even stated that he felt as if he was going to die from the spirit’s physical abuse, which shows that he was clearly aware that something was going on?

Besides, Zawadi’s logic simply does not follow since Muhammad’s response fails to prove that it was not a dream. Don’t people have dreams in which they argue with others? And don’t plenty of people have nightmares where they think they are going to die, and then wake up, drenched in sweat, and realize it was "only" a dream?

More importantly, the spirit failed to do his job since Muhammad continued to have doubts whether what he saw was from God or whether it was a demonic attack:

I. The beginning of the revelation to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was the true dream

6581. 'Urwa related that 'A'isha said, "The beginning [of the revelation] to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, took the form of the TRUE DREAM in sleep. Whenever he had A DREAM, it was clear like the break of day. He used to go to Hira' and there he devoted himself to worship for a number of nights. He took provisions with him for that. Then he would return to Khadija and take provisions for the like of that again. This continued until the Truth came to him suddenly while he was in the Cave of Hira'. The angel came to him in it and said, 'Read!'

"The Prophet said, ‘I said, "I do not read." He seized me and squeezed me until all the strength went out of me and then released me and said, "Read!" I said, "I do not read." Then he seized me and squeezed me a second time until all the strength when out of me and then released me and said, "Read!" I said, "I do not read." Then he seized me and squeezed me a third time and then released me, and then he said, "Read in the name of your Lord who created man from a blood clot. Read, and your Lord is the Most Generous. He Who taught the use of the Pen" and the ayats up to "Taught man which he knew not." (96:1-5)’'

"He returned with that and his heart was quaking. He went to Khadija and said, ‘Wrap me up! Wrap me up!’ They wrapped him up until the STATE OF TERROR had left him and then he said to Khadija, ‘What is wrong with me?’ He told her what had happened and said, ‘I am afraid for myself.’ She said, ‘No, it is good news. By Allah, Allah would never bring disgrace upon you. You maintain ties of kinship, speak the truth, bear people's burdens, give hospitality to your guests and help those who have been afflicted by calamities.’

"Then Khadija then went with him to Waraqa ibn Nawfal ibn Asad ibn ‘Abdu'l-‘Uzza ibn Qusayy, Khadija’s cousin (the son of her father's brother), who had become Christian during the Jahiliyya. He could write in Arabic and wrote as much of the Gospel in Arabic as Allah willed. He was an old man who had gone blind. Khadija said to him, ‘Cousin! Listen to your nephew.’ Waraqa asked him, ‘Nephew, what have you seen?’ The Messenger of Allah told him what he had seen. Waraqa said to him, ‘This is the Namus [Jibril] which Allah sent to Musa. I wish that I were still young. I wish I might still be alive when your people drive you out!’ The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Will they drive me out?’ Waraqa said, ‘Yes, no man has brought anything similar to what you have brought without being treated with hostility. If I am still alive on that day, I will give you my strong support.’

"Shortly after that, Waraqa died and there was a pause in the revelation until the Prophet became so sad that we heard that his sorrow several times made him want to throw himself off the tops of the mountains. Whenever he reached the peak of a mountain, Jibril would appear to him and say, ‘Muhammad, you are truly the Messenger of Allah.’ So his agitation was stilled by that and he would be at peace and then would return home. When the gap in the revelation was long for him, and he was moved to act as before. When he reached the peak of he mountain, Jibril would appear before him and say the like of that to him."

Ibn ‘Abbas said that "(faliq al-isbagh) It is He Who splits the sky at dawn," (6:96) is the light of the sun in the day and the light of the moon at night. (Aisha Bewley, The Sahih Collection of al-Bukhari, 95. Book of Dream Interpretation; source; capital and underline emphasis ours)


Ahmad b. ‘Uthman, known as Abu al-Jawza – Wahb b. Jarir – his father – al-Nu‘man b. Rashid – al-Zuhri – ‘Urwah – ‘A’ishah: The first form in which the revelation came to the Messenger of God was true vision; this used to come to him like the break of dawn. After that, he grew to love solitude and used to remain in a cave on Hira’ engaged in acts of devotion for a number of days before returning to his family. Then he would return to his family and supply himself with provisions for a similar number of days. This continued until the Truth came to him unexpectedly, and said: "Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God." [Describing what happened next], the Messenger of God said, "I had been standing, but fell to my knees; and crawled away, my shoulders trembling. I went to Khadijah and said, ‘Wrap me up! Wrap me up!’ When the terror had left me, he came to me and said, ‘Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God.’"

He (Muhammad) said: I had been thinking of hurling myself down from a mountain crag, but he appeared to me, as I was thinking about this, and said, "Muhammad, I am Gabriel and you are the Messenger of God." Then he said, "Recite!" I said, "What shall I recite?" He took me and pressed me three times tightly until I was nearly stifled and was utterly exhausted; then he said, "Recite in the name of your Lord who created," and I recited it. Then I went to Khadijah and said, "I have been in fear for my life." When I told her what happened she said, "Rejoice, for God will never put you to shame, for you treat your kinsfolk well, tell the truth, deliver what is entrusted to you, endure fatigue, offer hospitality to the guest, and aid people in misfortunate." …

Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Malik b. Abi al-Shawarib – ‘Abd al-Wahid b. Ziyad – Sulayman al-Shaybani – ‘Abd Allah b. Shaddad: Gabriel came to Muhammad and said, "O Muhammad recite!" He said, "I cannot recite." GABRIEL WAS VIOLENT TOWARDS HIM and then said again, "O Muhammad recite!" He said, "I cannot recite," AND GABRIEL AGAIN WAS VIOLENT TOWARDS HIM… (The History of al-Tabari – Muhammad at Mecca, translated and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt & M.V. McDonald [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1988], Volume VI, pp. 67-69; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Then he went to Khadijah and said, "Khadijah, I think that I have gone mad." "No, by God," she said, "Your Lord would never do that to you. You have never committed a wicked act." Khadijah went to Waraqa b. Nawful and told him what had happened. He said, "If what you say is true, your husband is a prophet. He will meet adversity from his people. If I live long enough, I shall believe in him."

After this, Gabriel did not come to him for a while, and Khadijah said to him, "I think that your Lord MUST HAVE COME TO HATE YOU." Then God revealed to him:

By the forenoon, and by the night, when it is still, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does he hate you.

… I recited it, and then he desisted and departed I woke up, and it was as though these words had been written on my heart. There was no one of God’s creation more hateful to me than a poet or a madman; I could not bear to look at either of them. I said to myself, "Your humble servant (meaning himself) is either a poet or a madman, but Quraysh shall never say this of me. I shall take myself to a mountain crag, hurl myself down from it, kill myself, and find relief in that way." (Ibid., pp. 70-71; bold, capital and underline emphasis ours)

The spirit also failed to purify Muhammad through his physical and emotional abuse of the latter since other narratives say that Zawadi’s prophet was still polluted with Satan’s touch:

Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Habib al-Tusi – Abu Daud al-Tayalisi – Ja‘far b. ‘Abdullah b. ‘Uthman al-Qurashi – ‘Umar b. ‘Urwah b. al-Zubayr – ‘Urwah b. al-Zubayr – Abu Dharr al-Ghifari: I said, "O Messenger, how did you first know with absolute certainty that you were a prophet?" "Abu Dharr," he replied, ‘Two angels came to me while I was somewhere in the Valley of Mecca. One of them came down to earth, while the other remained between heaven and earth. One of them said to the other, ‘Is this he?’ and the other replied, ‘It is he.’… Then one said to the other, ‘Open his breast.’ He opened my breast, and then he said, ‘Take out his heart’ or ‘open his heart.’ He opened my heart, and took out from it the pollution of Satan and a clot of blood, and threw them away. Then one said to the other, ‘Wash his breast as you would a receptacle–or, wash his heart as you would a covering.’ Then he summoned the sakinah, which looked like the face of a white cat, and it was placed in my heart. Then one of them said to the other, ‘Sew up his breast.’ So they sewed up my breast and placed the seal between my shoulders. No sooner had they done this than they turned away from me. While this was happening I was watching it as though I were a bystander." (The History of al-Tabari, Volume VI, p. 75; bold and underline emphasis ours)

According to al-Bukhari, this event allegedly took place on the night Muhammad went through the seven heavens, commonly known as the Miraj:

Narrated Anas bin Malik

The night Allah's Apostle was taken for a journey from the sacred mosque (of Mecca)

Al-Ka'ba: Three persons came to him (in a dream) while he was sleeping in the Sacred

Mosque before the Divine Inspiration was revealed to Him. One of them said, "Which of them is he?" The middle (second) angel said, "He is the best of them." The last (third) angle said, "Take the best of them." Only that much happened on that night and he did not see them till they came on another night, i.e. after the Divine Inspiration was revealed to him (Fateh-Al-Bari Page 258, Vol. 17), and he saw them, his eyes were asleep but his heart was not--and so is the case with the prophets: their eyes sleep while their hearts do not sleep. So those angels did not talk to him till they carried him and placed him beside the well of Zam-Zam. From among them Gabriel took charge of him. Gabriel cut open (the part of his body) between his throat and the middle of his chest (heart) and took all the material out of his chest and abdomen and then washed it with Zam-Zam water with his own hands till he cleansed the inside of his body, and then a gold tray containing a gold bowl full of belief and wisdom was brought and then Gabriel stuffed his chest and throat blood vessels with it and then closed it (the chest). He then ascended with him to the heaven of the world and knocked on one of its doors. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 608)

Moreover, Muhammad’s experiences with this being were quite unlike the encounters of God’s true prophets. Instead of demoralizing and violating God’s spokespersons the Spirit and/or the righteous angels would comfort the inspired emissaries and assure them that they were receiving communications from the true God:

"Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.’ … The angel answered, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.’" Luke 1:11-13, 19

"In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.’" Luke 1:26-30

These beings didn’t have to physically manhandle the messengers in order to convince them that they weren’t hallucinating or merely dreaming.

For more on these points we recommend the following articles and rebuttals:

In addressing my comments concerning Q. 25:4-6 Zawadi proceeds to attack a straw man,

The Arabic word in the verse is iktatabaha, which means "had it written down". The proper Arabic word that Allah should have used to signify that the Prophet himself wrote it would have been katabaha.

And in so doing he ends up contradicting himself in his response to my explanation of Q. 29:48, as well as providing a refutation for his own point,

There goes Shamoun again with his selective choice of translation. The Arabic word in the verse is kitab, which simply means "book" and no where does the context necessarily imply that it is referring to scripture. Please refer to the commentaries of Ibn Kathir and Jalalayn.

If it means book then how can it not be referring to scripture? After all, what book can the Quran be referring to if not the so-called revealed scripture given to Muhammad? Does Zawadi even make sense?

Furthermore, didn’t Zawadi read Q. 25:5 carefully which says that Muhammad wrote down the forgeries that he claimed were revelations from God? Doesn’t this therefore prove that the verbs iqra and yatlu can and do mean that Muhammad was actually reading from a book? After all, if Muhammad "had it [i.e. the Quran] written down" then this actually substantiates my point that he wasn’t merely reciting the verses from memory but reading from a book.

Moreover, Zawadi is not being entirely forthright since the word iktataba can mean, "he transcribed/wrote down," just as the following translations show,

… Tales of the ancients that he hath put in writing! Sale

… Tales from the past that he wrote down… Khalifa

… which he has copied down… F. Malik

"… which he has written down…" M. A Qadri (*)

"… (which people come and narrate to him and) which he writes down…" G.A. Parwez (*)

"… which he has written down…" Abdul Qasim (*)

"… he wrote it…" Muhamed Ahmed with his daughter Samira: Quran / Koran translation (*)

"… which he has written down…" Al Quran: Word for Word Translation (*)

…‘He has written tales of the ancients…’ Hasan Qaribullah (*)

"… he wrote them down…" Quran Reformist Translation (*)

The translators of this last translation have an interesting note to this verse:

025:005 Contemporaries of Muhammad knew that Muhammad was a literate person. Prophet Muhammad wrote God’s message with his own hand. P. 246

The reason for the differences in these various translations stems primarily from the fact that, according to the following lexical source, iktataba is the perfect active verbal form of kataba,

iktataba vb. (8) perf. act. 25:5 (Source)

As such the verb can mean that Muhammad caused the Quran to be written or that he himself wrote it. In fact, if the author wanted to insure that the readers understood that Muhammad had others write it down he could have used ‘aktaba, which means "cause to write."

But all of this is beside the point since I didn’t reference Q. 25:5 to prove that Muhammad wrote down the Quran, so this is nothing more than Zawadi’s straw man. My purpose in sourcing this text was to show that the Quran was being written down during the lifetime of Muhammad, thereby establishing my case that iqra and yatlu should be translated as read not recite.

Zawadi thinks that my statements concerning Ibn Ishaq’s report that the spirit brought a piece of writing with him is hilarious,

Then Shamoun goes on to quote Ibn Ishaq. This is truly hilarious. Shamoun often quotes from Ibn Ishaq and says that it is early and reliable and condemns us for stating that the narrations that he appeals to are fabricated (we provide proof of course), but when a tradition seems to give him trouble he goes on and states that it is fabricated! Talk about double standards.

Talk about someone being an ignoramus and who can’t even comprehend anything he reads! Apart from Zawadi caricaturizing my position, notice how he completely fails to address any of my actual arguments. As I stated this report, if true, actually proves that the verb iqra means read, not recite, since the spirit expected Muhammad to read what was written on the brocade that he had brought. Thus, if this narrative is correct then this soundly refutes Zawadi’s desperate and weak defense of Muhammad’s illiteracy. This also introduces another problem in that the spirit asks Muhammad to read three times, and subsequently tortures him for failing to do so, when he should have already realized that Muhammad was incapable of reading. And as I said, we would at least expect that once Muhammad told this being that he couldn’t read that the latter would have left well enough alone and not demanded that an illiterate read from a piece of brocade.

Moreover, what does this say concerning Allah’s omniscience? Didn’t Muhammad’s deity already know he was illiterate and that the spirit was therefore wasting his time bringing written material to an illiterate man? Perhaps Zawadi will actually address my points instead of conveniently avoiding them.

Zawadi then sources a scholar who mentions that Muhammad had to ask his cousin Ali to point out where his name was on the treaty that he agreed to sign at Hudaibiya in order to cross it out, which somehow proves that his prophet couldn’t read.

It is sad that Zawadi simply cannot see how his arguments are only helping us expose why Islam is irrational and incoherent, and that its primary sources are filled with irreconcilable contradictions.

For instance, even though Zawadi can cite narratives that suggest that Muhammad was illiterate there are plenty of other reports which actually show the exact opposite:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:
Once the Prophet wrote a letter or had an idea of writing a letter. The Prophet was told that they (rulers) would not read letters unless they were sealed. So the Prophet got a silver ring made with "Muhammad Allah's Apostle" engraved on it. As if I were just observing its white glitter in the hand of the Prophet… (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 3, Number 65)

Narrated 'Ursa:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with 'Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88)

Narrated 'Ubaidullah bin 'Abdullah:
Ibn 'Abbas said, "When the ailment of the Prophet became worse, he said, 'Bring for me (writing) paper and I will write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.' But 'Umar said, 'The Prophet is seriously ill, and we have got Allah's Book with us and that is sufficient for us.' But the companions of the Prophet differed about this and there was a hue and cry. On that the Prophet said to them, 'Go away (and leave me alone). It is not right that you should quarrel in front of me." Ibn 'Abbas came out saying, ""It was most unfortunate (a great disaster) that Allah's Apostle was prevented from writing that statement for them because of their disagreement and noise. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 3, Number 114)

One really has to ask why was it so unfortunate if Muhammad didn't know to read and write. And:

Narrated Yazid ibn Abdullah:

We were at Mirbad. A man with dishevelled hair and holding a piece of red skin in his hand came.

We said: You appear to be a bedouin. He said: Yes. We said: Give us this piece of skin in your hand. He then gave it to us and we read it. It contained the text: "From Muhammad, Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him), to Banu Zuhayr ibn Uqaysh. If you bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah, offer prayer, pay zakat, pay the fifth from the booty, and the portion of the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) and his special portion (safi), you will be under by the protection of Allah and His Apostle."

We then asked: Who wrote this document for you? He replied: THE APOSTLE OF ALLAH (peace_be_upon_him). (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 19, Number 2993)

We are aware that Zawadi will try to reconcile these hadiths by arguing that Muhammad wasn’t necessarily going to write anything himself, but have one of his scribes do so on his behalf. The problem with this assertion is that one must first assume that Muhammad was illiterate and read this back into the reports in order to deny the plain and explicit meaning of these texts. After all, the above narrations do not say that Muhammad dictated to someone else to write on his behalf, but clearly state that he himself wrote or was planning to write down something.

Hence, Zawadi cannot simply assume that his position regarding Muhammad being illiterate is true and then turn around and interpret these hadiths in light of his unwarranted and unsubstantiated presupposition. He must conclusively prove that his prophet was illiterate, and until he is able to do so we are left to conclude that the Islamic ahadith are filled with contradictions since certain reports claim Muhammad could write whereas other narratives suggest that he needed help to read certain documents.

For more on Muhammad’s ability to read and write we suggest consulting the following articles (1, 2).

In conclusion, we need to repeat the fact that there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that Muhammad was illiterate, and yet there is plenty of documentation that proves otherwise. So much for Zawadi’s "rebuttal."

This discussion continued and went into Round 2.

Rebuttals to Bassam Zawadi
Articles by Sam Shamoun
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