Could Muhammad read?

Hello and happy Easter, to all of you who celebrate it!  Happy April the 24th to those who don’t!  (And happy sunny 4-day bank holiday weekend to those in Britain!  If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is!)

Uzza asked: What’s your take on whether or not Muhammad could read? I’ve never been able to make up my mind about that.

No, I admit, nor have I, really, but here’s the best evidence on either side of the debate . . .

Accordingly to the Muslim tradition, Muhammad (peace be upon him) as illiterate, which is often mentioned in his biographies to highlight the miraculous nature of the revelation of the Qur’an, to evidence that it could not be his own words, and thus must have been the word of God.  However, there are several important points to be made about that claim, most importantly that illiteracy does not actually mean ineloquency.  In fact, although it appears from contemporary sources that much of central Arabia was illiterate, without any written language at all, the tribes did have an extensive tradition of oral, epic poetry, which was used as a method of historical transmission.

Secondly, it’s important to note that there are levels of illiteracy.  Pure illiteracy is the inability to write or comprehend written language at all, or a society that has no written language at all (a hard thought to process for those of us who live in literate societies, but actually more common than you might think).  However, there is also such a thing as partial illiteracy or limited literacy, in which a person can write and read simply things, but lacks the vocabulary and grammatical training to compose complicated works.  Most people who speak a foreign language have limited literacy – you might be able to read street signs or maybe a newspaper in French, but that doesn’t mean you could write Moliere.

And the Qur’an is undoubtedly complex literature.  There is no known source like it from early seventh-century Arabia, nor anything comparable for the first century after the rise of Islam.  In fact, this vacuum of Arabic writing in which it arises is what has fueled the Western scholarly interest in Muhammad – it’s because the Qur’an is such a literary phenomenon that we want to know who Muhammad (s’lm) was.

The best evidence we have to suggest that Muhammad (s’lm) was partially literate was that he was a merchant.  He drove a caravan owned by his first wife Khadija, and although it was a position that in no way required some simple literacy, it certainly would have been encouraged for Muhammad (s’lm) to know at least enough writing to be able to read simply documents like supply orders.  Obviously this would suggest a fairly small vocabulary, as well, and nothing even close to the level of vocabulary in the Qur’an, which actually even includes some Aramaic loan words for the more complex theological concepts.

The best evidence we have against the idea that he was literate in an any more advanced sense is just the general level of illiteracy of seventh-century Arabia.  According to Muslim tradition, the companions of the Prophet (s’lm) who first converted to Islam wrote chapters of the Qur’an on leaves and stones, suggesting that they didn’t even have the basic supplies necessary for writing.  This corresponds with the limited written evidence we have for early Islam – for the first seventy years, the only documentation we have are stone inscriptions, mostly gravestone or road markers.

Again, it’s not something that leaps to mind in discussions of literacy because we all grew up in lettered societies, but there is actually a fair amount of physical supplies and resources necessary to be literate, and there’s just very little evidence that the Arabians had these supplies during the lifetime of the Prophet (s’lm), so presumably Muhammad (s’lm), like his fellow Arabians, would have been writing with charcoal on stones or leaves.

However, this changed dramatically after his death, as the expansion picked up.  In particular, by the 650s, the Muslims were in control of Egypt, and thus controlled the world’s supply of papyrus.  At this point, they had also conquered Syria and the Holy Land, as well as much of Persia, and so would have access to the scribes and libraries in these territories, who would have knowledge of thinks like producing ink, cutting pens, preparing and cutting pages and binding.  It’s probably in part for this reason that in the decades that followed, we have the first Muslim, Arab documents being produced, including court letters from the caliphs, early histories of the expansion, and biographies of the Prophet (s’lm), in addition to copies of the Qur’an.

The secondary question is then, if Arabic was not a written language, where did the language come from (since according to Muslim tradition, the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (s’lm) orally)?  I’m happy to come back to this question, but it requires a slightly lengthy discussion of Semitic languages, so I think I’ll save it for another day.

Now, time for a sugar rush!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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6 Responses to Could Muhammad read?

  1. uzza says:

    I’d thoguht that since papyrus was made in Egypt and used in Europe since oh forever, it all went through Arabia to get there, so they would have know about it , and that bit about leaves and stones was just hyperbole.
    I’ve heard that the custom in the Kaaba was to post written poems, where they would be seen and critiqued by everyone, and that Muhammed did that. No reason to beleive that though, other than that it makes sense.

    • My understanding is that trade routes came out of Arabia, but less often into Arabia. Egypt was a Byzantine province, and so papyrus was dispatched directly into Byzantium, either by sea (from the port of Alexandria to the port of Constantinople) or over land through Syria (in fact, Egypt was a very important revenue source for the Byzantines – in addition to papyrus, Egypt produced cotton and dyes, and it appears that the loss of Egypt put a serious dent in the Byzantine economy). Certainly Arabia sent luxury goods to be traded in the West, most importantly myrrh and gum, but as far as I know, trade into Arabia was far more limited.

      I wasn’t aware of a tradition of writing poems in Mecca – I’d love to hear about it if you have a citation! I do realize I had forgotten one of the few examples of advanced writing in the period of the Prophet (s’lm) – according to Muslim history, he sent letters to the kings of Byzantium, Abyssinia, Himar and Persia inviting them to Islam. There are even stories of him having a signet ring to seal the letters, suggesting that the Muslims were aware of the larger Late Antique traditions of formal state letters. But the authenticity of these stories is highly debated – they don’t appear until more than a century after the rise of Islam, and they raise questions themselves, most importantly, what language were the letters written in? Did Muhammad (s’lm) send the various kings letters in Arabic and expect them to translate them? Or did he have the resources to translate them himself?

      For myself, I admit, I would like to believe that there was a written tradition in Arabia at the rise of Islam, as it would fill a lot of the holes in terms of the development of the Arabic language, but academically, it’s hard to overlook the combination of the lack of material evidence (admittedly papyrus doesn’t have an infinite shelf-life, but we would expect some Arabian papyrus to survive) and the early Islamic accounts of the non-literate nature of Arabian society.

      And that’s a bit tl;dr. Sorry about that!

      • uzza says:

        I’m just a lowly blogger who only knows what i read on the intertubes, so won’t claim to have anything as respectable as a citation. When I was blogging the Book, I and came up with this, hardly unbiased source, but he does give some references that’re beyond me to check out. I vaguely remember other such claims but not of any better quality.

      • Cool – I will have to look into it!

        Also, don’t sell yourself short – from reading your blog, you have a better understanding of Islamic literature than a lot of the academics I work with! 🙂

  2. Pingback: What is Ramadan? | askanislamicist

  3. Wilbur says:

    Everything is very open with a very clear description of the challenges.
    It was really informative. Your website is very helpful.
    Thank you for sharing!

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