In The Name of Allah, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful
There is a difference of opinion about why Allah addressed Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.a.) as ‘Ummee’ (unlettered). Some wrongly say that it was because he could not write and read. Some have said that it is related to ‘Ummah’, others say as he apparently had not been taught by anybody, he was, like illiterate Arabs.
Some have said: It was related to mother (Umm), meaning thereby that he was just as he was at the time of taking birth from his mother’s womb, that is, like a child who had not learnt reading and writing yet. In some traditions, it is mentioned that it was related to ‘Ummul Qura’ meaning the city of Mecca. And there is no dispute about the fact that, the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) had, till he was appointed as a prophet, not learnt reading and writing from anybody.
The Almighty Allah says: “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.”
[Surah Anaam 6:19]
There is a difference of opinion also whether he could read and write even after becoming a prophet or not. So, the truth is that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) was able to read and write as, it was through divine revelation, that he knew everything and, with the might of the Almighty, he was able to do everything which others could not. But it was due to exigency that he did not write anything himself but asked others to read out, mostly letters. He had not learnt reading and writing from any human being. It is mentioned in a tradition that Imam Ja’far Sadiq (a.s.) said: The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) was writing and also reading letters.
In another authentic tradition he said: Among the things which Allah bestowed on the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) was that he was Ummee. He was not writing but could read letters.
In another reliable tradition, the verse “He it is Who raised among the inhabitants of Mecca an Apostle from among themselves, who recites to them His communications…” [Surah Jumah 62:2]
…is explained and it is mentioned that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) did know how to read and write. But, since then no Book had come to him from.
Allah, and as no one from them had been a prophet, he was called Ummee. It is narrated through reliable chains that a man asked Imam Muhammad Taqi (a.s.): Why the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) is named Ummee?
His Eminence, asked: “What do the Sunnis say?” That man said: “They say because the Holy Prophet (S) was illiterate.” The Imam said: “They are wrong. Allah may ask them. How can it be so?
Allah says in his praise: He sent to them a Messenger from them who reads God’s verses to them before them and teaches them the Book and wisdom. If he did not know anything how he could teach others? By God, the Holy Prophet (S) could read and write seventy-three languages. Yet Allah called him Ummee because he was from Mecca and Ummul Qura is one of the names of Mecca; as mentioned in the following verse: “…and that you may warn the metropolis and those around
her…” [Surah Anaam 6:92]
Imam Ja’far Sadiq (a.s.) says: When Abu Sufyan advanced to Uhad, Abbas wrote a letter to the
Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) mentioning the event therein. When that letter was brought to the Prophet he was in an orchard of Medina. He read that letter and did not show to his companions but asked them to leave Medina.
After reaching their destination he revealed the subject matter of that letter to the people. It is mentioned in another tradition that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) could read and write. He could read other’s writing too. Rather he could read even the unwritten and follow it. How then could he not know a written thing? The Imam is reported to have said while explaining the meaning of the verse:
“…and this Qur’an has been revealed to me that with it I may warn
you and whomsoever it reaches.” [Surah Anaam 6:19] …that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) has said that Allah revealed the Qur’an so that I may warn you as well as every other man in his language and tongue to whom my message may reach about the punishment of Allah. According to yet another reliable tradition, Imam Muhammad Baqir (a.s.) said that Allah did not send any Book or revelation except in Arabic language but it used to reach the prophets in the native language of their people.
And it reached our Prophet in his Arabic language and everyone who spoke with the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) spoke only in his own language but his words reached him only in Arabic. While bringing the verses to the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) angel Jibraeel used to translate it as a mark of respect to the
Holy Prophet (S).