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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
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Was Mohammed Illiterate?

I was having a discussion about Islam with my friend this morning. She doesn't blog anymore, which is a pity, because I found her blog was an inspiration to me; I started the Red Bull Diary partially because I liked her blog so much.

We were discussing Mohammed's retreat to the cave, and the revelation of the Koran to him. I was taught by the excellent Dr. William C. Chittick while getting my degree in Religious Studies that the Muslims regard it as a miracle that the illiterate Mohammed could have produced the magnificent poetry in the Koran. My friend told me I was flatly wrong and that he never wrote the verses himself. This puzzled me because it directly contradicted something I had learned, but certainly seemed reasonable when discussing it as a matter of fact as opposed to an article of faith. Naturally, I decided to look it up and respond on my blog so that I could use my virtual pulpit to refute the point.

It seems that the issue is somewhat contentious. Several sources I was able to find (like, who discusses the issue here and here and also these others) contest the idea that Mohammed was illiterate, but do not seem to back the idea that someone else wrote the Koran.

It has been part of the Muslim’s belief, based on traditions, that Prophet Muhammad was illiterate. God says in verse 29:51 that the Quran itself is the only miracle of the prophet. By alleging illiteracy for him, traditional Muslims were trying to make the claim even "more miraculous," for a book of such literary quality was sent down through an illiterate man. This is despite the many assertions in the Quran to the contrary. The first Quranic revelation that came down to Muhammad is, "Read! In the name of your Lord who creates...." (96:1) It is clear that this is also a commandment. To all of us, including the prophet, God stresses the importance of literacy in the very first revelation. Furthermore, the second revelation is "The Pen" which indicates again the importance of written communication. This makes the importance of literacy even more compelling. If indeed Muhammad was an illiterate man when the Quran was first revealed to him, how could he not make himself learn to read and write during the twenty some years of his mission? Perhaps a more poignant question should be, "How dare he not to obey his Lord’s clear commandment to read and write?"
The Claim of Muhammad's Illiteracy: Another Look
So to bring this back to the point I was discussing with my friend, it seems that the bulk of the sources I have been able to find dispute not whether Mohammed wrote the Koran, but instead contend whether his doing so was miraculous or not. Some seem to think that it was written without him at all, but this view seems to be in the minority.

So I'll call the issue open, and simply point out that both the scholarship and the tradition say that it is certainly possible that the prophet wrote the Koran himself.


Comments on Was Mohammed Illiterate?
  Comment from Anonymous Anonymous at Monday, October 30, 2006 6:49:00 AM
Most interesting...
  Comment from Anonymous Anonymous at Thursday, November 02, 2006 5:22:00 PM
It's interesting. The textbooks at school say that the Koran was Muhammad's message, but that other people wrote it down (within his lifetime). Now, I'll be the first to admit textbooks often have wrong or misleading info in them. Perhaps it is a compromise. Because historically, Muhammad would have no reason to be literate. He was raised by a Bedouin tribe from the time he was 6 or so. If the textbook says "Muhammad wrote the Koran", that begs the question, "Where did he learn to read & write?" and if the only answer is, "It's a miracle!", well then, you see how that would be problematic in a public high school class.
The video that I showed my students is "Islam: Empire of Faith" (a PBS documentary narrated by Ben Kingsley with all sorts of Muslim scholar talking heads). They put forth the idea that one of the reasons the people of Mecca refused to believe Muhammad was because he didn't perform any miracles [in addition to threatening their livelihood if the Kaaba was no longer a pagan pilgrimage site!]
SO, I don't know what the truth is. I do know I can't teach my kids students that Muhammad wrote the Koran by means of a miraclous hooked on phonics course taught by god. So, I'm going with Muhammad's message, somebody else's pen.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.