Rebuttal to Sam Shamoun's Article, "To Read or Recite? That is the Question! Was Muhammad Really Illiterate?"


Bassam Zawadi

Sam Shamoun's article can be found here. It is important to read Shamoun's article first before proceeding to this rebuttal.

The Solution to the Alleged Problem

I can find more than one possible solution to this alleged problem. However, I would only put forth one because that would be enough to refute the argument.

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, "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 Gabriel squeezed the Prophet thrice to ensure that he wasn't dreaming and that this was a real experience. Some said it was done to empty/prepare/purify the receptacle of revelation.

The above answer avoids all of Shamoun's objections. Although I can provide another solution and answer Shamoun's objections, I find that it is not necessary to do so since this is enough to refute the argument.

I would also like to address a couple of points that Shamoun has made.

Shamoun posts several verses from the Qur'an to try to show that iqra' or yatlu could mean reading or reciting from a book. However, this is irrelevant since the meaning of the word is denoted by its context. There is nothing in the context of the Prophet's encounter with Gabriel that suggests that the word has to mean "read."

Shamoun said:

Lest a Muslim claim that the above texts do not necessarily imply that Muhammad was reading an actual book since there was no Quranic manuscript for him to read, note what the following passage states:

Those who disbelieve say: "This (the Qur'an) is nothing but a lie that he (Muhammad SAW) has invented, and others have helped him at it, so that they have produced an unjust wrong (thing) and a lie." And they say: "Tales of the ancients, which he has written down, and they are dictated to him morning and afternoon." S. 25:4-5 Hilali-Khan

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

Shamoun conveniently chose the Hilali-Khan translation over Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Shakir, Sher Ali, Arberry, Palmer, and Sale, who all translated the word properly.

Shamoun states:

It seems that there were some Muslims who were aware of all of the above problems and so decided to fabricate a tradition where they had the spirit coming to Muhammad with some piece of writing!

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.

Shamoun said:

Another so-called evidence which Muslims bring forth to prove Muhammad's illiteracy is the following Quranic reference:

And thou (O Muhammad) wast not a reader (tatloo) of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted, who follow falsehood. S. 29:48 Pickthall

According to the typical Muslim interpretation this citation demonstrates that Muhammad wasn't capable of reading or writing a book since if he could then the unbelievers would have a reason to object to his prophetic claims.

The problem with this proposed explanation is that that is not the plain reading of the text. The verse is not denying that Muhammad could read or write, but denying that Muhammad had read or written down an inspired Scripture prior to his receiving the Quran. In other words, the passage is simply saying that people couldn't accuse Muhammad of making up the Quran by plagiarizing information that he had received from some holy book which he had read or wrote down, such as the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, since this Quran is the first so-called holy book that he has ever read and/or written.

There goes Shamoun again, who makes a selective choice of translation. The Arabic word in the verse is kitab, which simply means "book," and nowhere does the context necessarily imply that it refers to scripture. Please refer to the commentaries of Ibn Kathir and Jalalayn.

Shamoun states:

In conclusion, there really is no good evidence to support that Muhammad was illiterate. The evidence actually proves the contrary, i.e. Muhammad could read and was actually reciting from a book that he had written or had others write down.

There is good reason to believe so:

As for the second part of your question, it is true that some Orientalists tend to use the two occasions - as you have mentioned - to prove that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was literate. However, by analyzing each one of the incidents, one can easily discover the fallacies in the allegation.

For example, in the al-Hudaybiyah Treaty, the prophet (pbuh) did not write the treaty, but his cousin `Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) was the writer. While writing the treaty, Suhail ibn `Amr [Quraish side] rejected that the prophet would have his name signed as the messenger or apostle of Allah (rasoulu Allah).

Sohail asked to have it changed to "Muhammad, son of Abdullah". Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) then asked `Ali to omit rasoulu Allah, which means the messenger of Allah. Yet, Ali did not like the idea of omitting it and said: "By Allah I swear I will never omit rasoulu Allah!" Thus, the prophet himself - with his thumb - omitted rasoulu Allah.

One part of the story, which the Orientalists usually - deliberately - do not mention, is the fact that when `Ali refused to omit rasoulu Allah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said to `Ali: "show it to me." After `Ali showed it to him, the prophet omitted it.
(Salem Al Hasi, Prophet's Illiteracy and Mariya, Source)

If the Prophet (peace be upon him) could read, why did he need Ali to point it out to him? (Refer to Saheeh Muslim, Book 019, Number 4403)

The debate continues.

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