Almighty Allah chose Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) even though he had grown up as an orphan and was totally illiterate. All good qualities and virtues reached ultimate perfection and were firmly established in him, which no one else can attain except the prophets whom Allah has protected and guided. This combination of perfect qualities is one of the greatest proofs of the truth of his Prophethood (peace and blessings be upon him). He acquired his knowledge direct from Allah. He was not taught by any human being, but he was the “City of Knowledge”. Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, states: Almighty Allah says: (And thou (O Muhammad) wast not a reader of any scripture before it, nor didst thou write it with thy right hand, for then might those have doubted, who follow falsehood.) (Al-`Ankabut 29: 48) He also says: (Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them …) (Al-A`raf 7: 157)
The first verse indicates that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was an illiterate, knowing neither how to read or write, before the Glorious Qur’an started to be revealed to him. The second verse indicates that the People of the Book, i.e., the Christians and Jews, knew of the Prophet’s illiteracy in their Divine Books and this is a well-known matter. The wisdom in his illiteracy as shown in the verses is to avoid the disbelievers’ accusing him of having copied or transformed the Qur’an from another human being or excerpted it from the previous books. However, regarding the period after the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet, Muslim scholars held different viewpoints on the issue of the Prophet’s illiteracy. Some scholars are of the opinion that he was no more an illiterate. They based their ruling on the following three evidences:
1. It is reported in Sahih al-Bukhari that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) changed in the document of al-Hudaibiyah Truce the phrase “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” into “Muhammad ibn `Abdullah”.
2. He read a paper to `Uyaynah ibn Hisn and conveyed its meaning.
3. He stated that one of the signs of the Anti-Christ (al-Maseeh ad-Dajjal) is that it is written between his eyes the word “a disbeliever”.
The majority of Muslim scholars are of the opinion that he remained illiterate so that no one would be able to refute his mission or that the Qur’an was revealed to him on separate occasions until the end of his lifetime. They refuted the first evidence saying that the Prophet’s mere writing some words does not erase his illiteracy because of the fact that many illiterates nowadays can write their names nevertheless they are still illiterates. They refuted the second evidence saying that it is unauthentic. As for the third evidence, they said that the Prophet’s knowing of some letters does not erase his description as being an illiterate.
Accordingly, the Prophet’s illiteracy is a description that has its cogent wisdom. Finally, we would like to state that there are many textual proofs indicating that even if the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was an illiterate, the Muslim Ummah are recommended to learn how to read and write and to teach it to others, as learning by starting with reading is one of the strongest keys to gaining knowledge. It is reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ransomed the captives of the great Battle of Badr by having them teach some children of the Ansar (Helpers) reading and writing.
Dr. Rif`at Fawzi, professor of Shari`ah at Cairo University, adds: Yes, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was an illiterate. This clearly indicates the Divine nature of the Glorious Qur’an that was revealed on Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) who had grown up as an orphan and was illiterate, knowing neither how to read nor write. This Divine Book meets with the previous Divine Books in creeds and stories of Prophets. Almighty Allah challenged all people to try to create a chapter like it, but they could not, and will never be able to do so until the Day of Judgment.