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The Nature of Muhammad's Prophetic Experience


1. The Muslim Emphasis on Muhammad's Illiteracy.

An assessment of the nature of Muhammad's prophetic experience is a far more complex task than that of his personality. Before analysing the subject generally it seems appropriate to introduce it with a brief study of an interesting description of his office in the Qur'an in these verses:

The title that concerns us is "the unlettered Prophet", which reads an-nabiyyal-ummi in the original Arabic. To better understand Muhammad's concept of his own assumed prophethood it is clear that we need to know what he meant by this expression, particularly as it has been fairly widely interpreted. There can be no dispute about the word nabi which in both Hebrew and Arabic simply means prophet, but it is the qualifying adjective ummi that has led to such varied interpretations. In most English translations it is rendered unlettered, perhaps wisely so, because this word can also yield various meanings.

Muslim writers usually allege that the word really means illiterate and that it substantiates the claim that Muhammad could neither read nor write. In a note to his translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasulullah, Guillaume says "Practically all Arab writers claim that he meant that he could not read or write" (p. 252). The English convert to Islam M. M. Pickthall, in his translation of the Qur'an, directly interprets the title and his text speaks of the Prophet who can neither read nor write. Another translator, who attempts no English rendering of the word ummi in his work but leaves it in its original form, nevertheless says in a footnote meaning one who neither writes nor reads a writing (Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur'an, p. 351). Much the same is said by Muhammad Asad: 'unlettered' (ummi), i.e., unable to read and write, which also appears in a footnote in his commentary (The Message of the Qur'an, p. 226).

The reason for this fairly regular interpretation in Muslim writings is that Muhammad's alleged illiteracy is considered to be substantial evidence that the Qur'an must have been revealed to him from heaven. They ask how such an outstanding book could have been composed by one who could neither read nor write. It is not surprising therefore to find that they determinedly seek to interpret this somewhat ambiguous expression the unlettered Prophet" in the way that will best suit their purposes. Like Muhammad himself they are very touchy about any critical analysis of his prophetic claims and react very unfavourably towards any non-Muslim writers who suggest an alternative interpretation. Another Muslim translator, referring to Sale and Palmer who take the expression to imply illiteracy (Sale actually renders it "the illiterate Prophet" in his translation), describes them as "Christian writers not altogether blinded by their hatred of Islam" (Daryabadi, The Holy Qur'an, p. 158). One can see how sensitive this issue has become for them as a result of their cherished presuppositions.

It is by no means certain that Muhammad was illiterate but it is probable that he was and the Qur'an does say of him that he neither recited nor transcribed a book beforehand, which does seem to give support to the Muslim claim. Nevertheless, far from proving that he could not have composed the Qur'an, it paradoxically tends to strengthen the suggestion that he did! The Qur'an has a number of garbled accounts of historical events, contains many anachronisms, and often fails to distinguish between fact and myth (details will follow in the chapters on the sources of the Qur'an). These are all typical of the kind of errors we would expect to find in the oracle of a man who, being illiterate, simply relied on what he heard from others and could not correct himself by careful study of the relevant written sources.

In all fairness, however, it must be said that those who interpret ummi to mean illiterate appear to be forcing a meaning into the word which it does not readily yield. It is obviously important that we should know what Muhammad's conception of his prophetic role was and the best way to do this is to seek the best interpretation that can be gained from a study of the expression in its context rather than by reading a preconceived, preferent meaning into it. The word comes from the same root letters as ummah, a very common word in the Qur'an already considered, meaning a people, community or nation, and Arberry significantly translates the whole expression an-nabiyyal-ummi as "the Prophet of the common folk". The word ummah never simply means an illiterate community but it can well mean an uneducated community and it appears to carry this meaning on one or two occasions in the Qur'an, though in a special context as we shall see. At this stage, however, it seems that the interpretation of the word "unlettered" to mean "illiterate" stretches its meaning too far and that without reference to its context.

2. Did Muhammad Consider Himself a Gentile Prophet?

A common interpretation of the expression an-nabiyyal-ummi by Western scholars is "the Gentile Prophet", meaning that Muhammad, acknowledging that the previous prophets were all Jews, made a special claim to be an exceptional, non-Jewish prophet.

Another author says that ummi "is almost certainly intended to render the conception 'gentile' (roughly as held by the Jews)" (Watt, What is Islam? p. 76). Another writer says of the title an-nabiyyal-ummi in Surah 7.157:

This interpretation also does not really seem to give the meaning of the word ummi. This time it is placed against the background of the Judaeo-Christian dogma that all the true prophets were of Israel's line (cf. Romans 9.4-5). It is extremely doubtful whether Muhammad ever saw himself in this context. On the other hand he speaks in the Qur'an of prophets sent to various tribes beforehand, such as the prophet Hud sent to the people of 'Ad (Surah 7.65) and the prophet Salih sent to the people of Thamud (Surah 7.73). In both cases the Qur'an adds that each of these prophets was akhahum, that is, a brother of the community to whom he was sent. Furthermore on more than one occasion the Qur'an says that a messenger was sent to kulli ummah, that is, "to every community" at one time or another (Surah 10.47, 16.36). One must therefore reject the suggestion that Muhammad saw himself as a unique, non-Jewish prophet.

Another interesting and somewhat novel interpretation has been suggested by H. G. Reissner in an article in The Muslim World. He refers to the Talmudic distinction between true Jews, who followed Judaism wholeheartedly, and the Ben Israel who were the rural people of the nation and who were not overtly Jewish in their manners and customs. He goes on to compare this distinction to the two expressions used in the Qur'an for the Israelite nation, namely Yahudu, meaning Jews, and Banu Israil meaning the people of Israel. He suggests that, as the Qur'an often speaks unfavourably of the Yahudu but constantly refers to God's favour on the Banu Israil, Muhammad was adopting the Talmudic categories and was relating them to his own negative experiences with the rich merchants of Mecca and the more positive responses he received from the general masses of the common people. He theorises:

The interpretation is very interesting and calls to mind a suggestion once made to me personally by a Muslim school-teacher that ummi meant "universal", meaning therefore that Muhammad was a universal prophet for all peoples. Both these interpretations are consistent with the meaning of the word ummah (a people) and rightly imply that Muhammad was, in a sense, a people's prophet. Nevertheless neither seems to be derived from a careful study of the context of the expression an-nabiyyal-ummi in the Qur'an (so likewise the meanings illiterate and Gentile). Reissner gets closer to the mark when he says:

It is this very distinction between those who have a kitab, a scripture, and those who do not, the ummiyyun, which sets the context in which we must seek the real meaning of the expression and we are now in a position to discover what it really is.

3. The Prophet of the People without a Scripture.

Throughout the Qur'an the Jews and Christians collectively are called Ahlal-Kitab, meaning "People of the Scripture", and a cursory study of the contrast drawn in the Qur'an between this group and the ummiyyun, the "unscriptured people", shows that the ummi prophet means the prophet of the people without a scripture, that is, one raised from among them and to give them a book with sound religious education.

One verse in the Qur'an very comprehensively shows that this is precisely the image Muhammad had of himself as the an-nabiyyal-ummi:

The unlettered Prophet clearly means one drawn from a people, hitherto uneducated in divine counsels, to give them a scripture by which they may be purified of their ignorant ways and be instructed in divine wisdom. Indeed the times before the coming of Islam among the Arabs are often referred to as Jahiliyya, that is times of ignorance reminiscent of Paul's description of pre-Gospel times among the Gentiles (Acts 17.30). In the verse quoted above the Arabic word for the unlettered is once again al-ummiyyin and one Muslim commentator gets to the heart of the matter when he says of them in a comment:

The Qur'an constantly emphasises its Arabic state (Innaa anzalnaahu Qur'aanaan arabiyyan - We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an - Surah 12.3) and this strengthens the view that Muhammad constantly viewed himself as drawn from the hitherto ignorant Arab peoples to be their prophet and to make them a people of the scripture as well.

Another Muslim writer likewise refers to the view that Muhammad, as the ummi prophet, saw himself as the prophet called out to raise his people to the level of those who had formerly received the Scriptures:

Another verse which brings out very clearly the deliberate distinction in the Qur'an between the Ahlal Kitab,the scriptured people, and the ummiyyun, the unscriptured people, is this one (already referred to by Reissner above):

In the original the relevant words are uwtul kitaaba wal ummiyyin, clearly the "scriptured" and the "unscriptured". In another verse we read of ummiyyuuna laa yaalamuunal kitaab, unlettered people in that they know not the Scripture (Surah 2.78). It is quite clear from a contextual study of the Qur'anic usage of the word ummi in its relevant forms that it does not mean "illiterate" or "Gentile" but rather "unscriptured". Richard Bell confirms this conclusion:

Although St. Clair-Tisdall, in the book already quoted, interprets ummi as Gentile, in another work he draws this same conclusion about the expression an-nabiyyal-ummi:

A well-known Orientalist seems to get right to the point when he says of the enigmatic little word ummi:

Muslims strongly claim that the title means that Muhammad was illiterate and presume that they are doing his prophetic claims a great service in doing so. As we have seen, this interpretation can be made to rebound very effectively on them. They seem to miss a similar impact clearly intended behind the correct interpretation of this expression. Muhammad's argument is really that the Qur'an must be a revelation because it comes through an ummi prophet, one who knew not any Scripture beforehand, and from a people who were ummiyyun, uninstructed in such matters. "When Muhammad is represented here as illiterate, what is being said is that he could not have acquired knowledge from earlier revealed books" (Gatje, The Qur'an and its Exegesis, p. 270). One is reminded of an incident in Jesus' life which seems to bring a very relevant focus on the argument implied in the title the Qur'an gives to Muhammad. When Jesus stood up at the Feast of the Tabernacles and taught with great wisdom, the learned Jews exclaimed:

How did he "know his letters" when he was unlettered and had not been through the Jewish theological schools? In a similar way this seems to be the thrust behind Muhammad's claim that he, likewise, was an ummi prophet. The very context of the title in the Qur'an strengthens this theory all the more. In Surah 7.157 Muhammad, claiming to be an ummi prophet, one hitherto unscriptured, yet charges that the scriptured folk will find him foretold in their own Scriptures, the Tawrat (the Law) and the Injil (the Gospel). Although not from a learned people - learned in the Scripture, that is - he is nonetheless mentioned in the Scriptures. In calling himself the ummi prophet at this very point, he obviously intends to give weight to his prophetic claims by implying that it is a marvel that a prophet should appear, delivering a Scripture with wisdom, learning and divine counsel, when he himself had never been so instructed, rising as he did from the very ummiyyun he was now leading into the knowledge of the great truths contained in all the revealed scriptures.

We have now identified the concept Muhammad had of his prophetic office and are thus able to make a more balanced study of the subjective side of his prophetic experience.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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