Was the Prophet (sws) Literate?
Question asked by .
Answered by Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Was the Prophet (sws) illiterate? I found a Hadīth in Sahīh Bukhārī which I did not quite understand, because it said that the Prophet (sws) actually signed the peace treaty of Hudaybiyah himself. Some non-Muslims say that this is the sign that he was literate. Could you kindly clarify this for me.


The fact that the Prophet (sws) was not able to read or write is established history. The Qur’ān also refers to this established historical fact in the following words:

You were not able to recite a book before this [book came] nor were you able to write it. In that case indeed these deniers would have raised doubts. (29:48)

In fact, the illiteracy of the Prophet (sws) forms a supportive argument for his Prophethood. A person not conversant with the arts of reading and writing cannot in any way produce a book like the Qur’ān. We know from the Qur’ān that the Prophet’s opponents used to allege that he himself had fabricated this book. So, at one place the Qur’ān has presented the Prophet’s life before he was commissioned as a Prophet as evidence of his Prophethood:

Say if Allah has so willed I should not have rehearsed it to you or would He have made it known to you. A whole lifetime before this have I spent before you. Will you then not understand? (10:16)

Besides having knowledge of other aspects of the Prophet’s life, the Quraysh very well knew that he was never formally instructed in reading and writing.

You can also tell your non-Muslim friend that the opinion that the Prophet (sws) was literate is not supported by most non-Muslim authorities. Only a few of them today hold this view. Mawlāna ‘Abdu’l Mājid Daryābādī has quoted some of them in his commentary of the Qur’ān:

25. ‘His youth had never been instructed in the arts of reading and writing.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, London, VI. P.220), ‘As to acquired learning, it is confessed he had none at all’ (Sale, Preliminary Discourse to the Translation of the Koran, PD. P. 73), ‘It is probable that he could neither read nor write’ (Palmer, ‘The Qur’ān.’ Intro. P. XLVII) ‘There is no evidence that he was able read’ (Epr. XIII. P. 483), ‘It is certain that he had neither read the Bible nor any other book’ (Historian’s History of the World VIII. P. 11). (Mawlāna ‘Abdu’l Mājid Daryābādi, Tafsīru’l-Qur’ān, 1st ed., vol. 3 [Karachi: Dāru’l-Ishā‘at, 1991] p. 386)

As far as the Hadīth you have referred to is concerned, I find it difficult to accept it in the presence of other Ahādīth which explicitly state that the Prophet (sws) only rubbed out his name and it was ‘Alī (sws) who had actually written the treaty. Most of these are narrated on the authority of Barā Ibn ‘Āzib. Details of the incident, as transmitted by different narrators from Barā Ibn ‘Āzib are as follows:

1. As the Prophet did not know how to write, he said to ‘Alī: ‘Strike out the words “The Prophet of God”.’ He replied: ‘By God, I will not strike out these words’. Thereupon the Prophet asked ‘Alī to point out the place where those words were written. Then ‘Alī pointed out the place where the words were written and the Prophet wiped out the words with his own hand. (Bukhārī, Kitabu’l-Sulh)

2. On the refusal of ‘Alī, the Prophet himself wiped out the words ‘the Prophet of God’. (Muslim, Kitābu’l-Jihād)

3. Then the Prophet took the document in his hands and though he did not know how to write, he wrote: ‘This is the treaty concluded by Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullāh’. (Bukhārī, Kitabu’l-Maghāzī)

4. The Prophet asked ‘Alī to point out the place where the words: ‘the Prophet of God’ were written. ‘Alī showed him the place and the Prophet wrote: ‘Ibn ‘Abdullāh’, after wiping out those words. (Muslim, Kitābu’l-Jihād)

Consequently, among these Ahādīth, only those which support the Qur’ān and established history can be accepted. The third and fourth Hadīth and other Ahādīth of similar meaning cannot be accepted.

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