Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan
How can the Prophet the Best of Creation if he was unlettered? (Allah bless him and give him peace)
I pray this finds you in the best of health and states.
The short answer is that while for others the term “unlettered” is considered a deficiency, it is a term of immense praise and a perfection for our beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him and his folk).
This is because by his being ‘unlettered’, it becomes undoubtedly clear and absolutely evident that he is indeed a true messenger, sent by Allah Most High to humanity, as a mercy to creation.
The knowledge that he brought could only have come from the Divine, as he could neither read nor write, nor did he spend time with a scholar of other religions to have known what he knew. He spoke with the most concise yet comprehensive speech (jawam` al-kalim), and he brought for us:
(a) The Noble Sharia: a Sacred Law whose rulings are full of wisdom and benefit;
(b) Teachings that elucidate the utmost refinement of ethics, behavior, character and comportment (adab);
(c) Precise knowledge of the unseen realm and of future events; and
(d) Stories of past nations and bygone peoples, including very subtle details such as the plotting of Yusuf’s brothers or the dog companion of the people of the cave.
[Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani; Biqa’i; Nazm al-Durar]
The Title Used in the Quran
Allah Most High states in the Quran, “Those who wholeheartedly follow the Emissary, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find inscribed in their own [scriptures], the Torah and Gospels: he commands to the good, forbids evil, permits for them things good and pure, and prohibits them from things low and vile. He releases them from their heavy burdens and [from] the yokes that were upon them. So those who believe in him, and honor him, and give him support and aid, and completely follow the light that was revealed with him: those are the ones who are successful and prosperous.”[Quran, 7:157]
Imam Qushayri comments in his tafsir:
“That is, He Most High manifests the immense honor of the Chosen Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), by His statement, ‘the unlettered prophet’: nothing whatsoever of his virtues, of his complete and perfected knowledge, of his readiness and ability to explain the details of the Sacred Law were from his own self, nor from learning or fabricating, nor from effort or his own doing. Rather, all that appeared from him was from none other than Allah Most High. So truly he was the unlettered, having neither read any book nor sought out stories and events.” [Qushayri, Lata’if al-Isharat]
Imam Munawi adds:
“This is the very highest degree of merit for him (peace and blessings be upon him): he was unlettered yet nevertheless brought us vast knowledge, enormous wisdom, and news of forgone generations, all without learning how to write nor studying from a book.” [Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami al-Saghir]
The fact that it is an immense virtue and perfection of his (peace and blessings be upon him) is also reflected in the use of this title in certain formulae of salawat [i.e, sending blessings and peace upon him], as taught by the Prophet himself, who when asked once about the method of sending blessings upon him, said, “Say all of you: O Allah, send mercy upon Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet, and upon the folk of Muhammad, just as You sent mercy upon Ibrahim and the folk of Ibrahim; and send blessings upon Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet, and upon the folk of Muhammad, just as You sent blessings upon Ibrahim and the folk of Ibrahim. Verily You are Praiseworthy, Glorious.” [Sahih Ibn Khuzayma; Sahih Ibn Hibban; Sunan al-Daraqutni; Mustadrak Hakim]
A Glimpse of His Exalted Character
Imam Busiri states in the Burda:
“Sufficient for you as a miracle is [such vast] knowledge in an unlettered person,
In the period of ignorance, as well as such refined character in an orphan.”
A mere glimpse of his noble character confirms his prophethood, especially when coupled with his having been unlettered. This is evident in the statement of al-Jalandi, ruler of Oman who became Muslim after being called to Islam by the Prophet’s emissary. Al-Jalandi said:
“By Allah, what indicated to me that this unlettered Prophet [is a true prophet] is that he does not command to good without being the first to practice it; he does not forbid evil without being the first to abstain from it; he conquers without pride, and when defeated, is not annoyed; and he fulfills his covenant and promise. Verily, I testify that he is a prophet.” [Qadi Iyad, Shifa]
And Allah knows best.
[Shaykh] Faraz Khan
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Shaykh Faraz A. Khan has lived in Amman, Jordan, for several years studying and teaching traditional Islamic sciences, with a focus on Hanafi jurisprudence, hadith studies, theology, logic, and Arabic grammar. He translated and annotated the classical Hanafi primer “Ascent to Felicity” (Maraqi ‘l-Sa`adat) by Imam Shurunbulali, recently published by White Thread Press.