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Why Did the Prophet ﷺ Say, “I cannot read”?

December 19, 2013

A common question that arises in the minds of many students of Sīrah is that when Jibra’īl first came with revelation to the Prophet ﷺ, and commanded him to read, the Prophet ﷺ replied with: ما أنا بِقارِئ, which literally means, ‘I am not a reader’.

 

It is common knowledge that the Prophet ﷺ could not read or write, and thus he was an ummī in the terminology of the Qur’ān[1]. However, being unable to read or write does not mean being unable to repeat after someone else; the Prophet ﷺ was fully able to do that, rather, he ﷺ was the most eloquent of people, which meant he could do better than anyone in speech. Why then did the Prophet ﷺ say, “I am not a reader” to Jibra’īl on that occasion, not once, not twice, but thrice?

Shaykh Idrīs Al-Kāndhalwī رحمه الله answers this question in his Sīrat-Al-Muṣṭafā, from the works of Shaykh ‘Abdul Ḥaqq Muḥaddith Ad-Dihlawī رحمه الله.

  1. The first answer he gives, is that it is recorded in some narrations that when Jibra’īl came down with the revelation, he brought along the verses written on a piece of silk[2], and instructed the Prophet ﷺ to read from it. Upon this, the Prophet ﷺ stated that he could not read. Imām Az-Zarqānī رحمه الله states that some Mufassirūn mention that the ‘book’ referred to in the verse:

ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رِيبَ فِيه

‘This Book has no doubt in it…’ (2:2)

is the piece of silk which Jibra’īl brought.[3]

  1. The second answer given is that in actual fact, the meaning of the words of the Prophet ﷺ is, ‘I am unable to repeat anything’, and this was because of the overwhelming and strange nature of the incident that was occurring at the time. The Prophet ﷺ was naturally afraid and taken aback by it all, and was unable to even repeat anything due to it.

(Summarised from the Urdu version of Sīratul Muṣṭafā, Altaf and Sons, Vol. 1, Pgs. 145-146)

 

[1] قال القرطبي: قالَ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ: كَانَ نَبِيُّكُمْ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أُمِّيًّا لَا يَكْتُبُ وَلَا يَقْرَأُ وَلَا يَحْسُبُ

[2] قال الزرقاني في شرحه على المواهب اللدنية: وقد روى ابن إسحاق في مرسل عبيد بن عمير: "جاءني جبريل وأنا نائم بنمط من ديباج فيه كتاب...

[3] فَصْلٌ: وَذَكَرَ فِي الْحَدِيثِ أَنّ جِبْرِيلَ أَتَاهُ بِنَمَطِ مِنْ دِيبَاجٍ فِيهِ كِتَابٌ فَقَالَ اقْرَأْ قَالَ بَعْضُ الْمُفَسّرِينَ فِي قَوْلِهِ وَقَالَ ابْنُ سَلّامٍ فِي قَوْلِهِ تَعَالَى: {الم ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رِيبَ فِيه} [الْبَقَرَة: 1، 22] إنّهَا إشَارَةٌ إلَى الْكِتَابِ الّذِي جَاءَهُ بِهِ جِبْرِيلُ حِينَ قَالَ اقْرَأْ وَفِي الْآيَةِ أَقْوَالٌ غَيْرُ هَذِهِ

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