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Unlettered and Gentile: Context of the Qur'an for the Word Ummi

Following up from the last post titled: What does it mean to be Ummi?

There is a debate regarding the meaning of Prophet Muhammad being Ummi. One section of the Sunni world mostly hover around the meaning, of Ummi as Unlettered or Uninstructed or Unschooled or Non Literate. Ummi as someone who can neither Read nor Write.  The Qur'anic verse that is most often cite to validate this interpretation is:

“Before this, you did not read any book, nor did you write anything with your hands” ~ The Qur'an 29:48

And the Holy Prophet's reply to Arch-angel Gabriel as recorded in authentic Hadith is also noteworthy when he was asked to read, he said, "I can not read" and he repeated that a few times before he was given tawajjuh and Divine Revelation started to flow through him.

Others try to interpret it in a more lofty meaning as Not dependent on Words or Letters but on Direct Divine Revelation from God the Most High.

The Ahlul Bayt school of thought do not always agree on the line of meaning that Prophet was illiterate. Some holds that he did indeed know how to read and write and had a profound respect for knowledge. Some interpret Ummi as one from Mecca, the Mother City. Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (as) was once asked, why the Holy Prophet was called as Ummi Prophet? to which the Imam replied, "It is because that he was associated with Mecca and since God has called to warn the people who are near Mecca - Mother of Towns (Ummul-Qura), he was called Ummi (being a native of Ummul Qura, ie. Ummi.)

There are also interpretation that its not Mecca, but a more esoteric meaning is that the Prophet was Ummi because he was 'From the Mother Source.' Note that Umm means Mother and Ummi means Maternal as well. Allamah Tabataba’I in his tafseer al-Mizan says the word “Ummi” is related to the word al-Umm (= mother) probably because the mother is so much in love with her child that she does not entrust the child to any outside teacher other than herself. In the same way, Allah loves His Messenger so much so that He teaches him rather than allowing his mind to be touched by a human teacher! Hence we say that the Holy Prophet was like a flower nourished by the Eternal Gardner.

Another way to look at it: since the Holy Prophet was also seen as the Qur'an Embodied, one of his wife also mentioned him as Living Qur'an, Ummi in this sense can also be interpreted as Not the Qur'an of the Mus'haf, or not the Qur'an of Letter and Words but Qur'an Embodied and Lived.

Now let us leave behind all of these diverse interpretations and try to find the context of the word Ummi in the Qur'an itself. If we take hints on the Signs (ayah) we find that the word Ummi is mentioned in 6 places (4 as noun and 2 as adjective). The full list can be found here via The Quranic Arabic Corpus.

Proper methodology to study the Qur'an as suggested by the scholars and experts of Islam that one must never take on Sign or Verse of the Qur'an in isolation, but totality of the Qur'an must be taken into consideration in order to receive the correct understanding. This is called Systems Meaning of the Qur'an and this also explains why the Qur'an is recommended to be recited again and again, from beginning till end and the cycle must be repeated. This is because in doing so we can see that the Qur'an is explaining itself, one Sign is further explaining and giving full meaning of another.

Also while looking for meaning, one needs to see the context in which the word is used, because that itself can give different meanings. In light of the above let us check the Signs / verses one after another and try to probe to see if we can arrive at the meaning of Ummi which is most appropriate in that context.

The following discussion or note is a personal contemplation on the meanings of the Signs of the Qur'an which itself is encouraged by God in the very Book.

Translation: And among them are unlettered ones who do not know the Scripture except in wishful thinking, but they are only assuming. ~ The Qur'an 2:78In this above Sign, if one read the previous verses and continues to read, the context can be identified where Ummi more closely refers to those who can not read or unlettered people.

So if they argue with you, say, "I have submitted myself to God, and [so have] those who follow me." And say to those who were given the Scripture and [to] the unlearned, "Have you submitted yourselves?" And if they submit [in Islam], they are rightly guided; but if they turn away - then upon you is only the [duty of] notification. And Allah is Seeing of [His] servants. ~ The Qur'an 3:20

In this above Sign, if one read the previous verses and continues to read, the context can be identified where Ummi more closely refers to those who are not from the people of Scripture or Book and hence the Gentiles or Non-Israelite because the word Ummi is used in contrast to the people who were given the Scripture.

And among the People of the Scripture is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it]. That is because they say, "There is no blame upon us concerning the Gentiles (Umiyina)." And they speak untruth about God while they know [it]. ~ The Qur'an 3:75

The above Sign is the most clearest to indicate the meaning of Ummi to be Gentiles. At a certain point influenced by Talmudic corruption, Bani Israel started to explain that laws among the Bani Israel and that of the Gentiles are different. For example, they said, Usury is prohibited for the Jews only among the Jews, but money can be lended on Usury to Non-Jews or Gentiles. This is the attitude which is condemned by the Qur'an in the above Sign and here the word Ummi clearly refers to the Gentiles or Non-Israelite.

It is He who has sent among the Gentiles a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom - although they were before in clear error. ~ The Qur'an 62:2

The Context again falls more heavily to mean Gentile rather than Unlettered, even though if we apply the meaning unlettered it refers to the people, not to the Prophet as per the meaning of the verse. If we continue from the previous chapter we see that the last verse of the previous chapter talked about the Children of Israel and two verses later, lo and behold we have this verse. So subject wise this verse also seems to point more towards the meaning of Non-Israelite or Gentile than unlettered.


Those who follow the Messenger, the Ummi prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him - it is those who will be the successful.

Say, [O Muhammad], "O mankind, indeed I am the Messenger of God to you all, [from Him] to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. There is no deity except Him; He gives life and causes death." So believe in God and His Messenger, the Ummi Prophet, who believes in God and His words, and follow him that you may be guided. ~ The Qur'an 7:157, 158

This two successive verses of the Qur'an where in both places God is defining the Holy Prophet as the Ummi Prophet and since in the same context of Torah and Gospel is mentioned, this again is an indication of a Gentile Prophet means by the term Ummi. Specially significant is the 158th verse where the Holy Prophet is asked to declare that he is a Prophet sent to all of mankind, not just the Israelite which was the case of most of the Biblical Prophet who came earlier.

The previous verses leading to this are all about the Bani Israel and the story of Moses among the Israelite which makes it even more clearer that in the context here the Ummi Prophet is most appropriately understood as the Gentile Prophet, a Non Israelite which was a shock and a big deal to the Jews particularly living in Arabia who knowingly was expecting advent of a new Prophet and they didn't particularly expected someone outsider (another meaning of Gentile). Though there was animosity and rejection to this Gentile Prophet, nevertheless many Jews in that time did recognize and accepted the Holy Prophet as a successor of the previous Prophets.

Thus in the light of the Qur'anic verses and their context and religious historical development, the most places where the Prophet was mentioned as Ummi, it is more closely points to the meaning as Gentile, a Non-Israelite Prophet rather than one who is unlettered or one who can not read and write. We find that the meaning of Ummi that refers to unlettered was referring to not the Prophet himself but the people of that time (2:78). And God the All-Knowing knows the best.

# Related:
Prophet Muhammad in the Bible


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Technology of the Heart: Unlettered and Gentile: Context of the Qur'an for the Word Ummi
Unlettered and Gentile: Context of the Qur'an for the Word Ummi
Does the Qur'an ever mean unlettered when describing the Prophet Muhammad or was it to mean Gentile or a Non-Israelite Prophet?
Technology of the Heart
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