Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ literacy

June 6, 2018 • 9:15 am

Posting will be light today as I’m a bit under the weather and can’t brain. In the meantime, enjoy the latest edition of Jesus and Mo, called “fail”:


Well, I’ve often wondered, because Hitchens proclaimed it repeatedly, whether Muhammad really was illiterate.  One counterargument is provided by the website Radical Truth (the “T” in “Truth” is a cross), which is a Christian site apparently devoted to convincing Muslims of the Resurrection. Take what’s below, then, with a grain of salt (there are other arguments), but this Sura of the Qur’an does indeed claim that Muhamed was “unlettered”:

Muslims claim that because Muhammad was illiterate, he could not have written the Qur’an, and thus the Qur’an is a miracle, Muhammad’s primary miracle. This idea of illiteracy is supported in the Qur’an:

Sura 7:157: “Those who follow the apostle, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), – in the law and the Gospel…

Sura 7:158 –  Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Apostle of God, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in God and His Apostle, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in God and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.”

Thus, the Qur’an’s very existence is testimony to Muhammad’s status as a prophet. There are a couple of problems with this position.

First, it is doubtful that Muhammad was illiterate. Recall that when he was being raised by his uncle, he traveled as a merchant, delivering supplies to various communities. He also traveled extensively with his first wife Khadijah, who hired him to help her with her trade business. Surely there must have been some sort of written record kept to document these transactions. The merchant trade cannot exist without written records of what and how much was shipped to whom.

Second, Muhammad’s illiteracy is irrelevant to the question of the existence of the Qur’an. Muhammad did not write the Qur’an; he recited it. Others wrote down what Muhammad recited, as the Qur’an was complied over several years. The Qur’an would have been written whether Muhammad could or could not read and write, so the argument is irrelevant.

There are other arguments, too. I can’t be arsed to analyze them, as the whole scenario of an angel reciting the Qur’an to Muhammad is ridiculous.

25 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ literacy

  1. I kind of like it when a club of people points out the unlikeliness of a topic like Mo’s literacy in the Quran, and then almost in the same breath claims that they know of an even older story of a man who walked on water and came to life after being dead for some days. If irony was a fluid, they’d have to keep mopping the floor.

  2. He could have had a slave who wrote, people also used tally sticks in ancient times to record transaction, he could have dictated his godly revelations, or someone else could have…

    The idea that you need writing to trade is daft.

    1. I think Muhammad probably was pretty literate. There is a difference between a trader being able to sign off contracts, tally amounts and types, and creating rhymed chapters and, in one case, a coherently-framed mid-length narrative.

      Muhammad looks to have been better-educated than a desert trader, but this does not mean that the Koran is as well-written as apologists say. I do not read classical Arabic but then again neither does the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, and even the Arab ones. When they point to the beauty of the language, and its inimitability, that is obviously just BS: one can infer it from the quality and clarity of the rest of their thought.

      Gerd Puin, the Islamicist scholar, points out that one-fifth of the text is unintelligible: Bernard Lewis, the scholar of the Middle East, tells us that it is as easy to rhyme Arabic as it is to rhyme Italian. I think it was he who also said the authors’ relentless use of the rhyming scheme was often at the expense of meaning and grammatical accuracy. This sounds a lot like the mind-set of a bad poet.

      The Koran itself says it is inimitable: a verse challenges sceptics to write a sura like any in the book. Yet, the Satanic verses incident is well-attested in the “strong” hadiths: Muhammad delivered a sermon in Mecca, which he later withdrew, due to its polytheistic nature. Mo himself could not distinguish between genuine and fake suras, yet he claimed it was inimitable. The hadiths describe Aisha, his favourite young wife, as talking about missing verses: and there are tales from the early men who had memorized the whole Koran that some verses had been left out. If you read the book, it is fairly obvious that separate passages have been pasted together from different sources and times.

      The book keeps referring pejoratively to Jews and Christians objecting to Mo’s representation of Judaism and Christianity. This is because he often did. As well as being a mediocre writer, Mo often did not actually understand what he was talking about. I can think of two clear examples. Mo thought that the Christian trinity consisted of God the Father, the Son and Mary. He also thought that the Torah told Jews that saving one soul was like saving all mankind: it was not, it was the Torah. This may sound like a minor point, but it becomes ethically significant.

      There are cases of mistake after mistake in the Koran: Mo comes across as a theologically-bewildered, galumphing McGonagall. You notice this about western critiques of the Koran from before the modern era, when it became culturally and politically super-sensitive to criticize the book, and we all retreated to rictus-smile euphemism: nearly all of them, from Gibbon to Twain to Shaw to Churchill, stand aghast at the insanity (Twain) of the Koran.

      1. The few bits that I’ve read (in translation) have a hectoring, gabbling tone to them, with frequent irrelevant interjections showing how God-struck the writer is. Not very inspiring.

  3. Is it just me,(possibly, since I didn’t sleep much last night) or does it seem that a certain Joseph Smith may have found some “inspiration” by what little exposure to Islam folks had in the good ole nineteenth century? Perhaps some companions of his were adept marketeers.

  4. This has got to be the most hilarious piece of apologetics I have ever read…

    I thought it was a dumb uninteresting joke at first…

  5. Obviously, the book’s miraculousness is shown by the fact that even the illiterate can read it*

    * If Allah wills.

  6. “Unlettered”? Hell, Abe Lincoln, our second greatest president after Donald Trump (and our second most honest, too), had only about a year’s-worth of formal schooling, total, and he gave us Cooper’s Union, Gettysburg, and the Second Inaugural. I wouldn’t trade those speeches for all the religious texts in all the world.

  7. I wonder what the Arabic actually says.

    Also, self promotion, anyone?

    Also maybe not written in the original text. (Yes, there are variants of the Koran – contrary to what many Muslims believe.)

  8. I don’t worry about the consistency of myth, that “prophet” like the other similar was not a historical person. The area was generally illiterate at the time as the absence of surviving books testify to, and the first external description was of religious followers referring to the myth and not the person.

    Some of the pre-paper systems used in the area was bark, clay, pottery, papyrus and parchment. It looks like they favored papyrus, as the Arabic alphabet was adapted from Aramaic [ ]. It is interesting to see from that article that the “biblical history” apologists got it backwards – it was the growth of the Quran and the effort to transform it from oral tradition that seem to have led to the Arabic writing.

    1. I should also note that more likely the whole area started to become literate as its importance and governing rose.

  9. It always bugged me that the Quran was given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.

    Gabriel means “might of god” in Hebrew (GBR EL). Why would he have the same phonetic name in Arabic? If it were an Arabic angel serving an Arabic god with an Arabic theophoric name then its name would be “might of god” in Arabic.

    It’s almost as if no angel actually dictated anything and the author just stole cool sounding angel names from Judaism.

    It’s not like there aren’t other theophoric names that get translated when porting to other languages. Nathaniel (gift of god in Hebrew) gets translated as Theodoros [Theodore] (gift of god in Greek).

    1. I’m no reader of Arabic, but I had assumed that people are retransliterating or translating the name. Like when people say Jesus is in the Koran, they mean the character Isa, etc.

  10. Were the use of “if” in place of “of” and the misspelling of “actually”, deliberate ironic twists?

    Or is the author just under the weather like Dr. Coyne? If it’s the latter, get well, both of you!

  11. The religious take inconsistencies in their religions and transform them into “proofs” of their veracity. For Christians an example that should debunk their religion is used in a similar manner. There are four inconsistent versions of the Resurrection in the Bible. It even says in the Bible if the Resurrection is false their faith is in vain. Christians explain the differences by saying witness accounts normally differ. They use this idiocy to “prove” that these are real accounts. One problem with this approach is that one account has zombies wandering thru the town. Come on, what witness would leave out the zombies?

  12. It has always seemed to me that the insistence on Mohammed being illiterate hints at their being texts around that could have been sources for his prophecies. Insisting he couldn’t read might have been to head off any accusations he was plagiarizing.

    I remember reading that there were Jews and Christians in Syria who used the name Rahman for God meaning gracious. There were records of the Arabs of Mecca objecting to Mohammed preaching about Rahman, saying Allah had always been their god and they’d never worshipped this Rahman. Then once Islam takes off Rahman just becomes one of the many names of Allah.

    1. There are different texts of the Koran, too, which might well also have hints.

      (Some of these are physically in Yemen, or so I am told – if they’ve survived.)

  13. The only mercy Islam has extended to its non-adherents is the relative brevity of the Koran compared to the Bible.

    But if you took out all the references to Old and New Testament mythology and figures, and removed all the dire warnings about the divine punishments in store for unbelievers,etc- there’d be precious little left.

    It’s the sheer mind-numbing repetition of the damn thing that pads it out to its current length.

Leave a Reply