Our aim in this discourse is to clarify the level of knowledge of idolaters.
According to historical accounts, idolaters could neither read nor write, and very few people among them were literate. Tabarī says, “When the Noble Prophet (s) was appointed to the prophetic mission, very few people in Mecca and Medina could [read and] write. The Noble Prophet (s) made strenuous efforts to teach them [reading and] writing until they learnt.”1
But proving and/or negating this cannot be demonstrated by adducing Qur’anic verses. However, consider the following verse:
“It is He who sent to the unlettered [people] an apostle from among themselves, to recite to them His signs, to purify them, and to teach them the Book and wisdom.”2
The word ‘ummīyyīn’ [the unlettered people] in the above quoted verse has been interpreted in a number of ways:
1. It is [possibly] a plural of ‘ummī’, which means an ignorant and uneducated person. According to this possibility, the verse denotes that idolaters were illiterate and unlearned. But the invalidity [or falsity] of this possibility will be made clear by hadīths which will be recounted.
2. It means people who did not possess a Divine or heavenly book.
Allāmah Tabātabā’ī, the author of “Tafsīr al-Mīzān”, prefers the first possibility and considers other possibilities as having signs of alteration. Of course, he has added that the Noble Prophet (s) was raised to the prophetic mission among illiterate people, and he himself was one of them too, but this does not mean that he was sent only to them, but to all mankind.3
Suyūtī too in “Tafsīr Jalālīn” has said something similar to what ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī has said in “Tafsīr al-Mīzān”.
But in “Tafsīr Qurtubī”, it has been transmitted from Ibn ‘Abbās that ‘ummīyyīn’ means all Arabs, whether they are literate or illiterate, and that in the above quoted verse, it means that Arabs did not have a Divine or heavenly book, and that no prophet had ever been raised among them.4
This same interpretation has been recounted from Imām al-Sādiq (‘a). Mu‘āwiyah ibn ‘Ammār says, “In regard to the above-mentioned verse, Imām al-Sādiq (‘a) stated, ‘Arabs knew how to read and write, but did not have a heavenly book and no prophet had been sent to them. It is for this reason that they are called ummīyyīn.’5 It can be asserted that idolaters were literate because the word of Imām al-Sādiq (‘a) is decisive speech [or clear judgment].”6