In the life-history of the Prophet (SA), there are events which bring to light the fact that even while in Madinah, the Prophet (SA) did not read or write. Among all such events, the event of Hudaybiyyah is the best known, for it is of particular historical significance. Historical accounts and ahadith, while in conflict, help to some extent, to explain the question.
In the month of Dhu al-Qa'dah, the sixth year after Hijrah, the Prophet (SA) left Madinah for Makkah to perform `Umrah and Hajj. He ordered that the camels for sacrifice be marked and be led along. However, as soon as they arrived at Hudaybiyyah, about two farsakhs (about 12 km) from Makkah, the Quraysh took sides to prevent the entry of the Muslims; this, although it was in the forbidden month, when in accordance with the law of Jahiliyyah (period of pre-Islamic ignorance in Arabia), even the Quraysh did not have the right to deny them admittance.
The Prophet (SA) explained that he did not mean to do anything other than to make a pilgrimage to the Ka'bah and that he meant to return home after completing his pilgrimage. The Quraysh disagreed. The Muslims demanded leave to enter Makkah by force, but he refused in order not to show disrespect for the Ka'bah. The Quraysh and the Muslims, finally agreed to sign a peace treaty. The Prophet (SA) dictated the peace treaty to `Ali (AS) who wrote it down. The Prophet (SA) ordered him to write: "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Suhayl ibn `Amr, representing the Quraysh, protested and said: "This is your slogan, with which we are not familiar. Write: `In your name, O Allah!"
The Prophet (SA) agreed and ordered `Ali (SA) to write accordingly. Then, the Prophet (SA) ordered him to write: "This is a contract being concluded between Muhammad, Allah's messenger and the Quraysh". The representative for the Quraysh objected saying: "We do not regard you as Allah's messenger." Only your followers regard you likewise. If we had regarded you as Allah's messenger, we would not have fought against you, nor had barred your entry to Makkah. Write your and your father's name". The Prophet (SA) said: "Whether or not you regard me as Allah's messenger, I am Allah's messenger".
Then, he ordered `Ali (AS) to write: "This is a treaty being concluded between Muhammad ibn `Abdillah and the people of Quraysh". It was at this point that the Muslims became angry. From this point on, the historical accounts differ in certain respects.
From Ibn Hisham's "Sirat Ibn Hisham" and also from Sahih Al-Bukhari1 (Bab Shurut fi al- Jihad wal-Musalahah ma'a Ahl al-Harb), it can be concluded that this objection was made before the words "Allah's messenger" were written, where-upon the Prophet (SA) agreed immediately to have "Muhammad ibn `Abdillah" written for "Muhammad, the Allah's messenger". Yet, it can be concluded from most accounts that the objection was made at a time when `Ali (AS) had already written the words. The Prophet (SA) then requested `Ali (AS) to erase the words, whereupon `Ali (AS) requested to be excused from doing so.
Here, again the texts differ. The Shi'ah ahadith's texts agree that upon `Ali's (AS) expressed refusal to erase the sacred words, the Prophet (SA) himself erased the words, in place of which `Ali (AS) wrote "Muhammad ibn `Abdillah ". In these texts and in certain Ahl al-Sunnah ahadith's texts, there is an explicit reference to the fact that the Prophet (SA) requested `Ali (AS) to show him the words by placing his hand on the words so that he might erase the words with his own hands.
`Ali (AS) did so and the Prophet (SA) erased the words "Allah's messenger" with his own hand. Then, `Ali (AS) wrote "ibn `Abdillah", instead. Therefore, it was `Ali (AS) who did the writing and not the Prophet (SA). Rather, in accordance with both Shi'i accounts, and those of the Ahl al-Sunnah the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote.
In the book entitled: "The Stories of the Qur'an", written in Persian in the 5th Centurv (Hijrah) by Abu Bakr `Atiqi Nayshapuri who adapted the work from his own exegesis of the Qur'an, the author relates the Hudaybiyyah event up to the point where Suhayl ibn `Amr, on behalf of the Quraysh, objected to the words "Allah's messenger". Suhayl ibn `Amr said "The Prophet said to `Ali to erase "Allah's messenger". `Ali disinclined to do this and felt uneasy at the Prophet's insistence. Then the Prophet said to `Ali; "Put my finger on the words so that I may erase them". Since Allah's messenger was untaught, and did not know how to write, `Ali placed the Prophet's finger on the words and the Prophet erased the words as Suhayl ibn `Amr meant.
Al-Ya'qubi too, in his book: `Tarikh al-Ya'qubi" writes: "The Prophet ordered `Ali to write "ibn `Abdillah" in place of "Allah's messenger".
Having written "`Ali refused to erase the words", in "Sahih Muslim", Muslim writes:
"The Prophet said to `Ali to show him the words. `Ali did likewise whereupon the Prophet erased the words and wrote Muhammad ibn `Abdillah".2
In this statement, on the one hand, Muslim writes: "The Prophet sought `Ali's help to erase the words", and on the other hand, he writes: "The Prophet erased the words and wrote". It might appear that the Prophet wrote after erasing the words, but the writer of the statement means that `Ali did the writing, for the text of the statement reads that the Prophet sought `Ali's help to erase the words.
It follows explicitly from "Tarikh al-Tabari" and "Kamil Ibn al-Athir" and Al-Bukhari's account under the chapter: "Al-Shurut" that the second word was written by the Prophet (SA) himself. It is on record that "The Prophet (SA) took the pen from `Ali's hand and wrote himself." In Al-Tabari's and Ibn al-Athir's statements, there is an additional sentence: "Allah's messenger took the pen from `All's hand and while it was not proper for him to write, he wrote."
Al-Tabari's and Ibn al-Athir's accounts confirm that the Prophet (SA) would not write, but that he did write exceptionally in Hudaybiyyah. This may confirm the view of those who observe that under divine instructions he could have written had he so wished; he never composed a poem nor recited anyone else's. If he ever wished to recite a couplet, he would utter it in prose form, disordering and adjusting the words to achieve this end; for Allah (SWT) would deem poetry below his dignity:
`And We have not taught him poetry, nor is it suitable for him; it is nothing but a reminder and a plain Qur'an (36:69). "
As is seen, the accounts on the Hudaybiyyah event do not tally. However, despite the fact that it can be concluded from certain accounts that the words" ibn `Abdillah" - an integral part of the Prophet's signature - would have been written by the Prophet (SA), these very accounts also confirm that this was exceptional.
In the book entitled: "Usud al-Ghabah", under the details regarding Tamim ibn Jarashah al-Thaqafi the author quotes a story about him, which suggests that even in the course of his prophethood, the Prophet (SA) neither read nor wrote. He narrates:
"I, along with a group of people from Thaqif, met the Prophet and embraced Islam. We requested him to sign an agreement with us and agree to our terms. The Prophet ordered us to write whatever we desired and then bring it to him to see. We requested for permission to practice usury and adultery. As we were unable to put it into writing, we visited `Ali ibn Abi Talib for the purpose. Seeing that we had such terms to include, `Ali refused to write. We made the request to Khalid ibn Said ibn Al-`As.
`Ali enquired from Khalid whether or not he knew what he had been requested to do. Khalid replied: "It does not concern me what it is. I will write whatever they will tell me: Once the writing is brought to the Prophet's attention, he will know what to do therewith". Khalid wrote the matter down and we took it to the Prophet who ordered someone to read it.
The reader had scarcely uttered the word "usury", the Prophet asked him to place his finger on the word which he erased with his own hand and recited from the Qur'an: "O believers! Practice taqwa (fear Allah) and give up usury." On hearing this verse we were imbibed with refreshed faith and assurance whereupon we resigned not to take usury. The reader continued reading till he uttered adultery whereupon again, the Prophet having had his hand placed on the word recited from the Qur'an: "Do not indulge in adultery, for surely it is an open indecency".3