Was Prophet Muhammad Really Illiterate? An Interview with Juan Cole


Joseph Richard Preville interviews Juan Cole about his new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires.

Prophet Muhammad was one of the most fascinating and influential figures in human history.  Noted historian Juan Cole takes a look at his extraordinary life and mission and the community he founded in Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books, October 2018). Cole grounds his excellent book in a historical and textual study of the Qur’an and an analysis of how geopolitical forces and events from Rome to Persia shaped Muhammad’s worldview and peaceful theology in seventh-century Arabia.

Was Prophet Muhammad Really Illiterate? An Interview with Juan Cole[/tweetthis]

Juan Cole
Author Juan Cole
Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Taurus, 2002) Napoleon’s Egypt (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), and The New Arabs (Simon and Schuster, 2014).  Cole has appeared as a guest on PBS NewsHour, ABC World News, the Today show, Anderson Cooper 360, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Colbert Report, Democracy Now!, Aljazeera America and many other programs.  Cole’s popular blog, Informed Comment, averages 4.5 million page views per year.

Juan Cole discusses his new book in this interview.

Joseph Richard Preville: What problems do historians face when writing about the life and times of Muhammad?  What are the principal sources you consulted to write your book?

Juan Cole: The problem is that the Arabic biographical sources for the life of Muhammad ibn Abdullah (d. 632) are largely undated or dated 130 to 300 years and more after the death of the Prophet.   The one primary source we have, which is contemporary with the Prophet, is the Qur'an, which Muslims believe God revealed through him.  Carbon dating and paleography are proving that the Qur'an is early 7th century. If we want to do intellectual history, the Qur'an is a relatively large book and can tell us a lot about what the Prophet recited to his contemporaries.  I think the Qur'an can also be set in context by Greek and Persian works of that time. 

JRP: You write that “Islam is, no less than Christianity, a Western religion that initially grew up in the Roman Empire” and that “Muhammad saw himself as an ally of the West.”  How does your theory challenge or support other major scholarly interpretations of early Islam?

Muhammad – Juan Cole
JC: The Arab Muslim sources emphasize the origins of Islam in Arabia and downplay how integrated the Arabs of late antiquity were into the Eastern Roman Empire, but Roman sources, inscriptions, and Qur'an passages give strong evidence for the Arabs as Roman citizens or  allies.  As for Muhammad being allied with Constantinople, there is some evidence for it in early Arabic sources and the eminent Princeton classicist G. W. Bowersock has hinted at it in his recent work, but I have taken the bull by the horns and said it explicitly.

JRP: Many biographies portray Muhammad as illiterate and provincial.  Would you agree?

JC: The Muslim tradition calls Muhammad "illiterate," I think in part to protect him from charges by polemicists that he learned things by reading the Bible or other works.  But the tradition also says he was a successful long-distance merchant who regularly traded up to Damascus and Gaza in the Eastern Roman Empire.  Long distance merchants are always literate, and I think Muhammad could read and write Arabic, Aramaic and possibly Greek.  The Qur'an shows knowledge of the Bible, of Jewish tradition, and of classical Greek thought.  It isn't provincial.

JRP: What was Muhammad’s role in the creation of the Constitution of Madinah?  How revolutionary was this document for its time?

JC: The Constitution of Madinah was a treaty among groups in Madinah, to which the Meccan pagans expelled Muhammad in 622.  Madinah had Muslims, Jews and pagans and possibly some Christians. The treaty pledged all these groups to defend the city militarily if it was attacked.  It says that the Muslims have their religion and the Jews have theirs, so it recognizes freedom of conscience and is a political alliance.  In the Roman Empire at that time, Jews were placed under disabilities and would not have been treated as equals this way. 

JRP: How did medieval Muslim clerics slight or minimize the Qur’an’s peace verses by a theory of abrogation?

JC: Peace-making and turning the other cheek are very important themes in the Qur'an.  It allows going to war to defend yourself and innocents, but forbids aggressive, expansionist warfare.  The text was very inconvenient for later aggressive Muslim empires.  So ideologues developed a theory of "abrogation" where later verses invalidated earlier ones. They interpreted late verses on warfare as permitting aggression (they don't), and then alleged that all the peace verses were thus abrogated.  It was an intellectual and spiritual travesty.  Some Muslim thinkers, though, said only 5 verses were abrogated (not the peace verses), and rejected the procedure.       

JRP: You have placed strong emphasis on Muhammad as a “Prophet of Peace.”  How do you think your book will encourage and strengthen Islamic peace studies?

JC: The peace verses of the Qur'an have been there all along, and have been central, but scholarship has not focused on them.  I'd like to see the kind of intersection of Peace Studies with Islam that exists with regard to Christianity.  Christians have fought a lot of wars and even been involved in genocide, but we all also know about the Quakers and Mennonites.  Only a few authors have written on the history of peace movements in Islam, which include the Murid Sufis of Senegal and the Gandhist Muslims in twentieth-century India.

JRP: Could you recommend a few biographies of Muhammad and books on early Islamic history by contemporary authors?

JC: A crucially important work is Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers (Harvard University Press, 2010).  G. W. Bowersock's Crucible of Islam (Harvard University Press, 2017) is excellent on the context of early Islam in late antiquity.  The same author's Throne of Adulis (Oxford, 2013) takes on the Ethiopian, Yemeni and Red Sea geopolitics of the Roman Empire as a background to the rise of Islam.  It is a wonderful book. Carl Ernst's How to Read the Qur'an (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), is also essential.


Follow the Conversation on Twitter