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Does the word ‘Ummy’ mean illiterate?

The word ‘ummy’ has been used in the Quran in a number of verses. The following verse is one example:

“Those who follow the messenger, the prophet who is ‘ummy’ …..” 7:157

Many translations of the Quran have wrongly translated the word ‘ummy’ to mean illiterate.

With a quick analysis of various Quranic verses that use the word ‘ummy’ it can be easily verified that this word does not mean illiterate, and that the correct meaning is gentile or someone who has not received a scripture.

Let us read the following verse:

“If they argue with you (O Muhammad) say, ‘I have simply submitted myself to God, I and those who follow me’. You shall proclaim to those who received a Scripture and the Ummy’s (those who did not receive a Scripture), ‘Would you submit?’ ……..” 3:20

In this verse God is commanding Muhammad to proclaim to those who have received a Scripture (e.g. the Jews and Christians) as well as the Ummys to submit.

If you use the wrong interpretation used by most Muslims today of the word ‘Ummy’ so as to mean he who cannot read or write, we would have the following translation:

“Proclaim to those who received a Scripture and those who cannot read or write to submit”

It is quite obvious that this is an inaccurate translation for the following reasons:

1- The opposite of ‘those who received a Scripture’ is ‘those who did not receive a Scripture’ and not those who cannot read or write!

2- If we assume that the word ‘ummy’ really means illiterate then God is commanding the prophet to call to submission those who received a Scripture and only the illiterate among the rest! Once again, this is very irrational and does not make any sense.

Also, let us read 62:2:

“He is the one who sent the ummys a messenger ……..”

Once again, if we assume that the word ‘ummy’ means illiterate then that would mean that God has in fact sent Muhammad only to those who cannot read or write!

It is quite obvious that God would send a messenger with a scripture to those who did not receive one, and not to those who cannot read and write!

Now let us read the following verses where we are given yet another conclusive evidence that the word ‘ummy’ does not mean illiterate:

“Among them are ‘ummuys’ who do not know the scripture, except through hearsay, then assume that they know it. Therefore, woe to those who distort the scripture with their own hands, then say, “This is what God has revealed,” seeking a cheap material gain. Woe to them for such distortion, and woe to them for their illicit gains.” 2:78-79

In verse 78, God speaks about the ‘ummys’ who do not know the scripture, then in verse 79 God warns them not to write distorted versions of the scripture ‘with their own hands’. And since the words of the verse indicates that they can in fact read and write, then we have yet another conclusive evidence that the word ‘ummy’ does NOT mean illitertae.

The correct meaning of the word ‘ummy’ in the Quran is a gentile, or the ones who did not receive a scripture.

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