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When an Illiterate Reads

The first verse and command of the Quran is ‘READ’!

But how did this command reach Muhammad (saw) and what did he feel at that moment? How did the angel Gabriel (as) come to him, ask him to ‘READ’ and ‘squeeze’ him; what was this experience like for Muhammad (saw)? 

Let’s see how this incident has been recorded in authentic hadith. Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim narrate this hadith in the following way:


The Rasul of Allah (saw) had begun to see some powerful dreams that would actually play out; there wasn’t a single dream that didn’t manifest exactly the way he’d seen. In time, he grew fond of retreating. He would retreat to the top of Mount Hira and spend many nights there in servitude. For this, he would take some food with him and, when he ran out, his wife Khadija would bring him more food.

One day, at the top of the mountain, the Truth came to him!

An angel appeared before him and asked him to ‘READ’. He replied, “I am not of those who can read!”

The Rasul of Allah (saw) explained, “Upon this reply, the angel held me and squeezed me so tightly that I thought I was going to collapse and then he let me go and again asked me to READ. Again I told him, ‘I am not of those who can read’. Upon this, he held me again and squeezed me so much that I didn’t think I could handle it anymore, then he released me and again asked me to READ. Again I told him, ‘I am not of those who can read’. Then he squeezed me for the third time and let me go and recited the verses, ‘READ in the name of your Rabb who created you…’”

Upon this, the Rasul of Allah (saw) went home, his heart pounding. As soon as he saw Khadija he told her “Cover me, cover me!” When he settled down he explained what had happened to Khadija and told her he was scared.

Khadija said, “By Allah, Allah will never wrong you. You are kind to your relatives, patient during hardship, you work hard and help others to earn, you are generous to visitors and help the needy.”

After this, she took him to her uncle Malikatul Nawfal. Nawfal, who was known as Waraqa during the time of ignorance, was a Christian... He knew how to write in Hebrew and wrote the Bible in Hebrew. However, he had now grown old and blind…

When Khadija took Muhammad (saw) to him she said, “My dearest uncle, listen to what your brother-in-law has to say…” Then the Rasul of Allah (saw) explained what he saw, upon this Waraqa said, “This is what Allah revealed to Moses! How I wish I had been young enough to be alive the day your people drive you out!”

The Rasul of Allah (saw) asked, “My people are going to drive me out?”

Waraqa answered, “Indeed, none has brought a message like yours who has not faced enmity and been driven out of his town. If I live until that day, I will surely help you…”

A short while after this incident another call came…

Again, it scared the Rasul of Allah (saw). He came to Khadija and said, “When I was in retreat I heard a call; I fear that it may be an order.” Khadija said, “Nothing that comes to you from Allah should cause you fear. You protect the trusts, you’re kind to your relatives, you are truthful…” and thus she comforted him.

Then Abu Bakr (ra) came. Khadija told Abu Bakr (ra) about what happened and asked him to take the Rasul to Waraqa. When the Rasul of Allah (saw) came, Abu Bakr (ra) told him, “Let’s go to Waraqa.” “Who told you?” the Rasul asked. “Khadija” said Abu Bakr. Together, they went to Waraqa and explained what happened. The Rasul said, “When I go into retreat I hear a call ‘O Muhammad,’ which gives me fear and makes me flee.”

Waraqa said, “Don’t flee. When it comes, listen to it till the end until you understand what’s been said. Then come and tell me what it tells you.”

The next time the Rasul went into retreat he heard the call say:

“O Muhammad, say:


Al-ḥamduliLlaahi rabbil-`aalameen



Iyyaakana`budu wa-iyyaakanasta`een


Ṣiraaṭ alladheena-an`amta-`alayhim-ghayril-maghḍoobi`alayhim wa lad-ḍaalleen” after which “La ilaha illallah” was added.

When he told Waraqa about this, Waraqa said, “Good tidings to you! I witness that you are the one the son of Mary told about and you are upon a discipline like the discipline of Moses. You are a Nabi and you shall be charged with battle.”


As can be seen, the first verse that was revealed to Muhammad was ‘READ’. Almost all Islamic scholars are in agreement with this. The next revelation was the Basmalah and the Fatiha, seven verses that comprise the first chapter.

This being the case, what needs to be discerned is what exactly is meant by the command ‘READ’!

If we take this as a classical form of literal reading, then he should have been given a text to read, yet he wasn’t! No script of any form was given to him to read. So, how are we to understand this verse? Looking at it from a wide perspective and taking into consideration the conditions of the society then, their belief systems, thought patterns, etc., we may gain some insight into the situation.

As we know, there were 360 idols in the Kaaba back then, and people were generally polytheists. Some assumed gods on earth and some in heaven, they exalted and glorified them expecting their favor in return. 

As a result of their dialogue with their imagined gods, they engaged in certain practices, such as sacrifices, offerings and ritualistic forms of beseeching and begging for certain benefits.

At that time, there was also a group of people who didn’t believe in idols and deities, who didn’t believe god was an entity in space, but that there was a limitless infinite conscious creative power that created the heavens and the earth. They were called ‘Hanif’. One of them was Abu Bakr (ra) and the other was Muhammad (saw).

Muhammad (saw) had figured there was no god in space, but he was still troubled by the inability to completely solve and grasp the essence of it. When this discomfort reached a serious point in his life, he left his business to his relatives, took a small amount of food with him and retreated to a cave and entered deep contemplation.

And then one day…

While Muhammad (saw) was heavily engaged in various meditative practices in the cave with the intention to reach the ‘absolute reality’ he encountered the extraordinary incident that changed his life.

Suddenly, an angel appeared before him, intensely squeezed him and commanded:


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