Allaah’s First Command to the Prophet - Iqra

There were only a few people in Makkah who could read and write. Learning opportunities were not available to everyone, much less to an orphan like Prophet Muĥammad ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Thus, the Prophet did not have an opportunity to obtain reading and writing skills. However, he had a very reflective mind, keenly thinking through the matters he encountered. Thus, in addition to being known for his impeccable reputation of trustworthiness and honesty, he was also respected for his insight and wisdom. When he was thirty five years old, the parties involved in the reconstruction of Ka‘bah disputed on the right to install the black stone. The dispute was on the brink of turning into a bloody multi-clan war, when they decided to seek arbitration. It so happened that the Prophet was chosen to be the arbitrator. All parties to the dispute rejoiced and expressed their utmost confidence in him at his serendipitous appointment. They were even happier with the way he settled the dispute to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

His reflections upon what he observed in his society made him concerned about many things that did not make sense or that were evil in nature. He could not stand the gross social injustices, prejudices and racial pride prevalent in society. On his own, he would try to help the weak and the victims of injustices, along with cooperating with others in doing so, but he never thought of heading a movement to change the society. Similarly, he could not understand why people would make idols with their own hands and revere those lifeless, helpless things as gods or partners of God. His reflections on the universe and nature led him to the conclusion that this universe must be the creation of One Creator Who must be Unique and Infinite. He would retreat to the solitude of a cave called Hiraa and worship Him, but once again, he had no inclination towards becoming a preacher for convincing others of worshipping only that One God. However, Allaah had different plans for him which the Prophet had no inkling about. Allaah was preparing him to start a movement under His guidance to address and correct all those issues, but he had not been informed of that plan as yet.

When he was forty-and-a-half years old, Allaah decided to inform him of this plan and instructed him to start the movement. This happened during one of the Prophet’s stays in the cave of Hiraa. One night a stranger appeared in the cave unexpectedly. The Prophet was naturally startled and scared. It was angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in human form, who brought the following words of Allaah as a command for him to proclaim the Islamic message to people:

1 Recite to people in the name of your Lord Who created – 2 created people from clinging clots.   3 Recite to people and your Lord is Most Generous, 4 Who taught by the pen, 5 taught man what he knew not[1].

When the angel recited Allaah’s words and said, “Recite to people in the name of your Lord”, the Prophet responded with fear and anxiety, “I am not a reciter (or orator)”, implying that he lacked the disposition and experience necessary for the responsibility being given to him. Jibreel hugged him tightly[2], released him from the hug and repeated the revelation. The refusal and hugging happened three times, each time Jibreel’s hug becoming stronger to the point of the Prophet’s exhaustion, indicating that the Prophet had no option but to submit to the directive. After the third hug, the Prophet surrendered to the command and Jibreel completed the revelation. However, as soon as Jibreel disappeared, the Prophet rushed home, where his wife, Khadijah, consoled her terrified and trembling husband.

The Prophet was like Moosa (Moses) in many respects. Here is another similarity in their reaction when told about their mission. Moosa goes up the mountain to fetch fire, but has a surprise encounter whereby Allaah commands him to start the Islamic mission. He responds that he is not a good orator, thus this responsibility should be given to someone else such as his brother Haroon (Aaron). Then, after some reluctance, he accepts the responsibility like the Prophet did.

It is evident that the first revelation was to inform the Prophet and the world that he was thereby commanded to start the Islamic movement proclaiming the message of Allaah to all people in His name. Thus, “Iqra” is the command to recite the Qur-aan to people and to proclaim the Islamic message.

Many people translate this command as “Read!” whereby the implied concept is as if someone reads a book for his personal information and knowledge. This is a gross misinterpretation of the first revelation. First of all, throughout the Qur-aan wherever this word has been used in any of its forms in relation to the Qur-aan itself, it has consistently been used to proclaim or recite it aloud to others. Following are the verses that use different forms of the same word that was used to command the Prophet in the first revelation:

When the Qur-aan is recited (quri-a) aloud, listen to it attentively and keep quiet so that you are shown mercy (7:204).

And when you recite the Qur-aan to people (Qara’ta), We place between you and those who do not believe in the hereafter a hidden barrier (17:45).

And it is a Qur-aan which We have revealed in portions so that you may recite it to people (li-taqra’a) at intervals, and We have revealed it by successive revelations (17:106).

Had We revealed it to any of the non-Arabs, and had he recited it to them (fa-qara’a), they would not have believed in it (26:199).

Therefore, when We have recited it (qara’naahu), follow its recital (Quraanahu) (75:18).

When the Qur-aan is recited to them (quri-a), they do not prostrate (84:21).

These examples clearly establish the true meaning of Iqra – calling others to Islam through the Qur-aan. Those who continue to insist on interpreting it as if reading a book for personal knowledge, they should consider the following points:

Why would Allaah ask the Prophet to read, when He knew that the Prophet did not know how to read[3]? Does Allaah command something that is beyond the capability of a person? Or was Allaah commanding the Prophet to learn to read? In any case, the Prophet obviously disobeyed Allaah SWT because he never fulfilled this command to read or to acquire reading skills throughout his life. Is such an impractical command from Allaah or such disobedience from His messenger possible?

Was the mission of the Prophet to proclaim the message of Islam to people or was it to read? If it was the former, would Allaah not tell him in the first revelation what he is supposed to do, instead of telling him something that he was not to do all his life?

The reality is that the first revelation was to tell the Prophet and the world that he has been commanded to recite to people in the name of his Lord, the Creator, the Qur-aan as it is revealed. Then, in the second revelation, the first seven verses of Al-Muddaththir, this command was further explained. And the Prophet obeyed the command in the most excellent manner.

Some people may feel that the mention of “He taught by pen” supports the “Read!” view of the “Iqra” command. This can be cleared up by reflecting on the message of these verses as follows:

The first verse instructs him that when he delivers the message, he should deliver it in the name of Allaah, his Lord, saying “In the name of Allaah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”.  This instruction indicates that Allaah was known to the Prophet as his Lord, before this revelation. That is why no introduction of the Lord was needed. This instruction was important so that the listeners know that what they are being presented is the Word of their Creator and Lord so they must take it seriously and submissively and should not disregard it as something frivolous or should not disrespect it with jokes or opposition. This is also in accordance with what Allaah SWT told Moosa (Moses)AS about the Prophet that:

”If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” (Deuteronomy 18:19)

After mentioning Allaah SWT in the first verse as the Creator of everything, the second verse specifically talks about human creation and the humble beginning of every human being as a zygote. When people grow up and develop through the sophisticated and wonderful system that Allaah has created, they defy His commands, rebel against Him and associate partners with Him. Thus, they need to be invited to reflect on the role of their Creator, and to be reminded of Him and His message.

The third verse reiterates the command for the Prophet to proclaim Allaah‘s message and links it to Allaah‘s generosity and favour towards mankind. It is indeed a great mercy and favour of Allaah SWT that He appoints His messengers to guide human beings towards the right path. It is also His great favour and mercy that human beings have been taught the art of using the pen and writing to preserve whatever they learn for future reference and teaching. This knowledge accumulated through writing is the main foundation for human progress and advancement. It is this ability to write with the pen that will document Allaah‘s Word recited to people by the Prophet and make the illiterate Arabs the bestowers of knowledge and literacy to the world.[4]


Now that the meaning has been clarified, people may wonder why most of the speakers and scholars continue to misquote or misinterpret these verses. The problem is that people take something in isolation, give it a meaning that fits their current thinking, then everyone accepts it at face value and runs with it without doing any due diligence as to the correctness of its meaning. Whether it is scholars or the audience, people continue to regurgitate whatever becomes tradition, without giving much thought to its veracity.

[1]There is a difference of opinion in the number of verses revealed in the first revelation: according to one account, only the first three verses were revealed at the first instance, and remaining verses of Soorah Al-‘Alaq were revealed later on; while according to another account, the first five verses were revealed at the first instance and the remaining verses were revealed afterwards.

[2]Hugging is a gesture of friendship, consolation and support, while too tight a hug also conveys a message of authority and power. 

[3]Historian Ibn Isĥaaq relates an account rejected by the Hadeeth scholars that the Prophet was shown a writing enclosed in a silken casket and asked to read. Even if one assumes this report to be correct, the problem remains that the Prophet could not read, nor did he ever do so.  Ibn Qayyim proposes that it is about reading the signs of Allaah in the physical universe. Although it is true that people are supposed to reflect on the signs of Allaah in their physical environment and that the messengers of Allaah surely draw people’s attention towards them, relating that matter to the first revelation is wrong for many reasons: the first revelation was about the Prophet’s main duty of reciting revelations to people; the Prophet’s invitation to people to reflect on the physical signs was also always through the Qur-aan; and the signs of the physical universe are observed and reflected upon, not read. Besides, we must not speculate after the Qur-aan itself has clearly established the meaning of the word as it relates to the Qur-aan.

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