"The word ummi (pl. ummiyun) means unlettered, occurring twice in the Koran as an epithet of the Prophet: "Those who follow the messenger, the ummi Prophet, whom they find written down with the Torah and the Gospels" (7:157); and "Believe then in God, and in His messenger, the ummi Prophet" (7:158).
Since the term has been applied to the Prophet, who is characterized as al-nabi al-ummi, the meaning and significance of this term for both Muslim and Western scholars have been a matter of controversy. According to the Koran: "He it is Who has sent among the ummiyyun a messenger (rasul) from among them, so that he might recite His revelations to them, purifying them, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, while heretofore they were clearly in error" (3:163).
The word ummi is derived from umm, meaning mother, because the mother's attachment to the child prevents her from sending him to the traditional school. Tabarsi (1:322) offers a derivation based on linguistic usage: "The word ummah means khilqah (that is, the original state in which a person was created), and therefore (a person) is said to be ummi because he has remained in his original state, that is, without learning".
Tabarsi further states that Abu Ubaidah said, "The ummiyun are the nation (umam) to whom no book was sent down...but an ummi prophet is one who does not write" (1:322). Qurtubi (2:5) cites a hadith in which the Prophet says: "We are an unlettered community (ummah). We neither write nor are able to do arithmetic". Qurtubi then presents several views on ummiyun and its reference. The first is that they were the Jews who did not accept the Mother (umm) of the Book. The second is that they were so called because the Mother of the Book was sent down to them. Third, according to Ikrma and Dahhak, the people here intended "were the Christians of the Arabs who did not know the scriptures." Most commentators have understood the word ummiyun to mean those who neither read nor write. Tabari (2:257) quotes Ibn Zaid as narrating that, "They are those among the Jews who do not read the scriptures". The Arabs were "unlearned" in terms of the use of script; they were an umma ummiya, a nation which was still in the original state of birth (ala asl wiladatiha), who were unlettered, and the ummi prophet is either the prophet of the Ummi Arabs, because he was like them, or he was so called because he himself did not know reading and writing. But according to some, the Prophet is called ummi because he came from the umm al-qura (6:92, 4:7), "the mother of cities," an epithet for Mecca, and thus indicates the "one originating from Mecca," i.e., the Prophet. Similarly, the parent of any nation is called the umm (source, mother, origin) of that nation. Cairo could be called the umm of the Egyptian nation. Dr. Kamal Omar writes in Deep into Quran (Karachi, 1980, p. 315) that, "As Mecca and umm al-qura are proper titles of one and the same city, its residence were known as Meccans or Ummis. The Last Prophet was one of these very people." Ali bin Asbati once asked Imam Muhammad al-Bakir, "The people claim that the Prophet could neither read nor write?" The Imam denied it and said, how it is possible? God said "He it is Who has sent among the illiterates a messenger from among them, so that he might recite His revelations to them, purifying them, and teach them, the Book and the Wisdom, while heretofore they were clearly in error." Ali bin Asbati asked, "Why was he called al-nabi al-ummi?" The Imam said, "Because he was ascribed to Mecca. That is according to the words of God that