This is a favorite prooftext of Islamic apologists who want to show that Muhammad was prophesied in the Bible. Isaiah, of course, is not the Torah, the Gospels, or the Psalms, but since the Quran recognizes the validity of other prophets, it must also recognize the validity of other books.
Islamic apologists like using the King James Version for this particular text, so let’s start there.
And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.Isaiah 29:12
Wow! That’s just like Muhammad’s revelation, isn’t it? A Power comes to Muhammad and says “Read,” and he says, “I cannot read.” Prophecy! Those evil Jews and Christians have surely been hiding it all along!
Except…there’s a problem. You see, verses don’t appear alone. They appear in context, both local context within a passage and within the entire context of the whole book and the Bible. And the context for this verse does not point to a chosen prophet but rather the exact opposite. Let’s back up a few verses….
9 Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink.
10 For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.
13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
14 Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.
15 Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?Isaiah 29:9-12, KJV
Does any of this sound like a prophesy of a messenger who will bring knowledge to mankind? Not in the least. It’s very clear here that the “unlearned” person isn’t miraculously receiving revelation but is, instead, entirely unable to find out what is inside the book he’s been given. Throughout this entire passage, all of these people, including the unlearned man, are being judged and condemned.
This excerpt follows two earlier sections in the same chapter. The first section (v. 1-4) foretells the destruction of Israel. The second (v. 5-8) foretells its restoration and the destruction of its enemies. Then the third section (v. 9-12) blasts the people of Israel for their stubborn resistance to God and the commands of the Lord. The fourth section (v. 13-16) elaborates on that. And finally the fifth section (v. 17-24) promises the eventual redemption of Israel. All of the context for the “unlearned man” or the man who can’t read are within the context of the people of Israel who are being condemned.
I can only imagine that apologists choose an archaic English translation because most Muslims will find it really hard to understand. But if you are having a hard time with it, I’ll lay it out for you using a more transparent translation (the ESV). You can read the whole chapter, if you like.
9 Astonish yourselves and be astonished;
blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
stagger, but not with strong drink!
10 For the Lord has poured out upon you
a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes (the prophets),
and covered your heads (the seers).
Verse 9 is actually pretty hard to parse in the King James translation, because the wordplay is hidden. The ESV renders it much better. The idea of this verse is that people are choosing to walk around like they’re stupefied, blind, drunk, and stumbling, and so they have incurred God’s punishment, which is to be involuntarily all of those things that they were willfully doing before. Pretend you’re too stupefied to obey God? You’re really going to be stupefied when Jerusalem is destroyed! Pretend to be blind? Now God decrees that you won’t respond to even this warning!
Verse 10 is expanding on this judgement of God. The vision has been given in prophecy, and yet the prophets and seers of Jerusalem won’t even acknowledge it.
If you’re getting the sense that this is not where you want to find a reference to Muhammad if you’re a Muslim…you’re right.
11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
If the vision–meaning that vision, Isaiah’s vision, which he has just described–is delivered to a learned person, they will use the excuse that they can’t read it because it’s sealed, because they don’t think it’s important enough to open and decipher; and if it’s given to an illiterate person, they will use their illiteracy as an excuse, because they don’t think it’s important enough to find someone to read for them out regardless of their own abilities. These are verses about willful ignorance of Isaiah’s specific prophesy. Is Muhammad willfully ignorant of Isaiah? Is that where you really want to go?
The next verses do nothing to redeem the people of verses 11 and 12:
13 And the Lord said:Same passage, ESV
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
14 therefore, behold, I will again
do wonderful things with this people,
with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
“Wonderful” here is does not have the same positive meaning that it does in vernacular English. It just means supernatural. And in this context, it is very unpleasant for them, because the result of these wonders will be the perishing of their false wisdom and the hiding of their false discernment.
15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
Finally, wrapping up this section, there is a judgement upon the hypocrites who hide their evil deeds because they don’t really believe that God is their Lord who knows what they do.
If Muhammad is in Isaiah 29:12, he is an unrighteous, rebellious hypocrite, who is under the judgment of God and whose eyes are sealed from the truth of Isaiah’s vision, because that is who is being addressed there.
This is not the verse that Muslims are looking for….
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.