Muslims often claim Isaiah 29:11-12 refers to the revelation of the Quran to the illiterate prophet Muhammad, who the Angel Gabriel commanded to read (or recite) and who responded that he could not. By the angel's compulsion and instruction he did finally recite and brought forth the Quran. Mormons, likewise, claim that the golden plates of the Book of Mormon are the "sealed book" and that Joseph Smith, who became a prophet as an unlearned rural youth, is the illiterate man to whom the sealed book is given. Mormon scriptures even describe a scene where a scholar is speaking with Joseph Smith about the golden plates and literally exclaims in frustration, "I cannot read a sealed book."1 The truth is, these verses are not referring to Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or any uneducated future prophet at all.
"The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, 'Please read this,' he will say, 'I cannot, for it is sealed.' Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, 'Please read this.' And he will say, 'I cannot read,'" (Isaiah 29:11-12).
Before even moving into the greater context, it is worth pointing out that these verses could not possibly mean what Muslims or Mormons claim of them. Even if we just take the verses by themselves, Isaiah says that the vision he is speaking of will be "like" a sealed book that people take to both a literate and illiterate man. That means that it will not actually be a sealed book brought to such men. It is a comparison. Isaiah is making an analogy.
It's also plain that neither the literate nor the illiterate man are able to read the book. The point of the verse is not that the literate man cannot read the book but that the illiterate man can read it. No one can read the book. No matter who you take the book to, it is unreadable. Isaiah compares the vision to a book that no one can read. There is no prophetic figure in this analogy, and it is clearly only an analogy. To make it literal defies the very words, and to make one of the figures a prophet who successfully reads the book makes no sense at all. One needn't look any further than these two verses themselves to see that they have nothing to do with Muhammad or Joseph Smith.
The Greater Context
When we do look at the broader context, this becomes even clearer. The Chapter opens:
"Woe, O Ariel, Ariel the city where David once camped! Add year to year, observe your feasts on schedule. I will bring distress to Ariel, And she will be a city of lamenting and mourning; And she will be like an Ariel to me. I will camp against you encircling you, And I will set siegeworks against you, And I will raise up battle towers against you," (Isaiah 29:1-3).
This is a prophecy of destruction on Jerusalem, the "city where David once camped" and where the temple is, and thus the feasts are observed. Verses 4-8 go onto to describe how God will judge Jerusalem by raising up the nations against her, but then God will, in turn, bring judgment on those nations. Verses 9-10 go on to say:
"Be delayed and wait, Blind yourselves and be blind; They become drunk, but not with wine, They stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; And He has covered your heads, the seers," (Isaiah 29:9-10).
Far from promising a new prophet, God promised to conceal prophesy from them. Their "eyes," the prophets of God, would be shut. The seers would be covered. God would give them a spirit of deep sleep. It is in this context, in the very next verses, that this vision is compared to a sealed book that no one can read. God was telling them in advance what He would do to them and afterward to their enemies, but God also made clear that they would not understand it. They would not receive it. They would not believe. This is, in fact, the very message Isaiah was called to preach from the start.:
"He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed.” Then I said, “Lord, how long?” And He answered, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people, and the land is utterly desolate, The Lord has removed men far away, And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land," (Isaiah 6:9-12).
Like men running around with a book they could not read, Israel would have God's words but not understand them. This is what the passage means. It has nothing to do with Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or a future holy book.
Even if there were a passage in the Bible that predicted an illiterate or unlearned Prophet, that would not narrow the prophecy down to Muhammad or Joseph Smith. There are all kinds of historical figures one might point to as illiterate or uneducated prophets. The very fact that both Islam and Mormonism boast of their unlearned prophets shows that unlearned prophets are not necessarily such a rare or miraculous thing. Sure, it would be a miracle if a literally illiterate man with absolutely no knowledge of reading or writing suddenly picked up a pen and wrote a complete book with his own hand. That, however, is not what these religions claim. Muhammad and Joseph Smith both recited stories, poems, and other passages orally and had more literate men write them down. There is nothing miraculous at all in the idea that a man who cannot read or write can still tell stories and recite poems orally. You don't have to be literate or educated to be eloquent, creative, or well spoken. You don't have to be able to read to be able to talk. While it is clear that Isaiah 29:11-12 is not predicting some future uneducated prophet, even if it were, it would take much more than that to show that the passage somehow supports one of these unbiblical religions.
- 1. Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History 1:64-65