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Ismah and Infallibility in Shii Thought


One of the areas which distinguishes the Shī’a from others is their belief in the infallibility of the Prophets and successors of the Prophet Muḥammad in a pst-Prophetic phenomenon, this belief in the sinlessness of those inheritors of the Prophetic legacy and not merely the Prophets themselves makes the Shī’a entirely unique from their other counterparts in Islamic schools of theology. Yet when it comes to the belief in the infallibility of the Prophets themselves, there is a divergent range of beliefs which one finds, pertaining to what the accurate position is vis-à-vis what one ought to believe about the Prophets themselves. One tends to find that the Mu’tazilīs, and some individuals such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī supported the belief that Prophets were infallible in all areas, whereas more textualists Muslims such as the Salafīs reject this idea due to the restricted role which the intellect plays for them in such discussions.

This paper shall provide a brief overview of the discussion as it pertains to Muslim theological schools in regards to both infallibility as well as its scope, whilst this shall largely be centred upon those verses which some interpret to suggest Prophets falling into mistakes, errors and even sins; we shall also briefly discuss the theory and its applicability to the Imams according to Shī’ī theologians in addition to the concerns raised about the Prophets.

Rational Arguments

In classical theology, one of the most significant rational arguments put forth for infallibility was the principle of grace (qā’idah al-luṭf). This principle itself has a number of presentations and we shall investigate a few of them here.

Premise 1: The Prophets had been appointed and sent forth to carry out a certain duty, which was to convey the divine message from God, to guide mankind towards this message and show them how to perform their duties.

Premise 2: If the Prophets were not infallible, this goal would not have been achieved, and in fact would result in the defeat of the purpose of being sent forth to mankind.

Premise 3: Sending forth a Prophet while allowing them to not convey the message nor demonstrate to people who to act on it correctly, is a vain act; while God does not perform vain acts.

Conclusion: The infallibility of Prophets (p) is hence necessary so that the purpose of Prophethood and being sent forth as a Prophet (p) is achieved.

Such arguments are often articulated in books of creed and theological treatises highlighting the beliefs such as the articulation of Muḥammad Riḍā al-Muḍaffar:

We believe that the prophets, all without exception, are infallible. So are the Holy Imams (a), the successors to the Holy Prophet (p); pure blessings be upon them all. However, some Muslim sects have disagreed with us on this doctrine, as they do not deem necessary the infallibility of the prophets (p), let alone the Holy Imams (a).

Infallibility means to avoid committing sins and acts of disobedience to Almighty Allah, be they major or trivial. It also includes refraining from committing errors and expressing unawareness, even if such things are rationally not impossible for the prophets. Nevertheless, a Prophet is required to be far above even slight defects that may injure his personality, such as eating like ordinary people and laughing loudly, as well as every act that is crude.

It is necessary to prove the infallibility of the Prophets (p), because if a Prophet commits a sin, an act of disobedience to Almighty Allah, an error, or any similar act, then the matter will be restricted to one of the following probabilities:

(1) it is still obligatory to follow him in such an act, or

(2) it is not obligatory.

As for the first probability, if it is obligatory to follow him in such acts, this will definitely mean that it is permissible, and even obligatory, to commit acts of disobedience to Almighty Allah by His permission; and this is absolutely invalid on account of religious and reason-based necessities.

If we decide that it is not obligatory to follow the Prophet, this will definitely be in violation of the essential principle of belief in Prophethood. Obedience to the Prophets is an obligation once they have been recognised. Such being the case, each and every act of a Prophet would be exposed to the probability that it was an act of disobedience to Almighty Allah or a mistake; hence, we would have the pretext not to follow the Prophets in any of their words and deeds. The inevitable result would be the loss of the benefit of sending messengers and prophets by Almighty Allah. Moreover, a Prophet would no longer be an extraordinary person and his words, deeds, and knowledge would no longer have such precious value that is always reliable; and it would no longer be imperative to obey or trust the instructions and words of the Prophets.

This very proof is applicable to the infallibility of the Holy Imams, because we believe that Almighty Allah selects an Imam for this position to guide human beings and represent Prophets.

Shaykh Ṣadūq articulates this belief in the following way:

Says the Shaykh Abū Ja'far: Our belief concerning the Prophets, apostles, Imams and angels is that they are infallible; purified from all defilement and that they do not commit any sin, whether it be minor or major. They do not disobey Allah in what He has commanded them; they act in accordance with His behests. He who denies infallibility to them in any matter appertaining to their status is ignorant of them, and such a one is a kafir.

Shaykh Mufīd articulates and elaborates upon the rational demonstration as follows:

The impeccability granted by Allah to His Proofs is the succour and grace by which the Proofs keep themselves free from sin and error in the religion of Allah, the Exalted. The impeccability, in fact, is a grace granted by Allah, the Exalted, to him whom He knows will hold fast by it.

Hence, freedom from sin is the action of him who maintains himself free from sin, and this freedom from sin does not involve being pre-vented from committing a base act, nor does it oblige or compel him who possesses it to act righteously; rather it is a thing which Allah, the Exalted, knows that if He bestows it upon one of His slaves, no trace of fault will be found in him.

Yet, this privilege is not bestowed freely upon all men; rather it is restricted to those who are the chosen and the best. Allah, the Exalted, says:

[21:101] But as for those unto whom, already, the reward most fair has gone forth from Us, they shall be kept far from it (Hell).

And He, the Praised, says: [44:32] Certainly We chose them, out of a knowledge, above all beings.

And He, the Exalted, says: [38:47]And in Our sight they are, indeed, of the chosen, the excellent.

(Also, we are of the opinion) that the Prophet and the Imams after them are free from sin during their prophethood and imamate, whether major or minor. It is arguable that they might omit a supererogatory act, yet without intending to commit disobedience thereby. It is inconceivable that they should omit an obligatory act either before or after their imamate.

And whenever perfection is attributed to them in their different states of life, it implies their perfection in all states in which they were Proofs of Allah to His creatures. It has been related that the Messenger of Allah, may the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him and his progeny, and the Imams from his progeny after him were entitled to be the Proofs of Allah, the Exalted, from the time when they achieved years of discretion until Allah took them.

Yet, even before they attained the age of religious responsibility, they were not subject to defects and ignorance since they were of the pattern of Jesus and John, peace be upon them, in that they were endowed with perfection though they were still children, and had not attained the age of discretion. And, in fact, this is a tenable proposition, one which admits of rational proof.

Ja’far Subḥānī, a contemporary Shī’ī polymath articulates this rational belief for lay audiences and for popular readers in the following way:

The Messengers of God are rendered immune from all types of sin and error in their enactment of the rulings of the Sharī’a. For were they not absolutely in accord with the divine rulings which they themselves were propounding, nobody could rely upon the truth of their sayings, and in consequence the purpose of prophecy would not be fulfilled.

The sage Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī has given a concise explanation of this proof of the necessity of infallibility: Infallibility is essential for the Messengers, in order that their sayings be trusted, and the purpose of prophecy be realized.

As for the Messengers being incapable of sin, many verses of the Qurān stress this in different ways. We allude to some of these below.

The Quran refers to the Messengers as being guided and ap- pointed by the Divine Reality: [6:87] ... and We chose them and guided them unto a straight path.

It reminds us that whomsoever God guides, none can lead astray: [39:37] And he whom God guideth, for him there can be no misleader.

‘Sin’ is understood in the sense of ‘misguidance’: [36:62] Yet he hath led astray of you a great multitude.

These verses, taken together, show that the Messengers are devoid of all kinds of error and sin.

The intellectual proof of the necessity of the infallibility of the Messengers that was established above applies equally to the necessity of their infallibility prior to their receiving their prophetic mission. For one who has spent part of his life in sin and error and then afterwards claims to offer authentic guidance cannot be relied upon. But as for one who, from the very beginning of his life, was devoid of every type of impurity, such a person would elicit the trust of all people. Also, those who denied the truth of the message would all too easily be able to point to the dark past of the Messenger, vilify his name and character, and thus undermine the message. In such an environment, only one who has lived a life of impeccable purity, such that he merits the title ‘Muhammad the trustworthy’, would be able, by the brilliance of his radiant personality, to cast aside the clouds of malicious propaganda generated by his enemies and, through an unwavering and noble rectitude, gradually illumine the murky ambience of the Jāhilīyya Arabs.

In addition to such considerations, it is clear that a man who was incapable of sin from the very beginning of his life is elevated above another who is only rendered such after having been ap- pointed to a prophetic mission; and the scope of his guidance will, correspondingly, be much greater. Divine wisdom demands that only the best, most perfectly accomplished person be chosen as model and exemplar for humanity.

Article 64

In addition to being incapable of sin, the Messengers are also immune from error in the following domains:

1. Judging disputes. The Messengers were charged by God to pass judgement according to the divinely instituted scales of justice, and there could never be any question of the Messengers deviating in any way from the principles by which disputes, and all other legal questions were to be adjudicated.

2. Specification of the boundaries of religious rulings: for example, ascertaining whether a given liquid is alcoholic or not.

3. The domain of social principles: for example, specifying what contributes to public welfare and what corrupts it.

4. The domain of conventional daily matters.

The reason for the infallibility operating in the last three domains is this: In the minds of most people, error in these matters implies error in the domain of religious rulings also. Consequently, committing error in such matters undermines the certainty that people must have in the personality of the Messenger, and leads ultimately to the undermining of the purpose of prophecy. However, the necessity of infallibility in the first two domains is more readily apparent than in the fourth.

Article 65

One of the aspects of the infallibility of the Messengers is that there can be no element within their being that might serve as a source of repulsion for mankind. We all know that certain diseases and certain character traits—such as crudity or baseness—give rise to aversion and repulsion. The Messengers must perforce be free from such bodily and psychic deformities, for the aversion of people from the Prophet is at odds with the purpose of prophecy, which is the transmission of the divine message to humanity by means of a Prophet.

Thus, let us note that intellectual judgement functions here in the form of a disclosure of a reality; a reality which is at one with the divine wisdom. Only those who are devoid of such faults can be chosen as Messengers.

Article 66

We have observed that both decisive intellectual judgement and explicit Qur’anic rulings alike establish the necessity of the infallibility of the Messengers. But now we must take account of certain verses which, at first sight, appear to report the commission of sins by the Messengers (such as certain verses concerning Adam). What is to be said in this regard?

One must answer, first, by clarifying the following point: Evidently, despite the fact that there can be no contradiction in the Qurān, one must take fully into account the actual context of the verses in order to arrive at their true meaning; in such matters, the immediately apparent meaning should not become the grounds for a rash judgement. Fortunately, the great Shī’ī theologians and commentators of the Qurān have explained such verses, some of them devoting entire treatises to them. A detailed explanation of each of these verses is beyond the scope of the present book; those who wish to investigate the matter further can consult the books referred to below.

Article 67

The sources and foundations of infallibility can be summarized in the two following principles:

1. The Messengers (and certain saints) possess such a profound degree of gnosis, such a subtle mode of awareness of God, that they would not exchange their contentment with God for anything else. In other words, their perception of the divine grandeur, of His bounty and majesty, is such that they cannot see anything apart from His reality, and they can entertain no thought apart from that of seeking the satisfaction of God. This station of gnosis is referred to in the following saying of Imam ‘Alī: ‘I have seen nothing without seeing God before it, after it, and along with it.’ And Imam Ṣādiq said: ‘I worship God out of love for Him; and this is the worship of the great ones.’

2. The perfect awareness, on the part of the Messengers, of the beatific consequences of obedience, and the terrible retribution that follows disobedience—such an awareness gives rise to their immunity from disobedience to God. Of course, infallibility in all its fullness is the exclusive preserve of the special saints of God, but in fact some pious believers are immune from the commission of sins in many spheres of their activity. For in- stance, a pious man would never commit suicide, at any price, nor would he kill innocent people. There are also ordinary people who benefit from a kind of ‘immunity’ in some of their affairs. For instance, nobody would, at whatever price, touch a naked, live electrical wire. It is clear that immunity in such in- stances arises out of the individual’s certain knowledge of the negative consequences of a given action: were such certain knowledge of the dangerous consequences of sin to be attained, it would be a potent source of rendering a person immune from sin.

Article 68

It must be understood that there is no contradiction between infallibility and the free will of the infallible. Rather, an infallible, despite having perfect consciousness of God, and of the effects of obedience and disobedience, does have the power to commit a sin, even if he would never avail himself of this power. It is akin to the case of a kind father, who has the power to kill his own child, but would never do so. A clearer instance of this principle is the non-existence of evil acts issuing from God. In His absolute omnipotence, God has the power to put pious souls in Hell and, inversely, disobedient souls in Heaven, but His justice and wisdom preclude such acts. From this point it should be clear that the renunciation of sin and the accomplishment of worship and obedience are considered a great honour by the infallible; so, despite having the power to sin, the infallible would never in fact commit one.

In the above citation of Ja’far Subḥānī, one notes that he even elaborates upon the very basis on this infallibility from a rational standpoint and the ability to reconcile between this gift and the ability to say one has freewill. In response to this doubt, Shī’ī theologians and Mu’tazilīs have traditionally defined Infallibility in the following manner as is laid out by Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsā’ī in his book Infallibility:

As for how the `Adlīyya (Mu’tazilīs and Imāmīyyah) define infallibility, their definition is the most appropriate. The gist of the correct part of their definition is that infallibility is a divine disposition that prevents both the acts of disobeying and also intending to do so while retaining the capability to do so.

Other definitions include ‘Allamah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s who defines infallibility as

The presence of a quality in a person that prevents him from committing any impermissible act such as a sin.

Fāḍil Miqdād, a ranking 8th-9th century hijrī Shī’ī theologian, presents a more thorough definition, when he says,