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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,

Infallibility is a trait bestowed by Allah to a legally accountable individual in such a way that the presence of this trait negates in this individual any motive to disobey or commit a sin while he remains capable of doing so. This bestowal is a consequence of the person’s acquisition of a moral habit of refraining from sin. In addition, this person is aware of the reward earned through obedience and the punishment incurred through disobedience and is apprehensive of forgetfulness and failing to perform the better of two praiseworthy acts.

Sunni Theologians

Ibn al-Juwaynī (Imam al-Ḥaramayn) writes:

As for sins that are considered small, according to specificity as we shall explain, the minds do not deny them [as possible for Prophets]. I did not come upon a categorically explicit transmitted proof either negating them or asserting them [as possible]. For explicitly categorical proofs come either from explicit texts or from consensus and there is no consensus [either], since the ulema differ over the possibility of small sins for Prophets. The explicit, unambiguous or un-interpretable texts that would categorically establish the principles pertaining to this issue are simply not found.

So if it is said that since the matter is conjectural, what is the strongest conjecture in the matter in your opinion? We say: Our strongest conjecture is that they are possible. The stories of the Prophets in many a verse of the Book of Allah Most High bear witness to that [conjecture]. But Allah knows best what is right.

There exists a plethora of different views amongst Ahl al-Sunnah in the area of infallibility, the traditional Ash’arī opinion is highlighted by Taqī al-Dīn al-Nabhānī, the grandson of the Ottoman Jurist, Yūsuf al-Nabhānī, who defines their belief as follows:

When it is said that the Islamic doctrine consists of the belief in Allah (swt), His angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Day of Judgement and Divine Will and Decree, the good and bad of which is from Allah (swt), this does not mean that there are other things which the Muslims are not obligated to believe in. Rather, it means that this is the basis, though there are other thoughts which relate to the doctrine, such as the infallibility of the Prophets which comes under the belief in the Prophets. The evidence of the infallibility of the Prophets is a rational evidence and not a textual evidence because the proof of the prophethood of a Prophet and the message of the Messenger to whom he has been sent is rational, established by a perceptible miracle.

The prophet's infallible nature necessitates it to be rational because it is one of the requirements to verify the prophethood of the prophets and messengers. The mind necessitates that the prophets and messengers are infallible, as it is a pre-requisite for the role of the prophet and messenger in propagating from Allah (swt).

If it were possible to raise doubts about the infallible nature of the prophets even in one issue of law, consequently this would give rise to the emergence of skepticism and vacuums in every other issue. Hence, at that point both the case for prophethood and messengerhood would be meaningless. The evidence that a person is a prophet or a messenger from Allah (swt) means that he is infallible in everything he propagates.

Thus, by necessity he is infallible in his propagation, and the disbelief in this is disbelief in the message that he brought and the prophethood which he was sent with. Therefore, it is necessary that each and every prophet and messenger is infallible from error in the propagation as this is one of the attributes of the prophets. The mind necessitates that these characteristics are present in each and every prophet and messenger.

As for the infallibility of the prophets and messengers from carrying out actions contrary to the prohibitions and commands of Allah (swt), rational evidence requires that they are categorically infallible from the major sins. Hence, they can not undertake any of the major sins because this would mean committing sins. Both obedience and sinning are indivisible. Thus, if it were possible for the Prophets to sin in their actions, this would also be true in their propagation. However, this contradicts both the prophethood and messengerhood. Therefore, the Prophets and Messengers are infallible from the major sins, just as they are infallible in propagating the message from Allah (swt).

As for infallibility from the minor sins, there is a difference of opinion between the scholars. Some say that they are not infallible from them because they do not constitute sinning and others say they are infallible from the minor sins because they constitute sinning.

However, the reality is that the prophets are infallible from everything definite that has been both commanded and prohibited for them. In other words, all the compulsory obligations and prohibitions. They are also infallible from leaving the compulsory obligations and from carrying out prohibited actions, whether it is a major or a minor sin. In other words, they are infallible from everything and anything called, or confirmed to be a sin.

This is with the exception of the detestable and recommended acts which are different, as they are not infallible from these and neither would this constitute a contradiction with the role of prophethood or messengerhood. Thus, it is permissible for them to carry out a detested action and to leave a recommended action, because neither action constitutes a sin. Likewise, it also permissible for them to carry out merely permissible actions and abstain from others, as neither categories in all their aspects fall within the concept of sin. These are the pre-requisites and attributes of the prophets and messengers that the mind necessitates.

However, infallibility only becomes an integral part of the characteristics of the Prophets and Messengers after they receive revelation and become Prophets and Messengers. Prior to this they are bound by the same laws as the rest of mankind, because as previously mentioned, infallibility is for the prophethood and messengerhood only.

Textual Arguments

In regards to textual arguments for the infallibility of the Prophets, it is important to note that many scholars actually consider the possession of infallibility to be a solely rational derivation which texts fall into line with and is approached prior to engaging with the text for reasons such as the ones highlighted above (such as the principle of grace) and that any textual arguments are secondary to the rational arguments (as one cannot submit to a text which has irrational suppositions and based upon erroneous reasoning). However, in order to demonstrate the arguments, we shall cite some of the most popular texts which the scholars have traditionally cited to vindicate a belief in infallibility.

Ja’far Subḥānī cites the following three principles taken from the Qur’an in passages cited above:

As for the Messengers being incapable of sin, many verses of the Quran 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.

Utilising these verses, we understand that Allah has guided the Prophets and the sinners are those who have been led astray, therefore the Prophets have been prevented from sin.

General Qurānic Verses Supporting Infallibility

Many verses in the Qurān speak of the quality of protection from deviation as a trait present in the Prophets, though they do not necessarily use the Arabic word ‘ismah for it. We can divide and discuss these verses in the following manner:

a) Certain verses refer to the Prophets as mukhlaṣīn (those who are especially chosen). One who is mukhlas cannot be misguided by Satan (inferred from Qurānic verses) and is therefore protected from deviation and hence Infallible. Such as the following verses:

[38:45-48] And remember our servants: Ibrāhīm, Isḥāq, and Ya’qūb, men of strength and insight. We purified them through a special trait: the remembrance of the abode of the Hereafter. They are, in our estimation, amongst the elect, the righteous. And remember Ismā’īl, Ilyās, and Dhū al-Kifl, each of whom was among the righteous.

In these verses, Prophets who were among the mukhlaṣīn are mentioned. In light of other verses, we find Satan saying:

[38:82-83] By your might, I shall surely pervert them except your chosen (mukhlaṣ) servants among them.

[15:39] Without a doubt, I shall misguide them except those who are chosen (mukhlas) from amongst them.

It becomes clear that the mukhlaṣīn are those who are out of Satan’s reach and are therefore infallible.

b) Verses which mention the presence of “divine guidance” as a quality of the prophets. For example:

[6:84-90] We granted Ibrāhīm, Isḥāq and Ya’qūb and we guided them both. And we had guided Nūḥ before them. And from his progeny, we guided Dāwūd, Sulaymān, Ayyūb, Yūsuf, Mūsa, and Hārūn. In this way do we reward the righteous. Similarly, Zakarīyya, Yaḥya, ‘Īsā, and Ilyās were all amongst the righteous. We chose men from amongst their fathers, children, and brothers, and guided them to the straight path. This is Allah’s guidance … These are people whom Allah has guided, so follow their guidance (O Muhammad). I do not ask you any remuneration for this message. This message is simply a reminder for all people.

These verses indicate that the prophets have received guided from Allah . In conjunction with the verse where Allah says, [28:37] There can be no one to misguide him whom Allah guides, it becomes clear that no one can misguide the aforementioned Prophets since they have been guided by Allah. Since committing a sin is a form of misguidance, we can conclude that these Prophets are free from sin—that is, they are infallible.

c) A third group of verses calls on all Muslims to obey the Prophet Muḥammad. For example,

[3:31] Say: if you love Allah, then follow me so that Allah should love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is forgiving, merciful. Say: obey Allah and his messenger. If you turn away, Allah does not love the disbelievers.

[4:80] Whoever obeys the Prophet has obeyed Allah.

Other verses also speak of unconditional obedience of the Prophet and such unconditional obedience necessitates his infallibility; or else we would be obeying misguidance.

Besides the three groups of verses we have mentioned, there are other individual verses that could be mentioned to support the infallibility of all prophets in general or of the Prophet Muhammad in particular.

One verse says: [3:179] He is the Knower of the unseen. He apprises no one of His secrets except chosen prophets whom He has surrounded with protectors so that He may be assured that they have conveyed their Sustainer’s message. He has complete knowledge of what is with them. He has encompassed all things.

As these verses show, there is a consistent link between divine guidance and the Prophets in the Qurān, this level of protection is one which prevents their behaviour from being deviated by Satan.

As for verses which come across as confusing and seem to suggest the Prophets were prone to sin, it is sufficient to say that we as Muslims believe the text of the Qurān does not contradict human reason which as was seen in the first section suggests that Prophets are infallible in their behavior, so what remains to be stated here is that if rationality which is clear cut and certain verses imply infallibility for the Prophets then it would not make much sense to have other verses which contradict this without making the Qurān a contradictory book, therefore the only other option is the one stipulated by Imam Ḥasan al-Askarī in his refutation of the atheist philosopher al-Kindī who proposed to write a treatise on the contradictions of the Qurān; the narrative is recounted by the Shī’ī biographer Bāqir Sharīf al-Qareshi as thus:

Isḥāq al-Kindī was the philosopher of Iraq. His thoughts predisposed him to some suspicion about the Holy Qurān, and he spread among scholars that he had written a book called “The Contradiction of the Qurān”. He busied himself with this matter. This news came to Imam Abu Muḥammad (a) who met one of al-Kindī’s disciples and said to him, ‘Is there no wise man among you to prevent your teacher al-Kindī from that which he has busied himself with in the Qurān?’

The disciple said, ‘We are his disciples. How is it possible for us to object to him whether in this matter or else?’

Imam Abū Muḥammad said to him, ‘Do you tell him what I shall say to you?’

He said, ‘Yes.’

Imam Abū Muḥammad (a) said to him, ‘Go to him, be courteous with him, and show him that you will help him in what he is in. When he feels comfortable with you, you say to him, ‘If someone recites the Qurān, is it possible that he means other meanings than what you think you understand?’ He shall say that it is possible because he is a man who understands when he listens. If he says that, you say to him, “How do you know? He might mean other than the meanings that you think, and so he fabricates other than its (the Qurān) meanings…’

The disciple went to his teacher al-Kindī and did as the Imam told him. Al-Kindī said to his disciple, ‘I adjure you by Allah to tell where you have got this from!’

The disciple said, ‘It was something that came to my mind and I mentioned it to you.’

Al-Kindi said, ‘No, no one like you can get to this. Would you tell me where you have got this from?’

He said, ‘Imam Abū Muḥammad asked me to say that…’

Al-Kindī said, ‘Now you say the truth. The like of this can not be expressed, except from that house (the Ahl al-Bayt)…’

After that, al-Kindī burnt his book.”

The key principle here is that in what seems to be a contradiction, one must ensure that all possible meanings are exhausted and that a contradiction and clash of meaning exists before dismissing a text, this is a key concern in the science known as hermeneutics which holds that a writer will often not deliberately contradict himself within the same work and that we are to try to understand the intended meaning as given by the writer.

For more information on how to reconcile Qurānic narratives where Prophets are shown to seemingly make mistakes, one may refer to narrations containing the debates of Imam ‘Alī b. Mūsa al-Riḍā where he clarifies the meaning of such verses or even entire treatises dedicated to the topic such as the book of infallibility of the Prophets by the Sunnī theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, the innocence of the Prophets and the Imams by the Shī’ī theologian Sharīf al-Murtaḍa and works such as the book of infallibility by Aḥmad b. Zayn al-Dīn al-Ahsā’ī as the topic remains outwith the scope of this paper.

The Infallibility of the Imams and Fāṭima al-Zahrā’

إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا

[33:33] Allah only desires to keep away any uncleanliness from you, O people of the household and purify you, a thorough purification.

Most Shī’ī exegetes conclude upon the basis of the books of hadith that the verse above is in regards to the incident known as Ḥadīth al-Kisā’ in which the Prophet Muhammad gathered Fāṭima, ‘Alī, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn under a Yemenī cloak and this verse was revealed over them declaring their infallibility. It is narrated in Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim for example:

‘Āisha said: "Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) went out one morning wearing a striped cloak of the black camel's hair that there came Ḥasan b. ‘Alī. He wrapped him under it, then came Ḥusayn and he wrapped him under it along with the other one Ḥasan. Then came Fāṭima and he took her under it, then came ‘Alī and he took him under it too and then said: “Allah only desires to keep away any uncleanliness from you, O people of the household and purify you, a thorough purification."

This particular narration namely the famous narration known as Ḥadīth al-Kisā’ (as opposed to the long and famous liturgical Shī’a version recited in the beginning of gatherings) is concluded by scholars of ḥadīth and historians such as Murtaḍa al-‘Askarī to be widely-transmitted (mutawatir) and the Shī’a conclude from such narrations that the five under the cloak are purified from all blemishes and defects, by Allah.

Naturally, since the role of the Imam is divine guidance, the Shī’a apply the same reasoning to derive the rational necessity of the Imam’s infallibility as was used to demonstrate the infallibility of the Prophets however, one may also use Ḥadīth al-Kisā’ as basic evidence to support this claim too.

As for the later Imams, other narrations also make this concept clear. Such as the following narration from Ma’ānī al-Akhbār of Shaykh Ṣadūq:

Imam Zayn al-‘Ābidīn (a) said, "An Imam from us is infallible. Infallibility is not something recognizable in the apparent form of a person. Rather, it is proven by (his) designation (by his predecessors)." A person asked, "O son of the Messenger of Allah! What is an infallible person?" The Imam replied, "He is one who has held onto the Rope of Allah, and the Rope of Allah is the Quran. He does not separate from it until the Day of Resurrection. The Imam guides to the Qurān, and the Qurān guides to the Imam, and that is the saying of Allah, [17:9] 'Surely, this Qur'an guides to that which is most suitable.'"

The next ḥadīth from al-Kāfī is an excerpt from a larger narration and has been graded authentic by ‘Allāmah Majlisī:

Imam Ṣādiq (a) said: “...He is the remainder from Ādam, the best (ones) from the progeny of Nūḥ, the chosen one from the family of Ibrāhīm, and the offspring from Ismā’īl and the elite from the lineage of Muḥammad, He has always been looked after by the eyes of Allah who protects him and guards him with his curtain, he is expelled from the ropes of Iblis, and he is a solder he pushes away from approaching twilight. And all immorality and evil is discharged from him, he is free deformities, he is veiled from diseases, he is infallible from (any) minor sin, and he is preserved from all (types) of filth...”

The next tradition is also from al-Kāfī and has been graded authentic by Majlisī:

Imam ‘Ali said: “Verily Allah has purified us and (made) us infallible, and made us witnesses upon his creations, and his proof on his earth, and made us with the Qurān, and made the Qurān with us. We shall not separate from it (the Qurān) nor shall it (the Qurān) separate from us.”

The following tradition from al-Kāfī is considered authentic by Majlisī:

Imam Ṣādiq (a) said: ‘We are the reservoir of the knowledge of Allah, we are the explainers of the commands of Allah, we are the infallible people. Allah has commanded to obey us, and has prohibited from insurgence (against) us, we are well advocated proof for who is under the heaves and above the earth.”

The following tradition is from Kamāl al-Dīn of Shaykh Ṣadūq:

Imam ‘Alī said: “Verily Allah has purified us and (made) us infallible, and made us witnesses upon his creations, and his proof on his earth, and made us with the Qurān, and made the Qurān with us. We shall not separate from it (the Qurān) nor shall it (the Qurān) separate from us.”

This belief in infallibility was also something understood by the Imams’ companions such as Hishām b. al-Ḥakam as the narration from al-Khiṣāl of Shaykh Ṣadūq shows:

Muḥammad b. Abī ‘Umayr [r] said, "During my long friendship with Hishām b. al-Ḥakam, I have not heard nor benefited from anything more than I did from these words regarding the immaculate nature of the Imam. One day, I asked him about the Imam: is he immaculate? So Hishām said, 'Yes.' So I said, 'So what is the description of his immaculateness? And how is it recognized?'

Hishām said, 'Surely, all sins are due to the following four, and there is no fifth: greed, jealousy, anger, and lust. None of these exist in an Imam. An Imam cannot be greedy toward this world while it is [all] under his ring, for he is the treasurer of the Muslims. So why should he be greedy? An Imam cannot be jealous, since man would be jealous of what is above him, not what is lower than him. However, there is no one higher than an Imam. So how could he be jealous of anyone who is lower than himself? An Imam cannot get angry at any worldly affairs unless it be for what angers Allah. Allah has made him responsible in establishing the limits. Thus, he becomes angry at the blamers, and he befriends others for their religion, so that the limits of Allah are established. An Imam cannot follow lusts, since he has already preferred the Hereafter over this world. Surely, Allah has made the Hereafter beloved to him, just as He made this world beloved to us. So he looks to the Hereafter the way that we look at this world. Have you seen anyone who abandoned a beautiful face for an ugly face, or tasty food for bitter food, or soft clothes for rough clothes? Everlasting blessings are for the everlasting world, while this world is transient and fleeting.'"

Shaykh Ṣadūq and Sahw al-Nabī

On the subject of whether the Prophets (p) and Imams (a) can err out of forgetfulness (sahw), Shaykh Ṣadūq in his ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār writes:

The Imam is born. He also has children. He gets ill and he gets cured. He eats and drinks. He urinates and defecates. He gets married. He sleeps. He forgets and he makes mistakes. He gets happy and sad. He laughs and cries. He lives and then dies. He is buried and the people go to visit his shrine. He is resurrected and questioned. He is rewarded and honored. He intercedes. There are two important signs for him: his knowledge and the fulfillment of his prayers. He has heard the news that he gives about the events in the future from his grandfathers from the Prophet of God. The Prophet of God has heard them from Gabriel. Gabriel has heard them from the Almighty God.

In his al-Faqīh he writes:

And the forgetfulness of the Prophet is not like our forgetfulness because his forgetfulness emanates from Allah and it is caused upon him so that it is known that he is a human being, created and therefore is not taken as a Lord to be worshipped independently of Allah and so that the people would know of his error and know of the rulings to apply when one makes an error (in prayer for example) as for our forgetfulness then they come from Satan and Satan has no authority over the Prophet and the Imams, peace and blessings of Allah be upon them … and it is said after this that our Shaykh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. Aḥmad b. al-Walīd, may Allah be pleased with him would say that the first step to exaggeration is to negate forgetfulness from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family.

Shaykh Mufīd in The Emendation of the Shī’ī Creed responds to the aforementioned claims as follows:

We have heard a narration, the meaning of which is plain, related to the authority of Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Walīd, may Allah have mercy upon him, and the interpretation in favour of lowering the status (of the infallible) is inescapable. This is what is related on his authority: "The first degree of exaggeration is to deny that the Prophet and the Imams could forget", then if this was indeed related by him, he in fact attributes less than their due to the Imams, and yet he is one of the divines of Qum.

The above quotes contextualise the belief of Shaykh Ṣadūq in regards to the erring of the Prophet, namely that it was something alien to himself, caused by Allah in order to allow the believers to both remember him being a human and for us to know the laws of one who errs in prayer for example. This belief was held by Ṣadūq and his teacher Ibn al-Walīd and was completely rejected by Shaykh Mufīd who denounced all reports on this as being insufficient to build a creedal belief based upon them.

The subject remains one which is the subject of debate amongst Imamī scholars and theologians, with most firmly rejecting the belief and even going as far as to say that Ṣadūq has erred and not the Prophet or the Imams such as Shaykh al-Ahsā’ī, whilst others have stated that for example, there is no problem since Ṣadūq’s view is merely that Allah caused this and hence its not even an error since the Prophet himself did not make a mistake, rather he was made to teach us a basic law through an action which Allah placed within his behaviour to teach us a sunnah.

Amongst the prominent contemporary scholars who accept that the Prophet Muḥammad and the Imams were prone to forgetfulness due to such reports are Muḥaqqiq Shūshtarī in a treatise titled al-Risālah fī Sahw al-Nabī and Āyatullah Namāzī Shāhrūdī in a book pertaining to the reliability of the four books of ḥadīth, respectively.

Concluding Remarks

As demonstrated in this paper, infallibility is a theological belief built upon both rational and textual arguments. The opinion of numerous Shī’ī and as well as Sunnī scholars were expounded on, signifying not only its necessity for the Prophets, but rather also arguing that its absence would essentially throw the complete concept of Prophethood in jeopardy. In addition, the numerous verses of the Qurān firmly establish the positions of the various Prophets vis-à-vis their protection from sin and error. For the Shī’a, the same argument establishing infallibility for the Prophets also establishes it for his successors and Fāṭima (s) given their divine positions and roles for humanity.

Though Shī’ī scholars all agree on the infallibility of the Prophets and the Imams, a couple of scholars, most prominent of them being Ibn al-Walīd and Shaykh Ṣadūq, professed that the Prophets were prone to forgetfulness – when Allah’s (swt) wisdom necessitated - and that this does not contradict infallibility. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Shī’ī scholars reject this position and have argued exhaustively against it over the centuries.

Article reviewed by Sayed Ammar Nakshwani, Sheikh Nuru Mohammed and Islamic Education Team of The World Federation of KSIMC.


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