Question: Explain the infallibility of the prophets. Why is it that some verses of the Qur`an contradict their infallibility?
The answer to these questions can be summarized in the following points:
1. Infallibility is a state of the soul that makes an infallible person shun sins or any unpalatable acts and protects him from mistakes and forgetfulness without negating his free will.
2. The secret behind the infallibility of the prophets lies in their direct vision and intuition of reality, their perfect faith and certainty, and their deep love for Allah (awj); along with their profound awareness of Allah’s (awj) majesty and the realization of His attributes. In addition, through infallibility, Allah (awj) strengthens the prophets against the deceptions of Satan and the desires of the carnal soul.
3. Numerous rational proofs confirm the necessity of the infallibility of the prophets. The clearest of these proofs is the fact that Allah’s (awj) purpose in creating man can only be fulfilled through their infallibility.
4. If some verses of the Qur`an seem at first glance to contradict these rational proofs, we must examine those verses more carefully, reflect deeper on their apparent meaning, and uncover their true meaning.
5. Numerous verses affirm the existence and even the necessity of infallibility, although the term “infallibility” has not been used. We cite below some examples:
a. Some verses describe a number of the prophets as mukhlasin (those who have been purified). For example, see 38:45-48. In these verses, one who is mukhlas is one who has not been and cannot be misguided by Satan.
b. Numerous verses explain that the prophets have been guided by Allah (awj). For example, see 6:84-90. It is inconceivable that someone who has been guided by Allah (awj) could be misguided or make a mistake.
c. In many verses Allah (awj) has unconditionally commanded people to obey the prophets. See 3:31-32 and 4:80 and 24:52. It is clear that such an unconditional command from Allah (awj) requires that they be infallible.
d. The verses 72:26-28 indicate that Allah (awj) protects his prophets from all perspectives.
e. The Verse of Purification (ayah al-tathir) found in 33:33 clearly indicates the infallibility of Prophet Muhammad (ص).
1. Those verses that seem to contradict the prophets’ infallibility are either conditional propositions that do not indicate that they have sinned or they pertain to the believers, not the prophets.
2. With respect to the prophet Adam (ع), in whose infallibility many have doubted, the following can be said. First, the proscriptions in the verses related to this discussion are irshadi (advisory) in nature, not mawlawi (a command issued by a superior to an inferior with the hopes that the command will be obeyed).
Second, even if they were mawlawi imperatives, they do not indicate that a failure to fulfil the commands is tantamount to a sin, but rather that Adam chose a lesser of two permissible paths.
Third, the world in which Adam was living at the time was not a world entailing legal responsibility toward Allah (awj).
In such a world, disregarding a command cannot be considered a true sin. If we see occasionally that Allah (awj) addresses the prophets with a sharp tone, this is because they are, after all, men with the faculties of anger and lust and the needs of animals. Therefore, they also require constant admonishment and guidance in such a way that if they were left to themselves for an instant they would be destroyed.
Let us begin answering this question by defining the term infallibility (‘ismah). ’Allamah Tabataba`i defines infallibility as “the presence of a quality in a person that prevents him from committing any impermissible act such as a sin.”
Al-Fadil al-Miqdad, a ranking Shi’i theologian, presents a more thorough definition, when he says, “Infallibility is a trait bestowed by Allah to a legally accountable individual (mukallaf) 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 (malakah) 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.”
It is essential to note that infallibility never compels a person to obey nor prevents him from disobeying. Rather, his faith, knowledge, and perception of Allah’s greatness has reached a level where they do not allow him to commit a sin or disobey Allah (awj). According to several ahadith, Allah (awj) strengthens the prophets and Imams through the Pure Spirit, the Spirit of Faith, the Spirit of Strength, the Spirit of Lust, and the Lofty Spirit.
Now that we have defined infallibility, we turn to an analysis of the intellectual and textual proofs for the existence of this trait in certain individuals. As a preliminary note, when examining the verses of the Qur`an concerning the infallibility of the prophets, it is important to keep in mind that Divine revelation can never contradict human reason. Therefore, we must read these verses in light of reason, so that no contradictions occur.
With respect to the infallibility of the prophets, we will mention only one rational proof. Al-Shaykh al-Tusi, in a very terse statement, says, “Infallibility is necessary for a prophet so that surety in him is attained, and as a result, the purpose of creation is fulfilled.” In other words, a prophet must be infallible so that mankind can trust the revelation that he brings.
Some scholars have expressed this proof in the following way: “Once the intellect independently accepts the existence of Allah and the logical possibility of revelation and prophethood (in a general sense, not as pertains to any specific prophet), the intellect then affirms the necessity of the infallibility of the prophets in receiving and conveying divine revelation. The evidence for this is that since Allah has sent his prophets to guide mankind, he must send a person who is neither careless nor forgetful, much less sinful. If not, He will contradict His own purpose in sending prophets, revelation, and in essence, the purpose of creation itself. If the prophets were capable of carelessness, forgetfulness, or sin, people would never fully trust that what they say is from Allah. They would always entertain the possibility that the prophets have lied to them or made a mistake or misunderstood Allah’s intent.”
This theological principle is firmly based on the attributes of Allah (awj) himself. In particular it is based on His omniscience (‘ilm), omnipotence (qudrah), the purposefulness of His actions (hikmah) — both in creation and legislation — and in essence, on the fact that He is free from impropriety, injustice, and purposelessness. If a prophet were to make a mistake in receiving or conveying revelation, this mistake would demonstrate either ignorance, weakness, or incompetence in Allah’s (awj) actions.
In reality, if the prophet were not infallible, either he would accidentally or intentionally make mistakes in guiding people or, at the very least, his people would not trust him sufficiently, either in terms of his claims to prophethood or in terms of the message and duties that he brings. In the first case, the prophethood would become a cause for the misguidance of people. In the second case, the prophethood would be utterly without purpose. Far be it from Allah (awj) to either misguide or act without purpose.
Until now, we have defined infallibility and presented one intellectual proof for the necessity of this quality in the prophets. We now turn to an examination of the Qur`anic verses that deal with infallibility. We shall discuss these verses in two sections. The first section comprises verses that support the infallibility of the prophets. The second section examines verses that seem to contradict their infallibility. Finally, we shall present our answer to the initial question.
Many verses in the Qur`an speak of the quality of infallibility in the prophets, though they do not necessarily use the word ‘ismah. We can divide and discuss these verses in the following manner:
1. Some verses refer to the prophets as mukhlasin (those who are especially chosen). One who is mukhlas cannot be misguided by Satan, and is therefore, infallible. The following verses serve as an example:
“And remember our servants: Ibrahim, Ishaq, and Ya’qub, 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 Isma`il, Ilyas, and Dhu al-Kifl, each of whom was among the righteous.”1
In these verses, prophets who were among the mukhlasin are mentioned.
In conjunction with other verses that quote Satan as saying,
“By your might, I shall surely pervert them except your chosen (mukhlas) servants among them”2
“Without a doubt, I shall misguide them except those who are chosen (mukhlas) from amongst them,”3
it becomes clear that the mukhlasin are those who are out of Satan’s reach and are therefore infallible.
2. Another group of verses mention the presence of “divine guidance” in the prophets. For example:
“We granted Ibrahim, Ishaq and Ya’qub and we guided them both. And we had guided Nuh before them. And from his progeny, we guided Dawud, Sulayman, Ayyub, Yusuf, Musa, and Harun. In this way do we reward the righteous. Similarly Zakariyya, Yahya, ‘Isa, and Ilyas 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.” 4
These verses indicate that the prophets have been guided by Allah (awj). In conjunction with the verse where Allah (awj) says,
“There can be no one to misguide him whom Allah (awj) guides,”5
it becomes clear that no one can misguide the aforementioned prophets since they have been guided by Allah (awj). And since committing a sin is a form of misguidance, we can conclude that these prophets are free from sin—that is, they are infallible.
The fact that these verses mention these particular prophets as chosen prophets can serve as corroborating evidence for their infallibility. They have, after all been chosen to guide other people, thus they themselves must have already been guided. In addition, the last verse quoted above commands Muhammad (ص) to follow the guidance of these prophets. Clearly, for the final prophet—with his high status—to be commanded to follow his predecessors indicates their infallibility. Otherwise, following one who is not himself infallible will eventually lead to misguidance.
3. A third group of verses calls on all Muslims to obey the Prophet Muhammad (ص). For example, one verse says,
“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.”6
A verse in Surat al-Nisa` says:
“Whoever obeys the Prophet has obeyed Allah.”7
Other verses also speak of unconditional obedience of the Prophet and such unconditional obedience necessitates his infallibility, otherwise, the result would be misguidance rather than guidance!
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 (ص) in particular. One verse says:
“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.”8
Another verse reads,
“Allah wishes only to repel all impurity from you—O people of the Household—and purify you thoroughly.”9
It should be noted that Allah’s (awj) “wish” in this verse denotes his existential will and not his legislative will. Furthermore, because his existential will cannot be negated (i.e. whatever he wills must necessarily occur), the “people of the household” have necessarily been purified of all defilement—foremost of which is sin. This verse thereby establishes the infallibility of these “people of the household.” Who exactly is included in the “people of the household” is outside the parameters of our discussion, but undoubtedly, the Prophet Muhammad (ص) himself is included.
Therefore, the verse explicitly indicates his infallibility. This assertion, in conjunction with the following logical proposition leads us to the conclusion that all prophets are infallible. This proposition says that all scholars are divided between two views concerning the infallibility of the Prophets: either they are all infallible, or they are all fallible. No one claims that some prophets are fallible while others are not. Therefore, by establishing the infallibility of the final prophet through the aforementioned verse, we can conclude that all prophets are infallible.
Once we have logically established the necessity of the prophets’ infallibility, if we encounter verses that seem to contradict our reason, we must look more carefully at the verses to understand their true intent. An examination of all such verses would require an entire book, however, in order to answer the question at hand, we shall examine a sampling of these verses.
1. One verse reads like this:
“It has been revealed to you (O Muhammad) and to all the prophets that if you ascribe partners to Allah, all your actions will come to naught and you will be amongst the losers. Instead, worship Allah alone and be amongst the grateful.”10
From this verse, it appears that associating partners with Allah (awj) is possible even for the prophets. Otherwise, it would make no sense to warn them of such a possibility. The argument against this misinterpretation is that the prophets are free to choose disbelief because, as we stated earlier, infallibility does not negate a person’s free will.
However, the prophets will never actually become disbelievers because their deep understanding of Allah (awj) and their direct relationship with Him prevents them from considering sin, if even for a second.
Rather, this verse indicates two meanings. First, it is a conditional statement that indicates that “your actions will come to naught” if the condition of ascribing partners to Allah (awj) occurs, not that “ascribing partners” is going to occur. Second, the verse indicates the danger of ascribing partners to Allah (awj), and informs us that such a sin will not be tolerated from even the prophets.
In reality this verse clarifies the duty of all people with respect to this sin by making an example of the prophets. Such an analysis of these verses has been narrated from Imam ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida (ع) when he says, “Such verses are speaking to all believers, although they may be addressed to the Prophet (ص).”11
Another similar verse reads:
“The Jews and the Christians will never be satisfied with you until you accept their religion. Say: The sole guidance is the guidance that comes from Allah. If you (Muhammad) give in to their whims and desires despite the knowledge that has reached you, you will have no protector or helper against Allah.”12
One might ask, is it possible for the Prophet (ص) to give in to the whims and desires of the Jews and Christians? First of all this verse like the one before it is a conditional statement and therefore does not indicate that vthe condition will occur. Second, as we clarified before, the Prophet’s (ص) infallibility does not make it impossible for him to sin. Rather, it is his understanding, fear of Allah (awj), and faith that makes him shun sin. Third, this statement may be speaking to all believers, although it is addressed to the Prophet (ص).
2. A second group of verses is represented by the following verse:
“We have not sent a prophet or a messenger before you except that whenever he wished (for something), Satan cast (something) into his wishes. Then Allah nullifies what Satan had cast and then Allah confirms his signs. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise ... (He does this so) that those who have been given knowledge may know that it is the truth from your Sustainer, and so they may have faith in it, and that their hearts may be humbled before Him.”13
These verses are among the strongest arguments of those who deny infallibility. In order to cast doubt in the authenticity of the Qur`an, Orientalists have also discussed these verses. They interpret the “casting” of Satan into the wishes of the prophets as a sort of interference in revelation. In this way, they seek to reject the infallibility of the prophets in both the reception and conveyance of revelation. Another interpretation that they present is that Satan whispers to the prophets, thereby weakening their resolve to guide their people.
Certainly these verses mean nothing of the sort. Allah (awj) explicitly negates the existence of such whispers and interference from the prophets. The correct interpretation of these verses is as follows. In every age, when prophets were sent to guide people, Satanic forces from among men and jinn attempted to interfere with the divine mission by corrupting the message in order to misguide people. The Qur`an refers to this phenomenon when it says: “he promises them and gives them hope; but Satan promises them nothing but misguidance.”14 In the verses from Surat al-Hajj, Allah (awj) states that He does not sit idle in the face of these satanic plots, but rather rushes to aid His prophets and deliver them victory.
3. Other verses that require close attention are those that describe the story of the prophet Adam (ع).15 These verses seem to indicate that Adam (ع) was deceived and misguided by Satan, and is therefore fallible.
We can address these doubts in several ways:
First, the negative imperative in these verses (i.e. “do not approach this tree”) is irshadi (advisory) in nature, not mawlawi (a command issued by a superior to an inferior with the hopes that the command will be obeyed). In particular, these verses are spoken with the tone of one who is sympathetically advising another because he knows the outcome of his actions. Acting against such an advisory imperative does not contradict Adam’s (ع) infallibility.
Second, for argument’s sake, if the imperative was of a mawlawi nature, it was not one that was compulsory for Adam (ع) to follow. Rather, it was showing him the better of two permissible paths. When he acted against this imperative, he was not committing a true sin (that deserves punishment), but rather what might be considered a “sin” with respect to his high station. This is what is commonly referred to by the phrase, “the good deeds of the righteous are like sins for those closest to Allah.”
Third, that which contradicts infallibility is for a legally accountable person (mukallaf) to commit a sin. On the other hand, Adam (ع) was at that time, in a place where no laws existed. It was only after the fall, when he began his life on Earth, and laws were decreed that legal accountably to Allah (awj) began. Therefore, any failure to follow Allah’s (awj) instruction before this time does not contradict his infallibility. Furthermore, the verse also says that the station of prophethood was granted to him after his repentance. Therefore, if someone believes that prophets are only infallible during their prophethood, this action of Adam’s (ع) would not contradict his infallibility. However, if one believes that a prophet is infallible from birth (as Shi’i scholars believe), such an argument would not suffice.
4. Other verses suggest that some of the other prophets committed sins or admitted to committing mistakes that contradict their infallibility. These verses mention the prophets Nuh, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Musa, Dawud, Sulayman, Ayyub, and Yunus (ع). A thorough examination of these verses would require an extensive discussion and therefore, we refer the reader to exegeses of the Qur`an that deal with this topic more extensively.
5. Some verses refer to the Prophet Muhammad (ص) himself, and have been key points of argument for those who deny his infallibility. One such verse reads,
“We granted you a clear victory that Allah may forgive you your past sins and those to come and complete his blessing upon you and guide you on a straight path.”16
These verses apparently indicate that the Prophet (ص) has committed and will commit sins, and that Allah (awj) has forgiven him for all of these by means of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.
The correct interpretation of these verses is quite different. First, the words dhanb (sin) and ghufran (forgiveness) have been used here to indicate their literal meanings, not the meanings they have come to connote in Islamic nomenclature. In particular, the denotation of dhanb is an unsavoury consequence of an action. Ghufran means to cover or hide. Consequently, the meaning of the verse is: “we have granted you this victory in order to hide the consequences of your mission.”
Before and after the hijrah (the Prophet’s (ص) emigration from Mecca to Medinah), the pagans of Mecca held many misconceptions about Islam and the Prophet that were corrected by his subsequent victories. In addition, the initial upheaval that the Islamic mission had caused in the pagan way of life was quickly forgotten because of the victory he was granted.
Since the terms dhanb and ghufran have not been used in their conventional meaning (i.e. sin and forgiveness), this verse in no way contradicts the Prophet’s infallibility. Second, even if one insists that these terms have been used in their conventional meanings, the “sins” that are referred to are those actions of his that the pagans of Mecca considered sins, not sins against Allah (awj).
Another similar verse reads,
“May Allah forgive you. Why did you grant them permission to stay back? (You should not have done so) so that it would become clear to you who are the truthful, and so that you would know the liars.”17
Some have taken the word ‘afa (he forgave) to indicate that the Prophet (ص) had committed sins and is therefore fallible.
We can answer this attack by saying that the sentence ‘afa Allahu ‘anka is an indicative sentence that has been used here as a prayer (du’a`) to honor the Prophet (ص) just as the statements ‘ayyadaka Allahu (may Allah empower you) and rahimaka Allahu (may Allah have mercy on you) are used. Consequently, these phrases do not contradict the Prophet’s (ص) infallibility at all. In the words of ’Allamah Tabataba’i, “Those who misinterpret these verses are in fact playing with the words of Allah and do not understand the Qur`an at all. They do not even know the ABC’s of the Qur`an.”
We conclude our discussion of the verses that seem to contradict the infallibility of the prophets hoping that what we have presented is sufficient for the reader to correctly interpret the remaining verses.
It remains to be explained why such verses exist in the Qur`an and why Allah (awj) addresses his prophets with such a sharp tone at times.
Despite the lofty station of the prophets, they are human beings like us. Like all human beings, they are invested with the faculties of lust, anger, and human desires. Therefore, they require constant guidance from Allah (awj). If they are left to their own devices for even an instant they would be destroyed. For such people who have been vested with the responsibility of the guidance of all mankind, even a momentary lapse in their resolve is therefore considered a tremendous sin. It is for this reason that Allah (awj) sometimes addresses them in a strict tone and it is for this reason that they are in constant need of prayers and forgiveness.
To recapitulate, in the face of conclusive logical proofs, we must forgo the apparent meaning of verses that seem to contradict these proofs. With this methodology, no verses in the Qur`an contradict the infallibility of the prophets. Additionally, there are a myriad of verses that explicitly indicate that the prophets are infallible, of which we have mentioned a few.