Infallibility

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Ithna 'AshariyyaIsma'iliyyaZaydiyyaKaysaniyya

ʿIṣma (Arabic: العِصمَة) means abstinence from sins or disobedience to God. The belief in the infallibility of the Prophets and Imams, from deliberate and accidental sins , is a part of Shi'a creed. Infallibility from making mistakes in daily life issues –in addition to religious issues- is a matter of disagreement among scholars.

Belief in the legitimacy of any religion and following its teachings precedes the substantiation of the infallibility of its prophet. In intra-faith discussions, the infallibility of the Prophets (a) in receiving and conveying the divine revelation is demonstrated through rational arguments. However, infallibility in other practical aspects of their lives is mostly demonstrated through arguments driven from authoritative texts.

Analysis of the Concept

Literal Meaning

The word 'isma (عصمة) literally means: immunity; however it has been used in different meanings such as: chastity, preventing oneself from sins, the means for abstinence or immunity.

Technical Meaning

Muslim intellectuals and scholars have presented different definitions for 'isma. The most famous of which is the definition which connects 'isma to the divine benevolence. According to this explanation, God grants 'isma (infallibility) to some human beings, thereupon, they will be immune to committing sins or disregarding obligations, while they actually have the freewill and capability of committing sins.

  • Ash'ari viewpoint: Ash'ari theologians, because of their belief in predestination –that Human beings have no freewill in their actions and behavior- have defined 'isma as: the state in which the sins are not created by God in one particular man.
  • Imamiyya and Mu'tazila viewpoint: Imamiyya and Mu'tazila theologians, based on their belief that the inherent good and evil of things are known by reason and the principle of benevolence, have defined 'isma as: deliberate abstinence from committing sins, because of divine benevolence bestowed upon one particular person. Al-'Allama al-Hilli defines 'isma as a hidden kindness of God for His servant, which leaves no motivation in the servant for disregarding obligations or committing sins, while he is capable of both. Although this state seems similar to the state of piety and taqwa, it is actually much higher than taqwa, to the level that it prevents the person from committing any indecent act even as a thought and gains the person the highest levels of people's trust.

Origin

Most of the scholars and thinkers have pointed to the existence of general capability and freewill for abstinence from sins in the infallible person. Thereof, a question arises: what causes the infallibles to deliberately abstain from committing sins or be far from mistakes and negligence? Simply put, what is the origin of 'isma? In response to this question, several opinions have been put forth:

  1. The four means of divine benevolence: a group of theologians who have interpreted 'isma as a kind of divine benevolence, believe the combination of four elements constitutes the basis of this divine kindness:
    • The infallible person has certain physical and spiritual features and characteristics which enable him to abstain from the sins.
    • The infallible person has complete awareness of the burdensome consequences of sins and the value of God's obedience.
    • With continued divine revelation or inspiration, this awareness expands and becomes more profound.
    • Not only because of disregarding obligations, the infallible will also be questioned about disregarding the recommended priorities; therefore, he knows there's no negligence or leniency about his actions and behavior (because of the heavy responsibility he bears).
  2. Knowledge and Awareness of the Consequences of Sins: some believe that infallibility is originated from a kind of intuitive knowledge about the reality of the sin and its burdensome consequences, and about the reality of acts of obedience and their pleasant results. This knowledge is so strong that the infallible vividly sees these realities and consequences; therefore, he or she never even thinks about committing sins or disregarding divine obligations.
  3. Freewill and Choice: another theory about the origin of 'isma identifies it with some kind of strong and internalized piety. This internalization is the result of repeating good deeds and continued abstinence from sins. However, this internalization is much more intensified in the state of 'isma, in comparison to the general state of piety. Repetition of correct actions requires freewill and determination, therefore, the main element in possessing the state of 'isma originates from the choice and freewill of the infallible. According to this theory, even the aforementioned intuitive knowledge about the realities of different actions and ugliness of sin is a result of this strong will and determination by the infallible.
  4. Knowledge and Will: some Muslim thinkers identify the basis of 'isma in two elements: knowledge of the facts about perfection, and strong will in acquiring perfection. For in the case of ignorance, man does not know the difference between real or delusional perfection, and in the case of weak will, man will be controlled by his selfish and carnal desires and will not reach the real perfection.
  5. A combination of natural, personal, and divine elements: some contemporary thinkers believe that 'isma does not have a single cause, rather it is the result of the combination of different elements, natural element (that is: genetic endowment, environment and family), personal element (that is: consciousness and awareness, will power and choice, intellect and internalized virtues) and the divine element which is the special divine grace for the person.

Infallibility of the Prophets

Range

The discussion about the infallibility of the prophets expands to different degrees and levels and in each level various debates have taken place among thinkers and theologians. These discussions range from immunity from Shirk (polytheism) and Kufr (atheism) to immunity from normal mistakes.

  • Immunity from Shirk and Kufr: there is no disagreement among different Islamic denominations and theologians with regard to the infallibility of the Prophets from Shirk and Kufr. All Muslims believe that all the prophets, whether before their announcement as prophets or after it, did not commit any form of Shirk or Kufr.
  • Infallibility in receiving, preserving and conveying the divine revelation: main figures among Shi'a and Sunni theologians believe that the prophets are immune from sin, deliberate dishonesty or mistake, in the process of receiving, preserving and conveying the divine revelation. Upon this level of infallibility, divine prophets declare to people what has been revealed to them, without any change or alteration. Out of Divine wisdom, God chooses a person for this mission who would not commit any form of dishonesty.
  • Infallibility in following religious practical laws: according to the famous view among Shi'a theologians, prophets are immune from deliberate sins or accidental mistakes in practicing religious obligations or avoiding religious prohibitions.
  • Infallibility in specifying cases of different practical laws: the subject of a religious practical law is the action about which a certain religious ruling has been issued. Like prayers that has been made obligatory, and backbiting that has been prohibited. What is meant in this level of 'isma is that prophets do not commit deliberate dishonesty in recognizing the subjects, but what about accidental mistakes? For instance, is it possible for a prophet to mistakenly miss one of his prayers?
Shi'a and Sunni theologians disagree over the extension of infallibility to this level. Ash'arite and Mu'tazilite thinkers believe it is possible for the Prophets to make mistakes in recognizing the subjects of religious practical laws or in their application. Among Imamiyya theologians too, al-Shaykh al-Saduq believes there's no infallibility at this level and regards the belief in prophet's Immunity from mistakes and Sahw (general negligence), as an exaggerative belief that is advocated by Ghulat and Mufawwida; however the common view among Shi'a theologians is the existence of infallibility at this level.
  • Infallibility from mistakes in usual daily affairs: in this context, "daily affairs" are cases which, have no connection to religion per se and there is no religious law –whether obligation or prohibition- concerning them. Except for a case where such mistakes lead to public distrust, there's no rational argument in favor of the infallibility of the prophets from all mistakes in daily affairs; actually, historical reports are found in traditional collections that narrate such mistakes in the lives of the prophets.

Necessity

Considering the extent of infallibility of the prophets, the necessity of each level can be explained. The Infallibility pertaining to the process of revelation (receiving, preserving and conveying the revelation) is essential for the main mission of a prophet, which is conveying the divine message to public, must be guaranteed and preserved from any deliberate or accidental change and alteration. Revelation has its proper function only when it is preserved and protected from any deliberate or accidental error and distortion, from the moment it is issued, till the moment it is declared to people. Otherwise, people lose their trust and God's purpose of sending messengers and establishing religions will remain unfulfilled.

Similarly, the infallibility in other areas is to guarantee the general reliability of the prophets. The absence of such reliability results in general distrust toward the main divine message and the goal of sending messengers will be ruined.

Proofs

Muslim thinkers have different opinions regarding the proofs of the infallibility of the prophets. An essential aspect of this discussion is that each level of 'isma requires its own specific reason. In certain levels, infallibility can be demonstrated through rational arguments –as mentioned above- in some other levels it only can be inferred from authoritative texts (verses of the Holy Qur'an or Hadith). Therefore, the proof for each level must be discussed separately.

Infallibility of the Imams

Necessity

Since Imam is the successor of the Prophet (s) and the authoritative source of religious knowledge, including practical laws, spiritual teachings of the religion, exegeses of the Holy Qur'an and Sunna of the Prophet (s), he must be immune from mistakes or sins so that people can trust him and his words. Otherwise, people would lose their trust in him and God's purpose in appointing an Imam for guidance will not be fulfilled.

Extent

The infallibility of the Imams includes two main areas: Practice and Knowledge

1- Infallibility in Practice: this includes Imam's actions and behavior and has two levels:

a. The infallible never disregards an obligation, nor commits a prohibited action
b. The infallible never disregards a recommendation (Mustahab) nor commits a disliked action (Makruh)

2- Infallibility in Knowledge: this includes the knowledge of issues related to his duty as an Imam and it has three levels:

a. He does not make mistake in religious knowledge, for he is the guide of people.
b. He is infallible in his social and political decisions. Also, his decisions in scholarly leadership are perfect and correct.
c. He is infallible in the application of religious practical laws, and does not make mistakes in this regard. For instance, in discerning whether a given liquid is water or wine, he does not make a mistake.

Arguments

Rational Arguments

  • Infinite Regress: according to this argument, the existence of the Imam originates from the divine benevolence; he is the guide to whom people refer to recognize the right path. If the Imam is not infallible and possibly makes errors, there must be another Imam to correct him, and if the chain does not end in infallible person, the probability of mistake and error remains.
  • Preserving the religion and presenting its correct interpretation: this argument comprises of several premises:
  1. The religion brought by Prophet Muhammad (s) is supposed to remain until the Day of Judgment, as the final divine religion and practicing its laws are necessary and disregarding them is forbidden.
  2. Immunity from distortion requires the existence of one single authoritative source from which Muslims can receive correct teachings and practical laws.
  3. This ultimate authority cannot be the Holy Qur'an or the Mutawatir Sunna (numerously reported tradition of the Prophet (s)) for the Holy Qur'an contains many Mutashabih (vague and open to different or opposite interpretations) verses, there's a need for an ultimate, authoritative and trustworthy source to give the correct interpretation of these verses. Many issues have no explicit ruling in the divine scripture or the tradition of the Prophet (s).
  4. This ultimate authority cannot be the consensus of Muslims, since there are not sufficient numbers of such consensuses regarding practical laws; also, a consensus per se is not a source of religious knowledge.
  5. Qiyas (Jurisprudential analogy) cannot be the ultimate authority, for it does not have any basis in the Holy Qur'an or the Sunna of the Prophet (s).
  6. The only remaining solution is the existence of an Imam, a successor to the Prophet (s) and the ultimate authority in preserving and interpreting the religion. This individual must be infallible; otherwise the probability of alteration and distortion in religion would not reduce to zero; if such a possibility continues to exist, the purpose of sending messengers would not be fulfilled.
  • Following Imam's order is obligatory upon Muslims. If the Imam is not infallible and orders Muslims to commit sins, they are left with two options: (neither are possible)
  1. Whether to follow him, in this case they would be an accomplice in sin and injustice, while according to the Holy Qur'an, a Muslim must refrain from such cooperation.
  2. Or to disobey his orders, which contradicts the divine command to follow the Imam and his appointment as a guide.
neither of the above is possible, so Imam must be infallible.

Arguments based on Authoritative Texts

Holy Qur'an

The Verse about the Trial of Ibrahim

"And when his Lord tested Ibrahim with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, 'I am making you the Imam of mankind.' Said he (Ibrahim), 'And from among my descendants?' He said, 'My pledge does not extend to the unjust.'" (2:124)

This verse relates the time when Prophet Ibrahim (a) had fulfilled the divine tests successfully. In addition to his previous position as an Ulu l-'Azm Prophet, upon the fulfillment of these tests, he reached the position of Imama. The argument of Imamiyya theologians and interpreters is as follows:

  • Whoever commits sins is an unjust person, for he has transgressed the bounds of Allah (disregarded religious laws):
... and whoever transgresses the bounds of Allah, it is they who are the unjust. (2:229)
  • an unjust person cannot be in the position of Imama:
My pledge does not extend to the unjust. (2:124)
  • in the context of the verse, injustice includes all forms of injustice, whether about oneself or others or injustice in issues pertaining to the divine law, it also includes those who have committed injustice only once in their lives. Hereupon, a person who in not infallible has committed injustice and an unjust person cannot reach the position of Imama.

Uli l-Amr Verse

Main article: Uli l-Amr Verse

"O you who have faith! Obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those vested with authority among you." (4:59)

The argument based on this verse has two premises:

1- The conjunction used between the word 'Rasul' (Apostle) and the word 'Uli l-Amr' (those vested with authority) is 'waw' (Arabic: واو, and) which indicates that the obedience to Uli l-Amr -like the obedience to the Apostle- is unconditional.

2- Whenever God obligates unconditional obedience for a particular person, it postulates the infallibility of that person. For if that person is not infallible, he might issue wrong orders, in that case people must both obey and refuse his command. They must obey him because God has made obligatory the absolute obedience to the Uli l-Amr; similarly, they must refuse because, according to the famous and Mutawatir narration from the Prophet (s), "there's no obedience to the created (when it results) in disobedience to the Creator."

Tathir Verse

Main article: Tathir Verse

"Indeed Allah desires to repel all impurity only from you, O Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you with a thorough purification." (33:33)

The argument based on this verse consists of six premises:

  1. God has willed to purify only the Ahl al-Bayt (a),
  2. The Tashri'i divine will for purification is general, not particular,
  3. The divine will in the verse cannot be a Tshri'i divine will, since the will in the verse is restricted to one particular group, i.e. the Ahl al-Bayt (a) therefore it is a Takwini divine will,
  4. The Takwini divine will is inevitably fulfilled,
  5. The purification is stressed and unconditional, which means all sorts of impurity are repelled,
  6. Except for Shi'a, none of other Muslim sects have ever claimed the infallibility of their leaders, in fact, there's no historical evidence that anyone has ever claimed to be the addressee of this verse, or used the title "Ahl al-Bayt" except for Lady Fatima al-Zahra (a), her husband, Imam 'Ali (a) and their children.
So Ahl al-Bayt (a) containing Imam 'Ali (a), Lady Fatima (a), Imam al-Hasan (a), and Imam al-Husayn (a) and other Shi'a Imams are infallible

Hadith

Hadith al-Thaqalayn

Main article: Hadith al-Thaqalayn

The Holy Prophet (s) said: "I have left among you two things, you will never go astray after me, should you hold onto them. These are two weighty things, the one which is greater than the other, is the Book of Allah, an extended rope from heaven to earth and my 'Itra, Ahl al-Bayt (household), be aware that they will not separate till the time they meet me near the al-Hawdh (pond)." This Hadith proves the infallibility of the Ahl al-Bayt (a) from different perspectives:

  • According to this narration, the Prophet (s) directs all Muslims to have unconditional obedience to the Holy Qur'an and his household. Unconditional obedience postulates infallibility, for it is impossible for God and his Apostle to introduce a fallible person, who might make mistakes and contradict the Holy Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet (s), as the guide for people.
  • In this narration the inseparability between the Holy Qur'an and the Ahl al-Bayt (a) has been emphasized. Committing a sin or making a mistake means separation from the Holy Qur'an, while the Prophet (s) has confirmed the inseparable bound between the two, until the Day of Judgment.

- In this Hadith, the Holy Qur'an and the Ahl al-Bayt (a) are introduced as the guides who save their followers from deviation; this function is only possible when the Ahl al-Bayt (a) are infallible and immune from sins and mistakes.

"Ali is with the truth and truth is with Ali"

'Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Sa'd has narrated from his father: we were sitting in a group of Muhajirun and Ansar near the house of the Prophet (s) when 'Ali (a) came. The Apostle of Allah (s) asked: do you want me to introduce to you the best among you? "Yes" they replied. The Prophet (s) said: 'the best among you are those who keep their covenant and use perfume. Allah likes the pious servants.' At this very moment 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) passed by us, the Apostle of Allah (s) said: he is with the truth and truth is with him.

  • This Hadith is explicitly stating the infallibility of Imam 'Ali (a), for infallibility means nothing but the continual companionship with the truth and righteousness, and immunity from mistakes and sins in words and deeds.
  • The Apostle of Allah (s) testifies that Imam 'Ali (a) is always and in all situations with the truth and never separates from the truth. With this testimony, the absolute infallibility of Imam 'Ali (a) from any sin or mistake is demonstrated, for the actions and words of a fallible person are not always associated with the truth. So the belief in the infallibility of Imam 'Ali (a) is necessary; otherwise it entails the rejection of the testimony of the Prophet of Islam (s).

Narration about Imam 'Ali (a) and the Imams of his progeny

The Prophet of Islam (s) said: whoever wishes to look at the red ruby stick which Allah has planted with His hands and hold onto it, he should have the Wilaya of 'Ali and the Imams from his progeny, for they are the chosen ones by Allah and the pure ones and the infallibles from all sins and mistakes.

This Hadith explicitly states the infallibility of Shi'a Imams.

Infallibility of Angels

... over which (fire) are [assigned] angels, severe and mighty, who do not disobey whatever God has commanded them, and carry out what they are commanded.

Holy Qur'an: 66:6

Angels are beings that are pure from any form of disobedience and sin. However, based on the general definition of 'isma, the term is accurately used for beings that have freewill and ability to disobey God's commands, but refrain from committing sins, and supported by the divine benevolence, they are immune to mistakes which entail mistrust. According to this definition, while angels are pure from disobedience, they do not have the position of 'isma in the proper sense of the term.

However in the extended application of the term, i.e. purity from sins and mistakes (whether out of freewill or by nature) angels are infallible as well, since they have no tendency toward sins. They are engaged in everlasting glorification and praise of God and always obey divine commands.

References

  • The material for this article is mainly taken from عصمت in Farsi Wikishia.