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Infallibility of Prophets (a)

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Infallibility of prophets (Arabic: عصمة الأنبياء) is the doctrine according to which prophets are immune to sins and errors. This doctrine is accepted in various faith traditions though there is disagreement among them as to its nature and spheres. Muslim scholars agree that prophets were immune to disbelief and polytheism and that they did not make any mistakes in receiving and delivering the divine message. However, they disagree as to whether prophets were free from other sins and from mistakes in ordinary matters of life, though most of them maintain that prophets were infallible in these other domains as well.

The Quran does not explicitly speak about the infallibility of prophets, but the doctrine has been inferred from the Quran. The commentators have usually discussed this doctrine under certain verses such as Quran 2:36 (related to the story of Adam (a) and Eve and their banishment from Paradise).

Muslim theologians have presented rational arguments for the infallibility of prophets. They have also used Quranic verses, such as Quran 59:7, and hadiths to further establish this doctrine.

The opponents of the doctrine of infallibility have adduced some Quranic verses which allegedly contradict the infallibility of prophets or that of some of them. In response to them, Muslim theologians have put forward several explanations including the one according to which these verses are among “ambiguous” verses that need to be understood in light of “clear verses.”

Definition

Main article: Infallibility

The infallibility (ʿiṣma عصمة) of prophets refers to their being free from any kind of impurity and wrongdoing and their immunity to error in receiving and delivering the divine message. This characteristic is believed to be an internal trait that enables prophets to clearly distinguish right from wrong.

Place and Importance

The infallibility of prophets, especially with regard to receiving and delivering the divine message, is accepted in all prophetic religious traditions, thought there is disagreement among them as to its nature and domains.

Some maintain that the doctrine of infallibility appeared among Muslims in early Islamic history; for instance, it is reported that the first caliph praised the Prophet (s) by calling him free from error. It is also reported that Imam Ali (a) used the word “ʿisma” (infallibility) in his explanation of the status of prophets.

However, some scholars maintain that the technical term “ʿisma” (infallibility), like other theological terms, appeared after the emergence of the discipline of Islamic theology, coinciding with the imamate of Imam al-Sadiq (a).

The Quran does not explicitly speak of the infallibility of prophets, though the doctrine can be inferred from a number of verses. The commentators have discussed this doctrine in their commentaries on certain verses, such as Quran 2:36, Quran 7:23, Quran 20:121 (all related to the story of the banishment of Adam (a) and Eve from Paradise), Quran 3:33 (on the chosenness of some prophets), and Quran 53:3-5 (which state that the Prophet's (s) sayings are rooted in revelation, not in worldly desires).

Basis

There are various views on the basis of infallibility. Al-Shaykh al-Mufid and al-Sharif al-Murtada consider the infallibility of prophets to be a blessing of God upon them. In another view, al-Sharif al-Murtada, together with al-Shaykh al-Tusi and Ibn Maytham al-Bahrani, considers the infallibility to be an internal attribute which prevents prophets from committing sins, though it does not take away their power or free will.

According to Mulla Sadra, infallibility is a divine blessing upon prophets and some other sincere servants of God, with which their estimative faculty (wahm), which is affected in other people by satanic temptations, becomes fully controlled by intellect.

Allama Tabatabai maintains that the origin of prophetic infallibility is the profound knowledge of prophets about sins, which is not a kind of acquired knowledge and will never be defeated by worldly desires.

Spheres

The infallibility of prophets may be imagined in several spheres: the sphere of immunity to polytheism and disbelief, that of immunity to error in receiving and delivering the divine message, and that of immunity to committing major and minor sins and ordinary mistakes. Muslim scholars agree that prophets are infallible in the first and second spheres; they all believe that prophets never adhered to polytheism nor disbelieved throughout their lives. Moreover, Sunni and Shiite theologians agree that prophets are immune to error in receiving and delivering revelation and the divine message, though Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, the head of the Mu'tazila in the fifth/eleventh century is reported to have considered unintentional mistakes in delivering the divine message to be possible.

Shiite theologians believe in the infallibility of prophets in the third domain, i.e. immunity to major and minor sins, as well. However, al-Shaykh al-Mufid maintains that it is possible that prophets mistakenly commit a minor sin that does not harm their reputation prior to their prophethood.

Most Shiite theologians, moreover, believe in the infallibility of prophets in ordinary matters of life as well. They maintain that prophet never make any mistakes in their sayings and actions in social or personal spheres. However, some scholars, such as al-Shaykh al-Saduq, disagree with this view. Al-Shaykh al-Saduq, on the basis of the hadith of Dhu al-Shimalayn, accepted the claim that the Prophet (s) made an inadvertent ordinary mistake; he even claimed that the belief in the immunity of prophets to ordinary mistakes is an instance of exaggeration (ghuluww).

Allama Tabatabai believed that ordinary matters and other issues that are unrelated to revelation and to the prophetic mission fall outside the domain of infallibility. According to him, Quranic verses indicate that prophets, other than Prophet Muhammad (s) who was an exception, made mistakes in certain matters: Adam (a) forgot his testament, Noah (a) wrongly asked God to save his son, Jonah (a) angrily left his people, and Moses (a) wrongly mistakenly rebuked Aaron (a) when he found that the Israelites had worshipped the golden calf.

Infallibility and Free Will

Some people have considered infallibility and free will to be incompatible and therefore some of them have negated the infallibility of prophets and some others have maintained that prophets did not have free will in the domain of their infallibility. The latter group have argued that as long as one has the freedom to commit sins and errors, he will commit them in certain cases. Therefore, infallibility will be attained only when external factors do not allow the use of free will. The proponents of this view have adduced Quranic verses such as Quran 38:46, in which God speaks of Himself purifying prophets, and Quran 33:33 in which God mentions His will to purify the Ahl al-Bayt (a).

Against this view, some scholars, such as Allama Tabatabai, have stated that God granted prophets a kind of knowledge with which they could see the abhorring reality of sin, and with that knowledge they never committed sins. This knowledge is like our knowledge of the dangers of a poisonous food; we will never eat such a food because of that knowledge, not because we do not have the freedom to do that.

According to Ayatullah Subhani, although infallibility is a gift from God to prophets and Imams, these special servants of God freely choose to prepare themselves for receiving this gift with their faith and righteous deeds; therefore, infallibility is not incompatible with free will.

Evidence and Proofs

The evidence and proofs for the infallibility of prophets are divided into rational and traditional proofs:

Rational Proof

A major rational proof for the infallibility of prophets is that it is necessary for prophets to gain people's trust. But if prophets committed sins and their actions contradicted their teachings, people would not trust them, and thus prophetic missions would fail. That would entail the failure of God's plan, which is impossible.

Traditional Proofs

Traditional proofs include Quranic and hadith evidence for the infallibility of prophets. The following Quranic verses are believed to indicate that prophets are infallible: Quran 4:64, 69, 165; Quran 6:90; and Quran 18:17.

In the latter verse, we read, “Whomever Allah guides is rightly guided.” Allama Tabatabai maintains that this verse negates all kinds of misguidance from those whom God has guided, and since committing sins is a kind of misguidance, this verse indicates that prophets never committed any sins.

There are, moreover, several hadiths indicating that prophets are definitely infallible. For instance, Imam al-Baqir (a) is reported to have said, “Prophets do not commit any sins, because they are protected and pure … they do not commit any sins, be they major sins or minor ones.”

Objections

The opponents of the infallibility of prophets have rejected this doctrine on the basis of some Quranic verses and hadiths.

Disappointment at God’s Promise

The opponents have argued that according to Quran 12:110, prophets lost their hope in God's promise and thought that God had lied to them (“When the apostles lost hope and they thought that they had been told lies …”), which shows that they were not infallible.

In response, Allama Tabatabai has mentioned that the pronoun “they” in “they thought that they had been told lies” refers to people, and thus the verse means that the people’s unwavering rejection of the prophets’ call disappointed the prophets, and the people thought that the promise of punishment was a lie. According to another response, put forward by Ayatollah Subhani, the prophets did not think that God had lied to them, but their situation was such that the people thought so.

Satanic “Interjections”

Quran 22:52 is adduced in rejection of prophetic infallibility, because according to this verse Satan was able to “interject” things in the recitation of prophets when they recited the scripture—even though God nullified those interjections afterwards.

In response, it has been said that such an interpretation of this verse is against other verses of the Quran (e.g., Quran 15:42; Quran 17:65; Quran 38:82, 83) according to which Satan cannot mislead God’s sincere servants. Therefore, it is said, the verse refers to Satan's temping the people to reject the prophets' call and revolt against them, which would prevent the prophets from reaching their “umniyya” (wish [to guide the people]).

Sinfulness of All People Including Prophets

Some opponents of the doctrine of infallibility have said that in Quran 16:61, wrongdoing is attributed to all people including prophets; therefore, prophets are not infallible.

In response, it is said that according to verses such as Quran 35:32, all people are not wrongdoers; therefore, in Quran 16:61 “people” refers either to wrongdoers who deserve punishment or to the polytheists mentioned in the previous verses. It is also said that what is meant by wrongdoing in Quran 16:61 encompasses sin and failing to the better work, and the latter may be done by prophets, but it is not against their infallibility.

Quranic Verses Apparently Incompatible with the Infallibility of Some Prophets

Some Quranic verses are understood by the opponents of the doctrine of infallibility as indicating the fallibility of some prophets such as Adam (a), Noah (a), Abraham (a), Moses (a), Joseph (a), Jonah (a), and Prophet Muhammad (s).

According to Ayatollah Subhani, these verses are the most important argument of the opponents. Based on these verses, Ahmad Amin al-Misri stated that the doctrine of the infallibility of prophets is exaggeration and anti-Quranic.

General Responses

The commentators of the Quran have studied all the above-mentioned verses one by one and shown that none of them is against the doctrine of infallibility. In addition, they have put forward a number of general responses with regard to these verses, such as the following:

  • The Quranic verses that are the basis of the doctrine of infallibility are clear verses (muhkamat) and the ones that are apparently incompatible with this doctrine are among the ambiguous verses (mutashabihat). And the rule is to interpret the ambiguous verses in light of clear verses.
  • When the literal meaning of a Quranic verse or hadith is incompatible with definitive doctrines, its non-literal meanings are to take precedence over its literal meaning.

These verses are also mentioned in some hadiths and explained in a way that the infallibility of prophets is not negated. In one of these hadiths, which reports a debate between Imam al-Rida (a) and scholars of other faith traditions in al-Ma'mun's court, a person called Ali b. Jahm asked the Imam, “Do you believe in the infallibility of prophets?” Imam al-Rida (a) responded, “Yes.” Then Ali b. Jahm asked the Imam (a) about Quran 20:121, Quran 21:87, and Quran 12:24, which are apparently incompatible with the infallibility of prophets. The Imam (a) responded to him by explaining these verses one by one and showing that they do not contradict the doctrine of infallibility.

Bibliography

The infallibility of prophets is mostly discussed in theological books. In addition to that, a number of independent books are also written on this topic, including the following:

  • Tanzih al-anbiyaʾ (Exonerating the Prophets) by al-Sharif al-Murtada ((b. 355/965 - d. 436/1044), a prominent Shiite theologian and jurist. This book studies the doctrine of the infallibility of prophets and Imams and responds to the questions and criticisms against it.
  • ʿIsmat al-anbiyaʿ (The Infallibility of the Prophets) by Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209), a prominent Sunni theologian and exegete. In this book, various views on the infallibility of prophets are mentioned and then the author explores and criticizes the arguments of the opponents of the doctrine and their accusations against prophets such as Adam (a), Noah (a), Abraham (a), Moses (a), David (a), Solomon (a), and Prophet Muhammad (s).
  • Tanzih al-anbiyaʾ ʿan ma nasaba ilayhim huthalat al-aghbiyaʿ (Exonerating the Prophets from What Is Attributed to Them by the Lowest of the Fools) by Ali b. Ahmad known as Ibn Khumayr (d. 460/1067) a scholar of the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries. This book was also written to refute the arguments of the opponents of the doctrine of infallibility.

Among other independent works on the infallibility of prophets are the following:

  • Ismat al-anbiyaʿ fi al-Quran al-karim by Ja'far Subhani.
  • Ismat al-anbiyaʿ wa al-rusul by Allama Askari.
  • Ismat al-anbiyaʿ fi al-Quran; madkhal ila al-nubuwwat al-'amma by Sayyid Kamal Haydari.
  • Ismat al-anbiyaʿ by Zayn al-Abidin Abd Ali Tahir al-Ka'bi.
  • Ismat al-anbiyaʿ bayn al-yahudiyyat wa al-masihiyyat wa al-Islam by Mahmud Madi.
  • Muraji'at fi 'ismat al-anbiyaʿ min manzur al-Qur'ani by Abd al-Salam Zayn al-'Abidin.
  • Nur 'ismat bar sima-yi nubuwwat; pasukh bi shubahat-i Qur'ani-yi 'ismat by Ja'far Anwari.

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