Infallibility of Prophets
Were the prophets infallible? If so, why, and what did infallibility mean for them?
Infallibility is one of the necessary attributes of the Prophets. The Arabic word translated ‘infallibility’ is isma, meaning protecting or saving and defending. The word is used in the Qur’an in a variety of derived forms. For example, during the Flood, when the Prophet Noah invited his son to board his ship, the latter replied: I will betake myself to some mountain; it will save me from the water. Noah responded to his son using the active participle of the word: Today there is not a ‘saving one’ from the command of God (Hud, 11.43).
The wife of the ‘Aziz of Egypt, whose name is mentioned as Potiphar in the Bible, uses the same word in, I did seek to seduce him but he firmly ‘saved himself’ guiltless (Yusuf, 12.32). The Qur’an calls believers to hold fast to the ‘rope of God’, that is, the Qur’an and the religion of Islam, using the same word in a different form: Hold fast all together to, and ‘protect’ (against being divided) by, the rope of God (Al ‘Imran, 3.103). Again, we see the same word in the verse, God will ‘defend (protect)’ you from people (al-Ma’ida, 5.67).
A small minority of Muslim scholars have asserted that the Prophets may have committed sins of an insignificant type called zalla, meaning ‘error’ or ‘lapse’, and give, in order to prove their assertion, some examples from the lives of, for instance, Adam, Noah, Abraham and Joseph, upon them all be peace. Before elaborating their cases, it should be noted that even if we attribute some lapses to the Prophets, they are not sins in the meaning of disobedience to God’s Commandments. The Prophets tended to wait for Revelation when they had a question to judge. On rare occasions, however, it happened that they would exercise their own power of reasoning in order to give a judgment as they were the greatest of mujtahids (jurists of the highest rank who can deduce laws from the principles established by the Qur’an and the Sunnah). They might sometimes have erred in their judgments or decisions, but such errors, which were immediately corrected by God, can never be regarded as sins.
Secondly, the Prophets always sought God’s good pleasure in every instant of their lives and tried to obtain what was the best in a matter. If they had rarely missed the best but still caught what was better, this should not be regarded as a sin. For example, suppose a man has to make a choice: whether he will recite the whole of the Qur’an in ten days and give due attention to each verse, or he will finish the recitation in seven days in order to express his deep love of the Word of God. If that man takes the first option without knowing that God’s greater pleasure lies in the second, he will obviously not be regarded as having committed a sin. So, a Prophet’s preference of what is better instead of the best is not a sin, but because of his position before Him, God might sometimes reproach him mildly.
The infallibility of the Prophets is an established fact based on reason and tradition.
Reason requires the infallibility of the Prophets, upon them all be peace, because:
As already explained, the Prophets came to convey to people the Message of God. If we liken this Message or the Divine Revelation to light or pure water, as the Qur’an itself does (al-Ra’d, 13. 17; al-Nur, 24.35), it is absolutely necessary and indispensable to the nature of the Revelation that both the Archangel Gabriel who brought the Revelation, and the Prophet himself who conveyed it to people, should be absolutely pure. Otherwise, that Divine light, the Revelation, would have been extinguished or dimmed, or that ‘pure water’ polluted. Every falling off is an impurity, a dark spot, in the heart. Like Gabriel, the heart or soul of the Prophet is like a ‘polished mirror’ through which the Divine Revelation is reflected to people, or a ‘cup’ from which people quench their thirst for that pure ‘Divine water’. Any black spot on the mirror would absorb a ray of that light; a single drop of mud would be enough to make the water unclear. This would mean that the Prophets did not – God forbid such a thought! – convey the whole of God’s Message. Whereas, in truth, they performed their duty perfectly and left nothing of the Message not conveyed. This is clear from the following verses of the Qur’an:
O Messenger! Convey what has been sent to you from your Lord. If you did not, you would not have fulfilled His mission. And God will defend you from people. Certainly, God guides not the unbelieving people. (al-Ma’ida, 5.67)
Today I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My favour upon you, and I have chosen and approved for you Islam as religion. (al-Ma’ida, 5.3)
Secondly, people learn from the Prophets all the commandments and principles concerning belief and conduct. In order that people should learn these commandments in their pristine purity and truth and as perfectly as possible to secure their happiness and prosperity in both worlds, the Prophets must, first, represent, and, then, present them without any faults or defects, for they are guides and good examples for people to follow, as explicitly stated in the Qur’an:
You have indeed in the Messenger of God a beautiful pattern, an excellent example, for anyone who aspires after God and the Last Day, and who engages much in the remembrance of God. (al-Ahzab, 33.21)
There is for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him – there was indeed in them an excellent example for you – for those who aspire after God and the Last Day. (al-Mumtahana, 60. 4,6)
Despite his utmost care not to do anything contrary to Islam and not even to say a single word which is not sanctioned by God, if a Prophet were to utter an untrue word, he would repent for a life-time, or even longer. It is narrated that the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, will direct to Moses those who will appeal to him to intercede for them on the Day of Judgment saying he cannot as he spoke allusively three times in his life.1 Although it is not a sin to make an ‘indirect’ reference to the truth when it is more appropriate rather than being direct, Abraham’s repentance of his three allusions will continue in the Hereafter.
Thirdly, the Qur’an commands believers to obey all the orders or prohibitions of the Prophet without exception, and emphasizes that: it is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Messenger, to have any option about their decision (al-Ahzab, 33.36). It also warns believers that what falls to them when God and His Messenger have given a judgment is only to say, ‘We have heard and obeyed’ (al-Nur, 24.51). Absolute obedience to a Prophet means that the Prophet is right in all his commands and prohibitions.
Prophethood is so great a favor that all the Prophets bore unbearable pains in fulfilling the duty of thanksgiving and were always worried about not having worshipped God sufficiently. The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, often implored God using the following words:
Glory be to You, we have not been able to know You as Your knowledge requires, O Known One.
Glory be to You, we have not been able to worship You as Your worship requires, O Worshipped One.
The Qur’anic verses which are sometimes mistakenly understood to reprimand certain Prophets for some faults of theirs, or to mean the Prophets seek God’s forgiveness for some sin of theirs, should be considered from this point of view. Besides, God’s forgiveness does not always mean that a sin has been committed. The Qur’anic words of ‘afw – ‘pardon’, and maghfirah – ‘forgiveness’, also mean ‘special favor and kindness and Divine dispensation in respect to the lightening or the overlooking of a religious duty’, as in the following verses:
If any is forced (to eat of them) by hunger, with no inclination towards transgression, God is indeed Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (al-Ma’ida, 5.3)
If... you find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands. For God is All-Pardoning and Oft-Forgiving. (al-Nisa’, 4.43)
Fifthly, sins and pardon have different degrees:
- Sins committed by not obeying the religious commandments, and the forgiveness thereof;
- Sins committed by disobeying God’s laws of creation and life, and the forgiveness thereof;
- Sins in respect of behaving against the rules of good manners or courtesy (adab), and the forgiveness thereof.
A fourth type which is not a sin, is doing something good but not the best, a failure in doing perfectly what is required by the love of, and nearness to, God. This is what some of the Prophets may have done, so it is not a sin in our normal usage of the word for something deserving of Divine punishment.
Tradition also proves the Prophets’ infallibility.
God says in the Qur’an concerning the Prophet Moses:
I cast love over you from Me (and made you comely and loveable) in order that you might be brought up under My eye. (Ta Ha, 20.39)
The Prophet Moses, upon him be peace, was brought up by God Himself and prepared for the mission of Messengership. Therefore, it is inconceivable that he may have committed a sin at any time in his life.
The same is true of all the other Prophets. For example, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, says of Jesus: Satan could not touch Jesus and his mother at his birth. Jesus was protected from birth until his elevation to the Presence of God, as we also read in the Qur’an:
(Mary) pointed to him [the babe}. They said: ‘How can we talk to one who is an infant in the cradle?’ He (Jesus) said: ‘I am indeed a servant of God: He has given me the Scripture and made me a Prophet. And He has made me blessed wheresoever I be, and enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He has made me kind to my mother, and not over-bearing or a wretched rebel. So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I will be raised up to life again.’ (Maryam, 19.29-33)
Jesus, like all the other Prophets, was protected from all kinds of sin from his birth. God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, intended in his childhood to attend two wedding ceremonies at different times but, on each occasion, he was overpowered by sleep which prevented him from attending.2 Likewise, in his youth he helped his uncles with the restoration of the Ka‘ba by carrying stones. Since the stones hurt his shoulders, his uncle, ‘Abbas, advised him to hoist the garment covering the lower part of his body, onto his shoulder to carry the stones on. He just did what he was advised to do, leaving some of the upper part of his legs uncovered, when he fell on his back with his eyes staring fixedly. An angel appeared and warned him that what he had done was improper, saying: ‘This is not befitting for you.’3 For the day was to come when he would order people to be well-mannered and observe Divinely ordained standards of conduct, including covering the thighs.
God’s Messenger says that all the children of Adam make faults and err, and the best of those who make faults and err are the repentant.4 This implies that man is fallible by nature, but it does not mean that all of mankind are ‘condemned’ to erring howsoever. Whether by God’s Will and special protection or, as will be explained below, by His showing the way to be free from errors or sins, even the greatest of saints who continue the Prophetic mission of guiding people may be infallible to some degree.
God promises to protect the believers who fear Him, and to endow them with sound judgment to enable them to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and between right and wrong:
O you who believe! If you fear God, He will establish in you a Criterion (to judge between right and wrong), purify you of all your evils, and forgive you. God is of grace unbounded. (al-Anfal, 8.29)
God made a covenant with the believers that if they obey Him, assist His cause and strive to exalt His Word, by proclaiming His religion, He will help them and make their feet firm in the religion, protecting them against all kinds of deviation (Muhammad, 47.7). God’s protection of believers from their enemies and against committing sins has been made dependent on their support of Islam and struggle to spread it all over the world so that only God is worshipped and no partners are associated with Him either in belief or worship or the creation and rule of the universe. If believers fulfill their covenant with God, God will fulfill His covenant with them (al-Baqara, 2.40). If, by contrast, they break their promise, God will not make them successful (al-Isra’,17.8).
God protects His servants against sins in different ways. He may put some obstacles in their way to sins so they do not sin, or He may establish a ‘warner’ in their hearts, or, if all the other means prove of no use, He may cause, for example, their legs to be broken or their hands unable to hold or grasp. Or He may warn one by putting a verse in his mouth, as He did with a young man during the Caliphate of ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him.
The young man was so strict and attentive in his worship that he performed all his prayers in the mosque. A woman lived on his way to the mosque and tried her hardest for several days to seduce him into making love with her. Although the young man resisted her alluring gestures, the moment came when he took a few steps towards the woman’s house. Just at this point, he felt he was reciting this verse:
Those who fear God, when a thought of evil from Satan assaults them, bring God to remembrance, and lo! they see (aright). (al-A’raf, 7.201)
In the face of this Divine warning, the young man was so ashamed before God of what he was about to do, and felt so overwhelmed by his Compassionate Lord’s preventing him from committing a sin, that he died. When ‘Umar was informed of the incident a few days later, he went to his grave and shouted: ‘O young man. For him who fears the time when he will stand before his Lord, there will be two gardens!’ (al-Rahman, 55.46). A voice from the grave, whether belonging to the young man himself or an angel on his behalf, replied: ‘O Commander of the Believers: God has granted me the double of what you say!’5
This is God’s protection of His sincere servants. He says in one of His Revelations outside the Qur’an:
My servant cannot draw near to me through something else more lovable to Me than the obligations I have enjoined upon him. Apart from those obligations, he continues to draw near to Me through supererogatory acts of worship, until I love him. When I love him, I will be his ears with which he hears, his eyes with which he sees, his hands with which he grasps, and his feet on which he walks. If he asks Me something, I will immediately give it to him; if he seeks refuge in Me from something, I will protect him from it.6
God guides His true servant to good and protects him from all kinds of evil. The servant wills and does what is good and refrains from wickedness. He asks God what is good and whatever he asks is provided for him; he seeks refuge in God from what is bad, and whatever he seeks refuge in God from, he is protected against it.
All the Prophets were infallible. They never committed a sin, minor or major, and their lives were spent doing virtuous deeds. Although God sent numerous Prophets to mankind, the Qur’an specifically mentions only twenty-eight of them. I think it will be proper here to count them in the words of Ibrahim Haqqi, an eighteenth-century Turkish saint and religious scholar, who was also an expert in anatomy and astronomy:
Some have regarded it a religious injunction to learn the names of the Prophets.
God informed us of twenty-eight of them in the Qur’an:
Adam, Enoch, Noah, Hud and Salih;
Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, who is a sacrifice for God.
Jacob, Joseph, Shu‘ayb, Lot and John the Baptist;
Zachariah and Aaron, who is the brother of Moses, who spoke to God.
David, Solomon, Elijah and Job;
Elisha, a kin of Jesus, who was a spirit from God.
Dhul-Kifl and Jonah, who is certainly a Prophet.
The seal of them is the Beloved of God – Muhammad, Messenger of God.
They disagree on the Prophethood of Ezra, Luqman and Dhul-Qarnayn.
Some regard them as Prophets, while others as saints of God.
1. Muslim, “Kitab al-Iman,” 326.
2. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, 2.350–1.
3. Bukhari, “Kitab al-Hajj,” 42; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, 2.350.
4. Tirmidhi, “Kitab al-Qiyama,” 49; Ibn Majah, “Zuhd,” 30.
5. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir 3.539.
6. Bukhari, “Kitab ar-Riqaq” 38; Ibn Hanbal, 6.256.