Infallibility of Prophets (عصمة الأنبياء`Ismat al-Anbiya)


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 `ismat, 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’ (f’asta`sama) 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’ (`atasimoo) (against being divided) by, the rope of God (Ali `Imran, 3.103). Again, we see the same word in the verse, God will ‘defend (protect)’ (y`asimuka) 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:

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