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Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
Published on 19th November, 2002

Sinlessness of the Prophets ('s)

By Allamah Sayyed Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i (1892-1981)

'Ismah - Sinlessness

Ismah which is generally translated as "sinlessness", literally means 'protection'. The 'protection' with which we are concerned here, is of three kinds:

  1. Protection from error in receiving the revelation

  2. Protection from error in communicating and imparting that revelation to the people, and

  3. Protection from sins. Sin here means any thing or action which goes against the obligatory command of Allah, and thus becomes a disgrace for the man. In other words, any word or action which is against the dictates of the servitude, homage and devoutness of man towards his Lord

'Ismah in religious terminology means the presence, in the man concerned, of a quality which protects him from committing any thing unlawful, any error or sin.

So far as 'ismah from extraneous things (i.e. other than receiving revelation and its communication, and sins) is concerned for example, mistakes in perception by any of the five senses, or misjudging the benefit or harm of a medicine, food or other such thing, etc. - it is not relevant to this verse which we are now discussing.

Anyhow, the Qur'an definitely proves that every prophet was masum (sinless, protected from mistakes,) in all the above-mentioned three aspects.

'Ismah from error in receiving the revelation and in its communication to the people: The following sentences, in the verse under discussion, prove these two aspects: so Allah sent the prophets, as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and He sent down with them the book with the truth, so that it might judge between the people in that in which they had differed. And none differed about it but the very people who were given it, after clear signs had come to them, revolting among themselves; whereupon Allah guided, by His will, those who believed to the truth about which they differed.

These words show that Allah sent them to bring the good tidings and to warn; and sent the book with them (and this was the "revelation"), so that they might guide the people to true belief and true deeds. This was the aim and object of Allah in appointing the prophets.

And He says:

 ......errs not my Lord, nor does He forget.  
(20:52) 

It proves that Allah errs not in His action, and makes no mistakes in His affairs; when He wills a thing, He wills it in its proper way which creates the desired effect without fail; when He proceeds with a work, the result is produced without any mistake. It is as it should be, because in His hand is creation and command, and for Him is power and judgment. And He sends prophets by revealing to them the true knowledge of religion and teaching it to them and without fail it must be so; of necessity the prophets must receive and understand the revelation correctly; and He sends them to communicate that revelation to their people, and without fail it must be so; without any error or mistake they must communicate it as Allah has willed. 

Allah says:

  Surely Allah attains His purpose; 
Allah indeed has made a measure for everything
(65:3)

.....and Allah is predominant over His affair

(12:21)

Another verse which proves these two types of 'ismah is as follows:

The Knower of the Unseen; 
so He does not reveal His secrets to any except to him whom He chooses for an apostle; 
for surely He makes a guard to march before him and after him, 
so that He may know that they have indeed delivered the messages of their Lord, 
and He encompasses what is with them and He takes account of everything. 
(72:26-28) 

It is clear that Allah reserves His revelation for His messengers, so He reveals His secrets to them and supports them by guarding them from in front of them and behind them and encompasses what is with them to protect the revelation from decay and alteration, whether that alteration comes from Satan or others and it is done to make sure that they have indeed correctly delivered the messages of their Lord. 

Another verse reports the words of the angels of revelation: 

...and we do not come down but by the command of your Lord; 
His is whatever is before us and whatever is behind us and whatever is between these; 
and your Lord is not forgetful

(19:64) 

These verses prove that the revelation right from the start of its descent, to its reaching down to the prophets and up to its communication and delivery to the people is duly protected and guarded against change and alteration, from whatever source it might come.

These two verses prove the 'ismah of the prophets in receiving and delivering the revelation only; but they may also be used, with the addition of one rational premises, to prove their 'ismah from sins. For an average man, actions speaks as loudly as, if not louder than, words. If someone does a certain thing, his action proves that in his eyes that work is good and lawful; it is as if he was announcing its legality and virtue in so many words. If a prophet committed a sin, while he forbade it to his people, it would mean that he was preaching two contradictory things: his action allowed a thing, while his words forbade it. Thus he would be preaching two things contradictory to each other. And preaching contradictory things is against the preaching of truth, because one order would belie and invalidate the other. One who reports two contradictory items cannot be said to be reporting the truth. Therefore, 'ismah of the prophet in delivering the message of Allah totally depends upon his 'ismah from the sins.

There are many other verses which prove 'ismah of the prophets in all its aspects:

(a) These are they whom Allah has guided; 
therefore, follow their guidance.
 
(6:90)

All the prophets were decidedly guided by Allah. And Allah says: 

and whomsoever Allah lets go astray, there is no guide for him; 
and whom Allah guides, there is none that can lead him astray; 
is not Allah Mighty, the Lord of retribution? 
(39:36-37) 

Also He says:

 ...whomsoever Allah guides, he is the rightly guided one.  
(18:17)

According to these verses those who are guided by Allah can never be led astray by any misleading agency. In other words, they are free from all misguidance; and every sin is a misguidance, as is shown by the words of Allah,

Did I not enjoin on you, O children of Adam! that you should not worship the, Satan? 
Surely he is your open enemy, and that you should worship Me; 
this is the right way. And certainly he led astray a great multitude from among you. 
What! could not then understand?
 
(36:60-62)

In this verse, Allah counts every sin as going astray, a misguidance as a result of the agency of Satan; at the same time regarding it as the worship of Satan. Looking at all the above verses we find that Allah guided all the prophets by His guidance. Anyone guided by Allah's guidance can never be misled, can never go astray. Every sin is a misguidance; every sin is straying from the right path.

It follows that the prophets of Allah were sinless, free from every sin and protected from every mistake in receiving and delivering the revelation of Allah.

(b) And whoever obeys Allah and the Apostle 
these are with those upon whom Allah has bestowed the favours of the prophets 
and the truthful and the martyrs and the righteous ones; 
and excellent are these as companions!
 
(4:69)

Also He says:

  Keep us on the right path, the path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favours, 
not (the path) of those inflicted with Thy wrath, nor (of those) gone astray

(1:5-7)

The prophets are described as of those upon whom Allah has bestowed His favours; and those upon whom Allah's favours have been bestowed are other than those who have gone astray. It means that the prophets never went astray. If they had commit­ted a sin, they would have gone astray (as explained above). Also, if they had committed any error or mistake in receiving or com­municating the revelation, they would have gone astray. Therefore, the two verses together prove the 'ismah of the prophets in all these aspects.

(c) These are they on whom Allah bestowed favours, of the prophets of the posterity of Adam, 
and of those whom We carried with Nuh, and of the posterity of Ibrahim and Israel, 
and of those whom We guided and chose. 
When the signs of the Beneficent (God) were recited to them, they fell down prostrating (in obeisance) and weeping. 
But there followed after them an evil generation, who neglected prayer and followed sensual desires, 
so they shall soon meet (the result of their) sin.
 
(19:58-59)

Two Virtues to the Prophets

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This verse attributes two virtues to the prophets: first, the bestowing of favours (upon whom He bestowed favours); second, guidance (whom We guided and chose). Then it goes on praising them for the highest degree of obedience, devoutness and humility before Allah. Afterwards, it condemns the unworthy following generation for their evil traits. Obviously, we see here two opposite groups: one, the praiseworthy ones deserving to be honoured by Allah; the other, the condemned ones. This second group has been described as those who followed sensual desires and who will soon see the result of their sins. It clearly means that the first group, i.e. the prophets, did not follow their desires and will not be overtaken by sin. Such sincere servants of Allah could not commit any sin, even before their appointment as prophets. Had they committed any sin even before their receiving prophethood, they would have surely come under the condemnation, neglected prayer and followed sensual desires, so they shall soon meet (the result of their) sin. But, as we explained, theirs is a group of diametrically opposite to the condemned ones.

This Qur'anic proof is somewhat similar to the rational proof given for the 'ismah of the prophets, which is as follows:

The sending of the prophets and the showing of miracles in their hands is the confirmation of their words. It means that they cannot tell a lie. Also, it is an endorsement that they have the ability to communicate the message of Allah to their people. But a man who indulges in sins and such actions as would harm a pro­ject, cannot be said to be qualified to preach the usefulness of that project or to invite the people to participate in it. Therefore, when Allah showed miracles in the hands of the prophets it not only authenticated their claim of prophethood, but also confirmed that they could not commit error in receiving and delivering the divine revelation, and that they faithfully obeyed all the commands of Allah and desisted from all such things which were disliked by Allah. In other words, they were sinless in all its aspects.

Question 1: 

h

Question: All intelligent people take help, in all varieties of social needs and communications, from those who may discharge their duties to a certain extent, even if their delivery of the message or their performance in that social work is not quite perfect. What is wrong if Him sends prophets who are capable of doing His work to a certain extent, even if occasionally they indulged in sin?

Reply 1: 

Reply: Men overlook such defects in their agents for one of two reasons: either they do not mind a little shortcoming and deficiency, or their Him is to get only that amount of service which the agent is qualified for.

But both these alternatives are unacceptable for a divine scheme. These alternatives show the deficiency and shortcoming of not only the agents but also of the principal. Allah cannot be like us mortals.
.
An Objection: 

Allah says:

...why should not then a company from every party from among them go forth
 that they may acquire (proper) understanding in religion, 
and that they may warn their people when they come back to them, 
so that they may be cautious?
 
(9:122)

Here Allah has entrusted Muslim scholars with the task of warning their people. And those scholars are not sinless.

Reply: 

Muslim scholars (admittedly not sinless) have been allowed by this verse to communicate to their people what they have learned about religion. It does not say that Allah confirms their words of warning, nor that their words are recognized by Allah as a divine proof over people. It is this divine confirmation and recognition which is the basic characteristic of prophethood, not mere warning.

(d) And We did not send any apostle but that he should be obeyed by Allah's permission . . . 
(4:64)

The aim of sending an apostle is that he be obeyed, and the verse confines the aim to only this one thing. People should obey the apostle in both his words and actions, because preaching is done in both ways. And both these aspects of obedience are covered by Allah's permission. If an apostle erred in understanding the revelation or in its delivery, it would still be Allah's will, according to this verse, that people should obey and follow him. But Allah only permits truth. How can His permission be related to an error or mistake? Thus, it is clear that an apostle cannot err in receiving or delivering a revelation. Likewise, if an apostle were to commit a sin, in words or actions, an impossible situation would arise. Sin is disliked by Allah, forbidden by Him. But the verse enjoins people to obey and follow their apostle. Thus that same sin would, at the same time, be for the people an act of obedience which they would be required to follow and copy. It would mean that Allah had, at one and the same time, willed it and not willed it, ordered it and forbade it; liked it and disliked it! As explained earlier, it would be an impossible order. We do not mean an order to do an im­possible work (which, some do say, can be given by Allah); we mean that giving such an order is in itself an impossibility, because it would be, at one and the same time, an order and a non order, a will and non will, a liking and non liking, a praise and no praise, a condemnation and non condemnation.

(e) so that there may not remain any argument for people against Allah, after the apostles ... 
(4:165)

It is clear that Allah wills to intercept the excuse which people might think of for their sins and disobedience; and that the only way of dismissing such excuse is by sending the apostles to them. The coming of the apostles could cut their excuse short only if the apostles themselves desisted from all those things which Allah does not like be it in word or action. Otherwise, people could easily give their apostles' sins and mistakes as their excuse, and that argu­ment would be valid against Allah. Therefore, if Allah had sent a non masum apostle, He would have defeated His own purpose.

Question 2: 

h

Question: It is accepted that the verses prove that the prophets do not commit any mistake or sin. But this does not prove that they had 'ismah. 'Ismah, as defined by scholars, does not mean merely 'not committing any sin'; it is "a faculty which protects a man from committing any sin or mistake". Doing or not doing a work does not prove that the man concerned possesses the faculty, or characteristic, of that doing or not doing. The verses prove that they did not commit any sin; while to prove 'ismah it should be proved that they could not commit any.

Reply 2:

Reply: What is needed for proving the subject matter of this verse, is only the fact that the prophets did not commit any sin or mistake. And the questioner accepts that the verses prove it.

To prove that this fact was based on a characteristic or faculty of the prophets, look up the subject of 'miracle' in the first volume. There it was shown that the verses:

Surely my Lord is on the straight path  
(11:56)

and Surely Allah attains His purpose; 
Allah indeed has made a measure
for every thing  
(65:3)

These verses prove that everything that happens depends on a cause which brings it into being. Now in the case of a prophet, we see that all his actions throughout his life are invariably correct, proper and in obedience to Him. This firm and unchanging characteristic shows that there must be a faculty in his soul which protects him from committing any sin or mistakes, and causes all his actions to be in accordance with the commands of Allah. And that faculty is 'ismah.

Obedience And Disobedience

h

It is accepted that all actions of a prophet occur by his own will, as do our own actions. But his actions are always in obedience to Him, while our actions are sometimes in obedience and sometimes in disobedience. An action is said to occur by our will when it is based on our knowledge and discretion. Our actions differ in obedience and disobedience because of a difference in the knowledge and will from which they emanate. If our knowledge and will demand to fulfil the dictates of servitude by obeying the divine command, obedience comes into being. If, on the other hand, our knowledge and will prefer the pursuit of pleasure and the satisfaction of lust, then disobedience and sin occur. In short, the difference in the quality of our actions, obedience or disobedience, is caused by the difference in our knowledge and will. Had our knowledge and will remained un­changed throughout our life, all our actions would have been of one type only  either a life long obedience to Allah, or, God forbid, an unbroken chain of sins. As the actions of a prophet are invariably. According to the dictates of piety and in obedience to Him, it follows that the knowledge and will from which his actions emanate are healthy ones, invariably good and virtuous. In other words, it is ingrained in his mind and soul that he must always serve and obey Allah. It is this firmly rooted knowledge which is called a faculty, characteristics or trait, like the faculty of chastity, of bravery, of justice, and so on. When we admit that a prophet always obeys Allah and never commits any sin, we accept that he possesses a spiritual quality or faculty which always keeps him on right path and protects him from sin and mistakes. And that faculty is 'ismah.

Also, we have shown that a prophet does not commit any error or mistake in receiving or delivering the divine revelation. It means that he possesses a spiritual quality which protects him from such mistakes. If we say that a prophet does not have this spiritual faculty or characteristic (while it is known that he does not commit any sin or mistake) then it would mean that this unchanging habit (i.e. always following the divine command and desisting from mistake and sin) is not related to any spiritual or psychological trait of his own in other words, it is caused directly by the will of Allah, and that the prophet has no choice, option or will of his own in his actions; in short his actions are not caused by his knowledge and will. But it is already admitted that the actions of the prophet are based on his knowledge and will just like those of other human beings.

'Ismah comes from Allah. He creates in the prophet a cause from which all his actions emanate - the actions which are done by his own will and are always in obedience to Him and that cause is the firmly rooted knowledge - in other words, the characteristic, trait or faculty.  

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