Published on 19th
Sinlessness of the Prophets
Sayyed Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i (1892-1981)
which is generally translated as
"sinlessness", literally means 'protection'. The
'protection' with which we are concerned here, is of three
Protection from error in receiving the revelation
from error in communicating and imparting that revelation
to the people, and
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
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.
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.
the Qur'an definitely proves that every prophet was masum
(sinless, protected from mistakes,) in all the
above-mentioned three aspects.
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.
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.
not my Lord, nor does He forget.
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.
Surely Allah attains His purpose;
has made a measure for everything
.....and Allah is
predominant over His affair.
verse which proves these two types of 'ismah is as
Knower of the Unseen;
so He does not reveal His secrets to
any except to him whom He chooses for an apostle;
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.
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:
we do not come down but by the command of your Lord;
is whatever is before us and whatever is behind us and
whatever is between these;
and your Lord is not forgetful.
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.
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.
are many other verses which prove 'ismah of the
prophets in all its aspects:
These are they whom Allah has guided;
the prophets were decidedly guided by Allah. And
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
...whomsoever Allah guides, he is the rightly
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,
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?
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
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.
And whoever obeys Allah and the Apostle
these are with
those upon whom Allah has bestowed the favours of the
and the truthful and the martyrs and the
and excellent are these as companions!
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.
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.
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
and of those whom We guided and chose.
signs of the Beneficent (God) were recited to them, they
fell down prostrating (in obeisance) and weeping.
there followed after them an evil generation, who
neglected prayer and followed sensual desires,
shall soon meet (the result of their) sin.
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
Qur'anic proof is somewhat similar to the rational proof
given for the 'ismah of the prophets, which is as
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.
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?
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.
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.
...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,
they may be cautious?
Allah has entrusted Muslim scholars with the task of
warning their people. And those scholars are not sinless.
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.
And We did not send any apostle but that he should be
obeyed by Allah's permission . . .
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.
so that there may not remain any argument for people
against Allah, after the apostles ...
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.
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.
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.
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:
my Lord is on the straight path
Allah attains His purpose;
Allah indeed has made a measure
for every thing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.