How Are the Prophets Protected from Error and Sin?

Answered by Shaykh Gibril F Haddad

Question: I come from a Christian background and so I was raised to think of the prophets (except for Jesus) as capable of sin. And I actually don’t think that it would be so terrible if occasionally some of the prophets said “Do as I say, not as I do”. But I think my real difficulty with the issue is that it seems like I’ve often heard the claim that there is agreement (ijma) that all the prophets are protected from sin to some degree but 1) I’m not sure of what the limits are of that protection. And I’m not sure where this principle is found in the Quran and sunnah. Can you please clarify?

Answer: Wa `alaykum as-Salam,

Ibn al-Juwayni (Imam al-Haramayn) said in al-Irshad (p. 298-299):

“As for sins that are considered small, according to specificity as we shall explain, the minds do not deny them [as possible for Prophets]. I did not come upon a categorically explicit transmitted proof either negating them or asserting them [as possible]. For explicitly categorical proofs come either from explicit texts (nusus) or from consensus (ijma’) and there is no consensus [either], since the ulema differ over the possibility of small sins for Prophets. The explicit, unambiguous or un-interpretable texts that would categorically establish the principles pertaining to this issue are simply not found. So if it is said that since the matter is conjectural, what is the strongest conjecture in the matter in your opinion? We say: Our strongest conjecture is that they are possible. The stories of the Prophets in many a verse of the Book of Allah Most High bear witness to that [conjecture]. But Allah knows best what is right.”

Imam al-Ghazzali said the same in substance in al-Mankhul (p. 223), a youthful work consisting of his class-notes from Imam al-Haramayn.

But Imam Taj al-Din al-Subki said in his Qasida Nuniyya:

“They said Allah precludes small sins from Prophets

and in our [Ash’ari] School are two positions.

“Preclusion is narrated from the Master(*) and al-Qadi

`Iyad, and it is the strongest position.

“It is the position I take and was that of my father

[cf. Taqi al-Din al-Subki, al-Ibhaj 2:263],

exempting their rank from any defect.

“Al-Ash’ari is our Imam but in this we differ with him

one and all.

“And we say that we are on his path but his companions

are split in two parties over the matter.

“Some Ash’aris even said Prophets are completely free

of forgetfulness.

“Yet all are considered al-Ash’ari’s followers. This

dissent does not expel them from that status.”

(*) The Master = Abu Mansur `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, author of Usul al-Din, al-Farq Bayn al-Firaq, and other important works of doctrine.

Source: Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al-Kubra (3:387-388).

So the conjecture of Imam al-Haramayn (d. 478) and his student Hujjat al-Islam (d. 505) was NOT retained by later Ash’aris nor earlier ones other than al-Ash’ari himself. Instead, the majority of the ulema including the Imams of the Four Schools of Law followed what they considered to be the stronger position, namely that Prophets are protected even from small sins.

Thus al-Amidi said in al-Ihkam (1:171) that all but the Khawarij concur Prophets are protected from the minor sins if the latter bear on their character. If, however, it comes to a rare word spoken out of anger, then the majority of the Ash’aris and Mu’tazilis allow it.

Qadi `Iyad in al-Shifa’ said that the Jumhur of the Jurists from the schools of Malik, al-Shafi`i, and Abu Hanifa, agree that the Prophets are protected from all minor sins because one is required to follow them in the minutest matters. It is even reported from Malik that this is obligatory to believe.

Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini’s (d. 418) position was that no sin great or small issues from Prophets whether deliberately or by mistake and this is also our position.” (Taj al-Din al-Subki Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al-Wusta as cited in the Kubra (4:260)).

Imam al-Zarqani said in his monumental commentary on al-Qastallani’s al-Mawahib al-Laduniyya (5:361) [Al-Qastallani’s original text is in parentheses):

<<(And among his Mu’jizaat [stunning miracles] is that he is immune from sins) before Prophethood and after it (both great and small, both by deliberate commission and by mistake) according to the soundest view, outwardly and inwardly, in secret and in public, in earnest and in jest, in contentment and in anger. And how not, when the Companions were unanimous in following him and faithfully imitating him in all his acts? (As were the Prophets) Al-Subki said: “The Umma concurs on the true immunity (‘isma) of Prophets, in what pertains to conveyance and other, from grave and small, contemptible sins as well as persistence in small sins but there is disagreement over small sins that do not detract from their rank. The Mu’tazila and many others allow them. The preferred view is that they are precluded because we have been ordered to follow them in what issues from them; how then could something inappropriate occur on their part? As for those that deemed it possible, they did not do so on the basis of any textual stipulation or proof.” That is, they only clang to externalities which, if they followed their logical conclusions, would lead them to violate consensus and take positions no Muslim takes, as expounded by `Iyad [in al-Shifa’].>>

They concurred that a necessary attribute of Prophets is absolute trustworthiness (amana):

“And essential for them [Prophets] is absolute trustworthiness”

(Jawharat al-Tawhid, verse 59)

which necessitates true immunity (‘isma) or from haram, makruh, and inappropriate acts, speech, or thoughts (khilaf al-awla) (and even some of the mubah or indifferently permitted) except for a necessity of legislating a law, because Allah Most High made them our qidwa – obligatory paradigmatic model to follow without exception – and He does not want us to follow any haram, makruh, and inappropriate acts, speech, or thoughts.

{Verily in the messenger of Allah ye have a good example for him who looketh unto Allah and the last Day, and remembereth Allah much} (33:21).

Further, Allah Most High praised and literally exalted the Prophet’s character in no uncertain terms:

{And lo! thou art of a tremendous nature} (68:4).

The apparent counter-examples found in the Qur’an all without exception have interpretations that confirm the over-riding principles derived from the above verses and the conclusions of the majority of scholars (jumhur) I have just documented. For example, our liege-lord Adam’s disobedience (upon him peace) meant forgetfulness, or he was given Prophethood after he was forgiven. The consensus is that Prophets were sinless but were not necessarily created so nor made so from the very beginning of their Prophetic mission.

Yet such verses are a mercy from Allah Most High and His confirmation of other verses to the effect that the Holy Prophet is one of mankind, not an angel, and so were previous Prophets, so that mankind will have no excuse such as the claim that he and they were impossible to imitate or understand etc. – and Allah Most High knows best.

As for the question whether protection (‘isma) from sin is the absence of volition, i.e. that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, “could not” rather than “would not” sin and that he was devoid of free will in this regard, this is incorrect. We may describe isma in terms of Wilaya, Nubuwwa, Wahi, Tawfiq, Hifz, and others but not as absence of free will. And Allah knows best.

The closest text to this issue is probably the following explanation of the hadith of the removal of the black clot from the heart of the Prophet, upon him peace. I came across this beautiful passage in Ibn al-Subki’s Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al- Kubra (10:266-267):

“I heard my father – Allah have mercy on him – say, when he was asked about the black clot that was removed / from the heart of the Prophet – Allah bless and greet him in his childhood, at the time of the splitting of his breast, and the statement of the angel to him, ‘This is Satan’s lot from you (hadha hazhzh al-shaytani minka)’:

<<This clot Allah created in the hearts of human beings as naturally fit (qabilatan) for whatever Satan casts into it and it was removed from his heart – Allah bless and greet him – so that no place remained in it fit for anything Satan could cast. This is the meaning of the hadith. There was no lot for Satan in the Prophet whatsoever. What the angel threw out was only a matter present in all human constitutions. That capacity was removed but its presence did not [in the first place] necessitate that anything had been cast into the heart. If you asked, “Why was that capacity created in that noble person when it was possible to create it without it?” I say, Because it is part of the human constituents. So its creation is part of the completion of human creation and is indispensable, while its removal is a Divine command that took place later on.>>

“I saw in the hand-writing of my brother, our Shaykh the Imam Abu Hamid Ahmad, Allah save him, that he saw my father in dream on top of a high mountain lush with magnificent gardens. In my brother’s hand was a lantern by the light of which he was reading to my father the text of the above discussion. He then thought that the lantern had gone out and began to repeat to my father, ‘The lantern is out’, several times. My father raised his head and told him, ‘No’. My brother looked and saw that it was as my father said; ‘But,’ he said, ‘there were lights on my father many times stronger than the light of the lantern and this is why I had thought it went out. In my sleep it came to my heart that those lights were because of the blessings of this research.'” End of the text from Ibn al-Subki.

The writer of these lines heard another moving explanation of the black clot removal related from the great Imam Ahmad Rida Khan, namely, that the clot consisted in the portion of the disbelievers at whose eternal doom, had it not been removed, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) would have felt unbearable mercy on the Day of Judgment because he was created and sent as a mercy for the universes. Even so, the Prophet shall include them in his intercession at the time all creatures stand in wait under the sun for the Judgment to begin! So Blessings and peace on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions until the end of time and for all eternity.

The purification of the heart of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, as a young boy is also a proof that he received `Isma even before his Nubuwwa, and Allah knows best.

See on this topic, in addition to the above sources:

– Al-Razi, `Ismat al-Anbiya’ (`Ilmiyya p. 28, top)

– Al-Laqani, Jawharat al-Tawhid verse 59.

– Al-Laqani, Ithaf al-Murid (p. 179-180).

– Al-Bajuri, Sharh al-Jawhara.

– Al-Sawi, Sharh al-Jawhara (p. 280).

– Al-Rifa`i, al-Ma`rifa (p. 77-78).

– Al-Hashimi, Miftah al-Janna (p. 204)

– Nuh `Ali Salman, Sharh al-Jawhara (p. 124-125).

– Al-Maliki, Muhammad (sallAllahu `alayhi wa-Sallam) al-Insanu al-Kamil

– Siraj al-Din, Sayyiduna Muhammad (sallAllahu `alayhi wa-Sallam), etc.

See also al-Shatibi’s Muwafaqat (3:265).

And Allah knows best.

As a general note unrelated to this particular question, it is advisable not to approach the status of Prophethood with inquiries except with the highest good manners. Prophets are the elect of the Creator and like or above the angels in rank. We should take care, also, to focus on what is vital to our salvation and relinquish pursuits that are not only irrelevant but actually damaging to faith and works.

Hajj Gibril