If the Prophet Was Infallible Why Did He Ask for Forgiveness?

Answered by Ustadh Tabraze Azam

Question: Assalaam alaikum , I have read your articles on sinlessness of prophet(peace be upon him). My doubt is regarding the commentary of surah 47 verse 19 from Ibn Kathir [english translation on the net].
The Translation: Know, then, that there is no god except Allah,AND ASK FORGIVENSS FOR YOUR SIN and for the believing men and believing women.

In the Sahih, it is recorded that Allah’s Messenger used to say,

 اللْهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لِي خَطِيئَتِي وَجَهْلِي وَإِسْرَافِي فِي أَمْرِي وَمَا أَنْتَ أَعْلَمُ بِهِ مِنِّي، اللْهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لِي هَزْلِي وَجِدِّي، وَخَطَئِي وَعَمْدِي، وَكُلُّ ذلِكَ عِنْدِي

(O Allah, forgive MY SIN[Khatiyat], MY IGNORANCE, MY IMMODERATION in my affairs, and all that You know better about MY FAULTS than myself. O Allah, forgive for me my JOKING, MY SERIOUSNESS,MY UNINTENDED ERROR, and MY DELIBERATE MISTAKES – and I HAVE DONE ALL OF THAT.)

It is also reported in the Sahih that he used to say at the end of the prayer,

 اللْهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لِي مَا قَدَّمْتُ وَمَا أَخَّرْتُ، وَمَا أَسْرَرْتُ وَمَا أَعْلَنْتُ، وَمَا أَسْرَفْتُ، وَمَا أَنْتَ أَعْلَمُ بِهِ مِنِّي، أَنْتَ إِلهِي لَا إِلهَ إِلَّا أَنْت 

(O Allah, forgive for me what I have previously done, what I may commit in future, what I have committed secretly, what I have committed openly, what I have done excessively, and all sins that You know better than me. You are my God. There is no (true) God except You.)
Did Ibn Kathir really write that or is this   another forgery by a publication house to prove that the Prophet (peace be upon him) committed mistakes, sins, and had faults?
Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
I pray that you are in the best of health and faith, insha’Allah.
Yes, Ibn Kathir did include these supplications of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). However, this does not negate his (Allah bless him and give him peace) infallibility or that of the other Messengers (Allah bless them and give them all peace).
The definition of trustworthiness (amana) is: “Allah’s protection of the inward and outward of the Prophets from committing something prohibited, even if only disliked, and even during their childhood. And this is termed `isma (being preserved from sin).” [al-Dardir, Sharh al-Kharida al-Bahiyya]
The belief of Ahl al-Sunna is that the Prophets (Allah bless them and give them all peace) are protected from major and minor sins, before and after prophethood.
The Traditions of the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) Asking for Forgiveness
There are many traditions (hadith) which contain supplications of the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in which he asks Allah for forgiveness; likewise, we have numerous traditions in which he (Allah bless him and give him peace) tells us of his constant repentance to his Lord.
For example, Abu Huraira related that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “By Allah, I ask forgiveness of Allah and I turn in repentance to Him more than seventy times a day.” [Bukhari]
Ibn `Allan states, “Herein is a motivation for the community (umma) to repent and seek forgiveness because he (Allah bless him and give him peace), despite being Divinely protected from sin and the best of creation, was repentant and sought forgiveness seventy times daily. And his (Allah bless him and give him peace) seeking forgiveness was not from sin, rather it was from his considering himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) deficient in his slavehood in relation to that which the Divine Presence demanded.” [Ibn `Allan, Dalil al-Falihin] And he (Allah bless him and give him peace) considered a sin anything that could potentially distract him from complete and perfect presence with the Divine.
As for the report mentioned by Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir, it too is found in Bukhari’s Sahih wherein it is related that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to say, “O Lord, forgive me my errors and ignorance and my prodigality in my affair and what You know best of me in it. O Allah, forgive me what I do in jest and what I do seriously my errors, and what I do intentionally. All of that is with me.”
Here Imam Munawi, author of the brilliant Fayd al-Qadir Sharh Jami` al-Saghir, comments: “i.e. ‘All of that is possible (i.e. present), so forgive me for it.’ He said this out of humility, or intending it for that which happened forgetfully or unintentionally, or before prophethood, or simply to set a precedent for his community.”
The Verse Commanding to Seek Forgiveness
Allah Most High says, “So [Prophet], bear in mind that there is no god but God, and ask forgiveness for your sins and for the sins of believing men and women. God knows whenever any of you move, and whenever any of you stay still.” [47.19]
Abu al-Su`ud Effendi was one of the Grand Muftis of the Ottoman Empire, and a master exegete of the Qur’an producing one of the finest works in the field, Irshad al-`Aql al-Salim ila Mazaya al-Kitab al-Karim. At the relevant part of the verse above, he comments that this was perhaps from that which was sub-optimal for the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and that Allah referred to it as a “sin” in view of his exalted rank. How could it be otherwise when the good deeds of the righteous (abrar) are sins of those brought near (muqarrabin)!
Biqa`i mentioned that because the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) was continually rising in degrees to higher stations, the previous, lower station in relation to the higher station was akin to a sin with respect to him. And others have said that his seeking forgiveness was simply to establish a sunna for his community as he (Allah bless him and give him peace) was free and exalted from sin. [Biqa`i, Nazm al-Durar fi Tanasub al-Ayat wa al-Suwar; al-Suyuti/al-Mahlli, Tafsir al-Jalalayn]
May Allah give us the tawfiq to show due veneration to our Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and all of the Prophets and Messengers (Allah bless them and give them all peace), and recognize their exalted rank as perfected slaves of Allah.
See also: How do We Understand the Sinlessness of Prophets in Light of Their Reprimand in the Qur’an? and: How Are the Prophets Protected from Error and Sin? and: Are the Prophets Protected from Sin?
And Allah alone gives success.
Tabraze Azam
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani