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Faith

Was Prophet Muhammad Infallible?

There are differences of opinions on the extent of the infallibility of the Prophet. In this article, we dive into the different views on the Prophet’s ability (or lack of) to commit sins and mistakes.

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There are differences of opinions on the extent of the infallibility of the Prophet. In this article, we dive into the different views on the Prophet’s ability (or lack of) to commit sins and mistakes.

When infallibility is mentioned in Islamic circles, it’s usually in relation to the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In this article, I want to examine exactly what infallibility means and the different views on infallibility. The infallibility of the Prophet is an important area of discussion. This great man is our role model and we strive to imitate his actions. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand whether it was possible for the Prophet to commit mistakes or whether he was entirely error-free.

What does infallibility mean?

Infallibility translates to¬†ismah¬†in Arabic. The literal translation of¬†ismah¬†is protection. In Islamic circles¬†ismah is used to discuss the Prophet’s protection from being able to commit sins therefore scholars will translate ismah to infallibility.

Whoever is given the gift of¬†ismah¬†is known as a masum. The¬†masum¬†is incapable of committing sins. It’s important here to understand what it means to be incapable of committing sins. It does not mean the¬†masum¬†is like a robot programmed by God to never commit sins (whereas we are programmed to have free will and can thus commit sins). The¬†masum also has free will and intentionally chooses to not commit sins.

God gifts¬†ismah¬†to Prophets so that they can lead and guide mankind aright. As part of this gift, God gives the masum¬†an extraordinary ability to understand the reality of sins. A masum¬†has a true inner understanding of the filthiness of sin. They are still free to commit the sin owing to their free will but they won’t out of disgust.

Imagine you see a pile of mud. We can use our free will to roll around and play in it – nothing is stopping us –¬† but our understanding of the filthiness of the action prevents us. An animal or a young infant doesn’t have this understanding, so they may be attracted to play in that mud. Infallibility works in the same way.

When God says:

And do not spy, nor backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of their dead brother?”

(49:12)

A masum can see the effect of backbiting manifesting in front of them whenever they see someone do it (or perhaps God has shown them the state of bygone people who have backbitten). This stops them from backbiting.

All Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and all previous Prophets to be masum. The differences in opinion stem from the extent of the infallibility. I present a summary of the different views vis-a-vis the infallibility of Prophet Muhammad.

Sunni view on the infallibility of prophet Muhammad

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi is a famous Sunni scholar who has authored Ismat al-Anbiya (The Infallibility of the Prophets). In this book, he summarises the various opinions of the schools within Sunni Islam regarding the extent of the infallibility of the Prophet.

Infallibility in relation to the beliefs of the Prophet

The consensus is the Prophet was infallible on his core beliefs. It was impossible for the Prophet to make a mistake in concepts such as the oneness of God (tawhid)¬†or the resurrection and day of Judgement (qiyamah). It would, of course, be problematic if the man bringing us revelation from God makes a mistake in passing core Islamic beliefs to new Muslims or is incapable of understanding the revelation he is receiving – or worse – does not believe in it himself. God’s intention to guide mankind would have been jeopardised and it would put a huge question mark on God Himself and His wisdom and ability to choose a Prophet.

Infallibility in Relation to the Legal Rulings and Divine Demands

Once again, the consensus is the Prophet would not make a mistake in communicating legal rulings and divine demands nor in applying them in Muslim society. If he were to make mistakes in this regard, it would be difficult to trust and rely on him, which would shake the entire foundation of Islam. As God has selected Muhammad, it must be the case he is more than capable of performing the required duties.

Infallibility in Relation to His Verdicts

Similar to above, it is agreed the Prophet does not make mistakes in handing out verdicts. Some Muslims, however, do believe the Prophet is capable of making unintentional mistakes.

Infallibility in Relation to His Actions and Different States

In this area, the majority of the disagreements amongst the Sunni schools occur. The Asharites maintain the Prophet can commit both minor and major sins except¬†kufr¬†(disbelief) and lying. The Mutazilites say the Prophet can only commit minor sins, provided they don’t cause hatred towards the Prophet.

Overall, the general opinions of Sunni Muslims on the Prophet’s infallibility with relation to his actions is well summarised in the following way (taken from al-Qadhi ‘Abdu ‘l-Jabbar, Sharhu ‘l -Us√Ľli ‘l-Khamsah, p. 573-575; al-Qawshaji, Sharhu ‘t-Tajr√≠d):

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  • All Sunnis believe the Prophet cannot lie or leave the Islamic faith
  • The majority believe it was possible for the Prophet to accidentally commit major sins
  • The majority believe it was possible for the Prophet to commit minor sins but not any sins that would damage his reputation.

What is The Basis of Sunni Opinions on The Prophet’s Infallibility?

The opinions presented above were not created in a vacuum. A large majority of the opinions are based on intellectual reasoning, i.e. on the account of the Prophet being the Prophet, there are things that are logic dictates God would protect him from performing, thereby making him infallible. The opinions rooted in the Prophet being able to commit sins or mistakes (intentionally or not) seem to be derived from hadith literature. These are summarised below, with links to the original text.

The shia view on the infallibility of prophet Muhammad

Shia Muslims unanimously believe the Prophet was infallible his whole life. This means he was infallible:

  • Before being appointed Prophethood
  • After being appointed Prophethood
  • In his public life
  • In his private life

Shia Muslims maintain he was never affected by magic (and any delusions resulting therein), forgetfulness or lapses. Their argument is based on intellectual reasoning and verses from the Holy Qur’an.

The Intellectual Argument

Similar to Sunni Muslims, the Shias put forward the intellectual argument. The argument is as follows: Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the final messenger of God. We have seen in the past previous Prophets appointed, and as soon as they have died, people reverted to false practices, which necessitated God sending another Prophet. If Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of God, there cannot be any room for error or misguidance. He has to have an immaculate record both in his private and public life and before and after being appointed Prophethood. These elements are crucial in order for the people to readily trust and follow him.

If the Prophet were to accidentally or deliberately commit major/minor sins, there would remain little difference between him and his companions. The Prophet’s trustworthiness and authority would be under question, i.e. the question would be: why should we follow someone who himself can’t perfectly follow the religion he is bringing from God and thus God Himself would be questioned. Furthermore, any sinful person can become Caliph or head of state after the Prophet and use the Prophet’s supposed mistakes or sins as an excuse to qualify for leadership. Lastly, the question would be asked: if the Prophet has made mistakes or been forgetful in acts of worship, can we truly believe he has appropriately and accurately recorded revelation from God? Can we trust the Qur’an we have in front of us?

In summary, the Shias say it opens a massive can of worms and casts doubt on God and Islam itself. As a result, God chose an unconditionally infallible human as His final Prophet.

The Qur’anic Argument

According to Shia interpretation, God Himself attests to the Prophet’s infallibility directly or indirectly. There is an interesting conversation between God and Satan where the latter threatens to lead mankind astray. In this passage, Satan confesses he can lead anyone astray except God’s chosen servants:

By Your might, I will surely mislead all of them, except Your chosen servants among them.”

(38:82)

The ‘chosen servants’ are undoubtedly the Prophet’s chosen by God to guide humanity. In Shia understanding, this verse proves Satan cannot affect any Prophet, let alone Prophet Muhammad. As a result, the Prophet can’t sin.

A more direct reference to Prophet Muhammad’s infallibility is made in chapter 53, verse 2-5:

Your companion (i.e., Prophet) does not err/wander, nor is he deceived. Nor does he speak out of desire. It is no less than a revelation that is revealed. The Mighty in Power has taught him.”

It’s because of this verse Shia Muslims would not accept any narration about the Prophet being affected by magic or listening to music.

reconciling the infallibility of prophet Muhammad

The debate on the infallibility of the Prophet is interesting. On one side, the argument suggests partial infallibility because (like any other human) unintentional mistakes can be made, and forgetfulness can occur. The other side of the argument is that given the Prophet is a divinely chosen man, God would have protected him from all sins and mistakes to avoid confusion and misunderstanding throughout the Ummah.

I have tried my best to present both arguments in the most objective light in the hope it will spark the reader’s interest in doing their own independent research.

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