The Sinlessness of the Prophets in Light of the Qur'an

By: R. Azzam

Among the Sunnis and the Shi'a exists the doctrine of the sinlessness of the Prophets (peace be upon them). Although it seems that this doctrine originated with the Shi'a, the Sunnis eventually more or less incorporated it into their beliefs. However, while among the Shi'a this doctrine is considered an indisputable matter, among the Sunnis there exists the understanding that the Prophets (peace be upon them) did commit minor sins. In the midst of these opposing views it would seem appropriate to refer the matter back to the Qur'an, the one reference these groups agree upon. It is the aim of this paper to examine various commentary works with respect to a few of the Prophets and determine if the actual Qur'anic text supports the understanding found in the exegesis. The Prophets to be examined are Adam, Yunus, and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them).

Adam (peace be upon him)

The Prophet Adam (peace be upon him), the first human being Allah created, is considered among the greatest Prophets of God. In the Qur'an, there are many references to him and his wife Hawwa', in particular the story of how they were deceived by Satan and their subsequent descent to the earth. The following are their stories from surat al-Baqarah, surat al-A'raf, and surat Ta-Ha:

We told Adam to stay with his spouse [Hawwa'] in the garden and enjoy the foods therein, but not to go near a certain tree lest he become one of the transgressors (2:35). Satan made Adam and his spouse err and caused them to abandon the state in which they had been living. Then We said, "Descend, you are each other's enemies! The earth will be a dwelling place for you and it will provide you with sustenance for an appointed time" (2:36). Adam was inspired by some words (of prayer) through which he received forgiveness from his Lord, for He is All-forgiving and All-merciful (2:37).


Then the Lord said, "Adam, stay in the garden with your spouse and eat whatever you want therein, but do not go near this tree lest you transgress" (7:19). Satan tempted them to reveal that which was kept private from them and said, "Your Lord has not prohibited you (to eat the fruits of this tree) unless you want to be angels or immortal" (7:20).

Satan swore before them that he was giving them good advice (7:21). Thus, he deceitfully showed them (the tree). When they had tasted (fruits) from the tree, their private parts became revealed to them and they began to cover their private parts with leaves from the garden.

Their Lord then called out to them saying, "Did I not forbid you to eat (fruits) from the tree and tell you that Satan was your sworn enemy?" (7:22). They replied, "Lord, we have done injustice to our souls. If You will not forgive us and have mercy on us, we shall certainly have incurred a great loss" (7:23).

The Lord told them to leave the garden as each other's enemies and go to earth to dwell and benefit from the means therein for an appointed time (7:24). He told them that, on earth, they would live, die, and be resurrected (7:25).


We had commanded Adam (certain matters). He forgot Our commandment and We did not find in him the determination to fulfil Our commandments (20:115). When We told the angels to prostrate before Adam, they all obeyed except Iblis (Satan), who refused (20:116). We said, "Adam, this (Satan) is your enemy and the enemy of your spouse. Let him not expel you and your spouse from Paradise lest you plunge into misery (20:117). In Paradise you will experience no hunger, nakedness (20:118), thirst, or exposure to the hot sun" (20:119).

Satan, trying to seduce him, said, "Adam, do you want me to show you the Tree of Eternity and the Everlasting Kingdom?" (20:120) Adam and his wife ate (fruits) from the tree and found themselves naked. Then they started to cover themselves with the leaves from the garden. Adam disobeyed [`asa] his Lord and went astray [ghawa] (20:121). His Lord forgave him, accepted his repentance, and gave him guidance (20:122).

Although these selections relate the same story, it is important to mention all of them as each time the mistake of Adam (peace be upon him) is retold. One of the ayat that appears to be stating his disobedience in unmistakable terms is the one that states, "Adam disobeyed his Lord and went astray" (al-Qur'an 20:121). The first tafsir to be considered below is that of Tabataba'i, a prominent twentieth century Shi'i Imami scholar.

With respect to 20:121which says that Adam disobeyed his Lord and went astray, Tabataba'i discusses the words ghawa and `asa. He says that ghayy is the opposite of rushd (good conduct), but it is not dalaal (Tabataba'i 14: 222). However, according to Hans Wehr, dalaal is defined as "a straying from the right path or from truth; error" (Hans Wehr 543). Ghayy is defined as "trespassing, transgression, offense, error, sin" (Hans Wehr 688). Taken at face value, both words can denote the same thing, and it is hard to see the basis for the distinctions made by Tabataba'i. In the end, it is difficult to successfully escape the bluntly negative meaning of the word ghawa that is used with respect to Adam (peace be upon him).

Tabataba'i also discusses the word `asa. In his discussion, he splits the meaning of disobedience into two different concepts. He says, "The disobedience of Adam towards his rather a disobedience of an amr irshadi and not [an amr] mawlawi. This is because the Prophets (peace be upon them) are infallible and protected from disobedience in matters which return to religion which was revealed to them...." (Tabataba'i 14: 222). In other words, disobedience to an amr mawlawi entails disobedience in a religious matter, which Adam could not do as a prophet. He further explains the Prophets' infallibility to include a number of things. Specifically, they do not forget or change what is revealed to them, they teach the people nothing but the truth that was revealed to them, their actions do not contradict their words, nor do they do not commit any type of sin. Adam's disobedience, however, was of an amr irshadi, meaning that he disobeyed Allah for his own personal benefit or gain in a matter in which he had a choice. Whether he obeyed or disobeyed Allah in this non-religious matter has nothing to do with his being infallible (Tabataba'i 14: 222).

There are several things to consider with respect to this argument. Firstly, one wonders about the basis for the distinction made between disobedience to an amr irshadi and disobedience to an amr mawlawi, as well as how the former type of disobedience is not reprehensible. Since both amount to disobedience to a command or amr coming from Allah, how are both not reprehensible? According to the Qur'an, Adam was not only reprimanded for his action, but he was actually expelled from the Garden. However, even if one were to accept these distinctions, then it is also hard to see how Adam did not in fact disobey an amr mawlawi. Did not Allah give him a message to follow, and did he not disobey one of Allah's instructions? Although this message was very simple in contrast to the other messages Allah gave to other prophets and messengers, it was a message nonetheless. That he did an action going against it seems to be clearly stated in surat Ta-Ha (20:115) where Allah says, "We had commanded Adam (certain matters). He forgot Our commandment and We did not find in him the determination to fulfil Our commandments."

Furthermore, it is hard to see how not eating from the tree was a non-religious order given to Adam considering that Allah told him and his wife "Do not go near this tree lest you become one of the transgressors" (al-Qur'an 2:35; 7:19). Not only that, but in trying to deceive Adam and Hawwa', Satan reminded them of this prohibition when he said, "Your Lord has not prohibited you (to eat the fruits of this tree) unless you want to be angels or immortal" (al-Qur'an 7:20). Additionally, after eating from the tree, Allah addressed Adam and Hawwa' saying, "Did I not forbid you to eat (fruits) from the tree and tell you that Satan was your sworn enemy?" (al-Qur'an 7:22). The words used in the Qur'an (which translate into "prohibit" and "forbid") do not reflect that this was merely a matter in which Adam (peace be upon him) was given a choice. According to the Qur'an, it was a matter so serious that disobedience would make him "one of the transgressors" (al-Qur'an 7:19).

There is another problem with the argument that Adam (peace be upon him) did not sin. How can he seek forgiveness for something that is not a sin? Is forgiveness granted for anything other than thunoob or sins? In 2:37 of the Qur'an one finds, "Adam was inspired by some words (of prayer) through which he received forgiveness from his Lord, for He is All-forgiving and All-merciful." In 7:23 one finds Adam and Hawwa' saying, "Lord, we have done injustice to our souls. If You will not forgive us and have mercy on us, we shall certainly have incurred a great loss." Finally, in 20:122 one finds, "His Lord forgave him, accepted his repentance, and gave him guidance." It seems contradictory to say that Allah actually forgave Adam (peace be upon him) and accepted his repentance for an action which was perfectly good and not a sin. Last but not least, Adam and Hawwa', after having been in the Garden where they had everything they desired, were sent down to the earth where they had to toil and struggle. The Qur'an contains Allah's warning to them of this: "We said, `Adam, this (Satan) is your enemy and the enemy of your spouse. Let him not expel you and your spouse from Paradise lest you plunge into misery'" (al-Quran 20:117). If the amr or command to not eat from the tree was meant merely as advice to them and they had the choice to take it or leave it, then why such a grave consequence coming from the One who is Just?

There is yet another, perhaps more critical, matter to consider. Tabataba'i's admission that Adam (peace be upon him) disobeyed an amr irshadi contradicts Shi'i belief on the Prophets (peace be upon them). According to Shi'i doctrine, the Prophets (peace be upon them) are immaculate "in relation to any sin" by "their own choice" (Shirazi 61-63). According to Majlisi, "No sort of sin can be attributed to them, no oversight or forgetfulness..." (Donaldson 320). (However, in 20:115 Allah says, "We had commanded Adam (certain matters). He forgot Our commandment and We did not find in him the determination to fulfil Our commandments.") Nevertheless, this doctrine is considered a necessary part of the Shi'i faith (Donaldson 321).

The Sunni position on Adam is different. Qurtubi, a classical thirteenth century Sunni scholar, offers an explanation for the ayah which says, "Adam disobeyed his Lord and went astray" (al-Quran 20:121). With respect to the word ghawa, Qurtubi explains that it means that he spoiled or ruined his life by his descent to the earth. He interprets ghayy to mean fasaad, and he prefers this definition to the one saying that ghawa equals dalla, which is the opposite of rushd. (Note that Tabataba'i said that ghayy is the opposite of rushd, but maintained that it is not dalaal.) He also offers the interpretation that ghayy means jahl; thus taking the ayah to refer to Adam's ignorance that the tree he ate from was the forbidden one (Qurtubi 11: 170). Although these are all interesting explanations of the word ghawa, no basis was provided for these meanings or definitions. In particular, regarding the explanation that ghayy means jahl and that Adam did not know he was eating from the forbidden tree, this interpretation seems to contradict the account given in the Qur'an, as on one occasion Satan is even reminding them of the fact (al-Qur'an 7:20).

Another view Qurtubi presents is that Adam's sin was committed before prophethood, and that whatever sins a prophet commits before being chosen are of no harm. As evidence for this opinion, 20:122 is presented, which says, "Then his Lord forgave [chose] him, accepted his repentance, and gave him guidance." In other words, after his disobedience, Adam (peace be upon him) was chosen by Allah and guided (Qurtubi 11: 170-71). On the surface, this view seems more acceptable since it appears to have some support from the Qur'an. However, it is interesting to contrast this view with the one presented by the Shi'i scholar Majlisi who states, "They [Prophets] are to be considered free from all sins, great or small. No sort of sin can be attributed to them, no oversight or forgetfulness, and no mistakes in interpretation. Neither are they to be thought of as having sinned before the time of their being appointed prophets, not even in their childhood" (Donaldson 320-21).

Qurtubi also gives the view that the mistakes committed by the Prophets (peace be upon them) would be considered good deeds with respect to others, but because of their high position those actions were considered bad deeds. He gives a quote by Junaid saying, "The good deeds of the abrar are the bad deeds of the muqarrabeen" (Qurtubi 11: 169). It is hard to see the basis for this understanding and it appears to be evading the issue. In general, it is unjust to consider a deed worthy of reward for one person yet worthy of punishment for someone else. It is understandable that an ordinary servant's acts of piety would be considered too little for someone chosen to be a prophet, but this is not to be confused with the issue of committing sin. Any disobedience to the Creator, in however small a matter, is still regarded as disobedience and punishable regardless of who does it. According to the Qur'an, every human being is accountable for every atom's worth of evil (or good) he does, whether a prophet or otherwise (al-Qur'an 99:7-8). If the orders given to Adam (peace be upon him) were given to someone else and that person disobeyed, then it is difficult to see how that would not be considered a sin, let alone a good deed. However, one can see how the same sin is considered more significant for a prophet (like Adam- peace be upon him) given that a prophet possesses much more knowledge and awareness of God than others, in addition to bearing the burden of being the example to follow.

Qurtubi, in commenting on the passages dealing with Adam (peace be upon him), uses the occasion to briefly offer some of the various opinions concerning the mistakes of the Prophets (peace be upon them). Qurtubi explains that the scholars have differed as to whether or not the Prophets (peace be upon them) committed small sins for which they were punished or censured. Nevertheless, they all agreed that they were protected from big sins, such as disbelief, murder, and adultery. But, it was the opinion of al-Tabari, as well as others, that the Prophets (peace be upon them) did commit small sins. Those scholars that did believe they were protected from all sins considered that as one of their miracles. However, Qurtubi explains, the Mu'tazila considered that not to be a miracle, but a result of their aql (they attributed it to the Prophets themselves, as something of their own choice and due to their strength). Qurtubi also presents the view of the Shi'a that the Prophets (peace be upon them) did not commit any sins whatsoever (Qurtubi 1: 211).

In the end, it appears that Qurtubi himself holds the view that in the Qur'an, Allah informed people of the sins or mistakes of some of the Prophets (peace be upon them). He explains that Allah attributed it to them and censured them for it, and they in turn sought Allah's forgiveness and turned to Him in repentance. However, he explains, all of this does not detract in their position. It was rare when they sinned, and when they did, it was out of forgetfulness or mistake. He concludes that even if the Qur'an shows them falling into error or sin, then this does not detract from their status, as Allah chose them from among all the people and guided them (Qurtubi 11: 169).

Yunus (peace be upon him)

The next prophet to be examined is Yunus (peace be upon him). The following passages are from surat al-Anbiya', surat al-Saffat, and surat al-Qalam:

Dhun Nun [Yunus] went away in anger and thought that We would never have power over him, but in darkness he cried, "Lord, You are the Only God whom I glorify. I have certainly done wrong to myself (so forgive me)" (21:87). We answered his prayer and saved him from his grief. Thus We save the faithful ones (21:88).


Jonah [Yunus] was certainly a Messenger (37:139). He abandoned his people [abaqa] and sailed away in a laden ship (37:140), wherein people cast lots. Because he lost, he was thrown into the water (37:141). The fish swallowed him up and he deserved (all this) [muleem] (37:142). Had he not glorified God (37:143), he would certainly have remained inside the fish until the Day of Resurrection (37:144).


Exercise patience until the promise of your Lord (to punish the unbelievers) comes true. Do not be like Jonah [Yunus] (who left his people without the permission of God; he wanted them to be punished immediately), and who cried (for help) to his Lord, while imprisoned and helpless inside the fish (68:48). Had it not been for a favor from his Lord, he would have been left out in the open, deserving blame for his shortcomings (68:49).

Tabataba'i tells the story of how Yunus (peace be upon him) left his people in an angry state and the trial that subsequently befell him. Tabataba'i explains that al-ebaq means a slave running away from his master, and in this case, it was Yunus running away from the responsibility that Allah had placed on him (al-Qur'an 37:140). He had lost patience with his people as they would not accept Allah's message, and so he headed off to a ship with the intent of leaving them. However, according to Tabataba'i, "The intent of running away to the ship was to leave his people, giving them his back. In his leaving he (peace be upon him) did not disobey his Lord as there was no prohibition from his Lord against leaving. However his leaving was representative of a slave running away from the service of his master, and so Allah punished him for that" (Tabataba'i 17: 163).

With respect to Yunus's admission of guilt where he says "Indeed I was among the wrongdoers," Tabataba'i gives a similar explanation. He says that this is "Admission of his wrong (thulm) due to the fact that he came with an action which represented a wrong act although it was not a wrong act in itself, nor did he (peace be upon him) intend by it wrong or sin. However, that [the whale swallowing him] was a disciplining and instruction from Allah (may He be exalted) of His Prophet in order for him to come near to Allah in a manner innocent of representing a wrong act, let alone actually doing a wrong act" (Tabataba'i 14: 315).

There are several matters to consider with respect to Tabataba'i's tafsir. First, the distinction he makes between a wrong action and an action that represents wrong or appears to be wrong is not clear. He does not offer anywhere in his special section on Yunus (peace be upon him) an explanation for the distinction nor does he explain its basis. As for his explanation that Yunus (peace be upon him) did not intend to do wrong, this contradicts what Allah has said in the Qur'an. According to the Qur'an in 21:87, Yunus (peace be upon him) left his people in an angry state thinking that Allah would not hold him responsible for his action. If he had thought he was doing something good and lawful, then why the mention that he thought that Allah would not take him to account?

Additionally, that he did not commit a sin contradicts Allah's description of him as muleem in 37:142. Muleem means having done an action worthy of blame. How does that support the argument that Yunus (peace be upon him) is immaculate? Additionally, in surat al-Qalam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is instructed not to be like Yunus (peace be upon him) in his impatience. Furthermore, why the disciplining from Allah if Yunus (peace be upon him) committed no wrong act? According to the Qur'an, he would have been left in the whale until the Day of Judgement had it not been for his glorification of Allah. It is hard to see how such a grave and weighty punishment would be for an action that was perfectly good and not a sin. One must also take into consideration that Yunus (peace be upon him) referred to himself as a wrongdoer or thaalem. The Qur'an is clear in showing that he acknowledged his wrong and that he was thus saved by Allah.

With respect to Sunni exegesis, Maududi, a twentieth century Sunni scholar, in his tafsir of the passage in surat al-Anbiya', explains that Yunus had done wrong by leaving his place of mission without Allah's consent. He further explains that the story has been "cited to show that even a great Prophet like him did not go unnoticed when he committed an error in regard to Allah's message. But when he repented, Allah, by His grace, delivered him alive from the belly of the fish" (Maududi 7: 169).

In commenting on the passage in surat al-Saffat, Maududi explains the meaning of the word abaqa and says that it is "used for the flight and escape of a slave from his master's house" (Maududi 11: 114). He explains that Yunus (peace be upon him) was swallowed by a fish because "he had fled and abandoned the place of his mission without the permission of his Master (Allah Almighty)" (Maududi 11: 114). He supports his understanding by pointing out the words abaqa and muleem. He states that, "Muleem is a blameworthy person, who becomes worthy of blame by himself because of his sin and error, whether somebody else blames him for it or not" (Maududi 11: 114). This explanation is attributed to Ibn Jarir. However, since Yunus (peace be upon him) was of those who glorified Allah and he turned to Him in his time of difficulty, Allah saved him from his ordeal.

Maududi also provides the explanation of Imam Razi from Tafsir Kabir, stating that "The Prophet Jonah's fault was that when Allah threatened to destroy the people who had belied him, he thought that the scourge would inevitably befall them. Therefore, he did not show patience and abandoned his mission and left the place, whereas he ought to have continued the work of his mission, for there was a possibility that Allah might not destroy those people" (Maududi 11: 116-17). According to Ibn Kathir, when Yunus's people searched for him and did not find him, they felt that the punishment had approached, and so they repented and Allah showed them mercy (Maududi 11: 116).

Maududi, through the explanations of various commentators, shows that there were three offenses on the part of Yunus (peace be upon him). The first offense was that he himself foretold or fixed the day of the punishment when "Allah had not made any declaration in this regard." The second offense was that he left his people even before the day of punishment arrived, while a prophet is not allowed to leave his place of mission until given the order by Allah. The third offense was that he did not return to his people after the punishment had been warded off of them (Maududi 11: 117).

Although one is uncertain as to the particular details of his sin (whether or not he committed three offenses), one is certain that Yunus (peace be upon him) did commit a sin based upon what the Qur'an states. In his tafsir, Maududi acknowledges the flaw in the actions of Yunus (peace be upon him) as well as the fact that he was a great Prophet. He presents him as having made a mistake, realized it, and sought forgiveness for it, and that in his story there is a lesson for all people.

Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)

The last Prophet to be discussed is Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The following passage from surat al-Tahrim will be examined:

O Prophet, in seeking the pleasure of your wives, why do you make unlawful that which God has made lawful? God is All-forgiving and All-merciful (66:1).

With respect to Sunni tafsir, Maududi explains that this ayah was not a question but rather "an expression of disapproval" (Maududi 14: 376). It was a warning from Allah that his action of making haram on himself what Allah has made halal was displeasing to Allah. According to the ayah, he acted in order to please his wives, and so they too are mentioned as a warning to them as well. Although in this case the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not disobey a particular command of Allah, he committed a deed that could have had an undesirable effect on his followers. Given his position as a prophet and messenger, the Muslims could have taken the same thing to be forbidden or reprehensible, or they could have deemed it acceptable to forbid certain things on oneself that Allah has made lawful (Maududi 14: 376-77).

There were two explanations presented for what he specifically did to cause this ayah to be revealed, one of which does not appear in any of the six collections of hadeeth recognized by the Sunnis. The other explanation is reported in several collections of hadeeth, among them Bukhari and Muslim, and it is reported by A'ishah. It is as follows in Bukhari:

Volume 9, Book 86, Number 102:

Narrated `Aisha:

Allah's Apostle used to like sweets and also used to like honey, and whenever he finished the `asr prayer, he used to visit his wives and stay with them. Once he visited Hafsa and remained with her longer than the period he used to stay, so I enquired about it. It was said to me, "A woman from her tribe gave her a leather skin containing honey as a present, and she gave some of it to Allah's Apostle to drink." I said, "By Allah, we will play a trick on him." So I mentioned the story to Sawda (the wife of the Prophet) and said to her, "When he enters upon you, he will come near to you whereupon you should say to him, `O Allah's Apostle! Have you eaten maghafir?' He will say, `No.' Then you say to him, `What is this bad smell?' And it would be very hard on Allah's Apostle that a bad smell should be found on his body. He will say, `Hafsa has given me a drink of honey.' Then you should say to him, `Its bees must have sucked from al-`urfut (a foul smelling flower).' I, too, will tell him the same. And you, O Safiyya, say the same."

So when the Prophet entered upon Sawda (the following happened). Sawda said, "By Him except Whom none has the right to be worshipped, I was about to say to him what you had told me to say while he was still at the gate because of fear from you. But when Allah's Apostle came near to me, I said to him, `O Allah's Apostle! Have you eaten maghafir?' He replied, `No.' I said, `What about this smell?' He said, `Hafsa has given me a drink of honey.' I said, `Its bees must have sucked al-'urfut.'"

When he entered upon me, I told him the same as that, and when he entered upon Safiyya, she too told him the same. So when he visited Hafsa again, she said to him, "O Allah's Apostle! Shall I give you a drink of it (honey)?" He said, "I have no desire for it." Sawda said, "Subhan Allah! We have deprived him of it (honey)." I said to her, "Be quiet!"

Maududi explains that although a particular action of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) may be minor, due to his great position his smallest actions carry weighty consequences. For this reason, whenever a prophet committed an act that deviated from Allah's will, however trivial it may have been, it was immediately corrected and never allowed to go by unnoticed. Another point he brings up is that in the case of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), any corrections of his actions were recorded (and they were in fact very few). In this way, all actions for which there is no record of censure or correction from Allah are perfect sources of guidance in complete conformity with Allah's will. He also explains that these public corrections of both the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his wives are not meant to degrade them in any way, but to "acquaint the believers with the correct manner of reverence for their great personalities. The Prophet is a Prophet, not God, that he may commit no error," and the same applies to his wives and companions (Maududi 14: 367-68). The fact that both merits and mistakes are mentioned equally in the Qur'an represents a "moderate and balanced teaching of the reverence and esteem" of these great figures lest people should over-exaggerate their status and fall into "the pit of man-worship" (Maududi 14: 370).

Maududi's explanation appears to be in line with what is found in the Qur'an. He does not attempt to cover up anything and simply presents the story as it appears in the Qur'an and the authenticated hadeeth. Although he believes that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) committed minor mistakes, he does not see that as presenting any sort of threat to the purity of Islamic teachings. The reason is that Allah immediately corrected the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) publicly as is seen in this particular example, and He is the One responsible for the preservation of His teachings.

With respect to Shi'i tafsir, according to al-Tusi, a Shi'i scholar of the tenth/eleventh century, the reprimand or censure contained in 66:1 does not mean that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) committed a sin. The explanation he gives is that just like one may be reprimanded for abandoning a duty, one might also be reprimanded for doing something that simply might be better to oppose (al-Tusi 10: 44). He explains that Allah only required atonement from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) since he swore that he would not do something that was lawful and which he had to return to doing. In other words, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was simply ordered to return to that which is better and more appropriate (al-Tusi 10: 46).

Al-Tusi's explanation seems to imply shortsightedness on the part of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as opposed to deliberate or actual sin. However, this still does not correspond to the Shi'i belief that the Prophets are immaculate, as is exemplified by the statement made by Majlisi that "no oversight or forgetfulness" can be attributed to them (Donaldson 320). It is clear from the Qur'an that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did something which was less than perfect, and it is important not to lose sight of that fact.


As can be seen from the three examples shown, the doctrine that the Prophets (peace be upon them) were immaculate and infallible does not correspond to what the Qur'an tells about them. Essentially one example would have sufficed to illustrate this point if one prophet is found committing a mistake in the Qur'an, then the doctrine is instantly flawed. But if this doctrine does not have its basis in the Qur'an, then from where did it come and why? Although these questions should be the subject of another paper, it is worth discussing very briefly at least when the doctrine emerged.

According to one source, "Historically considered, it is more probable that the teaching of the sinlessness of the prophets in Islam owes both its origin and its acquired importance to the development of the theology of the Shi'ites" (Donaldson 334). It is said that the doctrine developed during the time of the Imamate the period after the death of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) up until the disappearance of the Twelfth Imam (Donaldson 335). There are reasons given as to why this belief came about; however they are out of the scope of the present discussion.

With respect to the Sunnis, the doctrine seems particularly out-of-place as it is unfounded in the recognized hadeeth collections. On the contrary, through the ahadeeth one learns that the Prophets (peace be upon them) were not infallible, including Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). According to Donaldson, there is no mention of the doctrine in earliest literature on orthodox Muslim belief from the third century after the hijrah, but it was stated as an orthodox belief in the latter part of the tenth century in the Fikh Akbar II (Donaldson 336). As to how rapidly it was accepted in the Sunni community, a quote by al-Ghazzali may provide some indication. Al-Ghazzali, who died in the early part of the twelfth century, stated in Part IV of Ihya' `Ulum al-Din, "The proof of the invariable necessity of repentance in all cases is that no one of mankind is free from bodily sin. The prophets also were not free from it, for the Koran and the Traditions mention the sins of the prophets, together with their repentance and weeping for them" (Donaldson 336). About a century after al-Ghazzali came the influential Sunni writer Fahkr al-Din al-Razi who, according to Goldziher, "was one of the most zealous advocates of the doctrine of the sinlessness of the Prophets." In fact, he dedicated a book to the issue entitled `Ismat al-Anbiya'. He was a Shafi'i like al-Ghazzali, and like him he "was strongly influenced by the devotional methods of speculative thinking that characterized the Sufis, who, like the Mu'tazilites of earlier times, were a transmitting medium for the exchange of ideas between the Sunnites and the Shi'ites" (Donaldson 337).

In conclusion, the doctrine of the sinlessness of the Prophets seems to find its origin with the Shi'a, specifically in connection with the Imamate, and was probably transmitted to the Sunnis via the Sufis and Mu'tazila. It is the work of al-Razi that is said to be what caused the doctrine to finally make its way into Sunni belief, although it is not at all a critical component of Sunni doctrine as it is for Shi'i doctrine. Despite the great authority these scholars may have, however, the greatest authority on matters pertaining to Islamic belief is the Qur'an in which the doctrine of sinlessness finds no true support.

Editor's Note: Among the beliefs of the different sects of Shi'ism is the belief that a chain of sinless, infallible leaders were necessary to succeed Prophet Muhammad (saas) in order to protect the message of Islam. These leaders are known as Imaams to the Shi'ites, and their number is disputed amongst the different splinters of the sect, being set at 5, 7, 12, and more.

The doctrine of the Imaamate is a particularly significant deviation from the doctrines held by ahl-ul-Sunnah wal Jama`ah (the overwhelming majority of the Muslims forming at least 80-85% of the entire ummah). One of the essential preconditions for this doctrine is to accept the sinlessness and infallibility of the Prophets of Allah - few people would accept the notion of sinless Imaams but sinful Prophets. This paper examines this necessary precondition in light of the Qur'an, the one document agreed upon by the majority group and the Shi'ite splinters.

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