1. The Development of the Isma Doctrine.
Throughout the Muslim world today it is generally believed that all of the prophets enjoyed an isma, a protection against sin, and that they were accordingly sinless. It is one of the anomalies of Islam that this Doctrine has been established and maintained against the plain teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith to the contrary.
The orthodox belief is that the prophets do not commit sin, and are sinless (ma’sum), but this dogma contradicts various statements of the Qur’an and of Muhammad as recorded in the Traditions. (Klein, The Religion of Islam, p. 109)
We shall shortly see that both the major sources of Islam teach that all the prophets, excepting Jesus, had sins of which they needed to repent and seek forgiveness. In the early centuries of Islam, however, a doctrine founded on popular sentiment and theological presuppositions arose and developed away from the teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith. It was first formulated in the creed known as the Fiqh Akbar II and it is there stated:
All the Prophets are exempt from sins, both light and grave, from unbelief and sordid deeds. Yet stumbling and mistakes may happen on their part. (Wensinck, The Muslim Creed, p. 192).
It was not possible to defy the written sources of Islam entirely, however, and so the records of the sins of the prophets in the Qur’an and Hadith became watered down into “mistakes”. Similar euphemisms, such as “acts of forgetfulness”, are constantly used by Muslim writers today to account for these misdemeanours which the Scripture and traditions of Islam record.
As a rule, blameworthy behaviour of prophets is smoothed over by means of all possible acumen. (Baljon, Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation, p. 71).
There are basically two reasons for the rise of this doctrine in Islam. Firstly, the early Muslims soon discovered that the Bible taught plainly that Jesus was the only sinless man that ever lived and, confronted with this evidence, deemed it necessary to invent the fiction that all the prophets – especially Muhammad – were sinless as well. A superiority of Jesus over Muhammad could not be tolerated and, just as miracles were attributed to the figurehead of Islam to give him a status at least equal to that of Jesus, so he was also held to be sinless for the same purpose. Secondly, the doctrine of revelation in Islam holds that the scriptures were dictated directly to the prophets by the intermediary angel (Gabriel) and it was therefore believed that the prophets must have possessed an impeccable character for, if they could not keep themselves from error in their personal lives, how could they be trusted to communicate God’s revelations without error? This latter presupposition led perforce to the conclusion that the prophets must have been sinless.
The purpose of at-nubuwwa (the prophets) could be defeated if the people to whom they are sent thought it permissible for the prophets to commit sins and tell falsehoods, because then they would also think the same about their teachings and their commands and interdictions (Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, p. 135).
Muslim orthodoxy, therefore, drew the logically correct conclusion that the prophets must be regarded as immune from serious errors (the doctrine of isma). (Rahman, Islam, p. 32).
It was a conclusion, nevertheless, which was drawn from the preconceived notion that God could not ensure the perfect transmission of his revelations unless he simultaneously preserved his messengers from all possible errors of conduct and character. It was not one which arose from an objective analysis of the teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith. (According to the Bible all the prophets were sinners but the scriptures inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit, were written and preserved without corruption. The isma doctrine in Islam is weakened by the claim that the Qur’an has been preserved over the centuries without error. If God could entrust the perfect preservation of his revelations to sinful men, why could he not entrust the transmission of the same revelations to them as well. The doctrine is not only unsound in the light of qur’anic teaching but can also hardly be regarded as a “logically correct conclusion”). Either way it cannot be traced back to the teaching of Muhammad himself.
But in the Qur’an Muhammad remains a fallible and sinful creature. The conception of him as the ideal man and prototype of humanity belongs to a later development. (Stanton, The Teaching of the Qur’an, p. 51).
The acceptance of this doctrine, contradictory to the original spirit of the Qoran, had moreover a dogmatic motive. It was considered indispensable to raise the text of the Qoran above all suspicion of corruption, which suspicion would not be excluded if the organ of the Revelation were fallible. (Hurgronje, Mohammedanism, p. 68).
It is important to note, before proceeding, that the “sinlessness” of the prophets in Islam implies only a protection from errors of judgment in action and character. It is to be distinguished from the Biblical doctrine which holds that true sinlessness not only means a freedom from wrong doing but an actual state of heart, soul and mind that reflects all the goodness of God’s holiness, love and righteousness. Those who have “sinned” are also those who have “fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23) an not attained to his righteousness.
The impeccability of Muhammad has a different basis than the sinlessness of Jesus. Muhammad’s impeccability is asserted for the purpose of establishing the validity of his revelation. Jesus’ sinlessness is the corollary of the affirmation of his divinity and also of the Christian conception of the true nature of man. Prophetic protection, or, “impeccability (‘ismah), is a postulate of the reason in respect of revelation rather than a definition of the quality of Muhammad’s person. (Thomson, “Muhammad: His Life and Person”, The Muslim World, Vol. 34, p. 115).
The only sinlessness known to Christianity is sinless perfection and it decrees that all who do not possess the righteousness of God are automatically counted as sinners. On the contrary Islam knows only a human nature which by instinct is prone to error. It knows nothing of the fallen nature which needs to be redeemed and made regenerate. Its concept of sinlessness is therefore confined purely to a preservation from deliberate error and wrongdoing – it does not require a corresponding positive possession of the image of the holy character of God in the soul. Thus it allows for the so-called “mistakes” and “acts of forgetfulness”. This distinction should be borne in mind as we proceed to analyse Islamic doctrine.
2. Sins of the Prophets in the Qur’an and Hadith.
Not only does the Bible teach that all men, excepting Jesus Christ, have sinned, but it also unreservedly sets forth the grave misdeeds of many of the prophets and records the confessions they have made of their sinfulness. After his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, David cried out to God, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done that which is evil in thy sight” (Psalm 51.4). Another prophet, beholding God’s glory, declared “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.6). Yet another confessed: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him” (Micah 7.9).
It is very significant to find that the Qur’an also makes many of the prophets cry out for the forgiveness of their sins. After killing the Egyptian Moses is said to have prayed: “O my Lord! I have indeed wronged my soul! Do Thou then forgive me!” (Surah 28.16). So likewise Abraham said of the Lord of the Worlds that he was the One “who, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the Day of Judgment” (Surah 26.82). Despite these seemingly plain confessions of sin, one Muslim writer says:
It is one thing to commit a mistake and quite a different thing to go against the Divine commandments, and no sensible critic could twist such words into a confession of sin. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p. 199)
The word used for “faults” in Surah 26.82, translated by Ali as “mistake”, is khati’ati, one of the Qur’anic words for sin (khat’a). Ali, in typical Muslim style, softens its meaning by saying;
“This word too has a wide significance and covers all unintended actions and mistakes and errors of judgment. Its mention, therefore, in connection with a prophet, does not imply sinfulness” (The Religion of Islam, p. 198).
This interpretation is hardly consistent with the usage of the word in the Qur’an for it appears in another passage which reads:
Because of their sins they were drowned (in the flood), and were made to enter the Fire (of Punishment). Surah 71.25
The word for “sins” in this verse is khati’atihin, from the same word used in Surah 26.82. In this case it is said that the people of Noah’s time were drowned in the flood and cast into the fire for such sins. The word is therefore here used for sins which were so grave and so serious that they were led to the destruction of those who committed them and their immediate consignment to hell. Ali’s suggestion that the word is only used for “mistakes and errors of judgment” is hardly borne out by its use in a context in the Qur’an where a grossly defiant rebellion against God’s laws is under review. One has here a typical proof of the tendency of some Muslim writers to water down the plain meaning of Qur’anic words to absolve the prophets or moral blameworthiness. It is surely significant that when the Qur’an speaks of Abraham’s prayer for forgiveness of his sins it chooses the same word that it elsewhere uses to describe some of the worst sins ever committed against God. A sincere comparison of these contexts must lead to the conclusion that the Qur’an acknowledges that the prophets at times sinned directly against God’s laws and commandments. (It is interesting to note that while Ali speaks of Abraham’s “mistakes” in Surah 26.82, he translates the same word as “wrongs” in the case of Noah’s people in Surah 71.25 – a clear evidence of an inconsistent Qur’anic exegesis arising from cherished presuppositions contrary to its teachings).
The Qur’an follows the Bible in relating the occasion of Adam’s disobedience in approaching the forbidden tree (Surah 2.35) and declares that the result of his action was that he was driven from the Garden (Surah 2.36). Significantly the command in this verse is in the plural and both Pickthall and Yusuf Ali, in footnotes, take this to mean that the whole of mankind was dismissed with Adam and Eve. This supports the Biblical teaching that sin came into the world through one man Adam and that all men were implicated in his transgression (Romans 5.12). Nonetheless, not only is the doctrine of Original Sin denied in Islam but, because Adam is considered to be a prophet, many Muslim writers even go so far as to boldly claim that he committed no sin at all and merely slipped through a forgetfulness of God’s command!
There was no intention on the part of Adam to disobey the Divine commandment; it was simply forgetfulness that brought about the disobedience. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p. 201).
On the other hand the Qur’an teaches quite plainly that it was not a mere forgetfulness that led to Adam’s disobedience but that he fell to the temptings of Satan (Surah 20.120) and that after God had warned him that Satan was an adversary who would seek to get him out of the Garden. (Surah 20.117) Satan allegedly said to him:
“O Adam! Shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?” Surah 20.120
Even though this was the very tree forbidden to him Adam chose to believe Satan and disobey God. If this is not sin, what is? In another passage we find even further evidence that Adam’s transgression can hardly be excused as an act of forgetfulness. We read that Satan said to Adam and Eve:
“Your Lord only forbade you this tree, lest ye should become angels or such beings as live forever”. Surah 7.20
Not only did God warn them against eating of the tree but we discover that Satan even reminded them of his warning while tempting them to sin. How can one possibly sustain the argument that Adam merely forgot his Lord’s command? Satan’s reminder aside, it is surely too hard to believe that Adam could have forgotten the one and only thing prohibited to him especially when the order came directly from God himself. Furthermore, if this was only a minor “mistake”, why was the penalty so severe – the permanent banishment of the couple and the whole human race with them from the Garden? Again, if Adam did not really commit a sin and was a sinless prophet, then who introduced sin into the world and what was its consequence? It is refreshing to find that not all Muslim writers endeavour to whitewash Adam’s transgression and sweep it under the carpet of their presuppositions. One says of Adam and his wife:
When they were asked about their present shameless condition they confessed that they were beguiled and outwitted; turned rebellious for a moment; forgot His kind grace and commandment and broke the covenant. In other words, they had sinned. There was no sin in the state of nature. Sin came from the knowledge of it, from the fateful fruit of the tree of knowledge. When Adam hid behind the tree and hesitated to come before God in the nude, sin had been born. (Raze, Introducing the Prophets, p.5).
The Qur’an also teaches that Noah and Jonah were transgressors and that they too prayed for the forgiveness of all their sins (Surah 11.47, 21.87). These words, said in another context, appear to be a fitting conclusion to our study of the Qur’anic teaching regarding the sins of the prophets: This much is true at least: The Qur’an is nearer to Christianity than the system of Islam as it has developed through the centuries. (Guillaume, Islam, p. 160).
In the Sunan works of Tirmithi, Ibn Maja and ad-Darimi it is recorded that Muhammad once said: “Every son of Adam is a sinner, and the best of sinners are those who repent constantly” (quoted in Karim’s Mishkatul-Masabih, Vol. 3, p. 360). This statement clearly shows that Muhammad himself did not believe in the sinlessness of the prophets.
3. The Command to Muhammad to Ask for Forgiveness.
Not only does the Qur’an teach that many of the former prophets prayed for the forgiveness of their sins but it expressly states that Muhammad himself needed forgiveness for his transgressions:
Know, therefore, that there is no god but God, and ask forgiveness for thy fault, and for the men and women who believe. Surah 47.19
Verily We have granted thee a manifest victory: that God may forgive thee thy faults of the past and those to follow; fulfil His favour to thee; and guide thee on the Straight Way. Surah 48.1-2
Once again Muslim commentators find it hard to reconcile such teachings with the doctrine of the isma of the prophets and their attempts to explain away these verses are hardly successful. The words in Surah 47.19 which Yusuf Ali translates as “and ask forgiveness for thy fault” wastaghfir li-thanbik. In Surah 12.29 the same words are Zulaykah (the Muslim name for Potiphar’s wife) is commanded by her husband to repent of her desire to seduce Joseph. In this case Yusuf Ali translates the expression as “ask forgiveness for thy sin”. There can be no doubt that this is the obvious meaning of the text, but the translator substitutes fault for “sin” in Surah 47.19 purely because it is Muhammad’s own misdemeanours that are spoken of in this verse. The object is to water down the meaning of the word thanb in this case to natural human weaknesses not considered to be actual sins or transgressions. What was a “sin” in Zulaykah’s case conveniently becomes a “fault” in Muhammad’s case even though the same word is used in both cases – another example of an inconsistent Qur’anic exegesis caused by the isma doctrine.
Muhammad Ali says of the word thanb as used in Surah 48.2 that “there is no imputation of sin but only of human short-comings” (The Religion of Islam, p. 199), yet another typical attempt to dilute the meaning of the word so as to sustain the doctrine of Muhammad’s sinlessness. Even this same writer, however, is obliged to concede that the general meaning of the word is “sin” (op. cit., p. 197). The great commentator Baidawi, however, openly explained the words “thy faults of the past and those to follow” to mean “everything blameworthy that has proceeded from you” (Gatje, The Qur’an and its Exegesis, p. 81).
A Western writer is also more to the point when he says:
The doctrine is in flat contradiction of sura 48:2 where it is said ‘that God may forgive thee thy early and later sins’. And, we may add, to the whole spirit and tenor of Muhammad’s words. (Guillaume, Islam , p. 119).
Not only have Muslim writers had to resort to unfortunate twists of exegesis to explain away the word for “sin” in the verses quoted but they have also had to do the same with the word istaghfir which, throughout the Qur’an, means simply to “ask forgiveness”. Once again Muhammad Ali concedes that the word “is generally taken as meaning asking for forgiveness of sins” (op. cit., p.196) but, in Muhammad’s case, he claims that it means to ask “protection” from sin and says:
Prophet Muhammad is said by these critics of Islam to be a sinner because he is commanded to seek Divine protection (istaghfir) for his dhanb (40.55). Now to seek protection against sin does not mean that sin has been committed – he who seeks Divine protection rather guards himself against the commission of sin; and, moreover, the word used here is dhanb which means any human shortcoming. (Ali, The Religion of Islam, p. 199).
Throughout the Qur’an Allah is called al-Ghafur which is always interpreted to mean “the Forgiving”. A different word is used to describe him as “the Protector”, however, namely al-Muhaymin (Surah 59.23). Likewise in one passage in the Qur’an the angels pray to God for the forgiveness of the faithful and their protection from the Fire, using two different words for forgiveness and protection respectively:
Forgive, then, those who turn in Repentance, and follow Thy Path; and preserve them from the Penalty of the Blazing Fire! Surah 40.7
The word for “forgive” here is faghfir, the usual word from the same roots as istaghfir, whereas the word translated as “preserve” (that is, protect) is waqihim. The Qur’an clearly draws a distinction between forgiveness and protection and uses two different words accordingly. No objective interpretation of the use of the word istaghfir in the Qur’an in its various forms can yield the meaning “protection”. This meaning has been casually read into the word by those who cannot accept that the Qur’an commands Muhammad to ask for the forgiveness of his sins. In Surah 5.77 it is said that Christians should turn to God and yastaghfir’unah – “seek his forgiveness” – for their grievous blasphemy (kufr) in saying that there are three gods of whom Allah is one. Once again what is taken in one case to mean an asking for forgiveness for one of the worst of sins (shirk – associating partners with God) has been watered down in Muhammad’s case to seeking “protection” from innocent shortcomings, even though the same word again is used.
Some Muslim writers have another way of getting around the problem. They say Muhammad was only commanded to ask for forgiveness in a representative capacity, that is, not for any sins of his own but only for his people’s errors. This too is contradicted by Surah 47.19 where Muhammad himself is distinguished from the mu’miniina wal mu’minaat, “men and women who believe”, and is commanded firstly to ask for forgiveness of his own sins and then for those of his followers.
Even Muslim writers who seek to interpret the words wastaghfir lithanbik to mean asking protection from mistakes and “shortcomings” must surely admit that this is not the natural and most obvious explanation of the words, viz. “ask forgiveness of your sin”, and also that their interpretation is not really an alternative one but rather an expedient calculated to dampen and soften the real meaning of the expression so as to maintain their doctrine of the isma of the prophets. One thing, however, is quite clear – this doctrine is not derived from the teaching of the Qur’an but rather from popular sentiment.
It need scarcely be stated that theology had long since articulated popular feeling in recognizing the Prophet’s immunity from error and sin. (Grunebaum, Muhammadan Festivals , p. 70) .
The Hadith, however, openly support the teaching of the Qur’an that Muhammad needed to ask for the forgiveness of his sins and record a prayer of Muhammad, part of which reads as follows:
So please forgive the sins which I have done in the past or I will do in the future, and also those (sins) which I did in secret or in public, and that which You know better than I. None has the right to be worshiped but you. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, p. 403).
It seems fair to conclude that the earliest sources of Islam do not teach that the prophets were sinless and, on the contrary, record that many of them, including Muhammad himself, sought for the forgiveness of their sins.
4. The Sinlessness of Jesus Christ in Christianity and Islam.
The Bible teaches quite plainly that one man, Jesus Christ, was without sin (Hebrews 4.15, 2 Corinthians 5.21, 1 Peter 2.25, 1 John 3.5). It is most significant to find that the Qur’an gives much support to this doctrine, for, while it records the prayers of other prophets for forgiveness and even commands Muhammad himself to pray for forgiveness of his sins, it expressly declares that Jesus Christ was sinless. We read that, when the angel appeared to Mary at the time of the Annunciation, he said:
“I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son”. Surah 19.19
The word for “holy” in this verse is zakiyya, a word with the root meaning “purity”. This form of the word principally means “blamelessness” and it is used in this context in the only other verse in the Qur’an where it appears. The Qur’an has a story about Moses in which he undertook a journey with an unnamed companion whose purpose was to guide him into deeper knowledge and understanding. (In the traditions he is named al-Khidhr – “the Green One” – a figure who is said by the Sufis to have appeared at various times to their masters). At length they met a young man and the companion slew him. Moses retorted:
“Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none?” Surah 18.74
The companion simply told him to be patient to which Moses replied that he did not deserve his company if he ever questioned him in such a way again. The word for “innocent” is once again zakiyyah. In this verse it plainly implies one who was blameless of any crime deserving death. In the case of Jesus, however, the word is used by the angel to describe his whole character and it therefore clearly means one altogether blameless, that is, sinless. Thus the Qur’an does have an isma doctrine, but it is applied to no other prophet in the book than Jesus Christ.
It is a remarkable fact that Jesus alone is proclaimed in the Qur’an as the sinless prophet of Islam There is no passage in the Qur’an which attributes sin to Jesus, and no shadow of a suggestion that He had, like Muhammad, to ask forgiveness for himself. (Blair, The Sources of Islam , p. 58).
The Koran, while mentioning the sins of Adam, David, Solomon and other prophets, leaves no doubt as regards the purity of the character of Jesus. (Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, p. 124).
This teaching is backed up by a remarkable tradition in one of the major works of Hadith literature:
The Prophet said, ‘No child is born but that, Satan touches it when it is born whereupon it starts crying loudly because of being touched by Satan, except Mary and her son’. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 6, p. 54).
Later Islamic theology, however, could not tolerate the suggestion that Jesus alone was sinless, even though both the Qur’an and Hadith clearly teach this, and so formulated the isma doctrine in defiance of their teaching. Just as the Church of Rome has sought to make Mary the equal of her Son by claiming that she too was sinless and eventually raised to heaven, so Islam has sought to raise Muhammad to the same status by teaching that he was also sinless and was at one time taken to heaven in the mi’raj. Neither of these teachings, however, has a Quranic foundation and both were apparently invented to prevent the Saviour of the Christian faith from standing head and shoulders above the Prophet of Islam in his very own religion.
An unconscious tendency prevailed to draw a picture of Muhammed that should not be inferior to the Christian picture of Jesus. (Goldziher, Muslim Studies, Vol. 2, p. 346)
The isma doctrine clearly arose on the one hand from theological suppositions and on the other from a determination to raise Muhammad to the level of Jesus Christ. Our study, however, shows that, apart from having no Qur’anic basis, it is actually contrary to its teaching.