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There seems to be a commonly held belief that the prophet Muhammad (and the prophets in general) are somehow protected from ever committing any sin. I have seen nothing in the Qur'an to suggest this, nor am I aware of any authentic hadith to support this claim.

It has always been my understanding that the prophets are men like any other, specially chosen by the Almighty to relay His message but not necessarily granted any rights and privileges other than what He has explicitly stated; the Christians for example make a big deal about Jesus being sinless, but they have evidence from their own Scriptures to support this. Even if the other prophets were among the best men of their generation, they would still be susceptible to the same trials and temptations of any other man, and thus to sinning.

Note that I am not asking whether the prophets were forgiven for their sins; God is Al-Raheem so I have no difficulty accepting that. The question is about whether the prophets in general, or Muhammad (PBUH) in particular, ever sinned in the first place.

Where does this Islamic belief of sinlessness come from? Does it have an authentic source?

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See my answer here: islam.stackexchange.com/questions/93/citation-from-hadith/94#94 where we also discuss this. Allah says "follow the Prophet," it doesn't make sense to say that if the prophet (peace be upon him) made mistakes. –  ashes999 Jun 20 '12 at 14:13
    
@ashes999: Can we not follow people who make mistakes? –  Flimzy Jun 20 '12 at 18:56
    
@Flimzy see surah Abasa; the Prophet made a "mistake", but his mistake was minor (frowning at a blind man). He was held to a very, very, very high standard. –  ashes999 Jun 20 '12 at 18:57
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@ashes999: Being held to a high standard, and being sinless, or not making mistakes, are quite different things. Please note I'm not making a claim one way or another as to whether the prophet was sinless. I'm simply pointing out that it's a logical fallacy to claim that one is sinless because he is held to a high standard, or simply because he is a good role model. –  Flimzy Jun 20 '12 at 19:18

5 Answers 5

up vote 28 down vote accepted

(This answer is from a Sunni perspective)

Muslims unanimously agree that ALL the Prophets (may peace be upon them all) were free from any error with regard to conveying the message. In the case of the Prophet Muhammad (saws), Allah says in Surat an-Najm:

Your companion [Muhammad] has not strayed, nor has he erred,

Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination.

The majority of scholars also agree that the Prophet Muhammad (saws) was Ma'sum (free from error) when it came to the major sins, whereas if he was committing a minor sin, he did not persist in doing so when it became clear they were sins and Allah corrected him.

When it came to matters of this life, sometimes he made mistakes (this is different from a sin) - for example when some people were practising cross-pollination to increase yield and he thought it wasn't useful, but then when he was informed the yield was low that year, he said (saws) that it was just his personal opinion and they didn't have to follow something that wasn't on behalf of Allah. Sahih Muslim

Essentially, when it comes to the message of Allah, we believe the Prophet (saws) is free from all errors in delivering it.

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Sounds a little similar to the Catholic doctrine of ex cathedra. –  TRiG Oct 1 '12 at 11:29
    
it is except prophets come along once in a while, wheras there has been an unbroken succession of popes. –  Mozibur Ullah Dec 5 '12 at 6:52
    
but when prophet PBUH said (before he die): take me a paper and pen to sign and document one thing, those two men said: ... Delirium ... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadith_of_the_pen_and_paper –  saber tabatabaee yazdi Jan 13 '13 at 5:56
    
Free from sin/error in conveying the message, but that doesn't mean they were free from other sins (such as lust, lying, cheating, etc). –  Klutch Aug 31 at 2:28
    
@Klutch the Prophets of God are sent as examples to the rest of humankind. They had the highest standards of conduct, and the Prophet Muhammad (saws) in particular is described as the very best of Creation. It is unfathomable that they ever lied or cheated. –  Ansari Aug 31 at 4:25

There's an important concept in Shi'a called "Iṣmah" which is attributed to prophets, Imāms and Fatima Zahra -the daughter of prophet Muhammad (PBUH)-. There are philosophical reasons behind this quality.

  • They're incapable of making errors and mistakes.
  • They're impervious to the temptation to sin.

Why? They're special selected humans by God who guide people to Allah. So what would happen if they committed any sin? People wouldn't trust them and their speech wouldn't have the desirable effect, then the goal of their risalah which is to guide people to God couldn't be fulfilled. Also, this risalah only deserve people whom are the best among humans and this level is called "Iṣmah". See also the related Wikipedia article.

Also note that it doesn't mean that they are not capable of committing a sin:

[...] They are, the most pure ones, the only immaculate ones preserved from, and immune to, all uncleanness. But it is due to the fact that they have absolute belief in God so that they find themselves in presence of God. They have also complete knowledge about God's will. They are in possession of all the knowledge brought by the angels to the prophets (nabi) and the messengers (Rasul). Their knowledge encompasses the totality of all times. Thus they act without fault in religious matters.

... But their faith in God is so strong that they cannot yield to temptation, and sin becomes impossible for them.

Ruhollah Khomeini interpreted this quality of them very nicely:

infallibility is borne by faith. If one has faith in God, and if one sees God with the eyes of his heart, like sun, it would be impossible for him to commit a sin. .... In front of an armed powerful [master], infallibility is attained.

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This answer seems self contradictory. The common English definition of infallible, esp in the context of this question and your phrase "infallible of sin", is directly opposed to your suggested that they would be capable of committing sin. That in turn is then contradicted by the following reference which suggest that it is impossible for them to sin. I suggest you need to define your terms and make it a little clear what point you're trying to actually make here. –  Caleb Oct 8 '12 at 12:35
    
@Caleb: I might have used the wrong English word to describe what I meant. I'll edit my answer later on. Thanks. –  Gigili Oct 9 '12 at 4:44
    
You say they are incapable of making sin and then they are capable of doing that. Plz correct your answer. –  rowman Oct 10 '12 at 20:55
    
@DavidWallace, Yes your point is exactly true and the answer is +1 by me as well, but I have problem with this sentence: They're incapable of making errors and mistakes Maybe my English is not good enough then, as I don't read the correct infallibility that the author is trying to propose. –  rowman Oct 11 '12 at 8:21

Prophets, according to the Qur'an, are infallible. This doesn't mean that they can't commit sin, rather it means that they won't because they are of the highest spiritual and intellectual consciousness.

As for mistakes, they don't make mistakes in religious matters either, however there have been debates regarding mistakes in non-religious matters.

In the Qur'an, it testifies that prophet and his household were purified a thorough purification:

And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance. And establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah intends only to remove from you the impurity , O people of the [Prophet's] household, and to purify you with thorough purification.
[Sahih International 33:33]

Also in the Qur'an, Allah(swt) says that Sheytan promised to stay away from those who were infallible as he said that he would deceive everyone except Allah's chosen servants:

Except, among them, Your chosen servants.
[Sahih International 15:40]

This also makes logical sense: how can you have clean water (Qur'an) through an impurfied carrier? Prophets must be clean of error or sins so they don't get questioned.

If they are open to make mistakes (about religious matters), then one can question the entire religion because how does one know if the prophet is making a mistake about his Sunnah or even the Qur'an. Hence a comprehensive approach of the holy Qur'an and logic only justifies spiritual and intellectual perfection of prophet. In an authentic hadith, the prophet said that he was "the city of knowledge (and wisdom)". Such a claim can only come from one who is infallible.

Allah (swt) also said in many verses of the Qur'an that we need to follow the prophet as we follow Allah and submit to him (i.e the prophet).

Surely Allah and His Angels shower prayers on the Prophet. O you who have believed, pray for for him, and submit in full submission.
[Dr. Ghali 33:56]

In the Qur'an, in order to find answers one should, in my humble opinion, read it more comprehensively. Humans can have a million questions, and if they were looking for a million direct and easy answers the Qur'an would never finish. Therefore reading it with open eyes, heart, and intellect can lead to many answers.

And Allah (swt) knows the best.

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Let me answer you somewhat fundamentally. Allah is the Just so never choose what to create or what to let not created, He creates just whatever that is creatable and having cause for its creation (addressing the Causality). Now let do some Q/A:

  1. Is it possible for a creature to have intellect but not desire? Yes. the examples are angels. (Angels have the power to decide and choose, like us the humans, they are not mechanical machines, but no desire that they have there is no reason for them not to accept what is intellectually a must for them, e.g. when Allah commands them to do something they know they must do that and also have no desire-kind barrier to withstand their will obeying Allah!)
  2. Is it possible for a creature not to have intellect but only desire? Yes. the examples are animals. (Note that there is a big difference between intellect and intelligence. The animals have been given instincts by which they can decide what to do and what not to do, so again they have will and can decide, they are not mechanical machines either.)
  3. Is it possible for a creature to have both intellect and desire together? Yes. the examples are humans and Jinns.

The Humans and Jinns have intellect by which they should decide between what they know being intellectually a must and desire which should be fulfilled to the extent again allowed by intellectual power, but one can also neglect intellect and decide based on desire, an example is that we the humans have been given a material body, which needs to be fed with water and minerals and proteins and etc. but the scientists of even the present modern era are just trying to study this body, what it is consist of, what is good for what limb, and etc., that to say in short, we do not know our own bodies! So how are we expected to keep it safe? Note that this question is more critical for all the people living behind the present era, with a lower medical knowledge that they had. Allah has thus given us a kind of instinct, the power to understand the tastes and a desire to the taste which is required by our bodies, we sometimes feel like we need something salty, no matter how much that we eat sour things we would still need to eat enough salty things to be satisfied. This desire is for our benefit for us to feed our bodies to the extent that the bodies need but we was not to know it otherwise. Eating to the extent we need using this desire is itself an intellectual decision! However, what do we have done especially in the modern societies? We have changed the whole thing into an "eating industry" and even worst "taste industry". First of all, we do not eat because we need it but we eat because a food is delicious! Second, we do not eat to the extent that we need but to the extent that we can eat, extremely according to our desire and wish! Third, we do not eat healthy things but we only eat tastes! For example the natural Salt (full of minerals) which is among the main foods of old nations now has been purified and turned to be only an additive that if we eat more than is allowed by the physicians then we would be led to many deceases! They call it improvement while it is of course not an improvement!

Anyway, even prophets had the evil desires with themselves (see surah An-Naas, they are intrinsically humans like others), they could choose to do wrong, but they have always chosen to live the way Allah expect from them, that is, to choose intellect over desire whenever that there arise a contradiction between them. They are infallible means they never choose to to do wrong and Allah would help them and everyone else who wish so. The mechanism is just too simple. You choose to do right or wrong, the first decision would be hard but you choose your choice, then again you come to the same contradiction of intellect and desire, this time you have a preferred choice, so you may be more easily choose your last choice rather than to change it. If you treat yourself to always do right then it will become your manner and you will be infallible in the sense of all the prophets. However, one always have the possibility to choose its way to deviate, in one way it is called return (Tubah) and in the other way it is called being seduced.

Godspeed

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Allah instructed Muhammad to ask forgiveness for his sin

So know, [O Muhammad], that there is no deity except Allah and ask forgiveness for your sin and for the believing men and believing women. And Allah knows of your movement and your resting place.. Surat Muhammad 47:19

Muhammad was a human like the rest of us, and was not sinless according to the Allah (The Qur'an itself).

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