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‘Isma, as a theological term meaning immunity from error and sin, is attributed by Sunnis to the prophets and by Shi’is also to the imams. The Infallible is considered as being immune to error in practical matters, in calling people to religion, and in the perception of divine knowledge. 'Isma indicates the ability to avoid acts of disobedience, despite having the power to commit them. ʿIsma also denotes infallibility, in “the total knowledge of the meaning of the revelation and its prescriptions” and, consequently, in absolute authority for instruction. In Shiʿism, it is recognized in the imams, in whom it is innate. It is recognized in Sunnism also, but in respect of the community (ʿIsmat al-Jamaʿa) in its general consensus or ijmaʿ — infallibility in the interpretation of the law, and even in the establishment of new juridical solutions.

In Shi’ism[edit | edit source]

The term and the concept of ʿIsma do not occur in the Quran or canonical Sunni Hadith. They were first used by the Imami Shiʿa, who at least since the first half of the 2nd/8th century maintained that the imam as the divinely appointed and guided leader and teacher of the community must be immune (maʿsum) from error and sin. This doctrine has always remained a cardinal dogma of Imamism. While the early Imami theologian Hisham b. al-Hakam (d. 179/795-6) restricted this impeccability to the imams, holding that prophets might disobey the commands of God and then would be criticized by a revelation, later Imami doctrine always ascribed it equally to prophets and imams. The extent of the immunity was gradually expanded. Ibn Babuya (d. 381/991), representing the view of the traditionalist scholars of Qumm, affirmed that prophets and imams, though entirely immune from major (kabaʾir) and minor (saghiʾir) sins, were liable to inadvertence (sahw), which God might induce in them to demonstrate to humankind that they were merely human. His opinion was refuted by Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 413/1022), who held that prophets and imams after their vocation were immune from inadvertence and forgetfulness (nisyan) while admitting that they (except for the Prophet Muhammad) might have committed minor, not disgraceful (ghayr mustakhaffa) sins before their vocation. Al-Mufid’s disciple al-Sharif al-Murtaza (d. 436/1044), who wrote a book on the impeccability of the prophets and imams, held that they were entirely immune both before and after their vocation. This has become the accepted Imami doctrine, later expressly including immunity from inadvertence. It is, however, admitted that imams might choose the less commendable alternative or neglect admirable supererogatory acts. ʿIsma is commonly defined as a kindness (lutf) bestowed by God and, as in Sunni doctrine, is not a natural quality of prophets and imams. It does not cause avoidance of sin commitment thus, does not invalidate the right of prophets and imams to reward.

The Ismaʿiliyah shares the Imami doctrine of the ʿIsma of imams and prophets. The Zaydiyah do not consider ʿIsma a qualification of the imam, though some later Zaydi authorities have attributed it to ʿAli, Hasan and Hussain specifically.

In Sunnism[edit | edit source]

Outside Shiʿism the ʿIsma of the prophets was first and most consistently upheld by the Muʿtazila. Already al-Nazzam in the late 2nd/8th century taught the impeccability of the prophets, and by the time of al-Ashʿari, immunity from unbelief and major sins both before and after the prophetic mission was considered the unanimous doctrine of the Muʿtazila. There was some dispute as to whether prophets might commit minor sins consciously or not. While al-Nazzam held that the wickedness of prophets reported in the Quran could arise only from inadvertence or erroneous interpretation (taʾwil) of God’s commands, al-Jahiz maintained that they must have been committed knowingly, since unconscious infraction of the divine law in his view was not sinful. In the classical doctrine, since the two al-Jubbaʾis, the extent of the immunity was defined as including all significant sins and minor sins "causing aversion" (munaffira). This definition resulted from the premise that prophecy was an act of kindness incumbent on God for the guidance of humankind and must be protected by Him from any impediments to its effectiveness. Abu ʿAli. al-Jubbaʾi (d. 303/915-6) asserted that even minor acts of disobedience, if intentional, must be considered as causing aversion and admitted only sins by inadvertency or erroneous interpretation. Abu Hashim (d. 321/933) and most later scholars held that intentional minor sins were not necessarily "causing aversion." The immunity applied equally to the time before and after the mission, though Abu ʿAli al-Jubbaʾi was not relatively consistent in rejecting major sins before it.

Ashʿari doctrine on the ʿIsma of the prophets varied, generally moving from a negative attitude toward broader affirmation. Scholars with traditionalist leanings were more reserved in affirming the sinlessness of the prophets since this conflicted with a literal acceptance of passages in the Quran and Hadith. The view later ascribed to al-Ashʿari, that prophets were immune from error and sin after, but not before, their mission is probably not authentic. It reflects, however, the later common Ashʿari doctrine, which restricted the immunity to the time after the mission, admitting both major and minor pins, though not unbelief, before it. Concerning the extent of immunity after the task, the views differed. Al-Baqillani (d. 403/1012), against the Muʿtazili doctrine, denied any rational basis for the claim of ʿIsma of the prophets beyond immunity from intentional lying in the transmission of the divine message, admitting the possibility of errors by inadvertence or forgetfulness. The last admission was rejected by his contemporary Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini and the later school doctrine. Al-Baḳillanfs denial of a rational basis of the claim of immunity from sin was commonly accepted by the last principle, though major sins were excluded based on revealed texts (Isamʿ) or consensus. Ibn Furak (d. 406/1015) held that prophets might commit minor sins intentionally but not significant sins. It is thus evident that ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429/1037) expresses his wish rather than the fact in claiming an Ashʿari consensus affirming the immunity of prophets from all sins after their mission. After him, al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) stated as his personal view that prophets commit minor sins, and al-Juwayni’s disciple al-Ghazali affirmed that prophets commit sins and are obliged to ask God for forgiveness. Even Fakhr al-Din at-Razi (d. 606/1209), who argued at length for the ʿIsma of prophets on rational grounds, admitted unintentional minor sins after, and major sins before, their mission. Against the Ashʿari school tradition, complete immunity of the prophets was upheld by the Qazi ʿIyad (d. 544/1149) and al-Subki (d. 771/1370), the former expressly including the time before the mission.

Maturidi doctrine generally was more positive in claiming sinlessness for the prophets. Although some Maturidi scholars admitted minor sins in prophets, others, especially Samarqand, strictly denied all sins, including "slips" (zallat). No difference was made between the time before and after the mission. The importance given to the doctrine of ʿIsma is reflected by the fact that it is usually included in Maturidi creeds in contrast to Ashʿari and Hanbali ideologies. Under the Saljuqs, the charge of imputing sins to the prophets figured among the accusations against Ashʿarism, which were used to justify its suppression in favour of Maturidi Hanafism.

The doctrine of the sinlessness of the prophets was opposed by traditionalists upholding the literal meaning of the passages in the Quran and Hadith, mentioning their failures. Ibn Karram (d. 255/840), the founder of the Karramiyya [q.v.], expressly affirmed that prophets might commit sins without qualifying their nature. Later Karrami doctrine excluded sins requiring legal punishment (hadd) or impairing probity. The Hanbalis did not adopt the philosophy of impeccability of the prophets. In his profession of faith, Ibn Batta (d. 387/997) emphasizes that the prophets have committed sins, citing relevant passages of the Quran. Later, Hanbali scholars like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751/1350) stressed the ʿIsma of the prophets in respect to their transmission of the revelation but did not include immunity from sins.

Particular views on ʿIsma were developed in Sufi circles in connection with their doctrine of mystical sainthood. Some Sufis from al-Junayd (d. 298/910) to Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 638/1240) have attributed virtually complete impeccability, far beyond the common Sunni doctrine, to Muhammad as the ideal Sufi saint. ʿIsma was also often, against some dissent, attributed by Sunni, Muʿtazili, and Shi’i theologians to the angels.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

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  • Add to the references given in the preceding section: Goldziher, in Der Islam, iii, 238-45
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  • ʿIsma — Brill 5/4/19, 1(31 PM
  • Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Page 6 of 6
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