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‘Iṣmah or ‘Isma (Arabic: عِصْمَة‎) is the concept of infallibility or "divinely bestowed freedom from error and sin" in Islam.[1] Some Muslims believe that Muhammad and other Prophets possessed ‘iṣmah. Twelver and Ismaili Shi'ite Muslims also attribute the quality to Imāms and Fatima Zahra, daughter of Muhammad. Zaidi Shi`ites however, do not attribute ‘ismah to the Imāms.[2]


Literarily,Ismah means a kind of prevention,[3] but in a quranic dictionary it also means a kind of preservation,[4] that is a power which preserves a person from falling into a sin or even an error.[5] The Quran used the same word with this meaning in Quran,11:43 when the son of Noah thought the mountain can protect him from drowning. Shia and some Sunni scholars believe in the Ismah of prophets even before prophethood (Ismah in every aspect of their life including emotional, behavioral, personal, social, intentional and unintentional). Ismah of prophets and Imams is one of the fundamentals of Shia belief.[6]

Concept of Ismah[edit]

Isma means Sinlessness and counted as an attribute of imams.[7] Ismah literally means protection and in terminology it means that a special grace or lutf of God to a person which enables the person to preserve himself from sins by his own free will.Such a person is called ma'sum.[8] But the Grace or lutf does not disable the ma'sum from committing sins.Ma'sum refrains from sins and mistakes by his own power and will.[9] The concept that Islaam had a sinless Messenger apparently arose from an interpretation of the Qur'an.[10]

According to the Shia view, the successor to the Holy Prophet, besides ruling over the community in justice, must be free from error and sin to be able to correctly interpret the divine law[11][12] so that their followers will not fall into error.[13]

According to Hamid Algar, this ascription is encountered as early as the first half of the 8th century, first century of Islamic calendar, during the prophethood of Muhammad. The doctrine came to exclude the commission on their part of any sin or inadvertence, either before or after their assumption of office. As for Fatimah, her infallibility derives from her being a link between prophethood and imamah, the two institutions characterized by infallibility, as well as by her association with the imams and their attributes in numerous Hadiths. There is minimal agreement among Shia authorities that all fourteen are superior to the rest of creation, including even the major prophets.[14] On one hand Ann Lambton claims that neither the term nor the concept of ismah is in the Qur'an or in canonical Sunni hadith. It was apparently first used by the Imamiyyah, perhaps about the beginning of the second/ eighth century, maintained that the Imam must be immune from sin (ma'sum) .[15] On the other hand Wilferd Madelung claims that purification of Ahl al-Bayt has been guaranteed in The verse of purification in Quran.[16]

According to the Sunni view, neither the term nor the concept of ismah is in the Qur'an or in canonical Sunni hadith. It was apparently first used by the Imamiyyah, perhaps about the beginning of the second/ eighth century, maintained that the Imam must be immune from sin (ma'sum).[17] Among non-Shia Muslims, the doctrine of ‘iṣmah has been rejected by some, such as the Kharijites, who point to the second ayah in the Surah of Al-Fath, in which the God says to Moḥammad (English translation): "That Allaah may forgive thee thy faults of the past and those to follow".[18][19] The Qur'an further states that Muhammad's words are only true and infallible insofar as they communicate the Qur'an itself, and that outside the Qur'an, Muhammad's words may be at fault.[citation needed]

Shia Islam[edit]

According to Twelver Shī'ites, the Fourteen Infallibles (Arabic: معصومونMa‘ṣūmūn) are historical figures who are infallible which means "divinely bestowed freedom from error and sin" in Islam. The Twelver Shī`a believe that Muhammad, his daughter Fatima Zahra, and the Twelve Imams are infallible.[20]

According to Twelver theologians, infallibility is considered a rational necessary precondition for spiritual and religious guidance. They state that since Allah has commanded absolute obedience from these figures they must only order in accordance with Islam. The state of infallibility is based on the interpretation of the verse of purification:

And stay in your houses and do not display your finery like the displaying of the ignorance of yore; and keep up prayer, and pay the poor-rate, and obey God and His Messenger. Allah only desires to keep away the uncleanness from you, O people of the House! and to purify you with a thorough purifying.

Quran 33:33

[21] They argue from the verse of purification [22] as a proof for infallibility of Imams and their specific instances.[23] According to Shia, this verse was revealed in relation to the incident of Ahl al-Kisa which involved only specific members of the Prophet's family.

Furthermore, according to several hadiths from both Shia and Sunni sources which are considered authentic, Muhammad clearly suggested that Ali was protected from sin and error, and that his sayings and actions were consistent with teachings of Islam [24]

Thus they are the fourteen most pure ones, the only immaculate ones preserved from and immune to all impurities.[25] It does not mean that supernatural powers prevent them from committing a sin, but it is due to the fact that they have an absolute submission to God that they do not sin. [20] They have also complete knowledge about God's will, given to them by the First Infallible, the Prophet Muhammad. They are in possession of all the knowledge brought by the angels to the prophets. Their knowledge encompasses the totality of all times. Thus they act without fault in religious matters.[25]

Majlesi as a Shiite theologian on sinless of prophets and imams says that: "They 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 to prophets etc".[26]

He particularly refers to immaculate of Imam as below: "Know that all shiah scholars are agree that the imam is free from all sins, whether great or small, from the beginning of his life until the end, and whether intentional or accidental. No one has objected to this teaching except ibn Babuwaihi and his teacher Muhammad ibn Walid. They considered that it was permissible to believe that before his appointment to the Imamate it was possible a man make a mistake".[27]

Argument by reason[edit]

In Shia doctrine, the status of Imams as "proof of God to mankind" serves as an argument for his infallibility.[28] The Shia scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, regards infallibility as the first requirement for Imams needed to avoid ad infinitum, to preserve the revealed divine law and to disclaim him if he committed any sin.[29]

Ibn Babuyah states, Shi'a believes that the prophets (anbiya'), apostles (rasuls), Imams and angels are infallible (ma'sum); purified from all defilements (dhanbs), and that they do not commit any sin, capital or minor.[15]

Al-Mufid defines ismah in his Tashih al-ietiqad as follows: Ismah is a grace and favour(lutf)of Allah to his Hujjats(Imams), by which they are secured against faults (dhunub) and errors. Ismah is the grace(tafaddul) of God to those who has the ability of being ma'sum. It does not enforce people to do good or to prevent wrong. But God knows to whom give this power, the one who never chooses to disobey him.[15]

Ibn al-Mutahhar's argues : Because of the various needs, man cannot live alone, so he is naturally social. Therefor he can not be satisfied out of society. Although he needs the co-operation of others, pushed by egotism and greed, he also covets what others possess and seeks to dominate over them. Conflict would thus be unceasingly arise unless there would be an Imam who is infallible in his judgments and deeds to judge between them. In al-Alfayn, a work devoted to a detailed discussion on the reasons for the infallibility of the Imam, he repeatedly emphasizes the need for a Ruler(ra'is) to interpretand preserve the shari'a, to prevent men from committing aggression against each other, to restrain tyrants and to help the oppressed. Without a leader chaos would ensue and the Qur'an and the sunnah would not be observed. Inevitably there must be an Imam, immune from error and sin, appointed by God, to clear the dimensions (ahkam) of shari'a.[30]

According to Shia beliefs, for members of society to identify and perform their true duties as human beings, they should have the right understanding of the world and mankind. On the other hand, Islamic rulings should be implemented by a religious government so that man would worship only God and enjoy real justice and freedom on both personal and social level. All of these requirements are accomplished only by a person who was inerrant and protected by God against faults.[31]

Quranic proofs of Isma[edit]

Quran is full of verses which orders us not to obey the unjusts and tyrants, while in this verse "O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result."Quran, 4:59 God instructs us to obey the apostle and the Ulu'l-amr(those vested with authority), even joins their obedience to His own obedience.when their obedience is compulsory, so they are sinless.[32]

Argument by designation[edit]

As for identifying these infallible Imams, the authentic hadith of the two weighty things is used which indicates that the sayings of the Household of the Prophet complete the knowledge of Prophet's religion and therefore hold authority. It also follows from the hadith that his Household are inerrant in explaining teachings of Islam[33]

Khomeini's interpretation[edit]

A more recent and very influential Shī‘ite interpretation of ‘iṣmah by Ruhollah Khomeini holds that truly faithful and pious Muslims — not just Prophets and Imaams — could possess ‘iṣmah because it could be created by "nothing other than perfect faith."[34] He preached that

infallibility is borne by faith. If one has faith in God, and if one sees God with the eyes of his heart, like the sun, it would be impossible for him to commit a sin. .... In front of an armed powerful [master], infallibility is attained.[35]

Scholar Hamid Dabashi argues Khomeini's theory of ‘iṣmah from faith was connected to his theory of Islamic government by guardianship of the jurist. If the truly faithful possessed Ismah, and if Khomeini and the most learned and pious Islamic jurists were truly faithful, than this would reassure Shi'ites hesitant about granting the same ruling authority to Khomeini and his successors, that Shi'ites traditionally believed was reserved for the 12th Imam (Mahdi) on his return. According to Dabashi, Khomeini's theory helped "to secure the all-important attribute of infallibility for himself as a member of the awliyah "friends of God" by eliminating the simultaneous theological and Imamological problems of violating the immanent expectation of the Mahdi."[36][37]

Other opinion[edit]

Also Abu Hayyan Tawhidi rejected the doctrine of Ismah as a Sunni Philosopher.[38] Regarding the conception of Ismah in Shi'a doctrine, Imam has a more central role comparing caliph in Sunni political theory.[39]

Perhaps the evolution of this doctrine, as Donaldson suggests, caused Shi'a scholers establish the claims of the Imamat against the claims of Sunni caliphs.So the doctrine was expanded and elaborated.[15]

Though Shi'ism initially began as a movement of political opposition to the Caliphs, eventually the belief developed that the Imams possessed superhuman qualities of sinlessness and infallibility.[40]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.463
  2. ^ Francis Robinson, Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500, pg. 47. New York: Facts on File, 1984. ISBN 0871966298
  3. ^ "کتابخانه مدرسه فقاهت". Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  4. ^ "کتابخانه مدرسه فقاهت". Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  5. ^ Hoseini Al-Milani, Seyyed Ali (2012). Javahero Alkalam fi Ma'arefate Al-Imamat va Imam (first ed.). Qom: Haghayegh. ISBN 978-600-5348-42-2. 
  6. ^ Allame Majlesi
  7. ^ (Blank 1380AP, p. 362)
  8. ^ (Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi 1987, p. 14)
  9. ^ (Lambton in Nasr 1989, p. 98)
  10. ^ Quran 53:1–4
  11. ^ Tabatabaei 1977, p. 11
  12. ^ Nasr, Dabashi & Nasr 1989, p. 102
  13. ^ Tabatabaei 1977, p. 156
  14. ^ Algar 1990
  15. ^ a b c d Lambton 1989, p. 99
  16. ^ Madelung 1998, p. 51
  17. ^ (Lambton in Nasr 1989, p. 99)
  18. ^ Baydawi, Abdullah. "Tawali' al- Anwar min Matali' al-Anzar", circa 1300. Translated alongside other texts in the 2001 "Nature, Man and God in Medieval Islam" by Edwin Elliott Calverley and James Wilson Pollock. pp. 1001-1009
  19. ^ Quran 48:2
  20. ^ a b Dabashi (2006), p.463
  21. ^ Momen 1985, p. 155
  22. ^ 33rd verse of Surah al-Ahzab of Qur'an
  23. ^ Abu Shahba
  24. ^ Tabatabaei 1975, p. 34
  25. ^ a b Corbin 1993, p. 48
  26. ^ (Donaldson 1933, pp. 320–321)
  27. ^ (Donaldson 1933, p. 322)
  28. ^ Dakake 2004
  29. ^ Nasr, Dabashi & Nasr 1988, p. 299
  30. ^ Lambton 1989, p. 102
  31. ^ Tabatabaei 1975, p. 37
  32. ^ tabatabai, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn (1992). Al-mizan 8 (3rd ed.). Tehran: WOFIS. p. 279. 
  33. ^ Tabatabaei 1975, p. 83
  34. ^ Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.463 quoting Khomeini, Jehad-e Akbar (Greater Jihad), pp.44
  35. ^ Khomeini, Jehad-e Akbar (Greater Jihad), pp.44; Islam and Revolution, p.353
  36. ^ Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.465
  37. ^ "Ayatollah Khomeini's Gems of Islamism, Lectures on the Supreme Jihad, (1972)". Retrieved 2013-08-08. 
  38. ^ Madelung, Daftary & Meri 2003, p. 142
  39. ^ Gleave 2004, p. 351
  40. ^ Robinson 1982, p. 46