The Allegorical Verses of the Holy Qur’an about the Ismah of the Prophets
By: Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi
After explaining the meaning and importance of 'ismah for the prophets and messengers of Allah which is also supported by the Qur'anic verses we quoted above, some people become confused when they come across verses which give an impression that Adam and other prophets committed some sins.
This confusion will only be clear if we realize that the Qur'anic verses, according to the Qur'an itself, are of two types: He is the one who sent upon you the book: some of its verses are clear (muhkamât)—these are the basis of the Book, while others are allegorical (mutashâbihât).
“As for those in whose hearts is perversity, they follow the allegorical verses, seeking to mislead and seeking to give (their own) interpretation. None know their (i.e., allegorical verses') interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge…” (3:7)
Those who do not differentiate between the clear and the allegorical verses will surely get confused when they apparently find two conflicting messages from the verses of the Qur'an. The issue of 'ismah is one of those issues in which people have become victim of confusion.
* * *
The situation, at this stage of our discussion, is as follows:
1) Our earlier discussion concluded that the divine guides must be immaculate and above reproach.
2) Many verses of the Qur'an support this view, as mentioned above.
3) But there are some verses of the Qur'an that apparently attribute sins and wrongdoings to some prophets.
What should be done?
We must accept those verses that are supported by our reason as the clear (muhkamât) verses. And the other verses should be considered allegorical (mutashâbihât) and their true meaning must be sought in the light of the muhkamât, the teachings of the Prophet, and the Imams of Ahlul Bayt who are the twin of the Qur'an by virtue of the famous saying of the Prophet that “I am leaving two precious things among you [for guidance]: the Book of Allah and my Ahlu 'l-bayt.”
In the next lesson, we will study those verses and see how can we interpret them and, at the same time, hold on to our belief in the infallibility of the prophets.
 Ibn Hajar al-Makki, as-Sawa'iqu 'l-Muhriqah, chapter 11, section 1.
The Case of Adam (a.s.)
It will help us greatly if we, first of all, study the verses of the Qur'an about the creation of Adam, his stay in Paradise, and his coming to the earth.
Chapter 2 (al-Baqarah) verses 30-39: The Creation
When your Lord said to the angels, “I am going to place a vicegerent on the earth,” the angels said, “Will You place on the earth the one who shall act wickedly in it and shed blood; whereas we sing Your praise and glorify You?” Allah said, “Surely I know what you do not know.”
And [after creating Adam] Allah taught Adam all the names. Then He presented those to the angels and said, “Tell me the names of these if you are true [in what your assumption that you are more superior than Adam].” They said, “Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. You are surely the All-Knowing, the Wise.” [Then] He said, “O Adam! Tell them the names of those [persons].” When Adam told them those names, Allah said [to the angels], “Didn't I say to you that I know the unseen things of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you manifest and what you hide.”
And [remember] when We said to the angels, “Prostrate before Adam.” All of them prostrated except Iblis, who refused and was haughty, and [thus] he became one of the unbelievers.
[After creating Hawwa}, We said, “O Adam, Dwell you and your wife in the Garden and eat from it [freely] as many [things] as you wish; but do not approach this tree, otherwise you will become one of the ¨alimeen ÇóáÙøóÇáöãöíúäó .”
But the Shaytan made them slip (ÇóÒóáøóåõãÇ) from that [Garden by luring them to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree] and thus got them out from the state [of felicity] in which they had been.
So We said [to Adam, Hawwa, and the Shaytan that, “All of you] get down [from the Garden to the earth] some of you being the enemies of the other, and there is on the earth your abode and the necessities [of life] for a [fixed period of] time.” [Adam felt ashamed and intended to ask Allah's forgiveness.] So Adam learnt some words from his Lord, and Allah turned to him mercifully (ÊóÇÈó Úóáóíúåö). Surely He is the Most- Forgiving, the Merciful. We said, “All of you get down from the Garden. [Once you are on the earth], a guidance will certainly come to you from Me: whosoever follows My guidance, there will be no fear for them nor shall they grieve. But those who disbelieve and reject Our revelation, they are the inmates of the Fire, in it they shall abide.”
Chapter 7 (al-A'râf) verses 19-25
[Allah said,] “O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden and eat from wherever you wish; but do not approach this tree, otherwise you will become one of the ¨alimeen ÇóáÙøóÇáöãöíúäó .”
Then the Shaytan instilled temptation into them so as to reveal to them their private parts that were hidden from them. He said, “Your Lord has only prohibited you from this tree lest you both become rulers, or lest you become immortals.” [To ensure that his temptation will work, the Shaytan] swore to them both that, “Truly, I am a sincere adviser for you.” Thus he misled them by delusion.
So when they tasted [the fruit of] the tree, their private parts became manifest to them, and both of them started to cover themselves with the leaves of the Garden. Their Lord called out to them, “Did I not prohibit both of you from this tree and say to you that the Shaytan is your open enemy?”
They said, “Our Lord! We have been unjust to ourselves (¨alamna ÙáãäÇ ÃäÝõÓóäÇ); and if You do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we shall surely be among the losers.”
Allah said, “Get down [to the earth], some of you being the enemies of the others; and there is on the earth your abode and necessities [of life] for a time.” He said, “Therein you shall live, therein you shall die, and from it you shall be raised [again].”
Chapter 20 (Ta Ha) verses 116-126
And [remember] when We said to the angels, “Prostrate before Adam,” all of them prostrated except Iblis who refused and was haughty.
Therefore, We said, “O Adam! this [Shaytan] is an enemy to you and your wife. So do not let him expel you from the Garden, otherwise you will be uncomfortable (ÊÔÞì): in it [i.e., the Garden] you shall neither be hungry nor naked, and you shall neither be thirsty therein nor struck by the sun's rays.”
But the Shaytan instilled temptation to him by saying, “O Adam! Shall I guide you to the tree of immortality and a kingdom which will not decline?” When [they] both ate of that tree, their private parts became manifest to them and both of them started to cover themselves with the leaves of the Garden. Adam disobeyed (ÚóÕì ) his Lord, and so he erred (Ûæì). Then his Lord chose him, and then He turned to him and guided him.
[Then] Allah said [to Shaytan and Adam], “You both get down from this [Garden}, some of you being the enemies of the other. [On the earth], a guidance will certainly come to you from Me, and then whosoever follows My guidance, he shall not go astray nor will he be unhappy. But whosoever turns away from My reminder, then he shall surely have a wretched life and we shall resurrect him blind.”
Review of Adam’s Story
1. According to the experts of Islamic jurisprudence, the orders given by Allah are of two types:
· Al-amr al-mawlawi, a legislative command. Such orders must be implemented; and, if someone disobeys such a command, then he is committing a sin and is liable to be punished. For example, the command to “say the daily prayers” or “do not eat the pork” is of such nature. Neglecting the daily prayers or eating of the pork is a sin and Allah can rightly punish the sinner.
· Al-amr al-irshadi, an advisory command. Such orders are of advisory nature; their purpose is to inform the people about its consequences. However, if someone disobeys such an order, then he is not committing a sin; of course, he will have to face the consequences of not following the advice. For example, the command to “say bismillah when you slaughter the chicken” is of advisory nature. Now, if someone slaughters the chicken and neglects the saying of “bismillah,” then has he committed a sin? No, he has not committed a sin nor is he liable for a punishment for not saying the “bismillah” at that time. However, he will lose the right to eat that chicken; that chicken cannot be eaten by a Muslim. Another example: a person comes to his doctor complaining of cough. The doctor advises his patient to drink a certain medicine, a cough syrup. Now if the patient ignores that advice, then he is not committing a sin or a crime; but he will surely suffer the consequence — his illness will be prolonged and his health might deteriorate.
Conclusion: not all commands of Allah are of obligatory or prohibitive nature. The advice given to Adam and Hawwa was not of the legislative nature. It was not that that particular tree and its fruit themselves were forbidden. The prohibition of going near that tree and eating its fruit was al-amr al-irshadi. And going against such an order is not a sin; at most, the doer will have to face the consequences of ignoring that advice. In case of Adam and his wife, the consequence they faced was cancellation of their tenure as guests of Allah in the Paradise and its comforts. Remember that they were not supposed to stay in the Paradise forever; they were created for the earth, and their stay in the Paradise was meant to be temporary.
2. The Garden/Paradise is not the place for test and trial. It is this earth on which human beings have been destined to go through test and trial by obeying the commands of Allah. The concept of sinning in case of human beings is connected to the worldly life.
In the story of Adam itself, Allah makes this point clear when He orders Adam to go to the earth—He said, “You both get down from this [Garden], some of you being the enemies of the other. [On the earth], a guidance will certainly come to you from Me, and then whosoever follows My guidance, he shall not go astray nor will he be unhappy. But whosoever turns away from My reminder, then he shall surely have a wretched life and we shall resurrect him blind.” (20:126)
The order given to Adam in Heaven is not same as the orders given to human beings in this world—it is disobedience of the orders given on this earth that constitutes sin.
Finally, the Shaytan himself knows that he does not have the power to mislead the prophets, the messengers, and those who are graced with purity by Almighty Himself. When he was given respite by Allah, he declared the following: “So I swear by Your Might (O Lord) that I will surely mislead them all together except the devoted servants of Your's from among them.” (38:82-3; 15:39-40) And Allah responds to him by saying, “…As for my servants, you have no power over them except those who follow you from among the misled people…” (15:41) The Satan himself knew the limitation of his influence upon the chosen servants of Allah in this world.
3. Those who believe that Adam committed a sin, describe the eating of the forbidden fruit as the “sin” and Adam's expulsion from the heaven as the “punishment”. However, this relationship between the sin and its punishment is not valid because of two reasons:
Firstly, Adam was destined to come to the earth anyway. Allah had declared even before creating Adam that “I want to place a vicegerent on the earth.” So coming of Adam to the earth is not a punishment; whether or not he ate the forbidden fruit, Adam would have come to the earth anyway. So that was not a punishment.
Secondly, if coming of Adam to the earth was a “punishment” of eating the forbidden fruit, then he should have been returned to the paradise after Allah “forgave” him. Forgiveness means “canceling the punishment”—Adam should have been taken back to the paradise. This did not happen, which proves that Adam's coming to the earth was not a “punishment”; and eating was not a “sin”.
4. What about the words in the story Adam that imply that he committed sin?
After studying the issue of 'ismah from the Qur'anic point of view, if we come across such words we have to interpret them in a way that they are in harmony with the other verses of the Qur'an. Now let us look at three such words that have occurred in the story of Adam.
First: the word ”¨alimeen ÇáÙÇáãíä“ is from ¨ulm Ùáã. This word has four meanings: (a) to put something in a wrong place; (b) to oppress; (c) to make haste; and (d) to come to harm.
We see that the last two meanings of the word are in harmony with what we explained about 'ismah. For example, verse 2:35 would read like this: We said, “O Adam, Dwell you and your wife in the Garden and eat from it [freely] as many [things] as you wish; but do not approach this tree, otherwise you will be one of those who put themselves into harm.”
Here, “harm” would mean facing the difficulties of the earthly life and losing the comforts of the heaven.
”…otherwise, you will be one of those who make haste.” Here, “making haste” would mean that they were eventually to go to the earth but by eating from the forbidden tree they hastened their departure to a place where they will lose the comforts of the Garden.
This meaning of the word ¨alimeen ÇáÙÇáãíä is supported by the next verse that says that the Shaytan “got them out from the state [of comfort] in which they had been.” Also the verse 20:117 supports this interpretation: “O Adam! this [Shaytan] is an enemy to you and your wife. So do not let him expel you from the Garden, otherwise you will be uncomfortable: in it [i.e., the Garden] you shall neither be hungry nor naked, and you shall neither be thirsty therein nor struck by the sun's rays.” In other words, here food, clothing and shelter are readily provided for you; you will lose these comforts on the earth. Here everything is provided but there you will have to work for yourselves.
Second: the word ÚóÕóì means “disobeyed”. This does not necessarily imply sin because disobedience can be attributed to two types of commands: al- amr al-mawlawi (a legislative command) or al-amr al-irshadi (an advisory command). If a person goes against the advisory command, then he has “disobeyed” but not “sinned”. We have already explained that commands of Allah do not always have the force of obligation or prohibition. And, by keeping in mind those verses which prove the 'ismah, we have no choice but to interpret this word as “disobeyed the advisory command”.
Third: Similarly, the word Ûóæóì means “he erred”. But this does not necessarily mean sin. It can easily be applied to at-tarku 'l-awla which is possible for a prophet to do. At-tarku 'l-awla (ÊÑß ÇáÃæáì) means “leaving the more appropriate behaviour”. “Adam erred” would mean that even if the command of Allah did not carry the force of legislative prohibition, still Adam should have obeyed it. In disregarding the advisory command of Allah, Adam is guilty not of a sin but of not living up to the appropriate behaviour which is expected from a prophet or messenger of God.
5. If Adam did not commit a sin, then why does Allah talk about repentance for Adam and forgiveness from Himself, and uses so strong words as
ÇáÙÇáãíä and ÚÕì etc?
Firstly, When a prophet like Adam commits at-tarku 'l-awla, it is quite appropriate for him to ask Allah for pardon—not necessarily for a sin but for an inappropriate behaviour. So “repenting” does not necessarily mean that Adam must have committed a sin; it is quite appropriate rather advisable even after committing at-tarku 'l-awla.
Secondly, the use of harsh words by Allah in describing the story of Adam is acceptable by keeping in mind the status of Adam. Although Adam did not commit a sin, it was improper for him to adopt an inappropriate behaviour. The people with high ranks are expected to live by the standard that is higher than that of the normal human beings. As the saying goes: the virtuous deeds of the pious are considered 'sins' by those who are nearest to God — hasanâtu 'l-abrâr sayyi'âtu 'l-muqarrabin.
 See al-Munjid, the famous Arabic dictionary that gives following meanings to ad-dulm:
ÇáÌæÑ¡ æÖÚ ÇáÔíÁ Ýí ÛíÑ ãæÖÚå¡ ßá ãÇ ÃÚÌáÊå Úä ÃæÇäå
The Case of Prophet Ibrahim (a.s.)
There are some verses in the Qur'an that apparently attribute sins and wrong doings to Prophet Ibrahim (a.s.). We shall look at the three most important such examples.
Chapter 6 (al-An'am) verses 75-80
[Remember] when Ibrahim said to his uncle, Azar, “Do you take idols for gods? Surely I see you and your people in manifest error.” Thus We were showing Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth so that he might be of (al-muqinin) those who are sure [of their faith].
So when the night outspread over Ibrahim, he saw a star; he said, “This is my Lord.” But when the star set [in the morning,] he said, ”[This cannot be my Lord because it has passed away,] I do not like the transitory [gods].”
[On the next night,] when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my Lord.” But when the moon set he said, “If my Lord had not guided me, then I shall surely be of (adh-dhaliyn) the people who have gone astray.”
[In the morning,] when Ibrahim saw the sun rising, he said, “This must be my Lord [because] this is greater [than the star and the moon!]” But when the sun set, he said, “O my people, surely I am free from what you associate [with Allah.] I have sincerely turned myself to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, and I am not one of the polytheists.”
Many historians of religion take Ibrahim as the founder of the monotheistic idea. This definitely goes against the Islamic view that monotheism was the original faith of mankind from the days of Adam (a.s.), and that later on people became polytheists.
The Qur'anic statements quoted above have been used as a proof of the evolutionary phases in Ibrahim from polytheism to monotheism. This is, obviously, an incorrect reading of the Qur'an.
1. This entire passage quoted above actually shows that Prophet Ibrahim was actively engaged in combating idol - and nature-worshipping. Reading the whole passage does not raise any problem about the 'ismah of Prophet Ibrahim. He did not raise the possibility of the star, the moon and the sun being gods as a fact; it was raised only as a part of his method of disproving such a possibility. In debates, it is quite common to initially accept the view of your opponent in order to lead him to your own view.
If you read the first part of the passage where Ibrahim is disputing with his own uncle against idol-worshipping and also Allah's statement that “We were showing…so that he might be of those who are sure [of their faith],” it shows that he was a true believer before he engaged in debate with the idol- and nature-worshippers.
2. Even the passage where he says, “If my Lord had not guided me, then I shall surely be of the people who have gone astray,” is a conditional statement. It says “if” and “then”. And since the first part did not take place, therefore the second part is not relevant.
Chapter 21 (al-Anbiya') verses 62-63
In pursuant of his mission against idol-worshipping, Ibrahim one day smashed all the all idols of the temple except the big one. Then the Qur'an says: [The idol-worshippers] said, “Who has done this to our gods? He surely must be one of the unjust people.” [Some of them] said, “We have heard a youth speaking [ill] of them, and he is known as Ibrahim.”…
[When Ibrahim was brought to the king,] he said, “Rather it was this their leader that has done it— ask the [smashed idols] if they can speak.”
The objection against 'ismah is that if Ibrahim was ma'sum, how could he lie? Again, if we look at the entire passage, we see that Ibrahim wanted to make his people realize that idols are not worth worshipping—if they cannot defend themselves or even talk, then how can they help you.
Secondly, Ibrâhím's answer is conditional: ”…if they can speak.” Ibrâhím's answer was rhetorical and intended to force the people to think. This becomes clearer from the following verse: 21:65-66
…They said, “You know that the idols do not speak.” Ibrahim said, “Well then, do you worship, besides Allah, [the idols] that neither benefit you in any way nor harm you.”
Chapter 2 (al-Baqarah) Verse 260
And [remember] when Ibrahim said, “My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.” Allah said, “What, do you not believe [in resurrection]?” He answered, “Certainly [I believe, I am asking this] so that my heart may be at ease.”
Allah said, “Take four of the birds….”
Some people use this incident as a proof that Ibrahim did not believe in resurrection. This is absolutely incorrect. The question and answer are themselves very obvious that he believed. “Certainly [I believe].”
Then why did he ask for a demonstration of resurrection? Firstly, Ibrahim surely believed in God's power of giving life to dead. However, this was a belief based on the revelation of Allah just as we believe in it based on the information reached to us through the prophets and the Imams.
Secondly, Ibrahim wanted to elevate the level of his belief from “information” to “demonstration”. According to traditions, one day Ibrahim saw a dead fish, half in the water, the other half outside the water. He also saw that sea creatures were eating away one half of the fish and land animals were eating away the other half. This incident made Ibrahim wonder about the issue of resurrection. We are using the word “wonder” not “doubt”. This is when he had the desire of seeing a demonstration of Allah's power of resurrection, and this also explains the way Allah asked him to kill and mix the parts of the four birds.
In conclusion, Ibrahim believed in resurrection before as well as after this event. The difference is that his belief prior to this event was based on the information about the future revealed to him by God; whereas after this event, his belief in resurrection was based on visual demonstration done by him with Allah's permission. This is similar to a Muslim who has been to hajj: before his journey, he believed that the Ka'bah existed; but the basis of his belief changed after his journey—now he has seen the Ka'bah with his own eyes.