ʿIṢMAH . The Arabic term ʿiṣmah means "immunity" from sin or error. ʿIṣmah is discussed by the Sunnīs in relation to the Prophet Muḥammad and other prophets, and by the Shīʿah in relation to not only the prophets but, most importantly, the imāms, the charismatic descendants of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib who stand at the center of Shīʿī piety. The paths taken by Sunnīs and Shīʿah with regard to ʿiṣmah throw much light on the different development and character of the two traditions.
The idea of immunity is latent in the tendency of Homo religiosus to attribute outstanding qualities to special persons. This tendency was already evident in the first centuries of Islam in efforts to dissociate Muḥammad from polytheism in his early life and Ṣūfī and Shīʿī exaltation of the saints and imāms. It was, however, only in the eighth century (ah second century), under the influence of theology and in answer to problems raised by possible error on the part of religious authorities, that immunity was made explicit and expounded systematically. This development may be contrasted with the case of Judaism, in which theology did not gain as much importance and the question of inerrancy was consequently not raised, so that the prophets and other revered figures were largely left with their errors and sins.
The word ʿiṣmah itself is not found in the Qurʾān, but other forms of the base root ʿ-s-m do appear, for example, "God will protect [ʿ-s-m ] you from the people" (5:67), "those who take refuge [ʿ-t-s-m ] in God" (4:146). It thus seems likely that the choice of the term for immunity, in which God "protects" certain persons from error, was indirectly suggested by the Qurʾān; related words are used in similar senses before ʿiṣmah ever acquires a technical sense—for example, a community can be ma ʿṣūm, specially taken care of or "protected" by God.
The Qurʾān itself, however, is unconcerned with problems raised by the capacity for error or sin on the part of the prophets whose stories it relates. One passage (80:1–10) even tells how the Prophet of Islam was reproached by God for turning away from a blind man who wanted to hear his preaching. Apart from tendencies toward semi-deification seen in some Shīʿī and Ṣūfī circles, early Muslim nontheological tradition also accepted prophets and other revered persons as merely human, albeit outstanding humans who may work miracles. The canonical books of Sunnī ḥadīth, collected in the mid- to late ninth century, contain traditions that freely admit lapses on the part of the prophets (e.g., Adam's sin, the Prophet's warning to his followers that he might judge in error). Early Shīʿī ḥadīth texts—including the mid-tenth-century canonical al-Kāfī —do not refer to ʿiṣmah or construct any theory of immunity, even as they virtually imply it by referring to the pure essence and perfect knowledge of Muḥammad and the imāms. Later Shīʿī works that wish to uphold ʿiṣmah are compelled to rely mostly on statements attributed to the imāms that do not address the subject directly, or on clearly late material such as long disquisitions attached to the eighth imām, ʿAlī al-Riḍā. Nevertheless, by the mid-eighth century the belief that the imāms, or at least ʿAlī, did not commit any fault was already attributed to an unnamed group of Shīʿah. The belief must have been an extremist one, for these persons did allow that the Prophet committed faults. The pioneering Shīʿī theologian Hishām ibn al-Ḥakam (d. 179/795–796) then begins to systematize this belief, explaining that the Prophet may sin because he can be corrected by revelation (which the imāms cannot); Shīʿī sources also credit Hishām with describing the quality that prevents sin as freedom from all covetousness, envy, anger, and appetite, and calling it "ʿiṣmah."
By at least the late eighth century, immunity was also taken up by the great rationalist theologians of Islam, the Muʿtazilah, perhaps initially because of contacts with Shīʿah but finally because of a certain fit with the Muʿtazilī worldview. The Muʿtazilah insisted that a just God was bound to do the best for his creatures, and thus, they concluded, he would not allow revelation to be compromised through faults on the part of its bearers. Because the aim of the Muʿtazilah was not to idealize any personality but to secure a principle of their system; they spoke of the prophets altogether, not even necessarily privileging Muḥammad. Rigorous logic caused them to extend ʿiṣmah to any circumstance that might damage that principle, to the time not only after but also before a prophet's mission and to "any trait," as the Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār puts it in the eleventh century, "liable to cause aversion."
The Shīʿī theological argument for ʿiṣmah was finally assembled as they themselves adopted the Muʿtazilī rationalist worldview. The argument was that God could not grant supreme authority, whether in religion or temporal rule, to any person liable to error or sin, because such persons would then lead others into the same error, which would mean that God had failed to do the best possible for his creation and was thus not perfectly just. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, there must necessarily exist persons who are immune to whom such authority may be given; and these are none other than the prophets and their successors, the imāms, to whom complete allegiance is consequently owed. This is the basic argument of the Shīʿī doctrine of immunity to this day.
The theological notion of ʿiṣmah was entirely in harmony with veneration of the imāms and soon spread over the rest of the tradition. Early-tenth-century exegetical works such as the tafsīr s of ʿ Ayyāshī and Qummī are unconcerned with the errors and sins of prophets related in the Qurʾān; modern editors add long notes to "correct" them on this point. Not long after, however, the traditionist Ibn Bābawayh (d. 991) presents textual instead of rational proofs to establish the necessity (wujūb ) of immunity, also pointing out that because immunity is an inner quality, it is only through the designation of the text (naṣṣ ) that the maʿṣūm can be known. The scholars move on to treat the many problematic passages of the Qurʾān and tradition; Shaykh Ṭūsī (died c. 1067), for instance, argues that it is not possible that Muḥammad would have turned away from the blind man, since that would be contrary to his demonstrated character and prophetic mission, the one who turned away being rather one of the Quraysh nobles hostile to him. Proof texts for ʿiṣmah are also adduced, for example, Qurʾān 33:33: "God wills, O People of the Household, that all impurity be removed from you and that you be cleansed most thoroughly."
ʿIṣmah entered Sunnism also from the direction of theology. It is first mentioned in the tenth-century Ḥanafī creed Fiqh Akbar II (in which some scholars have also detected Muʿtazilī influence). Sunnī theologians continued to affirm immunity, but they were more reticent than their Muʿtazilī and Shīʿī counterparts, for they were not as willing to undertake the extensive interpretation of the scriptures required to make them accord with ʿiṣmah, and they were also wary of blurring the boundary between human and divine. Thus, many Sunnīs allowed sin and error (excluding unbelief) before the prophets' missions, and even minor sins after, though with some added proviso, such as that they would be unintentional or not of the kind that would affect their preaching.
Sunnī scholars had originally been drawn into giving qualified assent to the doctrine of ʿiṣmah by the problem laid before them of establishing a guaranteed starting point for religion. Already by the eighth century, however, they found a partial escape by locating immunity in the consensus (ijmāʿ ) of the scholars, as expressed in the ḥadīth, "My community shall never commit an error." This solution had the added virtue of securing the ongoing process of the tradition, and the Shīʿah were later to adopt a version of it by asserting that the unanimous consensus of their own scholars was certainly correct, since the infallible Twelfth Imām was also a scholar hidden among them.
Though the groups most attached to the literal meaning of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, the Ḥanbalīs and extremist "Ḥashawīyah," were drawn by their fideism toward some acceptance of the prophets' sins, the grandfather of modern Ḥanbalī-Wahhābism, Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), does affirm ʿiṣmah. The Wahhābīs are fiercely opposed to any veneration of humans, including the Prophet; but they too have been compelled to admit ʿiṣmah in order to secure the Qurʾān and especially, ḥadīth on which they rely so heavily. Thus, Shaykh Bin Bāz, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1999, explains that all the prophets were maʿṣūm in that which they communicated from God, and that Muḥammad was immune from major sins, though not from minor sins or error in worldly affairs concerning which he did not express certainty or issue any command—in which case God made him aware of the sin or error so that he then desisted from it.
The Shīʿah have tended to maximize immunity. This tendency is driven partly by the theological impulse toward systematization; the logic of ʿiṣmah in order for it to hold must be applied to all bearers of revelation and all circumstances in the life of a maʿṣūm. Thus, the Sharīf al-Murṭadá (d. 1044 or 1045) composed a book entitled Complete Exoneration of [All] the Prophets and Imāms; and the immunity of the maʿṣūm s is finally extended not only to the time before their missions but even unintentional commission of minor sins and (against all other Muslim opinion) inadvertent error (saḥw ). Immunity for the Shīʿah also embraces nonreligious affairs. Modern Shīʿ ī scholars continue to produce a considerable literature explaining and defending ʿiṣmah.
The Shīʿī focus on ʿiṣmah is driven primarily, however, by veneration of the imāms, and here it becomes absolutely central to Shīʿī piety, in which the twelve imāms, the Prophet, and Faṭimah are referred to collectively as the fourteen ma˓sums. Any questioning of immunity would be for Twelver Shīʿah a very great heresy, partly because of the deep sectarian emotions attached to it. Thus, opponents of the controversial Lebanese cleric Sayyid Muḥammad Faḍlallāh have accused him of undermining the prophets' ʿiṣmah, a charge he has strongly denied.
Contemporary popular Sunnism has been pulled in the opposite direction. Partly under the growing influence of the spirit of Wahhabism, Sunnīs are likely, while still venerating the prophets, to insist on their humanity, one of the Qurʾanic proof texts commonly cited being "I [Muḥammad] am only a mortal like you…" (18:110).
For the positions of additional sects and thinkers, including Shīʿī groups who have held views different than those of the majority Twelvers, refer to W. Madelung and E. Tyan's "ʿIṣmah" in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., edited by H. A. R. Gibb, vol. 4, p. 182 (Leiden, Netherlands, 1977).
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