Objectivity and impartiality are hard to come by in the charged atmospherics that have littered the reading of Islamic history for about 1400 years. Emotional disturbances clutter the psychology of Muslims when they read or recall their Islamic history simply because they have “hero-worshiped” certain personalities in that generic history.
To be more specific, the historical Shi‘i narrative, by and large, does not lend itself to a positive and non-suspicious understanding of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and (perhaps) ‘Uthman. On the other side of this narrative, the Sunni version of history does not, by and large, lend itself to a disapproving or critical assessment of the dynasties that were imposed upon the Muslims resulting from the civil wars of al-Jamal, Siffin, and Karbala’.
The inability of the Shi‘i mindset to dispassionately identify the sincerity and honesty of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar along with the Qur’anically vouched-for bloc of Muhajireen and Ansar coupled with the failure of the Sunni mindset to candidly identify the disingenuousness and deviousness of the oligarchies beginning with king Mu‘awiyah and the royal Umayyads have crafted a huge gap through which divisive and discordant sectarianism from inside and troublesome and warmongering powers from outside have been eroding Islamic solidarity and mutual understanding for many centuries and consecutive generations.
The end result of this epoch of cumulative ignorance and silent schism is today’s Sunni and Shi‘i supremacist separatists who in their own diverse ways harbor a historical rationale adorned with a biased understanding of the Qur’an and more than a few “hadiths” that condemn the “other” Muslim to virtual and literal death in theory and in practice.
One of the most difficult issues to calmly and analytically deconstruct in this electrifying account of our history is the issue of ‘ismat [faultlessness and/or excellence]. Please excuse this writer for what may appear to some as a departure from our concentration on the first chapters of Imamat/Khilafat. This “departure” is necessary to clear the air on what does ‘ismat really mean. And to do that we have no choice but to seek an answer in the Book of Allah about which there is no doubt and from which there is no escape.
Traditional and typical individuals who have received their understanding of Shi‘ism (in most cases from “customary clergymen” or “orthodox ‘ulama”) understand ‘ismat to mean faultless and flawless in the complete sense of the word. Those who identify as Sunnis understand the word ‘ismat to mean sinless and virtuous with a margin for honest or inadvertent oversight or unpremeditated miscalculation possible. For readers’ information, the literal word “‘ismat” itself is not a Qur’anic expression. There are other words in the Qur’an that are derivatives of or linked to the same family of words that the word ‘ismat belongs to. Nine of them are verbs, and four are nouns. These words can be looked up in a concordance of the accurate Qur’an.
Skipping over the linguistic and etymological details of this word, the verbs and nouns belonging to the word ‘ismat in the Qur’an hover around the following English words/meanings: “take care of” – “guard from harm”, give sanctuary, insulate, shield…
All Sunnis and all Shi‘is proclaim and agree that all of Allah’s Prophets and Messengers are ma‘sums (i.e. have ‘ismat) but with the above caveat: the different definitions of what the word ‘ismat means. So let us review the Qur’anic sound and spotless information about Allah’s Prophets and Messengers and discern whether they warrant the Sunni or Shi‘i definition of the word ‘ismat.
فأكلا منها فبدت لهما سوءاتهما وطفقا يخصفان عليهما من ورق الجنة وعصى آدم ربه فغوى (طه121)
[Eventually] both of them [Adam and his wife] ate from it [the off-limits tree of eternity], and henceforth they became conscious of their private parts and they began to attach pieced-together leaves from the verdant Garden to their bodies [to conceal their nudity] – and [thus] did Adam disobey his Sustainer and fall into grave error. (Taha, 121)
For those of us (Sunnis and Shi‘is) who count Adam as Allah’s first Prophet, how do we apply the word ‘ismat to him in this situation? Was he faultless, was he perfect, was he impeccable as some if not most Shi‘is would ascertain? Or did he, in a moment of human weakness, succumb to his instinct without the premeditated intention of defying Allah (swt) and thus made an acquit-able mistake that does not disqualify him from the meaning of the word ‘ismat – as the Sunnis would understand it. The following sequential ayat helps us with the answer:
ثم اجتباه ربه فتاب عليه وهدى (طه 122)
Thereafter, his [Adam’s] Sustainer selected him by offering him forgiveness, and then guided him [from then onward]… (Taha:122)
From Prophet Adam we go to Prophet Yunus to see if he miscalculated his position of seeming vulnerability as he stood between what appeared to be an overwhelming society of his and a “slow-to-respond” Sustainer:
وذا النون اذ ذهب مغاضبا فظن أن لن نقدر عليه فنادى في الظلمات أن لا اله الا أنت سبحانك اني كنت من الظالمين. فاستجبنا له ونجيناه من الغم وكذلك ننجي المؤمنين. (الأنبياء 87-88)
And [then came] Dhu al-Nun [Prophet Yunus] who took off in a state of rage [against the iniquities of his own people], not realizing We will take him to task; subsequently [after realizing what he had done] he called out from within layers of darkness [out of despair], “There is no deity/authority except You. Exalted are You. Indeed, I have done wrong [to myself].” So, We responded to him and rescued him from the gloom [and hopelessness he was in]: and it is in such a manner that We rescue those committed [to Our power and authority].
A prophet, as per these ayat, confessed that he did wrong. How does that square with the above definitions of ‘ismat?
Let us now take a closer look at an ayat that is speaking to us about one of the five أولي العزم Prophets [who went beyond the call of duty]; i.e. Prophet Nuh. The context of the following ayat is the deluge that inundated Nuh’s society into oblivion. As Nuh is in his ark, and the waters pouring down from the sky and bursting out of the earth were dangerously rising, Nuh calls out to his son saying: “come aboard and don’t be with the deniers of Allah’s power and authority.” His son answers: “but I will find a safe place atop a mountain…” The waves were overwhelming and Nuh’s own son drowned. Now the ayat:
ونادى نوح ربه فقال رب ان ابني من أهلي وان وعدك الحق وأنت أحكم الحاكمين. قال يا نوح انه ليس من أهلك انه عمل غير صالح فلا تسألني ما ليس لك به علم اني اعظك أن تكون من الجاهلين.
And Nuh called out to his Sustainer, and said, “O my Sustainer! Verily, my son is of my family; and, verily, Your promise always comes true, and You are the most just of judges!” [Allah] answered, “O Nuh! Behold, he was not of your family, for, verily, his was an act cruelly unbecoming. And you shall not ask of Me anything whereof you cannot have any knowledge: thus, behold, do I caution you lest you become one of those who are ignorant [of what is right in circumstances like this].” (Hud: 45-46)
Before we go to the next ayat, let us pause for a moment and reflect on the fatherly feeling of Nuh towards his own son. He had just drowned and the fatherly passion that sought to extend a physical family relationship (father-to-son) into Allah’s care and therefore Prophet Nuh pleaded for his own son. He knew that his son was not submissive to Allah’s power and authority saying that he (my son) belongs to my family – he belongs to me (Your Prophet).
Then Nuh “catches himself” and realizes the parting line between a biological family relationship and a theo-ideological relationship. It took Allah’s words in ayat 46 above to “bring Prophet Nuh to his senses”, as it were. Then Nuh says:
قال ربي اني أعوذ بك أن أسألك ما ليس لي به علم والا تغفر لي وترحمني أكن من الخاسرين (هود47)
Said [Nuh], “O my Sustainer! Certainly, I seek refuge with You from [ever again] asking of You anything whereof I cannot have any knowledge! For, unless You grant me forgiveness, and bestow Your mercy upon me I shall be among those who are lost!” (Hud: 47)
There are many more examples in the clarifying Qur’an pertaining to Prophets Musa and Muhammad (pbuh) that shed light on what the word ‘ismat represents. May Allah (swt) unlock our minds from the “religion of tradition” and set free our hearts from the “tribalism of knowledge”.
Say, “O my Sustainer! Build up my knowledge.” (Ta-Ha:114)