Do prophets sin?

The Details of the Question

- In some verses, the Prophet is asked to “ask forgiveness for his sins”. Would it not be contrary to the attribute of ismah?
- One of the attributes of prophets is that they do not commit sins. However, when we read the “History of the Prophets”, we encounter the following examples:
- The Prophet Yunus (Jonah) left the place where he was conveying the divine message without permission from Allah and was swallowed by a fish as a punishment.
- The Prophet Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in Paradise. Are such deeds not regarded as sins?
- Are they not contradictory to their attribute of “not committing sins”? If not, what is meant by it?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

No prophet committed any major sins before or after they became prophets.

However, some prophets made some mistakes called “zallah” by forgetting or by abandoning the better one. (Muvazzah İlm-i Kelâm, p.184; Fıkh-ı Ekber Şerhi, p.154)

The Prophet Adam’s eating the fruit of the forbidden tree in Paradise can be given as an example of a zallah. When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he did not commit a sin in the sense that we know; he abandoned the better one because it was not rendered haram for them to eat the fruit of the tree; so, it is not regarded as a sin. Consequently, he and his wife were deprived of the bounties of Paradise due to this mistake. Since there is no concept of sin and reward in Paradise, it is understood that this sin has a form that is different from what is known.

One of the bounties of Paradise is that there is no need “to go to the toilet” there. (Muslim, Jannah: 15) The Prophet Adam (pbuh) and Hawwa (Eve) did not pee or crap in Paradise because what they ate did not have any waste material. Their private parts were hidden by a garment or luminous light. (Tefsîr-i Kebir, 14/49; Hak Dini Kur’ân Dili, III/2140) To eat the fruit of the forbidden tree would cause their private parts to be uncovered and cause them to pee and crap; that is why, God Almighty prohibited them from eating the fruit of that tree. (Hülasatül-Beyan, II/4748)

As a matter of fact, as soon as they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, their private parts, which they had not seen before, were opened. They started to cover them with leaves because it was not appropriate to leave them uncovered. (See al-A’raf, 7/22)

It is necessary not to forget the share of qadar (destiny) in the incident of Adam’s eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and being sent out of Paradise. The purpose and wisdom of the creation of man by God Almighty was realized only when the Prophet Adam and Hawwa were sent down to the world. Abul-Hasan ash-Shazali states the following about the zallah of the Prophet Adam:

“A sin so full of wisdom that caused the repentance of the people to come up to the Day of Judgment to become legitimate.” (Risale-i Hamidiye, p. 611)

As for the zallah of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah):

After Yunus (pbuh) was appointed as a prophet, he began to invite his people to belief. Although he preached for a long period of thirty-three years, he still had no effect on the people. This situation annoyed the Prophet Yunus. Hoping to get rid of this trouble, he left his people without the permission of God Almighty. A prophet is not allowed to leave his place without the permission of his Lord. With this act, Yunus was regarded as a slave who escaped from his master. (Hülâsatü’l-Beyan, II/4748)

However, this action of the Prophet Yunus should not be understood as escaping from duty or as a rebellion against the person who gave it. Yunus (pbuh) only distanced himself from the people who did not comply with the divine invitation. This act is not considered a mistake for people other than the prophets. It is not a sin that necessitates a penalty for the Prophet.

However, God Almighty advised the Prophet (pbuh) not to behave like Yunus (pbuh) even if remained under difficult conditions as follows:

“So, wait with patience for the Command of thy Lord, and be not like the Companion of the Fish.” (al-Qalam, 68/48)

Yes, it is necessary not to regard the “zallahs” of the prophets as sins because a sin is something that requires punishment. The prophets, on the other hand, will not be punished for their zallahs.

* * *

In fact, like all prophets, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has the quality of “ismah” (being protected from sinning by Allah); so, he is sinless anyway. In that case, our Prophet’s (pbuh) sin, which is declared to forgiven by the following verse

“... that Allah may forgive thee thy faults of the past and those to follow...” (al-Fath, 48/2)

is not a sin that he has actually committed or will commit, but his potential to commit sins because he is a human being. The attribute of “ismah” is a divine protection and mercy preventing this potential possibility of sinning in the prophets from being actualized; The forgiveness in the verse is in this sense.

Since prophets set an example for their ummahs, Allah protected them from committing sins. Despite this, our Prophet (pbuh) not only set an example for his ummah in this regard by performing supererogatory prayers day and night and especially praying a lot, but also showed that worship is not done out of the hope of Paradise or the fear of Hell, but because Allah deserves it and the servant finds spiritual life and peace with it. As a matter of fact, when he was asked why he prayed so much, reminding him that his sins were forgiven in advance, he replied:

“So that I can be a servant who is grateful to Allah as much as I can.” (Bukhari, Tafsir, 48/2)

“…And ask forgiveness for thy fault, and celebrate the Praises of thy Lord in the evening and in the morning.” (al-Mu’min, 40/55)

In the verse above, the Prophet (pbuh) is asked to pray for his sin to be forgiven; In the chapter of al-Fath, he is given the good news that all his past sins are forgiven. (see al-Fath 48/1-7) Tafsir scholars cite this as evidence that the chapter of al-Mumin was revealed before the chapter of al-Fath. Although it is certain that this chapter was sent down before the Conquest, this evidence is not accurate. As a matter of fact, in the chapter of an-Nasr, which is one of the last chapters to be revealed, the Messenger of Allah is commanded to glorify Allah with praise and ask for his forgiveness.

Since our Prophet (pbuh) was innocent (protected from committing sins) like other prophets according to Islamic belief, some tafsir scholars argued that the command “And ask forgiveness for thy fault” is related to his mistakes before prophethood or that the real addressee of this command is his ummah in the person of the Messenger of Allah. Although these interpretations are correct, efforts to drive the Prophet (pbuh) out of this command do not seem meaningful. First of all, repentance and asking for forgiveness are also deeds of worship. As a matter of fact, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) swore that he asked for forgiveness seventy or a hundred times a day. (Bukhari, Da’awat, 3; Musnad, IV/211)

Then, what is the meaning of the word “fault” mentioned in verse 55 of the chapter of al-Mu’min “And ask forgiveness for thy fault” and in verse 19 of the chapter of Muhammad “and ask forgiveness for thy fault, and for the men and women who believe”?

Prophets are innocent; since they set an example for their ummah, Allah protected them from committing sins, and corrected their mistakes on time and prevented them from becoming permanent. Ismah (the innocence of the prophets), which is an important principle of the Islamic faith, prevents us from accepting that the Prophet (pbuh) sinned. Therefore, in the verse it is necessary to interpret the phrase “and ask forgiveness for thy fault...” within the framework of this belief.

The interpretations regarding the issue are as follows:

1. The addressee of the verse is the Prophet (pbuh) but its main target is the ummah.

2. Since the Prophet (pbuh) humbly talked about his own mistakes and sins and always asked Allah’s forgiveness, an expression suitable for this good behavior is used.

3. What is a sin for the Prophet (pbuh) or what he considers a sin is natural and permissible behavior for ordinary people. Indeed, he himself said:

“Sometimes my heart is veiled and I ask Allah’s forgiveness a hundred times a day.” (Muslim, Dhikr, 41)

The word we translate here as “veiling” is explained as “the interruption in mentioning and remembering Allah”. That is, the Prophet (pbuh) lived with the consciousness of Allah at all times, and he considered momentary interruptions in this consciousness a sin and repented of them.

The fact that the Prophet (pbuh) was asked to ask Allah’s forgiveness for all believers was also considered as a proof of his authority to intercede. (For more information on İsmet, see Mehmet Bulut, “İsmet”, DM, XXIII/134-136)

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