Prophetic Infallibility, Adam, and the Fall
By Mln. Kamran Sabir (Takmil Graduate, 2019) & Mln. Yaqub Abdurrahman
My Coptic Christian friend asked me the following question: “If we believe the prophets are sinless, how do we explain Adam being exiled from Jannah for eating from the tree?”
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The scriptural evidence in Islāmic theology is the Qurʾān, the Sunnah, and scholarly consensus. As well, definitive logical reasoning is a theological proof. The first is the primary source evidence that obligates belief. Regarding the second, these proofs coherently confirm established certainties in faith and logically affirm them.
Establishing tenets of faith is based on certitude. An unequivocal wording in the Revelation that has been mass-communicated until no error would be possible is a certain truth. Certitude may also come from the established methods of definitive reasoning, which the theologians extrapolated from the Revelation and obvious logical conclusions. Also, there are aspects of some theological discourses that are founded on probabilistic proofs. In defining scholastic theology, Ibn al-Humām said: “It is one knowing what is incumbent to believe -in Islām- based on conclusive evidences and in some instances evidences that are probabilistic.”
In our theological tradition, there are tenets of faith that are absolute, being established in the Revelation and unanimously accepted. For example, we believe that Allāh exists and is One, we believe that He dispatched Prophets beginning with Adam and ending with Muḥammad, we believe that He revealed scriptures to them, we believe in archangels and angels, we believe in the resurrection and the next-worldly dichotomy of Heaven and Hell. These are Islām’s fundamental tenets of faith or in Arabic: uṣūl al-ʿaqāʾid. All these are in the Revelation; furthermore, the wordings that convey them are explicit.
Logical reasoning and rational proofs (ar. adillah ʿaqliyyah) may also lead to definite conclusions. For example, God is preeternal and supposing a likeness between Him and contingencies is a fallacy. This line of reasoning may be utilized to reject any manifestation of such notions. The ruling is in fact obtained from the Revelation: “there is nothing like Him,” which is the underlying proof for the axiomatic premise that accidents associated with non-preeternal entities may not be ascribed unto God.
Some theological discussions do extend into issues that are probabilistic; and thus, carry the potential for some degree of disagreement in interpretive activity. This may stem from that effort when engaging textual evidence, as well as in points of theological argumentation.
What is being mentioned here perhaps indicates to Islāmic theology being structured according to a seeming binal schema. At this juncture, we are not construing such a characterization apropos of Islām’s theological structure. In Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics, there may be theological conversations on the topic of doctrinal schemata – primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrine. The idea of doctrine being divided into cardinal and then secondary, etc., is explicated by some Christians. The point here is not to compare or contrast, rather it is an attempt to explain in a way that may give the questioner a more solid grasp of the discussion.
Respectfully, the authors of this should be understood as reticent pertaining to details mentioned here that may inferentially imply the undertaking of a comparative examination between the two theological traditions and their methods. If the Christian reader is aware of the topics that are indicated to here, mentioning this may help to clarify our positions for one who may not have a substantial background in Islāmic theology.
A fundamental aspect of the conclusive and the probabilistic is their epistemological posture. Moreover, within our theological framework, some doctrine are unequivocal and divergent views are impermissible. Divergence is tantamount to heresy or disbelief. And there are other points on which Islām’s theologians understood things differently and were not unanimous. On the topic of Adam and others, we may find aspects that are included within the first, and then aspects that are included within the second. Thus, the discussion is somewhat nuanced.
When examining the Qurʾān, one will come across verses that may suggest that some of the Prophets sinned. These must be examined. We will begin that discussion by addressing the point of “prophetic infallibility.” This point is expounded by delineating infallibility into four actualities:
- The Prophets & matters of belief and creed. In respects to the Prophets, infidelity is an impossibility. They never committed acts of disbelief. This is agreed upon.
- The Prophets & conveying the message. Our theologians are unanimous that their infallibility is established here. They never communicated God’s revelation in error nor interpolated it. This is a point of consensus.
- The Prophets & their edicts. They never deliberately recommended what they knew to be mistaken. There is a difference of opinion on that happening unintentionally. It is understood that a lapse in this regard would never become part of the Sacred Law.
- The Prophets & what they did throughout their lives.
Regarding the fourth point, it is impossible for them to intentionally commit major sins and that which violates honor or is trifling. This is established by consensus. Then, minor sins are a point on which the theologians differed.
Some opined that it is impossible for the Prophets to commit them altogether. The detail of before or after their prophethood arises here. And there are differing approaches to them when done unintentionally. The theologians indicated to the opinion of it being impossible when intentional. The Prophets do not commit minor sins intentionally; while if unintentional some considered it possible, and in that instance, they termed it: “zallah” (trans. a lapse).
It can thus be understood from the above that many opined, as mentioned by the sixth-century theologian and philosopher Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, that the Prophets are protected from committing sins intentionally during their prophethood. And what they did unintentionally is termed: “zallah.” And such a “lapse” is not a “sin” because it would be unintentional. The scholars expounded on this point. Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī said: “Zallah does not mean that the prophets went from truth to falsehood or from obedience to disobedience. Rather, they lapsed by committing a less virtuous action. Due to their high ranking and status with God, they were reprimanded even for these minor lapses.”
Other scholars, like some of the Mātūrīdīs, preferred that the term “zallah” not be used. They explained that what the Prophets did was leaving the most righteous for what is merely righteous and were reprimanded for that. In fact, Abū Manṣūr al- Mātūrīdī mentioned that an error may not be ascribed to the Prophets. Abū ʿAdhabah mentioned that Prophets are protected from major and minor sins altogether; and he did not qualify this position. Then, he mentioned that some of the Mātūrīdīs did qualify the view as being after prophethood. And regarding what happened before, so minor sins are possible but were isolated occurrences and never repeated. Furthermore, after prophethood they are infallible. He goes on to relate that the Ashʿarīs considered unintentional minor sins to be possible.
After discussing these details surrounding prophetic infallibility, we will review some of the Qurʾānic evidence that establishes it. This discussion relies on the explanation presented by Rāzī. He elaborated on fifteen Qurʾānic proofs. For the sake of brevity, we will mention just two of them here:
- If the Prophets could sin, it would be possible that they be punished in Hell. The Qurʾān says: “Whoever disobeys God and transgresses, God will throw him into Hell forever; and there he will face a disgraceful punishment.” Additionally, it would necessitate the possibility of them being cursed by God; another verse mentions: “Verily God’s curse is upon the transgressors.” Both are impossibilities. The Prophets will not enter Hell, nor will they be cursed by God. Thence, they are divinely protected from the committal of sins.
- Allāh mentions the Devil’s assertion: “I will surely lead all of them astray, except for your righteous slaves.” And elsewhere in the Qurʾān, He mentioned Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as being his righteous slaves: “We made them from the righteous ones.” This shows that the Prophets were from that category of people who Devil could not lead astray. The Devil tries to lead man astray by persuading him to sin.
The Prophets are God’s chosen servants whom he made as examples for humanity. It is through them that knowledge of Allāh’s religion reaches man and salvation is attained through following their way. If the possibility of sin was attributable to them, it may cast doubt on their integrity; moreover, man’s confidence in their message would be shaken. God would not dispatch the disobedient and then command humanity to follow them.
This notion is contrary to the Revelation and contradicts the belief that Islām’s theologians have maintained for centuries. Belief in prophetic infallibility is necessary; elsewise, religion would collapse into a state of doubt.
With the principle of prophetic infallibility understood, the Qurʾān’s account of Adam and the forbidden fruit will be discussed. In the Qurʾān, Allāh says:
وَقُلْنَا يَا آدَمُ اسْكُنْ أَنْتَ وَزَوْجُكَ الْجَنَّةَ وَكُلَا مِنْهَا رَغَدًا حَيْثُ شِئْتُمَا وَلَا تَقْرَبَا هَذِهِ الشَّجَرَةَ فَتَكُونَا مِنَ الظَّالِمِينَ- فَأَزَلَّهُمَا الشَّيْطَانُ عَنْهَا…الآيات
“We said: ‘O Adam! You and your wife shall reside in the Garden. Eat abundantly from wherever you desire, but do not approach this tree or you will be from those who exceed the bounds.’ Satan caused them to lapse…”
And in another place:
وَلَقَدْ عَهِدْنَا إِلَى آدَمَ مِنْ قَبْلُ فَنَسِيَ وَلَمْ نَجِدْ لَهُ عَزْمًا – وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ أَبَى- فَقُلْنَا يَا آدَمُ إِنَّ هَذَا عَدُوٌّ لَكَ وَلِزَوْجِكَ فَلَا يُخْرِجَنَّكُمَا مِنَ الْجَنَّةِ فَتَشْقَى – إِنَّ لَكَ أَلَّا تَجُوعَ فِيهَا وَلَا تَعْرَى – وَأَنَّكَ لَا تَظْمَأُ فِيهَا وَلَا تَضْحَى – فَوَسْوَسَ إِلَيْهِ الشَّيْطَانُ قَالَ يَا آدَمُ هَلْ أَدُلُّكَ عَلَى شَجَرَةِ الْخُلْدِ وَمُلْكٍ لَا يَبْلَى – فَأَكَلَا مِنْهَا فَبَدَتْ لَهُمَا سَوْآتُهُمَا وَطَفِقَا يَخْصِفَانِ عَلَيْهِمَا مِنْ وَرَقِ الْجَنَّةِ وَعَصَى آدَمُ رَبَّهُ فَغَوَى – ثُمَّ اجْتَبَاهُ رَبُّهُ فَتَابَ عَلَيْهِ وَهَدَى- قَالَ اهْبِطَا مِنْهَا جَمِيعًا…الآيات
“We made a covenant with Adam. He forgot and we did not find that to be intentional. We said to the angles: ‘Prostrate to Adam.’ And they all prostrated except for Iblīs, he refused. We said to Adam: ‘This one is you and your wife’s enemy, do not let him expel you from Eden lest you become miserable. Verily, herein you will never be hungry or naked. Nor shall you experience thirst or sunstroke. Then, Satan whispered to him: ‘O Adam! Shall I show you a tree that that grants eternal life and everlasting kingdom?’ They both ate from it. Then, they noticed themselves exposed; so, they started covering themselves with foliage from the Garden. Adam had gone against the order and strayed [from residing perpetually in the Garden]. Then, his Lord selected him, made him penitent, and illuminated him with guidance. God said: ‘All of you descend…”
Regarding when Adam ate from the tree, the following exegetical consideration should be noted:
- The event took place prior to his prophethood. He was residing in the Garden without a people to whom he was sent. This is indicated to in the Qurʾān’s words: “Then, his Lord selected him.”
Regarding him violating a divine command, the following should be noted:
- He may have acted contrary to a divine command because of an interpretive issue: he may have considered that the ruling only applied to one specific tree while it in fact pertained to a certain species of tree. He did not eat from the exact tree that was indicated to, but rather, he ate from the same kind of tree.
- He may have acted contrary to a divine command because of an interpretive issue: he may have considered that the prohibition had been abrogated. 
Regarding the unintentionality of his action, the following should be noted:
- Allāh mentioned that Adam had no resolve to sin: “Previously, we made a covenant with Adam. He forgot and we did not find that to be intentional.” It was the Devil who tricked him into eating from the tree. One of Islām’s leading exigists and a companion of the Prophet Muḥammad, Ibn ʿAbbās, mentioned that Adam and his wife could not fathom that someone would take a false oath by God and lie like the Devil did: “He swore to them: ‘Indeed, I am your sincere advisor.” Thus, they never conscientiously sinned. Rather, this was a lapse caused by Satan’s deception. In the Holy Qurʾān, this is mentioned: “But Satan caused them to lapse.” The Devil deceived them, and they committed a “zallah.”
In summary, according to our scripture and theological principles, Adam committed a pre-prophethood lapse, which was unintentional. Additionally, it may have resulted from an interpretation. By way of principle: if a non-mass-communicated report suggests that a Prophet lied or transgressed, it is not accepted. Then, if it is mass-communicated, it is interpreted where possible; otherwise, it is understood to have happened prior to prophethood.
Furthermore, God destined that Adam and his progeny would inhabit earth even before Adam ate the fruit. In the Qurʾān, Allāh says: “Indeed, I shall place on earth a vicegerent.” In astonishment, the angels asked: “Will you place there one who shall cause corruption and spill blood?” The angels were astonished at this because God would be replacing the angels on earth with disobedient humans. God is All-Wise. He affirmed this by saying: “Verily I know that which you do not.” This dialogue between God and the angels shows that there is divine wisdom, purpose, and intent behind Adam descending from the Garden to earth. This was not a punishment as some misinterpret. God had forgiven Adam for his lapse: “Then, his Lord selected him, made him penitent, and illuminated him with guidance. God said: ‘All of you descend…”
Ibn al-Qayyim discussed the descent of Adam, and by extension his progeny, from the Garden and expounded on some of the wisdom in it. He explained that it was a means of honoring him and not a punishment. Some of his points are as follows:
- God wanted man to experience some hardships in this world to appreciate the bounties of Heaven in the next. It is through opposites that we come to know the true worth of something. If one never experienced sorrow or grief, how would they know the reality of felicity and tranquility? Similarly, through the trials of this worldly life we will value and recognize the great blessing that God has prepared for his righteous slaves in the Hereafter.
- God sent us to earth to hold us accountable for his commands and prohibitions; associated with both are reward and punishment. We were not duty-bound (ar. mukallaf) in the Garden. God wanted us to be responsible for our actions in order to reward us in abundance.
- For us to comprehend the reality of His divine names and attributes, he sent us to earth. In the context of our worldly existence, we can deeply ponder and reflect over them.
- For us to taste the true beauty of faith in the unseen it was necessary to be here, where we would believe in God without witnessing His Divine Presence. This is the quintessential manifestation of faith. We would not have been able to taste the fruits of this had we remained in the Garden.
- God mentions those whom he loves: the patient, the righteous, the remorseful, the chaste, the thankful, etc. Only with Adam’s descent would it have been possible for us to attain His love by adopting and inculcating traits such as these.
- God wanted there to be people from the progeny of Adam who would be prophets, messengers, saints, and martyrs. These are individuals who love Allāh and Allāh loves them. He wanted the continual chain of messengers to establish prophetic vicegerency in His kingdom; to teach and guide His creation. In the loins of Adam, every soul descended with him; including the Prophets, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and the final messenger Muḥammad (SAW). Adam descended to set the stage for this to happen, which was necessary. His descent was for us to attain that proximity and love of Allāh, which otherwise would not have been possible had we remained in the Garden. This proximity is attained by following in the messengers’ footsteps. Adam had to descend, for on earth man would quench his thirst by drinking from the fountains of prophetic knowledge. He had to, for the goodness taught by the messengers to spread and illuminate our hearts, minds, and souls. And eventually, for the light of the Prophet Muḥammad to illuminate the world, beaming radiantly upon every place and time until the coming of the Hour.
 Buḥūth fī ʿIlm al-Kalām, 31.
 Musāyarah, 10.
 For example: Qurʾān, 2:285.
 Qurʾān, 42:11.
 Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb, 3:455; Sharḥ Maʿālim Uṣūl al-Dīn, 535.
 Sharḥ Maʿālim Uṣūl al-Dīn 537; Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid 5:51; Sharḥ al-Mawāqif 8:290; Sharḥ al-Fiqh al-Akbar, 105.
 ʿIṣmat al-Anbiyāʾ, 40.
 Kashf al-Asrār, 3:200.
 Madārik al-Tanzīl, 1:43.
 Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, 202.
 al-Rawḍat al-Bahiyyah fimā bayna al-Ashāʿirah wa al-Mātūrīdiyyah, 57. Also, see: Sharḥ al-Fiqh al-Akbar, 105.
 ʿIṣmat al-Anbiyāʾ, 40-48.
 Qurʾān, 4:41.
 Qurʾān, 11:18.
 Qurʾān, 38:83.
 Qurʾān, 49:6.
 Qurʾān, 2:35-36.
 Qurʾān, 20:115-23.
 Ḥadāʾiq al-Rawḥ wa al-Rayḥān, 17:453; al-Jāmiʿ li Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, 14:155; Sharḥ al-ʿAqīdat al-Nasafiyyah, 558; Ṭawāliʿ al-Anwār min Maṭāliʿ al-Anẓār, 215.
 Ḥadāʾiq al-Rawḥ wa al-Rayḥān, 17:453; Sharḥ al-Fiqh al-Akbar, 101.
 Qurʾān, 7:21.
 Ḥujjiyyat Afʿāl al-Rasūl, 23.
 Sharḥ ʿAqīdat Ibn al-Ḥājib, 86; Sharḥ al-ʿAqīdat al-Nasafiyyah, 557.
 Qurʾān, 2:30.
 Qurʾān, 2:30.
 Qurʾān, 20:122-23.
 Miftāḥ Dār al-Saʿādah, 4.