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INDIVIDUAL EXAMPLES TO CLARIFY THE INFALLIBILITY OF THE PROPHETS

A small minority of Muslim scholars have asserted that the Prophets may have committed sins of an insignificant type called zalla, meaning ‘error’ or ‘lapse’, and give, in order to prove their assertion, some examples from the lives of, for instance, Adam, Noah, Abraham and Joseph, upon them all be peace. Before elaborating their cases, it should be noted that even if we attribute some lapses to the Prophets, they are not sins in the meaning of disobedience to God’s Commandments. The Prophets tended to wait for Revelation when they had a question to judge. On rare occasions, however, it happened that they would exercise their own power of reasoning in order to give a judgment as they were the greatest of mujtahids (jurists of the highest rank who can deduce laws from the principles established by the Qur’an and the Sunna). They might sometimes have erred in their judgments or decisions, but such errors, which were immediately corrected by God, can never be regarded as sins.

Secondly, the Prophets always sought God’s good pleasure in every instant of their lives and tried to obtain what was the best in a matter. If they had rarely missed the best but still caught what was better, this should not be regarded as a sin. For example, suppose a man has to make a choice: whether he will recite the whole of the Qur’an in ten days and give due attention to each verse, or he will finish the recitation in seven days in order to express his deep love of the Word of God. If that man takes the first option without knowing that God’s greater pleasure lies in the second, he will obviously not be regarded as having committed a sin. So, a Prophet’s preference of what is better instead of the best is not a sin, but because of his position before Him, God might sometimes reproach him mildly.

Now, we had better clarify some individual examples in the lives of certain Prophets.

THE PROPHET ADAM, upon him be peace

As is known, Adam was in the Garden before his worldly life. While in the Garden, God commanded him and Eve not to eat of the fruit of a particular tree. Then, after they ate of it, they were expelled from the Garden and commanded to live on earth.

Although interpreters of the Qur’an have offered different views on what the prohibited fruit was, it was most probably human inclination towards the opposite sex. Satan approached Adam and Eve and argued that it was a tree of eternity and of a kingdom that would never decay, the fruit of which had been prohibited to them (Ta Ha, 20:120). Most probably knowing that they were mortal, Adam and Eve must have desired eternity through offspring. This can also be deduced from the verses: Then Satan whispered to them so that he might manifest to them that which was hidden from them of their shame, and he said: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree only lest you should become angels or become immortals.’ And he swore to them (saying): ‘Truly, I am a sincere adviser to you.’ Thus did he lead them by a deceit; and when they tasted of the tree their shame was manifest to them and they began to cover (by heaping) on themselves some of the leaves of the Garden...(al-A’raf, 7. 20-2). The intuition of, and desire for, eternity are intrinsic to man.

Even if we accept Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit as a lapse, it is difficult to regard it as a deliberate or sustained disobedience, that is, a revolt against God, which may lead us to see the Prophets as fallible. First of all, Adam was not a Prophet while in the Garden. Secondly, this lapse of Adam was the result of not willful disobedience, but merely some sort of forgetfulness. Concerning this, the Qur’an says:

We had made a covenant with Adam before, but he forgot, and we found on his part no firm resolve. (Ta Ha, 20.115)

Sins committed because of forgetfulness will not be accounted for in the Hereafter. The Prophet said:

My community are exempted from being questioned about forgetting, unintentional errors, and what they are compelled to do, not of their will.11

The Qur’an teaches us this prayer:

Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error. ( al-Baqara, 2.286)

Adam did not make this lapse deliberately. Although some have misinterpreted the verse above to suggest that Adam was not determined to fulfill the covenant God had made with him, the context does not allow such an interpretation. For Adam and Eve turned to God immediately after their lapse in sincere repentance and entreated Him, saying:

Our Lord! We have wronged our own selves! If you forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be among those who are lost. (al-A’raf, 7.23)

Destiny had a part in Adam’s lapse. God had destined him to be His vicegerent on earth, before his creation and settlement in the Garden. This is explicit in the Qur’an:

Behold, your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will make a vicegerent on earth.’ They said: ‘Will you make therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood, whilst we do celebrate Your praises and glorify You?’ He said: ‘I know what you know not.’ (al-Baqara, 2.30)

God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, also points to that truth, saying:

Adam and Moses met each other in the Heaven. Moses said to Adam: ‘You are the father of mankind, but you caused us to come down to earth from the Garden.’ Adam replied to him: ‘You are the one whom God addressed directly. Did you not see this sentence in the Torah: “Adam had been destined to eat of that fruit forty years before he ate of it?” After reporting this meeting, God’s Messenger added three times: “Adam silenced Moses.”12

The life of Adam in the Garden and the trial he underwent were preliminaries he had to pass through before his earthly life. He passed all the tests to which he was put and, being chosen and saved from being lost in the swamp of sins and deviation, was made a Prophet and honored with being made the father of thousands of Prophets, including the pride of mankind - the Prophet Muhammad - and millions of saints:

Then his Lord chose him; He relented towards him, and rightly guided him. (Ta Ha, 20.122)

THE PROPHET NOAH, upon him be peace

The Prophet Noah called his people to the religion of God for nine hundred and fifty years. When his people insisted on unbelief and persisted in their wrongdoings, God ordered him to build an ark. After completing the construction of the ship, Noah embarked in it, upon God’s command, of each kind two, male and female, and his family - except those against whom the Word (of punishment) had already gone forth, - and the believers (Hud, 11.40).

When the Ark was floating through the waves towering like mountains, Noah saw one of his sons separated from the believers and called out to him to get into the Ark, but his son rejected his call, saying: “I will betake myself to some mountain and it will save me from the water” (Hud, 11.43). When Noah saw his son drowning, he called out to God, saying:

My Lord! My son is of my family! And Your promise is true and You are the Most Just of Judges! (Hud, 11.45)

God Almighty replied to Noah:

O Noah! He is not of your family. For his conduct is unrighteous. So ask not of me that of which you have no knowledge! I give you counsel lest you should act like the ignorant! (Hud, 11.46)

Some scholars have regarded the appeal of Noah to God as a sin. However, it is difficult to agree with them. For the Prophet Noah, who is mentioned in the Qur’an as one of the five greatest Prophets, described as being resolute and steadfast, thought his son to be a believer. It is well known that in the religion of God, it is essential to judge according to outward appearances. That is, if a man professes belief and apparently performs the religious duties of primary importance like the prescribed prayers and alms-giving (zakat), he is treated as a believer. It is for this reason that our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, treated the hypocrites as if they were Muslims. So, the son of Noah was most probably one who succeeded in hiding his unbelief until the Flood, for it was Noah himself who had prayed God beforehand that He should forgive him, his parents, and all who entered his house in faith, and all believing men and believing women, and grant to the wrongdoers no increase but perdition (Nuh, 71:28).

God had accepted his prayer and ordered him to embark in the Ark also his family, except those against whom the Word (of punishment) had already gone forth. Noah’s wife was among those who were drowned, but Noah did not appeal to God to save her, as he knew, or was informed beforehand, that she was an unbeliever. He must have thought his son to be a believer so that he felt the need to express, in a manner becoming to a Prophet, his astonishment that God had let him drown. To this, God replied, saying:

He is not of your family. For his conduct is unrighteous. So ask not of me that of which you have no knowledge! I give you counsel lest you act like the ignorant! (Hud, 11.46)

The Prophet Noah, upon him be peace, was, like every other Prophet, kind-hearted and caring. Every Prophet sacrificed himself for the good of humanity and made tireless efforts so that they could be guided to truth and attain true happiness in both worlds. God says concerning the Last Prophet’s attitude in this respect:

You would nearly kill yourself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message. (al-Kahf, 18.6)

The Prophet Noah, upon him be peace, called his people to that Message for 950 years. He never showed signs of tiredness during this long period. It is natural for a Prophet, a father, to show disappointment when he comes to know that his son is among the unbelievers who have been condemned to punishment in both worlds. But, since God Almighty is the Most Just of Judges and the Most Compassionate of the Compassionate, the Prophet Noah immediately turned to Him and sought refuge with Him, lest he should ask Him for that of which he had no knowledge:

O my Lord! I do seek refuge with you, lest I should ask You for that of which I have no knowledge. And unless You forgive me and have mercy on me, I should indeed be lost! (Hud, 11.47)

 

THE PROPHET ABRAHAM, upon him be peace

Abraham was one of the greatest Prophets, one who was called ‘the intimate friend of God’. God’s Messenger took pride and pleasure in his connection with him, saying: I am the one whose coming Abraham prayed for and Jesus gave glad tidings of, and I resemble my forefather Abraham more than anyone else.13 He was thrown into fire because of his belief in One God, and the fire became, by God’s Will and Power, coolness and a means of safety for him.

Abraham, like the other Prophets, never worshipped, nor thought of worshipping, idols in any phase of his life. Despite this fact, some erroneous and untrue stories have unfortunately found their way into some Qur’anic commentaries. They have come from a misunderstanding of the following verses:

When the night covered him over, he saw a star: He said, ‘This is my lord’. But when it set, he said, ‘I love not those that set.’ When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said, ‘This is my lord’. But when it set, he said, ‘Unless my Lord guided me, I would surely be among those who go astray’. When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said, ‘This is my lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your ascribing partners to God. For me, I have set my face towards Him who created the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith and one by nature upright, and I am not among those who associate partners with God’. (al-An’am, 6. 76-9)

These verses clearly show that Abraham tried, by way of analogy, to convince his people that none of the heavenly bodies was worthy to be believed in or worshipped as God. Historically, Abraham lived among the Chaldeans in northern Mesopotamia, a people very knowledgeable about heavenly bodies and who worshipped them along with many other idols. Abraham first argued with his father that the idols could not be worthy to worship, as explicitly stated in the verse preceding those cited above:

Abraham once said to his father Azar: ‘Do you take idols for gods? Surely I see you and your people in manifest deviation.’ (al-An’am, 6. 74)

Since Azar was the maker of the idols for his people to worship, Abraham, upon him be peace, had started his mission by opposing him. After that, he turned his attention to his people to guide them to the truth. Since they had great knowledge of heavenly bodies, God would instruct him in matters concerning them and showed him the metaphysical realities behind them so that he might attain certainty of the highest degree with respect to the truths of belief and convince his people of their deviation:

So also did We show Abraham the inner dimensions of, and the metaphysical realities behind, the heavens and the earth, that he might have certainty. (al-An’am, 6. 75)

While traveling in mind and heart through heavenly bodies, Abraham began by saying in front of his people that a star could not be God because it sets. Although the superstitious might read fortunes into it or attribute some influence to it, true knowledge shows that it rises and sets according to the laws authored by God, and its light is extinguished in the broader light of day, so worshipping it is futile.

Abraham took a second step in his analogy to guide his people to the truth and showed that, although looking brighter and bigger than the star, the moon could not be God either because, besides setting like the star, it changes its shape from hour to hour, and depends for its light on some other body. At this point, Abraham openly declared that he had already been guided by his Lord, and that those who did not worship Him alone were among those that went astray.

The last blow which Abraham struck was to show that the sun could not be worshipped as God either because, despite its size and light, it also disappears from sight, and therefore it was folly to worship created phenomena. After rejecting the worship of creation, Abraham declared his faith:

I have set my face towards Him who created the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith and one by nature upright, and I am not among those who associate partners with God. (al-An’am, 6.79)

So, it is sheer illusion and a great mistake to infer from the verses above that Abraham took heavenly bodies as God in the early phase of his life.

Abraham’s appealing to God to show him how He revives the dead

The second point regarded as a fault or lapse on the part of Abraham is that he appealed to God to show him how He revives the dead. Concerning this, the Qur’an says:

Behold! Abraham said: ‘My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.’ He said: ‘Do you not believe?’ He said: ‘Yes indeed, but to set my heart at rest.’ (al-Baqara, 2.260)

In a hadith, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, says that there are seventy thousand veils separating God from man. This implies that man’s journey towards God is endless and people have different degrees of knowledge and understanding and varying capacities for spiritual and intellectual satisfaction. Since God Almighty is infinite, unbounded with all His Attributes and Names, each man can obtain only some knowledge of Him and attain some degree of satisfaction according to his capacity. The Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, had one of the greatest capacities and therefore needed to increase in knowledge of God every day in order to get full spiritual satisfaction. The Prophets were, like every other human being, in constant spiritual and intellectual growth and, regarding each of their previous stages of growth as inadequate in knowledge of God and satisfaction, they incessantly pursued a further degree of conviction. For this reason, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, asked God’s forgiveness about a hundred times a day and frequently entreated Him, saying:

Glory be to You, we have not been able to know You as Your knowledge requires, O Known One!

Glory be to You, we have not been able to worship You as Your worship requires, O Worshipped One!

Once, Muhyi al-Din ibn al-’Arabi encountered Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi and asked him:

- Who is greater? The Prophet Muhammad, who says, ‘Glory be to You, we have not been able to know You as Your knowledge requires, O Known One !’, or Bayazid al-Bistami, who says [in an instance of entranced ecstasy], ‘Glory be to me, how exalted I am!’?

The reply which Mawlana gave is also a reply to those who dare to find fault with Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace:

- Both of these utterances show to what extent our Prophet is greater than Bayazid. For the heart or soul of our Prophet was like an ocean so deep and vast that it was impossible to be satisfied. But the soul of Bayazid was, in comparison with our Prophet’s, like an ewer, easy to fill and quick to overflow.14

In order to remove any possible doubt concerning Abraham’s conviction, God’s Messenger once said: If Abraham’s were a doubt, we are more liable to doubt than him.15

Abraham’s allusions

In his whole life spent in constant struggle with unbelief and polytheism, the Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, spoke allusively on only three occasions. That is, in order to either shun the harassment of unbelievers or explain to them a religious truth more simply, he chose to divert the attention of his addressees to something else by indirect reference to the truth. Since, however, some scholars have misinterpreted those allusions to be lies, I feel it is necessary to clarify them:

1. When his people wanted him to accompany them to their religious celebration, he cast a glance at the stars and said that he was sick.

Abraham was not bodily sick, but the grief was preying on his mind and soul that he might be associated with the falsehoods of his people. It was impossible for him to worship idols; rather, he was determined to destroy them. So, in order to avoid participating in their ceremonies, he told them that he was sick and when they had left him, he struck their idols down and broke them.

In saying he was sick, Abraham certainly did not lie, for what he meant was that he was sick of their idols and idol-worship. It is because he was sick of the idols, truly, that as soon as they departed, he turned to the idols and broke them. The Qur’an praises him for this deed:

Surely among those who followed his (Noah’s) way was Abraham. Behold, he came unto his Lord with a pure, sound heart. Behold, he said to his father and to his people, ‘What is it that you worship? Is it a falsehood - gods other than God - that you desire? What then is your opinion of the Lord of the Worlds?’ Then he cast a glance at the stars, and he said, ‘I am indeed sick!’ So they turned away from him, and departed. Then he turned to their gods and said, ‘Will you not eat [of the offerings before you]? What is the matter with you that you speak not?’ Then he turned upon them, striking them with might (and breaking them). (al-Saffat, 37.83-93)

2. The second allusion of Abraham is mentioned in the following verses:

We bestowed on Abraham his rectitude before, and We were well acquainted with him. Behold! He said to his father and his people, ‘What are these images, to which you are (so assiduously) devoted in worship?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them’. He said, ‘Indeed you have been in manifest deviation - you and your fathers.’ They said, ‘Have you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who jest?’ He said, ‘Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, He who created them. And I am a witness [to this truth]. By God, I have a plan for your idols after you go away and turn your backs.’ So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn to it. They said, ‘Who has done this to our gods? He must indeed be some evil-doer!’ They said, ‘We have heard a youth talk of them: he is called Abraham.’ They said, ‘Then bring him before the eyes of the people, that they may bear witness.’ They said, ‘Are you the one who did this to our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, ‘Nay, he did it - this is their biggest one! Ask them, if they can speak!’ (al-Anbiya’, 21.51-63)

Some think that Abraham told a lie by saying, ‘Nay, he did it - this is their biggest one!’ The truth is that Abraham is using here a biting irony. What Abraham wanted was precisely that the people should understand that things that do not speak and can be of neither any good or harm to them were not to be worshipped. He succeeded, and his people, dumbfounded by his reasoning, could find no way out other than throwing him into the fire to protect their ‘gods’.

Abraham did not say that the idols had been broken by the biggest of them. Rather, in reply to their question, ‘Are you the one that did this to our gods, O Abraham?’, he said, ‘He did it’ and stopped - there is a significant stop in the reading of the verse - and then he continued: ‘This is their biggest one!’. Therefore, by the phrase, ‘He did it’, he alluded to the one who broke the idols, but diverted the attention of the people to the biggest one by continuing, ‘This is their biggest one!’

Once, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, said to an old woman, The old will not enter Paradise.. When he saw that the old woman was distressed by his irony, he clarified: Because they will enter it as young people.16 This is, in one way, similar to what Abraham did for some important purpose, and it was not therefore a lie.

3. In a hadith, and also in the Bible, we read that Abraham, upon him be peace, wanted his wife, Sarah to say, if asked who she was, that she was his sister, not his wife.17 According to the Bible, Abraham did this because he would have been killed because of her. This too, is also not a lie, as the other allusions of Abraham mentioned above are not lies, in that, as declared in the Qur’an, all the believers are indeed brothers or sisters to each other.

In conclusion, Abraham, upon him be peace, never lied. If he had lied, he would certainly have been reproached by God, but there is not a single reference in the Qur’an to God having reproached him for lying. On the contrary, his allusions mentioned above are mentioned where he is praised in the Qur’an by God. For this reason, the Prophetic Tradition about those allusions should not be treated literally.

Abraham’s prayer for his father

Abraham’s father, Azar, was the man among his people who shaped idols out of wood or stones. Abraham started his mission by calling him to desist from idol-worship and turn towards God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. When he encountered the inexplicable opposition of his father, he left him, saying: ‘I will pray for forgiveness for you,’ and because of this promise, he asked God’s pardon for him, saying, ‘Forgive my father, for that he is one of those who go astray!’(Shu’ara, 26.86).

Some have regarded Abraham’s asking God’s forgiveness for his father as a lapse, as his father was an unbeliever. However, it is difficult to regard it as a lapse. For, first of all, Abraham was a Prophet deputed by God to call people to the truth and salvation. Like every Prophet, he was so caring towards all of God’s servants that he grieved himself to death if they did not follow God’s way to happiness and salvation in both worlds. We can discern in the following verses to what extent he desired his father’s guidance:

(Also) mention in the Book (the story of) Abraham: He was a man of truth, a Prophet. Behold, he said to his father: ‘My father, why worship you that which hears not and sees not, and can profit you nothing? My father, surely there has come to me the knowledge which has not reached you, so follow me; I will guide you to a straight, even way. O my father, serve not Satan, for Satan is a rebel against the Most Merciful. O my father, I fear lest a penalty afflict you from the Most Merciful, so that you become a friend to Satan.’ (Maryam, 19.41-45)

It was Abraham’s duty to call them to worship the One God regardless of their persistent rejection. Although the Qur’an openly stated that As to those who unbelieve, it is the same to them whether you warn them or not, for they will not believe (al-Baqara, 2.6), God’s Messenger never gave up warning them. Besides calling his father to the truth, Abraham prayed for his father until, as stated in the Qur’an, it became clear to him that his father was an enemy to God. When Abraham was convinced that his father was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him (al-Tawba, 9.114). God Almighty mentions this not as a lapse on Abraham’s part, but as a virtue, saying: For Abraham was most tender-hearted, forbearing. He also introduces Abraham’s conduct as an excellent example to follow:

There is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him. They said to their people: ‘We are clear of you and whatever you worship besides God. We have rejected you, and there has arisen enmity and hatred forever between us and you, unless you believe in God and Him alone.’ But Abraham said to his father: ‘I will pray for forgiveness for you, although I have no power (to get) anything on your behalf from God.’ - ‘Our Lord! In You we have put our trust, and to You we turn in repentance; to You is the final return.’ (al-Mumtahana, 60.4)

As indicated above, Abraham’s prayer for his father was because of a promise he had made to him (al-Tawba, 9.114), and when it became clear to him that his father was an enemy to God, he dissociated himself from him and gave up praying for his forgiveness.

It should finally be noted here that some interpreters of the Qur’an do not accept that Azar was the father of Abraham. Although it is not a defect on the part of Abraham to descend from an unbelieving father, for God Almighty brings forth the living out of the dead, and brings forth the dead out of the living (Al ‘Imran, 3.27), the Qur’an always uses for Azar the word, Ab, meaning also uncle, step-father or foster-father or grandfather. Although the Prophet Abraham was prohibited to ask forgiveness for Azar, we see in the Qur’an that he asked forgiveness for his parents in his old age, saying: Our Lord! Forgive me, my parents, and all believers on the day that the Reckoning will be established’ (Abraham, 14.41). In this prayer, he uses the word, walid for father, meaning the one who begets him. It is therefore a strong probability that Azar was not his father who begot him. According to the Bible, the real father of Abraham was Terah. However, God knows best.

THE PROPHET JOSEPH, upon him be peace

The Prophet Joseph is exalted in the Qur’an as an example of chastity. In his childhood, he was envied by his brothers and thrown into a well. A caravan passing by found him and later sold him as a slave to a high official, probably a minister, of the Egyptian court, whose name is mentioned in the Bible as Potiphar.

The Prophet Joseph, upon him be peace, descended from a family of Prophets. When someone told God’s Messenger that he was a noble man, the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, alluded to this fact, saying: The noble one, son of a noble one who is the son of a noble one who is the son of a noble one - this is Joseph, the son of Jacob, who is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham, the intimate friend of God.18 Joseph was still a child in the well, when God revealed to him that he would one day tell his brothers the truth of what they had done (Yusuf, 12.15). Therefore, he was, from the beginning, closed, protected from any kind of vice.

Joseph, upon him be peace, was an exceptionally handsome young man when the lady of the house fell in love with him. In the words of the ladies of the capital city, quoted by the Qur’an, Joseph ‘inspired her with violent love’ (Yusuf, 12.30). In order to seduce him, she fastened the doors one day and called to Joseph, ‘Now come, you (dear one)!’ Joseph, whom God Almighty had granted knowledge, sound judgment and discernment, replied unhesitatingly: God forbid! Truly my Lord has treated me honorably. Assuredly, wrongdoers never prosper (Yusuf, 12.23).

The Prophet Joseph, upon him be peace, had already attained the rank of ihsan, described by God’s Messenger as ‘one’s worshipping God as if he were seeing God in front of him’. That is, he felt, at every instant of his life, that he was under the supervision of God Almighty. He was also one made sincere, pure-hearted and of pure intentions by God. Therefore, it was inconceivable that he would betray God’s blessings on him by agreeing to what he was invited. If - God forbid - he had conceived of taking even a single step toward what the lady invited him to do, he would have been a wrongdoer. Or, if he meant his master by ‘my lord’, then he would still have done nothing to betray his trust in him; if he had done so, he would, again, have been a wrongdoer.

So, Joseph refused the lady’s suggestion without hesitation. While narrating the rest of the story, the Qur’an says:

Certainly, she burnt inwardly because of him; and he burnt inwardly because of her until he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus We did that we might turn away from him all evil and shameful deeds. For he was one of Our servants, made beforehand sincere and pure. (Yusuf, 12:24)

The sentence translated here as she burnt inwardly because of him; and he burnt inwardly because of her until he saw the evidence of his Lord, has unfortunately been misunderstood by some interpreters of the Qur’an to mean ‘she desired, and was moved towards him; and he desired, and was moved towards her, but just at that point he saw the evidence of his Lord and stopped’. Some have, in interpreting the ‘evidence of God’ which Joseph saw, even gone so far as to invent a story that Jacob appeared with his hand on his lips and saved his son from committing a grave sin. This is, however, besides being a misunderstanding of the worst kind, a slander against a Prophet who was honored and presented by God as ‘a most excellent model of chastity’, and by God’s Messenger as the noblest of all. In order to clarify the point and remove such doubts, we should concentrate on the meaning of the verb, hamma, which we have translated literally ‘to burn inwardly’, and which has confused the interpreters mentioned earlier.

Hamma literally means ‘to suffer, burn and be troubled inwardly and to be consumed with passion and longing’. There is a principle in the sciences of morphology and semantics that the first and most common meaning of a word is preferred unless an inconsistency or inconformity appears in the context. This principle, together with two other principles to be explained below, allow us no way other than to take hamma in its first meaning:

1. Joseph and his lady were worlds apart from each other with respect to their beliefs, ambitions, characters and ways of life. Therefore, each had suffering and anxiety of his or her own, and each was being consumed with completely different ambitions.

2. The verse containing the verb hamma is a parenthetical one explaining the virtue of belief and sincerity, which bring God’s special favor and protection. It is not there merely as a part of the story. It should also be noted that there are stops after each phrase to show that they do not link a chain of events, but express three different realities. In this case, the exact meaning of the verse will be as follows:

‘Truly, the woman was burning inwardly because of her love for Joseph. As for Joseph, he got into a great trouble because of the woman; his chastity, good character and reputation might have been damaged. He had to find a way out to escape that situation. At this juncture, God’s evidence - His protection, or something else - came to his aid and turned all evil away from him, because he was among those servants of God made by Him sincere and pure. He was not mukhlis, one purified and who attained sincerity as a result of self-discipline and spiritual training, but he was mukhlas, one favored by God with utmost sincerity and purity.

There is another point worth mentioning here that the verb hamma in the verse in question does not express ‘starting an action’. Because, we read in the previous verse that the woman had already started the action: she fastened the door and called Joseph to come to her. But Joseph refused. So, to take the verb hamma in the meaning of ‘to start towards’ for both Joseph and the woman, will be contradictory to the previous verse, as well as to the next one which comes to describe the rest of the story: So they both hurried to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back. It is clear in this verse that the Prophet Joseph first hurried to the door to escape, and the woman ran after him to catch him, and tore his shirt from the back.

Some, however, have suggested that the woman desired Joseph, and Joseph might have had a desire for her if he had not seen the evidence of his Lord. Since he had been protected from the beginning against sins, he did not have any desire for the woman. In either case, the Prophet Joseph did not feel any inclination towards the woman and therefore did nothing to start towards her. In conclusion, like every other Prophet, he too, was infallible.

11. For different versions of the hadith, see, Bukhari, “Hudud,” 22; Abu Dawud, “Hudud,” 17; Tirmidhi, “Hudud,” 1; Ibn Maja, “Talaq,” 15,16.

12. Bukhari, “Tafsir,” 3; Tirmidhi, “Qadar,” 2; Ibn Hanbal, 2.287, 314.

13. Muslim, “Iman,” 271.

14. Mulla Jami’ Nafahat al-Uns, 521.

15. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 11.

16. Ibn Kathir, Shama’il, 84-5.

17. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 8; Muslim, “Fada’il,” 154

18. Bukhari, “Anbiya’,” 21.19; Ibn Hanbal, 2.96, 332.


Recommended Reading:
The infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad, be peace upon him

Last Updated on October 05, 2000

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