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‘Iṣmah "Protection" (Arabic: عِصْمَة‎) is the concept of infallibility or "divinely bestowed freedom from error and sin" in Islam.[1] Muslims believe that Muhammad and other prophets in Islam possessed ‘iṣmah. Twelver and Ismaili Shī‘ah Muslims also attribute the quality to Imāms and Fatima Zahra, daughter of Muhammad. Zaidi Shia however, do not attribute ‘ismah to the Imāms.

The concept that Islam had sinless messengers is believed to have arisen from a speech given by Abu Bakr following Muhammad's death, in which he states that "God has elected Muhammad over all other human beings, and has protected him from moral weaknesses".[2]

The doctrine has been rejected by some, such as the Kharijites, who point to the second ayah in the Surah] of Al-Fath, in which God says to Muhammad that he will; "forgive thee thy faults of the past and those to follow".[3]

Shia Islam

According to Twelver Shī‘ah, the Fourteen Infallibles (Arabic: معصومونMa‘ṣūmūn) are historical figures who are infallible which means "divinely bestowed freedom from error and sin" in Islam. The Twelver Shī‘ah believe that Muhammad, his daughter Fatima Zahra, and the Twelve Imams are infallible.[4]

According to Shī‘ah theologians, infallibility is considered a rational necessary precondition for spiritual and religious guidance. They argue that since God has commanded absolute obedience from these figures they must only order that which is right. The state of infallibility is based on the Shī‘ah interpretation of verse of purification.[Qur'an 33:33][5] Thus they are, the most pure ones, the only immaculate ones preserved from, and immune to, all uncleanness.[6] It doesn't mean that supernatural powers prevent them from committing a sin, but it is due to the fact that they have absolute belief in God so that they find themselves in presence of God.[4] They have also complete knowledge about God's will. They are in possession of all the knowledge brought by the angels to the prophets (nabi) and the messengers (Rasul). Their knowledge encompasses the totality of all times. Thus they act without fault in religious matters.[7]

The ascription of infallibility to the Imāms is encountered as early as the first half of the 8th century, second century of Islamic calendar, and it was soon extended to the prophets. The doctrine came to exclude the commission on their part of any sin or inadvertence, either before or after their assumption of office. As for Fāṭimah, her infallibility derives from her being a link between prophethood and Imāmah, the two institutions characterized by infallibility, as well as by her association with the Imams and their attributes in numerous traditions. There is general agreement among Twelver Shī‘ah authorities that all fourteen are superior to the rest of creation, including even the major prophets.[8]

Khomeini's interpretation

A more recent and very influential Shī‘ah interpretation of ‘iṣmah by Ruhollah Khomeini holds that truly faithful and pious Muslims — not just prophets and imams — could possess ‘iṣmah because it could be created by "nothing other than perfect faith."[9] He preached that

infallibility is borne by faith. If one has faith in God, and if one sees God with the eyes of his heart, like sun, it would be impossible for him to commit a sin. .... In front of an armed powerful [master], infallibility is attained.[10]

Scholar Hamid Dabashi argues Khomeini's theory of ‘iṣmah from faith was connected to his theory of Islamic government by guardianship of the jurist. If the truly faithful possessed Ismah, and if Khomeini and the most learned and pious Islamic jurists were truly faithful, than this would reassure Shia hesitant about granting the same ruling authority to Khomeini and his successors, that Shia traditionally believed was reserved for the 12th Imam (Mahdi) on his return. According to Dabashi, Khomeini's theory helped "to secure the all-important attribute of infallibility for himself as a member of the awliyah "friends of God" by eliminating the simultaneous theological and Imamological problems of violating the immanent expectation of the Mahdi."[11][12]

See also



  1. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.463
  2. Bravmann, M. M. "Studies in Semitic Philology", 1977. Chapter 29, The Origin of the Principle of Ismah
  3. Baydawi, Abdullah. "Tawali' al- Anwar min Matali' al-Anzar", circa 1300. Translated alongside other texts in the 2001 "Nature, Man and God in Medieval Islam" by Edwin Elliott Calverley and James Wilson Pollock. pp. 1001-1009
  4. 4.0 4.1 Dabashi (2006), p.463
  5. Momen (1985), p.155
  6. Corbin (1993), pp.48 and 49
  7. Corbin (1993), p.48
  8. Algar, Hamid. "Chahardah M'asum". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  9. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.463 quoting Khomeini, Jehad-e Akbar (Greater Jihad), pp.44
  10. Khomeini, Jehad-e Akbar (Greater Jihad), pp.44; Islam and Revolution, p.353
  11. Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p.465
  12. Ayatollah Khomeini's Gems of Islamism, Lectures on the Supreme Jihad, (1972)