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Last Updated: 2011/08/15
Summary of question
Did Adam commit a sin? What about the question of the infallibility of the Divinely sent prophets?
Did Adam commit a sin? What about the question of the infallibility of the Divinely sent prophets?
Concise answer

In order to arrive at the answer, a few preliminary points must be considered. It must first be pointed out that the Divine prophets and their deputies enjoy lofty spiritual and existential stations in the order of existence. They are the hidden rays of Divine effusion; the complete manifestations and clear signs of the Beauty and Majesty of the Truth. The clay of their bodies and the forms of their souls were moulded by the might of both of the Divine arms—Beauty and Majesty—and were taught the reality of the Divine Names and Attributes in the pre-eternal world of the Unseen.


The second point that must be addressed is in regard to the question of infallibility. There are a range of views in this regard, among them:


1. They are infallible vis-à-vis the major sins but are vulnerable to the minor sins;


2. They are vulnerable to both major and minor sins;


3. They do not commit sins intentionally but may do so by mistake;


4. They are absolutely infallible.


The final view, which is the correct one, is that of the Shi’a and is supported by a variety of reasons, one of which is that if they were vulnerable to sin, it would defy the purpose of their mission, for in that case the masses would not be willing to trust and follow them; such a scenario runs contrary to the wisdom of the Omniscient Lord.


Now the cause of their infallibility is their all-encompassing knowledge of obedience and disobedience, of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and generally speaking of vice and virtue (or in a word, their theoretical intellect) that keeps them from sinning (which is carried out by the faculty of the practical intellect).


A relevant question in the context of Adam’s (ع) sin is where Adam (ع) resided before banishment. It could not have been the promised Paradise; for, firstly, as asserted in the Divine Text leaving Paradise is not possible; secondly, Satan is not allowed in Paradise, and finally, there are no restrictions on the consumption of any fruit in Paradise.


The last point meriting mention in this context is in regard to the nature of Adam’s (ع) error. One of the posited explanations is that it was not a sin but a neglect of what was more meritorious (tark awla); for, firstly, prophets are infallible; secondly, considering the lofty station of the prophets, it would not be inappropriate for them to be upbraided on account of neglecting what is more meritorious—hence, the adage, “The righteous deeds of the good folk are the sins of those brought nigh to Him;” thirdly, neglecting the more meritorious has in fact occurred among the prophets—as in the story of Yunus (ع)—and so is a likely possibility.


But as to the question of why Adam and Eve (ع) were not forbidden from the consumption of the forbidden fruit on earth as they were in the Garden of Eden, there are several possible explanations. It is possible that the forbidden tree was an actual tree, a plant, the consumption of which entailed banishment from the heavenly life that they were enjoying, and as such there would have been no reason for the prohibition of that tree on earth. And as elucidated in the appropriate place, religious directives vary based on location, time, and other particular circumstances.


Another possibility is that the tree in question was a spiritual reality. In this case, that tree was either the tree of knowledge, which is of course not defensible as it is contradictory to definitive Qur`anic and traditional principles. For, as related in the Qur`an, Adam (ع) was not only not restricted in the acquisition of knowledge but in fact he was taught all the “names” thus becoming the teacher of the angels.


Another possibility is that the tree is a metaphorical allusion to the trait of envy. Of course since Adam (ع) was a messenger of God, the envy in question should be construed as a sort of longing, possibly a longing for the spiritual station of the Prophet of Islam, ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn (ع). Also in this context it may refer to the condemnation of jealousy before entering this world.

Detailed Answer

In reply to the above question, three issues must be examined. However, it is necessary to note the fact that the absolute infallibility of the infallibles (ع)—i.e., the prophets and the Imams—is the consequence of their luminous and lofty spiritual and existential stations in the order of existence. They are the hidden rays of Divine effusion; the perfect manifestations and the clear signs of the Beauty and Majesty of the Truth. The clay of their bodies and the form of their souls were moulded by both of the Divine arms—i.e., Divine Beauty and Majesty—and so they were taught the reality of the Divine Names and Attributes in pre-eternity in the world of the Unseen. They have always enjoyed the friendship of God, the Exalted; they see themselves in the perpetual presence of God, and it is precisely this sense of presence that precludes the committing of sin, although they are still capable of it.


As regards the question of the infallibility of the prophets (ع), there are conflicting views among Muslim sects. However the main positions can be organized into five groups:


1.      The prophets (ع) are infallible vis-à-vis the major sins but might commit the minor sins. Moreover, they are bestowed with infallibility at reaching adulthood. This is the view espoused by the majority of the Mu’tazilites.


2.      They are infallible vis-à-vis the deliberate perpetration of sin but are prone to the inadvertent commission of sin. Moreover, the prophets are bestowed with infallibility after being appointed to prophethood. This view is held by Abu ‘Ali Jiba`i.


3.      The prophets are infallible vis-à-vis all sins except those committed inadvertently. They will, however, be punished for such sins, although the common folk are not liable in such cases. This discrepancy is due to the height of the prophets’ spiritual station. This view is embraced by Nazzam and those who follow his school of thought.


4.      Prophets are susceptible to the commission of sin, any type of sin, whether major or minor, and whether intentional or unintentional. This is the view embraced by Hashawiyyah and a number of the traditionalists (ahl al-hadith).


5.      Prophets are absolutely infallible in regard to all types of sin, whether major or minor, and whether intentional or unintentional. This is the view espoused by the Imamiyyah, the Shi’ites. According to the Shi’ite school of thought, the prophets are endowed with infallibility even before they are appointed to prophethood. The only negative deed that they might perform is acting in opposition to what is encouraged (but not mandatory) or what is more meritorious.


The Imamiyyah support their belief by a number of arguments, three of which will be mentioned here.


1. If they were to commit sins that would indicate their inferiority to the lowest of people, as the knowledge which they possess of the Creator is not available to others. Hence, considering the knowledge which has been bestowed to them regarding Allah (awj) and the reality of sin and disobedience to the command of the Lord—if they were to sin, they would be the most sordid of sinners.


2. The commission of sin by the prophets would pose a dilemma to the believers. For, as Divine messengers they aught to be obeyed, but as sinners, their obedience would not be permissible. Thus such a scenario would entail the coincidence of obligation and prohibition, i.e., the concurrence of two opposites, which is impossible.


3. The purpose of the Divine mission of the prophets is to serve as exemplars to be obeyed, to instruct their societies, and to dissuade the believers from sin. If the commission of sin be possible for the prophets that would translate into their people’s lack of trust in them—a trust which is necessary in order to advance their mission, hence defeating the purpose of their mission. And such is unbecoming and thus impossible in respect to the Wise Lord.


The infallibility of the prophets and the Imams (ع) derives from their complete knowledge and direct witness of the unseen realities (which is due to their Divinely inspired theoretical intellects) which prevents them from committing sin (and this aspect can be attributed to their Divinely reinforced practical intellects). In this light it becomes clear that their infallibility is a volitional matter due to their Divine knowledge of what is permissible and what is not and of vice and virtue.  


The second issue is the location of Adams’s (ع) residence prior to his banishment to earth. Was it the promised Paradise of the Hereafter or a terrestrial heaven? Some are of the opinion that it was the promised Paradise. Although Paradise does not accommodate obligation, but this does not pose a problem in the case of Adam and Eve (ع), for the eternal residence in Paradise is the result of acquired eligibility, which was lacking in their case.


But there are several problems with this view. Firstly, if he resided in Paradise which does not accommodate obligation, then why does the Qur`an state that he disobeyed Allah (awj)? And how was Satan capable of disobedience? Secondly, if it were Paradise, then Satan would not have had access to it? Thirdly, the consumption of all the bounties of Paradise is permissible and Allah (awj) does not prohibit anything there, while Adam (ع) had been prohibited from eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.


Therefore, it seems that the correct view is that he was in a terrestrial paradise. This view is actually substantiated by hadiths which specify that it was a garden in this world, pointing out that Adam and Eve (ع) would even witness the setting of the sun and the moon. There are however contradicting hadiths indicating that the place of their residence was in a heavenly location. This contention is corroborated by the usage of the word hubut in speaking of the banishment, which denotes descending from a higher level to a lower level.


The third issue is in regard to Adam and Eve’s (ع) deed: whether they committed a sin or not? There are three positions on this question, two of which are the more important. The first position is that, firstly, it was a minor sin, and secondly, it preceded Adam’s (ع) prophethood, and hence the station of prophethood was not violated. Several reasons have been cited in support of this position, among them: the verses that deal with this issue clearly indicate the sinful nature of the deed, for the word ‘isyan occurs in them, which in the Qur`an is employed only in the sense of sin. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the command addressed to Adam prohibiting the consumption of the fruit in question (“la taqraba”) was an advisory warning. And furthermore, it does not make sense that Adam (ع) repented on account of disregarding an advice.


The other position—which seems to be the correct one of the two—is that Adam (ع) was in fact a prophet when committing the deed in question, for Jibra`il would visit him and the visitation of Jibra`il indicates prophethood, for he does not visit anyone but prophets. This point is strengthened by the fact that Allah (awj) taught Adam (ع) all the “names” and it was only he that knew them and not even the angels had that knowledge. On that account, Adam (ع) was appointed teacher to the angels, bestowing to them the knowledge of the “names”. All these incidents were prior to Adam’s (ع) eating from the forbidden tree. Hence, it can be inferred that Adam (ع) was in fact a prophet when he committed the deed in question.


The problem is that according to the Shi’a school of thought, prophets are absolutely infallible and are even free of minor sins. Thus, the prohibition must be interpreted as an advisory warning and so Adam’s (ع) guilt was neglecting that which was more meritorious. But since prophets are at a high station of Divine knowledge, they are guilty even in the case of neglecting what is more meritorious. This is witnessed also in the stories of Yunus (ع) (when he became angry with his tribe and lost all hope in guiding them and so abandoned them without asking permission from Allah (awj), whereat Allah (awj) confined him to the belly of a whale, where if he had not become contrite and repented, he would have remained till the Day of Judgment)[1] and Yusuf (ع) (when he sought help from an inmate instead of Allah (awj) for deliverance from prison).


Although it should be noted that neglecting the more meritorious of deeds does not warrant punishment in the case of the ordinary people, for “The righteous deeds of the good folk are the sins of those brought nigh to Him.” It is for this reason that the midnight prayer was obligatory for the Prophet while it was an encouraged act for everyone else. It is thus that the laypeople’s performance of rituals, which is fraught with distraction and negligence, is inappropriate in the case of the prophets of Allah (awj).


According to this position, ‘isyan must be construed as “opposing the word of the Lord”. “Word” could either apply to what is obligatory or otherwise something just encouraged. Hence, the claim that the usage of ‘isyan in the sense of ignoring that which is encouraged is inaccurate loses ground. Furthermore if in fact ‘isyan literally denotes disobeying a command, in this case because of the presence of irrefutable proofs it must be interpreted accordingly.


The word ghawa in the verse in question[2] denotes harm and loss, for if Adam (ع) had abstained from eating from the forbidden tree, he would have deserved a great reward. And repentance in his case was not for redressing a sin, rather for a deed that was unbecoming of his status. This must be complemented by the fact that repentance is not always for rectifying a sin. It is, however, always efficacious in severing the chains of bondage to other than Allah (awj), thus meriting a great reward, although one might not be sinful.


But as regards to why he was not banned from consuming the forbidden tree after banishment or as to whether he regained his original status, first the meaning of the “tree” and its consumption must be understood. There are two possibilities as to the meaning of the “tree”: It was either a concrete plant—such as wheat, fig, camphor, etc.—or a spiritual reality. In the latter case, it could not have been the “tree of knowledge” as some have contended, for he was the most knowledgeable creature after Allah (awj), to the extent that he became the teacher of the angels. Another possibility is that it was the tree of jealousy, which would have to be understood as an inclination toward a positive thing owned by someone else, not the prevalent form of jealousy, for it would be in conflict with the status of prophethood. It has been suggested that his jealousy was in seeing the status of the Prophet of Islam, ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn (ع) and realizing his inferiority. This is a more likely possibility as jealousy is even now a detestable trait condemned by God. It has been stated in a hadith that jealousy devours one’s faith even as fire consumes a cotton ball.


If however the “tree” refers to a concrete tree, it must be said that it is not wrong for the ruling on a subject to be different in differing times and locations. For instance, in the very early years of Islam, Muslims were directed to pray facing Jerusalem. That changed later on and they were commanded to pray facing the Ka’bah. Or consider the case of consuming the corpse of an animal not slain according to the prescribed rite, where in normal circumstances it is forbidden while it has been allowed—or depending on the case obligated—in the case of an emergency to save a starving person from death. To turn back to the story of Adam (ع), eating from the forbidden tree was prohibited in that particular time and place but permissible at other times and locations. Furthermore, if Adam (ع) was banished to earth, it was as the direct result of eating from that tree, and so that deed was injurious only in the celestial realm and not on earth.


We would like to close this essay by noting that if the dear readers are interested, this topic can be pursued at a higher level.

[1] Surat al-Anbiya` (21), Verse 87:

} وَذَا النُّونِ إِذْ ذَهَبَ مُغَاضِبًا فَظَنَّ أَنْ لَنْ نَقْدِرَ عَلَیْهِ فَنَادَى فِی الظُّلُمَاتِ أَنْ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ أَنْتَ سُبْحَانَکَ إِنِّی کُنتُ مِنْ الظَّالِمِینَ {

[2] Surat Taha (20), Verse 121:

} فَأَلْقَاهَا فَإِذَا هِیَ حَیَّةٌ تَسْعَى {

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