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Last Updated: 2009/06/22
Summary of question
Please explain the concept of infallibility. Is it possible for anyone besides the infallible imams (as) to be infallible?
Please explain the concept of infallibility. Is it possible for anyone besides the infallible imams (as) to be infallible?
Concise answer

In a theological dictionary, one the possesses infallibility would be defined as an infallible. An infallible is one who, by the grace of God, is free from all forms of mistake and error, and does not commit even the smallest of sins. However, one who is infallible isn't forced to be so, he/she chooses to. What causes the infallible to voluntarily prevent making mistakes and committing sins, is the ownership of certain knowledge and traits in that person. Such possessions include: a profound understanding of the reality of this world as well as the good and bad, unique approval through the grace of Allah (swt), the ability to make use of the Holy Spirit (a pure and holy spirit that always accompanies the infallible, and other possession as well.

Besides from the Prophets sent by Allah and the fourteen infallibles that have been presented in Islam, no other person is considered infallible. As a result, there is no reason to attempt proving that others too are in possession of the Holy Spirit.

However, it should be noted that the lack of infallibility in righteous figures such as Abalfazl Abbas, Abu Talib (father of Imam Ali (as)), Ali Akbar, the mothers of the infallibles, and many other figures does not mean that they were wrongdoers or sinners. They are undoubtedly considered to be righteous, and at a level not far below infallibility.

Generally speaking, in Islam, when evaluating people, one of three terms can be used [of course if the person has any value Islamically]:


1- Idalah: A spiritual state which comes as a result of performing the wajibaat and not committing sins.

A person who performs the wajibaat and does not commit sins, meaning that he/she does not commit any great (kabirah) sins or regularly commit small (saghirah) sins, is considered an “adel” person.

2. Greatness: Greatness is a level higher than “Idalah” and is acquired when one reaches a considerable spiritual level. This level is reached only by pious servants of Allah.

3. Infallibility: A person who is infallible, does not commit or even think of a committing even the smallest sins.

Detailed Answer

When Islam wants to evaluate individuals, one of three terms can be used to describe their spiritual status:

1- Idalah [literally meaning justice, but in this context meaning piety] denotes the working of an individual on his/herself, exercising the soul to stand against sins, leading in the race of obedience and servitude to Allah (swt). This level is one that Allah (swt) wants all of His servants to accomplish and is the least one has to do to be a good person and acceptable in Allah’s (swt) eyes.

The criteria for this level is to refrain from all great sins, in addition to refraining from regularly committing the small sins as well, yet it doesn’t depend on the individual not even thinking of sinning.

2- Adhamah or Greatness: One who has passed the first level and has become one of “The righteous servants of Allah (swt)” (Ibadullah Assalihin) and His perfectly pure servant, possesses a luminous soul and not only doesn’t refrain from sin, but refrains from anything that might put a dark spot on his/her soul and make it feel down [even if it isn't a sin; such as makrouh acts]. This degree has been spoken of in hadiths using different words, namely: “Wara’” [which is higher than piety], “Zohd” [asceticism], “bordering on infallibility”, “Sulbul-Iman” [Steadfast and strong faith], “Nafidhul-Basirah” [profound insight and seeing the truth and inside of matters], etc.

Of course, this level doesn’t just have one degree; it encompasses many different degrees within itself. The same goes with the level of “infallibility” that is to be spoken of later in this article; the closer the individual gets to Allah (swt), the more “generative authority” or wilayah takwini he gains and the more he is able to change things and have an impact on the material world. Therefore, all people in these levels don’t share the same degrees; some might be higher while others are lower, but all are still considered “affiliates” of the level of “Greatness”.

Of course, these levels aren't always reachable for all individuals; because what is used to evaluate in these states and levels is how much “luminosity” one possesses and how much he/she lacks “darkness”.  These two terms have been taught to us by the Quran and Ahlul-Bayt and denote goodness and badness respectfully in all of the different cases they [goodness and badness] can be found in.

Because of this, some people are given the titles “righteous servant”, “possessor of luminosity of the soul” or “one who has a luminous soul” as a result of the owner of luminosity (Allah (swt)) and the luminosities of the prophet (pbuh) and imams (as).

Conclusion: The level of “Greatness” is higher than “Piety”, because all that piety requires is to refrain from the great sins and not to insist on the small sins, while “Allah’s (swt) righteous servants” are those who in addition to piety, possess asceticism and refrain from more than just sins and have pure souls, making them deserve the title “righteous servant”.
The “great” individual possesses a special luminosity in the soul, because his complete mind and high soul keep him away from all darkness, leaving him with only worship, good deeds and righteousness.

This special luminosity is a result of profound understanding, pure faith, good deeds, clean nature and most importantly, the special attention of the ultimate master (Allah (swt)) and his absolute apostles (the infallibles).

That luminosity is the manifestation of the essence of individuals, just like how darkness is the true essence of others.

Yet, despite all this goodness, “Allah’s (swt) righteous servants” don’t possess the Holy Spirit or Ruhul-Qudus. The Holy Spirit is a magnanimous soul, not an angel like some might perceive, who hasn’t accompanied anyone ever, except for the prophet of Islam (pbuh) and it is he who supports the imams (as).

To put it in a nutshell:

a) Although some are very high, yet the degrees they possess don’t even get close to infallibility, because it relies on things that can only and only be found in the fourteen infallibles (as).

b) Individuals such as Abbas [Imam Husain’s brother], Lady Masoumah [in Qom], Lady Zainab, Lady Ruqayyah, AbuTaleb [the prophet’s (pbuh) uncle], Lady Fatimah bint Asad [the mother of Imam Ali (as)], Ali Akbar [the son of Imam Husein], and the like, who all had extraordinary statuses and were at the pinnacle of the level of “Greatness”, still lacked infallibility.

Proof of their high statuses

Infallibility can only be proven through proof and the individual actually claiming that he or she is so. None of the individuals mentioned ever claimed to be infallible, and also, there is no proof or reason to say they were. Nevertheless, they were all very high individuals and the following facts clearly corroborate this claim:


It has been reported in a hadith that a person in a crowd of people who believed AbuTaleb died a non-Muslim asked Imam Ali (as) (in order to degrade and insult him): “Is it true that your father is burning in the Hellfire?” The imam (as) answered: “By the God that chose Muhammad (pbuh) as His messenger, my father will intercede for all sinners [on the Day of Judgment] and Allah (swt) will accept his intercession. How can my father be in the Hellfire, while his son Ali is the one to divide between [those who go to] Hell and [those who are to go to paradise and be blessed with] heavenly blessings?! By Allah (swt) my father’s light and luminosity will dominate the light of all others on the Day of Judgment, except for the light of five (the five “members of the cloak” [Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Lady Fatimah (as), Imams Ali (as), Hasan (as) and Husein (as)]), and that is because my father’s light is from ours, and our light was created two thousand years before the creation of Adam (pbuh).”[1]

Lady Khadijah

The holy prophet (pbuh) reports that when he was returning from the mi’raj [his ascension to the skies and heaven], he told the great angel Jibra’il: “Do you need anything or do you want me to do you anything?” He answered: “What I want is for you is to send Lady Khadijah Allah’s (swt) and my salams…”[2]

In explanation of the verse “إن الله اصطفی آدم و نوحاً و آل ابراهیم و آل عمران علی العالمین” (Indeed Allah chose Adam and Noah, and the progeny of Abraham and the progeny of Imran above all the nations), the prophet of Islam (pbuh) says: “and [in addition to Adam, Noah and Abraham] Ali, Hasan, Husein, Hamzah, Ja’far, Fatimah and Khadijah are also chosen ones over all other people.”[3] Clearly, Allah’s (swt) greetings come down upon those who are in complete surrender to him, therefore it can be concluded that she was also one of them.

Lady Fatimah bint Asad (The mother of Imam Ali (as))

Concerning the great personality of this high woman, the great researcher and hadith scholar, Sheikh Abbas Qomi (compiler of the Mafatihul-Jinan) writes: “The extremely high and magnanimous status of this woman (may Allah (swt) be pleased with her) can be understood from the incident of her giving birth to Imam Ali (as) in the Ka’bah. Add to that the fact that she was one of the first to embrace Islam, and the eleventh to make her Islam public. She was such that the prophet (pbuh) would honor and greatly praise her and would address her as “mother”.”

It has been narrated that the prophet (pbuh) shed tears for her at the time of her passing and mourned her death. He shrouded her with his special clothing, prayed before her corpse, reciting fourty takbirs in it, personally placed her in the grave and prepared her for her otherworldly journey…”.[4]

The prophet (pbuh) has described her in such a way: “She was one of Allah’s (swt) greatest creatures who after AbuTaleb, did me good things.”[5]

3- The third term used in Islam when placing a value on individuals is the term “infallibility” which we will explain:

In a theological dictionary, one who possesses infallibility is called a “ma’soum” [infallible]. The infallible is one who by the grace of Allah (swt), is pure of any sin whatsoever and refuses to get even close. Of course, this refraining isn't out of force, but out of choice and free will. Regarding this matter, Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) says:

المعصوم؛ هو الممتنع بالله من جمیع المحارم. و قد قال الله تبارک و تعالی: و من یعتصم بالله فقد هدی الی صراط مستقیم”, meaning that the infallible is one who through Allah (swt), is protected from all sin, and that is what Allah (swt) means when He says in the Quran: “And whosoever takes recourse in Allah [and seeks his aid and protection] is certainly guided to a straight path”.”[6]

One important point: Knowledge and infallibility are inextricably intertwined, to the extent that the main origin of infallibility can be considered knowledge. When one understands the true essence of something, he also knows its outcomes, hence engaging if it is good, or refraining when bad and harmful.

The reason for the restriction of infallibility to merely a few individuals

Question: Why is infallibility limited to only fourteen people?

Firstly, the true answer lies in saying that it was Allah’s (swt) decision stemming from his never-ending wisdom to do so. What was the reason though? What was it that Allah (swt) knew that led to him limiting infallibility to only fourteen people? What can be deduced from our scriptures and traditions is that one’s life isn't limited to the few years he is in this world, but also covers before that, because his spirit has been created then.[7] As a result, our past decisions [before birth] and Allah’s (swt) knowledge of what is to take place in the future and who will be good and who will be evil all contribute to some priorities and advantages given to some people, namely: infallibility, knowledge, prophethood, imamate and revelation. In order to further understand a more thorough explanation, pay attention to the following passage from the famous supplication of Dua Nudbah:

اللهم لک الحمد علی ماجری به قضائک فی اولیائک...” (O Allah! I praise and surrender to you over what you have decided about who to choose as your chosen ones. Your apostles are those whom you have purified for yourself and your religion. The sign of them being chosen is that you have endowed them with your ever-lasting and valuable blessings that never lessen. This endowment stems from you getting a pledge that they would choose asceticism in this world, no matter what the circumstances, and to keep away from its temptations and things considered valuable in it. They then accepted and you knew they would fulfill this promise, and subsequently, you chose them and brought them close to yourself and presented them with your high praise [to the extent that] you sent your angels upon them and honored them with revelation and granted them from your special wisdom and knowledge and made them a means of reaching you [for others] and a channel to paradise…”.

By concentrating on the passages of this supplication, we see that in previous realms or worlds, people were put to the test but only a few were prepared to know their true worth and not exchange a relationship with Allah (swt) for other worthless things and passed this test with flying colors. Since Allah (swt) knew that these were the only ones to keep their word, He bestowed his best blessings upon them, namely: nearness to Him, possessing high praise, having the angels come to them, revelation, special knowledge, being channels for others to go to paradise and a means of getting close to Allah (swt) for others.

That is how some became imams and others prophets, and how some were much higher than others and even possessed infallibility. What should be kept in mind is that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his pure household are the highest of the high. Why and how you may ask? Pay attention to this hadith by Imam Ridha (as): “Allah the All-Powerful and Great has helped us by sending us a holy spirit of His which isn't an angel that hasn’t accompanied anyone before us other than Prophet Muhammad (pbuh); this spirit is with all of us imams and it is he who supports and helps them succeed. It [the spirit] is a pillar of light which runs between us and Allah (swt).”[8]

Secondly, the quantity of what Allah (swt) grants, depends on the true need of the creature to receive. When our bodies only have two ears, eyes and one mouth, it comes to show that was all we needed. The same goes with the infallibles. Since there are only fourteen, we can conclude that only fourteen infallibles were needed for the world ,closing the door to infallibility to all others.

An explanation on the Holy Spirit

The Shia believe that Allah (swt) supports those he chooses with the “Holy Spirit”, making them invulnerable to mistake, sin and forgetfulness. Imam Sadiq (as) has said that the prophet (pbuh) would never make any mistakes regarding people’s affairs by the help of the Holy Spirit.[9]

In addition to that, it has been stated in hadiths by the imams (as) that infallibility doesn’t only belong to the time of imamate, but covers all the life of the imam, even before becoming imam. Imam Muhammad Baqir (as) says: “O Jaber! [The imams and prophets] know everything from under the Arsh (Throne) to under the ground [ meaning everything] through the Holy Spirit; they are aware of all of this through him.”[10]

In another hadith, he says: “…and the Holy Spirit remains in the imam forever and he sees everything from the East to the West and on land and in the sea by virtue of him. [A person asked]: “Can the imam move something that is for instance located in Baghdad [and far away]? He answered: “Of course! [Not only can he do that,] He can also affect anything located under the “throne” of Allah (swt) [and isn't located in this world]!”[11]

This hadith signifies the great power and impact on the world of creation the imam possesses that Allah (swt) has entrusted him with, and this also shows that there is a relationship between knowledge and power as well.[12]

[1] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 35, pg. 110.

[2] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 16, pg. 7.

[3] Ibid, vol. 37, pg. 63.

[4] Safinatul-Bihar, vol. 7, pg. 122.

[5] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 35, pg. 79.

[6] Ma’anil-Akhbar, pg. 132.

[7] See: Qasem Tarkhan, Khelqate Arwah qabl az Ajsam.

[8]ان الله – عزوجل ایدنا بروح منه مقدسة مطهرة لیست بملک لم تکن مع احداً ممن مضی الامع رسول الله (ص) و هو مع الائمة منا تسددهم و توفقهم و هو عمود من نور بیننا و بین الله عزوجل...Biharul-Anwar, vol. 25, pg. 48.

[9]و إن رسول الله (ص) کان مسدداً موفقاً مؤیداً بروح القدس لایزل ولایخطی فی شیء ممایسوس به الخلقKafi, vol. 1, pg. 266.

[10]فبروح القدس – یا جابر – عرفوا ما تحت العرش الی ما تحت الثریKafi, vol. 1, pg. 272.

[11] Biharul-Anwar, vol. 25, pg. 58.

[12] Mohammad Biyabani, Ma’refate Emam, pg. 73.

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