What is ‘ismah, and why do Shi’i Muslims believe in it?
Earlier in the year, a [Sunni] chaplain at an American university sought our help answering this oft-repeated question, and the following was our response:
The controversy surrounding the concept of ‘ismah (عِصْمَة) is largely due to an incorrect orientalist-era translation from the Arabic to English, which has unfortunately stuck around. In the Arabic language ‘ismah does not refer to infallibility the tri-consonant root “ع ص م” means ‘to safeguard’ or ‘to protect.’
So, the possessor of ‘ismah is a ma’sum (معصوم) which in the Arabic language is an object of a verb (اِسْم مَفْعُول), meaning ‘someone or something that is safeguarded or protected,’ it does not mean to be infallible. Likewise, is the ma’sum innately ‘safeguarded or protected’? No, as it is an object of a verb not the the doer of the verb (اِسْم فَاعِل), and the doer of the verb is the Almighty. Meaning the Protector is Allah, and the protected are the Ahl al-Bayt. There are no restrictions on the actions of the Almighty, He may protect whom he wills.
The concept of ‘ismah, functionally is not different from the Sunni concept of rashada, the Divine-guidedness of the first 4 caliphs, as the caliphs were guided by the Almighty, we the Shi’i claim that the Ahl al-Bayt were protected by the Almighty.
Why the Ahl al-Bayt specifically?
The evidence for this is Qur’anic and from the Hadith. According to the exegetes of the Qur’an, verse 33:33 (al-Ahzab) implies the purity of the Ahl al-Bayt from sin.
The verse is broken into two parts, the first addressing the wives of the Prophet (s) and the second concerning the progeny of the Prophet (s). This is understood through the change in pronoun usage in the verse:
وَقَرۡنَ فِى بُيُوتِكُنَّ وَلَا تَبَرَّجۡنَ تَبَرُّجَ ٱلۡجَـٰهِلِيَّةِ ٱلۡأُولَىٰۖ وَأَقِمۡنَ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَءَاتِينَ ٱلزَّڪَوٰةَ وَأَطِعۡنَ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۚ ۥۤ إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ ٱللَّهُ لِيُذۡهِبَ عَنڪُمُ ٱلرِّجۡسَ أَهۡلَ ٱلۡبَيۡتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمۡ تَطۡهِيرً۬ا
In the first part the Almighty is speaking to the wives specifically and therefore uses the plural female you انتن and then shifts to plural male you انتم. This is confirmed in ahadith found in Sahih Muslim, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, as well as explained in Tafsir al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Kashshaf, Tafsir al-Kabir, Tafsir al-Qurtubi, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, and others.
According to the above the Asbab al-Nuzul is the ‘Hadith/Event of the Cloak’ or ‘Hadith al-Kisa’, in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi we find:
حَدَّثَنَا قُتَيْبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ سُلَيْمَانَ الأَصْبَهَانِيُّ، عَنْ يَحْيَى بْنِ عُبَيْدٍ، عَنْ عَطَاءِ بْنِ أَبِي رَبَاحٍ، عَنْ عُمَرَ بْنِ أَبِي سَلَمَةَ، رَبِيبِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ نَزَلَتْ هَذِهِ الآيَةُ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلمَّ : ( إنمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنْكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا ) فِي بَيْتِ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ فَدَعَا النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَاطِمَةَ وَحَسَنًا وَحُسَيْنًا فَجَلَّلَهُمْ بِكِسَاءٍ وَعَلِيٌّ خَلْفَ ظَهْرِهِ فَجَلَّلَهُ بِكِسَاءٍ ثُمَّ قَالَ ” اللَّهُمَّ هَؤُلاَءِ أَهْلُ بَيْتِي فَأَذْهِبْ عَنْهُمُ الرِّجْسَ وَطَهِّرْهُمْ تَطْهِيرًا ” . قَالَتْ أُمُّ سَلَمَةَ وَأَنَا مَعَهُمْ يَا نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ قَالَ ” أَنْتِ عَلَى مَكَانِكِ وَأَنْتِ إِلَى خَيْرٍ ” . قَالَ وَفِي الْبَابِ عَنْ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ وَمَعْقِلِ بْنِ يَسَارٍ وَأَبِي الْحَمْرَاءِ وَأَنَسٍ . قَالَ وَهَذَا حَدِيثٌ غَرِيبٌ مِنْ هَذَا الْوَجْهِ .
“When these Ayat were revealed to the Prophet (ﷺ): ‘Allah only wishes to remove the Rijs from you, O members of the family, and to purify you with a thorough purification…’ (33:33) in the home of Umm Salamah, he called for Fatimah, Hasan, Husayn, and wrapped him in the cloak, then he said: ‘O Allah! These are the people of my house, so remove the Rijs from them, and purify them with a thorough purification.’ So Umm Salamah said: ‘And am I with them O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘You are in your place, and you are more virtuous to me.'” (Tirmidhi: Book 49, Hadith 4156) (In Sahih Muslim, ‘A’ishah reports similarly)
Additionally, there is Hadith al-Thaqalayn (Hadith of the Two Weighty Things) which explains the role of the Ahl al-Bayt after the passing of the Prophet (s). This narration is part of the lengthy sermon that the Prophet (s) gave on returning from his farewell Hajj.
”أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ يُوشِكُ أَنْ يَأْتِيَ رَسُولُ رَبِّي فَأُجِيبَ وَأَنَا تَارِكٌ فِيكُمْ ثَقَلَيْنِ أَوَّلُهُمَا كِتَابُ اللَّهِ فِيهِ الْهُدَى وَالنُّورُ فَخُذُوا بِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ وَاسْتَمْسِكُوا بِهِ ” . فَحَثَّ عَلَى كِتَابِ اللَّهِ وَرَغَّبَ فِيهِ ثُمَّ قَالَ ” وَأَهْلُ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي أُذَكِّرُكُمُ اللَّهَ فِي أَهْلِ بَيْتِي . فَقَالَ لَهُ حُصَيْنٌ وَمَنْ أَهْلُ بَيْتِهِ يَا زَيْدُ أَلَيْسَ نِسَاؤُهُ مِنْ أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ قَالَ نِسَاؤُهُ مِنْ أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ وَلَكِنْ أَهْلُ بَيْتِهِ مَنْ حُرِمَ الصَّدَقَةَ بَعْدَهُ . قَالَ وَمَنْ هُمْ قَالَ هُمْ آلُ عَلِيٍّ…”
“O people, I am a human being. I am about to receive a messenger (the angel of death) from my Lord and I, in response to Allah’s call, (would bid farewell to you), but I am leaving among you two weighty things: the one being the Book of Allah in which there is right guidance and light, so hold fast to the Book of Allah and adhere to it. He exhorted (us) (to hold fast) to the Book of Allah and then said: The second are the members of my Ahl al-Bayt, I remind you (of your duties) to the members of my Ahl al-Bayt (which he repeated thrice) He (Husayn) said to Zaid: Who are the members of his household? Aren’t his wives the members of his family? Thereupon he said: His wives are the members of his family (but here) the members of his family are those for whom acceptance of Zakat is forbidden. And he said: Who are they? Thereupon he said: ‘Ali and the offspring of ‘Ali…” (Muslim: Book 44, Hadith 55)
Similarly we find in Jami’ al-Tirmidhi:
“ إِنِّي تَارِكٌ فِيكُمْ مَا إِنْ تَمَسَّكْتُمْ بِهِ لَنْ تَضِلُّوا بَعْدِي أَحَدُهُمَا أَعْظَمُ مِنَ الآخَرِ كِتَابُ اللَّهِ حَبْلٌ مَمْدُودٌ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ إِلَى الأَرْضِ وَعِتْرَتِي أَهْلُ بَيْتِي وَلَنْ يَتَفَرَّقَا حَتَّى يَرِدَا عَلَىَّ الْحَوْضَ فَانْظُرُوا كَيْفَ تَخْلُفُونِي فِيهِمَا ”
“Indeed, I am leaving among you, that which if you hold fast to them, you shall not be misguided after me. One of them is greater than the other: The Book of Allah is a rope extended from the sky to the earth, and my family – the people of my house – and they shall not split until they meet at the pond of Kawthar, so look at how you deal with them after me.” (Tirmidhi: Book 49, Hadith 4157)
The Shi’i reading of the above is that as the Prophet (s) defined the Qur’an and Ahl al-Bayt as a rope (حبل) that if maintained together would lead to the Muslim never becoming misguided, hence the purity of the Qur’an from corruption is extended to the Ahl al-Bayt as well.
Lastly, these points should not be used for debate. Instead we learn from each other, and benefit from our intellectual differences.
Answer provided by Shabbir Agha