In previous articles we highlighted the compassion and warmth that we Muslims exhibit, in many different ways, towards our revered Prophet (pbuh). This strong emotional attachment to our honored Prophet (pbuh) should not befog our minds when certain inappropriate words and meanings are attributed to him.
There are some accounts that narrate his position on what one may call “worldly or material matters.” Some scholars may refer to these types of Prophetic announcements as implications or propositions. This contrasts with his announcements that are understood to be obligatory or binding.
His pronouncements about material or physical mundane worldly matters should not be considered compulsory or mandatory. Such matters of worldly “material development” are not directly within the scope of behavioral and social refinement and maturity. Remember, there are different classes of action contingent upon the Prophet’s teachings, and some of them are called either مندوب [mandub] or مستحسن [mustahsan] which generally means optional or discretionary, while others are called مكروه [makrooh] which means disliked or detested.
This leads us into discussion about the Prophet’s عصمة [‘ismah] meaning his infallibility or flawlessness. We know that all of Allah’s Prophets were infallible and flawless. But what exactly do we mean when we say that the Prophets were infallible or perfect? Obviously, this question opens up a wide range of opinions and convictions that have been with us for centuries. This is the case because we inherited them and did not think through the meanings of this characterization. We will avoid going into many details that are in our precise and perfect Qur’an when it points to “slips” that are recorded in the lifetime of many of Allah’s prophets (pbuh) without attaching any demerit to the ‘ismah of the Prophets. Perhaps we may dedicate some space in the future to explain this important issue. Suffice it to say here that the Prophets were impeccable and immaculate in their duty and mission to communicate Allah’s Scriptures and messages to their peoples and societies in both words and deeds.
Within this lifelong responsibility, we must remember that the Prophets were human. They were not angels; they were subject to inconsequential inaccuracies, and exposed to memory lapses. Some of them suffered their own (inconsequential) mistakes. These are all accounted for in the wholesome Qur’anic text, if we care to travel through the meanings of the divine Book with our working minds. We must emphasize and state categorically that no Prophet of Allah (swt) had any character deficiency – no prophet lied, no prophet cheated, no prophet fell into sin, etc… By saying this we know that some if not all of our fervent Shi‘i brothers may feel edgy or even troubled. Relax… this is not an issue that has to become divisive or contentious. We would love to have an open discussion on whether Prophets were corrected and/or amended by Allah (swt) in the noble Qur’an.
Skipping the information and details concerning this matter as it pertains to other Prophets of Allah (swt), we can briefly refer to our Prophet’s uncertainty pertaining to what is referred to as حديث الافك [hadith al-Ifk] which is in reference to the un-chastity rumor surrounding the Prophet’s wife. That uncertainty was put to rest when the ayats were revealed in Surat al-Nur to clarify this whole issue. Another incident pertains to the Prophet’s opinion about pruning date palm trees. He was not in favor of it and eventually it turned out that his opinion on this worldly matter was not the advantageous (or profitable) thing to do. And when he came to know of the results, he acknowledged that his (estimation) was just a consideration and he told the farmers that they knew more about their farming details than he and that his approximation should not be considered binding upon them. In one of the narrations [by Muslim] he said: انتم أعلم بأمور دنياكم [antum a‘lamu bi-umuri dunyakum] which means you people [in your own areas of expertise] are more knowledgeable of your material world.
Another event collaborates the fact that Prophets (pbuh) are not expected to be “the know all” in the hundreds and thousands of skills and proficiencies in life. This incident happened when the Prophet (pbuh) stationed the troops in a certain position nearby the water-well of Badr.
One shrewd conscript by the name of al-Habbab ibn al-Mundhir came to the Prophet (pbuh) and asked: Has the stationing of troops at this position been assigned to you by Allah which we have no right to [by military necessity] reposition ourselves? Or is this encampment a matter of [personal] opinion, military outmaneuvering, or a ploy [against the enemy]? And the Prophet (pbuh) answered: No. Rather it is an opinion, a military outmaneuvering and a ploy. Then al-Habbab replied: But this should not be our encampment position. [Let us] proceed until we are in a position to have access to the water from which to drink and they [the enemy] will not be in a position to have free access to [a source of] drinking water. And the Prophet (pbuh) upon hearing this, said: Your opinion “carries the day”. And, indeed, the Prophet (pbuh) implemented what al-Habbab suggested. That does not mean that the Prophet (pbuh) is somehow a lesser Prophet, or that his ‘ismah is violated.
On another occasion, in lock-step with the above examples, the Prophet (pbuh) wanted to reach a type of reconciliation with hostile forces and to pay those hostile forces one third of al-Madinah’s palm-date produce. And so, he consulted with the Ansar of al-Madinah. And when they disagreed with such a deal, he withdrew his offer. These types of “world consideration” issues have no negative impact on the larger divine program which has become the Prophet’s responsibility and that is the communication of revelation and the implementation of it to become a living and thriving Islamic society.
There is a hadith that has at least a couple of versions. Both are Qur’anically compatible. This is the hadith:
"انما أنا بشروأنتم تختصمون الي ولعل بعضكم أن يكون ألحن بحجته من بعض فأقضي له على نحو ما أسمع. فمن قضيت له من حق أخيه بشيءفلا يأخذ منه شيئا فانما أقطع له قطعة من النار." وفي رواية "فلعل بعضكم أن يكون أبلغ من بعض فأحسب أنه صادق فأقضي له."
This translates as follows: I am but a mortal being. And some of you come to me [to be a judge pertaining to your] fallouts and discords. And some of you [in my court of law] may be more articulate [and persuasive] than others. Consequently, I will pass judgment relying on what I hear. So, if I do pass judgment against someone because of someone else’s well-expressed case [as opposed to someone who cannot express himself convincingly] resulting in a transfer of worldly goods to the one who expressed himself better, he should not take possession of any of it because I will be allocating to him an element of [hell] fire.
This tells us that the Prophet cannot “read people’s internal thoughts” nor can he have knowledge of events that unfold beyond his observation and scrutiny.
Let us put that in the context of our contemporary times. We have thousands of professions, occupations, and vocations. Let us pick a few. We have pilots and aviators who take to the air with their aircrafts. We have veterinarians trained and qualified in the medical treatment of animals. We have multi-language linguists who teach an assortment of foreign languages. And we have many other specialists and experts in their own fields of technology and skills. Let us assume for a moment that Prophet ‘Isa [Jesus] (as) or al-Imam al-Mahdi were to appear in our time and age. Are we to test their sound and spotless character (‘ismah) by requiring them to know how to fly an aircraft, or how to cure a wounded deer, or can they teach us a foreign language? The answer should be obvious.
Remember, Musa (as) said to the sagacious sage: May I [Musa] follow you [the prudent sage] on the understanding that you [the intelligent sage] will impart to me [Musa] some of what you have gained mature knowledge of? (Surat al-Kahf, ayat 66)
Finally, for those who are “stuck” in their rigid understanding of our loved and beloved Prophet (pbuh) we ask: The Prophet (pbuh) died in his early sixties; why don’t you die in your early sixties?
May Allah (swt) guide us all.
Say [O Prophet]: “It is not within my power to bring benefit to, or avert harm from, myself, except as Allah may please. And if I knew that which is beyond the reach of human perception, abundant good fortune would surely have fallen to my lot, and no evil would have ever touched me… (Al-A‘raf, ayat 188)