In the previous articles we have pointed out that an Imam is not an ordinary leader who simply has to rule a country and protect its borders; rather, in addition to this duty, he has other weighty responsibilities, alluded to above. The fulfilment of these tasks—such as commenting on the Qur’an, explaining religious rulings, replying to theological questions, and forestalling all forms of doctrinal deviation and legal confusion—all of this presupposes a comprehensive and inerrant knowledge; for an ordinary person trying to carry out such responsibilities would not be immune from sin and error.
Of course, ‘isma (inerrancy) is not to be identified exclusively with prophethood, for a person may be ma’sum, protected against sin and error, while not having the rank of a Prophet. A shining example of this is the Virgin Mary, whom we mentioned earlier in the discussion of the ‘isma of the Prophets. In addition to the intellectual arguments already given for the necessity of the ‘isma of the Imam, there are other reasons, some of which we mention below.
1. The explicit and definite desire, on the part of God, to purify and cleanse the ahl al-bayt of all defilement, as the Qur’an says:
God’s desire is but to remove impurity far from you, O people of the household (ahl al-bayt), and purify you with an utter purification. (Sura al-Ahzab, XXXIII:33)
This verse indicates the ‘isma of the ahl al-bayt in that this special divine will to purify the ahl al-bayt of all impurity is tantamount to their being protected against the commission of all sin. The meaning of impurity (rijs) in this verse might be understood as pertaining to all forms of mental, moral and spiritual impurity, for sin flows forth as a result of these impurities.
Also, since this divine will is specifically related to these people and not to all members of the umma, it follows that God’s universal desire for all people to be pure must be distinguished from this particular mode of the expression of this will. The universal divine will for the purification of all Muslims is a religious (tashri’i) will [that is, one that operates through the religion itself], and it is possible that through disobedience certain people will not accept this [divine will that they be purified].
On the other hand, the will to purify the ahl al-bayt is a creative or existentiating (takwini) will, and this kind of will or desire on the part of God is inseparable from the object desired—purity from all sin. It should be noted that this creative will to establish the ‘isma of the ahl al-bayt does not deprive them of their free will, any more than the ‘isma of the Prophets deprives them of theirs (as was discussed earlier).
2. According to the hadith Thaqalayn, which says ‘I am verily leaving with you two precious things, the Book of God and my progeny,’ the Imams of the ahl al-bayt are ranged alongside the Qur’an; this means that, just as the Qur’an is immune against all types of error, so are the Imams immune from all mental and volitional sin. This can be seen more clearly in the light of the rest of this hadith: (a) ‘… for as long as you cling to these two, you will never go astray’; (b) ‘… and truly they will not be parted from each other until they join me at the Pool.’ It is perfectly clear then, that to which one must hold fast for guidance, dispelling all error, and which will not be separated from the Qur’an, must definitely be protected against all type of sin.
3. The Holy Prophet likened his ahl al-bayt to Noah’s ark: ‘Truly the People of my House (ahl baytí) in my community (ummati) is like Noah’s ark: whoever takes refuge therein is saved and whoever opposes it is drowned.’ Taking into account these reasons—which we have presented here in summarized form—the ‘isma of the ahl al-bayt is a clear and proven reality; needless to say, the traditional grounds for upholding this principle are by no means exhausted by what we have mentioned here.
Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani, Doctrines of Shi’i Islam, A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, Translated and Edited by Reza Shah-Kazemi, published by I.B.Tauris Publishers, London • New York 2003.
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