In the Name of Allah; the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful
Salutations of peace and blessings upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad, and upon his family, companions, and progeny.
In this entry, I will elucidate a very important principle of Islam regarding the authority and infallibility of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Before we discuss the principle of Prophetic inerrancy the respected reader should understand that the ultimate authority in Islam is the Word of Allah, the Holy Qur’an. That is the Book of God, the literal speech of Allah Most High. It’s every letter, jot, and particle is Wahi (divine revelation).
As such, for a believing Muslim, the Holy Qur’an is unquestionable and inerrant. This is not to say that Muslims may legitimately disagree over the correct interpretation of Qur’anic Verses, but that it is essential and required for a Muslim to sincerely acknowledge that the Book of Allah is the supreme authority on the basis of it being Allah’s spoken Words that have reached us through revelation.
Consequently, it is a firm principle in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), to whom the Qur’an was revealed, was perfect and infallible in his conveying of God’s revelation to us in the capacity of being a Prophet.
Secondly, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not receive only the Holy Qur’an as divine revelation, but received other inspirations which constitute the basis for the Sunnah, the second most important authority in Islam. The Sunnah is the way or path of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in practically following Islam, for example, the precise method of offering different acts of worship, and guidance for all Muslims on how to live their lives. The Sunnah is based on Ilhaam (divine inspiration), but unlike the Qur’an, it is not a book or text. Rather, the Sunnah are traditions and customs that have been passed down from generation to generation by Tawaatur. These are the two fundamental sources and authorities in Islam whose authenticity, due to Tawaatur, cannot be rationally impugned.
The third source is the Hadith. The Hadith corpus are narrations and reports that are traced back to the Prophet (peace be upon him) through Isnaad (chains of narrators). Muslims must approach the Hadith with more skepticism and caution because they are not always authentic. The Muhadditheen (scholars and experts of Hadith) were incredible individuals who expended utmost effort to determine the authenticity of each and every individual Hadith, by examining the narrators and other factors. Nevertheless, the Muhadditheen were not infallible and it is not only possible but a certainty that they were not always correct but that they erred. The Hadith contain the sayings, actions, and approvals of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which constitute an important source for our religious guidance. However, the methodology of the real Ahlus Sunnah (the orthodox sect of Muslims) is to give preference to the Qur’an and mass-transmitted Sunnah over and above solitary reports of Hadith. But if a Hadith does not contravene any verse of the Qur’an or any aspect of the mass-transmitted Sunnah (and the majority of Hadith do not contravene), then there is no harm in accepting and acting upon such Hadith, provided that the individual Hadith is not too suspect in its authenticity (Da’eef) or fabricated (Mawdoo’).
However, in this entry I would like to touch upon an important principle with relates to acceptance of even those Hadith which are Saheeh (authentic). As Muslims, we believe that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in communion with Allah and a recipient of divine revelation. Furthermore, he was protected by Allah with regard to conveying the Deen to us. However, being a human being, he also made statements which were not based on revelation or his being in the role of a Prophet, but some statements of his were based on his personal opinion. The following Hadith demonstrate this fact:
أَنَّ أُمَّهَا أُمَّ سَلَمَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهَا زَوْجَ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَخْبَرَتْهَا ، عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، أَنَّهُ سَمِعَ خُصُومَةً بِبَابِ حُجْرَتِهِ فَخَرَجَ إِلَيْهِمْ ، فَقَالَ : " إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ ، وَإِنَّهُ يَأْتِينِي الْخَصْمُ ، فَلَعَلَّ بَعْضَكُمْ أَنْ يَكُونَ أَبْلَغَ مِنْ بَعْضٍ ، فَأَحْسِبُ أَنَّهُ صَدَقَ ، فَأَقْضِيَ لَهُ بِذَلِكَ ، فَمَنْ قَضَيْتُ لَهُ بِحَقِّ مُسْلِمٍ ، فَإِنَّمَا هِيَ قِطْعَةٌ مِنَ النَّارِ فَلْيَأْخُذْهَا أَوْ فَلْيَتْرُكْهَا "
Narrated Umm Salama, wife of the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) from Allah’s Apostle (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) that he heard some people quarreling at the door of his dwelling. He came out and said, “I am only a human being, and opponents come to me (to settle their problems); maybe someone amongst you can present his case more eloquently than the other, whereby I may consider him true and give a verdict in his favor. So, if I give the right of a Muslim to another by mistake, then it is really a portion of (Hell) Fire, he has the option to take or give up (before the Day of Resurrection).”
This Hadith indicates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not always make decisions on the basis of Wahi (divine revelation), and did not always make statements in the role of being a Prophet. Rather, being the leader of influence in his community, people came to him to settle their disputes and seek counsel. No doubt, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was qualified to do so, as he undertook this role even before his proclamation of the Nubuwwah (prophethood). However, the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself stated that being a human being it is not necessary that each and every one of his decisions is infallible. Only those decisions, commands and statements of his which are based on Wahi are infallible and unquestionable.
حَدَّثَنِي رَافِعُ بْنُ خَدِيجٍ ، قَالَ : " قَدِمَ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْمَدِينَةَ ، وَهُمْ يَأْبُرُونَ النَّخْلَ ، يَقُولُونَ يُلَقِّحُونَ النَّخْلَ ، فَقَالَ : مَا تَصْنَعُونَ ؟ قَالُوا : كُنَّا نَصْنَعُهُ ، قَالَ : لَعَلَّكُمْ لَوْ لَمْ تَفْعَلُوا كَانَ خَيْرًا ، فَتَرَكُوهُ ، فَنَفَضَتْ أَوْ فَنَقَصَتْ ، قَالَ : فَذَكَرُوا ذَلِكَ لَهُ ، فَقَالَ : إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ ، إِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ دِينِكُمْ ، فَخُذُوا بِهِ ، وَإِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ رَأْيٍ ، فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ "
Rafi' b. Khadij reported that Allaah's Messenger (sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam) came to Medina and the people had been grafting the trees. He said: What are you doing? They said: We are grafting them, whereupon he said: It may perhaps be good for you if you do not do that, so they abandoned this practice (and the date-palms) began to yield less fruit. They made a mention of it (to the Prophet), whereupon he said: I am a human being, so when I command you about a thing pertaining to religion, do accept it, and when I command you about a thing out of my personal opinion, keep it in mind that I am a human being.
Here again we see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) makes a distinction between following him as it pertains to the Deen (religion), and following him as it pertains to his personal opinion in matters that are unrelated to the Deen. We have to remember that the Prophet’s authority in the Deen is not derived from his essence, but from Allah. Being a Messenger, he is chosen by Allah to simply convey to us, in his sayings and actions, the Religion of Islam including its laws and regulations, or the Shari’ah. In this capacity and role of being a Prophet, he is divinely protected from error and is infallible. However, in matters that are not Shar’an (relating to the Shari’ah), the Prophet (peace be upon him) may have given his personal opinion and it is not necessary that his personal opinion in such matters is always correct:
عَنْ أَنَسٍ ، " أَنّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، مَرَّ بِقَوْمٍ يُلَقِّحُونَ ، فَقَالَ : لَوْ لَمْ تَفْعَلُوا لَصَلُحَ ، قَالَ : فَخَرَجَ شِيصًا ، فَمَرَّ بِهِمْ ، فَقَالَ : مَا لِنَخْلِكُمْ ، قَالُوا : قُلْتَ كَذَا وَكَذَا ، قَالَ : أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ "
Anas reported that Allaah's Messenger (sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam) happened to pass by the people who had been busy in grafting the trees. Thereupon he said: If you were not to do it, it might be good for you. (So they abandoned this practice) and there was a decline in the yield. He (the Prophet) happened to pass by them (and said): What has gone wrong with your trees? They said: You said so and so. Thereupon he said: You have better knowledge (of a technical skill) in the affairs of the world.
Here the Prophet (peace be upon him) is even clarifying that it is possible others have superior knowledge to him in certain worldly affairs, such as agriculture, dendrology, etc. For example, the famous episode that occurred during combat preparations for the Battle of the Trench (Khandaq). The Prophet’s wise and knowledgeable companion, Salman the Persian (Allah be pleased with him) asked the Prophet whether the strategy he had laid out in preparation for the battle was on the basis of Wahi (divine revelation) or Rayy (the Prophet Muhammad’s personal opinion), to which the Prophet (peace be upon him) answered that it was based on his personal opinion and assessment of the situation. Salman the Persian, after seeking this important clarification, then proceeded to recommend an alternative strategy of digging a trench around Medina, from which the battle acquired its name (Battle of the Trench).
Here is another example of how the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) personal opinion, recorded in an authentic Hadith of Bukhari Sharif, turned out to be incorrect because it a statement he expressed from his own personal observation and not on the basis of Wahi:
Narrated Abu Hurairah (Allah be pleased with him): The Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: “A group of Israelites were lost. Nobody knows what they did. But I do not see them except that they were cursed and transformed into mouses and rats, for if you put the milk of a she-camel in front of a mouse or rat, it will not drink it, but if the milk of a sheep is put in front of it, it will drink it.”
Here we can clearly see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave his personal opinion regarding a group of Israelites that were lost and never seen again. The Prophet (peace be upon him), based on his personal opinion and not Revelation, stated that they were cursed and transformed into mice. This was based on his personal observation of mice, when he noticed that they do not drink camel’s milk but do drink sheep’s milk. Alternatively, the Hadith may be understood as a parable, in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) is comparing the Jews to mice in that both avoid camel’s milk. Such parables where groups of human beings, due to their peculiar characteristics, are described with names of certain animals, is part of the Islamic narrative, and there exist such parables throughout the Qur’an and Hadith. I have briefly touched on this vast subject in one of my previous entries here.
In the Darussalam edition and English translation of Sahih al-Bukhari by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, it is stated in the footnotes to this Hadith: “Later on the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) was informed through revelation about the fate of those Israelites: They were transformed into pigs and monkeys.”
This is why it is so critical to have a more skeptical and nuanced approach to the Hadith, otherwise a person could mistakenly think that the Prophet’s personal opinion based on his own observation or experience is infallible and must be regarded as Deen, whereas that is simply not the case. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was, after all, a human being living in seventh century Arabia, and he himself confessed that it is possible that others may have more knowledge than him concerning worldly matters. This explains why many of the Prophet’s statements, which are based on his personal opinion, do not accord with modern scientific discoveries and facts. If a Muslim is not careful, he can end up embarrassing himself and other Muslims by blindly defending the veracity of such Hadith as proverbial Gospel truth by failing to understand the Islamic principle which makes a distinction between Wahi (divine revelation) and Rayy (Prophet’s personal opinion).