James M. Arlandson
It is a cherished doctrine among devout Muslims that Muhammad had achieved sinlessness or (even more) was always sinless after his birth. Some believe that Muhammad had merely negligible faults, brief forgetfulness, small errors, or superficial weaknesses, but this does not mean that he should be classified as a sinner.
But does this belief stand up under scrutiny in the light of the Quran and sound hadiths?
For a quick overview of this Islamic doctrine, go to this chapter in an online book.
What about Jesus? What do his own words and the rest of the New Testament say about this doctrine? Was he sinless?
We begin with Muhammad in the Quran and the hadith (records about Muhammads words and actions outside of the Quran). We then proceed to Jesus and the New Testament.
The Quran and the sound hadith are clear about Muhammads sin.
Readers may see multiple translations of the Quran at this website.
In Mecca, Muhammad receives this command about his sin.
40:55 Then have patience (O Muhammad). Lo! the promise of Allah is true. And ask forgiveness of thy sin [dh-n-b] and hymn the praise of thy Lord at fall of night and in the early hours. (Pickthall)
The Arabic word dhanaba (verb form) come from the root dh-n-b and is defined below in this section. This verse is unambiguous. Muhammad has sin.
It is one of the great ironies in the Quran that the next sura can be titled either "Muhammad" or "War" (qital, root is q-t-l). Sura 47 was sent down, according to Sayyid Abul ALa Maududi (d. 1979), a respected commentator, shortly after Muhammads Hijrah or Emigration or Flight from Mecca to Medina in AD 622.
47:19 So know (O Muhammad . . .) that . . . none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and ask forgiveness for your sin, [dh-n-b] and also for (the sin of) believing men and believing women. And Allah knows well your moving about, and your place of rest (in your homes). (Hilali and Khan)
Note that Muhammad implores forgiveness from Allah not only for himself but for Muslim men and women. This means that average humans have dh-n-b, and so does Muhammad.
Thus, according to Suras 40:55 and 47:19, Muhammad shares in dh-n-b in Mecca and in Medina.
The final example of Muhammads sin comes from Sura 48, which was revealed during and after Muhammads Treaty of Hudaybiyah in AD 628. Some scholars see verses that describe Muhammads conquest of Mecca in AD 630. Before then, however, Muhammad signed the Treaty. He got a dream or a vision to take a pilgrimage to the Black Stone. But the Meccans understandably stopped him outside of their city. He had been harassing their caravans for six years, after all. After tense negotiations, Muhammad sues for peace, and the Treaty is the way towards that goal.
48:2 That Allah may forgive you your sins [dh-n-b] of the past and the future and complete His Favour on you, and guide you on the Straight Path . . . (Hilali and Khan)
Did Allah forgive his prophet of his past and future sins because of the Treaty? If so, then it would have benefited all of humanity if Muhammad had remained on this peaceful path. Or did his many battles elicit Allahs forgiveness?
More importantly, this verse was probably revealed in 628, barely four years before he died of a fever in AD 632. Does this mean that the messenger of Allah had sin before AD 628? This seems to be the case. To be forgiven of dh-n-b, one must have it first. So what does this say about his daily guidance for eighteen years, quite apart from his revelations, which traditions say came on him in AD 610?
How is this word defined? Is it only a small weakness? Merely a minor fault?
A Muslim scholar defines it thus: "Crime; Fault; Offence; Sin; Any act having an evil result" (Omar). A western scholar defines it as "a crime, fault, sin" (Penrice).
Sometimes the lighter word, such as "fault," is chosen as the translation in these three verses. However, other persons in the Quran had or committed dh-n-b. What were they like?
* Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran, Noor Foundation, 2004. Omar points out that he uses, among others, the world-class dictionary by Edward Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon.
* John Penrice, A Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran, Dover, 1873, 2004.
Dh-n-b and other persons in the Quran
Other persons in the Quran had or committed dh-n-b. The key is to observe what they do to deserve this word and what happens to them afterwards. The following classes of people are taken from verses in the Quran listed in the Appendix.
(1) People generally are blessed by Allah with rain, for example, but they sin, so they are destroyed.
(2) Potiphars wife tried to seduce Joseph of the Bible.
(3) Jacobs sons doubt him and call him senile and erroneous.
(4) Polytheists in Noahs time refuse to listen to the prophet, so they are destroyed.
(5) The people of Thamud refuse to listen to a messenger of Allah and kill the she-camel, so they are destroyed.
(6) The people of Ad refuse to listen to a messenger of Allah, so they are punished.
(7) Moses committed the crime (dh-n-b) of murder before God encounters him in the burning bush.
(8) Korah rebelled against Moses in the desert, so he and his clan are destroyed.
(9) Pharaoh and the polytheistic ancient Egyptians refuse to obey Moses, so they are destroyed.
(10) The jinn (genii or spirit beings) must heed the Quran, or they will be punished.
(11) Believing Muslims have or practice dh-n-b.
(12) Prophets of old confess their sins.
(13) Jews and Christians refuse to listen to Muhammad.
(14) Bedouins mix righteousness with evil, so they have dh-n-b.
(15) If Muslims fight in the cause of Allah, then their dh-n-b will be forgiven.
(16) Unbelievers burning in hell confess their dh-n-b.
To sum up, those who possess or commit dh-n-b do the following: disbelieve, sexually seduce, rebel, murder, defy Allah, refuse his messengers, disobey clear warnings, doubt holy men, or mock sacred truths and messengers or patriarchs. The worst sin? Polytheists commit dh-n-b because they associate other deities with Allah, who punishes or destroys most of these people, forgiving on occasion.
Therefore, how can anyone correctly say that dh-n-b means a minor "mistake" or "forgetfulness" or a small "fault" and still remain consistent with the Quran? Muhammad may not have committed every sin in the list, but surely his sin is not a small weakness.
Again, for the verses in the Quran in which these persons are described, go to the Appendix.
This body of literature records the words and actions of Muhammad outside of the Quran. The most reliable collector and editor is Bukhari (d. 870). Five hadiths are sufficient to support and clarify the Quran on Muhammads sin nature, which all who are strictly humans have.
(1) This hadith says that Muhammad sought Allahs forgiveness seventy times a day. This does not make the prophet seem secure in Allah.
Narrated Abu Huraira:
I heard Allahs Apostle saying." By Allah! I ask for forgiveness from Allah and turn to Him in repentance more than seventy times a day." (Bukhari)
(2) Between Muhammads pronouncement that Allah is most great (Takbir) and the recitation of the Quran, he paused for a moment. He was asked what he said during the pause. Again he seeks from Allah forgiveness of his sins.
Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allahs Apostle used to keep silent between the Takbir and the recitation of Quran and that interval of silence used to be a short one. I said to the Prophet . . . "What do you say in the pause between Takbir and recitation?" The Prophet said, "I say . . . O Allah! Set me apart from my sins (faults) [khatia] as the East and West are set apart from each other and clean me from sins [khatia] as a white garment is cleaned of dirt (after thorough washing). O Allah! Wash off my sins [khatia] with water, snow and hail." (Bukhari)
For a definition of the word "khatia," go the Appendix.
(3) In this hadith the prophet appears nervous as he takes refuge in Allah from the punishment of the grave, from the persecution or trial of the Dajjal (the Islamic version of the Antichrist), and from his own sins.
(The wife of the Prophet) Allahs Apostle used to invoke Allah in the prayer saying . . . O Allah, I seek refuge with You from the punishment of the grave and from the afflictions of Masih Ad-Dajjal and from the afflictions of life and death. O Allah, I seek refuge with You from the sins" . . . .Aisha also narrated: "I heard Allahs Apostle in his prayer seeking refuge with Allah from the afflictions of Ad-Dajjal." (Bukhari; see a short parallel hadith on Muhammads fear of punishment in the grave here, and see a slightly longer one below (no. 376)
(4) This hadith says that Muhammad sought forgiveness from Allah for his mistakes and his "exceeding the limits" (i.e. his "great sins").
Narrated Abu Musa Al-Ashari:
The Prophet used to invoke Allah, saying, "O Allah! Forgive my mistakes and my ignorance and my exceeding the limits (i.e., my great sins)" . . . . (Bukhari, vol. 8, no. 6398 in Invocations translated by Muhsin Khan, Darussalam, 1997; parenthetical insertions are original; online source, but it has only the transliterated Arabic)
(5) During his nighttime prayers, Muhammad sought Allah for forgiveness, repenting to him. Note how he asks for forgiveness for his past and future sins, echoing Sura 48:2. Ibn Abbas is Muhammads cousin and a highly respected transmitter of traditions.
Narrated Ibn Abbas [about Muhammad who is praying]:
. . . O Allah ! I surrender (my will) to You; I believe in You and depend on You and repent to You. . . . Please forgive me my previous and future sins; and whatever I concealed or revealed . . . . (Bukhari)
To sum up the last three sections, was Muhammad sinless? He is a mortal human through and through. He had the attribute dh-n-b and committed the reality behind this word. It goes far beyond simple errors, small mistakes, superficial weaknesses, minor faults, and brief lapses of memory. It may include these things (all humans do them), but it also has to signify sin, crime, offense, and any act having an evil result (all humans do this also, in one way or another). Moreover, Muhammad, who is allegedly the best of the best of all of Gods messengers, appears insecure and fearful of the punishment of the grave and the Islamic Antichrist. Punishment of the grave? He seems to fear Allahs judgment on him for his sins.
In AD 628 (or thereabouts) Muhammad had his past and future sins forgiven according to Sura 48:2, but what about before this time? What was his daily life and guidance, apart from revelations that came on him, beginning in AD 610 (says tradition)? He was not sin-free.
So as a mere human who suffered from dh-n-baccording to the Quran itselfhow can Muhammad lead all of humanity towards the light and salvation? He had his own problems and fears to deal with.
It is clear from the sacred New Testament that Jesus is without sin, offense, crime, or any act leading to an evil result. The New Testament is uncompromising on this doctrine. There is no ambiguity. Seven passages spell it out for us clearly and straightforwardly.
The New International Version is used here, but the readers may see other translations at this website.
(1) Jesus poses this rhetorical question to his opponents and accusers.
He says in John 8:45-46:
Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can you prove me guilty of any sin?
In his culture, "prove guilty of sin" refers to his keeping the Law. Did he deviate from it? His opponents do not take him up on his challenge.
(2) Peter lived and walked with Jesus for at least three years. If anyone could, then the chief Apostle surely saw some minor sin in the Lord, right?
21 To this you [Christians] were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22 He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:21-22)
In verse 22, Peter quotes from Isaiah 53:9, which Jesus fulfilled in his suffering and death. So the chief Apostle did not find even a minor sin in Jesus Christno sin at all.
(3) The Apostle John also lived and walked with Jesus for three years. What is his assessment of Jesus from his own observations?
But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. (1 John 3:5)
The verdict is in: John never saw a sin in the Lord, whom he saw up close and personal.
Both declarations by Peter and John are remarkable. It is one hundred percent certain that if we had followed these apostles for three years every day, then we would have seen at least one sin. But these two did not see even one sin in Jesus.
(4) The author of Hebrews had contact with the apostolic community, so he gets this theology from that source. He also gets it from his interpretation of the Old Testament, as he was inspired by the Spirit of God.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we areyet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15)
It is not a sin to be tempted, but it becomes a sin to give in to it. In his human body, Jesus successfully overcame Satans temptations (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).
(5) The same inspired author describes Jesus-as-high-priest in this way:
Such a high priest meets our needone who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:26)
Leviticus (the second book in the Bible) describes a sacrifice for the holiest of days, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). Aaron, the first of a long line of high priests, had to sacrifice a bull for his own sins. The sequence in the ritual goes on in small detail, but the point is clear. Humanseven God-ordained and holy oneshad to sacrifice for themselves and their sins. The author of Hebrews is at pains to prove that Christ the eternal, sinless high priest did not have to sacrifice himself on the cross for his own sins because he had none. But he graciously and blessedly gave himself for our sins.
That is the good news of the gospel. Now we no longer have to worry about getting into heaven. Christ opened that door for us two thousand years ago.
(6) Paul, who heard early reports about Jesus and who was inspired by God as he wrote Scripture, says that God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us. Why?
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The clause "God made him . . . to be sin" sounds strange, so what does it mean? The mystery is solved once we understand the Old Testament. God made Jesus to be our "sin offering" (Leviticus 4:1-5:13; 6:24-30) so that when God looks at us, he sees the blood of Christ, not our sins. This is why no Bible-educated Christian could give up the Biblical doctrine of the atonement (being "at one" with God).
(7) Finally, we examine a verse in the Quran and compare it with a passage in the Holy Gospel of Mark. The Quran says that only Allah forgives sins or dh-n-b.
3:135 And those who, when they have committed Fahishah (illegal sexual intercourse etc.) or wronged themselves with evil, remember Allah and ask forgiveness for their sins[dh-n-b] and none can forgive sins [dh-n-b] but Allahand do not persist in what (wrong) they have done, while they know. (Hilali and Khan)
Muhammad could not forgive sins because he was merely human, and he himself stood in need of forgiveness.
Gods exclusive right to forgive sins completely agrees with the New Testament. But it also reveals the nature of Jesus Christ. This is seen when Christ heals a paralytic after some religious leaders question Christs declaration that he could forgive the sins of the paralytic.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 "Why does this fellow talk like that? Hes blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8 Immediately, Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking such things? 9 Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Get up, take your mat and walk? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" . . . . (Mark 2:5-10; cf. Matthew 9:2-8; Luke 5:18-26)
Jesus then heals the paralytic. The teachers of the law make the right inference. Only God can forgive sins in this manner. Jesus forgives sin in this manner, so what does this say about his divine nature?
What does all this mean?
Three ideas come out of this study.
(1) One of the biggest differences between Christianity and Islam is the doctrine of atonement. It is fully developed in Christianity, which is the fulfillment of atonement in the Old Testament, and it is undeveloped in Islam. Actually, the Quran denies an all encompassing atonement of the Christian kind, but it has an assortment of expiations, which in the Quran means buying or working for forgiveness and acceptance from Allah.
As for Islam, Muhammad is not a savior who pays for and forgives our sins. Thus, Muslims may purchase forgiveness from Allah with money or gifts to the poor (e.g. Sura 2:271 and 5:95). They must do good works to please Allah enough to get into heaven (e.g. Suras 2:25, 112, 277; 4:173). But how many good works are enough so they can be guaranteed heaven? Islam still requires animal sacrifice, but not for the purpose of atonement. The sacrifice of sheep is only in commemoration of Abrahams sacrifice, not to take away their own sins. So Islam keeps a cultural-religious sacrifice going back to the Old Testament, but dilutes it. This lack of a clear doctrine of atonement comes out of Muhammads strict humanity and dh-n-b. He is disqualified to offer himself as a sacrifice and to forgive our sins once and for all. He was dealing with his own personal problems and fears, which impacted the world around him.
On the other hand, as we just saw in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is the unique high priest who sacrifices himself, instead of animals, for our sins, once and for all. Christianity abolishes animal sacrifices. Bible-educated Christians understand that they do not have to do good works to get into heaven. They depend only on Christs Good Work on the cross. After our salvation is secured, we do good works out of gratitude and by the direction of the Spirit of God. Therefore, it is absolutely indispensable that Christ should be sinless in order to qualify for this gracious act of dying for our sins.
(2) Muslims regard Muhammad receiving past and future forgiveness of sins as very special, which belongs only to him (Sura 48:2). For example, Ibn Kathir, a highly respected Medieval commentator, says the following about this "unique" past and future forgiveness. First, he quotes the relevant clause from verse 2, which was analyzed, above:
"That Allah may forgive you your sins of the past and the future" contains one of the special virtues of the Messenger, and no one else shares this honor with him. There is not an authentic Hadith that states that any person other than the Messenger earned forgiveness for all of his sins of the past and future on account of performing good deeds. This, indeed, is a great honor for the Messenger of Allah, who fulfilled the requirements of Allah's obedience, righteousness and straightness at a level never surpassed by a human being in past generations, nor will it ever be surpassed in the generations to come. Muhammad is the perfect human being and the leader and chief of all mankind in this life and the Hereafter. And since he was, and will always be, the most obedient of Allah's creation to Him and the most honoring of Allah's commands and prohibitions . . . (Source)
Thus, according to Ibn Kathir, Muhammad surpassed every human being in the past, present or future and is therefore the leader and chief of all humankind in this life and in the Hereafter. He is the perfect human being. It should be remembered, in contrast, that Muhammad shared in dh-n-b before Sura 48:2 was revealed in AD 628. This means that when he first received his call in Mecca in AD 610, he was not sin-free. What does this say about his daily guidancequite apart from those brief moments when revelations shook him?
Further, it may surprise the readers that when average Christians who come under the blood of Christ that was shed on the crossthat is, they accept Christs forgiveness and atonementthey are permanently filled with the Spirit of God (the blessed Presence, which Islam, sadly, denies to Muslims). This means that Christians live in a perpetual state of forgiveness. This is how great Christs work on the cross is. No Christian who knows the Bible could give up this precious doctrine of the atonement and the infilling and indwelling of the Spirit of God himself.
(3) The Quran says that Muhammad shared in sin or dh-n-b. But Muslims believe that he was sinless to a large degree, if not completely. Thus, against-all-odds belief has been exalted above factseven textual facts coming out of the Quran. This belief-above-facts reveals a deeper problem. If a researcher points out an atrocity or a violent act that Muhammad committed, then for a devout Muslim the atrocity or act is not wrong or unjust or sinful. It must be right, just, and sinless, no matter what the facts say because Muhammad was sinlessagain, no matter what the Quran says. And the vicious circle goes round and round.
Only a mind that has been opened up by God and sound reason can break through this mental lockdown and circular reasoning.
This two-part article (Part One and Part Two) replies to a Muslim missionarys polemics.
This article is a fine overview of the subject of Muhammads sins, covering many of the areas found in this present article.
This article replies to Muslim polemics and affirms the sinlessness of Christ.
This article cites more verses in the Quran and hadith passages than does the present article.
Go to the Appendix for others persons in the Quran who suffer from dh-n-b.
Articles by James Arlandson
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