This dilemma puzzled me as a child: from one side, we are taught that Prophets and Imams did not commit any sins and from the other we read of their conversations with God that are filled with deep regret, sincere repentance and heart felt desire for the Almighty to forgive their sins. They are either infallible and did not commit sins, or these supplications and historical recounts must be false; surely, I thought, it cannot be both. To make the problem worse, I came to know of verses of the Quran that command the Prophet to repent! I could have convinced myself to reject the historical reports, but how can one reject the explicit verses of the Quran? We read in the 47th chapter of the Quran, named after the Prophet himself, Sūrah Muhammad (p), verse 19: “And know there is no God but Allah, and repent for your sins, and for the believing men and women.”
We either have to concede that these heavenly souls were not infallible and committed crimes for which they repented in this manner, or we must offer another explanation. Some have conceded to the first, and others, particularly the Imāmī scholars and also some non-Imāmī, have explained how infallibility is not at odds with repentance and seeking forgiveness (or more technically, istighfār).
In what ensues, I will present a summary of some of these views.
1 Infallibility in promulgation
This view, accepted amongst Sunni scholars, opines that the Prophet was only infallible with regards to receiving revelation from Allah (s) and announcing that to the people. This is referred to as infallibility at the stage of tablīgh or promulgation. As for his actions which fall outside what directly relates to tablīgh, he is an ordinary human being and like the rest of us commit sins. In this light, God demanding him to perform istighfār for his sins is not only problematic, but favoured, because he, just like any other ordinary person, requires the Almighty to protect him against the consequences of his poor choices and sins.
2 Infallibility post Prophethood
According to this opinion, the Prophet potentially committed sins before the first descent of the Quran when he was around 37 years old. Just like above, it makes sense that he repents to his Lord for what he committed before he was made Prophet. Somewhat in line with this view, there are those who grant him infallibility from major sins post Prophethood, giving more reasons as to why he should repent.
3 Committing makrūhāt and abandoning mustaḥabbāt
The above two positions are widely rejected amongst the Imāmī scholars and also some Sunni scholars because of the many problem it poses with respect to the infallibility of the Prophet and the Ahlulbayt in light of their positions as guides for humanity and models of imitation. Attempting to preserve the principle of infallibility for these divine individuals, some have suggested that ultimately, they do not commit sins but this does not mean they will not commit makrūh acts or abandon mustaḥab ones. These two categories of deeds do not carry any legal penalty in the eyes of God and are considered supergeratory with respect to the strictly forbidden and strictly compulsory, respectively. And it is only natural that a person in their lifetime be required to fall into some disliked actions, even if not religiously forbidden, or abandon some liked action, even if possible to perform. Given their high status as divine representatives and the closest individuals to God Himself, they considered the weight of performing even these deeds the same weight of sins and sought to ask for His forgiveness for falling into these deeds.
As a branch of this view, there is a more generous position opining that although their infallibility does not entail safety from makrūhāt, but they were never persistent on performing them as opposed to the above view which is happy to posit such a thing.
Whatever the case may be, whether they performed makrūhāt as regularly as ordinarily people do or occasionally and without persistence, their istighfār was for the sake of these actions and although they are not jurisprudentially considered sins, but individuals of their caliber reach spiritual unease and distance from the Almighty when they fall into these deeds and upon this, naturally, weep to their Lord for their shortcomings.
3 The most comprehensive infallibility
Under this definition, the Prophet and Imāms did not commit sins nor did they commit disliked actions. The level of self-control they exhibited and the willpower they practiced, one which was coupled with piety and God-consciousness, never would allow them to fall into even the lightest of disliked actions, let alone consistently perform them. This is the requirement of their station as the closest beings to the Most Pure and the perfect manifestation of all that which is divinely inspired and humanly sought.
Their sincerely felt repentance and lengthy emotional conversations with their Beloved is nothing but a display of regret for their previous spirituals stations they have passed in their journey towards perfection and Perfection. This concept is not foreign to us ordinary humans either: we regret our past actions, even if they may not be classified as sins or disliked. As we grow in this world, as we age, add to our collection of experiences and maturity, we become the biggest critics of our own character even in the no so distant past. It may have been our form of speech, the way we prioritised our time, the importance we gave to our surroundings and similar examples we reflect on and remember in our privacy and wish we had done better. Similarly, although at completely different plane and a realm completely transcendental to ours, these noble individuals, as they pass the lofty stations of perfection and spirituality one after another, as they reach higher states of existence, they look back at their earlier states, albeit states we perhaps only can dream of reaching, but from the perspective of the observers on top of a tower, whatever falls beneath him, is only a valley, even if that valley be as green and fruitful as one could dream it to be. They cry to their Lords with their deepest of emotions for not possessing the appreciation they hold onto at their new standpoint. God forbid, they never committed sins to repent from them, they cried for not being more perfect at an earlier stage.
I prefer this view as I feel it does the most justice to the personalities of the Prophet/s and his Ahlulbayt, of their lofty visions and transcendental souls.
5 Detachment from the Divine
Another formulation, perhaps equally poetic and mystical as above, is that a constant of remembrance of God which embodies a state of unison with the Divine, completely distracted from all that exists, and alone conversing with the Beloved, when broken and interrupted is a form of spiritual torture for them, almost sin like. A constant state of remembrance, dhikr, broken by responsibilities in the real world and their interaction with the lower realms and its constituents, feels like departure from wishing to be continuously attached to Him. This departure from a higher mode of worshipping Him requires istighfār.
I understand the point being pushed here, but I fear that it undermines the role of this dunyā, that although a lower realm, but nonetheless, a realm through which trials and tribulations becomes the most effective means of obeying, worshipping, trusting and connecting with Him. The level of gnosis humans attain in their involvement with the world is not possible for the highest of angels simply because of the exercise of free will the human is gifted with. While the angel worships the Almighty unaffected by temptations and difficulty, the human, amongst a sea of contesting interests and conflicting urges, chooses his Lord and His Pleasure. And this is reflected in the lifestyle and sīrah of our saints; in a famous hadith attributed to Imām Mūsā al-Kāḍim he confesses ‘there is nothing that I see except that I see God before it, within it and after it’.
Although applicable to some specific instances of supplications being taught by the Imāms to their companions, such as the supplication of Kumayl or that of Abū Ḥamza Thumālī, in most other cases, it is hard to argue that they repented so heartfully so that they may teach us. In fact, once we know that their repentance was a tutorial and not intended, it loses its educational merit, the very thing it was trying to achieve.
7 Istighfār for the Ummah
Some have argued that they were asking for the sins of their people to be forgiven, that is, the sins of us Muslims. Although this is true in some cases, but just like above, it contradicts their states depicted while carrying these supplications and their personal conversation with God for actions they want to do istighfār from. Secondly, the verses of the Quran are explicit, in particular the earlier one mentioned, commanding the Prophet to ask forgiveness for his own sins.