The Link Between Authority and Infallibility
Every prophet that appeared among his people, at once and without want or choice, ignited an unappeasable crisis of authority in his community. It matters not whether that community had a Heavenly Book or not, a revelation-based priesthood or not, or a powerfully entrenched ruling group or system or not. Prophethood, in its very nature, is authority, unimpeachable and utterly consequential.
The reason for this is that we human beings are duty-bound to obey God. But the only way to know His will, His words, His commands is through a prophet, a messenger. And when that messenger speaks, which they inevitably do, for such is their purpose, he does so only on behalf of the singular Lord who sent him.
That makes any word from him, the messenger, a word from God. And such is a word that must be obeyed/This is what is known as infallible authority, the unerring guide to right and wrong that man intuitively and inherently seeks. Now, we Muslims know that no new prophets will appear after Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam. He is the Last in the prophetic brotherhood, the final brick in their immense and hallowed edifice, and their Seal. Sallallahu alayhe wa sallam.
That means that there can be no person of infallible authority on earth after the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam.
But we also know something else, or claim to.
Allah, who sent all the prophets, has chosen to end their institution in the life of the world with the passing of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, at a precise moment-after he had lived a life, raised a call, and conveyed this culminating message of all Revelation, the Quran.
Now here comes the special thing we claim to know.
Both Allah and His Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa.sallam, have guaranteed us that these two sources of infallible authority--- the Book and the prophetic way-will be divinely preserved until the last days. Until then, whoever in all the world shall seize them and follow their guidance will never go astray.
This is our contention, as the Muslim Community of the Sunnah. So anyone who believes that infallibility lies in anyone other than the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe sallam, is wrong. None can take his place-neither imam, nor shaykh, nor scholar, nor ruler. None of these has the right to be obeyed without exception in what he enjoins and forbids.
Most people will readily concede this. Outwardly. But if you look to their actual behavior with regard to the people they follow, practically, they obey them as if it were obligatory, and they often strive to get others to do the same. Allah forewarns us in the Quran of the outcome of this misapplication of infallibility to people who are in a position of power or prestige over us.
"And they will say when cast into Hellfire in the Hereafter, Our Lord! Indeed, we have obeyed our leaders and our great ones among us. So it is they who have made us stray from the path of righteousness" (Surat Al-Ahzab, 33:67).
But look what the Quran says will be the verbalized regret of these people in the ayah right before this. "The Day that their faces shall be turned about in the Fire, they will say: Oh! If only we had obeyed Allah and obeyed the Messenger!" (Surat Al-Ahzab, 33:67).
What I am pointing out here is that though the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, has long ago passed, we are still bound to obey him by following his example in implementing the Quran in our lives and in die world as he transmitted it and exemplified it.
But there are two obvious prerequisites to this. First, we must know what the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, actually taught by way of word, deed, and acceptance of actions. And that means we must learn how to access this from the Sunnah of his that he promised would be preserved for us.
Second, we must have the power to act on his Sunnah.
Many are the voices among us these days that claim belief in Islam but call us to the Quran alone, and often as they interpret it, as if it can be understood and acted upon to the exclusion of the Sunnah of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam. Yet this is one wahy, or Revelation, seamless and mutually expressive and defining. The Quran cannot be separated from the Sunnah any more than a man's body can be separated from his soul and that man live. That is why Allah tells us: "O you who believe! Answer Allah and the Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life!" (Surat Al-Anfal, 8:24).
What puts the life in our life is the Word of Allah, die Quran, as directly translated by the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, into living human character. This is what is meant by the Prophet's well-known self-definition of his mission: "I have but been sent to perfect [in man] the 'noblest virtues,'" which some people translate as 'good manners,' in order to emphasize that it is all about adab, how to act and interact with our Creator and His creation, including ourselves, in every conceivable situation.
The Prison We Live In
I have said all this to say that we Muslims today are truly locked in a crisis of authority, wherefore wanders the entire world into devastating madness and mayhem. May Allah deliver us all. The reason for our worldly self-imprisonment is without any doubt our lack of knowledge about these two sources of infallible authority among us.
But this is only part of the story. There is another underlying cause.
Our lack of knowledge about these two sources is epitomized in a certain communal character deficiency of ours: Our inability and unwillingness, as the Community of Revelation, to earnestly and forthrightly engage the ideas, directives, and actions of our leaders and great fines. And make no mistake, it is only in this active interchange of putting our ways of thinking to the test, some thoughts against others, that our inheritance as the prophetic community can be tapped into, and a sense of collective infallibility-not agreeing on error-reached.
The failure of this mechanism among us raises many questions. Here I will speak primarily of the community I know best, Muslims in America.
Why is there no rigorous record of critical discourse between those among us who claim scholarly authority in Islam, so that we might all see what these scholars think of what their peers are telling us in the name of Allah?
Why is there no serious public questioning, evaluation, debate, or analysis and rebuttal from our community to our scholars and leaders, so that we can challenge them to clarify issues for us, and their own thinking, by making them explain to us, based on the Quran and Sunnah, why what they are telling us to do or not do, think or not think, is right, and so that we may appraise their guidance and leadership?
Why is there no clear, communal standard of Sunnah elucidated for us in the social environments that we live in, against which we can measure the remarks and opinions of our speakers, writers, teachers, and social organizers and activists and gain a sense of their guidance or misguidance and the path they are taking us down as a community?
This is not about ftnah and division, which have, as long as I can remember, been the potent and ostracizing threats leveled at those who dare question "authority" in mosques, conferences, and our other organizations. Too often, these morally weighty accusations are raised simply to silence legitimate questioning of the irresponsible or ambiguous public statements or actions of our thought leaders and the policies of our organizations with respect to their implications for the direction of the community, or for the religious soundness of our communities and their members.
On the contrary, my brothers and sisters, this is about bidding justice and forbidding injustice. It is about binding the Community and humanity to what is Lawful and good and freeing them from what is divinely prohibited and bad. This is the meaning of the Prophet's self-description of his mission as perfecting virtues, cited previously. And it is how Allah, Glory be to Him and all praise, presents His Prophet in the Quran: "He enjoins them with what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, making lawful for them wholesome things, and prohibiting for them impure things" (Surat Al- A'raf,7:l57).
Moreover, this is how Allah, Exalted and Most High, characterizes our Muslim community, in words similar to His divine description of the authorities of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, which we have just seen. You are the best Community ever brought forth for the good of humankind.You enjoin what is right. And you forbid what is wrong. And you believe in Allah (Surat Aal 'Imran, 3:110). Also, "As for the believing men and the believing women, all of them are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong" (Surat Al-Tawbah,9:71).
Allah has extolled us in this way because we are (meant to be) the communal fulfillment of all this long history of the House of Prophethood. We are its divinely decreed collective conclusion. Our mission and our authorities, together, are what Allah chose the prophets-and specifically the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam-to be and do in the world.
Without this measured mutual communal discourse that for too long we have allowed to be stifled, our ideas will never become refined. Our judgments will never be tested in the crucible of the prophetic community. The boundaries of guidance will never become clear to us. We will never be sure if we remain upon the Straight Way or not. Nor will we ever activate the best minds among us in the disciplines of religion. They will forever drain away into the mundane fields of the world, their attention distracted by the feckless partisan politics we are steadily evanescing in, the lost progressive movements ensorcelling our susceptible children with incantations blown upon the knots of an identity-destroying differentlessness and the subliminal lures of lust. For it is there in the darknesses of the world, we keep telling them, that meaningful differences are made and real solutions are found.
We need to revive this long-dead spirit of amr and nahiy by practicing it in our own localities and community. This is the antidote to the pathetic loss of moral authority between us and in the world.
We must infuse this with the other prophetic ethos vouchsafed us-that of collective and mutual alliance, and love and consideration for one another.
This is no call to feast on each other's dead flesh. It is a summons to maturity. We need a public discourse among ourselves. The urgent case of humanity and the state of the earth require us to engage in open argument. But it must be firmly and unambiguously grounded in our sources of infallible knowledge. Moreover, careful should be our adherence to the issues and ideas that will be determinative for the direction of our community and the ultimate outcome of our souls.
Such is the obligation and the promise of this, the Ummah of Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam. And with what crystalline clarity does creation moan that it has missed us these many years. So much so, that it can no longer survive our self-neglect.
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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