All the messengers of God were specifically chosen and appointed by God to not only deliver His message upon the nations, but also to manifest the truth absolutely and completely, such that no excuse for rejection could be left. God must have chosen the people because of their well-pleasing, exceptional faith and conduct prior to their appointment. However, Jonah (pbuh), for instance, deliberately abandoned his divinely ordained mission for a time and was heavily penalized for this. The Qur’an states that Jonah (pbuh) would have remained in the belly of the whale until the Day of Judgment had he not repented.
How could God choose someone whom He foreknew would deviate from the task so greatly? Or, rather, how could He choose someone who would himself indulge in the general attitude of arrogant rejection to be His messenger? Is the response simply that He chose exceptional men, but that even these exceptional men were not without serious error, frailty, and capable of sin? If this is true, does this not refute the generally held Muslim doctrine of prophetic sinlessness?
Before I answer your questions, I would like to clarify a few things with reference to the nature of mistakes committed by the prophets and also the difference between sin and mistake:
The prophets are normal human beings and like all other people, they can also commit mistakes. They never commit sins, but may commit mistakes. The difference between sin and mistake is as follows:
Sin: an offense against God or against a religious or moral law.
Mistake: 1. an action or an opinion that is not correct, or that produces a result that you did not want. 2. a word, figure, etc. that is not said or written down correctly.
Oxford, Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Â© 2000
A very important aspect to be noted is that God selects only those persons as His prophets who possess strong moral characters and are the best persons amongst their nations. Therefore, having such strong moral characters they never commit sins. However, along with their strong moral personality they are still normal human beings, and may commit mistakes as any other normal human being. However, a study of prophets’ mistakes reveals that their mistakes are generally because of their strong bias towards the Truth and their love of God and their fellow human beings and are basically because of their sympathy toward others, and in their desire to save people from the everlasting punishment of Hellfire.
The core objective of the prophets is to honestly deliver the message of God. In this sphere, they are closely guarded by God to ensure whether they are delivering His messages accurately. If they commit any mistake in this specific sphere, it is corrected immediately, which means that they are completely error-free in this specific sphere. The Qur’an states:
As for the messengers whom He has chosen, He guards them from the front and from behind to make sure that they have delivered the messages of their Lord, (Al-Jinn 72:27-28)
Any mistakes committed by the prophets outside this sphere, if not affecting the nature of the message they are deputed to deliver, may or may not be corrected through divine intervention.
The corollary of the foregoing explanation is that the prophets are definitely sinless but may commit mistakes. If the mistake committed by a prophet directly or indirectly affects the accuracy of the message of God and its teachings, then these mistakes are corrected immediately. Therefore, the doctrine of the prophets’ immunity to sin still remains true.
Jonah’s (pbuh) action should also be considered within the same context. Jonah (pbuh) did not commit any sin but it was just an emotional human mistake. He continuously delivered God’s message to his nation and performed his duty with a strong commitment and integrity, but after spending a long time in his nation, not even a single person accepted his message, but kept ridiculing him as well as the message that he was delivering. It was quite natural for Jonah (pbuh) to become disappointed at such a discouraging response from his nation. In that state of disappointment, one day he decided to leave his nation and. in this state of mind, overlooked God’s commandment to patiently and steadfastly wait for His decision. Since Jonah (pbuh) was Rasul and according to God’s law, a Rasul could not leave his nation till the time that God directs him to leave his people, therefore, God took a strict action against him. It is evident from the Qur’an that, after realizing his mistake Jonah (pbuh) sincerely repented for his mistake and, as a result, God accepted his apology and saved him from dishonor.
I hope this helps.
Ameer Abdul Basit
October 13, 2002