The theological concept of ʿisma from the early to modern period of Islam




Elamir, Norah Sonya

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This thesis traces the theological change in the concept of ʿisma, (the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad in regards to receiving and communicating divine revelation) from the medieval to modern period of Islam. In order to trace this change, this study analyzes the exegetical commentaries of Sunni and Shiʿi theologians regarding two case studies found in the Qur’an that call into question Prophetic ʿisma: the so-called Satanic Verses of Qur’an 22:52, and the so-called wife-beating verse of Qur’an 4:34. In doing so, it demonstrates the differences between Sunni and Shiʿi theological perspectives of ʿisma, and the fact that by the modern era, both Sunni and Shiʿi theologians professed ʿisma as an aspect of the Prophetic persona that must be defended. Only within the modern era do Sunni theologians begin to think of ʿisma as conceptually in line with the Shi'a, with whom the theological understanding of the concept originated, as it initially pertained to the infallibility of the Imams, and by extension, the Prophet. For the Sunnis, while in the early period it was deemed acceptable and even necessary at times to assert the fallibility of the Prophet, they could no longer do this in the modern period in light of the fact that the Shiʿi theological understanding of ʿisma had been doctrinally established and defended for some time. Posited as another potential explanation that contributed to this shift in the minds of modern Sunni Muslim scholars regarding the concept of ʿisma, the conclusion of this thesis provides a brief series of examples of how 18th-century scholars of Enlightenment Europe, such as George Sale, regularly depicted the Prophet Muhammad as an imposter, accusing him of intentionally creating a false religion. In effect, modern Muslim theologians such as Sayyid Qutb may have been both informed by, or responding to this Western/Orientalist idea of “Muhammad the Imposter,” since this notion of “Imposture” continues to be recycled and utilized within contemporary Western scholarship.


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