'Infallibility' means protection from sin or error
I argued last time that, when discussing an issue in the Faith, we should start with what Baha'u'llah has to say about it. This time I will look at how Baha'u'llah defines the concept of infallibility.
Baha'u'llah's definition is given in Ishraqat (Splendors), which is found in Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 108. In an email message about infallibility that I published on my blog last year, Sen McGlinn gave a literal translation of the relevant passage. Recently, I obtained from Sen a slightly revised translation of the first three sentences. With thanks to Sen, here they are:
"Know that infallibility (`is.mat) has diverse meanings and stations. If God guards (`s.mahu) someone from slipping (az-zalal), God confers upon him this name (infallible) as a station (fii maqaam). Similarly if God has guarded someone from sin (khataa'), rebellion (`is.yaan), impiety (`iraaz), disbelief (kufr), joining partners with God (shirk) or the like, God grants each of them the name of 'infallibility.'"
First up, let's deal with discrepancies with the official translation, which says:
"Know thou that the term 'Infallibility' hath numerous meanings and divers stations. In one sense it is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error. Similarly it is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 108)
Sen explains that "in one sense" is not in the original Arabic. Moreover, the capitalisation of the word "One" in the second sentence is an interpretation of the translator, which Sen argues is incorrect. The word "one" should not be capitalised, which means that, in this short passage, Baha'u'llah is talking about infallibility in general, as it applies to everyone and not specifically to the manifestation. He introduces the infallibility of the manifestation (the Most Great Infallibility) in the next sentence. But here I am concerned with the general meaning of 'infallibility' as it applies to ordinary humans.
What is Baha'u'llah saying about infallibility in this passage? First of all, he tells us that it has diverse meanings and diverse stations. Note that this is the opposite to the claim of John Hatcher that "Infallibility admits of no degrees". Instead, Baha'u'llah is telling us that it has a diversity of meanings in a diversity of stations or levels. In this sense, it is like the word "sun" in the scriptures, which Baha'u'llah explains in the Iqan has many meanings, each depending on the station one is looking at; for example, 'sun' refers to the manifestations and the holy ones, the divines of a previous dispensation who live in the time of a new revelation, and the laws and teachings of each religion such as prayer and fasting.
If you look again at the first sentence of Sen's translation, you'll see that the Arabic word "`is.mat" follows the word "infallibility" in brackets. Sen has added that word in brackets to indicate that it is the Arabic word being translated here as "infallibility". Without going into detail about the way Arabic works, I'll simply say that the word "`is.mat" comes from the Arabic root "`s.m", which means to guard or protect. Sen explains: "Baha'u'llah is emphasising that the word `is.mat comes from the verb `s.m, to guard or protect, and the concept 'infallible' means that God has protected someone from something - in the first case, from a slip."
Let's recap what we have so far: infallibility applies to a person who God has guarded or protected from slipping. From this, we know at least two things:
- that infallibility is about being protected from slipping (in the first instance)
- that the word 'infallible' can be applied to any person that God has so guarded; that is, any person, not just the manifestation, and not just a leader of religion.
In the third sentence of the passage from Ishraqat (quoted above), we learn that the word 'infallible' also applies to those that God has guarded from other wrongs such as sin, rebellion, impiety, disbelief, and joining partners with God.
"Similarly if God has guarded someone from sin (khataa'), rebellion (`is.yaan), impiety (`iraaz), disbelief (kufr), joining partners with God (shirk) or the like, God grants each of them the name of 'infallibility.'"
Examples of 'infallibility' being applied to believers
In order to reinforce the idea that being free from sin or error is an attribute that any person can attain and not just leaders of religion, I cite below passages from the writings where the term is used to refer to ordinary believers. I've put the relevant phrases into italics.
"Thou hast mentioned Husayn. We have attired his temple with the robe of forgiveness and adorned his head with the crown of pardon. It beseemeth him to pride himself among all men upon this resplendent, this radiant and manifest bounty. Say: Be not despondent. After the revelation of this blessed verse it is as though thou hast been born anew from thy mother's womb. Say: Thou art free from sin and error. Truly God hath purged thee with the living waters of His utterance in His Most Great Prison." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p77)
"O son of worldliness! Pleasant is the realm of being, wert thou to attain thereto; glorious is the domain of eternity, shouldst thou pass beyond the world of mortality; sweet is the holy ecstasy if thou drinkest of the mystic chalice from the hands of the celestial Youth. Shouldst thou attain this station, thou wouldst be freed from destruction and death, from toil and sin." (Baha'u'llah: Persian Hidden Words, p70)
"O Thou forgiving Lord! Although some souls have spent the days of their lives in ignorance, and became estranged and contumacious, yet, with one wave from the ocean of Thy forgiveness, all those encompassed by sin will be set free." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Baha'i Prayers (US edition), p47)
"Saints are men who have freed themselves from the world of matter and who have overcome sin. They live in the world but are not of it, their thoughts being continually in the world of the spirit. Their lives are spent in holiness, and their deeds show forth love, justice and godliness." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Paris Talks, pp60-61)
"O Lord! Make this youth radiant, and confer Thy bounty upon this poor creature. Bestow upon him knowledge, grant him added strength at the break of every morn and guard him within the shelter of Thy protection so that he may be freed from error, may devote himself to the service of Thy Cause, may guide the wayward, lead the hapless, free the captives and awaken the heedless, that all may be blessed with Thy remembrance and praise. Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Baha'i Prayers (US edition), pp38-39)
"This is why He says: 'I am the bread which descended from heaven; whosoever shall eat of this bread will not die'(- that) is to say, that whosoever shall partake of this divine food will attain unto eternal life: that is, every one who partakes of this bounty and receives these perfections will find eternal life, will obtain preexistent favors, will be freed from the darkness of error, and will be illuminated by the light of His guidance." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions, p121)