I am a huge fan of the current Pope, Pope Francis. He seems to be a reasonable guy with epic critical thinking skills, a flare for logic, and an understanding of the issues of our times. I like that in a religious figure.
I have never heard of or witnessed such a great man take the Papal office in my short lifetime. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Pope had a direct line to God and could make changes to the Catholic doctrine because he is infallible. I never believed this, not even as a five-year-old in a Catholic school.
Learning, as I got older, about the corruption of the Popes throughout history brought me to the conclusion that the office of Pope holds too much power. As the saying goes: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
And this absolute power through the doctrine of infallibility is what the Papal office has afforded. While I, as a Muslim, do not believe people are in need of a Pope, I must say that Pope Francis has somewhat restored my hope for people with authority to do what is right. However, I recognize he is still human- a description that is synonymous with fallibility.
Just to make sure I was not misremembering my Catholic education, I submitted a quick question to Sheikh Google about infallibility, the infallibility doctrine, and what it means. Sheikh Google succinctly informed me that the word “infallible” itself literally means “the inability to be wrong” and that “in the Roman Catholic Church the doctrine that in specified circumstances the Pope is incapable of error in pronouncing dogma”.
So, what does this matter to me as a person who is no longer Catholic? It doesn’t matter. I don’t believe in it, and that is my right as a human being with free will and the God given freedom of religion.
That free will and freedom of religion also applies to Catholics who are free to believe in this doctrine as they see fit. And I will not insult anyone for their beliefs unless someone believes that pizza is not the best ever. Those people are just wrong and need to be told.
So, why am I even talking about this topic then, if it doesn’t matter? Because every now and then, it is useful to understand religions in a comparative light.
The Pope, in Roman Catholicism, is the head of the Church. He is the voice of the church. He says what stays and goes in Catholic doctrine and no one is allowed to question him. So, how does this compare to Islam?
In Islam, there is no such figure who is considered infallible if that means someone who is incapable of making a mistake. This statement might even put some Muslims up in arms because they perceive the prophets as infallible. But this goes too far even in Islamic thought. God alone without partner is the only infallible being. Humans are fallible. This is a core tenet of Islam.
We know for a fact that the Prophets were fallible because we know they were human beings and not gods themselves. We see within our own religious tradition that God calls out Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on his mistakes in Quran.
There is an entire chapter in the Quran (chapter 80) that is named after such an instance where the Prophet made a mistake. The chapter is entitled “‘Abasa” meaning “He frowned”. This is discussing an instance when the Prophet Muhammad frowned and turned away from a blind man asking about God and Islam, instead trying to discuss faith with men who thought there were in no need of their own Creator.
Everything in Islam is a balance. So, to balance out this “fallibility doctrine” as I just named it, Islam also teaches us that the prophets never knowingly committed sins (intentionally did something God prohibited) and they were absolutely incapable of miscommunicating God’s revelation. But they did make mistakes and could not change the law of God.
Worshiping Religious Leaders
In contrast to Catholicism, Islam does not advocate for the complete dependence on religious figures after the Prophets. The Prophets brought God’s word and its proper implementation to people. Scholars and other religious figures do not have this ability. They can only study what the Prophets brought from God, and do their best to interpret it for our times.
In the Quran, Allah directs us to avoid believing religious leaders are perfect as it is considered an act of worship reserved for God:
They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah, and [also] the Messiah, the son of Mary. And they were not commanded except to worship one God; there is no deity except Him. Exalted is He above whatever they associate with Him. (Quran 9:31)
Who Speaks for Islam?
To me this is the most confusing part about Islam and also the most exciting and liberating.
Today, there is no one person alive who speaks for Islam definitively. The Quran remains in its original version for all to read. The Sunnah (prophetic tradition) has been meticulously preserved and verified. And scholars from all corners of the earth have the task of interpreting these aspects of the faith for us today.
Like prophets, scholars are fallible. Unlike prophets, scholars can sin and are capable of miscommunicating God’s revelation- willfully or unknowingly.
We should respect scholars because of the time they have devoted to religious study, but we should not ever take any one scholar’s opinion to be the be-all and end-all of Islam. Some scholars have corrupted the religion. Some scholars use the religion for their own personal gain. Other scholars have made permissible what God forbade without any authority to do so.
We are warned against this in the following hadith:
“Once while Allah’s Messenger was reciting this verse (9:31 above), ‘Adi bin Hatim said:
“O Allah’s Messenger! They do not worship them.”
The Prophet said:
“They certainly do. The scholars and monks have made lawful things as unlawful and unlawful things as lawful, and the Jews and Christians followed them; and by doing so they worshiped them.””
God has given us an intellect, a conscious, and the responsibility to think for ourselves. If something a scholar says sounds outrageous (e.g. saying that prayer is no longer needed), Islamically-speaking, you have every right to question it.
In this way you are truly seeking Allah and not revering a fallible human being to the point of worship. Islam encourages its adherents to ask, explore, and ponder. Islam never directs Muslims to blindly believe something just because it was told to us by another human being who is not a prophet. To me this is so liberating.
If you want to find guidance, you can go directly to God. Ask God for guidance. It’s a simple enough thought, but if you go to God truly seeking truth, God guides. Islam offers a very intimate relationship with God. Islam offers the human being agency.