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Infallibility and the meaning of khata’

This was posted to the unenrolled Bahai list on 17 Feb 2007

We have to start with the presumption that we do not know what `ismat
or infallibility/immaculacy/preservation etc is, and also with the
presumption that every word has seventy-two meanings. I will be happy
if I can find six or seven of the meanings of the doctrines of
infallibility in Bahai theology, mainly by looking at infallibility in
parallel with the term khata’ (sin, error, mistake, blame).
Note that a different starting-point would probably produce different results!

We should start by surveying the term in some Quranic, Sunni and Shiah
contexts, which may or may not point the way, but will certainly show
that a single or clear meaning is not to be expected. We should also
note that the word infallibility has different meanings in English:
there is the infallible computer system with triple backups and
self-correction (but subject to GIGO), there is the infallibility of
the Pope speaking ex kathedra on questions of faith and morals, the
inerrancy of scripture in some Protestant theologies, the
infallibility of a correct deduction from correct premises in logic,
and so on. Arabic and Persian are much the same: words take on
different meanings in different contexts, and writers are not
consistent with themselves or among themselves. The deduction of
meanings from texts is therefore an inexact science.

For reasons that will become clear, it will be helpful to also bear in
mind the various senses in which something or someone may be said to
fail, err or sin in English. There is the failing which is part of our
nature and has to be overcome, the mistake of perception (a mirage), a
mistake in logic, the wrong we commit in ignorance, the harm we do to
another by not thinking or failing to take proper care, there is
law-breaking, failure to live up to our potential, or failure to
satisfy requirements or expectations.

The Arabic term khata’ corresponds to some of these. Broadly, a
khata’ is a mistake that is made in thought, speech or action. This
contrasts to a fault or shortcoming which one has, an `ayb. The
opposite of khata’ is s.awaab, that which is correct. So in the field
of knowledge, khata’ is error and mistake; in the field of action,
khata’ is an omission or failure. From the omission or failure in
action there is also the meaning of “the wrong which one commits,” a
transgression. In the Quran, 17:31, the killing of children is a great
khita’ (sic) which certainly looks like a culpable, not accidental,
moral failing, but in 4:92 we have “It shall not be that the believer
shall kill any believer, except by way of khata’ ..
.” (mistake,
misstep). The Quran also has related words. There is khatiia’ in 4:112
where it seems to mean an accidental fault: It says, “one who acquires
[something] by way of
khatiia’ or by way of ithm (sin, evil, crime)
and throws it upon the innocent …
” Here, to ‘acquire something’ is
simply to bear the responsibility for some act, not literally to get
possession of an object. It makes most sense to me if khatiia’ is
accidental responsibility and ithm is culpable responsibility here.

Khata’ became a technical term in various fields: in logic it means
invalid, not true, mistaken. In Sunni theology there has been a long
discussion about whether a mujtahid who reasons by correct logic from
correct sources can come to a wrong conclusion. A mujtahid here is not
necessarily an officially recognised person, but any Muslim who has
acquired the knowledge and made the effort. But in the mainstream
view, “being right” in such cases does not meant being factually
correct, rather it means that the diligent mujtahid has duly fulfilled
the his or her responsibilities and will not suffer divine (or,
ideally, human) punishment: the answer he or she has found is at least
is right for him in the sight of God. This is significant when we
consider what is meant by isma’ being given to every holy soul. (SAQ
172) Khata’ in this context means being blameworthy.

In Shiah theology, the `ismat or sinlessness/infallibility of the
prophets and imams means their freedom from khata’ in the sense of
moral shortcomings. `Ismat is an attribute attributed to the Prophet
Muhammad, the Twelve Imams, and the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah. They
were called the “chahardeh ma`sum” the fourteen Pure Ones, of Shi`ism.
Some Shi`ite thinkers such as Ibn Babuya thought that prophets and
Imams could commit minor sins or lapses (as did Ibn Taymiyyah in Sunni
theology) while others thought of them as morally perfect in every

In criminal law, khata’ means unintentionality, it is a mitigating
circumstance in this world, and is supposed to be an exonerating
circumstance for God’s justice. Yet all four schools of Sunni law
agree that someone who kills an animal (except in ritual sacrifice) in
the sacred territory of Mecca, whether with `amd (deliberately) or
from khata’ (unintentionally), has to make the prescribed atonement.
Khata’ does not reduce liability for any injury done to another.
Khata’ here means a wrong done through failure, accident, or

In Baha’u’llah’s writings, one key text is paragraph 47 of the
Kitab-e Aqdas:

He Who is the Dawning-place of God’s Cause hath no partner
in the Most Great Infallibility (`ismat al-kabrii). He it is Who,
in the kingdom of creation, is the Manifestation of “He doeth
whatsoever He willeth”. God hath reserved this distinction unto
His own Self (to God’s nafs), and ordained for none a share in so
sublime and transcendent a station. This is the Decree of God,
concealed ere now within the veil of impenetrable mystery. We
have disclosed it in this Revelation, and have thereby rent
asunder the veils of such as have failed to recognize that which
the Book [of God] set forth and who were numbered with the

The first thing we can see here is that the Most Great Infallibility
of the Manifestation is not shared with anyone — thus there is no
Bahai equivalent of the imams or immaculate ones in Shi’ism. Paragraph
42 of the Aqdas says that charitable endowments revert (are under the
control of) Baha’u’llah, and after him to the Aghsan or male
descendants of Baha’u’llah, and after them to the Universal House of
Justice. What he says in paragraph 47 shows that they are not his
successors in the full sense: they do not succeed to the Most Great
Infallibility. This is why Shoghi Effendi is so emphatic that he (the
Guardian) “is not a stainless mirror” — that is, he is not like the
immaculate ones of Shiah Islam. While Baha’u’llah contrasts his
teachings to the Shi`ah doctrine of infallibility, he also says that
this teaching is revealed clearly now, which implicitly absolves
those, such as the Shi`ah, who have in the past made other people
partners with the Prophet.

The second point to note is that “he (God) does what he wills” is
treated as a privilege of God (a thing true only in reference to God),
which is manifest in the world uniquely in the Manifestation. God is
free to do what God wills, and God is infallible. The Manifestation of
God is unique in manifesting the Most Great Infallibility and is the
earthly manifestation of “God does what he wills.” God’s radical
freedom from constraint means that God is free to change (or more
properly, it means that if we imagine something to be a constraint on
God, we are wrong). And the Manifestation is also free — free, in the
context of the Kitab-e Aqdas, to change the law of God, the shariah.
Baha’u’llah identifies himself here as the self or nafs of God, which
is not the essence (dhat) of God but the actualised totality of the
divine names and attributes. God has an unknowable Essence, but a
manifest Self, and the manifest is manifested in the Manifestation.

Next we should look at the Ishraqat, in Tablets of Baha’u’llah page
108, and then at the section in Some Answered Questions, in which the
questioner asked about paragraph 47 of the Aqdas, but the answer draws
on the Ishraqat.

As for your question:
> is it possible that the House was intended to be the recipient of
> divine guidance when legislating new laws but not for those
> functions they have assumed that should have been under the pervue
> of Shoghi Effendi and not for administrative functions?

If the House of Justice has assumed functions that should properly
have belonged to Shoghi Effendi … has it still the right to be
called the House of Justice? I do not think it has done this; rather
some Bahais who are not well informed about the covenant (some of whom
may be UHJ members) may have attributed some of the Guardian’s
functions to the UHJ, and some may have attributed the UHJ’s power of
making laws to the Guardian. We can do this explicitly, but also
implicitly. If we act or even think as if the Guardian’s word is law,
or as if the UHJ’s word is an authoritative interpretation of
scripture, we have (by mistake, khata’) placed ourselves outside the
covenant. The responsibility here does not rest on the Guardian or the
UHJ, who cannot supervise all our thoughts and words. It rests on us
as readers and doers, to keep the distinction clear.

The Guardian has a distinct sphere of authority, and is infallible
only in that sphere (Udo Schaeffer cites the sources); the UHJ has a
distinct sphere of authority — but is its infallibility limited to
that sphere? I know of no source text that says so: it is an argument
from analogy which is weak, because we cannot be sure that we have
identified what properties the analogy applies to.

> Is it possible that, being the recipient of divine guidance
> therefore means that the House would make infallible decisions for
> not necessarily omniscient or valid reasons?

I am not yet sure that infallibility and guidance are always linked.
Consider our sunni mujtahid above, who is not guided, but is free from
khata’ (blame) if he or she has been diligent.
But more broadly, yes, you are right. Any act can be s.awaab, right
and proper, working for the good, even though the actors are not
intending a good outcome. The exile of Baha’u’llah to Akka for
example, where the unguided decision led to a pre-ordained outcome.
But also the persecution of the Iranian Bahais that led them to go to
Ishqabad and found a community. In this case, the unguided decisions
of the persecutors led to an outcome that was not (so far as we know)
pre-ordained, but the outcome was made good through the responses and
initiative and energy of the exiles, through the inspiration of the
Spirit. In the parable of the talents, the wicked servant accuses his
master/God of reaping where he has not sown: turning to good what was
never intended for good.

> – is it masuum or massum?

It is ma`suum. The root is ` s m, the person who has it or benefits
from it is ma`suum, the abstract noun is `ismat or `isma (depending on
whether you show the silent h/t letter at the end) and is translated
as infallibility, immaculacy, freedom from khata’ and so forth.

> how can the UHJ make an infallible decision when they are using lies
> and half-truths as their information source?

The UHJ has said

“the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient,
and the friends should understand that there is a difference between
infallibility and omniscience. Like the Guardian, the House of Justice
wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision,
and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge, or
in light of changed conditions at some point in the future.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1996 Jun 14, Infallibility, Women on
House of Justice)

People are free to give the UHJ false or incomplete information in
order to elicit the reactions they want. Those who do so, demonstrate
that they have no respect for the UHJ: they use the House and its
members as means to their own ends.

God, however, is still able to reap where he has not sown.

Postscript: Shaykh Ahmad’s explanation of `isma and khata, in Will McCant’s translation resembles Baha’u’llah’s (see Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 108).

See also: Infallibility as freedom
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3 Responses to “Infallibility and the meaning of khata’”

  1. Hasan Elías said

    Sen you wrote: “People are free to give the UHJ false or incomplete information in order to elicit the reactions they want. Those who do so, demonstrate that they have no respect for the UHJ: they use the House and its members as means to their own ends”.

    Me: Are you saying that some UHJ’s decision could be obviously wrong and at the same time is still infallible?

    For example a personal case. I suppose the UHJ should act according to the bahá’í concept of “justice”, “truth”, “mercy”, etc. They are not essentially infallible.

  2. Sen said

    I have seen cases in which the UHJ was sent slanted and incorrect information, in order to solicit a response that would support somebody’s private agenda. The UHJ’s decisions depend on the information provided to it, and its own efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Udo Schaeffer writes:

    As to the first category, the ascertainment of historical facts, the House of Justice is dependent on others. The factual information necessary for executive and judicial decisions is gathered by subordinate institutions or individuals. An infallible decision would require that, in every case, the factual information provided were absolutely error-free. How should that be possible? There can be no guarantee that all the facts relevant to the decision are indeed compiled, and that these are correctly assessed as to their respective importance before being conveyed to the Universal House of Justice. If this cannot be guaranteed, then there can be no guarantee on the absolute correctness of decisions made at these levels. The correctness of any decision in such an instance is conditional: it depends on the correctness and absolute reliability of the information provided concerning the matter in hand. Conditional infallibility, however, is a contradiction in terms. A decision that is based on fragmentary or wrongly transmitted relevant facts cannot be guaranteed to be correct. The Universal House of Justice’s statement that a decision can be “corrected” when “new facts emerge” [140] confirms this interpretation.
    ………. [140. Letters dated 22 August 1977 and 13 August 1981 (my emphasis).]
    (Udo Schaefer, Infallible Institutions, p. 20)

    The letter to which Schaeffer refers states:

    “It must always be remembered that authoritative interpretation of the Teachings was, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the exclusive right of the Guardian,… The exclusive sphere of the Universal House of Justice is to ‘pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Bahá’u’lláh has not expressly revealed’. … However, the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge.

    Schaeffer deals with this by supposing that the infallibility (which he assumes means never making a mistake) is confined to legislation, which he assumes means making general rules that are not dependent on the facts in any one case. I, however, take my definitions of infallibility and of legislation from the Bahai Writings rather than from western dictionaries and western law. Religious “legislation” in my view is a wide term for propagating the Will of God in society: it covers the executive and judicial functions of the Houses of Justice as well as their codification and rule-making functions. Not everything the Universal House of Justice does in these spheres will be free of mistakes, but that for me is not a problem, as infallibility in Bahai theology does not mean never making a mistake, it means never being culpable, in the eyes of God and therefore of the faithful. If a mistake is made in good faith, because of wrong information, this is not morally wrong.

    On this blog see the postings on the meaning of khata’ and Infallibility as Freedom.

  3. Bert Taylor said

    The pragmatic significance of infallibility in relation to the institutional decisions & elucidations of the Universal House of Justice is not so much as to whether all decisions & elucidations are “absolutely correct”, especially since the UHJ forthrightly states the institution lacks the attribute of omniscience, but rather that the outcomes resulting from each & every one of their institutional decisions & elucidations directly and affirmatively serves the Will of God on Earth.

    Furthermore, for those with eyes to see, and ears to hear, that also includes every institutional decision to refrain from issuing any decision or elucidation for any period of time on any given subject. Job, Daniel, past & present martyrs in Persian prisons have given personal testimony to the effect that in the dark void of silence, the light of spirit will be ultimately tested, confirmed & strengthened in accordance with Bahá’u’lláh’s expressions in His Arabic Hidden Words #18, 48, 50 & 51.
    We can all take heart from their shining examples.

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