Sahw al-Nabī (Arabic: سَهْو النبي) or oversights of the Prophet is a debate over the possibility of inadvertent mistakes and forgetfulness by the Prophet (s) as well as other Infallibles. This is an issue in theology. The majority of Shiite scholars reject such a possibility, although some of them, such as al-Shaykh al-Saduq and his teacher, Ibn Walid, believe in the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s). That is, while they acknowledge that the Prophet (s) is infallible with respect to sins and his duties as a prophet, he might make inadvertent mistakes or exhibit forgetfulness in other aspects of his life.
Proponents of the possibility of "sahw al-Nabi" have appealed to hadiths implying that the Prophet (s) made inadvertent mistakes when saying his prayers. However, opponents believe that inadvertent mistakes or oversights are not compatible with the position of prophethood and dismiss those hadiths as unreliable.
Sahw al-Nabi (oversights of the Prophet) is an issue in theology, over which there are disagreements among theologians. Sahw al-Nabi is discussed in theological books under issues concerning the infallibility of prophets and in Islamic jurisprudential books under issues of sahw in prayers.
By Sahw al-Nabi or oversights of the Prophet (s), theologians mean inadvertent mistakes in acting upon religious rulings and ordinary affairs. The question is whether it is possible for prophets to make inadvertent mistakes or be forgetful in acting upon Sharia rulings or ordinary tasks of their lives. For example, is it possible for them to forget some parts of their prayers or mistakenly repay hundred dinars to someone from whom they had borrowed thousand dinars?
Imami Shiite scholars hold different views about Sahw al-Nabi. The majority of Shiite scholars believe that it is impossible for prophets to make inadvertent mistakes. However, some of them believe that it is possible for the Prophet (s) to make mistakes or be forgetful when acting upon Sharia rulings.
Proponents of the possibility of Sahw al-Nabi include Ibn Walid al-Qummi, al-Shaykh al-Saduq, al-Sayyid al-Murtada, Fadl b. al-Hasan al-Tabrisi the author of Majma' al-bayan, and Muhammad Taqi Shushtari. In his Man la yahduruh al-faqih, al-Shaykh al-Saduq defends the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s), taking its opponents to be ghulat (those who exaggerate about the Infallibles) and people of tafwid. In his view, the Prophet (s) is infallible as long as he propagates the religion. However, he is like ordinary people in other affairs such as performing his prayers, and might make inadvertent mistakes.
In that book, al-Saduq says that he was going to write an independent book in which he would make a case for the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s) and argue against its opponents. He quotes his teacher, Ibn Walid, as saying that the denial of Sahw al-Nabi is the first step towards ghuluww (exaggeration about infallibles).
Reasons and Evidence of Proponents
Proponents of the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s) have appealed to the Qur'an and hadiths. In his interpretation of the verse 68 of Qur'an 6, al-Tabrisi says, "according to the Shi'as, the Prophet (s) and Imams (a) do not make mistakes about what is revealed by God. However, it is possible for them to make mistakes with regard to other affairs. Of course, this is possible as long as it does not amount to any malfunctions in their intellects."
He adds, "just as we accept that the Prophet (s) and Imams go to sleep or can temporarily lose their consciousness [i.e. undergo anesthesia], we should acknowledge the possibility of mistakes and forgetfulness for them, since sleeping and unconsciousness are just like oversights."
Al-Shaykh al-Saduq appealed to hadiths pointing to the Prophet's oversights in his prayers. Such hadiths are cited in Sunni and Shiite sources of hadiths. According to Ja'far Subhani, the number of such hadiths in Shiite sources is at most twelve. One such hadith is the one quoted by al-Kulayni in his al-Kafi from Imam al-Sadiq (a). According to this hadith, one day the Prophet (s) mistakenly recited salam in the second rak'a of his noon prayer. When Muslims reminded him that it was the second rak'a, he completed the rest of his prayer and then performed two sadjas of sahw.
According to Ja'far Subhani, the majority of Shiite scholars reject the possibility of Sahw al-Nabi. He cites some early Shiite scholars such as al-Shaykh al-Mufid, al-Allama al-Hilli, al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli, and al-Shahid al-Awwal as opponents of the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s). He claims that the belief in Sahw al-Nabi is generally rejected by Shi'as.
Opponents of the possibility of Sahw al-Nabi have discussed the arguments offered by proponents in different issues, including jurisprudential issues of sahw in prayer and theological issues of the infallibility of the Prophets. They have written independent books in which they argued against the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s). One such book is the one attributed by al-Allama al-Majlisi in his Bihar al-anwar to al-Shaykh al-Mufid. The book has been published under Risalat fi adam sahw al-Nabi (an essay concerning the impossibility of oversights of the Prophet). There is also a book written by al-Hurr al-'Amili under al-Tanbih bi l-ma'lum min al-burhan 'an tanzih al-ma'sum min al-sahw wa l-nisyan (a reminder of known arguments for the purity of the Infallible from oversights and forgetfulness), in which the issue is discussed in detail.
Reasons and Evidence of Opponents
According to al-Shaykh al-Mufid, hadiths appealed to in favor of the possibility of oversights of the Prophet (s) count as al-Khabar al-Wahid, and are not, therefore, reliable for the establishment of religious beliefs. He has also objected to the reliability of these hadiths on the ground that their texts are radically different.
In his Kashf al-murad, al-Allama al-Hilli says, "if Sahw al-Nabi was possible, then mistakes could find their way to [tasks of] his prophethood as well." In his jurisprudential book, Muntaha l-matlab, al-Allama al-Hilli argues that hadiths concerning Sahw al-Nabi should be rejected because Sahw al-Nabi is rationally impossible. In his book, al-Dhikra, al-Shahid al-Awwal has challenged hadiths of Sahw al-Nabi along the same lines.