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What is Taharah? And what is Ismah?

Taharah (طهارة), by its linguistic definition, refers to the process of cleansing and the removal of anything that may pollute that object (e.g. dirt, spots, odor, germs) with things that are unwanted or harmful to that person. As for the religious or spiritual connotation of Taharah, it means the purification and cleansing of the bodies, objects, soul, and heart from the things which Allah (SWT) ordered that they be purified from and with the way that He (SWT) ordered and specified.

The process of Taharah (purification) can be carried out by yourself to yourself, or to others just like people can do it on you. There exists a strong correlation between the efficiency of purification and the proficiency of that person who carries that procedure, who is referred to as the Mutahir (مُطهِِر). The more knowledgeable, experienced, and competent that individual is in achieving purification and cleansing, the more efficient and complete the results of purification will be. In other words, if the proficiency of the Mutahir is approximately 60%, we can also predict that the efficiency of the process of Tat-heer will also be approximately 60%.

We have three things three components: Mutahir (مُطهِِر), Mutahar (مُطهَِر), and the process of Tat-heer (تطهير). Mutahir is the person or thing which attempts to purify, while Mutahar is the person or thing that is sought to be cleansed and purified. Tat-heer is the process by which the purification takes place.

For instance, if you send your clothes to be washed at a laundromat, your clothes are the Mutahar, the laundromat is the Mutahir, and the method or procedure that the Laundromat undertakes to wash the clothes is the process of Tat-heer (purification). Logically-speaking, the cleanliness of your clothes will depend on the proficiency and competence of the Mutahir.

As for the spiritual meaning of Taharah, you can also carry it out on yourself, or someone else could carry it out on you, and the same logic applies to the rules of relationships, as mentioned earlier.
Spiritual Tat-heer is of two types:

1) Physical cleansing and purification of materialistic things which you can see and feel, such as clothes or bodies.

2) Spiritual cleansing and purification of moral things which you cannot see or touch, such as your heart, spirit, or mind.

It is logical that the 2nd type of purification be more abstract and difficult to accomplish since you would be attempting to purify something that is not seen or felt. This process of Tat-heer is non-specific and the experience and proficiency of the person who carries it out could be limited too. That is because the proficiency and experience of the Mutahir depends on the proficiency and experience of the original teacher.

So, if the original teacher lacks the expertise and experience, the purifier (Mutahir) will also lack it. And if the proficiency and knowledge of the teacher is minimal, it will also be minimal in the student who is learning from his teacher. This type of Tat-heer that is not felt or seen could also be carried out by yourself as you may try to purify and cleanse your heart, spirit, mind, and soul through worship and remembrance of Allah (SWT) (ex: prayer, supplication, fasting, Samara, Hajj, good deeds, reading, etc.). Others may also carry out this process on you, like the sheikhs, U'lama, spiritual teachers, religious institutions, and seminaries.

As for the meaning of ‘Ismah (عصمة), it simply means protection and safeguarding. Ya'sim refers to the act of protecting, while ‘Asim (عاصِم) is the person or thing that protects. Ma'soom is the person or thing that is sought to be protected by the ‘Asim, whose occurrence and efficiency of ‘Ismah is 100% guaranteed.

Now, if the person seeks protection, but the efficiency or approval for protection is not guaranteed by the ‘Asim, he is not anymore called Ma'soom (معصوم). Rather, he is called Mu'tasim (مُعتصِم) since he is not sure if the ‘Asim will approve or is capable of protecting him or not.

Furthermore, if the person actively and relentlessly seeks the protection and exerts lots of effort to attain it, which is also not guaranteed, he is called Musta'sim (مُستعصم). Hence, not every Mu'tasim is a Musta'sim, and not every Musta'sim or a Mu'tasim is Ma'soom. That is because the Ma'soom is the only one whose process of protection is successfully completed by the ‘Asim with 100% efficiency.
If we analyze the use of the word ‘Ismah (and its derivatives) by Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an, we will find the following:

1) Ayat Al-Balagh:

وَاللَّهُ يَعْصِمُكَ مِنَ النَّاسِ

“Wallahu ya'semuka min al-naas”
“And Allah will protect you from the people.” [5:67]
In this verse, Allah (SWT) is the ‘Asim and since He is the ‘Asim, there is no doubt in the efficiency of His protection which is 100% guaranteed. The Holy Prophet (SA), in this case, would be considered Ma'soom since the process of purification was approved and completed by the Almighty Creator.
قَالَ سَآوِي إِلَىٰ جَبَلٍ يَعْصِمُنِي مِنَ الْمَاءِ

“Qala sa-awy illa jabalen ya'semuni min al-maa'…”
He said: I will betake myself for refuge to a mountain that shall protect me from the water.” [11:43]
The ‘Asim in this verse is the mountain, while the son of Prophet Nuh (AS) is Mu'tasim, since the ability of the mountain to protect him is doubted and in fact proved to be a failure as indicated by the verse,
وَحَالَ بَيْنَهُمَا الْمَوْجُ فَكَانَ مِنَ الْمُغْرَقِينَ

“...And a wave intervened between them, so he was from among those who drowned.” [11:43].
وَلَقَدْ رَاوَدْتُهُ عَنْ نَفْسِهِ فَاسْتَعْصَمَ

“Wa la-qad rawadtuhu ‘an nafsih, fasta'sam…”
“And certainly I sought his yielding himself to me, but he abstained [12:32].
In this example, Yusuf (AS) is Musta'sim according to Al-‘Azeez's wife, since she witnessed Yusuf exert strong effort with great concern to attain the protection of His Lord. Due to her lack of belief in Yusuf's God (‘Asim), she doubted the ability of the ‘Asim in protecting him. So, she referred to him as Musta'sim and this in itself is a testimony from her to his persistence in refusing what she asked, and his seeking the protection of his God from her.
وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا

“Wa'tasimu be-hablullah jamee'an…”
“And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together…” [3:103]
Here, Allah (SWT) orders us to ask and seek His protection, which is represented by the “rope” of Allah. If we obey His order and seek His protection, we will be considered Mu'tasimeen with the rope of Allah, but not Ma’sumeen.
This is not to doubt the ability of Allah (SWT) in protecting. Rather, it is because we don't know if Allah (SWT) will accept to protect us due to a deficiency or defect in us. Therefore, not every Mu'tasim with the rope of Allah is considered to be Ma'soom, except whom Allah (SWT) accepts and completes His protection. Otherwise, he is considered to be a Mu'tasim who seeks the compassion and acceptance of Allah (SWT) in granting him protection.
Let us now try to relate between the meaning of the words Taharah and ‘Ismah: So far, we have clarified that Taharah is the process of cleaning and purifying the thing itself, while ‘Ismah is the protection of that purified thing from getting sullied or polluted again and from loosing its state of purification (which was achieved after the process of Tat-heer).
Thus, ‘Ismah is the process of protecting the Mutahar from loosing its state of purity (that was carried out by the Mutahir). The Mutahir attempts to purify, while the ‘Asim tries to maintain that state of purification and keep it constant. If it is not for the ‘Asim, the purified thing would not stay pure and clean.
So, if we say that there is an object or thing that is always clean, it is logical then to believe in the presence of a ‘Asim who maintains the state of cleanliness for that object at all times. This object will therefore be considered to be Ma'soom due to the presence of continuous and ongoing protection that is carried out by the competent and skillful ‘Asim.
So, Taharah and ‘Ismah are two processes which complete one another and cannot be separated from each other, if we indeed desire the purified state of something to continue and be constant. Again, the more competent and knowledgeable the ‘Asim is, the more efficient will the ‘Ismah be, as in the case of the Mutahir and the process of Taharah.
For example, a street cleaner or a custodian is considered to be a Mutahir (since he cleans the street or office), while a policeman or security guard is referred to as ‘Asim (one who try to prevent impurification from taking place and the loss of Taharah, which is achieved by the Mutahir). Every one carries out his role in order to accomplish constant and cleanliness and purification. Based on that, ‘Ismah cannot be present without prior existence of Taharah, and the opposite is not true.
Now, we come to the second question in our research and that is:When we speak of Taharah and ‘Ismah for the Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya' (executors of will), and the Imams (AS), we ask ourselves…Taharah and ‘Ismah from what exactly?
In other words, what will they be purified from and what will they be protected from? Thus, the question here is composed of two parts:
a) What will they be purified and cleansed from?
b) What will they be protected from?
In the end of our 1st research question, we identified the relationship between Taharah and ‘Ismah, and we reached the conclusion that ‘Ismah is the protection of something from being polluted again and from loosing its clean state after its purification. Based on that, we can logically deduce that ‘Ismah will be from the same thing that Tat-heer (purification) is from.
For example, if you sanitized something from the germs and microbes, you will also try to protect it from contamination with germs and so on and so forth. Therefore, ‘Ismah will be from the same thing that Tat-heer is from, and it will be subsequent to it. Based on this idea, the answer to question (a) will be the same as the answer to question (b). So, our question is really one:

What will the Prophets, Messengers, and Imams (AS) be purified from?
In answering this question, the Imamiya scholars and Fuqaha' (jurists) of the AhlulBayt School of Thought have differed and every group has its own opinion and support for it. It is to be noted that our U'lama are all respectable and honorable, and they don't speak except with what they think to be closest to the truth, and they don't fear except Allah (SWT).
Therefore, it is not appropriate for us, neither is it our goal to ridicule their ideas or opinions. Rather, we aim to make an effort by thinking and using our God-given intellect and this will not at all decrease their rewards and high rank, even if we disagree in some opinions and thoughts.
We return to our question which we would like to answer in a logical and reasonable manner; Taharah for the Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya' and Imams is from what exactly? We should take a closer look at our daily routine in life in order to apply the human logic that will enable us to answer this question.
For example, if you want to clean the clothes that you will wear to meet an important personality or to attend a wedding or an inauguration ceremony, what exactly will you clean that outfit from? There is no doubt that you will clean and purify it from dirt, spots, wrinkles, odor, and its like so that the outfit will be ready and in the best shape possible.
Another example: If you want to clean a knife or a pair of scissors that will be used in a surgical operation on a human body, what will you clean that knife or scissors from? In this case, you will be sanitizing it from germs, microbes, and viruses. This will be your main concern so that the wound of the patient does not get contaminated and lead to death of the patient due to his contaminated wound.
Thus, after the process of sanitization and purification, the knife or scissors will become qualified to perform its duty, which requires a great amount of efficiency and care as possible. We can present lots of similar examples from our daily lives from which we can draw the conclusion that there is a definite and direct relationship between the task that will be carried out by the Mutahar and the things that it will be purified from.
In other words, the process of Tat-heer is essentially for the purpose of making the Mutahar more fit and proficient in carrying out its ask in the best form possible. This is logical, reasonable, and very clear as we use it many times in our daily lives. We clean and purify an object from the things that may hinder its performance, and therefore, it will be more successful at doing its job.
Let us now apply this same logic to our proposed question, as we will find that the purification of our Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya', and Imams (AS) should be from the things that may prevent or hinder their performance of their God-given roles. This purification should result in them being more proficient and capable of successfully fulfilling their jobs and responsibilities.
So, in order for us to know what they will be purified from, we must first identify and specify their jobs and responsibilities. We must know what its consequences and implications are so that we can logically deduce the answer based on our expectations. Now, what exactly are the roles and responsibilities of the Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya', and Imams?
First: Relay and convey the orders and commands of Allah (SWT) to the people.
Second: Advise and urge the people to follow and obey the orders of Allah (SWT) and to carry out the instructions and teachings of the divine message.
Third: Obey and carry out the orders of Allah (SWT) with absolute care in the individual and specific roles that are assigned to each one of them, in addition to their general responsibilities, without any addition or subtraction.
Fourth: Set a good example and become roles models for the people in obeying the rules of Allah (SWT) and not disobeying Him under any circumstances (such that the people imitate and follow their example).
Fifth: Rule justly between the people according to what Allah (SWT) revealed and His orders, and thereby set the example to the people how to judge between others in that same manner.
Sixth: Specify the guidelines and foundations which the human society will be built on including its relation with its surroundings and its interior (exactly as Allah commanded), and to execute it out to the best of their abilities.
Seventh: Teach the people the wisdom, the lessons, and the laws of the religion as Allah (SWT) commanded, with what Allah (SWT) instructed, and with what they received from Him.
After quickly and briefly displaying the roles and responsibilities of the Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya', and Imams (AS) on Earth, what do you think are the things that they should be cleansed and purified from in order for them to perform their jobs in the best way possible?
And if their responsibilities is of highest degree of importance and vitality…and certainly it is of great and critical importance since it deals with the fate of a person in his Hereafter and his life of this world…then there is nothing more important and vital than that!
Therefore, it is incumbent and necessary that their success in their responsibilities and roles is guaranteed to a percentage that might very well reach 100%. And for that to happen, they must be cleansed and purified from anything that might cause their failure or hinder their success. Furthermore, this purification must reach almost or equal to 100%.
Now, if the responsibilities and work that they will carry out is for the Great Creator, and is by the order and assignment from Him, it becomes logically necessary that He becomes the Mutahir in a direct way, due to the critical importance of the responsibilities and because it is for Him and from Him. And if Allah, the Almighty, the Knowledgeable, the Capable, and the Creator is Himself the Mutahir, then there is absolutely no doubt that the purification will be completed and accomplished with a guarantee of 100%.
This purification will also be constant and continuous so long as the Prophet is still a Prophet, the Messenger is still a Messenger, the Wasi is still a Wasi, and the Imam still assumes his role as an Imam. And if this purification is constant and continuous, it then becomes necessary (as mentioned in the end of the 1st research question) that there exist a ‘Asim who protects, maintains, and guarantees the persistence of that purification state, which thereby indicates the presence of ‘Ismah (protection from loosing its Taharah).
So long as the Mutahir is Allah (SWT), it becomes logically necessary that the ‘Asim too, is Allah (SWT). Thus, He alone with His absolute ability have purified and protected in order to maintain the state of Taharah and to guarantee its persistence. The Taharah and ‘Ismah here is guaranteed 100% without any doubt since the Mutahir and ‘Asim is Allah (SWT).
Therefore, the purified individuals have become Ma’sumeen since the certainty of achieving successful completion of ‘Ismah has been established!
We now return to our rephrased question: What are the things that Allah (SWT) should purify and protect His divinely-appointed guides with 100% guarantee such that their performance of their roles can be ensured in the best way possible? Let us use our brains, focus, examine, and make a sound judgment to answer this question.
If we take a closer look at the seven responsibilities mentioned earlier, we will find that the common ground or factor between all of them is: the command of Allah (SWT). Hence, the Tat-heer and ‘Ismah should be from the thing(s) that may interfere, hinder, or obstruct the meaning of this word. Naturally, what interferes with a word is always its opposite and what hinders it is always what's against it.
An order is an action that can be responded to with either obedience or disobedience. If the response to an order is obedience, then the action and order will be accomplished. And if the response is disobedience, then the action will be prevented and opposed. Whoever counters or contradicts the orders of Allah (SWT) is really opposing the order and thereby disobeying it.
If we realize and understand this point, it will become easy for us to draw the conclusion that the most important thing that the Prophets, Messengers, Awsiya', and Imams MUST be purified and protected from is: disobedience of the orders and commands of Allah (SWT).
This is exactly what Allah (SWT) mentioned in the Qur’an Al-Kareem,

بَلْ عِبَادٌ مُكْرَمُونَ لَا يَسْبِقُونَهُ بِالْقَوْلِ وَهُمْ بِأَمْرِهِ يَعْمَلُونَ
"Bal ‘ebadun mukramoom. La yasbeqoonaho bil qawl wa hom bi amrihi ya'maloon."
“Nay! They are honored servants. They do not precede Him in speech and (only) according to His Commandment do they act.” (21:26-27)
So, Allah's testimony for them regarding their inability to disobey Him, is equivalent to the meaning of purification and indicates that He is the Mutahir. This also indicates the presence of ‘Ismah, which makes Him the ‘Asim as well since the tenses used in this verse are continuous present tense. Furthermore, it is from Allah (SWT) which means eternity. Hence, Tat-heer and ‘Ismah are essentially from the disobedience of Allah (SWT) in anything.
If their 1st responsibility is to pass on and convey the orders and commands of Allah (SWT), then it becomes logically necessary that they be purified and protected from lying, unfaithfulness, treason, and forgetfulness. Forgetfulness here means forgetting the contents of the Message and its details, not the normal human forgetfulness that is indicated in Prophet Musa's statement to Al-Khidr (AS):
قَالَ لَا تُؤَاخِذْنِي بِمَا نَسِيتُ

"Qalla la to-akhedhni bema naseet."

“Blame me not for what I forgot.” (18:73)

This is an example of typical human forgetfulness and is not relevant to the topic of ‘Ismah.
If their 2nd responsibility is to incite and urge the people to follow and obey the orders of Allah (SWT) and His Message, then it becomes logically necessary that they be purified and protected from negative and indecent behavior and anything that may contradict good manners, ethics, etiquette, and decent behavior. Hence, the people develop a liking towards them and so these divine guides become accepted by them and so they will be able to encourage and urge the people to obey Allah (SWT) and carry out His orders.

If their 3rd responsibility is to obey and carry out Allah's orders in their individual and specific roles that has been assigned to each of them, without addition or subtraction, then it becomes logically essential that they be purified from disobedience to Him in any way or form, no matter what role they're assigned even if it looks strange, deviant, or rejected by the people of this world, and no matter how much they suffer because of it. It also becomes necessary that they be purified against laziness, boredom, naivety, recklessness, negligence, cowardliness, stupidity, obliviousness, weakness, fragility, lack of wisdom, lack of insight, and lack of reflection.
If their 4rth responsibility is to serve as good examples and role models for the people in observing the rules of Allah (SWT), then it becomes logically essential that they be purified and protected from foolishness, inferiority, solicitation, having ignoble roots and shameful ancestry, bad and nefarious origin, severe poverty, physical defect, ugly appearance, chronic illness (except in obedience to the orders of Allah just like what happened to Prophet Ayoob [Job] ), ignorance, and anything that may belittle their reverence or sully their reputation.

If their 5th responsibility is to rule justly among the people with what Allah (SWT) revealed, then it becomes logically necessary that they be purified and protected from injustice and unfairness, the love of oneself, arrogance, hastened judgment, deviating from the orders of Allah (SWT), following their own desires and personal thoughts in making judgments, using personal opinion (except within the limits that Allah Himself has allowed), flattery, hypocrisy, ignorance, lack of knowledge, seeking the opinion of those who are not Ma'soom, bribery, weakness of the heart, and lack of experience and wisdom.

If their 6th responsibility is to establish and specify the guidelines and foundations which the human society will be built on (by the command of Allah) and to execute it if they're capable of it, then it becomes logically necessary that they be purified and protected from the lack of presence of political and military skills that is needed, lack of eloquence in speech, lack of coordination and organization, lack of concentration, love of carnal desires and ornaments of this world, lack of seriousness, lack of honesty, weakness in front of the people, love of appearing and appearance, conceitedness, self-admiration, arrogance, lack of smartness and knowledge and experience, lack of intelligence and cleverness and wisdom, carelessness, recklessness, lack of confrontation, lack of strength, and from betrayal and evil.

If their 7th responsibility is to teach the people the wisdom, lessons, and laws, then it becomes logically necessary that they be purified and protected from everything that has been previously mentioned, especially ignorance, foolishness, lack of patience, lack of clemency, lack of insight, hiding the truth, excessive care for the Dunya, forgetting the remembrance of Allah (SWT), lack of worship and worshipping, fruitless and endless talk, lack of linguistic eloquence, exaggeration and magnification, de-emphasizing and embellishment, ambiguity, vagueness, complication, and complexity.

However, the most important thing here is the purification and protection against the disobedience of Allah (SWT) in what He orders them with. This is the judgment of the mind and the human logic in what these divine guides should be completely purified and always protected from by Allah (SWT) who is both the Mutahir and ‘Asim. This will be the case so long as they are appointed in their roles in order for their performance of their responsibilities be complete and successful. After all, the fate of humans in this life and the Hereafter will depend on their performance and fulfillment of their roles and responsibilities.

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