(Translated from Farāhī's Aqsām al-Qur'ān by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)
It has been sufficiently proved that the basic purpose of an oath is to ratify a statement. It has also been established that gloriousness of the muqsam bihī is not a necessary characteristic of the oath. This is an additional thing obtained only when the oath is taken by God and His sha'ā'ir. It has also been explained that sometimes oaths are brought merely as evidence. These premises make it clear that the oaths of the Qur'ān upon which objections have been made are the oaths brought to furnish proofs and bring evidence from the facts mentioned as the muqsam bihī, for the claims made in the muqsam 'alayhi.
Someone may, while admitting that oaths are basically brought for bearing witness to a fact, claim that oaths have been widely used for the sake of glorification of the muqsam bihī. This change in its usage has grown to be a reality. The real essence of the oaths (i.e. evidencing a muqsam 'alayhi by force of evidence provided by the muqsam bihī) has lost significance. That is why we have been forbidden to take an oath by other than God. We will therefore not turn to the essence of an oath unless we find a separate decisive proof for the fact that it has been taken in the original (now obsolete) sense.
To this, our response would be this. We do accept your claim. However, the Qur'ān itself has led us to the conclusion that the essence of the oaths has to be taken in consideration while attempting to interpret the Qur'ānic oaths.
Some of the Qur'ānic indications leading us to this conclusion follow:
First, it is a general style of the Qur'ānic expression. The Qur'ān applies a word to describe man here and Almighty God there. In so doing, the Qur'ān uses different significations of the word. A word applied to common mortals is not applied to Almighty God in the same sense so that it does not mismatch the glory of God. In the Qur'ān, the word ṣalāh, for example, is attributed both to men and God. When attributed to men, it connotes to pray and when applied to God it means to bless. The word shukr is another such example. When this word is used for men, it expresses showing gratitude on some blessings and when applied to God, it connotes considering and accepting the good deeds of the pious servants of God.
Similarly, tawbah (relenting), sukht (resentment), makr (planning), al-kayd (scheming), asif (regret), ḥasrah (grief) and the like have different significations. In fact, no word in the Arabic language is applied to God without considering its proper signification. Whenever we use any word for God, we take only in that signification which corresponds to God's exalted position. This principle cannot be ignored while interpreting the Qur'ānic oaths. Oaths have different aspects and significations from which we adopt the one which corresponds to the exalted position of God. All other significations which are not appropriate for God cannot be taken to be applied in the Qur'ānic oaths.
Second, the principle of interpreting similar usages in the light of each other, and explaining verses with the help of their parallels also leads us to this. We see that the Qur'ān mentions an argument in the form of oaths at one occasion and then presents the same arguments, at other occasions, in simple form. In both these cases, the basic purpose is to evidence a fact for the benefit of those who ponder over the Qur'ān. God Almighty says:
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the boats that sail the oceans with cargoes beneficial to man; and in the water, which God sent down from the sky and with which He revived the earth after its death and dispersed over it all kinds of living creatures; in the variation of the winds and in the clouds put to service, between earth and the skies: surely, in these there are many signs for men endowed with reason. (Q 2:164)
Verses of this kind abound in the Qur'ān. They refer to various signs in order to bring evidence for and prove some important theses. When we ponder over the oaths, we see that it is but these things which have been used in the oaths as evidences of certain facts. A reading of the oath verses would help us observe this fact. The Qur'ān swears by the heavens, the earth, sun, moon, night, day, morning, forenoon, winds, clouds, mountains, seas, cities, man, father, son, male, female, odd and even. These are but the same phenomena which are referred to as evidencing facts in other places. Thus their status of being evidence has been clearly explained by the Qur'ān itself in other places. These sign verses serve for us as a precedence to interpret the oaths. We may, therefore, not interpret such oaths as serving the purpose of glorification of the things put as the muqsam bihī.
Third, the nature of the muqsam bihī itself shows that the oaths have basically not been brought to refer to the glorification of these things. No man endowed with the power of reason can imagine God Almighty placing His creatures on the position of a sacred deity, especially when these things are never supposed to have any kind of sacredness attached to them. What glorification do the panting horses and the winds that scatter dust have? Things used as muqsam bihī, including the heavens, earth, sun, moon, stars, etc, have elsewhere been clearly told to be among objects controlled, harnessed and led on will. Merely swearing by these insignificant things is enough proof that they are only brought as witnesses and proofs, and not as anything glorious.
Fourth, a study of logical relation and connection between the muqsam bihī and the muqsam 'alayhi guides us to our preferred interpretation of this type of the Qur'ānic oaths. The Qur'ān has used such oaths in a style where a rational being never fails to discern that they testify to the facts sworn of. That is why we see that the author of Tafsīr al-Kabīr, Imām Rāzī (in spite of his view that the oaths express glory of the muqsam bihī and in spite of the fact that he has gone to excesses while explaining the oaths by the fig and the olive in terms of glorification) did not miss the general aspect of evidence in such oaths. While dealing with the oaths occurring in the beginning of Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt, he writes: "All these are evidences and proofs couched in the form of oaths."Had he pondered over all such oaths which have been brought to evidence some facts in the Qur'ān, he would have opted for the same interpretation in all instances of the use of evidentiary oaths.
Fifth, the Qur'ān has at times sworn by all creatures in general terms. It has elsewhere also presented them in general terms as signs of the Creator Lord leading to certain truths. Almighty God says:
So I do call to witness what you see,and what you see not. (69:38-9)
This oath covers everything, hidden or manifest. This general reference has been made at another occasion:
There is nothing which does not exalt Him with praises. (17:44)
Everything in this universe praises Him and testifies to His glory. This type of generalization of the muqsam bihī and the signs of God resembles the use of opposites, as in instances where God swears by night and day and by the heavens and the earth. How can one believe that God glorified everything in general terms? Their status as open signs is obvious and understandable. Why then should we abandon the clear meaning and opt for an improbable implication?
Sixth, at some occasions, evidentiary oaths follow warnings and indications which lead to the fact that the things sworn by serve as an evidence for the muqsam 'alayhi. Consider the following example:
The break of day, the ten nights, the even and the odd, and the night when it moves on to its close, bear witness. Is there not in it strong evidence for one possessed of understanding? (89:1-5)
What the latter part of the second verse mentioned above implies follows most of the arguments found in the Qur'ān. It has been said in Sūrah al-Naḥl (16):
In all these things there are signs for men of understanding. (16:12)
In Sūrah Ṭāhā, such arguments are followed by the words:
Verily, in this are signs for those endowed with reason. (Q 20:54)
Similarly, it has been said in Āl-i 'Imrān:
Verily, in this are signs for men endowed with discernment. (3:13)
Examples of this kind of oaths abound in the Qur'ān.
In the same fashion, we see in the verses of Sūrah al-Fajr that the oaths sworn by the signs of God have been followed by indication that these serve as signs and testimony for the people of understanding and insight.
Another such indication occurring after the oaths is found in Sūrah al-Wāqi'ah:
Nay, I cite as proof the shooting of the stars. And, indeed, that is a grand testimony, if you only knew. (56:75-6)
The implication is that it is a great sign and a sound testimony. Here the Qur'ān has clearly referred to the glory of the oath, and not of the muqsam bihī.
Seventh, the muqsam bihī in the Qur'ān often accompanies a particular attribute. This also indicates aspects of testimony and argumentation. Consider some of such Qur'ānic examples:
By the declining star. (53:1)
Nay! I call to witness the stars that recede, rush ahead and hide. (81:15-6)
Those ranging in ranks,who tantalize and recite the Reminder bear witness. (37:1-3)
The winds that scatter dust, then carry the load, then speed lightly along, and then differentiate the affair bear witness. (51:1-4)
And I call to witness the reproaching self. (75:2)
Al-thurayyā(Pleiades), the retreating stars, the ranking angels, the winds scattering dust and distributing the affairs, and the reproaching self all are evidences evoked to prove something. They are not objects of glory.
Eighth, in some cases, certain arguments and signs precede the muqsam bihī. The muqsam bihī, in such instances follows supportive arguments in a way that it clearly points to them. The argumentative oaths are thus prefaced by clear arguments. Such occasions also offer a very interesting study for a student of the Qur'ānic structuredness. I explain this fact by the help of the following example. It has been said in Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt:
On the earth are signs for those who believe and also in your own selves. Do you not see? And in the heavens is your sustenance, and also that which you are promised. (51:20-22)
These verses imply that the earth contains signs of the Providence of God Almighty leading to the Last Day. Such signs are scattered everywhere. Elsewhere, this fact has been further explicated. We see that just after the mention of the earth and of the heavens, which carry signs of the Last Judgment or of the need of recompense, God has stated:
And by the Lord of the heavens and the earth it [i.e. recompense and judgment and not the Qur'ān as many commemorators have opined] is certainly the truth, it is as true as you speak. (51:23)
It is obvious that this oath, besides having an aspect of glorification (for it is sworn by God), gives clear meaning of argumentation, as it refers to the signs found in the heavens and the earth. The muqsam bihī has been carefully expressed in such a way as to point out the clear and manifest argumentation from the empirical signs dealt with in the preceding verses. Since the aspect of glorification of the muqsam bihī was more prominent in this oath (which could have made the argumentative aspect of the oath to disappear), simple and separate arguments have prefaced the oath.
The above Qur'ānic proofs sufficiently validate my view. Still however, someone may question this by asking why the correct view has remained unclear to the earlier authorities. He may, based on this, maintain that this novel approach is unconvincing. We take up this issue in the coming section.