History, Form, Meaning and Use of Oaths

History, Form, Meaning and Use of Oaths


(Translated from Farāhi#'s Majmu#'ah Tafāsi#rby Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)

Sometimes one needs to stress a statement or to emphasize promises in order to convince one's audience. This is especially demanding in serious interpersonal, national, international and collective matters. When two persons, two nations, or a ruler and his subjects contract a treaty they consider it of utmost importance to assert that they are committed to their pledge by means of an oath. Thus they come to trust each other and differentiate between their allies and the opponents and between their protectors and enemies.

This social and cultural need called them to devise ways and select certain words which could depict such assertions. The original function of an oath is to reaffirm and solidify a statement.

Ancients expressed their commitments by taking the right hands of the other party. This practice remained customary among the Romans, the Arabs and the Hebrews. By taking the hand of the other party, one externalized his commitment. This act signified that both the parties vowed to stay tied together on the given affair and pledged their right hands on it. It was because of this custom that the word yamīn (literally: right hand) came to denote an oath. This fact has been clearly put by some of the poets. Jassās Ibn Murrah says:

I will fulfill the rights of my neighbor. My hands are pledged as surety for what I commit(yadī rahnunfi'ālī).[1]

From this practice, the oath acquired the meaning of guarantee and surety. This signification of the oath is still present in the practice of shaking hands, clapping and striking hands while contracting a deal. This practice is still current among the Romans and the Indians. This is further corroborated by the fact that in Hebrew also the word yamīn is used to connote an oath. Psalms (144:8) reads:

Those whose mouths utter evil things and their oaths are false oaths.

The original Hebrew words are: (أشر فيهم دبر سوء ويمينام يمين شاقر)I wonder why the English translators failed to understand this meaning and they translated the verse as follows: "Their right hand is the false right hand."[2]

They failed to appreciate that the word yamīn, in this context, connotes oath and translated it literally. This is an outrageously erroneous interpretation and proves that these translators of the Bible did not try enough to understand Hebrew, the original language of the Scripture. What is astonishing is that they did not mend this clear mistake in their recent efforts to improve the earlier translations.

Another example is found in the Proverbs. The Prophet Sulaymān (sws) says:

My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, if you have stricken your hands for a stranger. (Proverbs 6:1)

This proves that the Arabs and Hebrews followed a similar tradition of formalizing contracts and undertaking commitments. That is why the word yamīn signifies an oath in Hebrew as well as in Arabic.

When a large number of people were involved in a contract, all would dip their right hands in water. Since all hands touched the water, they took it to mean that all have taken the hands of each other and agreed on a matter of mutual interest. Water is the best thing to touch. It sticks with other substances best of all. They say "balla (literally: moisted) bi al-shay'i yadī" to mean that my hands have stuck to it. Ṭarafah Ibn al-'Abd says:

When the nation hastens to take up arms, you shall find me secure while my hands have gripped the handle of the sword (ballat biqā'mihī).[3]

Sometimes they took scent and divided it among themselves and rubbed it on their hands. Thus they would depart while scented. Scent leaves more lasting traces than water. It is in fact more noticeable. This is why it has been called "a conspicuous thing" ('urf) and "a diffusing one" (nashr). An example of this method of affirming contracts, in the history of the Arabs, is the famous legend of Manshim which goes as follows. Some people swore that they would fight their enemies jointly. They wanted a memorial of their covenant. They decided to use scent which they bought from a perfumer called Manshim. This legend got so famous that it developed into a parable. Zuhayr Ibn Abī Sulmā says:

You two recovered 'Abs and Dhubyān while they had given themselves to war and while they had sprinkled among themselves essence of Manshim.[4]

Similarly, we see that participants in the oath of muṭayyibīn dipped their hands in perfume. The detail of this incident will be given in the tenth section.

At other occasions, they would slaughter an animal and sprinkle its blood on the bodies of the parties making a contract. This would either symbolize that the relation established thus was to be honored as blood ties or work as a symbolic expression of their vow to stand by their commitment to the extent of shedding their blood. It has been said in Exodus:

Then he sent young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord, and Moses took half the blood and put it in basins and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said: "All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient." And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said: "This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you, according to all these words." (Exodus 24:4-12)

We see that they vowed to their Lord by sprinkling the blood on themselves. They sprinkled the blood on the altar on behalf of their Lord. Thus they became the allies of their Lord. Such examples abound in the Torah. We find in Zechariah:

Because of the blood of your covenant, I set your prisoners free. (Zechariah 9:11)

Yet another method adopted in contractual obligations was that a party would bind a chord with that of their partners. They would then be considered allies. The word rope has acquired the meaning of a contract of guarantee and companionship from this very custom. The Qur'ān says:

Under a covenant (ḥabl) with God and a covenant (ḥabl) with men. (Q 3:112)

Imrāu'l Qays says:

I am going to join my chord (ḥablī) with that of yours. I will attach the shaft of my arrow with that of yours.[5]

Ḥatī'ah hints towards the origin of this practice. He says:

They are a nation whose neighbour spends night in peace, once he ties his tent ropes (aṭnābplural of ṭunub) with theirs.[6]

These are some of the ways adopted by the partners to stress their commitment to honour the contracts they made. According to another custom, people prohibited for themselves their cherished things and abided by their promise. They would call such a vow as nadhr. An example of this kind of oaths is the vow committed by Muhalhil, brother of Kulayb. He vowed not to drink wine nor to perfume his body nor to wash his hair until he avenged the wrong done to his brother. This is a famous legend. Similarly, Imrāu'l Qays, after fulfilling his vow, says:

Now wine is allowable to me. Previously a great adventure kept me from indulging in drinking.[7]

This usage, with time, acquired new extended application. Nadhr became an expression of clinging to something by way of an oath. 'Amr Ibn Ma'dīkarib says:

They have vowed (yandhurūna damī) to take my life while I have vowed (andhuru) to strike hard if I faced them.[8]

Thus they called nadhr as yamīn (oath). Qabīṣah, following a mention of fulfilling a nadhr he had vowed, says:

My oath has been fulfilled (ḥallat yamīnī) by me. Banū Tha'l have tasted my retaliation and my poetry has returned to me.[9]

This is one of the verses attributed to him by the author of Ḥamāsah. He means to say that what he had held forbidden for himself by way of an oath has become allowable for him after he achieved what he vowed to fulfill.

Another thing identical to the custom of nadhar is calling down evil upon oneself in case of violation of an oath. It thus implies imprecation of God's disfavor in form of punishment if the oath-taker lies or proves unfaithful to his engagements.

Says Ma'dān Ibn Jawwās al-Kindī:

If whatever reached you from me be true, then my friends may reproach me and my fingers may become paralyzed. I may burry Mundhar in his robe alone and Ḥūṭ may be killed by my foes.[10]

Similarly, Ashtar al-Nakh'ī says:

I may hoard wealth (instead of showing generosity), fail to perform great works and treat my guests badly if I failed to make a raid on Ibn Ḥarab causing great casualties every day.[11]

This kind of self-imprecatory oath-formulas shares many traits of religiously accented oaths. The religious aspect of such oaths is portrayed by the fact that, in this case too, the oath-taker fears God and His curse. He believes that failing to accomplish his undertaking, once calling God as a witness to his commitments, would earn him wrath of God.

Another form of such vows is to refrain from something without clarifying the time or conditions of revoking it. Such oaths are called 'aliyyah. The Qur'ān has used a derivation of this word in the following verse:

Those who vow abstinence (yu'lūna) from their wives must wait four months. (2:226)

This word then acquired an extended meaning. The word ālaytu(I would refrain from) came to be used to mean aqsamtu (I swear).

Imrāu'l Qays says:

She took an inviolable oath (ālat ḥilfatanlam taḥallalī).[12]

Ṭarafah says:

I swore (fa'ālaytu) that my flank will not separate from a sharp cutting sword.[13]

Ghaniyyah, mother of Ḥātim al-Ṭā'ī, says:

Upon my life (la'amrī), hunger has troubled me more than ever. That is why I have vowed (fa'ālaytu) never to return any hungry petitioner un-entertained.[14]

There are ample examples of this usage of the word in the classical Arabic literature. The words ālaytu and aqsamtu are used interchangeably. Sometimes lām tākīd (preposition "l" used for stress) is conjugated with such expressions. The Qur'ān employs this technique. The Almighty says:

And if they do not desist from what they say, a grievous punishment shall surely befall (layamassanna) those of them that disbelieve. (5:73)

At another occasion, the Almighty says:

And surely God will help (layanṣuranna) those who help Him. (22:40)

Labīd says:

I do realize that I have to taste death most surely (lata'tiyanna). For arrows of death do not miss the mark.[15]

While commenting on this verse Sībawayh says: "As if he says: 'By God, death will come.'"[16] Sībawayh has indeed clarified his understanding of the verse by giving an example. He actually wants to say that the poet meant to swear. That is why we see that while discussing lām, a particle of oath (lām of qasam), he has explained his view saying: "Similarly in the words 'laman tabi'aka minhum la'amla'anna'(Whoever among them followed you I will surely fill…), the particle lām lends the meaning of swearing to the expression. God knows best."[17]

Sībawayh does not mean that God has taken a proper oath by a certain muqsam bihī. Rather, he says that the word la'amla'anna itself implies an oath. For the purpose of an oath is merely to stress a point. It is not necessary to assume the muqsam bihī as left unexpressed at every instance.

This means that all such uses of lām signify an oath in this sense. Thus, if lām-i qasam follows a word that produces the meaning of certainty and determination, the latter works as an oath. The above quoted verse ascribed to Labīd is an example. There are examples of this style in the Qur'ān as well:

Then it occurred to them, even after they had seen the signs, that they should imprison him (layasjununnahū) till a certain time. (12:35)

Another example follows:

God said: "The truth is, and the truth alone I speak, that I will certainly fill (la'amla'anna) Hell." (38:84)

One may not think that, in these examples, the muqsam bihī is necessarily suppressed. It does not suit this occasion as is obvious from the context.

All this detail regarding forms of oaths sufficiently proves that muqsam bihī is not always a necessary part of the oaths. We may not take it as suppressed if it is not mentioned in a given case. Oaths merely stress a statement or express determination to a commitment or a vow not to do something.