Honorific Oaths

Honorific Oaths


(Translated from Farāhī's Aqsām al-Qur'ān by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)

Oaths have been used to bestow honor on or glorify 1) the muqsam bihī, 2) the oath-taker himself or 3) the addressees. The Arabs were characterized by truthfulness and honesty. It was a hallmark of their nature. It was never possible for them to go back on their words, break an oath or dishonor a promise. Whenever they declared someone as their client or protected neighbor, they would not fail to fulfill their commitment. Taking an oath falsely in social matters was a great disgrace and humiliation to their sense of honor and dignity, their natural traits. By taking the hands of one another while making a contract, they intended to express vow to stake their life and honor on their commitment. The oath, to an Arab, therefore, implied putting his life in danger, as has been explained in the seventh section. That is why they would often take an oath by saying "upon my life"; that is, I stake my life on my statement. This aspect of oaths has been highlighted by some of the poets. Rīṭah, daughter of 'Abbās al-Salmī says:

Upon my life (la'amrī), and my life is not an insignificant thing for me, O family of Khath'am, you have killed the best young man.[1]

Such statements abound in the literature of the Arabs. Nābighah al-Dhubyānī says:

Upon my life (la'amrī), and my life is not insignificant to me, aqāri' (the tribe Qarī' b. 'Awf) have attributed obvious lies to me.[2]

It is in this aspect of the oath that muqsam bihī has been considered to be a glorious thing. The oath-taker can emphasize his statement this way only through swearing by something honorable, glorious and dear. This is, therefore, the crux of this kind of oaths. From this kind of oaths developed expressions like la'amruka (by your life), which denote honor for the addressee. The speaker intends to say: "I swear, not by my life, but by your life which is dearer and more honorable to me than that of mine." This is the basis of adding the element of glorification of the muqsam bihī. Since, at times, an oath-taker intends to honor his addressee besides reaffirming his statement and this form of oaths suited more to the conversational oaths, the Arabs started to use expressions like la'amruka (upon your life), la'amru abīka and jaddika (upon your father's or grandfather's life) and bi 'izzatika (upon your honor) among others.

These oath formulas are used very frequently and are well known. Therefore, there is no need to prove their currency in the classical Arabic literature. Still, however, it is important to discuss certain points regarding this kind of oaths.

First, the muqsam bihī in such oaths, though honorable or respectable to the speaker, is not necessarily something which is worshipped and considered sacred, as is the case with the religiously accented oaths, to be discussed in the next section.

Second, when the muqsam bihī is attributed to the addressee, it always indicates his honor and respect. The following saying of Almighty God is an example.

By your life (la'amruka), in their intoxication, they are going blind. (Q 15:72)

In this verse, God Almighty has honored His Messenger by addressing him this way. Another example of this is the following saying of the Almighty:

Nay, by your Lord (wa rabbika), they are not true believers until they make you judge [in all that is in dispute between them]. (Q 4:65)

When it is attributed to the speaker himself, it implies his honor and grandeur. We may say that the speaker intends to say: "My life and honor are not accessible." This aspect of the oath, therefore, does not behove lowly servants of God. Jesus Christ (sws) perhaps referred to this kind of oaths when he forbade taking oaths in the following statement attributed to him:

Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. (Mathew 5:36)

Third, since some oaths include the aspect of calling evil upon the oath-taker as has been explained in the sixth section, this too should be considered an extended meaning of the oaths of glorification, and not the original meaning of such oaths. It is as though the oath-taker intends to say: "If I am untrue in what I say then my life be destroyed and my honor be spoiled."

By the foregoing discussion, I hope it has become clear that this kind of oaths is not sworn except when the muqsam bihī is attributed to either the speaker or the addressee. Such oaths must also be taken through specific expressions mentioned above. In these oaths, one swears by things known to be respected and revered by the speaker. This explains that the Qur'ānic oaths by dhāriyāt (that scatter dust) (Q 51:01), al-'ādiyāt (panting ones) (Q 100:1), khunnas (the stars that withdraw) (Q 81:15) and al-jawār al-kunnas (stars which rush ahead and hide) (Q 81:16) fall in a distinct category. They should not be confused with this kind.

It needs to be appreciated that this kind of oaths is not among the more concrete forms of swearing current in Arabian society. These are often used, merely in order to place emphasis upon a statement, such as in the expression aqsamtu (I swear). That is why at times they say la-'amrillāhi (upon God's life) without implying its literal meaning, except when they make such an intention clear as has been explained with reference to the verses of Rīṭah and Nābighah.

There are, however, other kinds of concrete oath formulas which will be taken up in the next section.