A Study of the Quranic Oaths

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Maulana Hamid Adin Farahi

An English Translation of Iman Fi Aqsam al-Qur’an by Maulana Hamid Ad Deen Farahi.

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A note from the Translator-

This is a translation of a monograph titled Imaan fi Aqsam al-
Quran by Hamid al-Din Farahi. The author conceived it as one
of the introductions to his unfinished commentary on the Holy
Quran, later published as Nizam al-Quran. This book discusses
some issues attending the uses of oaths in the Quran.

The Holy Quran employs oaths frequently in order to affirm a
claim- statement. In the Quran, the Almighty has sworn by
Himself and by many of His creations (for instance the sun,
moon, stars, winds, fruits, towns, etc). These occasions in the
Quran have engendered questions that have baffled the
commentators from the earliest times who, while trying to
explain the scriptural text, appear to be grappling with the
difficult questions on the nature and significance of these oaths –
questions that are rooted either in the Muslim expectation related
to the relationship between the oath-taker and the subject of the
oaths or in the peculiar semantic conclusions, which almost
always accompany an oath in Arabic language. These questions
unavoidably force themselves upon the commentators because of
a number of reasons:

1. In the ordinary course of language, oaths are taken to
emphasize and register the truth of one’s statement, by invoking
something holy. Linguistically and religiously, an oath-taker
always swears an oath by a higher being that is nobler than and
distanced from the oath-taker. The oath draws strength from the
grace, sanctity, nobility, taboo or holiness of the being by which
it is taken. In other words, an oath-taker implicitly belittles his
being in comparison with the being by which he takes an oath.
This is apparently done to attach significance and truth-claim to
the proposition following the oath by drawing epistemological
strength from the unquestioned sanctity or widely accorded
reverence for such a being. The ordinary creatures of God are
way below the Divine station and it is even blasphemous to
compare the Creator with His creations. Therefore, many
Qur’anic oaths, particularly those which are sworn by created
beings, do not fit well in the Divine text. Oaths are
conventionally sworn by sacred objects. However, in the Quran,
on many occasions, the Almighty swears by ordinary,
insignificant and so to say ‘profane’ things. How could God
draw epistemological strength from petty beings? And why
should God Almighty seek reinforcement for Himself in the first
instance? In short, if these oaths are understood in the light of the
widely held Muslim beliefs and linguistic practices in the Arabic
speaking world, oaths do not appear to be in accord with the
exalted position of Allah, who is the highest and noblest of all.

2. In the Qur’an, the Almighty has taken oaths to affirm a
number of propositions; many of them constitute the
fundamental Islamic beliefs. These beliefs cannot be verified by
the mere force of oaths. If these belief-claims could be
established independently, as is widely held, through other
means (rational, theological, historical or psychological), the
oaths would become redundant. If the truth of these articles of
faith cannot be established through common epistemological
means, it can hardly be expected that these can be proven on the
strength of the oaths. For the oaths do not prove or establish
these assertions. At least to a non-believer in these beliefs, oaths
constitute purposeless insistence only.

3. Islam has taught the believers not to swear by anything other
than the Glorious God. A Muslim is not expected to swear an
oath by anything other than God. The question then is, if the
believers are not allowed to swear by created beings, why does
God almighty swear oaths by the names of the cities, the sun, the
moon, and the fruits?

Where do these questions come from? FarahT does not cite the
source, nor do the earlier authorities who tried to deal with them
first. These questions are faced by every careful reader of the
Divine text as they are inspired by human reason. Many exegetes
and other scholars have tried to explain them. However, no
coherent, well-defined and concrete approach has ever been
offered to resolve the difficulty of determining the precise
purpose of the Qur’anic oaths. It was, therefore, not necessary
for the purpose of FarahT to investigate the genesis of these
objections, who found in them an opportunity to inquire into the
nature of oaths and the purpose they were wont to serve since
earliest times. Farahi’s contribution stands out in the background
of the fact that despite a lot of space these questions occupy in
medieval Muslim writers, they were apparently not able to
formulate a consistent response.

As usual, Farahi adopts a principled stance and offers a
coherent and cogent explanation of the Qur’anic oaths. Fie traced
the origin of the oaths, surveyed the conventions, and, based on
his findings in this quest, established that glorification of the
object of oath is not a necessary objective of an oath. In this way
the problematic oaths, sworn by insignificant created things, are
satisfactorily explained. It is interesting to note that FarahT not
only invokes the testimony of the Qur’anic text and classical
Arabic literature, but also draws from the non-Arabic sources
(for instance classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew) to understand
that oaths do not essentially involve glorification of the objects
sworn by. Rather, these are basically a kind of evoking the object
as evidence to the veracity of the claims that are intended.

In the present translation I have tried to explain instances in the
original Arabic text which I thought might pose difficulties for a
modem reader. I have also tried to provide brief definitions of
terms I thought belonged to highly specialized disciplines, which
a modem reader is not expected to be familiar with. Farahi, as is
characteristic of his times, seldom gives references for the works
he cites. I have tried my best to find out the original references,
even though my efforts were not always successful. Footnotes
have been added to admit my failures too. I have also tried to use
the original Arabic terms where possible or to put them in
parenthesis so that the reader may refer to the original term. I
must also gratefully acknowledge that in my effort to translate
the original Arabic text I have made extensive use of Mawlana
Amur Ahsan Islahi’s Urdu translation of the work, published in
1975 by Anjuman Khuddam al-Qur’an from Lahore.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance I got from my teachers,
colleagues and friends that went a long way towards the
completion of the present work. Mr Talib Mohsin and Mr Sajid
Hameed have helped me make out a few complex passages in
the original Arabic text. I constantly engaged with Mr Sajid
Hameed in understanding pieces of jahili poetry quoted by the
author. Mr Nadir Aqueel Ansari and Mr Jhangeer Hanif have
helped in many ways in researching the cited sources, editing the
translation and by extending valuable suggestions. Mr Shehzad
Saleem was generous enough to review a few sections of the
translation. Mr. Asif Iftikhar has always been there with his
words of encouragement. Mr Manzoor ul-Hassan provided the
necessary logistic and administrative support for getting this
work published as did Mr Azeem Ayub and all the support staff
of al-Mawrid, who contributed towards the publication of this
work. My gratitude is due to all of them. In fact, I cannot be
thankful enough. And I would be deeply indebted to the readers
too, if they could suggest improvements in the translation,
which, by all means, is not the last word.