The Arabs were a people that took great pride in virtuous qualities and from amongst these were the qualities of truthfulness and trustworthiness. These were important attributes expected in any upright individual and stressed heavily in society and people lacking such qualities were not viewed highly. In today’s society, truthfulness is not a quality treasured as highly with it being routine for politicians to lie and mislead people. In the Arabic language there are a number of ways to reinforce truthfulness, for example, by placing the word ‘qadd’ before a verb to indicate a person is certainly speaking the truth, or with the word ‘inna’ which is used for emphasis. The qasm itself is considered to be the strongest way to reinforce a statement or belief. The qasm was held to such a high degree that if someone lied against their qasm it was beyond belief. In Islamic sharia taking an oath by Allah (swt) carries a huge weight. The messenger (saw) was a man of great honour and trustworthiness and the best of examples for such qualities. Once before he had become a messenger he had an agreement to meet a man at a certain place and time. The man did not turn up and so he waited three days for him to turn up, such was his adherence to his word over even the smallest affairs. So, how could the messenger (saw) lie about Islam and the Quran?
There are many surahs in the Quran where Allah (swt) takes oaths. This is a dedicated subject in the Quran where Allah (swt) swears by things. From the time of the Tabi’un and the earliest of scholars there has been commentary on the function and wisdom of oaths in the Quran.
One of the most common opinions has been that when Allah (swt) swears by things he is swearing by things that are sacred or something powerful or something awe-inspiring or something honoured by Allah (swt). However, this in itself is not enough. If the only thing about oaths is that they are sacred, you could in theory take the oaths in one surah and put it in another and take the oaths in the second surah and put it in the first – what difference does it make? It is argued that the fundamental function of oaths is not the sanctity of the object that is being sworn by but rather by how it connects to the rest of the surah. When an oath is taken it is a powerful means of introducing what is coming in the rest of the surah and is how the precedence of the entire surah is set.
It is worth considering how oaths are used in people’s lives and daily discourse. Oaths are taken, especially in ancient times, when the audience do not believe what you are saying. If someone does not believe a person the person may insist he is telling the truth by swearing i.e. ‘I swear I was there’. In ancient times people swore by things which you even find today. Arabs would swear by their tribe, by Allah, by his child, by his family or on his life etc. And so oaths are a means of giving testimony which is why even in contemporary society people take an oath or they swear before they testify in court.
Oaths are also an illustration of anger. Sometimes when a person is not being taken seriously or their point is not being heard, they can be driven to a point where they swear and take an oath i.e. ‘I swear you better stop’ or ‘I swear I am going to kill you if you do that’. They don’t necessarily mean it but it is used as an expression of anger. At times in the Quran, oaths are used as an expression of anger and at other times they are used to present an argument which is not being taken seriously. If people are taking something lightly, Allah (swt) swears by something in order to give the argument He (swt) is about to present weight and importance and He (swt) often takes an oath against something that is great from amongst creation.
Finally, as a consistent component of the Quran, oaths are taken as an introduction or a pre-cursor to arguments that are coming in that surah.