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
I will fulfill the rights of my neighbor. My hands are
pledged as surety for what I commit (yadī rahnun fi‘ālī).
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
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.”
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).
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
You two recovered ‘Abs and Dhubyān while they had given
themselves to war and while they had sprinkled among themselves essence of
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.
Ḥatī’ah hints towards the origin of this practice. He
They are a nation whose neighbour spends night in peace,
once he ties his tent ropes (aṭnāb plural of ṭunub) with theirs.
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.
This usage, with time, acquired new extended application.
Nadhr became an expression of clinging to something by way of an oath. ‘Amr Ibn
They have vowed (yandhurūna damī)
to take my life while I have vowed (andhuru) to strike hard if I faced
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.
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
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.
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.
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
I swore (fa’ālaytu) that my flank will not separate from
a sharp cutting sword.
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
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
And if they do not desist from what they say, a grievous
punishment shall surely befall (layamassanna) those of them that disbelieve.
At another occasion, the Almighty says:
And surely God will help (layanṣuranna) those who help
I do realize that I have to taste death most surely (lata’tiyanna).
For arrows of death do not miss the mark.
While commenting on this verse Sībawayh says: “As
if he says: ‘By God, death will come.’”
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.”
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
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.
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
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
Farāhī’s Majmū‘ah Tafāsīr
by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)