We know that Gospels as we have them are not the original text delivered by Jesus (sws). What we have in our hands is the translations of the original Injīl. The Gospels mix the sayings of Jesus Christ (sws) with the statements of the reporters. Its narratives vary and sometimes mutually contradict. It is not traced back to the Prophet (sws) and is not authentic. The text of the Gospels is disarrayed and confused. Keeping the above facts about the text of the present Gospels in perspective, we cannot resort to it and rely on it in our efforts to know the will of God. We may, however, discuss it supposing it to be authentic and accept its assertions just for the sake of discussion.
A detailed prohibition of taking an oath occurs in the famous Sermon of the Mount according to the Gospel of Matthew. It does not find mention in the Gospels of Mark and John. An abridged version, however, has been given in the Gospel of Luke. I have selected, for this discussion, the Gospel of Luke because of its compactness.
If you study this sermon and ponder over its verses with special attention to the context in which they occur, it would become clear that Jesus (sws) does not speak to the general public. He does not aim at giving a code of religious law parallel to the one found in the Torah. On the contrary, he specifically addresses his disciples and his immediate followers under consideration of a great wisdom which we shall learn soon. My claim that it was not a general proclamation and that it was specially meant for certain people is based on the following:
First, Jesus (sws) himself has made it clear. We see that this sermon follows the following statement of the Prophet Jesus (sws) according to Matthew:
And when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying: (Matthew 5: 1-2)
Similarly it has been stated in the Gospel of Luke that he went out into a mountain and spent his night in prayer to God. He called unto him his disciples. He chose twelve disciples from among them. This description follows Jesus’ (sws) famous sermon. He said:
Blessed be you poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now: for you shall be filled. [….] (Luke 6: 20-1) Blessed are you, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil. [….] (Luke 6: 22) But woe unto you that are rich! for you have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for you shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6: 24-5)
Second, this sermon contains directives which only relate to the poor and the destitute. We see that the Prophet Jesus (sws) has not only forbidden taking oaths, he has also proscribed accumulating wealth, hording it for future use, and preserving one’s honor and self respect. The last directive received so much stress and emphasis from him that he exhorted his disciples on the following:
If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic also. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Luke 6: 39-30)
Third, some directives included in this sermon apparently abrogate some of the directives of the Torah. Jesus (sws), however, avoids this clearly. He expressly negated such a notion even before he mentioned these commands in his sermon. He says:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. (Mathew 5:16)
He also removed another possible confusion: moral and religious excellence does not require self-denial. He explained that self-denial is an additional virtue. While opting for asceticism and self-denial one escapes sins at the stake of avoiding the trial of the world in which he has been put through. Jesus (sws) adopted this behavior himself only to guide those who cannot attain religious and moral perfection otherwise. He declared:
Student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6: 40)
The innovators did not find it agreeable to consider self-denial and asceticism as an additional virtue. They, therefore, added the following words in the Gospel of Matthew:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 48)
The same sentence in Luke has been changed into the following:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:36)
This is obviously absurd. How can the status of God be receded to that of His mortal servants? Still, however, the truth has remained transparent and has survived adulterations in spite of its enemies. Let us see how he has stated what defies any possibility of polytheistic sense and explains that Jesus’ (sws) perfection which he attained through renouncing the world was an additional virtue specifically meant for the poor. It has been reported in Matthew:
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you call me as good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mathew 19: 16-23)
Thus he has explained to the questioner that, for him, the perfection would mean following Jesus (sws) and separation from the worldly riches. It is obviously not the perfection required of all the humans. We see that Abraham (sws), David (sws), Solomon (sws), and Joseph (sws) all had great wealth and they showed perfect religious and moral behavior. Can we hold they did not enter the kingdom of heavens? So this removes the doubt arising from the Bible and explains away the apparent contradiction between the Gospels and the Torah.
Fourth, these exhortations, if considered general commands, would then be in stark opposition to the practice (sunnah) of the divine guides, the Prophets of God, including Abraham (sws), David (sws) and others. They have fought, became victorious, gathered wealth, spent it in the positive purposes, and they never lived on the wealth of others. This thing has not escaped the notice of the Christian scholars. They then inserted words which change the original meaning of the text. They have included the word “in spirit” in the following sentence:
Blessed are the poor in spirit. (Matthew 5:3)
Similarly they added the words “for righteousness” in the following sentence:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
However, all these changes could not remove the reality of the matter and it remains clear that the discourse is evidently addressed to the poor. They changed the words of Jesus (sws) only because they could not understand their true application. We will come to that later.
The above discussion, it is hoped, sufficiently proves that these directives were specifically meant for a particular group of people of the past. These are not permanent divine directives guiding people to achieve excellence in social behavior and secure cultivation of the self. This does not form part of the everlasting law of God which is the conspicuous characteristic of the Islamic sharī‘ah. Only Islam provides permanent guidance which includes the divine directive to first submit one’s self and wealth to the disposal of God and spend it in His cause. God Almighty says:
Surely, God has purchased of the believers their persons and their property. (Q 9:111)
When it has become clear that these directives are specifically meant for a certain group of people, there remains no ground to maintain that oaths are prohibited in general. We know on the basis of reason and received knowledge that it is allowable and there is a great need to resort to it. We are the Muslim people. We respect the Prophets of God, all of them. We do not reinterpret (tā’wīl) their statements and take it to mean that defies reason and moral values.
The above discussion in a way explains what we intend to mention in the next section that is the wisdom according to which Jesus Christ (sws) specifically subjected a certain group to these directives. We will try to remain brief because a thorough discussion is out of scope.