Imām Rāzī refers to the second of the above mentioned questions while explaining Sūrah al-Ṣāffāt (Q. 37) and responds to it in the following way:
This question requires a multifaceted answer. First, God has, through conclusive arguments, established tawḥīd(unicity of God), the Afterlife, and the Retribution in other sūrahs. These fundamental beliefs have, therefore, already been established. The arguments proving them are still fresh in the minds of the readers. It is, therefore, sufficient to merely mention these beliefs with the stress supplied by the oaths. It should be appreciated that the Qur’ān was revealed in the language of the Arabs. Affirming claims and assertions through an oath was a common Arab custom.
Imām Rāzī refers to the fact that the Qur’ān was revealed in the language of the Arabs. He states that swearing was a convention in that society. He refers to these facts in order to respond to the first question mentioned above.
I believe what he means to say is that since the oath follows conclusive arguments and builds on them, the claims made in the verses rely primarily on the arguments furnished earlier and not on these oaths which are employed merely for reaffirmation as was customary to the Arabs. I find this position in clear contradiction to the Qur’ān. We know that the Qur’ānic oaths are found more in the earlier sūrahs than in the later revelations which came after the arguments for these beliefs were fully supplemented.
The second aspect of his explanation follows:
First the Almighty swore by these things in order to prove the statement: “Your God is one.” (Q 37:4) Soon afterwards, He mentioned something which functions as a conclusive argument for the unicity of God. He says: “Lord of the heavens and the earth, and what lies between them, and the Lord of the east.” (Q 37:5) This argument has been put plainly elsewhere in the following words: “If there were therein gods beside Allah, then, verily both would have been disordered.” (Q 21:22) The harmonious arrangement of the heavens and the earth bears witness to that God is one. Thus, the complement of oath, “indeed your Lord is one” (Q 37:4), has been followed by, “Lord of the heavens and the earth, and whatever lies between them, Lord of the east.” (Q 37:5) The whole can thus be paraphrased as follows: “We have already made it clear that the arrangement of this universe points to the unicity of its God. So ponder over this fact so that you may obtain the knowledge of tawḥīd.
The crux of this answer is this. The oath in this instance has been followed by a statement that contains an argument proving the sworn fact. The point of argument, therefore, is contained in the statement and not the oath that prefaces it. The oath only adds emphasis to the statement. We see that this response to the objections against the Qur’ānic oaths is identical to the earlier one. Both of these fail to explain the wisdom behind diverse kinds of oaths. One wonders why not to take an oath by God Almighty Himself instead of swearing by these ordinary things. Rāzī continues:
The third aspect of our response follows. The basic purpose of this statement is to negate the belief of the idolaters that idols are their gods as if it has been said: “Their view has receded to weakness and abatement to a level that such a [weak] argument suffices to disprove it.” God knows best.
This is clearly a naïve explanation. At first he holds that oaths do not contain elements of argumentation. Then he maintains that the view of the opponents was so absurd that it could be negated by a statement almost devoid of any argument.
While discussing the wisdom behind the use of oath, under the commentary on the opening verses of Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt (Q. 51), he has again discussed issues which contain an explanation to the question under discussion. He says:
We have referred to the wisdom in employing the oaths in our commentary on the oath formulas occurring in Sūrah al-Ṣāffāt (Q. 37). This is indeed a very noble discussion covering sublime themes. I intend to repeat that here. These oaths have many aspects which follow:
First, the disbelievers, at times, confessed that the Prophet (sws) would prevail in arguments. However, they ascribed his triumph to his polemical skills. They maintained that he was aware of the invalidity of his statements. “He defeats us through his polemics and not because of truthfulness of his case”, they would say. This is what someone defeated in an argument might say when left with no argument to support his view. Such a loser complains: “He (my adversary) has defeated me by his skill of argumentation for I am not that adept in the art. He knows that truth lies with me.” At this stage, the one with clear proofs is forced to opt for an oath. He, therefore, is forced to say: “I tell the truth. I am not arguing for falsehood.” This is because if he offers another argument to support his view the contender would again complain. He would claim that his opponent defeated him through his polemical skills. Thus the man arguing for the truth has no option but to remain silent or to swear an oath and abandon further argumentation.
This response from Imām Rāzī mixes sound arguments with unsound ones. It negates what he earlier said while commenting on the Sūrah al-Ṣaffāt (Q. 37) where, under the second aspect of his explanation, he asserted that the Qur’ānic oaths always follow arguments and stress the argued point. However, what he stated in his commentary on Sūrah al-Ṣāffāt (Q. 37) is in fact true. The Qur’ān does not stop on an oath. Rather it follows the oaths with some other assertions. Rāzī has gone too far here. He could have maintained that sometimes mere argument does not help because the opponents fail to understand the arguments and can complain that the contender is using captivating eloquence and is too confident in what he holds. In such situations it is more appropriate for one to blend the arguments with an oath. This position would have been quite sound.
Imām Rāzī further comments:
Second, the Arabs always avoided taking oaths falsely. They believed that false oaths would cause adversities to strike them. Their lands would be left barren. The Prophet (sws) mostly swore oaths by highly exalted things. This made the Arabs believe that if proved wrong, he would meet great perils; he would not escape the consequences of such an unworthy act.
Imām Rāzī, in this response, seems to have pointed towards the fact that swearing oaths was a norm among the Arabs. He is, in fact, right. However, by adding that the Prophet (sws) too considered swearing oaths falsely as something ominous and calamitous, he ignored the following facts:
i. Few Qur’ānic oaths are oaths of glorification.
ii. The Qur’ān clearly guides us not to fear anything other than God.
iii. What evil can result from desecrating insignificant objects like the fig and the olive by swearing by them falsely?
iv. The Qur’ān was communicated to the Holy Prophet (sws) from the Almighty. The oaths form part of the Qur’ān, the word of God. These are not the word of the Prophet Muḥammad (sws). The author of the Qur’ān, it is clear, does not fear anything.
Rāzī could have remained content with the first part of his statement which states that the Arabs would refrain from taking untrue oaths for they feared the consequences of such an act. They believed that an honorable man cannot take an untrue oath. When someone lent emphasis to his statement by the help of an oath, the Arabs hearkened to him. This would have elevated his view to a kind of response to the first and the second question, albeit a weak one. What he said later, indeed, has made the whole statement meaningless.
Now I turn to the third part of Rāzī’s response to the questions. He writes:
Third, all the oaths the Almighty has taken, are arguments formulated in this form. It can be compared to a statement by a donee to his benefactor wherein the former swears saying: “By all the bounties and favors you have bestowed upon me I am grateful.” The continuous bounties the oath-swearer has been receiving are a constant cause for the perpetual gratitude he shows. Such a statement follows the design of an oath. Similarly, all of these things (i.e., things by which the oaths have been taken in the beginning of Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt (Q. 51) evidence God’s power to resurrect. Why this claim has been presented in the form of an oath? Our response to this question follows. When a man prefaces his saying by an oath, the audience realizes that he intends to say something serious and solemn; this makes them hearken to him. The Almighty has, therefore, started the sūrah with an oath and has expressed the arguments in the form of an oath.
This sufficiently explains away the second objection. However, it is upon the upholder of this view to explain the nature of the argument for the assertions found in the objects by which the oath is being taken. The argumentative nature of the Qur’ānic oaths, though obvious in some instances, requires a great deliberation in most cases. This is probably why Rāzī has relied on this explanation only in Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt (Q. 51) and in some other instance. In most other cases, he has explained them in two ways:
First, wherever possible he rejects the fact that an oath has been taken in the first place. This he does only to escape the questions on the use of oaths. He adopted this approach while explaining the word lā (no, never) occurring in the first verse of Sūrah al-Qiyāmah (Q. 75) of the Qur’ān. He says:
The second possibility is that the particle lā negates what follows it. In other words, it has been said: “I do not swear by a particular day and the soul (nafs). Contrarily, I ask you without taking an oath. Do you think that We will not be able to collect your bones once they will be decayed by death? If so then know that we are very able to accomplish that.” This is the view of Abū Muslim and is the soundest.
This interpretation cannot be accepted by an expert of the language of the Arabs. If the Almighty intended what Imām Rāzī believes, then what could be said, at best, is that the statement absolutely negates taking an oath by the unparticular things like reproaching self (nafs), the stars that withdraw (al-khunnas) and which rush ahead (al-jawār) and hide (al-kunnas) etc. This is also in variation with the customary style of expression. The Arabs use the word lā before an oath as disjointed particle. This issue has been explained in our commentary on the sūrah. Zamakhsharī holds the same view.
At times Rāzī eludes criticism by saying that the oaths are used merely for the sake of stress and alerting the audience on the gloriousness of the thing sworn by. In his commentary on Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt (Q. 51), he says: “You know that the basic objective of this oath is to point out the exaltedness of the muqsam bihī.”He adopted the same approach in his commentary on Sūrah al-Tīn (Q. 95). He says:
There is a difficulty here. The fig and the olive are not glorious things. How does it become God to swear by them? This question can be solved in two ways.
Then he sets upon explaining usefulness of the fig and the olive assuming that the sūrah refers to particular fruits. Alternatively, he takes them to be referring to two mosques or holy cities and explains their glory. One can see that adhering to these answers, which are obviously faulty, does not remove the third objection on the use of oaths in the Qur’ān. Even if we assume that an oath is always taken by a glorious thing the issue is not resolved. The Book swears by many things including the runners breathing and panting (al-‘ādiyāt ḍabḥan), (Q 100:1)the stars that withdraw (al-khunnas) and which rush ahead (al-jawārī)and hide(al-kunnas), (Q 81: 15-6) night (layl), morning (al-ṣubḥ), (Q 81:17-8) the fig (al-tīn) and the olive (al-zaytūn). (Q 95:1) None of these things contains any element of gloriousness for which their creator should swear by them.