I have already explained reasons why the Arabs felt a need to stress and solidify their statements by way of an oath. Similar needs sometimes forced them to overstate and exaggerate their assertions. They would then, while entering into a mutual contract, gather at a place of worship, adding the element of religiosity to their oaths. They intended to hold God a witness to their commitments. They believed taking a false oath this way would invite God’s wrath.
In early times, political order and proper rule in Arabia was limited. Nations and tribes lived closely and were not separated by natural boundaries like great mountains and surging seas. They were not deterred by natural boundaries from attacking each other except by mutual accords. Treaties, therefore, provided the inestimable protection and were strong walls against foreign aggression.
Then at times, different nations forged an alliance against a common enemy and would enter into a treaty. Whenever a matter of peace or war was felt important by the Arabs, they immediately resorted to contracting a treaty. When Abraham (sws) left his nation and settled in the Arabian Peninsula, Abū Malik noticed that he was a man of power and might. The latter feared him and gave him respect. This he did by entering into a treaty with Abraham (sws) in a customary way in order to avoid any possible confrontation with him. Both of them became allies through this treaty.
History evidences the communal importance of treaties. Even great powerful nations of the present day resort to this practice. This explains how important the practice must have been to the ancient nations founded on their sense of honor, aggression and audaciousness. Nations of this day, I should say, are of the same traits. They are even worse because they have combined elements of force and aggression with deception and falsehood. People often disrespect contracts and treaties. Still, however, they cling to the treaties compelled by the needs of a civilization. People swear by God and religious symbols in front of judges and rulers. Oaths, therefore, more befitted the ancient nations who were more truthful and trustworthy in matters of social and political interaction. It was thus more appropriate and feasible for them to make the oaths a basis of their social relations such that they were taken by that which was considered to be exalted and high. That is why we see that they all gathered at their religious sanctuaries and temples and contracted treaties and made promises before their deities which were supposed to be witnesses to such agreements.
Pre-Islamic Arabs were part of the community of nations. They were powerful, more warlike, as well as most true to their promises, and most abiding by their protection vows. The Ka‘bah was their most sacred sanctuary whose sanctity, to them, was the soundest call to peace. Considering its sacredness, they would stay away from wars and battles during the days of ḥajj. During these days, they thronged to the Ka‘bah from all directions, dressed like monks. Friends and foes intermingled very peacefully. The predacious lions behaved like most docile lambs. All this drastic change in their disposition was grounded in their respect for the House of God, which they called “ṣalāḥ (conciliator)” and “umm al-raḥmah (source of mercy”. Whenever they intended to formalize a pact, they would come to the Ka‘bah and take an oath by Almighty God.
Having indulged in polytheism, they would swear oaths in their stone altars also. They would present offerings to the deities in order to make them intercede with Almighty God.
The customs related to taking such oaths included pouring the blood of an offering; touching the building of the Ka‘bah, as is evidenced by their poetry; dipping their hands in perfume and touching the Ka‘bah; or by merely going to the House and pledging a treaty therein. The dipping of the hands in perfume and then touching the Ka‘bah is an act evidenced by the incident of the oath of the muṭayyibīn (the perfumed parties) which occurred a little before the call of the Prophet Muḥammad (sws). When the children of ‘Abd-i Munāf decided to reunite, they took a bowl full of perfume in order to establish a covenant among them in the Ka‘bah. These people dipped their hands in the perfume and touched the building of the Ka‘bah. This is why they were called the perfumers. The Prophet (sws) and Abū Bakr (rta) participated in this pact.
This is the origin of the religious oaths of the Arabs. They widened its application and remained content with only making a mention of the Ka‘bah or the other symbols attached to the ḥajj ritual. This is evidenced by the following examples:
Zuhayr b. Abī Sulmā says:
I swore (aqsamtu) by the House (bi al-bayt) which is circumambulated by its builders, Quraysh and Jurham.
At another occasion he says:
Thus our hands and your hands will come together at a place of taking oaths (the House of God), where the blood of offerings is poured.
A‘shā Qays says:
By the two-layered garment of a pilgrim and by the house built by Quṣayy and Ibn Jurham alone, I …….
The same poet says in another verse ascribed to him:
For him, I swore (ḥalaftu) by the she-camels, which go dancing towards Minā (al-rāqiṣat) at the time the packs of the pilgrims throng towards it.
Ḥārith b. ‘Ibād says:
Never, by Lord of the she camels which dance towards (wa rabbi al-rāqiṣāti) Minā. Never, I swear by the Lord who prohibits and allows things (wa rabbi al-ḥilli wa al-iḥrāmi).
Nābighah al-Dhubyānī says:
No, by the one whose House I circumambulated, and by the blood poured on the stone-altars. By the one who shelters birds that remained undisturbed by caravans which travel between Ghayl and Sa‘d. I have never said things which have been (falsely) communicated to you. If I ever said that then, my hands may not be able to take up the whip (i.e. they become paralyzed.) My God may punish me with such punishment which satisfies the heart of my enemy.
Shās, brother of ‘Alqamah al-Faḥl, says:
By the one who gathers the pilgrims to Minā and by the blood poured out of the tied offerings.
Ghaniyyah al-A‘rābiyah praises her son:
I swear by marwahon one day and by ṣafā on another that you are more beneficial than shreds of the rod.
The following verses evidence the custom of swearing by the stone alters:
Never, by the beautifully carved ancient stone-altars which are customarily worshipped.
I swore beside the stone-altars that I am going to perish in an encounter that will neither be easy nor kind.
Have you deserted me for fear of my defamatory poetry? By Lāt and by the stone-altars you will never escape it.
Rashīd b. Ramiḍ al-‘Anazī says:
I swore by the blood poured around ‘Awḍ and by the stone altars erected near Sa‘īr.
Stone-altars are rarely sworn by. It was the Ka‘bah and other rituals and places of ḥajj which were very frequently sworn by in emphatic oath of glorification. Even though the Arabs followed different religions, they still collectively respected and revered this Ancient House (al-bayt al-‘atīq). They believed that it was the first house of God established for mankind to worship therein. We even find Christians swearing by it.
‘Adī b. Zayd, who had converted to Christianity in the Pre-Islamic time, says:
By the Lord of Makkah and the cross, my enemies are busy against you, making sure not to leave any evil untried.
Akhṭal, who openly and proudly speaks of his faith in Christianity, says:
I swear by the one to whom the sacrificial animals are led and in whose house (Ka‘bah) vows are fulfilled.
At another occasion, he says:
I swear by the one for whose sake the pilgrims set out and by those who offer blood of sacrificial animals in the sacred precincts (ḥaram).
The same poet says:
I have sworn by the Lord of the she-camels, which go dancing [to Minā], by the screens and covers of the (Ka‘bah) in Makkah and by the sacrificial animals, whose feet are bloodstained because of [long] walks during the days of sacrifice.
The above examples show that whenever the Arabs felt a more pressing need to take an oath, they swore by the Ka‘bah or ritualistic things related to ḥajj. This has been plainly indicated by Ḥassān b. Thābit al-Anṣārī in his verses dating back to the pre-Islamic time.
I swear by the Lord of the tamed she-camels, and by their traveling through the vast plains and stony places, and by the sacrificial animals, offered at the altar, the oath of a loyal and determined man.
‘Āriq al-Ṭā’ī says:
I swore by the stations at Minā, and by the places where lice is pestled (i.e. heads are shaved) that I would exert full efforts.
This practice of swearing by the Ka‘bah or other ritualistic things related to ḥajj current in the Jāhilīperiod remained extant even after the advent of Islam. Farazrduq says:
Do you not know that I have promised to my Lord, while standing between the gate [of the Ka‘bah] and Muqām, that I would never abuse a Muslim, nor would I ever utter falsity?
By the she-camels which dance towards Mināfrom all sides while carrying men.
These examples show that this was the most famous and favorite form of religious oaths. Now, it is hoped that, it would be clear to you that by this they only meant to make their Lord, whom they worshipped, a witness over their statements. The Lord was thus made witness to an event. He was made a guarantor and protector of the contracts and agreements. This was because they believed that by taking a false oath and by being proved wrong in statements, they would earn the wrath of God. The verses we have attributed above to Nābighah in this section clearly explain this point.
As for the pious, by making Almighty God as witness to their assertions, they intended to express their confidence and trust in their Lord and also to express their commitment to what they bear witness to. This will become clear after a study of the examples of oaths presented in the end of this section.
When the Arabs, in their oaths, mentioned the Ka‘bah and offerings and referred to touching it, they intended to evidence a claim. This way they also pointed towards the method of swearing an oath. Merely swearing by God does not produce the desired result. Therefore, they tried to point towards the origin and essence of the oath and depict the form of taking an oath. This they did in order to make it an effective communicative technique.
I have held that the Arabs employed oaths to bring evidence to a fact. This I base on their history and poetry. This view can be further corroborated by the fact that they often held God a witness to their statements. They would thus say: “God is witness,” “God knows” or any other similar thing. The following verse of ‘Amr b. Ma‘dīkarib is a case in point:
God knows (ya‘lamu) I did not cease to fight them till the time their [dead bodies] were piled up to my horse, covered with red foamy blood.
Al-Ḥārith b. ‘Ibād says:
God knows (‘alima) I am not among those who caused this nuisance. Rather I am the one exposed to its flames.
This can be further corroborated by the relic of the serpent and its client. The story, according to Nābighah, goes as follows: The snake bit the son of his human client. The son died. The serpent and his client agreed on a certain amount of diyah (blood money) which the serpent paid. Afterwards the man tried to kill the serpent in retaliation even after receiving the diyah. The serpent escaped the onslaught. Sometime later the man wanted to renew the promissory vow of camaraderie with him. This event has been poeticized by Nābighah as follows:
The man said: “Come, let us hold God a witness between us or you fulfill your [earlier promise] to the last.” The serpent responded: “By God (yamīn allāhi), I am not going to do that. I have found you enchanted. Your vows (yamīnuka) are untrue.”
Another clear example is found in the Prophet’s (sws) last ḥajj sermon. After explaining the fundamentals of Islam, he asked the audience: “Have I communicated to you? (They all said: “Yes, you have.”) O God, bear witness.” (Bukhārī, No: 1654) Thus, he held Almighty God a witness to their statement.
Still another example is what the Prophet (sws) said to Ibn al-Latībah. The Prophet (sws) had appointed Ibn al-Latībah as a tax collector. He accepted personal gifts from the people. When the Prophet (sws) came to know of this, he was enraged. He reminded Ibn al-Latībah his responsibilities and then, while raising his hands to the heavens, said: “O God, I have communicated [what is upon me].” (Bukhārī, No: 2457)
Such an example of raising hands to the heavens and then calling God to bear witness over something is also found in a relic related to Abraham (sws). Genesis 14:22-3 reads:
But Abraham said to the king of Sodom: “I have raised my hand to the Lord (i.e. I have sworn by), God the Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, or anything else that is yours.”
Abraham (sws) meant to say: “I swear by God and I make Him a witness to what I have promised.” I believe that raising hands in the prayer also signifies covenanting and witnessing. This issue has been discussed in our book ‘Uṣūl al-Sharā’i‘.The Qur’ān indicates this point at various occasions. Some of the relevant evidences have been presented in section eight.
To sum up, we can say that the religious oaths are originally taken to evidence something. The meaning of glorification has been mingled with the original meaning only because of the consideration of the muqsam bihī, and not because of the mere act of bringing evidence by oaths: the most manifest meaning of swearing an oath.
This fact is borne out by another kind of oaths of the Arabs where they swear by a muqsam bihī exclusively in order to bring evidence to prove a point. This, however, is a very delicate discussion of balāghah (rhetoric). We will take it up in the following sections.