IN PART 1 we stated that human beings have a practice of attesting to the truth value of something important which they want to assert—through calling to witness, or “swearing” by, whatever is considered most holy in their society. So, too, in the days of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is a different linguistic mechanism from the words, “Verily,” “Indeed,” or “Behold!” (Arabic: la, inna) often beginning a Qur’anic statement.
We saw that in the Quran many sûrahs open with God calling to witness various facets of His creation. He also swore by his Prophet ﷺ and by His Revelation. He even swore by Himself (in Third Person—as if He were an onlooker, at the same time as being the speaker Himself)! Even the Basmala (“Bismillâhi Al-Raḥmâni Al-Raḥîm”) which prologues 113 of the Quran’s 114 sûrahs is an attestation by Allah, in His own Name, to the Revelation contained in that sûrah!
As Muslims we are allowed to attest to our veracity, solemnly swearing by Allah. We are not to take oaths lightly, to pepper our speech with them, nor are we to use our personal oaths as an excuse to avoid doing what is incumbent upon us.
And do not allow your oaths in the name of God to become an obstacle to virtue and God-consciousness and the promotion of peace between men: for God is all-hearing and all-knowing. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:224]
And take not your oaths to practice deception among yourselves. [Sûrat Al-Naḥl, 16:94]
We must fulfill the obligations that Allah has placed upon us, first and foremost.
O ye who believe! Fulfill (all) obligations. [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:1]
The contracts and mutual dependencies we form with each other must not contradict our obligations with Allah. When we go into a contract or take an oath in earnest, we are honor bound to keep to what was promised.
But keep to your oaths. Thus doth Allah make clear to you His Signs, that ye may be grateful. [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:89]
Penalties are specified in the event of oath-breaking (5:89, 2:225).
The youthful prophet Ibrâhîm /Abraham, guided in his righteous conduct by Allah—in his conversations with the idol-worshippers of his time—is recorded, likewise, as swearing by Allah 21:51-70.
And by Allah, I have a plan for your idols—after ye go away and turn your backs . . . So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn (and address each other) to it. [Sûrat Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:57-58]
As we know, Abraham carried out this object lesson to show the futility of trust in idols. We also know that Abraham escaped their attempt to burn him alive and was led by Allah to relocate southward from Iraq into Palestine and into the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Similar incidents of “swearing by Allah” or invoking Allah as Lord involve Prophet Yaʿqûb /Jacob (12:66) and the brothers of Yûsuf /Joseph in Egypt (12:73) and Nûḥ/Noah (71:28), and Mûsa/Moses (20:25-36):
(Jacob) said: Never will I send him with you until ye swear a solemn oath to me, in Allah’s name, that ye will be sure to bring him back to me unless ye are yourselves hemmed in (and made powerless). [Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:66]
[The brothers] said: “By Allah! Well ye know that we came not to make mischief in the land, and we are no thieves!” [Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:73]
O my Sustainer! Grant Thy forgiveness unto me and unto my parents, and unto everyone who enters my house as a believer, and to all believing men and believing women [of later times]; and increase Thou not the evildoers in aught but destruction [of their aims and evil doings]. [Sûrat Nûḥ, 71:28]
Said [Moses]: O my sustainer! Open up my heart [to Thy light], and make my task easy for me, and loosen the knot from my tongue so that they might fully understand my speech and … Said He: “Thou art granted all that thou hast asked for, O Moses! [Sûrat Tâ Hâ, 20:25-28, 36]
The example of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ—and of other prophets whose stories are recounted in the Quran—is our guide to those attitudes and practices most pleasing to Allah—and most befitting to cultivating co-operation for mutual benefit and harmonious relationships amongst humans—starting with believers. Recorded in the aḥâdîth of the Prophet ﷺ are many examples in which he swore, “by the One in whose hand is my life” to emphasize the divine source of his judgment in a situation.
In the light of Prophetic example and the solemnity with which Allah Himself attested to the veracity of His guidance in the Quran, I wonder whether it is appropriate for us to swear by Allah (wallâhi) so as to overcome doubt possibly in our listeners’ minds. I suggest that this phrase not be used to claim the last word in a personal dispute or to tip the scales our way when proper evidence or trustworthiness is lacking.
Even idol-worshipers and unbelievers swear by God in contradiction to Allah’s revelation:
They swear their strongest oath by Allah that Allah will not raise up those who die. Nay, but it is a promise (binding) on Him in truth: But most among mankind realize it not. (They must be raised up) in order that He may manifest to them the truth of that wherein they differ, and that the rejecters of Truth may realize that they had indeed (surrendered to) falsehood. [Sûrat Al-Naḥl, 16:38-39]
In fact, Allah does not need, for His own benefit, to swear to His truthfulness except to deal with men in their own terms. He Himself is the essence of Ultimate Truth (Al–Ḥaqq) and He is all-powerful. In other words, what He says, goes.
There, the (only) protection comes from Allah, the True One. He is the best to reward, and the best to give success. [Sûrat Al-Kahf, 18:44]
For to anything which We have willed, We but say the word, “Be!” and it is. [Sûrat Al-Naḥl, 16:40]
Our Exemplary Expressions
Perhaps we need not swear at all under normal circumstances. In a court of law we may be asked to put our hand on a Quran and swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, in our testimony. Lying under oath is called “perjury” and has serious legal penalties. Most importantly for us Muslims Allah will hold us to account.
If we are a community of truthful believers, shouldn’t our word be good enough in and of itself? In modern society, legally binding agreements are routinely put in writing and signed by the parties putting themselves under obligation. We were given the mandate for this practice some 14 centuries ago.
…And be not loath to write down every contractual provision, be it small or great, together with the time at which it falls due: this is more equitable in the sight of God, more reliable as evidence, and more likely to prevent you from having doubts [later]. … And if you…cannot find a scribe, pledges [may be taken] in hand; but if you trust one another, then let him who is trusted fulfill his trust, and let him be conscious of God, his Sustainer. And do not conceal what you have witnessed … And whether you bring into the open what is in your minds or conceal it, God will call you to account for it; and then He will forgive whom He wills, and will chastise whom He wills: for God has the power to will anything. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:282-284]
In the West, people are generally suspicious of others who take to swearing by God, where a man’s word is already expected to be his honor. In daily life, one should not have to swear by God, if s/he is a trustworthy person. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was known as Al-Amîn, “the Trustworthy One.” As admirers and imitators of our exemplary Prophet ﷺ, we want to humbly wear our trustworthiness as much as we wear our modesty in clothing so as to exhibit a straightforwardness in human interactions.
We have many Islamic phrases to indicate our best intentions towards others—all of them rich in Islamic meaning–and related to our lifestyle of submission to the prophetically-revealed will of Allah:
al-salâmu ʿalaikum (May security and well-being be yours!)
inshâ’Allah (God willing)
mâshâ’Allah (what God wills)
bi ithniAllâh (with God’s help)
Allâhu Aʿlam (God knows [best])
Allâh yasallimak (May God preserve you)
Allâhu karîm (God is generous)
We also have a large bank of names to use when addressing Allah in heartfelt praise or supplication:
Yâ Allâh (O God)
Yâ Rabb [al-ʿâlamîn] (O Lord [of all realms])
[Yâ] Rabbi (O my Lord)
[Yâ] Rabbana (O our Lord)
Yâ Raḥmân (O Merciful One) and all other Asmâ’ Allâh Al-Ḥusna (Perfect Attributes of Allah).
All of these phrases indicate a trust in, and dependence upon, Allah. By these we Muslims encourage one another in our mutual continuance on the Straight Path—for which we beseech Allah in each of our 17 daily rakʿahs of Prayer.
In Part 3, Inshâ’Allah, we explore the meaning of “OMG” and its suitability on the tongue of Muslims, in the context of “swearing by Allah” and appealing to Him in submission and respectful awe.