We have learnt that the Arabs in their oaths bore witness and called God’s witness to what they intended to asseverate. Among oaths brought to witness some claims, the oath taken by the name of God Almighty best communicates the intention of the oath-taker. That is why swearing by God abounds in the conversations as well as the literature of the Arabs. Those lacking a proper understanding of the Arabic styles of expression and discipline of balāghah assume that originally only God could be held witness in oaths because of the glory He possesses.
However, a thorough analysis of the Arabic literature reveals that, besides other things, they even swore by things they neither worshipped nor respected. They only intended to evidence a fact by making the muqsam bihī a witness for the muqsam ‘alayhi. Even purely religious oaths were characterized by this aspect of evidencing a fact, as will be established in section 15. For now, we only intend to present the examples of the argumentative oaths so that the true signification of such oaths is brought to light. Abū al-‘Aryān al-Ṭā’ī, while eulogizing Ḥātim, says:
People know and the cooking pots and the shining sharp edges of knives, which flow continuously, bear witness that you do not take more time to entertain a night visitor than is taken in unsheathing the sword (to slaughter an animal).
Indeed, the heavens, the wind, the earth, the days, and the city, all bear witness. I made Banū Badar taste the consequences of their recalcitrance in the combat of Hibā’, an unparalleled battle.
Nābighah al-Dhubyānī says:
The horses bear witness that, at the time of intense spearing, we proved a scourge of punishment for some and a blessing for others.
Horses and the horsemen bear witness to that I rent their force asunder through a decisive spearing.
Notice the use of cooking-pots, knives, heavens, winds, the earth, days, cities, horses and horsemen as proofs to the statements of the oath-takers. They mean to say: “Ask these things. If they could speak, they would bear witness to what we state.”
This style of evidencing a fact by specific things has been employed in the following statement of al-Faḍal b. ‘Īsā b. Abān in one of his sermons:
Ask the earth: “Who has engraved your streams, planted your trees and harvested your fruits?” If it does not speak by tongue its very state will testify.
I believe the Book of Job echoes this in the following part of the sermon.
Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind? (Job 12: 7-10)
Similarly it has been said in Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life, that both you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
By this testimony, the Prophet Moses (sws) intends to say: “This covenant between you and me is not a secret. Rather we formalize it openly making it known to all. Dishonoring it would earn you everlasting disgrace. You will then continuously face curse and punishment from the heavens above and the earth below.”
The Prophet Moses (sws) has thus presented heavens and earth to exemplify perpetual disgrace which must follow a breaking of the pact. It is as if he appointed two witnesses over them, which may not abandon them even for a moment, and appointed two signs, which may always remind them of the pact.
What fully uncovers the true nature of the argumentative oaths, in which the state of some inanimate thing is made to bear witness over a claim, is the fact that just as the oath-takers make things to bear witness over a fact using the words yashhadu (he bears witness), ya‘lamu (he knows) and similar expressions, they also employ words which connote swearing and even such words and particles as were coined to express an oath including wāw of qasam or the la‘amrī (upon my life) and the like.
For the benefit of those who have not been convinced by the aforementioned examples, we refer to examples where oaths have been sworn by inanimate objects which can only speak by their state. ‘Urwah b. Murrah al-Hudhalī says:
And Abū Amāmah said: O Bakr, help! I said: “By the Markhah tree (wa markhatin), what an inflated claim!”
The poet satirizes Abū Amāmah’s call to the tribe of Bakr for help. He means to say: “This is an awfully inflated claim. What an insignificant people to rely on!” He swore by an unmeaning tree that cannot even shelter a man. He depicted the tree as proverbial for weakness and inability to provide shelter. This meaning is also clear in the following verse ascribed to Abū Jundub al-Hudhalī:
I am a man who tucks up loincloth to the middle of his calf (i.e. I instantly get ready for the task) when called for help by a neighbor. You should not take my neighbor as a man seeking shelter under a Markhah tree. Nor should you mistake him as a mild grass growing in a low land.
The oaths Hajras swore, after he had slain Jassās, the killer of his father, are also relevant:
By my horse and its ears, my spear and its edges, and my sword and its blade, one cannot spare the killer of his father when he sees him.
Hajras has sworn by things which evidence his statements. He means to say: “How can I spare the killer of my father while I am able to advance and retreat, spearing and fighting with a sword.” Thus he has sworn by such things that are supposed to ratify his statement and prove his claim.
By the blood ties and by your grandfather, whenever you will encounter danger I will come to your help.
Ṭarafah says that he will never fail to attend a meeting of his blood relatives held for the settlement of an important matter. He could never disregard blood ties. Blood relation meant everything to the Arabs. They would, therefore, take an oath by God as well as by blood ties. The poet swears by it in order to furnish evidence for his commitment to his relatives and to externalize it.
Another example is found in a verse ascribed to al-Ḥaṣīn b. Ḥammād who, while lamenting the death of his friend Na‘īm b. Al-Ḥārith, says:
We killed five (men) and they fell Na‘īm. It is honorable for a respectful young man to be killed. By the women lamenting the death of Na‘īm, his murder has been hard on us.
By swearing by the lamenting women, the poet intends to point to their apparent condition which evidences the havoc created by the event. It reveals how badly the relatives of the murdered man have been affected. This kind of oaths is not very common because of the delicacy involved in it and due to the currency of other forms of oaths signifying the same meaning. However, it has been a well established form of taking an oath containing multifaceted rhetorical beauty (balaghah). This issue will be discussed in detail in the seventeenth section.
We, on the basis of very sound arguments, maintain that this form of oath taking has been applied both by the Arabs and the non-Arabs. It would not be inappropriate if we referred to the Greek literature to support our viewpoint.
(Translated by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)
. I have no access to the source of this couplet too.
.al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, 1: 82.
.Nābighah, Dīwān, 106.
.‘Antarah b. Shaddād, Dīwān, 2nd ed., (Beirut: Al-Maktab al-Islāmī, 1983), 134.
.al-Jāḥiẓ, al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, 1: 81.
.Dīwān al-Hudhaliyyīn, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyyah, 1995), 92.
.Aṣfahānī, al-Aghāni, 5: 67.
. Aṣfahānī, al-Aghānī, 14: 12.