Rhetorical Aspect and Intricacies of Oath
If these oaths are arguments, then why has this not been plainly mentioned? We need to appreciate that there are different levels and various kinds of argumentative discourse. There are some contended issues to which humans are not psychologically attracted to. There could be some other issues for which they do not feel an aversion. The problems of physics, mathematics or the history of earlier nations are such examples. In this case, the arguments are better put plainly. However, sometimes we need to argue for issues which have a psychological aspect. In such issues, both the addressor and the audience develop a kind of inclination or reluctance, deterrence or condescension, and insistence or importunity. In these matters, it is considered necessary to argue at different levels. One employs different styles of expression with varied degree of clarity, intricacy, sharpness and persuasion.
At times, one feels it necessary to change a style of expression. He intends to avoid offending the audience. He may do so in hope that some of the styles of expression may prove more successful in convincing the audience. This last approach has been clearly referred to in the Qur’ān. The Almighty says:
See how we expound our verses in various ways that they may understand! (Q 6:65)
Abraham (sws) adopted this very approach while dealing with the one who argued with him about the Lord. Abraham (sws) did not insist on the first argument he had offered. He, on the contrary, brought forward another argument which was, according to him, more readily understandable for the interlocutor. Thus “the disbeliever was confounded.” (Q 2:258)
This is summary of my response to the above mentioned question. Another important thing is that, in an instance of argumentation couched in the style of oaths, there are useful indicators opening up various doors of rhetorical devices. Such devices are further decorated by layers of beauties of style. I wish to explain such important points to you which will help you see the rhetorical beauties of this style of argumentation.
First, it produces firm emphatic statements. This is clearly noticeable in the statements attributed to the Christian Apostles as quoted in the Qur’ān:
They said: “Our Lord knows that we are, indeed His Messengers to you and our duty is only plain delivery of the Message.” (Q 36:16-7)
Similarly at another occasion, the Almighty says:
This sky brimful of rain and the earth which splits bear witness that this is a decisive word and it is no jest. (Q 86: 11-14)
The Arabs knew that when a cultivated and free man took an oath, he in fact externalized his will with full force. He negated any aspect of frivolity on his part. This is why the oaths have been abundantly used in the revelations coming down in beginning of the Prophetic call. The seriousness and solemnity from the Prophet’s (sws) part was thus fully conveyed to his audience. This has been clearly indicated to in both of the above mentioned verses. This objective was achieved because of a certain characteristic of the oaths. It was not obtained because of glorification of the muqsam bihī. This can be further explained by an example. We sometimes emphasize our assertions and negations by putting them in the form of simple or exclamatory questions or stressed exclamations. These expressions are formed by the help of words of address. For example, they say “yā lalmā’i (flood!!)” when they find a sudden flood of water. Such expressions add to the element of seriousness and firmness on the part of the speaker.
Second, oaths are exclamatory in their form. They do not leave the interlocutor with a ready opportunity to reject it. He could, however, reject the muqsam ‘alayhi. This is because the muqsam ‘alayhi is in the form of a positive statement. He can in no way reject the oath itself because it is an exclamation. Exclamations do not accept any negation. Oaths in this respect are similar to a ṣifah (adjective). It is not possible for one to promptly reject a ṣifah. This is possible only because of the structure of the oath and the ṣifah. Otherwise, semantically, both are positive assertions liable to be rejected or accepted.
Sometimes, the Qur’ānic oaths make use of these things simultaneously. The oaths sworn by the glorious Qur’ān, the promised day, the distributors of the affairs, the distinguishing ones, or the ranking ones are examples. If we analyze and explain any of these oaths, we see that they are but two distinct positive and informative sentences. They may be paraphrased as follows: “The angels are ranked in lines like slaves, the winds differentiate and distinguish by the order of God, these people have an appointed day, and this Qur’ān is glorified. All these things are positive statements (akhbār) couched in the form of attributes.” This style of swearing an oath further made use of the argumentative nature of these things. It has, therefore, been claimed that all these things are signs and arguments which prove certain theses.
If, at any occasion, the interlocutor is expected to be able to respond with negation, then various other techniques are used to avert such a strike. Thus at times the address is directed at the Prophet (sws) [instead of the real addressee], as has been done in the following verse:
This is Sūrah Yāsīn. By the Qur’ān full of wisdom, you are indeed one of the Messengers. (Q 36:1-3)
In some other occasions the complement of the oath which has to be in the form of positive statement is suppressed. In such cases, only the muqsam bihī suffices for the purpose. However, instantly afterwards another theme is introduced which corroborates the suppressed complement of the oath so that the interlocutor does not find enough respite to interpret the injunctive sentence as a positive statement and start arguing against it. At such occasions, the addressee turns to listen to what follows the oath. He is instantly faced with new things which further strengthen the preceding arguments. Consider the following example:
This is Sūrah Ṣād. We cite as proof the Qur’ān, full of exhortation. But the disbelievers are steeped in false pride and enmity. (Q 38:1-2)
Here the injunctive sentence has been considered sufficient and the informative sentence has been avoided. The attribute of the Qur’ān has taken the stead of the informative sentence. The whole could thus be paraphrased as follows: “The Qur’ān bears witness to the fact that it is the reminder and exhortation for them.” The attributes of the real addressees have been put. They were not in a position to deny it. Rather they took pride in those qualities. It has been explained that their rejection of the message is a product of their ignorant zealotry and their enmity for the truth.
Another such example from the Qur’ān follows:
This is Sūrah Qāf. By the glorious Qur’ān! But they wonder that there has come to them a warner from among themselves. These disbelievers say: “This is a strange thing.” (Q 50:1-2)
These verses tell us that the glorious Qur’ān itself bears witness to the fact that it is a very clear warner for them from Almighty God. They, however, are rejecting it only because they deem it quite strange that such a task of warning has been entrusted to a commoner among themselves.
However, if something sworn is of the kind in which the addressee does not negate, then the complement of the oath has not been suppressed. Consider the following example:
This is Sūrah Hāmīm. This perspicuous Book is sure evidence to the fact that we have made it an Arabic Qur’ān that you may understand. (Q 43:1-3)
This oath stresses that the Qur’ān is a clear book. The complement of the oath affirms that it is an Arabic Qur’ān. Both of these things were acceptable to the addressees. As for its being a revelation of God, it has not been distinctively claimed. This is in fact implied in the statement for God has attributed it to Himself. This was to make sure that the addressees could not instantly turn to negate the implied and intended message.
Were it not for the fear of lengthiness and departure from the real issue, we would have explained in detail the suppression of the muqsam ‘alayhi and the benefits of suppressing it. Rather, we believe that it would be better to explain these issues under the commentary on the oath verses.
Third, oaths afford a compact and brief style. Clarity of meaning in a particular style of expression is added with the degree of brevity it displays. In brief and compact statements, the real meaning is not lost in verbiage. Thus brevity adds to the clarity and the force of the expression. Compact statements, one can say, sharpen the expression and bring the audience near to the meaning. This is exactly why metaphor is often considered a more effective rhetorical device than the simile. We do not feel a need to explain the importance and beauty of brevity of expression, for it can be learned from any book on balāghah. Some contemporary experts in this science have exaggerated its beauties. They maintained that brevity is another name of balāghah. This view goes out of bounds by limiting all the beauties and niceties of Arabic balāghah to this single rhetorical device. They have in fact considered brevity as the foundation of balāghah because of the divarication of this art and the variety of its aspects. These experts, therefore, find themselves facing brevity from wherever they approach the art of balāghah. Thus they attach to it extraordinary importance and a central role in this science. We, however, believe that these experts failed to grasp the correct view regarding the issue.
We believe that the uses of brevity of expression include the opportunity it allows you to put various arguments in compact form in succession. When all such arguments lead to a single conclusion from various aspects, they produce unusual effects on the audience, and the issue being argued is easily established. This is best presented by the oaths occurring in Sūrah al-Ṭūr (Q. 52), al-Balad (Q. 90) and al-Tīn (Q. 95). If the discourse in these sūrahs is interrupted by an otherwise plain explanation of the arguments, the coherence would have been destroyed, and the force of argument lost. Another example is perhaps that of the oaths occurring in Sūrah al-Fajr (Q. 89), al-Shams (Q. 91) and al-Layl (Q. 92).
The Arabs, because of their intelligence and their pride, were fonder of brevity than other people. This is why we find that everything in the Qur’ān is characterized by compactness. Fewer words carry more meaning. If the Qur’ān expansively explains a theme in one aspect, it puts it in brevity at other occasions highlighting other aspects. This also addresses the assertion that the niceties of the Qur’ān will never exhaust.
Fourth, oaths let the audience participate in adducing evidence. This helps remove the sense of confrontation from their minds. Humans find a conclusion more pleasing and agreeable when they themselves reach at it after due consideration of the relevant facts. On the contrary, if a speaker spoon-feeds the audience, disallowing them an active part in the discourse, he bores them and makes the dialogue hard even if they are convinced of the evidence. An unconvinced audience would no doubt run from the speaker and shut their ears on the whole debate. The speaker loses both ways.
Employment of oaths to furnish arguments in a way resembles the use of questions instead of simple informative sentences. We often say: “Do you not see?” or “have you considered this?”
The Prophet (sws) used this technique in his last sermon when he asked his audience: “Which city is this? Which month is this? What day is today?” (Bukhārī, No: 1652) This way, the speaker acquires attention of the audience who are naturally attracted to this kind of interactive dialogue. The Qur’ān has used both these techniques simultaneously in the beginning of Sūrah al-Fajr (Q. 89). Here, the Qur’ān calls to witness various natural phenomena and invites the audience to think and ponder over the divine planning, decrees, and justice exhibited by these. This has then been followed by the divine saying:
Do not you see in it strong evidence for one possessed of understanding? (Q 89:1-5)
A similar example is the following verses:
The sky and those which appear in the night—and what do you understand what those which appear in the night are? Shining stars—bear witness that. (Q 86:1-3)
Intelligent debaters lead the audience to their claims smoothly without condemning the latter’s view. This makes their audience think that they have reached the conclusion themselves. This explains why a metaphor is considered a better rhetorical device than a clear comparison.
Fifth, oaths help the speaker present the argument garbed in some other form and avoid argumentation. A careful analyst will easily find that the Qur’ān, in its oaths, first introduces an issue to the audience and invites him to reason for himself. Then it gradually leads him to the conclusion in a very subtle way. For example, in Sūrah al-Dhāriyāt (Q. 51), the Almighty swore by winds that take dust (al-dhāriyāt) and then He referred to their function to differentiate the affair (al-muqassimāti ’amran). This latter point functions as evidence. It has not been put directly. Similarly, Sūrah al-Mursalāt (Q. 77) begins with swearing by the unleashed winds (mursalāti ‘urfan). Then it introduces their certain functions till the discourse reaches the point where they are presented as dealing the people separately: reminding the people either in order to leave them with no excuse or to merely warn them (verses 3-5). If the phenomenon of the winds differentiating between different people, something that is meant to be brought to notice of the audience, were put simply in the beginning, the addressee could have instantly rejected the thesis.
This style of presenting proofs in the form of oaths deters the contenders from confrontation. I do not repeat the second point where the use of argumentation in the form of inshā’ was discussed. That aspect of argumentation shuts the door of negation and rejection. Here, quite distinctively, I wish to refer to the fact that this style of argumentation does not leave the contender with an opportunity to argue against the thesis presented in the oaths. It is as though he forgets to resort to confrontation. This technique is not peculiar to subjunctive (inshā’iyyah) statements. It works with informative sentences too. Consider the following verse:
The (salvation) history bears witness that man is in loss. (Q 103: 1-2)
This sentence is informative in some aspects. Still, however, it is not simple argumentation. This thesis, for example, could be simply put as follows: “Indeed man is loser in the end, for every passing day cuts his age.” This line of reasoning, in spite of being self evident and clear, invites rejection from an argumentative mind; or if the contender does not reject it, he will not find it difficult to negate the conclusions this statement leads to, i.e. relying on faith and pious deeds. He may claim: “No, man is in great benefit. He buys what he cherishes and wins what he desires during this ephemeral life.” Or, he may respond thus: “We know that we cannot escape death. Therefore we should enjoy the pleasures of life.” This is what Imru’ al-Qays, the wretched and strayed poet says:
Enjoy beautiful women and drinks, pleasure of this world. You are mortal after all.
It is evidently a slippery argument. However when the door to argumentation is once opened, then any kind of idle talk can be passed on as arguments. The more you bring the discussion to light, the more the contenders would wander in the mazes of their whims. This makes it important for you to avoid the line of argumentation leading to confrontation. Since the Arabs proved to be more disputatious than any other nation, the Qur’ān, considering their disposition, puts certain theses in the form of oaths. The following verse refers to this very characteristic of the Arabs:
They have mentioned this to you only for the sake of disputation. Nay, but they are a contentious people. (Q 43:58)
The Qur’ān has, at another place, plainly called them a contentious people. (Q 19:97) This and the previous aspect discuss subtleties of arguments couched in the form of oaths. By adopting this style, you can stop the addressee from rejecting the thesis and entering into a disputation, as well as incite them on critically analyzing the issue.
Sixth, oaths are characterized by overwhelming resplendence which adds gracefulness to the opening passages of the sūrahs. The oaths, when occurring in the start of the sūrahs, shine forth like glaring prominent marks. They rarely occur in the middle of the sūrahs. Wherever they occur in the middle, they function as a refrain in an ode.
Oaths are not basically used to embellish expressions. However, since they inaugurate the sūrahs in most cases, they work as embellishers as well. Such excellent and pictorial expressions have been employed in the oaths as are used in introductions to books or eloquent sermons. Such a beautiful start often fills the eyes and the heart of the audience with awe and beauty.Nothing works better as pictorial expression than the oaths. When you swear by a thing, you present it before the audience as a witness to your claim. You evoke imagery.
Whenever the Almighty intended to decorate the start of the sūrahs with imagery, He employed the oaths. The image-making words used in the oaths are of different kinds. Sometimes a single item has been invoked. The pen, the scribe, the shining star, the panting horses, the winds that scatter dust, and the ranking angels represent different things interrelated by a common denominator. Similar is the case of the oaths of Sūrah al-Tīn (Q. 95) sworn by al-tīn, al-zaytūn and the Mount Sinai, as well as the things sworn by in Sūrah al-Ṭūr (Q. 52) including the mount Ṭūr, the composed book, the inhabited house, the elevated canopy, and the swelling ocean. The oaths by the sun, moon, night, day, earth, heavens and soul etc, refer to certain circumstances and empirical phenomena invoked to prove something important. Other than evidencing some important point, these things serve no logical purpose in the discourse. Evidencing a thesis in a variety of styles is adopted only in consideration of the audience which has to be won over. The speaker desires the audience to keep listening. He does not afford that his addressee turn a deaf ear to him. The best exhortation and the most convincing argument is that offered in soft language, keeping in consideration the view of the addressees. Almighty God commanded His Messengers to consider this while calling people to God. When the Almighty sent Moses (sws) and Aaron (sws) to the Pharaoh, he advised them:
But speak to him gently so that perhaps he might take heed or fear. (Q 20:44)
Seventh, oaths are used to put the evidence before making the claim. In this style, a matter is put before the adversary. This matter itself leads him to the conclusion which corroborates the claim of the speaker. If a disputant is already made aware of the claim upon which the evidence is brought, he can take the discussion around any other point. This can in turn give him an opportunity to avoid the right conclusion. On the contrary, if the claim is not disclosed to him before he has considered the argument, there is a great chance that he be eventually led to the right conclusion. If he is successfully put on the right path, he is easily led to the final conclusion. The examples illustrating this fact have been mentioned in the fourth and the fifth points above.
Eighth, oaths are multifaceted and rich expressions. The argumentative aspect of the muqsam bihī is not explicitly mentioned. If a singular aspect of the argument is mentioned, it will lead to only a single piece of evidence. But we know that at times a single thing contains a line of meaning and variety of aspects. This enables a scrutinizing mind with an opportunity to look for a number of proofs from a single phenomenon sworn by and invoked as evidence.
This aspect of the oaths is shared by the verses which present simple argument. There a mere thing or a phenomenon is presented. It is left upon the inquisitive mind to find evidence for a variety of facts. Consider the following verses of the Qur’ān.
Do you not see that the ships sail on the sea through the bounty of God, that He may show you His signs? There are, surely, proofs for every patient and grateful person. (Q 31:31)
And in the earth are signs for the faithful and also in your own self. Do not you see? (Q 51:20-1)
No human being can count the expressions of God’s power, glory, mercy and wisdom scattered in the universe. In human beings themselves, there are signs leading to religious facts including the belief in the unicity of God, the need for the institution of prophecy and the belief in the Last Judgment. I have elaborated upon such matters in my book “Ḥujaj al-Qur’ān”. The Almighty presents some of His creation. He mentions some religious belief next to it. By this He intends to make the reader of the Book to discover different aspects of the various possible proofs from the mentioned created things for the stated beliefs.
If two different interpreters agree on the basic claim while pondering over the verses and keeping the coherence of the text in consideration, there is nothing wrong if both discover different aspects of the arguments. The same thing or phenomenon can lead to the same conclusion in a variety of ways. People with different levels of understanding may discover different aspects of proofs from a single argumentative statement. One of the basic characteristics of the Qur’ān is that it contains layers of profound wisdom. Its niceties may never exhaust, as do the miraculous aspects of the acts and creations of God. God Almighty says:
If all the trees that are in the earth were pens, and the ocean – replenished by seven more – were ink, the words of God would not be exhausted. Surely, God is Mighty, Wise. (Q 31:27)
I conclude this discussion about the rhetorical purposes of the Qur’ānic oaths. I did not target exhaustive treatment of the issue. In fact nobody can.
The above explains the meanings of the oaths and their different forms. The last two objections regarding the Qur’ānic oaths, it is hoped, have been fully clarified. In the sixth and tenth section of the book, our discussion around the use of oaths in social, financial, and political aspects of the personal, national and international interaction of humans has fully refuted the first objection. The only thing that remains to be dealt with is the question as to why has it been forbidden in some of the earlier scriptures to take an oath, whereas oaths have been used in the Scriptures, the speeches of the great orators and rhetoricians.
(Translated by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)
. The Almighty says: “We have made it Arabic Qur’ān.” This implies that the Qur’ān is the book revealed by God. This fact however is not conspicuously and prominently put and as such it cannot be instantly detected and negated by a contestant among the audience.
.Farāhī, in his unfinished commentary on the Qur’ān, could deal only with the oaths occurring in the following sūrahs of the Book: 51, 75, 77, 91, 95, and 103.
.Imru’ al-Qays, Dīwān, 148.
.One of the unpublished works by the author.