Throughout many cultures, taking oaths has played a big role. Even in our own day and age, you hear people say something to the effect of “I didn’t do it. I swear!” Could an investigation into taking oaths reveal something unusual about the differences between Christianity and Islam?
In the English language, the world “swear” has come to have two separate meanings. One refers to the taking of an oath. People make a verbal attempt to intensify the trustworthiness of the accompanying statement. The other definition has to do with cursing, or uttering foul or offensive language. It is not these expletives that I am referring to. Rather, when I speak of swearing, it is the first type being discussed, the sense of taking an oath to signify the strength of the associated assertion. Now that these prerequisite definitions have been clarified, I can get to the meat of the article, I swear.
In Islam, the Qur’an allows people to swear an oath. There are some admonitions, such as not to do so frivolously, as mentioned here.
[3.77] (As for) those who take a small price for the covenant of Allah and their own oaths– surely they shall have no portion in the hereafter, and Allah will not speak to them, nor will He look upon them on the day of resurrection nor will He purify them, and they shall have a painful chastisement.
Another warning given in the Hadith is not to swear by anything other than Allah.
Narrated Abdullah: The Prophet said, “Whoever has to take an oath should swear by Allah or remain silent.” (i.e. He should not swear by other than Allah.) [i]
This means that within Islam a Muslim shouldn’t swear by things in creation. For example, it would be unlawful for a Muslim to say “I swear by my children that I did such and such.” So a Muslim can swear by Allah, but not by anything considered to be of lesser value than Allah himself.
In Christianity, the subject of swearing isn’t as clear. Throughout the Old Testament, people would often swear an oath by the LORD or His name to indicate a high level of loyalty. Abraham swore in God’s name to show loyalty to nearby kings (Genesis 21:23-24), while the Israelite swore to the Gibeonites not to harm them (Joshua 9:19). When people took oaths during the times of the Old Testament, typically they were made by God or by His name. Yet in the New Testament, we are instructed not to take oaths, but to just let our words speak for themselves (James 5:12).
This difference between Christianity and Islam seems rather petty. So what is really going on here? To unravel this further, look at God Himself. In the Bible, God actually takes oaths. God makes sure that people know He is serious and that He means what He says. He swears an oath to Abraham (Genesis 22:16), to the king of Judah (Jeremiah 22:5), and to people in general (Isaiah 45:23). What is the common factor in all these oaths? In each case, God swears by Himself (Jeremiah 49:13). This makes sense, because when a person takes an oath, he does so by invoking something of greater value than himself (Hebrews 6:16). But there is nothing that is greater than God. Since He Himself is above all creation, He can be no more emphatic than by swearing by Himself (Hebrews 6:13). In that same vein, He can also swear by His name (Jeremiah 44:26) or His attributes (Amos 4:2), which define His essence and uniqueness.
What does Allah do regarding his own oaths in the Qur’an? Well, Allah swears by all manner of things, whether by the Qur’an or by the created order. Many chapters of the Qur’an, such as 36 and 38, begin by Allah swearing by the Qur’an itself. In chapter 44, verse 2 of the Qur’an, Allah says “I swear by the Book that makes manifest.” An argument could be made that swearing by your word is the same thing is swearing by yourself, but in other places, such as chapter 51, Allah swears by “wind that scatters far and wide”, “clouds”, “ships”, and “angels”. In chapter 68 Allah swears by the pen. In later chapters, Allah swears by the moon and stars. It seems curious that Allah is allowed to swear by creation, something which Muslims themselves are not allowed to do.
Yet the bigger issue is what Allah swears by. In Christianity, nothing is higher than God. So when He takes an oath, He does so by swearing by Himself. In Islam, nothing is higher than Allah. Yet Allah swears by all kinds of created objects. Why is this? Why does the God of Bible swear only by Himself, yet Allah swears by the created order?