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Faith

“La Uqsimu” in the Quran: I Swear Or I Do Not Swear?

[89:1-5] By the dawn and by the Ten Nights, and by the even and the odd, and by the night when it moves away, is there in that a sworn oath for whoever has a mind?

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[89:1-5] By the dawn and by the Ten Nights, and by the even and the odd, and by the night when it moves away, is there in that a sworn oath for whoever has a mind?

In a number of places in the Qurān the phrase lā uqsimu has been used. Consider the following verses:

1) Surah Wāqi‘ah

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ – 56:75

وَإِنَّهُ لَقَسَمٌ لَّوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عَظِيمٌ – 56:76 

[56:75] So, I swear by the setting places of the stars,

[56:76] and it is certainly a great oath if only you were to know.

2) Surah Ḥāqqah

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَا تُبْصِرُونَ – 69:38

وَمَا لَا تُبْصِرُونَ – 69:39

[75:1] I swear by what you see,

[75:2] and what you do not see,

3) Surah Ma‘ārij

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِرَبِّ الْمَشَارِقِ وَالْمَغَارِبِ إِنَّا لَقَادِرُونَ – 70:40

[70:40] So I swear by the Lord of the Easts and the Wests that We are surely able

4) Surah Qiyāmah 

لَا أُقْسِمُ بِيَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ – 75:1

وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ – 75:2

[75:1] I swear by the Day of Resurrection,

[75:2] And I do swear by the self-reproaching soul!

5) Surah Takwīr

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالْخُنَّسِ – 81:15

الْجَوَارِ الْكُنَّسِ – 81:16

[81:15] So I swear by the retreating stars –

[81:16] that proceed, that withdraw from the scene,

6) Surah Inshiqāq

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالشَّفَقِ – 84:16

وَاللَّيْلِ وَمَا وَسَقَ – 84:17

[84:16] So, I swear by the twilight (after sunset),

[84:17] And by the night and whatever it envelops!

7) Surah Balad

لَآ أُقْسِمُ بِهَـٰذَا ٱلْبَلَدِ – 90:1

وَأَنتَ حِلٌّۢ بِهَـٰذَا ٱلْبَلَدِ – 90:2

[90:1] I swear by this city,

[90:2] and you [Prophet] are an inhabitant of this city––

Though every single verse with the aforementioned oath/swearing begins with negation by , and apparently should be understood as “I do not swear by…”, all Muslim exegetes have instead understood this phrase in the affirmative sense. In other words, they do not understand these verses to be saying “I do not swear by,” rather they consider it to be saying “I swear by…”. Exegetes have then gone on to offer various justifications for it:

1) The lā is rejecting a previous claim or remark made by the disbelievers, and the next verb is the beginning of a new sentence. In other words, the verse is saying: “No. I swear by…”

2) The lā is extraneous (zā’id) with no meaning and so has to be treated as non-existent.

3) The word is not  (لا), rather it is la (لَ) as it has been recited in the qirā’ah of Qunbul from Ibn Kathīr, Ḥasan Baṣrī, and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān A‘raj. This would mean that this is an affirmative swearing, but with an emphasis – la-uqsimu bi.

4) A few scholars stretched their grammatical justifications for an affirmative reading to such an extent that they said lā itself puts an emphasis on affirmative swearing.

5) Some have said  is an extraneous relative clause.

6) Some resorted to the science of rhetoric and said lā uqsimu is a justified figurative use where the negative can be used in the meaning of an affirmative.

7) Some translators of these verses rendered them as a rhetorical question, “Should I not swear by…?”

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The first and second interpretations are the most popular ones offered for this phrase. However, recent studies in historical semantics have offered us insight into the changes in meaning for the root word q-s-m. With these findings, it is possible to argue against the affirmative reading, rather it should be read in its apparent negative meaning of “I do not swear by…”.

Research on pre-Islamic Arabic and other Afroasiatic languages has shown that one of the meanings associated with q-s-m was “fortune-telling” and “soothsaying”.1 A close relationship between this meaning and the root word q-s-m can be seen in [5:3]  and [prohibited is] that you seek decision through divining arrows. That is grave disobedience (أَنْ تَسْتَقْسِمُوا بِالْأَزْلامِ ذلِكُمْ فِسْقٌ).

The root word q-s-m has been used in various meanings in Arabic, but “swearing” is only seen in its thulāthī-mazīd form. As the use of this word in the meaning of “swearing” became mainstream in the Arabic language, it lost any positive or negative connotation to it, which in fact leads to a barrier in understanding these verses of the Quran.

In Syriac, the word qesma meant luck and fortune, and its verbal form (qsm) meant to practice divination.2 Likewise, in Palmyrene Aramaic the noun meant to distribute and in its verbal form was used in the meaning of fortune-telling as well.3 In the Southern Arabian Peninsula and as well in Southern Africa within the Ge‘ez language or in inscriptions, we find references to the root word q-s-m which have once again been used in the meaning of divination or soothsaying.4

Despite different regions using the word in other meanings as well, such as to cut off, to separate, and to distribute, the meaning of divination and fortunetelling appears in all of these related languages. Therefore, three established meanings can be attributed to the word q-s-m in Semitic languages, i) to cut off or to separate something and distribute it, ii) soothsaying, iii) to swear/take an oath.

The first use of the word and notions of luck or soothsaying can be understood when we understand the religious worldviews of the people using the term. Many believed that favours, blessings, wishes – whether material or spiritual – are all under the command of god or multiple gods, who possess a treasure. These blessings and favours are “separated” or “cut out” from this treasure container and then distributed to people to the extent that they deserve. It seems the next stage of development in meaning for this word was when the word began being used in the meaning of soothsaying, since the job of soothsayers was to tell the future and inform people about their distributed favours and sustenance.

It is then only in parts of the Northern Arabian Peninsula and as well as in inscriptions found in Southern Arabia that we see the word being used in the meaning of swearing. The meaning of “swearing” for the verb q-s-m is developed through a figurative use, whose points of resemblance was in something being separated. The Quran never uses the word q-s-m in its thulāthī-mujarrad form to mean swearing, and its use of it in its mazīd form further indicates its later entrance into the Arabic language. Otherwise, in its mujarrad form, the word is used in the Quran in the same meaning as distribution.

Note that in pre-Islamic Arabic, the word had a negative connotation due to its original meaning of cutting something off, which also implied injury or a deficiency. It seems this negative connotation for the word carried over into the Arabic language, particularly when it was used in the meaning of swearing. The reason why swearing had a negative connotation in other Semitic languages is because swearing and taking oaths were closely tied to another verb which meant to invoke a curse or use foul language. In fact, in some of these languages, a similar word would be used for both meanings.

Perhaps the reason why foul language and swearing/oaths were closely linked with the idea of cutting off or separating, is due to the reputation of a person that is potentially diminished when foul language is used against them. In fact, in many religions, people would often swear on an object or entity that would be something very worthy or valuable, which would ensure the truth of the person taking an oath. Not abiding by their oaths would result in the devaluing of the object they had sworn by and diminish its reputation and significance.

A similar development occurred in the Arabic language as well. One development that took place in Arabic is that swearing – with a qasam – also implied a type of threat for the object that is being sworn by. After the rise of Islam, these matters and meanings became less obvious and many words lost their original meanings and connotations. In this context, when the Quran uses the words qasam and iqsam and their derivatives – which would have meant to break something – they are being used in reference to the kind of threats Arabs would utter before Islam. In other words, swearing by an object using the verb uqsim would have meant you intend for that object to be destroyed and ruined.

Let us look at a number of other verses where the root word q-s-m is used in its thulāthī-mazīd form:

فَتَرَى ٱلَّذِينَ فِى قُلُوبِهِم مَّرَضٌ يُسَـٰرِعُونَ فِيهِمْ يَقُولُونَ نَخْشَىٰٓ أَن تُصِيبَنَا دَآئِرَةٌ ۚ فَعَسَى ٱللَّهُ أَن يَأْتِىَ بِٱلْفَتْحِ أَوْ أَمْرٍ مِّنْ عِندِهِۦ فَيُصْبِحُوا۟ عَلَىٰ مَآ أَسَرُّوا۟ فِىٓ أَنفُسِهِمْ نَـٰدِمِينَ وَيَقُولُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓا۟ أَهَـٰٓؤُلَآءِ ٱلَّذِينَ أَقْسَمُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَـٰنِهِمْ ۙ إِنَّهُمْ لَمَعَكُمْ ۚ حَبِطَتْ أَعْمَـٰلُهُمْ فَأَصْبَحُوا۟ خَـٰسِرِينَ

[5:52-53] So you see those in whose hearts is disease [i.e., hypocrisy] hastening into [association with] them, saying, “We are afraid a misfortune may strike us.” But perhaps Allah will bring conquest or a decision from Him, and they will become, over what they have been concealing within themselves, regretful. And those who believe will say, “Are these the ones who swore by Allah their most solemn oaths that indeed they were with you?” Their deeds have become worthless, and they have become losers.

وَلَوْ شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ مَآ أَشْرَكُوا۟ ۗ وَمَا جَعَلْنَـٰكَ عَلَيْهِمْ حَفِيظًا ۖ وَمَآ أَنتَ عَلَيْهِم بِوَكِيلٍ وَلَا تَسُبُّوا۟ ٱلَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ ٱللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا۟ ٱللَّهَ عَدْوًۢا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِم مَّرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا۟ يَعْمَلُونَ وَأَقْسَمُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَـٰنِهِمْ لَئِن جَآءَتْهُمْ ءَايَةٌ لَّيُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهَا ۚ قُلْ إِنَّمَا ٱلْـَٔايَـٰتُ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ۖ وَمَا يُشْعِرُكُمْ أَنَّهَآ إِذَا جَآءَتْ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ

[6:107-109] And had Allah willed, they would not have associated (others with Him). And We did not make you as a constant preserver over them, and in no way are you a trustee over them. Yet do not insult those they call upon apart from Allah lest they insult Allah out of hostility, without knowledge. Thus We have adorned for every community their work, then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them of what they used to do. And swore by Allah their most solemn oaths that if a sign came to them, they would surely believe in it. Say, “The signs are only with [i.e., from] Allah.” And what will make you perceive that even if it [i.e., a sign] came, they would not believe.

وَلَقَدْ بَعَثْنَا فِى كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَّسُولًا أَنِ ٱعْبُدُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَٱجْتَنِبُوا۟ ٱلطَّـٰغُوتَ ۖ فَمِنْهُم مَّنْ هَدَى ٱللَّهُ وَمِنْهُم مَّنْ حَقَّتْ عَلَيْهِ ٱلضَّلَـٰلَةُ ۚ فَسِيرُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ فَٱنظُرُوا۟ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَـٰقِبَةُ ٱلْمُكَذِّبِينَ إِن تَحْرِصْ عَلَىٰ هُدَىٰهُمْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَهْدِى مَن يُضِلُّ ۖ وَمَا لَهُم مِّن نَّـٰصِرِينَ وَأَقْسَمُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَـٰنِهِمْ ۙ لَا يَبْعَثُ ٱللَّهُ مَن يَمُوتُ ۚ بَلَىٰ وَعْدًا عَلَيْهِ حَقًّا وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ ٱلنَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمُ ٱلَّذِى يَخْتَلِفُونَ فِيهِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوٓا۟ أَنَّهُمْ كَانُوا۟ كَـٰذِبِينَ

[16:36-39] We surely sent a messenger to every community, saying, “Worship Allah and shun false gods.” But some of them were guided by Allah, while others were destined to stray. So travel throughout the land and see the fate of the deniers! Even though you ˹O Prophet˺ are keen on their guidance, Allah certainly does not guide those He leaves to stray, and they will have no helpers. They swore by Allah their most solemn oaths that Allah will never raise the dead to life. Yes ˹He will˺! It is a true promise binding on Him, but most people do not know. ˹He will do that˺ to make clear to them what they disagreed on, and for the disbelievers to know that they were liars.

وَمَن يُطِعِ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥ وَيَخْشَ ٱللَّهَ وَيَتَّقْهِ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْفَآئِزُونَ ۞ وَأَقْسَمُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَـٰنِهِمْ لَئِنْ أَمَرْتَهُمْ لَيَخْرُجُنَّ ۖ قُل لَّا تُقْسِمُوا۟ ۖ طَاعَةٌ مَّعْرُوفَةٌ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌۢ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ

[24:52-53] For whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger, and fears Allah and is mindful of Him, then it is they who will ˹truly˺ triumph. And they swore by Allah their most solemn oaths that if you ordered them, they would go forth [in Allah’s cause]. Say, “Do not swear. [Such] obedience is known.1 Indeed, Allah is [fully] Aware of that which you do.”

وَأَقْسَمُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ جَهْدَ أَيْمَـٰنِهِمْ لَئِن جَآءَهُمْ نَذِيرٌ لَّيَكُونُنَّ أَهْدَىٰ مِنْ إِحْدَى ٱلْأُمَمِ ۖ فَلَمَّا جَآءَهُمْ نَذِيرٌ مَّا زَادَهُمْ إِلَّا نُفُورًا ٱسْتِكْبَارًا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ وَمَكْرَ ٱلسَّيِّئِ ۚ وَلَا يَحِيقُ ٱلْمَكْرُ ٱلسَّيِّئُ إِلَّا بِأَهْلِهِۦ ۚ فَهَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا سُنَّتَ ٱلْأَوَّلِينَ ۚ فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ ٱللَّهِ تَبْدِيلًا ۖ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ ٱللَّهِ تَحْوِيلًا

[35:42-43] They swore by Allah their most solemn oaths that if a warner were to come to them, they would certainly be better guided than any other community. Yet when a warner did come to them, it only drove them farther away— behaving arrogantly in the land and plotting evil. But evil plotting only backfires on those who plot. Are they awaiting anything but the fate of those ˹destroyed˺ before? You will find no change in the way of Allah, nor will you find it diverted ˹to someone else˺.

The above 5 sets of verses, the group of people swearing in the second, third and fifth set of verses are polytheists, while in the first and fourth set of verses the group of people swearing are the hypocrites. In all these verses, the group of polytheists or hypocrites are swearing by Allah, yet all of their oaths are considered invalid and useless. This is a very clear use of the aqsama in a negative connotation. In the next set of verses, we will highlight the use of the same verb but followed by a sentence:

 وَإِذَا صُرِفَتْ أَبْصَـٰرُهُمْ تِلْقَآءَ أَصْحَـٰبِ ٱلنَّارِ قَالُوا۟ رَبَّنَا لَا تَجْعَلْنَا مَعَ ٱلْقَوْمِ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ وَنَادَىٰٓ أَصْحَـٰبُ ٱلْأَعْرَافِ رِجَالًا يَعْرِفُونَهُم بِسِيمَىٰهُمْ قَالُوا۟ مَآ أَغْنَىٰ عَنكُمْ جَمْعُكُمْ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَسْتَكْبِرُونَ أَهَـٰٓؤُلَآءِ ٱلَّذِينَ أَقْسَمْتُمْ لَا يَنَالُهُمُ ٱللَّهُ بِرَحْمَةٍ ۚ ٱدْخُلُوا۟ ٱلْجَنَّةَ لَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْكُمْ وَلَآ أَنتُمْ تَحْزَنُونَ

[7:47-49] When their eyes will turn towards the residents of Hell, they will pray, “Our Lord! Do not join us with the wrongdoing people.” Those on the heights will call out to some ˹tyrants in the Fire˺, who they will recognize by their appearance, saying, “Your large numbers and arrogance are of no use ˹today˺! Are these ˹humble believers˺ the ones you swore would never be shown Allah’s mercy?” ˹Finally, those on the heights will be told:˺ “Enter Paradise! There will be no fear for you, nor will you grieve.”

وَأَنذِرِ ٱلنَّاسَ يَوْمَ يَأْتِيهِمُ ٱلْعَذَابُ فَيَقُولُ ٱلَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا۟ رَبَّنَآ أَخِّرْنَآ إِلَىٰٓ أَجَلٍ قَرِيبٍ نُّجِبْ دَعْوَتَكَ وَنَتَّبِعِ ٱلرُّسُلَ ۗ أَوَلَمْ تَكُونُوٓا۟ أَقْسَمْتُم مِّن قَبْلُ مَا لَكُم مِّن زَوَالٍ

[14:44] And warn the people of the Day when the punishment will overtake ˹the wicked among˺ them, and the wrongdoers will cry, “Our Lord! Delay us for a little while. We will respond to Your call and follow the messengers!” ˹It will be said,˺ “Did you not swear before that you would never be removed ˹to the next life˺?”

وَيَوْمَ تَقُومُ ٱلسَّاعَةُ يُقْسِمُ ٱلْمُجْرِمُونَ مَا لَبِثُوا۟ غَيْرَ سَاعَةٍ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ كَانُوا۟ يُؤْفَكُونَ

[30:55] And on the Day the Hour will arrive, the wicked will swear that they did not stay ˹in this world˺ more than an hour. In this way they were always deluded ˹in the world˺.

إِنَّا بَلَوْنَـٰهُمْ كَمَا بَلَوْنَآ أَصْحَـٰبَ ٱلْجَنَّةِ إِذْ أَقْسَمُوا۟ لَيَصْرِمُنَّهَا مُصْبِحِينَ

[68:17] Indeed, We have tested them as We tested the fellows of the garden, when they swore to harvest it in the morning

In the first three verses, the people swearing are all people of hell and in the last verse, the people swearing are those who were given a punishment in this world. Thus what connects all these verses together, and the people swearing in them, is that they all met a fate of destruction, whether in this world or in the hereafter. The sentence that follows the swearing refers to incidents that will either happen in the future or in the past.

Other than [30:55], the rest of the verses speak of incidents that the group of people were anticipating will happen in the future, and this is essentially a type of fortune-telling. All of their anticipations turned out to be false. In fact, it may even be appropriate to translate and understand these verses by rendering the verb as follows: “Did you not [wrongfully] predict the future that these humble believers will never be shown Allah’s mercy?” Even in [30:55] the same meaning can be understood by considering it as a figurative expression, where people of hellfire will recount their past thinking about how they were predicting to live a much longer life.

If we return back to the first seven sets of verses cited at the beginning of this post, we can now understand them in a slightly different light. In all of the verses, the active-participle for the verb uqsimu (I swear) is Allah, and the objects being sworn by are all dignified objects. In fact, in [70:40] Allah is swearing by Himself. All of these objects are of great worth and significance within the cosmos: setting places of the stars, your eyes, Day of Resurrection, the self-reproaching soul, the retreating stars, the twilight, night and whatever it envelops, or the city in which the Prophet (p) lives.

There is no reason for their sanctity and worth to be violated or threatened, as they are all creations of Allah (swt). What we find in all of these verses is the word lā which renders the translation of the verb to “I do not swear by…”. Consider another set of verses in which Allah (swt) also swears, but without the use of uqismu:

وَٱلْفَجْرِ وَلَيَالٍ عَشْرٍ وَٱلشَّفْعِ وَٱلْوَتْرِ وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا يَسْرِ هَلْ فِى ذَٰلِكَ قَسَمٌ لِّذِى حِجْرٍ

[89:1-5] By the dawn and by the Ten Nights, and by the even and the odd, and by the night when it moves away, is there in that a sworn oath for whoever has a mind?

Given the points we have raised in this article about the connotations of the word uqsimu and the changes in meaning it went through, it seems that these seven verses could very well indeed be translated as: “I do not swear by…”. In fact, in Surah Wāqi‘ah and Balad, there is even an indication as to why Allah (swt) does not do iqsam on these objects. Consider my re-translation of these verses:

[56:75-76] I do not swear by the setting places of the stars, and that would be a great oath, if only you were to know.

[90:1-2] I do not swear by this city, while you (Prophet) are an inhabitant of this city!

The rest of the verses could be understood in a similar light. Allah does not do the vain act of swearing on these objects, in a manner that was considered to have a negative connotation, associated with fortune-tellers and soothsayers, and who would often swear on various objects – including their own body parts – as a threat or with the intent of risking the reputation of these objects.

This article was originally published on Iqra Online, found here


Footnotes

  1. The majority of the points in this post are taken from Dr. Pakatchi’s paper on this specific word, titled Ma’na Shināsī Qasam dar Qurān Karīm: Ruyikardī Tārīkhī wa Farhangī.
  2. Dictionnaire Syriaque-Francais, Syriac-English, Siryānī-Arabī, by Louis Costaz, pg. 327.
  3. Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions by J. Hoftijzer. & K. Jongeling.
  4. Comparative dictionary of Ge‛ez (Classical Ethiopic): Gǝ‛ǝz-English/English-Gǝ‛ǝz with an index of the Semitic roots, by Wolf Leslau, pg. 446.

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