MARGINALIA: Swearing by the Qur’an

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews /01 April) – “Matalik den i pawakan a malini lemambuyug” Bapa Gharib, the ever-smiling sage of Tangguapo, texted me as I was sipping my favorite Myanmar teamix this morning. Literally, it roughly means “Any Asil (a fighting cock locally called ‘pawakan’) that habitually runs while fighting shall be caged [now].”

Bapa Gharib made this comment in relation to last Friday’s inaugural session of the newly instituted Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) whose distinctive hallmark, at least for him, was the swearing by the Qur’an of Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) members led by the Interim Chief Minister (ICM) Ahod B. Ebrahim (better known by his nom de guerre Al Haj Murad Ebrahim as Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)).

As Bapa Gharib read, “I shall protect the legitimate rights and interests of all people in the area, strongly fight the proliferation and use of illegal drugs and other evils of society and endeavor to promote and sustain peace and security at all times in the BARMM territory and in the entire country, so help me Allah,” the Interim Chief Minister reportedly said.

What is the root or basis of this practice of swearing by the Qur’an? What will be its consequences? What are the implications of this act to the interim autonomous government?

The concept of covenant

In religious parlance, covenant is a sort of formal agreement between God Almighty and a particular individual, religious community or mankind as a whole. It is a contractual condition where the covenantor makes a promise to a covenantee to do (affirmation) or not to do (negation) some action or actions. As such, it can also be viewed as a solemn promise to engage in or refrain from a particular action or actions.

In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in which covenant is a central theme, the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12-17; Qur’an 2:124) is the most widely known. It stipulates God’s promise to make Abraham and his pious descendants a great nation and the leaders of mankind, and for them, in return, to worship Him and Him alone.

We read in Genesis 12:1-3, thus:

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.’” (King James Version)

Similarly, chapter (surah) 2, verse (ayah) 124 of the Qur’an states:

“And when his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, ‘I am making you the Imām of mankind. Said he, ‘And from among my descendants?’ He said, ‘My pledge does not extent to the unjust.’” (Qara’i, The Qur’an with a Phrase-by-Phrase English Translation)

Covenant in the Qur’an

Having an implicit assumption that there is a mutual understanding between God and His creation (man) in which the former proposes a set of instructions for the guidance of the latter in leading his life and coupled with certain promises of favors for obeying it, the Covenant in the Qur’an symbolizes this relationship in which man is God’s vicegerent on earth through surrender and compliance to His will as expressed in His instructions, and is capable of benefiting from His promises and favors.

As a key theme, the concept of Covenant is expressed in different terms in the Qur’an, viz. ahd, mīthāq, and isr. Carrying the meaning of ‘commitment,’ ‘obligation,’ and ‘pledge,’ among others, ahd occurs 46 times. Used 26 times, mīthāq means a tie of relationship between two contracting parties, to make them certain about their respective promises. Used only twice, isr signifies a weighty covenant the fulfillment of which invites punishment. (Biazar, The Covenant in the Qur’an, p. 10)

Accordingly, the Covenant as cited in the Qur’an usually contains several elements: (1) the party of the first part to the Covenant, (2) the party of the second part to the Covenant, (3) remembrance of God’s favors, (4) list of commandments or conditions of the Covenant (5) promises, (6) warning, (7) affirmation and witness, (8) oaths by God’s signs and favors, (9) signs of the Covenant, and (10) lessons from the past. (Ibid., p. 17)

While God is obviously the first party to the Covenant, the second party to it, on different levels, are (1) Adam, (2) the Children of Adam, (3) the Prophets, (4) the nations, (5) the Children of Israel, (6) Christians, (7) Learned people (‘ulamā’), (8) the faithful men, (9) the faithful women, and (10) the family. (Ibid., pp. 25-67)

Probably the single most important passage for understanding the significance of the concept of the Covenant, verses 172-173 of chapter 7 have the following words regarding God’s Covenant with the Children of Adam:

When your Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants and made them bear witness over themselves, [He said to them,] ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yes indeed! We bear witness.’ [This,] lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘Indeed we were unaware of this,’ or lest you should say, ‘Our fathers ascribed partners [to Allah] before [us] and we were descendants after them. Will You then destroy us because of what the falsifiers have done?’”

Swearing in Islamic jurisprudence

In Arabic lexicon, the words halaf, īlā’, qasam, and yamīn connote the meaning of swearing or taking an oath. (Yamīn literally means ‘right hand’ and it technically conveys the meaning of ‘swear’ or ‘oath’ as one raises or puts his right hand over a copy of the Qur’an when swearing or taking an oath.) Technically, swearing or oath is a solemn pronouncement of affirmation of the truthfulness of one’s statement under the name of God or His Attributes.

Swearing is done by raising one’s right hand and saying Wallāh or Billāh (I swear by Allah…) or putting one’s hand over the copy of the Qur’an which is God’s Word (Kalām Allāh), which is one of His Attributes. In the second way, one does not swear by the parchments of paper or book but by what it contains which is God’s Attribute.

Regarding swearing or taking an oath, the Qur’an thus states:

“Allah shall not take you to task for what is frivolous in your oath; but He shall take you to task for what you pledge in earnest.” (Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:89)

“Fulfill Allah’s covenant when you pledge, and do not break [your] oaths after pledging them solemnly and having made Allah a witness over yourselves.” (Sūrat al-Nahl 16:91)

In Islamic jurisprudence, swearing is generally categorized as (1) legal swearing and (2) covenant oath (yamīn al-‘aqd).

Speaking of the legal swearing, the legal maxim below is known to any Shari‘ah councellor worth his salt:

Al-bayyinatu ‘ala’l-mudda‘ī wa’l-yamīnu ‘ala’l-mudda‘ā ‘alayh.

“Evidence is upon the claimant (plaintiff) while the oath is upon the denier of the claim (accused).”

Under this legal maxim, the plaintiff is supposed to present evidence and witness to prove his claim in the court and in the absence of which, swearing or oath is a legal mechanism through which the defendant can prove his innocence. (For further exploration of the basis and references of oath, one may refer, for instance, to Articles 1727-47 of Majallat al-Ahkam al-‘Adliyyah, which is a civil code based on Hanafi school of jurisprudence.)

Covenant oath

The other type of swearing in Islamic jurisprudence is the oath swearing (yamīn al-‘aqd) by which a person pledges and agrees to do or not to do a certain act or acts in the future. Without any direct relation to the reasons for proving any claim in court, this is the oath administered by a president, lawyer, or judge before beginning their respective duties.

Obviously, this is the type of swearing done by the BTA members. Here, “taking oath to the Qur’an” (bay‘at al-Qur’ān) means swearing by the Word of God (Kalām Allāh) which is one of the Divine Attributes. It was a gesture of letting the Kalām Allāh bear witness to one’s affirmation – nay, reaffirmation – of an earlier covenant or covenants (covenants with the Children of Adam and the faithful stated earlier).

As such, swearing is also connected to the concept of bearing witness or testimony (shahādah). One is a Muslim when he bears witness to Allah as the Only One worthy of worship and Muhammad as Allah’s Last and Final Messenger. Anyone who struggles in the way of God and dies in the process is a martyr. In Arabic ‘martyr’ is called ‘shahīd’ (plural: shuhadāh) which literally means ‘witness’.

Interestingly enough, Chief Minister Murad is reported to have said before taking the oath of moral governance before the Qur’an, “We started the jihad with an oath before the Qur’an. Today as we start our governance, we will also do the same.”

Significance in BARMM

No doubt, the unprecedented swearing by the Qur’an of BTA members during the inauguration ceremony of the newly set-up BARMM has set a high moral standard which the interim appointed officials are expected to follow, with the hope that such practice of upholding a high moral standard will trickle down the grassroots and the constituents will elect their officials on the basis of abidance with such moral standard.

Of course, the 35 non-MILF recommended BTA members for whom swearing by the Qur’an is said to be optional, could have clarified from the Chief Minister the scope and parameters of what they would swear by the Qur’an. In general, operating under the liberal democracy of the Philippines in which what is ‘legal’ is not necessarily what is ‘moral’ (in contrast to the Islamic system wherein there is no distinction or a very thin distinction between the ‘legal’ and the ‘moral’), and in particular, in a legal setup where the Bangsamoro has no distinct police force of its own which may be very crucial for a meaningful implementation of a ‘moral governance,’ it definitely behooves any cogent observer to ask for such parameters, which Bapa Gharib calls ‘talik’ (cage) in Maguindanaon vernacular.

On flip side, this inaugural taking oath by the Qur’an to lead a ‘moral governance’ also signals a very high expectation to the new political entity’s constituents, especially the still-displaced residents of Marawi after almost two years of their displacement and the destruction of their home city.

It is indeed an expectation that could usher in the breaking of a new dawn, but would have an irreversible consequence – if not fulfilled.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mansoor L. Limba, PhD in International Relations, is a writer, educator, blogger, chess trainer, and translator (from Persian into English and Filipino) with tens of written and translation works to his credit on such subjects as international politics, history, political philosophy, intra-faith and interfaith relations, cultural heritage, Islamic finance, jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (‘ilm al-kalam), Qur’anic sciences and exegesis (tafsir), hadith, ethics, and mysticism. He can be reached at, or and]