Breaching Our Oaths

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It may happen that we swear to something and then discover that we were hasty, and that we should not have constricted ourselves by an oath. Or it may be that we find that breaching our oath is the better option. What is to be done in such a situation? The Prophet (Pbuh) gives us a clear answer.

Islamic teachings require that a Muslim should always tell the truth, in all situations. Telling a lie is permissible only in very limited and strict situations. Otherwise, a Muslim must always tell the truth, even though he might fear that it would land him in trouble with his superiors or with the authorities. God says in the Qur’an: “Believers! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kin.” (4: 135)
When we are known to always tell the truth, people will accept our statements without need to asserting them through an oath. Every one of us knows people who set themselves proper moral standards, and we know that we can trust whatever they say. If they promise, we are sure that they will honour their promises. If they decline something, we know there is no way to get them to accept it.

What We are Committing Ourselves To
However, sometimes, supporting a statement with an oath is felt to be better, and we do it to make things perfectly clear to whomever we are addressing. This is acceptable, but we must always make sure that we do not swear to something unless we are certain that it is true. Sometimes we feel we need to swear that we will do, or will not do something in particular. Again this is acceptable as long as we know what we are committing ourselves to.
Nevertheless, it may happen that we swear to something and then discover that we were hasty, and that we should not have constricted ourselves by an oath. Or it may be that we find that breaching our oath is the better option. What is to be done in such a situation? The Prophet (Pbuh) gives us a clear answer. A long Hadith related by Muslim in his authentic collection gives us a perfect example. The Hadith is reported by Abdullah ibn Qays, a learned companion of the Prophet (Pbuh) who is better known as Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari. He had come to Madinah from Yemen with a large group of his community to join the Prophet. The report is about an incident that took place as the Muslim community was preparing for the Tabuk Expedition, which they undertook in the summer months, travelling a distance of more than 700 kms each way in the desert. It was practically impossible for anyone to join that army unless he had a mount, or shared one. The army that was raised for it is known in Islamic history as the Army of the Hardship, and the occasion is described in the Qur’an as “the hour of hardship.” Abu Musa reports:  My tribesmen sent me to request God’s Messenger for mounts to use as they wanted to join the Army of the Hardship, which was to go on the Tabuk Expedition. I said to him: “Prophet, my friends have sent me to you requesting some mounts.” He said: “By God, I will not give you any mounts.” I had apparently come when he was angry, but I did not realize that. I went back, feeling very sad at the Prophet’s rejection and fearing that he might have been displeased with me on some account. When I reached my friends’ place I told them what the Prophet had said to me.
It was only a short while later when I heard Bilal calling me by my name, Abdullah ibn Qays. When I answered him, he said: “God’s Messenger is calling you, so go to him.” When I reached the Prophet’s (Pbuh) place, he pointed to six camels he had bought at the time from Saad, and said to me: “Take these two tied together, and these two, and these two, to your friends and tell them that God (or he might have said “God’s Messenger”) has given you these mounts to ride.’
I went to my friends and told them that God’s Messenger has given them those mounts, and I added: “But I will not leave you until some of you will come with me to meet some of the people who had heard the Prophet as he denied me any mounts in the first instance and then gave me the mounts, so that you would not entertain any thought that I might have told you something he did not say.”
When Opposite Option is Better
They said: “You have our full trust, but we will still do what you wish.” Some of them went with me and met some people who had heard the Prophet first denying them any mounts then giving them, and they confirmed what Abu Musa had said.
This is the longest of several versions related by Muslim of this Hadith, some of which are also related by Al-Bukhari, Ahmad, Al-Nassaie and Ibn Majah. Another version mentions that when Abu Musa’s people received the camels, some of them said: “God will not bless our efforts, because when we first requested mounts from the Prophet he swore that he would not be giving us any, but he later gave us mounts.” Therefore, they went to the Prophet and told him what they feared. He said to them: “It was not I that provided the mounts for you; it was God. As for me, should I swear to something, and then realize that the opposite option is better, I will certainly do the better choice and atone for my oath.” (Related by Muslim).

Spur of the Moment
This second version explains why the Prophet (Pbuh) changed his mind after only a short while of swearing that he would not be giving those people any mounts to ride as they were keen to join him on a hard expedition. He recognized that they were good Muslims eager to do their duty. His original oath was made on the spur of the moment, as Abu Musa made his request, not realizing that the Prophet was upset about something. But when the Prophet’s anger subsided and he was able to buy some camels, he immediately sent for Abu Musa to take them. This he did despite his oath that was still fresh in his mind. Many of us would not budge from an oath we make, thinking that the oath has absolute sanctity. But the Prophet teaches us in a practical way that it is not. When the opposite is better, then the opposite of the oath should be done. In this case, it was better for the people concerned and the Muslim community in general that they should join the expedition. Hence the Prophet bought the camels and gave them to those people to ride. He explained that he did this because it was the better choice. He would atone for his oath.
Atonement for an oath is easy. It is explained in the Qur’an: “The breaking of an oath must be atoned for by the feeding of ten needy persons with more or less the same food as you normally give to your own families, or by clothing them. He who cannot afford any of these shall fast three days instead. This shall be the atonement for your oaths when you have sworn (and broken them). But be mindful of your oaths. Thus God makes clear to you His revelations, so that you may give thanks.” (5: 89).