Pledging oaths carries a great significance in Islam. Keeping one’s word is a fundamental part of Islamic ethics. Oaths emphasize an assertion to the ultimate extent. When a person swears by the Almighty on an intention or a plan that he wishes to carry out, it is as if he has called the Creator of the heavens and the earth to be a witness over his word. In a society, oaths have always remained the real means of stability regarding various contracts as well as various social, political, and cultural affairs. Owing to this very reason, the Israelites were reminded by the Almighty in the Qur’an of the covenant they had made with Him through an oath they had pledged. They were warned that they must not break this oath — something over which they have made the Almighty as witness:

Fulfill the covenant of Allah when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them: indeed you have made Allah your witness over yourselves; for Allah knows all that you do. (16:91)

In spite of this importance that oaths and covenants occupy, many a time it becomes impossible for a person to honor his word or may feel that fulfilling a certain oath might be instrumental in infringing the rights of the Almighty or of his own self or even of others. In such cases, one can break one’s oath. In fact, in some cases, breaking an oath becomes a moral necessity. In the Islamic Shari’ah, an atonement (Kaffarah) has been fixed for a broken oath. In the following paragraphs, this writer will attempt to explain the Qur’anic law regarding oaths and their atonement.

Allah will not hold you accountable for your inadvertent oaths, but He will definitely hold you accountable for oaths you swear with solemn intention. If such an oath is broken, its atonement is the feeding of ten needy persons, of a standard with which you normally feed your own families or the clothing of ten needy people, or the freeing of one slave. But whosoever cannot afford these should fast for three days. That is the atonement for the oaths when you have sworn. And be true to that which you have sworn. Thus Allah explains to you His verses that you may be grateful. (5:89)

Following is a summary of the directives upon which this verse sheds light:

1. At times, an oath is totally absurd, nonsensical, and meaningless. No doubt, a believer should refrain from pledging such oaths; however, it is a great favor and blessing of the Almighty that He will not hold people accountable for the fulfillment of such oaths, neither in this world nor in the Hereafter.

2. On the other hand, if an oath is pledged with a solemn will and intention or if some contract has been made on its basis or it has an effect on the rights and obligations of the parties involved or infringes upon the injunctions of the Shari’ah, the Almighty would definitely hold a person responsible for it. So a person must not be careless and indiscreet in this matter. On the contrary, he should act in a very responsible manner in this regard.

3. If owing to some reason, a person is forced to break such an oath, then he must atone for it. For this, he is required to feed ten poor people with the standard of food he normally feeds his own family or to give them clothes to wear or to liberate a slave. If he is unable to do either of these, he must fast for three days.