Reflection No. 1:07 on Q 16:92 – The Importance of Promises

Do not be like the one who unravels her yarn, disintegrating it into pieces after she has spun it strongly. You make your oaths to be means of deceit between yourselves, because one nation is more numerous than another nation; Allah only tests you thereby, He will surely make clear for you on the Day of Resurrection that about which you differed.
– (Surah-an-Nahl 16:92) 

Commentary
When Bibi Zaynab (a) was taken prisoner, along with Imam al-Sajjad (a) and the womenfolk and children, to Kufa, she addressed the people there and said: O people of Kufa, O people who deceive, forsake and contrive, do you weep? May Allah not stop your tears and may your chests burn incessantly with the fire of grief and sorrow. Your example is that of a woman who unravels her yarn, disintegrating it into pieces after she spun it strongly. You make your oaths to be means of deceit between yourselves.  (The Story of Karbala, Ali Nazari Munfarid)

Bib Zaynab (a) in this Khutba shows her contempt for a people who broke their promises to her brother, and eventually their covenant to Allah. She uses the above verse which refers to a woman in the era of Jahiliyya who sat in the mornings till noon with her slaves to spin thread. Then in the afternoons she would order her slaves to unravel the thread. She became known as ‘the foolish one’. The reproach in the verse is to people who make firm promises, strengthening their stance and position in society. Then they undo their efforts by breaking their promises and taking them lightly. Continued behaviour of this sort erodes the very fabric of society. The people of Kufa had promised Imam Husayn (a) assistance, but betrayed him when he sent his messenger to them and when he himself came to Iraq.

The making of promises and maintaining them creates roots on which the foundation of a society rests. For society to prosper, the members of the society have to be bound together with ties of trust and mutual reliance. They have to have confidence in the words of each other. When these promises are broken or are taken lightly, society becomes scattered and separate. The members become like the beads of a broken necklace with nothing to bind them together. That is why Islam emphasizes the keeping of promises, a factor which attracted many of the early Muslims to Islam. It showed the integrity of Islam. Imam Ali (a) says in his letter to Malik al-Ashtar says:
Never break your promise with your enemy, never forsake the protection or support that you have offered to him, never go back upon your words, and never violate the terms of the treaty. You must even risk your life

to fulfill the promises given and the terms settled because of all the obligations laid by Almighty Allah upon man (in respect to other men) there is none so important as to keep one’s promises when made. Though people may differ in their religions and ideologies and may have divergent views upon various problems of State, yet they all agree that promises when made must be fulfilled. Even the heathens take care to keep the promises made among themselves because they have seen and realized the evil effects of breaking promises. (Nahjul Balagha, Section II, letter no.53)

Points to Ponder
1) Promises and covenants made in the name of God cannot be taken lightly. When a promise is made to Allah, or one of His chosen ones, it is a binding promise and should be reliable. To betray it shows heedlessness and a complete lack of Taqwa. The verse before the above mentioned verse makes a stern admonishment: 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. Indeed Allah knows what you do (16:91)

2) Breaking of promises is so evidently evil that even those who do it try to justify their actions. In this verse the excuse is that the other party is stronger than we are, and thus it was not possible to keep the promise. This argument rests on a feeble premise as history has shown many instances of weaker groups overcoming seemingly stronger groups. A promise is to be kept, regardless of the forces that seem to threaten it.

3) The negative consequences of breaking promises not only weakens the faith and trust of people in society, it also deters others from entering the fold of Islam. The mistrust it creates acts as a repellant to others, and gives Islam and Muslims a bad name. That is why verse 94 of the above surah says: Do not make your oaths a means of deceit among yourselves, lest feet should stumble after being steady and [lest] you suffer evil for barring others from the way of Allah and there be a great punishment for you.

Sources
Ayatullah Nasir Makarim Shirazi (ed.), Tafsire Namune
Agha Muhsin Qara’ati Kashani, Tafsire Noor

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