وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِأَمَانَاتِهِمْ وَعَهْدِهِمْ رَاعُونَ
And those who are keepers of their trusts and their covenant (23:8)
In Islamic ethics, this is the third most important quality after being truthful and trustworthy. It is extremely important for a Muslim to keep a promise they have made, and this is one of the signs of a believer, as can be seen in Suratil Mu’minun quoted above. The Imams (as) would say that their promise was a debt they owed, and they would not rest until they had repaid that debt.
Unfortunately, breaking promises is a problem that is common amongst Muslims. We easily break promises we have made to other people, especially when it comes to turning up on time when we have promised to do so. Our gatherings always begin late and finish late, and we have become very used to this. We also often make promises we know we cannot keep. We promise our children an expensive gift, or promise a person we will help them with a problem, but later realise this promise is too difficult to keep and so we back out. These acts are not liked by Allah (swt), who says in Surah al Saff:
“O you who believe, why do you say that which you do not do? It is most hateful to Allah that you should say that which you do not do.” (al-Saff, 61:2-3)
Therefore, we speak and make a promise, we need to think first and assess whether we can keep this promise or not. If we cannot, it is far better to not make the promise in the first place.
In fact, breaking promises is one of the signs of a hypocrite. The Prophet (pbuh) says:
“the signs of a hypocrite are three: when he speaks, he lies, when he makes a promise, he breaks it, and when is entrusted, he betrays”
[al-Faqih vol.4 p.361]
The Importance of Keeping Promises
As with fulfilling trusts, keeping promises is an obligation without exceptions, as we have already seen from this narration:
Imam Baqir (a.s) said:
ثلاث لم یجعل الله عز وجل فیهنّ رخصة: أداء الأمانة الی البرّ و الفاجر، و الوفاء بالعهد للبر و الفاجر، و بر الوالدین برّین کانا أو فاجرین. (الکافی 2:162)
“there are three situations where Allah (swt) did not make any exceptions: respect to parents, keeping promises and fulfilling trusts”.
[al-Kaafi vol.2 p. 162]
Even the people of the Age of Ignorance saw breaking promises as a bad and evil thing. Therefore, as Muslims, we must be extra careful to not do something that even the people of the Age of Ignorance knew was wrong.
The following ayah also shows the importance of keeping promise. When Allah (swt) praises Prophet Ismail, he mentions the fact that he was true to his promises even before he mentions his status of being a prophet:
“And mention Ismail in the Book; surely he was truthful in (his) promise, and he was a messenger, a prophet.” (19:54)
The following jurisprudential ruling also shows the importance of a promise. In Islam, we have three types of specific promises that have special jurisprudential rulings.
Nadhr (vow): when one uses a verbal expression to promise using the name of Allah (SWT) to make something obligatory on themselves if a certain thing happens
Qasam (oath): when one uses a verbal expression using the name of God to promise to do a certain act
‘Ahd (covenant): this is when a person makes a vow with Allah (SWT) to do something. It is very similar to a Qasam, and differs mainly in the verbal expression used
If one makes any of the above promises with their required conditions, and then breaks them, a kaffarah (expiation) is obligatory. This expiation is different according to the type of promise.
|Kaffarah||Feed 10 poor, clothe 10 poor
Fast for 3 consecutive days.
|Feed 60 poor, fast consecutively for 2 months||Feed 10 poor, clothe 10 poor
Fast for 3 consecutive days.
The Prophet Kept His Promises
The Prophet (pbuh) was careful to always keep his promises. Even when he made treaties with the polytheists who were the enemies of Islam, he made sure the treaties were not violated by him or by the Muslims.
Allah the Almighty states:
الا الذین عاهدتم من المشرکین ثم لم ینقضوکم شیئا و لم یظاهروا علیم فاتموا الیهم عهدهم الی مدّتهم. (التوبة 4)
“Except those of the Mushrikûn with whom you have a treaty, and who have not subsequently failed you in aught, nor have supported anyone against you. So fulfill their treaty to them to the end of their term. Surely Allâh loves Al- Mattaqûn” (Tawba: 4)
The above Ayah was revealed after Mecca was conquered by Muslims whence Muslims enjoyed the pick of their triumphs whilst the idolaters were humiliated. Yet, Muslims were bound to respect any signed covenant with idolaters.
In fact, even before Islam, the Prophet (pbuh) was extremely careful about this duty. While he was a young shepherd, he would go with a friend of his to mind the sheep. One day he and his friend found a new pasture with fresh grass and decided to bring their sheep there the next day. The next day came and the Prophet’s friend came to the pasture and saw the Prophet (pbuh) was already there. However, the Prophet was not letting his sheep graze there. When the friend asked him why, the Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘we made a promise to graze our sheep together so I did not want to begin before you, so that our sheep can have an even share of the grass”. [Beharul-Anwaar vol.16 p.224]
As we said, punctuality is one of the examples of keeping our promises. This is another trait very much emphasised in Islam. In fact, the daily prayers are meant to train us to be punctual people who perform their duties on time. We should endeavour to be punctual and to not get into the habit of being late.
One of the best chapters for this topic is in the book ‘Greater Sins’ as Authored by Ayatollah Dastaghaib Shirazi. Its available online here.