Anti-swearing law

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Thu Feb 24 00:09:46 UTC 2000

A. Maberry wrote:
> On Wed, 23 Feb 2000, James Smith wrote:
[> > But isn't that a basic issue for at least some of
> > those who want them posted: how can we divorce
> > ourselves from the past?  How can we ignore the roots,]
> > good or bad, from which our culture has grown?  Even
> > for one who doesn't follow a judaeo-christian-islamic
>                                                 ^^^^^^^
> > path, the Ten C's are a fundamental reality that has
> > helped shape our society, and to be ignorant of them
> > can hardly be considered enlightened.
> I'm unaware of any Islamic source that mentions the Ten Commandments
> much less enumerates them. If there is an Islamic ref. to them please
> let me know where I can find it.
> Thanks.
> Allen
> maberry at

I have some comments in response to both of the above-quoted
correspondents.  For those who justifiably wonder what any of this is
doing on this list, the second set of comments has a more linguistic
content--though nothing directly about American dialects.

For Allen Maberry:

I'm no student of comparative religion (or any other religion), but my
sense is that Islam regards itself as the successor to, and thus
incorporating many of the ideas of, Judaism and Christianity.  So at
least one Web site, in an apparent effort to convince Judeo-Christian
types that they should feel comfortable with Islam, has a chart showing
what it regards as counterparts of each of the Ten Commandments in
scattered chapters of the Koran.  For example, for "Thou shalt not
steal" it gives:

       As for the thief, male or female, cut off
       his or her hands, but those who repent
       After a crime and reform shall be
       forgiven by God for God is forgiving
       and kind.

I'm not sure how reassuring that is, but at least it's gender-neutral,
which is more than you can say for the Ten Commandments.  Anyway, the
chart is at

Another Web site--perhaps unique for its "Fatwa Databank" and "Fatwa
Chat" room, but unfortunately so slow as to be completely unusable for
me--has an impenetrably dense (I'm talking both intellectual content and
typography) article called "Medieval Philosophical Discourse and
Muslim-Christian Dialogue" containing the following sentence.  Make of
it what you will.

"I argue that the necessary condition for a meaningful dialogue between
traditional Islam and the secular West does not exist and, therefore,
that any attempt to do so at this time either will not succeed or will
become a superficial survey of what we have in common, such as the Ten

This is by Mehdi Aminrazavai, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and
Religion in the Department of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion at Mary
Washington College, Fredricksburg, Virginia, in case you want to follow
up with him.  The Web address for the article is

For James Smith:

As to the comment that we should know our culture's "roots, good or
bad":  Amen to that, brother.  But I think it is a bit generous to
attribute such objectivity to those who want the Ten Commandments posted
in schools.  The thesis, if there was one, of my previous posting is
that the simplistic language of the Ten Commandments as one often sees
them is actually an impediment to objective analysis and real

I was going to say "the necessarily simplistic language," but to a
considerable extent it is actually *unnecessarily* simplistic.  For
example, most of the stipped-down versions I see say something like
"Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy."  It would be more honest to
quote more fully:  No work on the Sabbath.  That means no flipping
burgers at McDonald's.  That means no homework, even if you have a test
on Monday.  That means no shopping.

For another example:  Instead of some pithy but opaque warning against
worshipping graven images, let's be more complete:  No making of any
likeness of anything on the land, in the air, or in the water.  That
means no pinups of Leonardo DiCaprio.  No save-the-whales posters.  No
statues of the Madonna.  (Motherwell, Kline, and Rothko posters are
okay; Picasso is a very tough call.)  And while we're at it, let's not
leave out the part about how if your father, through no fault of your
own, worships such images, God will visit iniquity upon you and your
children and your grandchildren.

And as to the "good or bad" part, it is hard to see the language usually
chosen for these things today as anything other than a deliberate
coverup of the Ten Commandments' overt acceptance of slavery.  (Though,
in fairness, I should mention that the commandment about the Sabbath
says that we mustn't make our slaves work on that day either.  The
chamber pots will just have to wait a day to be emptied.)  If any of
those endorsing the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and other
public buildings are actually proposing to use translations that make it
clear the underlying assumption is that of course we all keep slaves--or
at least those of us rich enough--then my hat is off to them. Of course,
some people would still have a problem with the use of public property,
and especially the schools, to put up a religious tract endorsing
slavery.  But at least there would be a degree of linguistic and
historical honesty in this.

[Anyone interested in the slavery issue will want to check out  As with all other Web sites
I have stumbled upon in this gambol through the Web, I express no
opinion as to its accuracy or fairness, though this one, as explained in
considerable detail on its home page (
purports to be the fairest of the fair.]

As to the need to know the Ten Commandments to be an enlightened person
in our culture... well, the more we know, the more enlightened we are, I
guess, though I'm not sure what proportion of historians, philosophers,
or more-or-less-enlightened Americans generally could actually name all
ten commandments--whether the Protestant Ten or the Catholic Ten--let
alone describe them in any detail. (Quick: Is it okay for your cattle to
work on the Sabbath or not?  You're allowed a help line, but only if God
is on the other end.  If you get that question, you can go on to the
next:  In the first or second commandment--pick the enumeration system
of your choice--does God describe himself as a "jealous" God or a
"zealous" God?  Well, that one's a trick question; the answer is: It
depends on the translation.  Or you could answer "none of the above,"
since there are other translations as well, including "a God who will
not give his honour to another."  That may be an accurate translation,
for all I know, but I have no idea what it means.)

(And by the way, the anti-swearing commandment has a bunch of different
translations too, making it hard to know exactly when you are violating
it.  Though it is clear that for most of us, it's most of the time.)

In any event, I really question whether posting a simplistic and
bowdlerized translation of these commandments in schools and city halls
would be enlightening.  I am much more inclined to think that it would
just be misleading--essentially a way of promoting certain modern-day
religious views while covering up the historical meaning and context.  A
full and frank translation would be vastly preferable to what one
normally sees and hears, but I have seen enough translations now to
suspect that it would be very hard to find one that a substantial
majority of interested people could agree was full, frank, fair, and
comprehensible.  Honestly, even after reading several translations, I
still don't quite understand the Ten Commandments myself.

James E. Clapp

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