Allah commands you to render trusts to their owners’ —Its relevance to Plagiarism

By Sheikh Khâlid b. Sa`ûd al-Rashûdpresiding judge at the Saudi Grievance Board

Allah says: “Allah commands you to render trusts to their owners, and when you judge between people, that you do so with justice. Excellent indeed is the admonition He gives you, for Allah hears and sees all things.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 58]

Many Muslims today, especially on the Internet, have become way too and careless in taking the words of others and passing them off as their own. They often do not realize the serious implications of what they are doing. They do not see the act of bad faith – the serious breach of trust – that their behavior entails.In many Islamic forums on the Internet and even established Islamic websites, we sometimes find entire articles copied verbatim from other sources without any link or reference being made to the site where it is originally published. Indeed, in all too many cases, even the article’s original author is not mentioned. The worst cases of all are where the person reproducing the article tries to pass it off as his or her own.

This misattribution to oneself of the writings of others is known today as plagiarism. It is regarded as a crime.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1987) defines plagiarism as meaning: “to take and use as one’s own the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another.”

Plagiarism is defined in the Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary (1995) as the: “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”

What does Islam say about plagiarism? When we look into this matter, we find that such behavior is un-Islamic. Indeed, there are very good reasons why it is our Islamic duty to attribute the statements and writings of others to those who originally made those statements and composed those writings.

Firstly, it frees the person quoting the text from being personally held to all of its consequences and implications. If the statement is true, it keeps the person from receiving undue credit for someone else’s success. If the statement is false, it prevents the person quoting it from being liable for the error.

This is one of this is one of the reasons why the Islamic science of hadîth narration – isnâd (attribution) – was developed. Indeed, Islamic civilization was the very first in the world to develop and codify and rigorous science for citing one’s sources. In the classical discourse of this science what is now called plagiarism was known as tadlîs (deceptive attribution).

It is within the context of the veritable science of hadîth narration that it is said: “Whoever quotes you as his source has carried out his duty.” This is the duty of providing the line of transmission so that the statement can be authenticated and duly attributed to its source.

Al-Ghazalî relates to us that Ahmad b. Hanbal was once asked about a case where a person finds a manuscript containing hadîth narrations. The question was whether it was alright to copy hadîth from the manuscript before returning it to its owner. Ahmad answered the question saying: “No. He must first get permission. The he can write.”

Indeed, quoting one’s sources is rendering a trust. This is a religious duty commanded by Allah in the Qur’ân: “Allah commands you to render trusts to their owners.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 58]

Taking credit for someone else’s idea is most certainly a breach of trust. It is an act of bad faith to the person whose idea or work it really is.

Allah says: “O you who believe! Do not betray the trust of Allah and the Messenger, nor misappropriate knowingly what you have been entrusted with.” [Sûrah al-Anfâl: 27]

Taking credit for someone else’s words or ideas is both an act of fraud and a deliberate lie.

This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “He who credits himself with what was not given to him is like one who wears a double cloak of deception.” [Ibn `Abd al-Barr, Jâmi` al-Tahsîl(1/98)]

Ibn al-Manzûr commented on this hadîth saying:

The one who credits himself with what was not given to him is one who says he was given something which was never really his or who attributes to himself talents that he really does not possess, implying that Allah had bestowed him with these things or that people accredited him with what was never specifically his.

In this way, he has perpetrated a double lie: Firstly, he attributes to himself what does not truly apply to him or makes claims to possess what he really does not possess. Secondly, he lies regarding the giver – either Allah or other people. [Lisân al-`Arab (1/247)]

A person who takes credit for other people’s writings and good ideas is crediting himself with what was not given to him.

This is how numerous scholars of hadîth understood this Prophetic statement.

The hadîth scholar Hammâd understood this Prophetic warning. He said: “The perpetrator of tadlîs cannot avoid being described as one who credits himself with what he has not been given.”

We have already mentioned that in the science of isnâd (attribution), the technical term for deceptive narration is tadlîs. This is where a narrator deliberately leaves out a source to make his chain of transmission look stronger than it actually is. It often entailed the narrator taking credit for hearing a hadîth from a prestigious source he did not actually hear the hadîth from. He would do this by omitting a less prestigious intermediate narrator and failing to credit that intermediate narrator as his direct source.

The hadîth scholar Jarîr b. Hâzim agreed, saying: “The least that he is guilty of is making people think he heard something that he never really heard.”

`Abd Allah b. Mubârak: “I would rather be cast down from the sky than be guilty of deceptive narration.”

From all of this, we can see clearly that plagiarism is a sin.

And Allah knows best.

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