The Problem of Abrogation in the Quran
Over the years, a number of Muslims and some non-Muslims have asked me why I had problems defending my Islamic faith. While a Muslim in the late 1980’s, and seeking the truth within Islam, I was faced with a number of issues in defending my faith. One such issue was "abrogation." Abrogation means to annul or cancel something with appropriate or legal authority. The purpose of writing this response has been to provide an answer to my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters regarding the challenges I faced at that point in my faith. During this time I was not seeking to put down or reject Islam, on the contrary, my goal was to invite others to Islam. In trying to grapple with this topic, I was armed primarily with the Quran, Hadith (the documented words and/or deeds of Mohammad) and other supporting works by Muslims and some non-Muslim authors. Please note that the purpose of this response is not to publish an academic work with a thorough and critical evaluation on the entire topic of abrogation, but mostly a reflection on a personal journey as I was contending with my Islamic faith.
The concept of "abrogation" in the Quran is that Allah chose to reveal ayat (singular ayah – means a sign or miracle, commonly a verse in the Quran) that supercede earlier ayat in the same Quran. The central ayah that deals with abrogation is Surah 2:106:
I struggled with the question of how an eternal revelation of Allah could have such time-bound revelation in it. It seemed at odds with the nature of Allah – the all-knowing, all-wise, creator and sustainer of the universe; the eternal, self-existent one. As a Muslim this was one of the bigger challenges I faced with regard to the Quran. Although the Quran is said to be an eternal and universal scripture, I found it to be time-bound.
Not all Muslim scholars agree on what abrogation covers. Briefly here was my discovery.
Note that the ayah 2:106 above is clearly making the claim that only when a better ayah or similar ayah is available, does Allah change it and cause the older ones to be forgotten. And to drive the point home, the ayah continues on that Allah has power over all things. It puzzled me that Allah being all-wise needed to reveal better or similar ayahs to replace older ones. Perhaps this was understandable for a Muslim if the Quran is talking about books given to Musa, then Isa, and finally Prophet Mohammad. But what about ayahs within the life-span of Prophet Mohammad in the Quran – Allah was claiming to change earlier ayahs revealed in the Quran. This seemed completely out of context and reason for the Quran that claims to be for all time and all peoples.
An example that is often used to show the topic of abrogation as relevant and true in the Quran is the topic of wine drinking. In early Islam, wine drinking and gambling were allowed - Surah 2:219:
From this ayah it was taught that drinking and gambling could provide a benefit and also have bad effects. To identify that the practice of drinking wine was not uncommon among Muslims, another ayah was revealed that forbade the Muslims to come to prayer drunk, Surah 4:43:
Note that Yusuf Ali in his translation uses the phrase "mind befogged". Other Muslim scholars who have translated the Quran render the phrase slightly differently: Pickthall uses the word "drunken", and Shakir uses "intoxicated". It is clear that being intoxicated is the intended meaning. Also, during the battle of Uhud a number of Muslims were killed, some of whom had alcoholic drinks the morning of the battle. This can be seen from the Sahih (authentic) Hadith of Bukhari on the ill-fated battle.
Volume 6, Book 60, Number 142:
Then the ayah Surah 5:93 was revealed to stop drinking wine.
Finally an ayah is revealed that considers drinking an abomination and to be avoided. Thus, this put an end to drinking being allowed in Islam. Since there is not much detail in the Quran about the context, let’s refer to Sahih Bukhari that clarifies what transpired.
Volume 6, Book 60, Number 144:
(As a side note, the 5.93 at end of the above Hadith refers to Surah 5:93. Since not all translators use the same numbering system, in Yusuf Ali’s translation that I quote from, it refers to Surah 5:96 which makes clear there is no blame on those who died before this prohibition was enacted.)
A number of my Muslim friends and scholars make the point that this is progressive revelation as the Arab community was used to drinking alcohol and hence this method was used to slowly stop it. However, this method for me lacks rational reasoning and does not have precedence or similarities in other commands of Allah. Nor could I find a Sahih Hadith that supported this argument. In fact it supports the opposite, for example the Arabs were used to worshipping multiple gods, or have intercessors before God and the worship of one true Allah directly was set from the very first time – there were no progressive changes here.
To my surprise, Surah 2:106 was not the only place where the topic of abrogation was discussed. This concept of substituting ayahs is further elaborated in others, for example note these two other ayahs.
(As a side note, the words in brackets above are interpretation in the English and do not exist in the Arabic Quran.)
It is clear in this above ayah that a number of people were upset at this concept of abrogation. They said to Prophet Mohammad, "Thou art but a forger" in response to the revelation of new ayahs that were better and superceded the older ones. Some Muslim scholars consider this ayah to be in response to the questions by Jews. They consider it to imply the Torah versus the Quran. However the challenge for me was that the word used in the Arabic in Surah 16:101 is "ayah" and not "kitab" or any specific word to imply the Torah or their scriptures as that is how the Quran typically refers to the revelation to the Jews.
What surprised me more is that Allah not only reveals this abrogation, but also makes a strong claim for it as noted below. It is Allah’s pleasure to change or confirm whatever he chooses as stated in Surah 13:39:
As I investigated the topic further, I found that depending on the Muslim scholar, there were different lists of abrogated (mansukh) ayat, as well as those that replace it, the abrogating (naskh) ayat. It was clear from my investigation on this topic that the Quran does teach the doctrine of abrogation - that actual ayat of the Quran have been annulled or cancelled by newer ones and this has been accepted in Islam.
I found examples where some authors make the claim of abrogating and abrogated ayat. But when I reviewed some of these in light of the context of the ayat, there is room for interpretation depending on how one views the context, the historical setting and the reliability of the Hadith used in support of it. We will examine one such example where a claim is made for abrogation – some scholars say that Surah 3:85 abrogates Surah 2:62 and Surah 5:69.
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Surah 2:62 (some claim this is abrogated by Surah 3:85 below)
Surah 5:69 (some claim this is also abrogated by Surah 3:85 below)
When one considers these ayat, the claim being made by Surah 3:85 seems to say that only those who follow Islam will be accepted in the Hereafter. This would seem to override Surahs 2:62 and 5:69 where not only Muslims, but non-Muslim righteous people of other faiths will also have their reward with Allah. There are many challenges in these ayat, one is of context and the other relates to when these were revealed historically. If one purely looks at the context of the three ayat, both interpretations are possible. Now if one considers the chronology of when these were revealed, the challenges are even bigger. This is because the Quranic passages are not assembled chronologically. In general, the larger Surahs (which also have the lower numbers) are of the Medina period while the shorter Surahs (which have the higher numbers) are from the Meccan period. However, there is mixing of some shorter Meccan ayat in the Medina Surahs and vice versa. There are many Hadith, but no overarching theme can be seen. Hence, in this case I was left to decide if this ayah (Surah 3:85) made the list of abrogation. If this was the case, it would mean that only Muslims (going forward since the Quran was revealed) will be rewarded in the Hereafter, but Christians and Jews of today will not as they do not accept Prophet Mohammad. Or am I to consider myself aligning with those who believe there is no abrogation and be content that Muslims, Christian, Jews among other righteous people even today will be rewarded by Allah. Both are probable, the evidence from the Quran and Hadith was not conclusive.
Moving on, an example dealing with Quran and Sunnah abrogation, I found the punishment for fornication and adultery rather interesting, because of the implication that either the Quran had ayahs missing, lost or forgotten from it or that the Sunnah had abrogated the Quran. Either way, this caused enough of an interest to review this area. Let us first see what the Quran says about the punishment for fornication and adultery in Surah 24.
It is clear from the Quran, that either in the case of adultery or fornication the punishment is 100 lashes. Note that in the Surah 24:3, the people who commit this crime are still able to continue to live and marry, implying they are not to be put to death. But as we know from Shariah Law, the punishment for adultery is death by stoning. This ruling comes from the Sunnah. This is further clarified by the Quran translator Yusuf Ali, in his commentary notes on Surah 24:2 (Note 2594)
The Sahih Bukhari Hadith that follows supports the Shariah law separating the punishment for adultery and fornication.
Volume 8, Book 82, Number 815:
While the Sahih Bukhari Hadith dealing solely with fornication and adultery are as follows:
Volume 8, Book 82, Number 818:
Volume 8, Book 82, Number 806:
Hence we see here that existing Muslim Law is based on the Sunnah and not on the Quran. Therefore, as some Muslim scholars correctly say, the Sunnah abrogates the Quran – which in the case of the offense for adultery is true. Of course, there is a small possibility that an ayah was revealed, but is not in our current edition of the Quran. Note this tradition from the Sahih Bukhari Hadith on it.
Volume 8, Book 82, Number 817:
I will not spend much time on this at this point as it leads into the whole discussion on the compilation of the Quran (which I have briefly discussed earlier) regarding arrangement of the ayat, as it is a very large topic on its own.
What I do want to address is what a large number of modern Muslims scholars and teachers say about the whole issue of abrogation. Their views can, in general, be divided into the following two groups.
I can see that Muslims as a whole agree with the first bullet point, as the Quran claims to be the final revelation of Allah. But saying that does not however exclude what we have discussed and shown. I found the doctrine of abrogating older scriptures, the Torah and Injil, unsupportable from the Quran. As I looked at the evidence regarding this matter, I found no place in the Quran where abrogation is discussed in reference to the books (kitab) of the previous prophets, but only ayah, which means "a sign." Generally when reference is made in the Quran to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the words used are the books (kitab), or specifically Torah and Injil, or scriptures given to Musa or Isa. I found no such ayat to exist in the Quran stating that such are abrogated. As an example, note in Surah 2:62 and Surah 5:69 mentioned earlier, how the Jewish and Christian scriptures are referenced.
In addition, the word used throughout the Quran regarding abrogation is the word "ayah," which means signs and can refer to any sign that God may choose to use to show himself or reveal his word or will. It could be a miracle, such as what Isa did or his miraculous virgin birth, or some aspect of creation that points to him. More specifically it is used to refer to the Quranic revelations that was revealed as a sign (ayah) to Prophet Mohammad For example this ayah - Surah 2:99 describes that an ayah is commonly what was revealed in the Quran and the unbelievers reject them.
Also, Surah 2:106 clearly says that it would bring about better or similar ayat and the older one would be forgotten.
The Jewish Old Testament and the Christian New Testament books have a long history of documentary evidence that clearly shows that these books that they have today match what was available during and before the time of Prophet Mohammad. Therefore there is no textual or documentary evidence that any of the Christian or Jewish scriptures are forgotten. This too is a big topic and detailed discussion on it would be a task of its own.
Regarding the second bullet point made above, the position taken by some modern Muslim scholars is that in considering abrogation of one ayah by another when the two cannot be reconciled with each other contradicts the clear teaching of the foundation of the Quran. Namely that it declares that no part of it is at variance with another. Note for example ayah Surah 4:82 given to make this claim.
I agree with them, the Quran clearly teaches that. However, the evidence based on the actual ayat being at variance with another is yet another matter that I was challenged with and I desire to discuss it as a separate topic, though it is one that is closely related to abrogation. While the Quran does make such a claim, the hard evidence shows the doctrine of abrogation is clearly stated in the Quran, not once, but many times. The example of wine drinking and punishment for adultery and fornication, among others affirm it. Whereas the issue of non-Muslims getting rewarded in Heaven could be considered abrogated or perhaps not, both are probable based on the evidence in the Quran. There are other such ayat that a number of Muslim scholars have compiled and I briefly list a few of them but do not wish to go into details as that would make this response too lengthy. Included in the list are:
In conclusion, for many Muslims, this concept that Allah as the absolute sovereign can alter his commands and replace them at will, appears at harmony with their view of God. To them, the Will of God is paramount. While I respect their thoughts and opinions, this was at odds with my view of an all-knowing and all-wise God. It seems to me that a man like myself is limited and needs to learn from his mistakes, and therefore need to provide better commands after earlier commands have not worked. It is not self-evident to me that the creator and sustainer of the universe is like that. Hence, I reached a point where I could no longer defend the Quran as we have it today as the true and complete revelation of Allah. This cast doubts on the credibility of the current Arabic Quran’s claim that it is the perfect and final revelation of Allah.
For those of you who are interested in further study on this topic, please refer to the references on abrogation on Answering-Islam and other sites and books. If you would like to send me your comments or questions, please use this email address.
** This article was first posted at the Answering-Islam website by the author Farooq Ibrahim. Copyrighted by Farooq Ibrahim and used by permission. For comments or feedback, please contact him or The Abraham Connection.