Abrogation in the Quran
Translated by Dr. Swaleh Siddiqui
Abrogation is translated from the Arabic word naskh which literally means “to erase; to compensate.” Its technical definition is “to repeal a legal order through legal argument”. In other words, sometimes Allah enforces a legal edict that is relevant only to a particular situation. Later, in His infinite wisdom, He annuls the order and enforces a new one in its place. This action is known as “abrogation” (naskh), and the replaced order is then termed “abrogated” (mansukh) while the new replacing order is called the “abrogator” (nasikh).
Prudent and Conventional Proofs of Abrogation
The Jews believed that abrogation was no possible in Allah’s edicts since the concept of abrogation would imply that Allah alters His views (Allah forbid). They stated that the concept would necessitate that at one point Allah had deemed a commandment proper but later on – Allah forbid – He realized His mistake and subsequently withdrew it. This is commonly termed buda’.
But the objection raised by the Jews is quite superficial and were one to ponder over it a little he would quickly realize the mistake. Abrogation, in reality, does not imply a change in views but rather the issuance of orders according to the needs of a particular time. It is not that the abrogator declares the abrogated as wrong, but rather he fixes the time limit for the enforcement of the first order to explain that it was just and proper for the time it remained under the circumstances.
Whoever ponders with a reasonable frame of mind will find no difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that this change is exactly in keeping with the infinite wisdom of Allah and cannot be questioned in any way. Truly, he is not a doctor in the true sense who uses the same prescription under all the circumstances and for every disease. An adept physician makes necessary changes in his prescriptions according to the changing condition of the patient.
This rule applies not only to religious injunctions but to the entire corporeal system of the universe as well. Through His expedience, for example, Allah constantly changes weather conditions. We experience all of winter, summer, spring, autumn, rain and drought, and all of these changes are in exact conformity with the expedient measure of Allah. He is a witless person, indeed, who terms it buda’ and contends that it amounts to mutation in divine judgment. He would by that logic be arguing that Allah once preferred winter, then, discovering His mistake, replaced it with summer. That exactly is the case with the abrogation of religious injunctions. Considering it a fault by terming it buda’ would be an extreme degree of short-sightedness and ignorance of facts. Abrogation is not trait-specific only to the followers of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) but has remained a regular feature of the religious edicts of other prophets as well. We find several examples in the present day Bible. For example, it is mentioned in the Bible that in the religious system of Yaqub (Jacob) a man could have had two real sisters as his wives at the same time. In fact, it reports that he himself had two wives at the one time, Liyyah and Rahil, who were real sisters. This was forbidden, however, in the religious law of Musa (Moses). Also, every moving animal was permissible as food in the law of Nuh (Noah) yet many of them were prohibited in that of Musa. Divorce was also freely permissible in the law of Musa but in that of ‘Isa (Jesus) divorce was allowed only if a woman had committed adultery. In short, there are several such examples in the New and Old Testaments of the Bible wherein an existing order had been abrogated through a new command.
Differences in the Technical Meaning of Abrogation by Earlier and Later Scholars
The term “abrogation” (naskh) was understood differently by earlier and later scholars of the Quran. In the nomenclature of earlier scholars, the word “abrogation” held a very wide scope of application and included many scenarios that were not regarded as abrogation by later scholars. For example, if the general scope of the meaning of a verse was limited by another verse, these earlier scholars regarded the first verse as being abrogated. Hence, if common words were used in one verse and then specified in a particular manner in another verse, the earlier scholars used to term the former “abrogated” and the latter the “abrogator”. This did not mean that the first commandment had been totally abolished but that the generalization created by the first verse had been removed by the second verse. For example, the Quran says:
And do not marry polytheist women until they believe. [2:221]
Here the word “mushrikat” (polytheist women) is general and apparently implies that marriage is disallowed with all kinds of polytheist women, be they idolaters or People of the Book. In another verse, however, it is stated:
(Lawful to you in marriage) are chaste women from the believers and chaste women from those who were given the Scripture (Jews and Christians) before your time… [Al-Ma’idah 5:5]
This indicates that in the first verse “polytheist women” meant those polytheists that were not from the People of the Book. Thus the second verse limited the universal character of the first verse and told us that women from the People of the Book were lawful to believers in marriage. The earlier scholars, however, regarded this also as an example of abrogation. In other words, the first verse was abrogating and the second was the abrogator.
Contrary to this, the scope of abrogation amongst the later scholars was not so wide. They considered only such ayahs as abrogated in which the previous order was completely abolished. They did not consider limitation of a universal command as abrogation. Thus, in the above example, there was no abrogation according to later scholars, because the real order of prohibition of marrying a polytheist woman existed as such. The second verse had clarified only as to include the women of the People of the Book and that the first verse was limited and specific to women other than those of the People of the Book.
Because of this difference in the scope of application, the number of abrogated verses according to earlier scholars was large. According to later scholars, however, the number of abrogated verses was very limited.
Abrogation in the Quran
It is a universally undisputed fact that abrogation of religious injunctions is not a new concept particular to this Ummah; rather it was applied even in the times of the previous nations.
Several such orders have been abrogated for the people of Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) as well. For example, a previous injunction was the obligation to face the Bayt al-Maqdis during salat, but later on this was abrogated and Muslims were ordained to face the Ka‘bah. On this issue there is no dispute amongst Muslims.
There is a difference of opinion, however, about whether there had been any abrogation in the Quran. In other words, it is disputed if there is yet any verse in the Quran that is recited although its command is abrogated. The majority of traditionists believe that the Quran does contain such verses whose injunctions are abrogated. But of the Mu‘tazilah, Abu Muslim al-Isfahani maintains that no verse of the Quran has been abrogated; rather, all the verses of the Quran maintain their obligation.
Some other scholars have expressed the same opinion, while a number of modernists in our time also adhere to the same view. Hence, the verses in which abrogation is obvious, they explain them away in a manner that abrogation may not have to be accepted. The fact of the matter, however, is that this viewpoint is weak and to adopt it one would have to draw far-fetched meanings in order to explain some verses, meanings that do not conform to the principles of exegesis (tafsir).
In fact, those who do not believe in abrogation in the Quran suppose that abrogation is a defect of which the Quran should be free. But, as already stated, it is an extremely short-sighted view to consider abrogation as wrong. It is surprising that, unlike the Jews and Christians, Abu Muslim al-Isfahani and his followers do not deny that there had been abrogation in many of the Commandments of Allah, but only say that there is no abrogation in the Quran. If abrogation was a vice, why did it occur in non-Quranic injunctions that also originating from Allah? If something was not a vice for non-Quranic injunctions, how can it then be so for the Quranic injunctions?
It is sometimes argued that it appears against Divine Expediency that a verse of the Quran should remain only as a sacred relic for recital and not be practiced upon. We fail to understand on what grounds this has been considered against Divine Expediency, while there could be several expedient reasons in retaining the verses whose commands are abrogated. For example, we come to know through them of the prudence behind the gradual imposition of religious doctrines, and also of the prudential manner adopted to bind human beings to follow His doctrine. Further, it also serves as a history of these doctrines and their backgrounds. Allah has Himself revealed in the Quran in several places the doctrines and commandments of the previous nations that were abrogated for the people of Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace). For example:
And those who became Jews, We forbade them every animal with claws, and of oxen and sheep, and forbade them the fat thereof, except such as their backs carry or the entrails or what is mixed with the bones. [Surat al-An‘am 6:146]
Obviously, Allah has described an abrogated order as an admonishment for the Muslims. Thus, if some abrogated Quranic verses are retained for this purpose, what is there in it against Divine Expediency? Moreover, can anyone claim that he knows the wisdom behind all actions of Allah or that he understands the expediency behind every Quranic verse and its revelation? If such a claim is not true, and it certainly is not true, how can one deny an order of Allah simply because one does not know the expediency behind it while its enforcement has been justified based upon religious principles?
Thus, the fact is that those who do not believe in abrogation in the Quran have based their opinion on a misconceived idea. They have attached far-fetched meanings to some Quranic verses because they think that abrogation is a fault and they want to see that the Quran is free of it. Once it becomes clear to them that it is in fact not a fault but conforms to the will of Allah, they will adopt the same meanings to such verses as are obvious and commonly adopted. The Quran says:
Whichever revelation We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring one better than it or similar to it. Know you not that Allah has power over everything? [Surat al- Baqarah 2:106]
Whoever studies this verse with an unbiased mind shall deduce that abrogation had continued according to clear injunctions of the Quran itself. But Abu Muslim al-Isfahani and his associates, who willingly or unwillingly considered abrogation a fault, interpret this verse in a far-fetched manner. They say that this verse deals only with a hypothetical situation. They argue that it implies, “if we were to abrogate a verse, we would reveal a like or a better verse” and it does not follow that any verse would actually be abrogated. In proof of this they present another verse:
If the Compassionate had a son, I would be the first of worshippers. [Surat al-Zukhruf, 43:81]
Those who reject the possibility of abrogation say that just as this verse speaks of a hypothetical situation which does not mean that Allah really has a son, so too the former verse of Surat al-Baqarah raises a hypothetical situation not necessitating abrogation of a verse.
But this interpretation is not correct because if there were to be no abrogation Allah would have not mentioned it even as a hypothetical possibility. The Quran does not place a command over anything that may never happen. As for this verse about a son, there is a world of a difference between it and the verse of abrogation.
Hence any reader of this verse would know that this is merely a hypothetical proposition, which means that if at all Allah would bear a son I would have worshipped him before anybody else but since this is an impossible thing to happen, the question of worshipping anybody other than Allah does not arise. Contrary to this, the occurrence of abrogation is not logically impossible even according to Abu Muslim al-Isfahani himself, hence calling it a hypothetical situation is a meaningless proposition.
This becomes all the more apparent from looking at the background of revelation of the verse of abrogation. Some unbelievers had commented that the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) first orders his followers to follow one thing and later on instructs them against it and introduces a new order in place of it. This verse was revealed in answer to their comments. It is clear now that the revelation of this verse seeks to describe the purpose of abrogation rather than negate its occurrence.
Number of Abrogated Verses in the Qur’an
As already mentioned, the understanding of the scope of abrogation was very wide in its interpretation by earlier scholars and hence they have mentioned a large number of abrogated verses. ‘Allamah Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, however, has written that there are only nineteen abrogated verses in the whole of the Quran according to the definition of the later day scholars.
Then, amongst the latest of the scholars, Shah Wali Allah made a detailed analysis of all those nineteen verses and accepted only five of them to be abrogated ones. As for the rest of them, he preferred the commentaries and explanations according to which the verses would not be considered abrogated. The arguments given by Shah Wali Allah about many of these verses are the most appropriate and acceptable, yet some of them may be disputed. However, the five verses that he considers to be abrogated are as follows:
It is prescribed for you, when death approaches anyone of you and if he leaves behind some wealth, to make a bequest to parents and near kindred in an equitable way, it is an obligation on the Allah fearing. [Al-Baqarah, 2:11]
This verse was reveled when the laws of inheritance had not yet been revealed and according to it every person was bound to make a bequest (wasiyyah) before he died about the distribution of his assets among his parents and other relatives. Thereafter, the verse of inheritance was revealed:
Allah enjoins you concerning your children…. [Surat al-Baqarah, 2:11]
The command to make a bequest was thus abrogated by this verse. Allah then Himself fixed a schedule of distribution for the inherited assets, and it was no longer obligatory on anyone to make a will before his death. In Surat al- Anfal, it is stated:
If there be of you twenty persevering they shall overcome two hundred; and if there be of you a hundred, they will overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve, because they are a people who do not understand. [Surat al-Anfal, 8:65]
This verse, despite being apparently simply informative, is essentially a command prohibiting Muslims to retreat while in combat with an enemy ten times their number. This was later on abrogated by the following verse:
(O believers) Now Allah has lightened it for you, for He knew that there is weakness in you. So if there be of you a hundred persevering they will overcome two hundred, and if there be of you a thousand, they will overcome two thousand by Allah’s leave. And Allah is with the persevering. [Surat al-Anfal, 8:66]
This verse lightened the burden imposed by the first command and the limit of tenfold was reduced to twofold. Thus a retreat up to double the enemy strength was not permissible now.
The third verse considered abrogated by Shah Wali Allah is the following verse of Surat al-Ahzab:
(Besides these), it is not lawful for you to take (more) wives after this nor that you should exchange them for other wives even though their beauty may please you….. [Surat al-Ahzab, 33:52]
According to this verse, it was not lawful for the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) to marry any more women. Later, this was abrogated by a verse that fell before it in the present sequence of Quranic surahs and verses:
O Prophet! We have made lawful for you your wives whom you have given their dower…… [Surat al-Ahzab, 33:50]
Shah Wali Allah and others say that the earlier restriction was abrogated through this verse, but in fact abrogation in this verse is not definite. Its explanation as given by Hafiz Ibn Jarir is to a great extent straightforward and simple. He has said that two verses were revealed in their present order; in verse fifteen, “O Prophet, we….”. Allah named some particular categories of women as being lawful for the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and then in verse 51, (besides these), it was not lawful… It was specified that women belonging to categories other than those were not lawful for him.
The fourth verse that is abrogated according to Shah Wali Allah is:
O you (Muhammad) enfolded in your robes, keep vigil by night, except a little, half of it, or diminish a little. [Surat al-Muzzammil, 73:1-3]
This verse had ordained worship for at least half the night, but later on this was abrogated by a flexibility provided in the verses that follow it:
And He knows that (all of) you cannot keep it up, so He has relented towards you; so recite so as much of the Qur’an as may be easy for you. [Surat al-Muzzammil 73:20]
Shah Wali Allah has stated that although tahajjud (late night salat) was not obligatory even before, but there was a greater emphasis on it and its duration was also longer, yet later both the emphasis on it and the time restriction were relaxed.
These are five verses in which abrogation has occurred. But it must be understood that these five examples are only those wherein the abrogator and abrogated verses can both be found in the Quran. There are many such examples where the abrogator of verses are not found in the Quran, such as those related to the issue of the change of qiblah, etc…
The above discussion was aimed at clarifying that abrogation in Quranic verses is not a defect for which efforts should be made to show the Quran absolved of it. Rather, it is exactly in keeping with the divine scheme of things. Hence the meanings of any verse should not be rejected simply because it affirms abrogation in the Quran. Nothing stands in the way of adopting the meanings or explanations of a verse if they conform to the principles of sound “exegesis”, even if it would mean classifying the verse as abrogated.
This essay was translated by both Dr. Swaleh Siddiqui & Dr. Muhammad Shamim as parts of Mufti Taqi Usmani’s An Approach to the Quranic Sciences and Mufti Shafi‘ Usmani’s Ma‘ariful Qur’an. The two translations were edited and reproduced as a separate article by Bilal Ali.