Studies in Islam: Abrogation

Peter Burrows, Studies in Islam: ABROGATION                           9/25/16

The fact that a verse in the Koran can supersede or annul another, earlier, verse is called abrogation.  It is an extraordinarily important concept to the understanding of Islam. What it means is that the chronology of revelations can determine their validity.  Allah, you see, would change his mind, cancelling His earlier revelations.

Knowledge of verses abrogating and those abrogated is a requirement under sharia law for anyone to knowledgeably discuss the Koran. See Reliance of the Traveler r14.1 and r14.2. Furthermore, Among the necessary qualifications to be an Islamic judge, one must know which verses (nansikh) supersede previous revealed Koranic verses, and which verses (mansukh) are superseded by later verses. See Reliance of the Traveler o22.1.d (9) and (10).

The word “abrogation” appears only in verse 2:106, but it is alluded to in Meccan verse 16:101 which says: “Whenever We replace one verse by another verse – and Allah knows what he should reveal – they are wont to say: ‘You are nothing but a fabricator (who has invented the Qur’an.)’ The fact is that most of them are ignorant of the truth.”

Sura 16 is a late Meccan sura, so it appears Muhammad’s critics were beginning to catch him giving out “revelations” that were contradictory or at least inconsistent with his earlier revelations, and this was perhaps not wearing well with the Meccan polytheists.  When he got to Medina, the Jewish rabbis in the area immediately became formidable critics of  Muhammad and his “revelations.”

Ibn Ishaq’s  biography, The Life of Muhammad, on page 239 has this to say: “About this time, the Jewish rabbis showed hostility to the apostle in envy, hatred and malice, because God had chosen His apostle from the Arabs. —It was the Jewish rabbis who used to annoy the apostle with questions and introduce confusion, so as to confound the truth with falsity.”  Ibn Ishaq then proceeds to  name these rabbis in a list about half-a-page long!

This fits well with verse 2:106 and its footnote from the Mawdudi Pakistani Koran: “For whatever verse We might abrogate or consign to oblivion, We bring a better one or the like of it. Are you not aware that Allah is all powerful?” Mawdudi’s footnote says: “This is in response to a doubt which the Jews tried implant in the minds of Muslims. If both the earlier Scriptures and the Qur’an were revelations from God, why was it – they asked –  that the injunctions found in the earlier scriptures had been replaced by new ones in the Koran?”

Three things to be noted here. First, the rabbis didn’t criticize Muhammad for very long as it quickly became something that would get them killed. Second, while the revelation says “verse,” Mawdudi refers to “Scriptures,” meaning the Torah and Bible, and it is an accepted fact of abrogation that it applies not only to Koranic verses, but that the principle applies to religions generally, i.e. Christianity abrogates Judaism, Islam abrogates Christianity. Finally, 2:106 is one of many verses in which Allah comes to Muhammad’s rescue.  The Koran, while not ostensibly about Muhammad, is in fact very much about him.

The Khan Saudi Arabia Koran is a little more straight forward with 2:106: “Whatever a Verse (revelation) do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring better one or similar to it. Know you not that Allah is Able to do all things?”  This leaves no doubt that “revelations” can be abrogated as Allah changes His mind.

The Khan Koran then has an interesting footnote to a verse that comes shortly after verse 2:106. Verse 2:109 says: “Many of the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) wish that they could turn you away as disbelievers after you have believed, out of envy from their ownselves even after the truth (that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger) has become manifest unto them. But forgive and overlook, till Allah brings His Command. Verily, Allah is Able to do all things.”

Anyone who has studied Islam knows the phrase “forgive and overlook” is shockingly incongruent and out of place.  Sure enough, the Khan footnote says “The provision of this verse has been abrogated by the verse 9:29.” Verse 9:29 orders Muslims to strive against Jews and Christians until they are utterly subdued and willingly paying the jizya, the tax paid by those under Muslim protection.

There is another verse in chapter two, verse 2:256, that famously says: “There is no compulsion in religion.” This verse is also abrogated by a verse in chapter nine, verse 9:5, The Verse of the Sword, which commands Muslims to slay pagans wherever they are found, unless they become Muslims.

What is interesting is that chapter two in the Koran is the 87th chapter chronologically, and is the first of the chapters revealed in Medina.  Chapter nine, with its abrogating verses, is the penultimate chapter of all revelations, number 113 chronologically, and is essentially the last of the revelations, occurring ten years after those in chapter two and shortly before Muhammad’s death..

What I find most damning is that in those ten years Allah goes from “forgive and overlook,” and “there is no compulsion in religion” to an Allah totally unforgiving and to an Allah demanding conversion under penalty of death. What happened in those ten years that could explain God changing his mind so drastically?  The answer is quite simple: It wasn’t God changing his mind, it was Muhammad.

Muhammad came to Medina with only 150 or so followers after preaching in Mecca for 12 years.  Ten years later Muhammad was undisputed ruler of all of Arabia and his armies were on the march both east and west.  Muhammad was absolute ruler of his world, wielding absolute power.  As Lord Acton said, power tends to  corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Abrogation always involves replacing benign revelations with malign ones, never the other way.  Since abrogation occurs more and more as Muhammad gains power, the obvious conclusion is that the human, Muhammad, was the one making the “revelations,” a charge frequently made by those around him. As mentioned, the Koran has numerous examples of God magically coming up with a “revelation” specific to the needs of Muhammad at the moment.

To summarize: Abrogation means that the God of Islam would change His mind about something, thereby nullifying whatever the God of Islam had previously said on the topic, all being said through His Messenger, Muhammad. A skeptic can be forgiven for noting that the Koran came from Allah because Muhammad said so, and that Muhammad was Allah’s Messenger because the Koran says so.

Devout Muslims accept abrogation as an inherent part of their religion without realizing how destructive the doctrine is to their religion’s credibility.  And make no mistake, the doctrine of abrogation IS inherent to Islam, even being recognized in sharia law.  To repeat, the primary book of sharia law for Sunnis, Reliance of the Traveler, has in Book O: Justice, section 22, the requirement that to be an Islamic judge, one must know those verses, nansikh, which supersede previously revealed Koranic verses, and those verses, mansuhk, which are superseded by later  verses.  (See R of T r14.2 for further confirmation of sharia support for abrogation.)

Abrogation reveals the corrupting influence of power on Muhammad, not the changing mind of a whimsical God. To my mind, abrogation abrogates the entire “religion” of Islam.

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