The Problem of Abrogation in the Quran

Farooq Ibrahim

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:

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?

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:

They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit." They ask thee how much they are to spend; Say: "What is beyond your needs." Thus doth Allah Make clear to you His Signs: In order that ye may consider-

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:

O ye who believe! Approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say,- nor in a state of ceremonial impurity (Except when travelling on the road), until after washing your whole body. If ye are ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from offices of nature, or ye have been in contact with women, and ye find no water, then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub therewith your faces and hands. For Allah doth blot out sins and forgive again and again.

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:

Narrated Jabir:
Some people drank alcoholic beverages in the morning (of the day) of the Uhud battle and on the same day they were killed as martyrs, and that was before wine was prohibited.

Then the ayah Surah 5:93 was revealed to stop drinking wine.

O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, (Dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination, - of Satan’s handiwork: Eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper.

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:

Narrated Anas:
The alcoholic drink which was spilled was Al-Fadikh. I used to offer alcoholic drinks to the people at the residence of Abu Talha. Then the order of prohibiting Alcoholic drinks was revealed, and the Prophet ordered somebody to announce that: Abu Talha said to me, "Go out and see what this voice (this announcement) is." I went out and (on coming back) said, "This is somebody announcing that alcoholic beverages have been prohibited." Abu Talha said to me, "Go and spill it (i.e. the wine)." Then it (alcoholic drinks) was seen flowing through the streets of Medina. At that time the wine was Al-Fadikh. The people said, "Some people (Muslims) were killed (during the battle of Uhud) while wine was in their stomachs." So Allah revealed: "On those who believe and do good deeds there is no blame for what they ate (in the past)." (5.93)

(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.

Surah 16:101

When We substitute one revelation for another,- and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages),- they say, "Thou art but a forger": but most of them understand not.

(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:

Allah doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book.

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)

Those who believe (in the Quran) and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians, - Any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

Surah 5:69 (some claim this is also abrogated by Surah 3:85 below)

If only they had stood fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course : but many of them follow a course that is evil.

Surah 3:85

If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to God), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).

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.

Surah 24:2

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication,- flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment.

Surah 24:3

Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry and but a woman similarly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman: to the Believers such a thing is forbidden.

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)

2954. Zina includes sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. It therefore applies both to adultery (which implies that one or both of the parties are married to a person or persons other than the ones concerned) and to fornication, which, in its strict signification, implies that both parties are unmarried. ... Although zina covers both fornication and adultery, in the opinion of Muslim jurists, the punishment laid down here applies only to unmarried persons. As for married persons, their punishment, according to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be on him), is stoning to death.

The Sahih Bukhari Hadith that follows supports the Shariah law separating the punishment for adultery and fornication.

Volume 8, Book 82, Number 815:

Narrated Abu Huraira and Zaid bin Khalid:
While we were with the Prophet, a man stood up and said (to the Prophet ), "I beseech you by Allah, that you should judge us according to Allah's Laws." Then the man's opponent who was wiser than him, got up saying (to Allah's Apostle) "Judge us according to Allah's Law and kindly allow me (to speak)." The Prophet said, "Speak." He said, "My son was a laborer working for this man and he committed an illegal sexual intercourse with his wife, and I gave one-hundred sheep and a slave as a ransom for my son's sin. Then I asked a learned man about this case and he informed me that my son should receive one hundred lashes and be exiled for one year, and the man's wife should be stoned to death." The Prophet said, "By Him in Whose Hand my soul is, I will judge you according to the Laws of Allah. Your one-hundred sheep and the slave are to be returned to you, and your son has to receive one-hundred lashes and be exiled for one year. O Unais! Go to the wife of this man, and if she confesses, then stone her to death." Unais went to her and she confessed. He then stoned her to death.

While the Sahih Bukhari Hadith dealing solely with fornication and adultery are as follows:

Volume 8, Book 82, Number 818:

Narrated Zaid bin Khalid Al-Jihani:
I heard the Prophet ordering that an unmarried person guilty of illegal sexual intercourse be flogged one-hundred stripes and be exiled for one year. Umar bin Al-Khattab also exiled such a person, and this tradition is still valid.

Volume 8, Book 82, Number 806:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
A man came to Allah's Apostle while he was in the mosque, and he called him, saying, "O Allah's Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse." The Prophet turned his face to the other side, but that man repeated his statement four times, and after he bore witness against himself four times, the Prophet called him, saying, "Are you mad?" The man said, "No." The Prophet said, "Are you married?" The man said, "Yes." Then the Prophet said, "Take him away and stone him to death." Jabir bin 'Abdullah said: I was among the ones who participated in stoning him and we stoned him at the Musalla. When the stones troubled him, he fled, but we overtook him at Al-Harra and stoned him to death.

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:

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas:
... In the meantime, 'Umar sat on the pulpit and when the callmakers for the prayer had finished their call, 'Umar stood up, and having glorified and praised Allah as He deserved, he said, "Now then, I am going to tell you something which (Allah) has written for me to say. I do not know; perhaps it portends my death, so whoever understands and remembers it, must narrate it to the others wherever his mount takes him, but if somebody is afraid that he does not understand it, then it is unlawful for him to tell lies about me. Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person (male & female) who commits illegal sexual intercourse, and we did recite this Verse and understood and memorized it. Allah's Apostle did carry out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him. I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say, 'By Allah, we do not find the Verse of the Rajam in Allah's Book,' and thus they will go astray by leaving an obligation which Allah has revealed. And the punishment of the Rajam is to be inflicted to any married person (male & female), who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if the required evidence is available or there is conception or confession ..."

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.

We have sent down to thee Manifest Signs (ayat); and none reject them but those who are perverse.

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.

Do they not consider the Quran (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy.

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 and other sites and books. If you would like to send me your comments or questions, please use this email address.

Articles by Farooq Ibrahim
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