‘Abrogation’ in the Quran | Pakistan Today

‘Abrogation’ in the Quran

  • Another enduring myth

Two verses of the Quran are usually cited by way of evidence for the so-called abrogation in the Quran. The application of the ‘principle’ is then shown by presenting other pairs of verses, where one supposedly cancels or replaces the other.

Some months ago, I argued in these pages against the contention of some Muslims that the hadees can sometimes overrule the Quran. That some parts of the Quran abrogate other parts of it is an equally longstanding misconception of many Muslims, with equally far-reaching and serious implications. For the Quran claims that it is absolutely free of any inconsistencies – “Will they not then ponder on the Quran? If it had been from other than Allah, they would have found therein many inconsistencies.” (4:82) – which is the exact opposite of any talk of abrogation.

Critics (on the outside) have of course been pointing at this or that ‘error’ in the Quran from the very start, and they have always been responded to by Muslims. But this involved intellectual hard work. Before the abrogation theory that is, which was put forward by none other than some renowned Muslim scholars who were apparently unable to reconcile some Quranic verses with one another. This gave many Muslims an opportunity to take the easy way out by declaring any supposed contradiction as a case of abrogation. As could be expected, it soon became the basis of a standard attack on Muslims, where it could be said with some justification: ‘The Quran claims that it contains no inconsistencies; but the moment one is shown to the Muslims, they respond by saying that this verse was abrogated by this, that or the other verse.’ A sad state of affairs.

If read in their proper contexts, there’s no possibility of the word revelation to mean Quranic verses being replaced by other Quranic verses

If you were to ask such a Muslim to cite an abrogated verse, he would typically tell you that the Quran on the one hand tells the Muslim not to pray if he has been drinking, but on the other hand orders him not to drink at all. Of course, this is no abrogation – the former doesn’t get erased by the latter. The two commandments mean different, but not contradictory, things. There are a few other pairs of verses that people categorise as abrogator-abrogated, but such classifications can all be shown to be faulty as was done in the intoxication example above.

We now come to the two verses that supposedly provide the foundation for the whole abrogation business:

We do not abrogate a revelation or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth one better than it or the like thereof. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? (2:106)

And when We substitute a revelation in place of another revelation – and Allah knows best what He sends down – they say, ‘You are but an inventor’. Nay, most of them know not. (16:101)

Making the word revelation (Arabic word ‘ayat’) to mean a Quranic verse can only be achieved by tearing the verses loose from their contexts. In any sentence of any language a word (which is just a symbol) can have multiple meanings, and it’s the context that decides which one fits the sentence. If Quran is a collection of random verses (as way too many people sadly believe it is) then you can take any and all meanings of a certain word and one interpretation will then be as good (or bad) as the next one – provided of course that either one satisfies the dictionary and the rules of grammar; but if Quran is a coherent book (which it itself claims to be) then you can’t tear its verses free from their contexts and build whole systems of belief on them.

If read in their proper contexts, there’s no possibility of the word revelation to mean Quranic verses being replaced by other Quranic verses. What’s under discussion is the resentment and the envy on the part of both the people of the Book as well as the idolaters on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the recipient of Allah’s revelations. The only revelation it can mean is the Quranic revelation (as a whole) replacing earlier revelations. Whatever is said to have been abrogated then has to be something before the Quran. Furthermore, any verse that anybody has ever talked about involving abrogation pertains to legal matters, something the topic under discussion in the two verses has absolutely nothing to do with. The good thing about the Quran is that nobody needs to take my – or anybody else’s – word for it. Everybody can consult his copy of the Quran and make sure what it’s talking about.

There’s no verse in the Quran that declares that another verse is not true anymore. And therefore, there’s no such thing as an abrogated or overruled verse. There are verses that swallow up other verses, or expound on other verses, but there’s no pair of verses that contradict one another. The Quran is the perfect word of the All-Knowing. To say that parts of it have been rendered null and void by some of its own verses is to tell a great lie about it.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed