Abrogation

Surah 2 (al Baqarah/The Cow): 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?

[The Holy Qur’an, Yusuf Ali (Saudi approved revision), 1985]

 

Within the Qur’an, some instructions clearly contradict one another. Well known examples include its teachings upon the sentence for illicit sexual activity, 〈66.〉, and the proper attitude to alcohol, 〈70.〉 Through the doctrine of abrogation, the Qur’an seems to provide itself with the means by which such discrepancies can be navigated by adherents, without denying that either verse is from God, namely by stating that a later verse may replace (abrogate) an instruction given in a previously announced verse. {2.106}, above, is one of a handful of verses in which the Qur’an appears to accept that its instructions have changed. Others include:

{13.39}: ’God effaces what he will and establishes‘,

{17.86}: ’And if We willed, We could take away that which We revealed unto thee…

and possibly:

{87.6-7}: ’We shall teach thee to recite that thou wilt not forget. Save what God wills,’

whilst {16.101} records that such changes did not pass without adverse comment from sceptics.

{16.101}And when we replace one sign with another – and God knows best that which He sends down – they say: ‘You are only a fabricator!’ Nay, but most of them know not.’

See also {22.52}, which reputedly refers to the ‘Satanic verses’ episode 〈33.〉

 

Islamic scholars’ opinions concerning the number of verses in the Qur’an that have been abrogated by later verses range from none to numbers in excess of five hundred. Abrogation in the Koran, by Rev. Anwarul Haqq, for example, proposes a list of 252 verses that the author considers to have been abrogated . However, it should be observed that none of the above verses specifically state in clear terms that one verse of the Qur’an should be read as changing an earlier one. {2.106}, {16.101} and {17.86}: for example, might be read without difficulty as the Qur’an explaining that it supersedes the Mosaic law as it is set out in Jewish scripture.

 

Not only does a doctrine of abrogation, especially over such a short period as twenty years, seem rather expedient and ungodlike, but one must wonder, whether, had the doctrine been formally understood at the time that the Qur’an was still being announced, greater effort would have been made to note the order in which verses had been announced. For it follows from the possibility of abrogation that when a Muslim is applying any Quranic instruction, they must consider, amongst other things, the order in which verses were announced. Yet the, apparently deliberate decision by the compilers of the Qur’an not to order it chronologically makes certainty over which verses abrogate which other verses incapable of certainty.

 

Traditionally surahs are classified either as Meccan, that is having been announced by Muhammad whilst he preached in Mecca to the predominantly pagan community of his home city, or as Medinan, announced by Muhammad after he had established his followers as a distinct community in Yathrib/Medina. Some typical features of so-called Meccan and Medinan surahs are given below:

 

Typical features of ‘Meccan’ surahs

Surahs and individual verses tend to be shorter and more poetic.

They tend to be addressed, if to anybody, to the audience generally as ‘O people’, or to its announcer as ‘O Prophet’ or ‘O Messenger’.

Content is more spiritual, i.e. more likely to address worship, righteousness and personal virtue expressed in general terms, and supported by warnings of the apocalypse, divine punishment narratives, see 〈20.〉, and graphic descriptions of heaven and hell.

The ‘People of the Book’ (see 〈19.〉 below) tend to be mentioned in a positive context; polytheists condemned.

 

Typical features of ‘Medinan’ surahs

Surahs and individual verses tend to be longer and more prosaic.

They tend to address a community of followers: ‘O you who believe…’

Content is more pragmatic,i.e. more likely to be concerned with obedience to ‘God and His Messenger’, see 〈86.〉 below, exhortations to wage holy war (Part VII) and establishing laws and punishments, (Part V)

Christians and Jews tend to be identified as such and denounced, along with ‘hypocrites’.

 

Various proposals have been made for a more precise chronological ordering of the Qur’an based upon its style and content. The order offered in the introduction to the Cairo Edition, see 〈7.〉, is produced below.

Abrogation table
However, this chronology is by no means represents a consensus and there is considerable doubt as to whether the surahs were produced in a straightforward chronological sequence at all, or if several may have been undergoing a process of concurrent editing.

 

Without doubt, the single most controversial area of Quranic interpretation is the degree to which the Qur’an changes tone from earlier, generally more forbearing and benevolent ‘Meccan’ verses (see 〈32.〉, 〈42.〉 and Part VI), said to have been announced at a time when Muhammad had only a few dozen followers, to the later, draconian and belligerent ‘Medinan’ verses announced after as Muhammad grew in military strength, and culminating in the sword verses of Surah 9 (see 〈36.〉, 〈50.-51.〉 and Part VII). Put bluntly, the extent to which verses exhorting tolerance were abrogated by verses preaching the ruthless subjugation of unbelievers as circumstances made this possible. In practice, the existence of the doctrine of abrogation without a chronological sequence of verses is bound to provide an abundant source of legal and doctrinal confusion. It enables the holders of different Qur’an readers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to cite contradictory verses to one another, each relying upon the Qur’an’s assertions of its timeless authority to support their interpretation. Only rarely do debaters leave a particular bone of contention to debate the more difficult and technical subject of the chronology of the Qur’an’s revelation, which in turn may depend upon such arcane matters as the lifespans or reputation of a given individual included in an ancient chain of hadith transmission.