Some orthodox scholars propagate the idea that certain verses of the Holy Qur’an are abrogated by verses revealed later in time. This theory of abrogation has played a role in the problem of extremist ideology that results in terrorism and intolerance. For example, some theologians argue that the verse 2:257 (There should be no compulsion in religion…) which asserts universal freedom of religion has been abrogated, thereby opening ideological intolerance of other religions.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of The Ahmadiyya Muslim Movement and who Ahmadi-Muslims believe to be the Messiah foretold by Muhammad, wholy rejected this concept as having no basis in the Holy Qur’an, the Ahadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) or any other source of Islamic theology. He emphasized that the Holy Qur’an must be taken in its entirety with all its verses and entertaining the concept of abrogation would put the credibility of the entire book at stake.
Abrogation is something that, generally, orthodox Muslims have left to the scholars to debate and pass judgement on. Most do not engage in discussion on the credibility of abrogation and how damaging it is to their religion, though given the problem of extremist ideology that may have started to change. It is essential to engage the problem of abrogation because it has an impact on the credibility of the Holy Qur’an and to unravel how certain groups in Islamic history appear to have exploited this baseless theory for political gain.
The Khawarijs, an early movement of Muslims widely regarded as rebellious and seditious, were the first known group believed to have used the concept of abrogation. However, it was not until a few hundred years later that the use of abrogation of verses of the Holy Qur’an started to expand, especially in the time of the Muslim kings who wanted to justify certain actions and not give the impression they were disregarding commandments of the Holy Qur’an. It is believed they would get some scholars to pronounce a verse of the Holy Qur’an as abrogated. In exchange, the scholars may gain political power and lucrative rewards from these kings.
In addition to this misuse of abrogation, some scholars and commentators who could not reconcile some verses of the Holy Qur’an began to state that certain verses were abrogated, thereby disregarding one verse in favor of the other. According to the research done by Mr. Muhammad Asad who has translated the Holy Qur’an in English, these scholars used two methods to explain away when they were confused about some verses of the Holy Qur’an. One was the theory of abrogation and the other was called Asbab Nazool– meaning that the verse was relevant for a specific circumstance at the time of its revelation only, and does not carry a religious injunction past that event.
Claiming that one verse had replaced another was an easy way out for the scholars rather than having to reconcile and explain certain verses. There was no consensus among the upholders of the doctrine of abrogation as to which and how many verses of the Holy Qur’an were abrogated. Interestingly, no scholar ever stated that an abrogated verse should not be recited anymore, or that it could be expunged from The Holy Qur’an. All scholars were unanimous that the Holy Qur’an must be recited and studied in its entirety.
In the time of Imam Jalaluddin Sayuti (a widely recognized 15th century scholar) the number of verses alleged to be abrogated was brought down to 500 from a much higher number. Imam Sayuti brought this figure down to 21 verses as he explained and reconciled all the other verses questioned before his time. In the 18th century, Shah Waliullah Dehilvi, provided explanation and understanding of all the verses but was left with 5 verses he considered abrogated.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, one of the great Muslim intellectuals of India in the 19th century, stated that on the grounds of logic there can be no abrogation of any verses of the Holy Qur’an. He also provided his explanation of the 5 verses that Shah Waliullah Dehlevi had left unexplained, and emphasized that there was no contradiction in the Holy Qur’an and therefore no abrogation of any verses.
The five verses and their respective subjects are as follows:
1) 2:181 relates to inheritance
2) 2:241 relates to maintenance of widows
3) 8:66 relates to equivalency of believers to match the non-believers in battle
4) 33:53 relates to the commandment in reference to the marriages of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace)
5) 58:13 relates to criteria for charity
To take one example from the above, we can look at verse 8:66. It states in one part of the verse that 20 believers can overtake 200 non-believers in a battle. Then it states that 100 believers can win against an army of 1,000 non-believers. Because two different ratios are listed, this is apparently considered as a contradiction. Therefore, the proponents of abrogation theory say that the initial 1:2 ratio was abrogated by the subsequent 1:10 ratio. In fact, both ratios can coexist and be logically interpreted. At the time of the first battle fought at Badr, the Muslims defeated the Meccans who were roughly twice their number. Later on when Muslim armies battled with the powers of Rome and Persia, the armies they defeated were sometimes 10 times their size. So depending on the circumstance and event, both ratios are true. There is no contradiction and no need to entertain abrogation of the verse.
Resurgence of Abrogation in Modern Extremism
Recently in the 19th and 20th centuries there has been a resurgence of the theory of abrogation by certain groups and so-called scholars of Islam. As in the past, there is a political agenda and justification of their extremist views and objectives that are at the root of these claims. Credibility of the Holy Qur’an is, once again, at stake.
In addition to the Wahabi sect (the mainstream Saudi theology), there are certain extremist strands of the Salafist movement who have resurrected this flawed theory to justify their views which are incompatible to establishing good relations with other religions and communities. They are issuing edicts that the verses promoting peace, humility and kindness which were revealed in Mecca had been abrogated, and the verses in reference to war in Medina had replaced them. Verses such as 2:257 (There should be no compulsion in religion) are abrogated and the verses commanding to fight disbelievers replaced them. These baseless, illogical and meritless edicts have been presented by some in the Western media to insinuate how intolerant The Holy Qur’an is. The majority of Muslims have not scrutinized the claims of such scholars and tend to accept their rulings.
The interesting development is that the verses being announced as abrogated by the extremists are none of the five verses that were left over in the 19th century. So the scholars and commentators in the history of Islam never considered 2:257 abrogated. These are being selected based on the political and mischievous goals of the extremists, and to fool the masses of Muslims taking advantage of their emotional devotion to Islam.
The Context of Abrogation in the Holy Qur’an
To fully examine this subject, it is important to discuss the verses of the Holy Qur’an that mention abrogation and the context these are referring to. Let us review the verse that the proponents of the abrogation theory use to justify their viewpoint. They quote the verse below:
“Whatever Sign (or verse) We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than that or the like thereof. Dost thou not know that Allah has the power to do all that He wills?” (2:107)
If one reads the verses before and after this verse, it becomes clear that this verse refers to the replacements of revelations of previous scriptures. Allah states that He sends another revelation to replace it when He sees the need for it. The verse is referring to the Holy Qur’an which is replacing the Torah and the Gospels and other revealed scriptures of Allah. There is discussion about Bani Israel (Children of Israel) which serves as a clear indication that the context is past revelations being replaced by the Holy Qur’an. Take for example the verses below that precede verse 2:107.
“And now when there has come to them (Children of Israel) a Messenger from Allah, fulfilling that which is with them, a party of the people to whom the Book was given have thrown the Book of Allah behind their backs, as if they knew it not”. (2:100)
“They who disbelieve from among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), or from among those who associate gods with Allah (Polytheists), desire not that any good should be sent down to you from your Lord; but Allah chooses for His mercy whomsoever He pleases; and Allah is of exceeding bounty.” (2:106)
These preceding verses make it clear that 2:107 emphasizes how the Holy Qur’an is a revelation from the same God who revealed the Bible and other religious scriptures, and that the adherents of these religions should accept this new revelation. There is no foundation here for abrogating verses of the Holy Qur’an itself.
No Foundation for Abrogation
The theory of abrogation is further dealt a blow by verses of the Holy Qur’an itself. When a writer publishes a book, the only person that can abrogate its text or replace it is the writer himself, the editor or the publisher. Thus, it would be only God Himself who could abrogate or replace the words of the Holy Qur’an; certainly no scholar’s theory on which verses are abrogated would hold any credibility. Further, there is not a single Hadith (or saying) of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) even hinting at abrogation of any verse of the Holy Qur’an. Nor does there exist even a single historical reference connected to any of the Holy Prophet’s (on whom be peace) companions.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence against abrogation in the Holy Qur’an itself. It was the demand of the opponents of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) that he should change certain verses of the Qur’an as a compromise. The Holy Qur’an refers to their demand and the response of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) in the following verses:
“And when Our clear Signs are recited unto them, those who look not for the meeting with Us say, ‘Bring a Qur’an other than this or change it.’ Say, ‘It is not for me to change it of my own accord. I only follow what is revealed to me. Indeed, I fear if I disobey my Lord, the punishment of an awful day.” (10:16)
This verse alone wholly rejects the theory of abrogation.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (peace be upon him), the founder of The Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, took a different approach such that the theory of abrogation became a non-issue. The discussion on which verses and why did not need to take place. He announced on the authority of the Holy Qur’an that it was a perfect book, it has no contradictions and if there is something that we cannot explain, it is due to our lack of our understanding. However, if even one verse, or word or even an iota is abrogated then the whole book becomes suspicious and unreliable.
He explained his position solely based on the Holy Qur’an itself. It says:“Verily, We Ourselves have sent down this Exhortation, and most surely We will be its Guardian.” (Holy Qur’an 15:10)
The protection of the text of the Qur’an is guaranteed by Allah Himself so there cannot be any changes made to it. The Holy Qur’an says: “Will they not, then, meditate upon the Qur’an? Had it been from anyone other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much disagreement”(Holy Qur’an 15:10). This verse provides the argument that since the Holy Qur’an is from Allah, there is no contradiction in it. Conversely, if there are contradictions in it then it cannot be from Allah.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (peace be upon him) writes in his book, Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya…
“God Almighty, who knows the secrets of the heart, is witness that if someone is able to point out a defect in the teaching of the Holy Qur’an to the extent of a thousandth part of a particle or is able to point out an excellence in his own book, which is opposed to the teaching of the Qur’an and excels it, we would be prepared to submit ourselves to the penalty of death.”
He also explained that some of the knowledge of the Holy Qur’an may not be understood at a certain period of time because of the level of knowledge of human beings at the time. As the time progresses new meanings may emerge that may clear the context and meaning of the verse. As given in verse 3:8, some verses are Bayyinaat (clear and straightforward) and some are Mutashabihat (subject to interpretation). So any confusion at a certain period of time does not make a verse of the Holy Qur’an subject to abrogation. He explains it in the following quote from his book Izala Auham:
“The verities and fine points which foster understanding are always disclosed according to need. New corruptions call for ever fresh meanings, which are full of wisdom. It is obvious that the Holy Qur’an is a miracle in itself, and the greatness of its miracle is that it is comprehensive of unlimited verities, but they are manifested at their due time. As the difficulties of the time demand, those hidden insights are disclosed. Look! Secular knowledge, most of which is opposed to the Holy Qur’an and is so misleading, is spreading rapidly. Currently, wonderful changes are being brought about in mathematics, physics and philosophy, Was it not necessary that at such time the door to progress in faith and understanding should also have been opened, so the facilities might become available for repelling every new mischief? Know it for certain then that the door has been opened and God Almighty has determined to disclose the hidden wonders of the Holy Qur’an to the arrogant philosophers of the world. Half-baked mullahs(clerics), who are the enemies of Islam, cannot frustrate this design. If they do not desist from mischief, they will be destroyed and visited by such Divine wrath that will grind them to dust. These fools do not apprehend the prevailing circumstances. They desire that the Holy Qur’an should appear as defeated, weak, small and insignificant, but it will now march forward like a champion. It will roar like a lion and devour the entire worldly philosophy and shall demonstrate its own supremacy and fulfill the prophecy: “That He may Cause it to prevail over all religions”. (Izala Auham, PP 464-467)