“Naskh,” or “abrogation” as it is translated, has been the subject of numerous studies by Muslim scholars down the centuries. As the mechanism describing how divine rulings from the Qur’an and the actions and teachings of the Prophet (Sunna)1 were superseded by others from these sources, it is natural for naskh to acquire such prominence in Islamic sciences, particularly in Islamic law. Scholars, naturally, needed to know the chronological order of the revelations in order to identify which rulings were abolished and which ones were still operative. The latter, then, are seen as the rulings that should be followed by Muslims. So while abrogation is very much a scholarly subject, it touches on the daily life of every Muslim. As we shall see, abrogation has played a major role in Islamic law, and thus its influence on the life of the average Muslim cannot be exaggerated.
Scholars have quoted a number of reports attributed to prominent early Muslims in support of the importance of studying naskh. One report states that ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (40/661), the Prophet’s cousin and the fourth caliph after him, once asked a judge he came across whether he had knowledge of the “nasikh (abrogating rulings)” and the “mansukh abrogated rulings),” to which the man answered “no.” ‘Alī told him that he was fatally deluded and misleading others. This narrative is found in the earliest surviving book on abrogation, which dates back to the second decade of the 3rd century Hijri.2 In his early collection of Ḥadīth, Dārimī (255/869) has a narrative stating that one should consider giving rulings to people only if he has distinguished “the abrogating verses from the abrogated ones in the Qur’an” or is a ruler who needs to enact laws.3
In his book on naskh, Aḥmad al-Naḥḥās (338/949) also quotes a number of accounts emphasizing the necessity of learning the science of naskh. ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib once saw a man in a mosque who made people fearful. ‘Alī asked about what the man was doing and he was told that the man was making people fear Allah. ‘Alī said that the man was instead showing off . He asked for the man to be brought to him and questioned him on whether he knew the science of the abrogating and abrogated rulings to which the man answered in the negative. ‘Alī told him to leave the mosque and to not preach in it again.4 Naḥḥās also says that Ibn ‘Abbās (68/687) is said to have interpreted the Qur’anic verse “and anyone who is given Wisdom has been given much good” (2.269) as referring mainly to the science of naskh.5
The 5th century Hijri scholar Yūsuf b. ‘Abd al-Bir quotes Yaḥyā bin Aktham (242/857) as having said that “none of all sciences is more of a duty to learn on the scholars, students, and all Muslims than the science of the nasikh and mansukh.”6 He explains that it is necessary for the Muslim to know which rulings should be implemented and which had been abolished. The renowned 9th century scholar Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī quotes the consensus of earlier scholars that “no one should try to interpret the Book of Allah before learning its abrogating and abrogated verses.”7
But there is at least one ḥadith suggesting that a well-known Companion of the Prophet did not believe in naskh. In a ḥadith in Bukhārī (256/870), Ibn ‘Abbās has reported that ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (23/644) has said:
The best Qur’anic expert among us is Ubayy and the best legal expert among us is ‘Alī. But we ignore some of what Ubayy states because he says: “I will never abandon anything I heard from the Messenger of Allah,” yet Allah has said: “Whatever aya We nansakh (abrogate) or cause to be forgotten (nunsiha)” (2.106).8
‘Umar here denounces Ubayy’s rejection of the concept of abrogation. Verse 2.106 is seen as one of the main verses that confirm the principle of naskh.9
Muslim scholars see abrogation as a mechanism that perfectly reflects God’s omnipotence. God can change any ruling with another at any point in time He sees fit. This does not contravene God’s omniscience, because He knows the temporariness or permanence of any ruling from the time He issues it. Abrogation does not reflect any change in God’s knowledge. It is one way in which He delivers His commandments and runs the affairs of the world.
The significance of abrogation is not confined to its important role in the development of the Islamic legal system. Assessing this concept and its historicity is critical to understanding the process of transmission and compilation of the Qur’anic text and its integrity. In my view, a researcher cannot write unambiguously about the history of the Qur’anic text without clarifying their position on abrogation, whether they accept it as a genuine Qur’anic principle or no, and explaining the implications of this position for their assessment of the various claims in the primary sources about the Qur’anic passages that are not part of the written Qur’an. Even presuming the historicity of abrogation while overlooking the fact that it has meant very different things to different scholars undermines the value of any work on the history of the Qur’anic text. This is a serious flaw I find in works such as Muḥammad al-A‘ẓamī’s The History of the Qur’anic Text From Revelation to Compilation.10
Other legal principles, such as “qiyas (analogical reasoning),” are concerned only with the hermeneutics of the text but not its history. Abrogation, therefore, is unique in its implications for the history and transmission of the Qur’anic text as well as its meanings and objectives.
This article has been extracted from the “Introduction” to Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law: A Critical Study of the Concept of “Naskh” and its Impact