Chapter 1 begins with a brief introduction to the generic meaning of the term “naskh” in Arabic before it moves to focus on the technical meaning of this term. Tracing it in the earliest sources, the chapter discusses how this concept developed from its most basic form to the complex principle it became. It demonstrates that the technical meaning of the term as the abrogation of a divine ruling by a later divine ruling was unknown to the first generation of Muslims, is a later development, and that the three different modes of abrogation developed at different stages. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the three types of abrogation and the main points of difference between scholars about this doctrine.
Abrogation is one of the mechanisms that guided the development of Islamic law. Chapter 2 considers whether changes to the laws of previous religions can be seen as cases of abrogation, i.e. whether abrogation is a concept that operates within Prophet Muhammad’s divine message only or whether it existed in the messages of previous prophets also. We will study such changes from the point of view of the Qur’an, not their respective religious laws, as we are interested in examining whether the concept of abrogation, even in reference to changes involving pre-Islamic religious laws, exists in the Qur’an.
There are four variants of the term “naskh” in as many verses in the Qur’an, and these are the subject of Chapter 3. Two use the term in the generic sense of “transcribe,” but the other two have been seen by scholars as providing support to the principle of abrogation. A detailed examination of both verses shows that neither refers to the concept of abrogation. In other words, the term “naskh” never appears in the Qur’an in the meaning it acquired in Islamic law.
There are two other verses that do not use the term “naskh” but which have been seen as referring to abrogation. Chapter 4 shows that, like the verses that have the word “naskh,” these verses have nothing to do with the principle of abrogation. Chapters 3 and 4 leave no doubt that abrogation is not a Qur’anic concept. This concept did not originate from the Qur’an but was read into it.
The shaky conceptual grounds on which abrogation stands must have had inconcealable practical consequences for the development of this principle. There must have been a lot of confusion about what abrogation exactly means and how it is applied. This, indeed, is what Chapter 5 illustrates. It first discusses differences between scholars about the concept of abrogation and then examines the type of mistakes scholars have made when applying their definitions of this concept. It then presents statistics showing the significant differences in identifying the number of abrogated verses according to a select group of scholars from different times.
Chapter 6 deals with the first of the three modes of abrogation: the abrogation of the ruling but not the wording of a Qur’anic verse or what I call “legal abrogation.” Many verses are said to have been abrogated in this manner. In this chapter, I review the six cases that have attracted the most agreement among scholars. All of these claims turn out to be based on misinterpretations of the verses in question.
One case may be claimed to be an instance of abrogation, but even in this solitary instance the non-abrogation interpretation is more plausible. One verse that is claimed to have abrogated numerous verses is what scholars have called “the verse of the sword.” This verse is claimed to have abrogated many verses that instruct Muslims to be tolerant to non-Muslims, accommodate other religions, show forgiveness, and seek peace. These abrogation claims have been used in modern times by terrorists who have committed various atrocities under the name of Islam. Chapter 7 shows that all those abrogation claims have no foundations in the Qur’an. They take the application of abrogation to a new level of absurdity. Although the subject of this chapter represents a specific alleged case of legal abrogation, I have given it its own chapter because of its significance in today’s world.
The case of the verse of the sword is particularly useful in elucidating how the principle of abrogation became itself a major driver for the growth of claims of abrogated verses. The list of verses that this verse is supposed to have abrogated continued to grow over time. Once the concept of abrogation was accepted, it started to be the source of various abrogation claims. Abrogation became one tool that could be called upon in legal and exegetical debates to substantiate one’s position.
The Ḥadīth makes a critical difference between the content of the “muṣḥaf” and the “Qur’an.” It claims that the muṣḥaf does not contain all Qur’anic verses, as some of these were “withdrawn” by God during the life of the Prophet and consequently not recorded in the muṣḥaf when it was compiled after his death. This withdrawal was at times performed by God making the Prophet and the Muslims forget verses that had been revealed, and at other times by the divine will ensuring that those verses were not included in the muṣḥaf. Chapter 8 demonstrates how the concept of withdrawn verses, which translates into the conclusion that the muṣḥaf does not contain all Qur’anic verses, is fundamentally flawed. The chapter also explains how one of the three modes of abrogation was introduced to present the alleged absence of some verses from the muṣḥaf as a divine act, thus averting any questioning of the process of compiling the muṣḥaf and, ultimately, the integrity of the latter.
The claim that the Prophet was made to forget some Qur’anic verses is a major driver in the development of the theory of abrogation, leading to the formulation of the legal-textual mode of abrogation. Indeed, it has broader implications for the history of the Qur’anic text. This is why I have dedicated Chapter 9 to a detailed discussion of it. I first show that the claim of forgotten verses has no foundation in the Qur’an. I then examine the Ḥadīth narratives that promote this notion and expose their serious problems.
One of the anonymous reviewers of the book suggested combining Chapters 8 and 9. The two chapters are related and can be combined. But whether the text of the muṣḥaf contains the whole of the Qur’an, which is addressed in Chapter 8, does not depend only on whether Prophet Muhammad forgot some verses, which is discussed in Chapter 9. It also depends on when the text was recorded, how it was transmitted, the reliability of the transmission process, etc. I chose to focus Chapter 9 on whether Muhammad forgot verses because this is at the heart of the argument of abrogation — hence my preference for separating the two chapters.
Chapter 10 discusses the second mode of abrogation: the abrogation of the wording and ruling of a Qur’anic verse. I call this “legal-textual abrogation.” In Chapter 8, I explained that this mode of abrogation was developed to explain why the muṣḥaf does not contain certain Qur’anic verses. In Chapter 10, I show how this view is promoted by various ḥadīths and I discuss problems in this concept.
I also study the main relevant ḥadīths and show that they lack credibility. We will see, for instance, that most of these alleged verses are non-legalistic, yet all modes of abrogation imply that they deal with verses that introduce legal rulings. Using legal-textual abrogation to explain the absence of the alleged verses from the muṣḥaf is not only doomed to fail, but is also self-contradictory as abrogation, by definition, cannot be applied to those missing passages.
The abrogation of the wording but not the ruling of a Qur’anic verse is the subject of Chapters 11 and 12. There are two passages that are not found in the muṣḥaf and a missing word from a verse in the muṣḥaf that are claimed to represent “textual abrogation,” as I call this mode of abrogation. I examine the so-called “stoning verse” separately in Chapter 11, because of the length of this discussion, and I deal with the other two cases in Chapter 12.
Again, Ḥadīth narratives are used to support these claims. Yet my examination of these ḥadīths will show that they cannot be linked to the Prophet. As is the case with the instances of legal-textual abrogation, the alleged passages are not historical, i.e. they were never part of the Qur’an. Their absence from the muṣḥaf is not due to abrogation, another mechanism, deliberate manipulation, or accident. It is simply a reflection of the fact that none of them is a Qur’anic verse.
Having reviewed the three modes of abrogation, my conclusion is that abrogation is a phenomenon that lacks any support from the Qur’an. The three modes were developed to address three different concerns. Legal abrogation, which was probably the first mode of abrogation to appear, was the result of perceived contradictions between certain Qur’anic verses. These misinterpretations were at times chosen by exegetes to explain the prevalence of certain practices that contradicted Qur’anic rulings.
Legal-textual abrogation was needed to rationalize the belief driven by certain narratives that the muṣḥaf did not contain all verses of the Qur’an. In the case of textual abrogation, which is the last mode of abrogation to be proposed, the alleged two passages and one missing word from the muṣḥaf were invented to give Qur’anic support to widely accepted legal rulings. In the case of stoning, this ruling was in conflict with verses in the muṣḥaf. The fact that the rulings of the two passages and the word are operative meant that they could not be covered by legal-textual abrogation, so they had to be given their own mode of abrogation.
The three modes of abrogation were driven and supported by a large number of ḥadīths. The fact, however, is that there is nothing in the Qur’an to substantiate abrogation, let alone portray it as a major principle in the formation of Qur’anic law.
While this book is focused on abrogation in the Qur’an, for completeness, Chapter 13 tackles briefly abrogation in the Sunna. The term “Sunna” denotes all that the Prophet said, did, and approved and disapproved of. These include not only non-Qur’anic instructions from God but personal opinions of Muhammad the man. It is natural, therefore, to expect the Prophet to have changed his mind at times, permitting something he had once banned, prohibiting something he had allowed, or, generally, replacing one instruction with another. This conclusion has no implications for the non-historical concept of abrogation in the Qur’an.
Some of the flaws in the principle of abrogation reflect a fundamental misunderstanding by Muslim jurists of the concept of Islamic law in the Qur’an and the role of the Prophet in implementing it. There are at least serious inconsistencies in how these have been understood and used in formulating Islamic law. This critical issue is discussed in Chapter 14. A coherent model for understanding the concept of Islamic law is presented.
The findings of this book are summarized in Chapter 15. The chapter draws together the main conclusions of this study.
Appendix A explains the concepts of “Ḥadīth” and “Sunna” and the differences between them, as this understanding is essential for reading the book.
For the reader’s convenience, the book has two indexes, one for the Qur’anic verses and the other for names and subjects.
I have added a Glossary covering the technical terms used in the book for easy reference.