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
The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars, past and modern, have accepted abrogation in both the Qur’an and the Sunna as an indisputable fact. Only a very small minority has rejected Qur’anic abrogation. We know this opposition existed because it is condemned and vilified in the earliest works on abrogation. But this ostensible consensus of the majority conceals enormous differences in the way abrogation is understood. For instance, some scholars have identified over two hundred Qur’anic verses that they claim to have been abrogated by other Qur’anic verses or by sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad, whereas others have reduced the number to a single digit! How many and which verses were the subject of abrogation is only one aspect of the enormous disagreements between scholars. Differences about abrogation date as far back as the earliest surviving writings on the subject. In the late 4th to early 5th century Hijri, Hibat Allāh b. Salāma explained that he wrote his book on abrogation because “exegetes ignored this science, did not preserve it, and have been confused about it.”[i]
Western scholars, on the other hand, have held a completely different view of abrogation and its origins. They see it as a mechanism that Muslim scholars had to introduce to explain away intrinsic contradictions within the Qur’an:
Of immediate concern to these men were certain passages that bore on the same issues but that seemed mutually contradictory. Their attempts to harmonize such Qur’anic texts marked the rudimentary beginnings of the theory of abrogation (naskh), a theory that later stood at the center of legal hermeneutics.[ii]
Abrogation was later used to deal with contradictions between the Qur’an and the Sunna as the literature of the latter grew along with the contradictions between the two.
Burton, however, has shown that the perceived contradiction within the Qur’an is often the result of misinterpretation of verses. The contradiction is not intrinsic in the Qur’an but is the result of unsuccessful attempts at interpreting the text.[iii] This view was earlier suggested by a Muslim scholar in the first half of the 20th century who rejected the concept of abrogation.[iv]
Another established concept among Western scholars is that the practices of the early Muslim communities did not always reflect the Qur’an’s teachings. Ingenious interpretation of specific verses was one way of dealing with these conflicts. Exegetes sought to reconcile those differences between the Qur’an and practice using the Qur’an itself, thus interpreting verses in a manner that would give practice Qur’anic foundations and, therefore, remove any suggestion that it contradicted the Book of Allah.
Western scholars have identified another approach that grew in the decades after the Prophet which is the authoring of statements attributed to him, his Companions, and their Successors to support the legitimacy of such common practices. The Prophet’s sayings are seen by Muslim scholars as extra-Qur’anic revelation from God. Teachings attributed to the early pious Muslims are considered to have been influenced by and originated from Muhammad. This extra-Qur’anic material was then used to supplement the Qur’an, becoming over time the second source of Islamic law. The theories of abrogation then used exegesis and this secondary source to present any practice as genuinely Islamic. If practice contradicted the Qur’an, the supportive statements by the Prophet are considered to have abrogated the Qur’an and to have been the bases for the practice. More broadly, many Western scholars believe that the study of Islamic law focused on reconciling practices that had developed in the regional Muslim communities with the Qur’an and the Prophetic legacy:
Legal scholars appealed to the principle of abrogation continually to resolve the apparent contradictions between the legal practice of the various regions of the Islamic world and between all of these and their putative sources in the revelation.[v]
Burton has rightly pointed out that another source of abrogation theories has been the belief that the written record of the Qur’anic revelation, the “muṣḥaf,” does not contain all of that divine revelation. The missing verses were said to have been abrogated.
[i] Hibat Allāh Ibn Salāma, Al-Nāsikh wal-Mansūkh, p. 8.
[ii] Wael B. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, p. 66.
[iii] John Burton, The Sources of Islamic Law: Islamic Theories of Abrogation.
[iv] ʿAbd al-Mutaʿāl al-Jabrī, Al-Naskh fī al-Sharīʿa al-Islāmiyya Kamā Afhamuh: Al-Nāsikh wal-Mansūkh Baina al-Ithbāt wal-Nafī, p. 102.
[v] John Burton, “Abrogation,” I, p. 16; see also Wael B. Hallaq, “Law and the Qur’an,” III, p. 154.