Jan 262013

This is a summary of the third Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture that I delivered at the IAIS, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2013. A revised version of the full lecture can be found here.

The term “Qur’an” stands for verses that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad over 22 years. These revelations were compiled and written down in what is known as the “mushaf.” So the mushaf is the written record of the Qur’an. Most people, including many Muslims, use the terms “Qur’an” and “mushaf” interchangeably.

However, there are a number of narratives in the books of Hadith that specify or refer to verses and even complete chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an that are said to have been “withdrawn” by God during the life of the Prophet. The total number of these alleged verses is in the hundreds! As a result, these Qur’anic verses and chapters were not included in the mushaf. Such narratives are found in all major compilations of Hadith, including Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, and others.

These hadiths suggest that the withdrawn verses fall in two categories. First, verses that the Prophet and the Muslims were made to forget by God. Second, verses that were still being remembered. Accepting such narratives as authentic, scholars have considered the process of withdrawing verses a form of a broader divine phenomenon that they called “naskh” or “abrogation”. Abrogation is mainly a legal principle, but it has been applied to the withdrawal of the texts of Qur’anic verses.

Abrogation refers to the mechanism used by God to withdraw the ruling of a verse, its text, or both its ruling and text. In the last two modes of abrogation, the verse does not exist in the mushaf. Most of the alleged verses that are not found in the mushaf are said to have been abrogated with their rulings, but there are a few that are said to have had their texts abrogated even though their rulings are still operative. An example of these is the so-called “stoning verse.”

Scholars have needed to resort to what they consider a divine mechanism to explain how the texts of some Qur’anic verses were withdrawn. Otherwise, it would have looked as if some verses of the Qur’an were wrongly not recorded in the mushaf. This would have questioned the process of compiling the mushaf and, ultimately, the integrity of the latter. This is why they resorted to abrogation, and which is why this doctrine is at the heart of the ongoing debate between Muslims and non-Muslims about the integrity of the process of compiling and writing down the revelation of the Qur’an. But is abrogation the real answer to this extremely important question? If no, what could be the real answer?

I will present the kind of Hadith narratives that suggest that he mushaf does not contain all of the Qur’anic verses and discuss serious issues concerning their credibility. I will also introduce abrogation, trace its historical development, discuss its various modes, and give examples of its role in forming Islamic law and its explanatory function with respects to the withdrawal of the supposed verses.

I will also introduce the controversies surrounding this doctrine and explain how different assumptions, interpretations, and approaches lead to completely different views of abrogation. While most scholars have given abrogation a major role in both the formation of Islamic law and the compilation of the mushaf, a growing minority has rejected the historicity of abrogation, considering it a confused doctrine under which different concepts and phenomena have been lumped together. Indeed, even scholars who accept abrogation have expressed very different understandings of what this doctrine is supposed to be!

Exposing the inauthenticity of those hadiths and the non-historicity of abrogation while quoting the Qur’an itself, I will show that the mushaf has preserved every verse and word of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
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Dec 162012

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.


Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
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Sep 232012

 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.


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Sep 082012

“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.


For the meanings of “Sunna” and “Ḥadith,” see Appendix A.
2 Abū ‘Ubaid al-Qāsim b. Sallām, Al-Nāsikh wal-Mansūkh fī al-Qur’an al-‘Azīz wamā fīhi min al-Farāid˙ wal-Sunan, p. 4. Some versions of this narrative, like Abū ʿUbaid’s, identify the person as a “storyteller” rather than a “judge,” whose Arabic words are similar, but the context suggests that “judge” is the correct one.
3 ‘Abd Allāh al-Dārimī, Musnad al-Dārimī, I, no. 178, pp. 272–73.
4 Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Naḥḥās, Al-Nāsikh wal-Mansūkh fī Kitāb Allah ‘Azza wa-Jall wa-Ikhtilāf al-‘Ulamā’ fī dhālik, II, p. 410.
5Ibid., II, p. 411.
6 Yūsuf Ibn ʿAbd al-Bir, Jami‘ Bayān al-‘Ilm wa-Faḍlih, I, p. 767.
7 Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūt˙ī, Al-Itqān fī Ulūm al-Qur’an, IV, p. 1435.
8 Muḥammad al-Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi al-Ṣaḥīḥ, III, no. 4300, p. 8.
9I will discuss this verse in detail later in the book (pp. 47–54).
10 Muḥammad Aẓamī, The History of the Qur’anic Text From Revelation to Compilation.


Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
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