On the Theory of Abrogation (Naskh) in the Qur’an

For a very thorough critique of the Theory of Naskh I recommend John Burton, The Sources of Islamic Law, Islamic theory of abrogation, Edinburgh, 1990.

The following is an excerpt from my second book where I discuss the theory of Naskh
and it’s connection to the Dar al Harb/Dar al Islam political theory.

As I see it, the theory of abrogation, although widely accepted by Muslim scholars, has several weak points. To begin with, there is no explicit authenticated saying of Muhammed that states this theory or that asserts that some verse has permanently annulled another. All of the hadith (reports of sayings of the Prophet) that speak of abrogation are considered weak by Muslim experts. If a Companion of the Prophet felt that one verse permanently cancelled another, that was his or her personal interpretation. For Muslims, only a statement of Muhammed that a verse had been abrogated should be authoritative and there exist no reliable reports of this nature.

Verses 2:106 and 16:101 of the Quran are often cited in support of the theory of abrogation, but the context indicates that the annulled revelations referred to are those received by prophets that came before Prophet Muhammad; at the very least, this would be a very natural and plausible interpretation.

Another weakness in the theory is that among the Muslim scholars who accept it, there is wide disagreement on exactly which verses are abrogated and to what extent. In almost all cases where abrogation has been upheld by one writer, there are other writers who argue against the alleged abrogation. Muhammad Ali shows that even with the Companions of Muhammed we find that:

In most cases where a report is traceable to one Companion who held a certain verse to have been abrogated, there is another report traceable to another Companion to the effect that the verse was not abrogated.

It is true that when Muhammed and his Companions met new or altered situations, verses were often revealed that addressed the new circumstances, and then the Muslims would make the appropriate modifications or alterations in their behavior. But there is no reason to conclude from this that one passage of the Quran permanently annulled another. Sometimes, a particular revelation would simply elaborate on or extend a previously revealed ordinance, as in the case of the verses that prohibit drinking wine. In such cases, the earlier injunction and the new one complement each other. On other occasions, the Quran would revise prior instructions in light of changed circumstancesas in the case of the revelation of 9:5חbut here again, since the different injunctions deal with different situations, there is no reason to surmise a conflict between them.

There is, in fact, no need for the theory of abrogation. It was used to resolve what Muslim scholars felt were certain contradictory Quranic injunctions, but if close attention is paid to the context of the Quran’s precepts, one finds that they do not contradict each other. The Quran itself points to the absence of such internal discrepancies as proof of its divine origins (4:82). Cases where some Muslim scholars sensed a contradiction invariably deal with very different situations. Thus when interpreting the Quran’s ordinances, the situational context must not be ignored, for then it becomes easy to mistake an exception for a general rule and vice versa, or to perceive a conflict between passages where none exists.

Finally, the theory of abrogation appears to claim that God has placed in the last revelation to mankind superfluous information and He has had to frequently correct Himself in the process of revealing it. This perception is very hard to square with the Quran’s depiction of God. Not surprisingly, quite a number of converts to Islam informed me that they were shocked and their faith severely shaken when they first discovered this theory.

Therefore, I feel that there is no real need or justification for the classical theory of abrogation. Yet without this theory, the Quran cannot be used to support waging war other than in self-defense or against oppression. This is proved by the fact that such a massive application of the theory of abrogation is needed to justify the type of military expansion advocated by the dar al Islam/dar al harb formula. Clearly, the Quran’s passages that deal with warfare weigh heavily against such unprovoked aggression.


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