Masood N. Khan M.D.
One of the most perplexing ideas in relation to divine revelation, especially for a mind that has totally submitted to the belief that Quran in its entirety is a divinely revealed book and every word of it is full of guidance, is abrogation of verses. Literally meant “cancellation” or “suspension”, Muslims for centuries have been made to believe that there are verses in Quran with no validity of application because they have been replaced by other verses. By one rather conservative estimate, about seventy one chapters of Quran contain abrogated verses though, thank god, there is disagreement among exegetes of Quran about the exact number. It is important to dissect this concept to find out how and when this idea was introduced and by who because without doubt this concept has had deep and far reaching consequences in the understanding of Islam.
Before we go into details about its history, a very fundamental and simple question to be asked is whether Quran or the Prophet of Islam categorically declared a verse, abrogated and inapplicable, and if Prophet’s companions who were the direct recipients of the revelation understood as such. It is uncontentious that Quran has neither identified a verse as abrogated nor has identified a verse which abrogated the other verse. Accordingly the Prophet also is not reported to have identified any verse abrogated or abrogating. Naturally no companion of the Prophet could have dared to identify any such verse either.
What follows then about the idea of abrogation of certain verses, falls in the domain of earlier scholars and exegetes of Quran about two centuries after the departure of the Prophet. There lies the problem. When one investigates the origin of this idea, the sanction to abrogate certain verses seems to have been taken from the misinterpretation of following verses of Quran.
a. “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten but that We bring a better one in its place” (2:106)
b. “Allah obliterates whatever (verses) He chooses and confirms others, for with Him is the mother of all books” (13:39)
c. “And when We substitute one verse for another – and Allah knows best what He sends down; they say you are but a forger, surely most of them are ignorant”. (16:101)
It is simply outrageous that based upon a simple principle highlighted in the above verses that the author of Quran, in His absolute wisdom and power reserves the right to abrogate any verse in order to replace it with another, the earlier scholars around 9th or 10th century AD took the liberty to actually begin condemning verses of Quran to abrogation. They seem to have disregarded even a highly plausible understanding of the above verses that they are in fact, in addition to their inherently and autonomously applicable meaning, were also possibly a response to the objections of Jews and Christians as to the claim of Quran that it has come to replace earlier revelations. God has clearly refuted such objections in the above verses by saying that yes with God it is absolutely possible to replace an earlier scripture with another of same value or even better.
There is yet another mysteriously significant reason for self-proclaimed sanction to abrogate a given verse, derived from Quran, as in the verse below.
“We have not sent any apostle or prophet before you (O Muhammad) who had the desire (that his warning would be heeded) that the Satan did not try to ill- cross in some manner. But Allah has in every case brought to naught what Satan had attempted and Allah thus reaffirms his revelations. Allah is all knowing and wise” (22:52)
In explaining this verse, it has been blasphemously related to a highly questionable, rather baseless incident that the Prophet, with a desire to please the unbelievers and gain their favor, added an unrevealed verse in the middle of the revelation of the chapter “Al-Najm” subscribing to their venerated idols “laathh” and “Uzza” the power to intercede. This addition of a verse from the Prophet was attributed to aspersions from Satan that the verse above has mentioned. It is said this unholy verse was removed by Archangel Gabriel with a warning from God given to the Prophet as in verses 73 to 75 of the chapter “Bani Israel”. These verses translate as follows.
“ Veriy they had well-nigh lured you(O Prophet) from what We had revealed to you and caused you to substitute something else in Our name and thus take you for a friend” (73)
“And had We not steadied you at the moment, you had well-nigh leaned a little towards them” (74)
“In that case you would surely have felt it (remorse) in life and a double remorse at death: then you should not have found a helper against Us.” (75)
Making this incident the base, it is claimed that abrogation of a verse is possible. I share my disbelief with many other researchers that such incident with the Prophet ever happened. But by a disrespectful stretch of imagination if at all any such incident could be attributed to the Prophet, still it does not provide any sanction for any human being to resort to abrogation of verses in Quran.
If God did decide to abrogate a verse what would be its process and end result, He alone would know. What Muslims should know clearly is the fact that God has revealed His verses to Prophet and they have all been without any question, in Quran. They all have to be meaningful, valid and applicable.
Having said that, progressive revelation of Quran is an understandable fact. It was meant to promote evolutionary development of an upright community in which mankind was led from one stage of development to another with verses suitably guiding at every stage. It is very likely that because of the progressive revelations, there could be an apparent contradiction between a verse of earlier stage and that revealed at a later stage of development. Unable to reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses, the earlier exegetes of Quran, finite and limited as they were, in their ability to comprehend, recklessly concluded that one of the two seemingly contradictory verses superseded the one that stood abrogated. If one examines the verses condemned to abrogation, each one of them is clear in meaning, carrying guidance totally independent of any contradiction much less reconciliation through abrogation.
The very idea that certain verses in Quran are abrogated is extremely dangerous. It challenges the very belief that Quran is wholesomely a divine revelation with guidance in its each and every verse. No matter how hard one tries to convince that the abrogation was done with a sincere intent to eliminate so called contradictions between certain verses, the fact that neither Quran nor the Prophet confirmed any verse as abrogated simply flies on the face and gets reduced to a reckless and unholy tampering with Quran.
Further, to compound its ill-consequences, the concept of abrogation creates confusion and doubts requiring complicated interpretations to replace plain and straightforward delivery of truth and guidance. In order to sustain and justify this misleading concept, so called scholarly explanations, which in fact are nothing but superfluous and hair-splitting elaborations and laughable verbosities, were extended to impress people as one can see in the following terminology introduced to explain different categories of abrogation.
naskh al-hukm wa-’l-tilāwa: The abrogation of both wording and the ruling.
naskh al-tilāwa dūna al-hukm: abrogation of the wording but not the ruling.
naskh al-hukm dūna al-tilāwa: abrogation of the ruling but not the wording.
The idea of abrogation of verses is yet another example of how scholarship in religion can behave like a two edged sword, inflicting distortion and complexities to a simple and dynamic message of guidance. It should draw the attention of Mislims to a sad delusion that they should accept without question what was presented to them in the name of scholarship because they are unqualified to comment or opine on issues relating to faith.
It is high time Muslims should use their mind to critically evaluate any conclusion already drawn or needed to be drawn concerning their faith and reject it if necessary without any hesitation. The impression that a scholar knows better than us and we simply need to follow what he says has collectively created a mass reinforcement of two thing; one an unhealthy hegemony of scholars imposing their opinions on the masses and driving them to even violent behavior, what we could justifiably call as ‘Mullah Mafia” and second, inglorious ingots of rigid and inflexible interpretations of faith-related issues casted in the minds of the people under the seal of scholarship and made widespread in the community.