How is it possible that verses of the Qur’an can be abrogated? Does this imply that the Qur’an is somehow ‘imperfect’? Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali responds to a questioner about the topic of abrogation in the Qur’an.
Question: I have been attending a lecture series during Ramadan alhamdullilah, and there are several new and interesting things being said by the speaker, which I have not really come across and I wanted to ask you about your understanding.
On the topic of abrogation, the speaker indicated that early scholars were often unable to pinpoint the exact number and/or location of abrogated verses (mansukha and the nasikh). The number started at around 244 to 100 and then down the line to recent times where a recent scholar indicates there to be only 6 abrogated verses.
However, his lecture was how none of the Quran is abrogated – He did research to indicate that even these 6 are not abrogated and are still valid today. I appreciated it what he said about this because I remember when I was going over the commentary with you that it was unsettling when we were talking about abrogation in particular. His niyat in this research and presentation was to honor and preserve every line of the Quran, and historically there have been so many differences on how many and which verses are abrogated that it affects the integrity of the Quran. I feel even uncomfortable writing that last sentence. The Quran is the perfect word of God and everything stands true since it was revealed. I appreciated this. What are your thoughts?
Shaykh Abdullah’s response: It is true that scholars have differed greatly about the number of verses in the Qur’an which have been abrogated as you have outlined above. There is no agreement on the number of verses which have been abrogated, but there is a general agreement that abrogation has happened and that there are “some” abrogated verses.
This much cannot be denied, especially since there are two verses in particular in the Qur’an itself that clearly establish the reality of abrogation from the way they read and the way they have been understood historically by scholars. Those two verses are 2:106 and 16:101.
You must remember that abrogation is of three types and that not all scholars have agreed that each of those types have actually occurred; just as they have differed about what kind of source (mutawatir or ahadi) can abrogate another whereas some say that the latter can abrogate the former while others say that cannot happen.
The basic definition of abrogation is “the removal of the RULING of an earlier verse/hadith by the ruling passed down in a later verse/hadith.” In other words, the kind of abrogation that everyone agrees does exist is the kind where a scriptural source alters the “ruling” of another scriptural source, not necessarily one that eliminates the text.
As for the elimination of the ruling and the text together, this kind of abrogation can also not be denied in light of the fact that we all as Muslims believe that the Qur’an abrogates the rulings of the Torah and Gospel which conflicts with what is found in the Qur’an. Beyond that, we can differ, of course, about whether or not certain Qur’anic verses were revealed and then later removed from the Holy Book. Not believing that such a thing has occurred does not threaten one’s faith.
What is also true is that many of the verses which were claimed to have been abrogated in actuality merely qualified other unqualified sources or specified certain other general scriptural sources. That notwithstanding, there still are verses in the Qur’an if not accepted as being an abrogated “ruling” would lead to the conclusion that there is indeed contradiction in the Qur’an: a thing the Qur’an itself totally rejects as a claim (4:82). Take for instance that when speaking of the punishment for female fornicators Sura 4:15 stipulates that they should be detained “in their homes until death reaches them or Allah makes a way for them.” But Sura 24:2 makes the punishment 100 stripes. Even if we say that Allah mentioned in the first verse, “until Allah makes a way for them”, and 100 stripes is the way made, so there is no abrogation, that would not be a coherent argument, since this is the essence of abrogation which is defined as “the lifting of an earlier RULING by a later RULING.”
Another example of this is that 2:240 regarding a woman’s mourning period after her husband’s death, it is mentioned to be for a complete year. However, in 2:234 the mourning period is 4 months and 10 days. If one does not abrogate the other, what sort of rationale can be presented to explain these two separate rulings. Even if you say that one is wajib and the other is mandub, this still doesn’t resolve the problem. Rather, this further emphasizes the reality of abrogation, since it could be claimed that it militates against the divine wisdom for the Creator to reveal at the same time two different rulings—one being compulsory to follow and the other being nearly recommended. What utility could there be in such a decision? And how does it benefit human beings to have two different rulings of this nature at one in the same time?
The fact is that the verses were not revealed at the same time. That is, the former was revealed before the latter. So the ruling changed as means of mercy for women left in mourning somewhat similar to how it was forbidden to visit graveyards at the start of the prophetic mission but then allowed years later or how they were forbidden from storing meat for more than three days but then allowed to do so once they had a better means to preserve it. That the Qur’an abrogating itself does not make it an “imperfect” text except for in the minds of those who might wonder why even the Qur’an was not revealed in one installment like the Pagans did (25:77).
Nor does is an abrogated verse rendered “untrue” due to being abrogated by another. Rather, both the abrogating and the abrogated are deemed “true” precisely because they issue from the Ultimate Truth (Al-Haqq). To paraphrase the controversial Sufi Muhyuddin Ibn ‘Arabi who said when speaking about how Islam abrogates previous revealed laws (shara’i): “The abrogation of the other revealed law codes by Islam does not render them to be false no more than the fact that the sun obliterates the light of the stars doesn’t mean that the stars no longer exist.”
And Allah knows best
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali
For more detailed information on this topic, join our Lamppost Course-“A Brief History of the Qur’an” with Shaykh Abdullah Ali! Click the image below for more details!