The doctrine of abrogation is based fairly and squarely on the teaching of the Quran itself, in particular the verse “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we substitute something better or similar” (Al Baqarrah 2:106). In the early days of Islam this text was taken to mean that parts of the Quran could become abrogated (mansukh) while other fresh revelations, the naskh texts, were sent down to replace them. Both the great commentators al-Baidawi and Zamakhshari taught emphatically that the abrogated verses should no longer be recited and that any laws based on them were to be regarded as annulled. It was generally believed that the abrogated verses were deleted from the Quran by Gabriel though in many cases both the original text and the one abrogating it are said to have been retained and are still part of the Quran text.
Doctrine of abrogation opposed to the idea of God’s immutability and truth
Popular sentiment demands that the Quran has been preserved perfectly to the last dot and letter by Allah himself, nothing varied, added or omitted. The problem for modern Muslims is that the Quran claims to proceed from a “preserved tablet” (Al-Buruj 85:22) and the question obviously arises – if parts of the Quran have been abrogated and eliminated, were they on the original heavenly tablet or not? If they were, then the Quran today is not an exact replica of the text on that tablet for they could not have been removed from it, the Quran being regarded as Allah’s eternal speech. If they were not on the tablet, how did they come to be delivered to Muhammad as part of the text?
The doctrine is unpalatable to thinking Muslims for it represents Allah as a divine author who revokes his earlier announcements as though he had cause to change his mind or had, in time, discovered a better course of action.
Which verses are abrogated?
There are twenty cases given in which one revelation superseded, contradicted or abrogated a previous revelation to Muhammad. (Jalal-ud-din Suyuti lists the passages in his Al-Itqan). Most commentators acknowledge that the following subjects are covered by abrogation by being replaced with a new verse (mansukh/ Nasikh): The Qibla, Retaliation, Ramadan, Expiation, Fear of God, Jihad (4 verses), Widows, Enemies, Adulteress, Witnesses, Marriage, Prophet’s wives, Alms, Women taken in marriage, Night Prayer, Young children and Property. Below we provide a few examples of the influence of abrogation.
Marriage: In respect of marriage the law is relaxed. Around 2 AH we read: “Do not marry unbelieving woman (idolaters) until they believe ……… Nor marry (your girls) to unbelievers until they believe…… ” (AI-Baqqarah 2:221) This same idea is repeated in AH 5 or 6 : “If any of you does not have the money to marry a believing free woman he may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess” (Al-Nisa 4:25). The teaching here is very clear that both men, and women should marry only believers because the unbeliever may lead one to unbelief and the fire of hell. However, four years later in 10 AH the rule is changed and we read: “Chaste women who are believers (Muslims) and chaste women from those to whom the Book came before your time (Jews and Christians), may be taken in marriage” (Al Mai’dah 5:5) This rule has now been broadened to include Jewish and Christian women as lawful wives.
Ceremonies of worship: have been affected for example from the year A.H 2 the Qibla, or direction toward which one should pray, was changed from Jerusalem to the sacred mosque of Mecca: “we appointed the Qibla toward which you used to face ….. but we will have thee turn to a Qibla that will please thee. Turn then thy face toward the sacred Mosque.” (Al-Baqqarah 2:142-144)
Wine: Here the law became stricter. A Meccan sura revealed a few years before the Hijra lists various drinks which are a blessing; starting with water and milk, and ending with honey. Included in this list is “And from the fruit of the date-palm and the vine, ye get out wholesome drink and food” (Al-Nahl 16 :66-69). Wine, here, is regarded as a sign of God’s interest and provision for mankind. Later, we read “They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say; ‘In them is great sin and some profit for men; But the sin is greater than the profit.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:219). This verse and Al-Nisa’ 4 :43 discourages the use of wine, but does not give an absolute command to abstain from it. But then from a sura dating from 10 AH, we find: “O ye who believe! Intoxicants and gambling …… are an abomination, of Satan’s handwork: eschew such, that ye may prosper, Satan’s plan is to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling …… will ye not then abstain?” (Al -Maidah 5: 90,91) This last revelation removed any ambiguities or doubt that rested in the earlier verses.
A verse part of the Quran but now omitted: In respect of martyrs “We used to recite, “Inform our people that we have met our Lord, He is pleased with us and He has made us pleased ” Later on this Quranic Verse was cancelled” (Bukhari Volume 4 Volume 52 Number 57, 69, 299)
What is the extent of the doctrine of abrogation?
Some Muslims deny that any of the verses of the Quran have been abrogated and teach instead that this text refers to the revelations of Allah to the Jews and Christians beforehand. This interpretation is unacceptable as the Quran nowhere specifically suggest that these previous scriptures were ever abrogated. On the contrary the Quran claims to be a scripture “confirming what went before it” (Al-Imran 3:3), namely the Taurat and the Injil. The Quran rather than affirming that the previous revelations have been abrogated states the very opposite, namely the of establishing them (c/f Al-Mai’dah 5.43, 47, 68). The Quran does not say that Allah replaces one kitab (the Taurat or the Injil, for example) with another, but rather that he substitutes one verse (ayat) for another verse.