The theory of abrogation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself has a long history in Islamic tradition and continues to find wide-ranging currency in preaching nowadays
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:19:44
The theory of abrogation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an itself has a long history in Islamic tradition and continues to find wide-ranging currency in preaching nowadays. A literary analysis of the text shows the theory to be without foundation, however. It is thus a total nonsense when, by virtue of a manifestly erroneous traditional interpretation, this theory is exploited nowadays by some people in order to abrogate all the Qur’an’s open, tolerant verses in favour of the most combative and exclusivist ones.
Today’s jihadist violence is fuelled by a literalistic reading of the Qur’an, at the heart of which lies the abrogation issue. According to such a reading, the more conciliatory verses, which order the Prophet to show patience, tolerance and forgiveness towards unbelievers (polytheists or peoples of the Book i.e. Jews and Christians), would have been abrogated by other, later verses that give the order to fight or kill them. These include the famous “sword verse”: “Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security – that, because they are a people who do not know” (Qur’an 9:5; see, also, verses 12, 14, 29, 36, 111 and 123 of the same sura).
Abrogating and Abrogated
This theory that a part of the Qur’an has been abrogated by the Qur’an itself has a long history in Islamic tradition. It was formulated within the Muslim law (fiqh) during the first centuries of the hegira, in order to solve the apparent contradictions between some of the Qur’an’s legislative verses. For the purposes of legitimating this theory, commentators and jurists (fuqahā’) played on certain verses of the Qur’an, the principal and most explicit of which is verse 106 of sura 2: “And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it.” When considered in itself, taken out of its literary context, this verse seems quite clear. God abrogates some verses and substitutes them with other, better verses and he also makes some be forgotten, substituting them with other, similar verses.
Despite the gradually increasing importance of the “science of the abrogating and the abrogated” (‘ilm al-nāsikh wa-l-mansūkh) within the Qur’anic sciences, no agreement has ever been reached about the number of abrogated verses or their identity. For some, they would amount to several hundred. For others, only a few units; perhaps five. Still others (the rationalist Mu‘tazilites, in particular – the first theological school in Islam, Ed.) totally reject the abrogation theory as being in contradiction with the idea of the Qur’an’s eternity: indeed, what sense would there be in an abrogated eternal verse? In any case, the majority of the classical commentators interpret verse 2:106 to mean that some verses of the Qur’an have been abrogated by other verses of the same Qur’an. In support of this theory, the commentators cite two anecdotes as “circumstances of the revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) of this verse. In the first, the polytheists would have complained about the fact that Muhammad used to give first one order and then another that contradicted the first: proof that they did not come from God but were his own invention; so God sent down the verse in question. In the second version, the Prophet would have received a nocturnal revelation; one that he would have immediately forgotten the following morning and God would have revealed this verse in order to reassure him.
We can already note two characteristic features of classical Qur’anic exegesis in general and of this verse, in particular: 1) the verse is interpreted in isolation, out of its immediate literary context, and 2) its interpretation is corroborated by a supposedly historical context that is external to the text but the historicity of which is questionable, to say the least.
This traditional interpretation of our verse continues to find wide-ranging currency in Islamic preaching today. Nevertheless, from the medieval era onwards and especially in a Mu‘tazilite commentator called Abū Muslim Ibn Bahr (d. 322/934),one can find traces of another interpretation according to which it is not verses of the Qur’an that are abrogated but, rather, some of the laws in the earlier holy books, the Torah and the Gospels; laws such as resting on the Sabbath or praying in the direction of the setting sun, for example. Since the majority of the Mu‘tazilite books have been destroyed, it is hard to know to what extent this interpretation weathered the centuries. However, in the work of al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153), a Persian historian who studied religions, one can find the idea that abrogation means the substitution of one religious law with a better one, by virtue of the progressive evolution of human actions.
This idea re-emerged in the modern era and in the (Urdu) commentary of the Indian reformist Sayyid Ahmad Khān (d. 1889), in particular. For him, too, verse 2:106 means abrogation of the laws revealed by the prophets preceding Islam. An Indian encyclopaedia dating to 2000 explains, under the entry “abrogation,” that if one takes account of verse 105 (“Those unbelievers of the People of the Book and the idolaters wish not that any good should be sent down upon you from your Lord”), verse 106 means that “if one law, namely the biblical law, is cancelled, then a better one is given to Muhammad.” Here we should note the attention paid to the context of verse 2:106. It appears that this idea is particularly widespread in Indo-Pakistani Islam. It can be found, in particular, in Mawdūdī, one of the fathers of the current Islamism or in the vast commentary written (in Urdu) by one of his first disciples, Amīn Ahsan Islāhī (who then followed another path): “The law of the Torah has been cancelled and replaced by one better than it. Similarly, the commandments of the Torah which the Jews had forgotten have been revived or replaced by certain other but similar commandments. Through this process of change and improvement in law, Allah seeks to move His servants toward something better than they previously had with them.”
A Pakistani scholar, Ahmad Hasan, felt able to write in a study on the abrogation theory published roughly fifty years ago that, “In view of the evident context of the verse under reference… it looks strange that some of the most eminent authorities of tafsīr, have missed the central point of this verse.”
This interpretation of verse 2:106 can also be found in the thinking of some Arab scholars, such as the contemporary Syrian commentator (and Muslim Brother) Sa‘īd Hawwā (d. 1989). And, without necessarily being related to this verse, the idea that extends the notion of abrogation to preceding revelations in their entirety is not absent from current Islamic preaching either.
Literary Analysis’s Contribution
A literary critical analysis will easily reveal the inaccuracy of the two interpretations mentioned so far: indeed, the verse regards neither the Qur’an’s abrogation by itself nor the abrogation, pure and simple, of the preceding revelations in their entirety but, rather, only of some passages in the books of those earlier revelations. In the Qur’an, the term āya (nowadays understood to mean “verse”) actually means – apart from its more general meaning of “sign” – a portion of text, a group of verses or a passage. It never means the whole text of the Book or of a Book, however.
The first step in any real literary analysis consists in placing the text under examination in its literary context. In so doing, we will be adopting exactly the opposite method to that – too often adopted in Qur’anic exegesis – which comments verse by verse, without considering the literary context. It is precisely this lack of attention to context that was behind the first interpretation of verse 2:106. No account will be taken, on the other hand, of the overly aleatory historical context of the “circumstances of revelation.” This in order to seek the text’s meaning solely in the text itself. Champions of the second interpretation have taken account of the verse’s broader context, which runs from verse 2:40 to verse 2:123 and is dedicated to a long dispute with the Jews and the peoples of the Book. As we have seen, some have noted a closer semantic connection between verses 105 and 106 but they have not researched the context any further. Nowadays, a better knowledge of the principles governing the Qur’anic text’s composition (according to the rules of Semitic rhetoric) allows a deeper study of the context and therefore of the meaning of verse 2:106, as well.
Within the great whole running from verse 40 to verse 123, it is possible to identify a smaller, self-contained section running from verse 87 to verse 121. This section, in its turn, can be broken down into three sequences: 87-103; 104-110 and 111-121. The two extreme sequences correspond with each other semantically and frame the central sequence, in which the abrogating verse 106 is to be found.
In Semitic rhetoric, the extremities and the central part of a textual unit always have a particular importance. At the centre of the first sequence (composed concentrically, following a AB/x/B’A’ schema), the Qur’an ironizes about the Jews’ claim to be exclusively chosen, not only in this world but also in the afterlife: “If the Last Abode with God is yours exclusively, and not for other people, then long for death – if you speak truly” (94). One understands, then, that it is by virtue of this claim to be exclusively chosen that the Jews reject the idea that God may send down a Book to a people that has not been chosen: “Evil is the thing they have sold themselves for, disbelieving in that which God sent down, grudging that God should send down of His bounty on whomsoever He will of His servants” (90).
Rejection of a Chosen People
The same idea of being exclusively chosen can be found again at the beginning of the third sequence (111-121), which symmetrically mirrors the first: “And they [the People of the Book] say, ‘None shall enter Paradise except that they be Jews or Christians.’ Such are their fancies. Say, ‘Produce your proof, if you speak truly!’” (111) To which the Qur’an immediately answers, “Nay, but whosoever submits his will to God, being a good-doer, his wage is with his Lord” (112). Put another way: salvation is accessible to whoever submits to God and acts well. It is not reserved to the peoples of the Book. A central verse in this third sequence expresses this idea once again: “To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God” (115).
The fact that the same idea of the Jews or the peoples of the Book being exclusively chosen is to be found both at the heart of the first sequence and at the beginning of the third is consistent with a very common procedure in Semitic rhetoric for connecting two pieces of text inspired by the same idea. In this case, such a procedure indicates that the claim made by the peoples of the Book to be exclusively chosen is at the heart of the debate in this section.
The second sequence, the central one (verses 104-110), begins with a little part that is literarily self-contained (104-106) and contains the famous verse 106. Here is the text:
104 O believers, do not say “Rā‘ina,” but say, “Unzurnā”; and give ear; for unbelievers awaits a painful chastisement.
105 Those unbelievers of the People of the Book and the idolaters wish not that any good should be sent down upon you from your Lord; but God singles out for His mercy whom He will; God is of bounty abounding.
106 And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything?
If some commentators had clearly seen the connection between verses 105 and 106, it is also necessary to add verse 104, which prescribes, precisely, the replacement of one declaration with another. The two verbs in the imperative form, rā’ina and unzurnā, (which may be translated as “favour us” and “look at us”) have caused difficulties for ancient commentators and modern orientalists alike. Taking account of the broader context indicated earlier, which rejects the idea of an exclusively chosen people, Geneviève Gobillot takes up Denise Masson’s translation and comments on it thus: “O you who believe, do not say, ‘Favour us (as the chosen people)!’ but say ‘Look at us (have pity on us)’ and listen.” Here, the Qur’an seems to be making reference to a formula that the Jews use, drawing it from their Book in order to correct it with a more universal prayer of imploration for divine mercy. The Qur’an rejects the idea of the chosen people, because it prevents Jews and Christians from admitting that God’s “favour” may also be extended to another people, according to the meaning of, precisely, the verse following immediately afterwards (105), cited above. Last comes verse 106, according to which God can “improve” the text of the Bible, making it more universal through His word communicated to the Prophet. The affirmation of the universality of God’s kingdom, moreover, follows immediately afterwards, in verse 107, which occupies the central part of the sequence and thus stands at the heart of the whole section 87-121: “Knowest thou not that to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and that you have none, apart from God, neither protector nor helper?”
Therefore, summarizing what has been said so far, a literary analysis of the broader context of verse 2:106 shows without a shadow of doubt that it is impossible to detect a problem within the Qur’an that gives rise to a divine declaration regarding the abrogation of some verses of the Qur’an by other of its verses. The issue relates solely to a dispute with the Jews or with the peoples of the Book, who are accused of not believing in the Qur’an by virtue of their conviction – contained in their own Books – that they are the only ones to enjoy being chosen by God. According to the peoples of the Book, God cannot have sent a prophet to anyone but the chosen people. Not only do the peoples of the Book not believe in the Qur’an or its Prophet, but they also seek to lead (Muslim) believers astray: “Many of the People of the Book wish they might restore you as unbelievers, after you have believed, in the jealousy of their souls, after the truth (the Qur’an) has become clear to them” (109). The Qur’an, for its part, rejects the idea of an exclusively chosen people and vigorously affirms God’s universal presence and action. This is why it “corrects” the exclusivist words of the peoples of the Book drawn from the Bible, in order to replace them with a more universal formula.
In this context, I would like to add some notations on the relationship between the Qur’an and the Bible, just as this is expressed in the same section that I have analysed in this article. The section begins with the clear statement that the Bible has been given by God: “And We gave to Moses the Book, and after him sent succeeding Messengers; and We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear signs, and confirmed him with the Holy Spirit” (87). In the verses that follow, the Qur’an further states, and does so four times, that it “confirms” or that God’s prophet “confirms” the book possessed by the Jews (89, 91, 97 and 101). At least, this is the way in which translations generally render the term musaddiqan. Geneviève Gobillot nevertheless points out that the verb used in this active participle form makes a different nuance possible: “it is a matter of ‘making true’, of ‘letting the truth [of something] emerge’ (literally, ‘making [something] be true’) and not simply ‘declaring [something] to be authentic.’ Thus the Qur’an sometimes intends to confirm and, at other times (as, indeed, here), makes the truth emerge from the preceding Scriptures, and that is quite another thing.” This translation is, in any case, perfectly consistent with the abrogation meaning as it has been revealed by the literary analysis. By “correcting” (abrogating) the text of the Bible, the Qur’an intends to make its authentic meaning – the true one – emerge.
A Theory without Foundation
I would like to conclude by saying that there is no justification for basing the abrogation theory formulated within the Muslim law (fiqh) on verse 2:106. The latter does not concern the Qur’an’s abrogation by itself. Nor does it mean the abrogation, pure and simple, of the Bible and its replacement by the Qur’an, as some commentators have thought. It only means the Qur’an’s correction of some passages (āyāt) of the Bible such as, for example, the verses that express the idea that only the peoples of the Book are chosen; verses that make it hard to accept the idea that a prophet can be sent to people outside those peoples’ respective communities.
It is therefore the interpretation of the Mu‘tazilite Abū Muslim Ibn Bahr, referred to above in my historical overview of the issue, which comes closest to my interpretation based on a modern literary analysis.
It is thus a total nonsense when, by virtue of a manifestly erroneous traditional interpretation, this verse is exploited nowadays by some people in order to abrogate all the Qur’an’s open, tolerant verses in favour of the most combative and exclusivist ones (which ought to be placed, for once and for all, in an historical context that now belongs to the past). In actual fact, the verse aims right at the abrogation of biblical verses presenting a form of exclusion, in order to replace them with other, more universal ones. It is deplorable that an incorrect traditional exegesis of this verse has made such an abuse of the Qur’an possible. And this brings us back to the great current debate within Islam regarding the reform of “religious discourse” (al-khitāb al-dīnī).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
 Cited by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Razī in his commentary on the verse in question. See Geneviève Gobillot, “L’abrogation selon le Coran à la lumière des homélies pseudo-clémentines,” in Mehdi Azaiez and Sabrina Mervin (Eds.), Le Coran. Nouvelles approches (CNRS Editions, Paris, 2013), pp. 211 and 238.
 N.K. Singh & A.R. Agwan (Eds.), Encyclopedia of the Holy Qur’ân (Global Vision Publishing House, Delhi, 2000), p. 34.
 Amīn Ahsan Islāhī, Tadabbur-e-Qur’ân, Pondering over the Qur’ân, I (Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 2007), p. 308.
 Ahmad Hasan, “The Theory of naskh,”Islamic Studies 4, 1965, no. 2, p. 189.
 See the study of this term in Anne-Sylvie Boisliveau, Le Coran par lui-même. Vocabulaire du discours coranique autoréférentiel (Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2014), pp. 76-82.
 See a more detailed analysis in Michel Cuypers, “Le verset de l’abrogation (2,106) dans son contexte rhétorique” in Mehdi Azaiez and Sabrina Mervin (Eds.), Le Coran. Nouvelles approaches, pp. 307-328.
 Geneviève Gobillot, L’abrogation selon le Coran, p. 22.
To cite this article
Michel Cuypers, “Does the Qur’an Contradict Itself?”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 47-54.
Michel Cuypers, “Does the Qur’an Contradict Itself?”, Oasis [online], published 29th July 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/does-qur-contradict-itself.