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The Theory of Abrogation in the Quran

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The following excerpt is taken from “Maariful Quran” by Mufti Taqi Usmani under the commentary of Surah 2 verse 106:

What is Naskh? (Abrogation)

Verse 106 speaks of Allah abrogating certain verses, or making
men forget certain others. The first phrase of the verse, thus covers all
the possible forms in which a verse of the Qur’an can be abrogated.
The Arabic word in the text is Naskh,.which has two lexical meanings –

  • (1) to write, and (2) to abolish, to repeal. According to the consensus
    of all the commentators, the word has been employed in this verse in
    the second sense — that is, the repeal or abrogation of an injunction.
    So, in the terminology of the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith, Naskh (goui)
    signifies the promulgation of an injunction in place of another —
    whether the later injunction merely consists in the repeal of the earli-
    er or, substitutes a new regulation in its place. The other form of
    Naskh mentioned in this verse is that sometimes Allah made the Holy
    Prophet #° and the blessed Companions forget a certain verse alto-
    gether. The commentators have cited several instances of this kind of
    Naskh, and the purpose in such cases has usually been to repeal a cer-
    tain regulation.

The kinds of abrogation

Making laws and repealing them to promulgate new ones in their
stead is a regular and well-known practice in human governments and
institutions. But in the case of man-made laws abrogation takes place
sometimes because the law-makers do not understand the situation
properly while making a certain law, and have to change it when they
realize their mistakes, and sometimes because when a law is promul-
gated, it is in accord with the prevailing situation, but when quite un-
foreseen changes alter the situation, the law too has to be changed.
But these two forms of abrogation are out of the question in the case of
divine injunctions.

There is, however, a third form too. The lawmaker makes a law,
knowing fully well that the circumstances are going to change in such
a way that the law will no longer be suitable for the new situation; so,
when the situation changes as he already knew, he changes the law
too, and promulgates a new one which he had thought of at the very
start. For example, a physician prescribes a medicine for a patient in
view of his present conditions, but he knows that when the patient has
been using it for two days, his condition will change and require a new
medicine — with this realization, he prescribes a medicine suitable for
that day, but two days later, when circumstances have changed, he
prescribes a new one. The physician can easily give the patient
written instructions for the whole course of the treatment, with all the
changes in the medicines duly indicated. But this would be putting
too much burden on the already feeble patient, and there would also
be the danger of some harm through a possible error or
misunderstanding.

This is the only form of abrogation which can occur, and has been
occurring itt divine injunctions and in divine books. Every new
Shari‘ah and every new revealed Book has been abrogating many
injunctions of the earlier Shari‘ah and of the earlier Book. Similarly,
within the same Shari‘ah, too, it has always happened that a certain
law was in force for a time, but Divine Wisdom chose to abrogate it
and to promulgate another in its place. A hadith reported by Muslim
SAYS: coulis YW L5 i, 455: “There has never been a prophethood which
did not abrogate some injunctions.” This is a principle which it should

“not be difficult to understand. It was only some malicious and
ignorant Jews who confused the divine abrogation of injunctions with
the two forms of the repeal of man-made laws, and began, in their
impudence, to taunt the Holy Prophet # – in reply to which, as we
have said, these two verses were revealed. (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir etc.)

As for the Muslims, it was probably in their desire to avoid giving
occasion to the enemies of Islam for such taunts that some from among
the Mu‘tazilah tried to explain away the whole question of Naskh. Log-
ically speaking, there is a possibility — so ran their argument — of ab-
rogation in the case of divine injunctions, and the possibility cannot be
denied on any rational ground, but abrogation has not actually oc-
curred in the Holy Qur’an, and there is no verse in the Holy Book
which abrogates another (Nasikh) and no verse which has been abro-
gated (Mansukh). This view is attributed to Abii Muslim al-Isfahani,
but the ‘Ulama’ in general have always rejected this opinion, and re-
futed the argument. Thus, we read in “Ruh al-Ma‘ani”:

“The people belonging to all the Shari‘ahs are unanimous in
accepting the validity of abrogation and its actual occurrence
both. Only the Jews — with the exception of their ‘Isawiyyah
sect have denied the possibility of abrogation, and Abu Mus-
lim al-Istahani has denied its occurrence, for he says that it is
rationally possible, but has not actually taken place.”
Imam al-Qurtubi says:
We Say,
“It is essential to understand the question of abrogation, and
great benefits flow from such an understanding, which no
scholar can dispense with, and no one can deny abrogation ex-
cept the ignorant and the dull-headed.”

In this connection, al-Quriubi has related a very illuminating
incident. The fourth Khalifah Sayyidna ‘Ali ais Wis, saw a man
preaching in the mosque. He asked the people what the man was
doing. On being told that he was preaching, the blessed Khalifah said:
“He is not doing anything of the sort, but only announcing to the
people that he is such and such a man and the son of such and such,
and asking them to recognize and remember him.” Calling the man to
his side, he asked: “Do you know the injunctions which have been
abrogated and those which have abrogated the earlier ones?” When he
confessed that he did not, the Khalifah turned him out of the mosque,
and ordered him never to preach there.

It is not feasible to cite here all the sayings of the blessed
Companions and their immediate Successors (Tabi‘in) which affirm
the actual occurrence of abrogation in the case of injunctions laid down
by the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith. Some of these have been quoted,
along with the evidence for the authenticity of the reports, in the
commentaries of Ibn Jarir and Ibn Kathir etc. and in “Al-Durr
al-Manthur’. As for the reports less strongly authenticated, they are
just innumerable. That is why there has always been a total
consensus of the ‘Ulama’ on the question of Naskh, except for Abu
Muslim al-Isfahani and a few others from among the Mu‘tazilah who
have denied the actual occurrence of abrogation — but Imam Razi has,
in his commentary, exposed in detail the hollowness of their opinion.

The terminology of the Naskh

It is also essential to keep in mind a certain distinction in the use
of the word NaskA as a technical term of the Shari’ah. The technical
sense of the word implies changing an injunction, and replacing one
injunction by another. Now, this change may consist in repealing an
injunction altogether and replacing it by another (for example, fixing
the Ka‘bah as the Qiblah — the direction towards which Muslims turn
in their prayers — instead of the Baytul-Maqdis); the change may
equally consist in retaining an injunction but adding certain condition
and provisions to it. The ‘Ulama’ of the early period of Islam have
used the word Naskh in this general and comprehensive sense which
includes the total repeal of an injunction as well as a partial change in
an injunction with the addition of certain conditions, provisions or
exceptions. That is why the ‘Ulama’ of the earlier period have
indicated some five hundred verses of the Holy Qur’an which,
according to them, have been abrogated.

But, according to the ‘Ulama’ of a later period, only that change is
to be called a NaskA which cannot in any way be brought into
consonance with an earlier injunction. Obviously, this approach
greatly reduces the number of abrogated verses. For example, there
are, according to al-Suyuti, only twenty such verses. Later on, Shah
Waliyyullah, seeking to bring the abrogated injunctions in consonance
with the earlier injunctions, reduced the number of abrogated verses
to only five — these being the cases where later injunctions -ould not
be made to correspond with the earlier ones without far-fetched
interpretations. This effort is highly commendable, because the basic
postulate behind an injunction is its permanence, while abrogation
goes against this postulate, and hence it is not proper to posit
abrogation in a verse laying down an injunction which can, in some
justifiable manner, be shown to be still valid.

But this effort to reduce the number of abrogated verses does not,
and cannot in the least imply #8 that the presence of abrogation is in
any way — may Allah forgive us for reproducing a blasphemy — a
shortcoming or defect in the Holy Qur’an or Islam, that the ‘Ulama’
have for the last fourteen hundred years been trying to remove it, that
the ultimate inspiration came to Shah Waliyyullah whose extraordi-
nary achievement lies in having reduced the number of abrogated
verses to five, and that now one may wait for a few geniuses who
would bring the number down to zero.

To adopt such an approach towards the question of “Naskh” is no
service to Islam or to the Holy Qur’an,?® nor can it obliterate the
profound investigations into truth of the matter made by the blessed
Companions, their Successors, and the ‘Ulama’ of the generations that
followed them during the last fourteen hundred years, nor can it stop
the recriminations of the enemies of Islam. In fact, all it would do is to
furnish a weapon to the present-day traducers of Islam and those who
wish to rebel against Islam, who would now be saying that what the
‘Ulama’ of the Islamic Ummah have been maintaining on the subject
for the last fourteen hundred years has finally proved to be wrong.
May Allah forbid such a thing! If this door is opened, it would Jet in all
kinds of disorders, and all the injunctions of the Shari‘ah would come ~
under suspicion. Then, is there any guarantee that the results of this
“modernistic” research would not turn out to be wrong tomorrow!

We have come across certain recent writings in which an attempt
has been made to revive the argument of Abu Muslim al-Isfahani.
Such writers begin with the assumption that the Arabic word Ma in
verse 106 is not a relative or adverbial pronoun signifying “whenever”,
or “whichever” but a conjunction implying “if” that introduces a
conditional clause; so, they translate the first phrase of the the verse
not as “whichever verse We abrogate”, but as “if We abrogate a verse”,
and say that the statement pertains to a supposition or to an
imaginary situation as do the phrases beginning with the Arabic word
Law for example: “If there were in the sky and the
earth another god beside Allah” (21:22): “If the
All-Merciful had a son” (43:81). On this basis they argue that
abrogation is possible, but has never actually occurred. Such writers,
we are afraid, do not show an intimate knowledge of Arabic grammar,
for there is a great deal of difference between a condition suggested by
the word Ma and the imaginary situation introduced by the
conjunction Law. Moreover, it is on the basis of this verse itself that
the blessed Companions have affirmed the occurrence of abrogation,
and have even cited many instances. So have their Successors and all
authentic Commentators. In view of such unanimity, the new-fangled
interpretation cannot be acceptable. Even Shah Waliyyullah, in
reducing the number of abrogated verses, has never thought of
denying the fact of abrogation. In short, all the authentic and
authoritative ‘Ulama’, from the days of the blessed Companions down .
to our own day, have always affirmed not only the possibility, but also
the actual occurrence of abrogation. This has been the position of all
the ‘Ulama’ of Deoband too, without any exception.
The injunctions with regard to abrogation are too many and too
intricate to be discussed here — they properly belong to the books on
the Principles of Jurisprudence.

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