The issue of
abrogation in the Qur’ān has remained a widely researched area of study
regarding the divine book. In technical parlance, abrogation is called ‘Naskh’.
If one casts a deep look at the works of the scholars who have presented their
views on this issue, one can easily discern the following three schools of
a) Those who
not only believe that the Qur’ān is subject to abrogation, but who also contend
that a great number of its decrees have been abrogated.
b) Those who
maintain that no abrogation took place in the Qur’ān.
c) Those who
opine that though abrogation has taken place in the divine book, yet the number
of abrogated verses is very small.
As far as the exponents of the first view are concerned,
the reason they say that large-scale abrogation has taken place in the divine
book is because they assign a specific meaning to the word naskh. They hold that
curtailing the sphere of a general commandment and explaining a commandment,
which possesses brevity, are also instances of abrogation. This viewpoint’s
weakness is so pronounced that it doesn’t need any rebuttal. All such verses can
be reconciled very easily. This is a common feature of all the languages of the
world that a certain directive is given and then it is explained or specified by
another directive. This explanation or specification is never considered
abrogation of the original command. Consider an example: 2:173 states that dead
meat, blood, flesh of the swine and meat on which any other name save Allah has
been invoked are forbidden to eat. The last part of the same verse reads: ‘if
one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, or transgressing due
limits, then he is guiltless’. Scholars of this category say that the later part
abrogates the first part. A little deliberation shows that the later part is an
explanation, which allows believers to act contrarily in case they are forced
to. It does not seem proper to regard is as abrogation.
The advocates of the second view argue that all the
commandments of Islamic Sharī‘ah are subject to prevalent conditions and
circumstances. Therefore, some directives are abrogated because of a change in
the circumstances in which they were revealed and would hold good if these
circumstances re-emerge. So these verses are not abrogated in the real sense
though apparently they seem to be. They say that since the Islamic Sharī‘ah
gradually developed from milder to stricter injunctions, so the former will come
to effect in conditions similar to the ones in which they were revealed.
This viewpoint is untenable because of the following
First, the claim that the Islamic Sharī‘ah was mild in the
beginning is unsubstantiated. A study of the Qur’ān reveals that while some
directives evolved from milder forms to more demanding ones like the prohibition
of drinking and the injunction of fasting, the reverse is also true in some
cases. For example, initially, the Tahajjud prayer was more exacting; later a
relaxation was given through a divine directive. Similarly, initially Muslims
were required to fight the disbelievers even if they were outnumbered by a ratio
of 1:10. Later this ratio was reduced to 1:2. Therefore, the inference that all
the directives of the Islamic Sharī‘ah evolved from mild to strict is not very
Second, the difference between our time and that of the
Prophet (sws) has not been considered. At the time when the Prophet (sws)
disseminated Islam in Arabia, its teachings were quite unknown to his
addressees. The number of his Companions (rta) was also very small. The
traditions and customs of the Age of Ignorance were so deeply entrenched in the
society that it was hard for people to abandon them. On the contrary, the
situation today is totally different. There are almost two billion Muslims in
the world today. Islamic teachings and laws are not alien to the world.
Therefore to regard these circumstances as analogous to those of the Prophet (sws)
and apply the decrees relating to his time to the present one is not correct at
Third, reverting to the abrogated verses of the book of God
with the change in circumstances could be used by some devious people to excuse
themselves from religious obligations. Once open, the process will be difficult
to stop. People will start doing ijtihād regarding fasting, prohibition of
drinking, and the punishment of fornication under cover of this argument. We
have examples of people going astray in the past and are still witnessing the
The above-mentioned analysis brings to light the
limitations of the second view.
Now consider the third viewpoint which says that some
directives of the Holy Qur’ān have been abrogated. This view seems to be the
most plausible. Leaving aside questions like the rationale behind abrogation and
the actual verses of the Qur’ān which have been abrogated and which are the
abrogating verses, some basic principles regarding this issue are asserted in
the following paragraphs.
First, only a Qur’ānic verse can abrogate another verse.
Nothing extraneous to the Holy Qur’ān can abrogate it. Both the abrogated and
the abrogating verses are present in the Holy Qur’ān. Some jurists believe that
A#hadīth can abrogate the Holy Qur’ān. This cannot be accepted because the
Qur’ān is the final authority in matters of religion. It is the Mīzān (the
balance) and Furqān (the distinguisher between good and evil), which in no way
can be altered by any thing extraneous to it.
Second, abrogation is only related to the legal
injunctions. Beliefs, articles of faith, moral precepts, attributes of Allah and
historical facts are not subject to abrogation. These have remained unaltered.
Third, abrogation is not caused by the fact that God does
not have perfect knowledge and His decrees need to evolve before culminating in
their ultimate form. The basic reason for abrogation lies in the fact that human
beings are naturally weak and can only accept certain decrees after training and
gradual instruction. In some instances, the society was not organized;
therefore, a temporary commandment was issued which, on development of the
society, was replaced with an eternal law. For example, in the beginning, it was
ordered that a dying person should write a will in order to secure the rights of
all the members of his family. A tribal arbitration council used to execute
punishment of fornication. All such transitory laws were admittedly superseded
by lasting and eternal commandments of inheritance and prescribed punishment for
fornication, when the Islamic society gained maturity.
In some cases, laws evolved and developed into their
ultimate form considering the general human nature. For instance, Arabs were
addicted to drinking. Therefore, initially, it was forbidden only during the
prayer. As it was hard to fast in the hot and dry Arabian Desert so atonement
was allowed for the sick and the wayfarer. Later, when the people became
familiar with these obligations, the permission of atonement for fasting was
taken back and complete prohibition of drinking, and fasting for the whole month
of Ramadān was made compulsory. In some cases, the Prophet (saw) was allowed to
put any of the decrees of previous Divine laws in practice for sometime. Later
on it was also taken back and replaced with a permanent injunction of the
Islamic Sharī‘ah as in the matter of the direction of prayer. It was only to
test Muslims and make a clear distinction between those who follow the Prophet (sws)
and those who turn on their heels in adherence to the previous traditions.
Obviously this is an essential part of training.
Similarly, some laws were enforced to make up for the lack
of people, which increased the devotion and enabled a small number of Muslims to
bear more responsibilities. For example, initially all Muslims were required to
offer the Tahajjud prayer at night. One Muslim fighter was initially required to
face ten disbelievers in the battlefield. Alms giving was advised before having
a confidential talk with the Prophet (sws) in order to strengthen and purify the
Muslims. Later, when the number of Muslims increased and they grew disciplined
and purified, these transitory directives were replaced with permanent ones.
(Adapted from Amin Ahsan Islahi’s