Saturday, July 12, 2008

Quranic abrogation: an examination of Naskh

Known as 'Naskh' or 'Man-sookh' in Arabic, this refers to the idea that one Quranic verse has been "canceled" for another, or, oddly enough, by AHadeeth [sayings attributed to the Prophet]. It is said that while the abrogated texts remain a part of the Qur'an and are even recited during prayers, the application thereof, or deriving knowledge or applicable information therefrom is inappropriate. It is our hope to examine briefly, but succinctly, this idea, its implications in our understanding and application of the Islamic faith, and whether this concept has a solid foundation.

We do not seek to create Fitnah [ft.1] for the Muslims, nor do we seek to simply engage in intellectual gymnastics, but rather my intention is to instigate conversations among students of religion, to share and to learn perspectives, and hopefully cause people to at least think about their positions. This is a very important position to take as people dedicated to religion and its understanding. We also hope to show that Islam is a religion of deep spirituality and a source for logic and truth, a light that stands on its own.

Qur'an: the last revelation

As a matter of undisputed principle, it is accepted by all Muslims that the Qur'an is the word of God, conveyed in a complete and uncorrupted manner to the Prophet Muhammad over a twenty-three year period of his life. It is also accepted that there will be no other scripture after it, that it serves as a correction and a clarification for the many ideas societies hold about God, prophets, scriptures, etc..! Unlike the rhetoric of other religious traditions, the Qur'an is a scripture for all mankind, and is not limited to a particular race, nation or tribe. [ft.2]

Among its many titles, we have the name Al-Furqaan, meaning a criterion for judging the right from the wrong [Q 25:1]. It is therefore clear that the nature of the Qur'an is that of clarity and direct guidance, and yet we assert that it contains verses that had to be "canceled", that in some manner God Almighty changes his mind? Does that not make God seem unreliable? Indeed, the idea that the last revelation contains texts that had to be removed or simply not taken into consideration any longer puts a dent in the fundamental Islamic teachings as to the Quranic purity and role, leaving Islam itself more open to attack. [ft.3]

Evolution, not abrogation

Examples usually given of abrogation in practical action are apparently evolutionary steps in the early Muslim community. Even today, using the example of cigarette smoking, when a person wants to stop, it is generally impossible to stop 'cold turkey'. Many use medicine or nicotine patches to gradually release the body from the addiction, the need, to smoke. Allah used the same sort of method. It had been revealed in the Qur'an that, when it comes to alcohol, a person should not "approach prayer while drunk" [Q 4:43]. Now, the Muslims were offering daily prayers, and usually in a communal setting {Jamaa'ah]. In addition to the mandatory prayers, most offered voluntary devotions as well, so, we ask, when would the observant Muslim have much time to become drunk? Once the habit was gradually out of the Muslims' system, then comes the verse[Q 5:93] which says that alcohol [as well as gambling] is a vice that is completely forbidden to Muslims.

Such evolution is very different from the idea of abrogation.

Basis for abrogation

This concept has been mainly extrapolated from two Quranic texts. It will be seen that these interpretations are in fact unsupported by the texts themselves.

What We [Allah] cancel of 'Ayaaat' or made forgotten, We replace it with something better than it, or at least similar. Do you not know that truly, Allah is powerful over everything? { Q 2:106}.

The word 'Ayaaat' used in the above text, means "signs". Throughout the Qur'an, this word is used for a variety of meanings, and is not limited to the Quranic verses [see 30:21, for example].

In this verse, the meaning is apparently this; the situation or circumstances that God allows a person or community to encounter are in constant change. The message is that in what ever occurs to us, be it the gain or loss of a job, spouse, etc...God allowed it to happen, to have faith and patience, as God is in charge. This is also seems to be the implication in 16:101.

The context of this passage continues to illustrate this important lesson clearly.

Do you not know that truly, to Allah belongs the dominion of the Heavens and the Earth, and that besides him you have no protector, nor anyone to grant victory? {Q 2:107]

The second passage usually referred to as the basis for Quranic abrogation is the following:

We [Allah] will relate to you [knowledge], so do not forget, except what Allah wills. Surely, he knows what the apparent and the hidden. { Q 87:6-7]

These two verses appear in a Chapter that contains only nineteen verses. The entire Soorah speaks of God's power insofar as having created the world and all it contains, providing the tools needed by humans to reach their full potential, both physically [vv.4-5] and spiritually [vv.8-18]. Nothing in the texts here suggests that Quranic verses are 'forgotten'. {ft.4}

Concluding thoughts

Without doubt, everything contained in the Qur'an has a usage, whether it be a command to obey, a prohibition to avoid, or of historical or inspirational purposes. It is the ultimate guide, and the most reliable source of information.

The priorities of Allah, as outlined in the Qur'an, are extremely broad, more so than usually imagined.

We can understand the development of the idea of Naskh in the following manner; commentators were perplexed in understanding seemingly contradictory verses, especially in matters relating to legal issues. Add to that the various practices that are labeled as practices of the Prophet and the first generations of Muslims, and much confusion would naturally arise. Values that are timeless end up being ignored for verses of a limited application. For example, many are of the view that Q 8:61, which commands Muslims to remain in a peaceful setting with those who maintain a similar stance, has been replaced with 9:73, which reads as follows

O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination [Q 9:73, Saheeh International translation]

By ignoring 8:61 in light of the above verse, which was clearly of a limited scope, given to the Prophet at a time of great upheaval, when he was under constant attack from his foes, a foundation for constant conflict is created. This is not the intent of the verse, or any verse of the Qur'an. The Book speaks to realities, and while sometimes those realities are not pretty, it is also acknowledged that all is not equal, various societies and peoples face different situations. Texts such as 9:73 were cited by Jihadi groups in Egypt as justification for launching attacks on Christian Coptic civilians, Western tourists and "lapsed" Muslims in the early 1990's.

Another issue to consider is our unwillingness to accept the 'other'. This is perhaps a natural tendency, but not one that is supported by the words of Allah. Look at 2:62 as the perfect example. It, along with 5:69, actually names some Non-Muslim religious groups as being rewarded by God for their faith and deeds. These verses are said by the defenders of abrogation to have been canceled by Q 3:85 [ and other texts, such as 5:3], or are said to refer to nations prior to Muhammad's time. [ft.5-6]

Thus, the Qur'an is more open and factual than we like to acknowledge. It does not play into our prejudices and fears. It speaks the truth, consistently, and we should be thankful for that. It deserves more of our attention and research.


[1] The author has conducted extensive research on the Quranic usage of Fitnah, and has been published in the form of a series of appendixes in The language of revelation. To obtain this volume, which comes with two cds, email the author at

[2] An example of religious language that is exclusive to one group of people can be found in the fact that the Bible consistently uses phrases such as "The God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of our fathers.." [Acts 3:13]

[3] In a debate with the late Ahmad Deedat, a Christian opponent used abrogation as a reason for dismissing the validity of Islam. The title of this debate was "Crucifixion or Crucifiction". It is still widely available.

[4] Also of interest is Muhammad Asad's interpretation of Surah 87, in which he argues that the verses here refer to accumulated human knowledge being forgotten in light of greater and more useful information. See his The message of the Qur'an [pp. 946-947 Dar Al-Andalus, Gibraltar].

[5] It is amazing that 2:62 is seen as abrogated, when the verse starts with "Inna" [Certainly]. With such a strong phrase, which actually affects the sentence in Arabic grammar [Ism Inna wa khawaatihaa], it should be very clear that Allah does not mean for this statement to simply vanish!

[6] This verse has been explained in great detail in our "Deen in the presence of God". See