The Doctrine of an-Nasikh wa’l Mansukh: Abrogation in the Qur’an and the Idea of a Hijacked Religion Part 2.
The Doctrine of an-Nasikh wa’l Mansukh:
Abrogation in the Qur’an and the Idea of a Hijacked Religion
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Definitions of Abrogation
An-Nasikh wal Mansukh
From the dictionary we get that abrogation is abolishing by authoritative action. Some may believe that because it was the ‘ulama who formulated a doctrine of abrogation, that this idea is their own intellectual device to solve the supposed problem of apparent contradictions in the Quranic text. However it is believed that Allah Himself abrogates and another definition would be “to nullify”. However we also find that the early jurists did not always view abrogation in this sense. In nearly all cases what the scholars called “abrogation” turned out to be something else such as specification, qualification, restriction, or addition. Consequently, many jurists did not see abrogation as complete abolishment of a legal ruling of the Qur’an.
The revelations found in the Qur’an deal with a variety of subjects, yet the jurists particularly regarded as important the ahkam(legal rulings). This was mainly because these type of rulings, particularly because of the comprehensive nature of Islam, shed light on the manner of legal relationships between people as Allah wishes them to be observed. The basic message of Islam has alway been the same, from Adam(as) to Muhammad(saws), but it is believed that the legal rulings have varied throughout the ages, according to the circumstances of the respective communities these prophets were sent to. Therefore the things of Islam that are of a permanent, fixed nature never change, but the particular rulings that are merely specific applications of the shari’ principles they derive from change with the circumstances. This inherent flexibility in the Shari’ah has lead to the belief in abrogation of previous revelations and scriptures. It seems only natural that this idea would be extended to the Qur’an itself.
The Arabic words nasikh and mansukh are both derived from the same root word nasakha which carries meanings such as “to abolish”, “to replace”, “to withdraw” and “to abrogate”. The word nasikh (an active participle) means “the abrogating”, while mansukh (passive) means “the abrogated”. In the technical language of the ‘ulama these terms refer specifically to certain parts of the Qur’anic revelation, which have been “abrogated” by others. According to the jurists who support and elaborate a doctrine of abrogation within the Qur’an, the Qur’an itself refers to it and it is not a later development of the ‘ulama, developed following the generation of the Tabi’in:
None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause it to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: knowest thou that God has power over all things? [Qur'an 2: 106].
There are many commentators and other scholars who opine that this ayah refers to the revelations before the Qur’an, which have now been substituted by the itself (See Mawdudi. The Meaning of the Qur’an, Lahore, 1967, Vol. I, p.102. note 109). We understand that the message of Islam was presented to the Arabs as if something new that was introduced in stages. The Qur’an brought important changes to that society gradually in order allow the people to adjust to the “new” prescriptions. This type of gradualism in revelation is exemplified by the three verses in the Qur’an concerning alcohol drinking. The three verses which finally led to the prohibition of intoxicating substances were revealed in stages (4: 43, 2: 219; 5: 93-4). Many scholars have used this as an example affirming abrogation of Qur’an by Qur’an.
Many scholars believed that understanding the concept of abrogation fully was one of the pre-conditions for explanation (tafsir) of the Qur’an. It is also one of the important pre-conditions for understanding and application of the Islamic law (hukm, shari’a). Scholars such as Suyuti(rahimahullah) have said that tafsir or legal ruling is not acceptable from a person who does not have knowledge of abrogation. As in the field of asbab al-nuzul(reasons for revelation, a historiographical discipline) the information about al-nasikh wa al-mansukh cannot be accepted upon mere personal opinion, guesswork or hearsay, but must be based on reliable reports, according to the ulum al-hadith, and should go back to the Prophet(as) and his Companions(ra).The narration must clearly state which part of the revelation is nasikh and which is mansukh. According to Qattan, some scholars say that there are three ways of knowing about al-nasikh wa al-mansukh:
1. Narrations from the Prophet(as) or Companions(ra).
2. Ijma’ (consensus of the ummah upon what is considered nasikh and what is mansukh).
3. Knowledge about which part of the Qur’an preceded another part in the history of revelation.
Further study will suggest not only that reports from the Prophet(as) or his Companions(ra) about abrogation have some serious defects, internal and external, but that they often contradict each other. Further study will also serve to demonstrate that there was never any real consensus about what is considered nasikh and mansukh. In addition, asbab al-nuzul shows that the majority of cases of abrogation were in fact specification or restriction or some other qualification, according to the broad understanding of the earlier scholars of the meaning and application of abrogation.
An example here will hopefully illustrate how abrogation was classically understood and applied:
Narrated Mujahid(may Allah be pleased with him) (regarding the verse): Those of you who die and leave wives behind, they (their wives) shall await (as regards their marriage) for four months and ten days [Qur'an 2: 234]. The widow, according to this verse, was to spend this period of waiting with her husband’s family, so Allah revealed: Those of you who die and leave wives (i.e. widows) should bequeath for their wives, a year’s maintenance and residence without turning them out, but if they leave (their residence) there is no blame on you for what they do with themselves, provided it is honorable (i.e. Lawful marriage) (Qur’an 2: 240).
So Allah entitled the widow to be bequeathed extra maintenance for seven months and 20 nights and that is the completion of one year. If she wished, she could stay (in her husband’s home) according to the will, and she could leave it if she wished, as Allah says: Without turning them out, but if they leave (the residence) there is no blame on you.
So the idea (i.e. four months and ten days) is obligatory for her. ‘
Ata’ (may Allah be pleased with him)said: Ibn ‘Abbas(ra) said: This verse i.e. the statement of Allah … without turning one out … canceled the obligation of staying for the waiting period in her late husband’s house, and she can complete this period wherever she likes.
‘Ata’ said: If she wished, she could complete her ‘idda by staying in her late husband’s residence according to the will or leave it according to Allah’s statement: ‘There is no blame on you for what they do with themselves.’ ‘
Ata’ added: Later the regulations of inheritance came and abrogated the order of the dwelling of the widow (in her dead husband’s house) so she could complete the ‘idda wherever she likes. And it was no longer necessary to provide her with a residence.
Ibn Abbas said: This verse abrogated her (i.e. the widow’s) dwelling in her dead husband’s house and she could complete the ‘idda (i.e. four months and ten days) (wherever she liked, as Allah’s statement says: …”without turning them out …”[Bukhari 6:54]
This report explains clearly which part of the revelation is considered nasikh and which is mansukh. Mujahid(may Allah be pleased with him) was one of the well-known tab’iun and Ibn ‘Abbas(ra) was a Companion of the Prophet(saws). Later on in this series I will present a fuller explanation of this particular case of abrogation situated in the contextual framework of “every case of supposed abrogation can be reconciled without resorting to a doctrine of abrogation, narrowly defined”. The reason I word it in this way is that most early commentators and supporters of this doctrine had a very broad definition of abrogation.
Origin of the Doctrine of Abrogation
During the period when the commentaries were being prepared and when the study of the occasions of revelation (shan al nuzul) as well as of identifying Meccan and Medinan surahs was a subject of serious study, our scholars felt the necessity for a branch of knowledge which indicates and explains the gradual development of the Quranic teachings. A theory was framed that in the Qur’an some ayat are cancelled (mansukh) by other ayat (nasikh) . It is believed that abrogation for Qur’anic verses, was originally invented/elaborated during the 4th and 5th centuries A.H. (late 10th century C.E.) by some Muslim scholars; notably Ahmed Bin Ishaq Al-Dinary (died 318 A.H.), Mohamad Bin Bahr Al-Asbahany (died 322 A.H.), Hebat Allah Bin Salamah (died 410 A.H.) and Mohamad Bin Mousa Al-Hazmy (died 548 A.H.), whose book about “Al-Nasikh and Al-Mansukh” is regarded as one of the leading references in the subject.(Iftekhar Hai. “Case of Misinterpretation & Abrogation Theory“).
I say elaborated because there are many fiqhi and Shari’ concepts that, although not named explicitly in the Qur’an or described in the technical sense they are described in in fiqh manuals, commentaries or other Muslims scholarly works, the new or technically used terms were in reference to concepts already found in the Qur’an. Thus the Qur’an does use terms meaning abrogation and technical terms refer to a pre-existing Quranic concept.
The importance of understanding abrogation can never be understated as it is widely exploited by non-Muslim Islamophobic writers to tarnish the perfection and Divinity of the Book, and used by Extremist Muslims to justify un-Islamic practices . According to many scholars the principle of naskh originally emerged during the conflicts between usuli of different schools of fiqh. These discussions showed no uniformity and it can never be claimed that any type of consensus on abrogation was ever reached, contributing further to the complexity of the issue. Imam Shafi’i(may Allah be pleased with him) and many of his followers held that some parts of the Qur’an had superseded its other parts, but could never supersede the Sunnah; and that some Sunnah had superseded the other Sunnah, but had not superseded the Qur’an. In other words, Qur’an abrogates Qur’an and only Qur’an, Sunnah abrogates Sunnah and only Sunnah, but they never abrogated each other as the Sunnah was a supplement to the Qur’an and both were differing modes of revelation, as it were. Some scholars, even some in Shafi’i's madhhab, took it further, stating not only could Qur’an never abrogate Sunnah, but Sunnah did indeed abrogate Qur’an as well as itself. The supporters of the doctrine of abrogation based their theory on their understanding of the aforementioned following ayah:
“Such of Our Ayat (messages) which We annul or consign to oblivion We replace with a better or a similar one…” [Qur’an 2:106]
On the basis of the above it was argued that the principle of naskh (abrogation) is referred to in the Qur’an itself and is not to be considered a later scholarly historical development. In the discussions on abrogation the supposition was that since the various passages of the Qur’an were revealed according to the needs of a particular stage some of the earlier revelations were superseded by the later revelations. When some of the ayat looked “discrepant” to them and they were unable to reconcile interpretation of one ayah with another they formulated the doctrine of abrogation. There never was, however, agreement regarding the number of ayat to which the rule can be applied to. Ilm al naskh was a discipline, developed as auxiliary to the study of the Qur’an, set out to point out precisely how one ayah of the Qur’an abrogated another, and scholars in this discipline drew up lists of a abrogating and abrogated ayat. From the Qur’an we find,:
Yet whenever We sent forth any apostle or prophet before you, and he was hoping (that his warnings would be heeded) Shaytan would cause an aspersion on his innermost aims, but Allah renders null and void (faya nasakhun) whatever aspersions Shaytan may cast: and Allah makes His messages clear in and by themselves – for Allah is all- knowing wise.[Qur'an 22:52],
showing how the word was used in the Qur’an to signify “rendering null and void” as a definition of naskh. A derivative of this root is also used to mean “recorded”. For example:
This Our record speaks of you in all truth: for, verily, We have caused to be recorded (nustansikh) all that you ever did. [Qur’an 45:29]
Many of supporters of the doctrine of abrogation have taken a restricted meaning of ayat as the ayat of the Qur’an, as mentioned earlier in Qur’an 2:106, whereas many earlier commentators did in fact have a broader understanding of the concept of abrogation, as derived from an understanding of the ayat in question. The classical supporters of the doctrine of abrogation have described three kinds of abrogation:
1. The abrogation of the recital (of the Quranic ayat) as well as the injunction.
2. Abrogation of the recital (of the ayat) without nullification of application of the injunction.
3. Abrogation of the injunction and not the recital (of the ayat).
Some Muslim scholars refused to accept `naskh‘ and declared that `naskh‘ does not go with the holiness (taqaddus) of the Allah. They argued that Allah’s words are too authoritative, to be considered abrogated in human opinion. Abu Muslim Isfahani (d. 332/944) was the first one who refused to accept the ‘doctrine of abrogation.’ According to him abrogated ayat were those Divine Messages which were found in earlier Books (Taurat, Injeel etc.) Allah abrogated those earlier ayat, he argued, due to neglect and deliberate corruption of the Books by the respective followers and hence the contents of those books do not find place in the Qur’an:
“And convey (to the world) whatever has been revealed to you of the Sustainer’s writ. There is nothing that could alter His words: and you cannot find any refuge other than with Him“. [Qur’an 18 : 27].
The eminent scholar Zarqani (d. 1367/1948) supported the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ and argued in his book, “Manahil al Irfan” that when Allah replaces an order by another it does not imply that Allah realized something which He did not realize earlier. He who has absolute discretion to cancel any injunction He deemed proper and to replace it by another injunction was aware that the expediency of the order will cease at a particular time. Gradual implementation of the laws of Allah does not imply that the revelation meant for one stage were not good for later stages or that the earlier messages were replaced by the later messages. The tendency of hairsplitting in this issue among the ‘ulama has lead many to erroneous and even dangerous conclusions. Such discussions were introduced which provided justification for the Islamophobic opponents of Islam to argue that the Prophet(as) made corrections in the Qur’an, as and when it suited him. To this we will turn in the next part of the series, Insha’Allah.