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.
Part 1. The Basmallah
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Praise be to Allah.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, a familiar phrase among Muslims that perhaps may have lost its significance among many Muslims, and of which the non-Muslims may be unaware there is a significance to, beyond mindlessly repeated ritual and tradition. What exactly is the significance behind the phrase and its terminological usage in the language of the Qur’an, specifically the word-phrase bismillah? It is of course familiarly accepted that the term carries the English meaning “In the Name of Allah”. Yet the significance of it goes beyond this, as it is a spiritual concept and not some empty religious concept, useless beyond the doctrine, dogma, tradition, and ritual of Islam. I would like to start a series explaining every Islamic concept as it appears in the Qur’an, insha’Allah, explaining the language of the Qur’an and it’s importance for understanding Islam and Islamic concepts. This series, though primarily for non-Muslims, should serve as a reminder for us Muslims as well.
Translation is something that some non-Muslims, especially those with an Islamophobic bent, seem to take a very nonchalant or even antagonist approach and attitude to. Many have chaffed at the idea that Islam must be apprehended through its primary literary source, which is the Qur’an, a book revealed and written in Arabic. It should be undeniable however that things are indeed lost in translation. But to take this idea further, two things must be borne in mind: There are some things in one language that do not translate into another language and, as far as the Qur’an is concerned, the Arabic language found therein is particular to it, such that one must understand the semiotics of the Qur’an as well as the Arabic language itself. What is semiotics? Semiotics has been defined as a philosophical approach to language signs and symbols, seeking an understanding of their function in language, that includes syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Necessary for an approach to understanding are other disciplines as well, including but not limited to, lexicography, lexicology, linguistics, history of language usage, phonetics, grammar and others. And of course the scholarly concept that contextual considerations are paramount is accepted; context meaning historical as well as inter-textual context.
The lazy, perhaps Islamophobic mind, will protest in retort “If the Qur’an cannot possibly be understood except but in Arabic, then Islam cannot be considered a universal religion”. In other words Islam becomes unreasonably difficult to apprehend and not of Divine origin if the whole world must learn Arabic in order to comprehend the Qur’an and by extension, Islam. Making claims about the necessity of learning “classical Arabic” is seen somewhat as an intellectual cop-out, resorted to whenever a non-Muslim proffers an explanation of Islam, Islamic concepts, or the Qur’an that is deemed “uncomfortable”. Seems reasonable, beyond the suggestion of insidiousness on the part of Muslims, except that it must be understood that Islam is a discursive tradition and not a textual, legalistic, ritualistic religion. No one can learn Islam by picking up a book, any book, even if the book is the Qur’an itself, and the Qur’an reminds us that although it is a Complete Book(kitab), it is also a Reminder to be Recited. So for those who are prone to step outside of the tradition of Islam and discount and reject Muslim explanations out of hand, it becomes necessary to become an expert in Arabic, among other things Islam-related. So, as condescending and infuriating as it may sound, although it is not necessary to speak Arabic fluently in order to understand Islam and the Qur’an, or to be a Muslim, if one wants to reject the transmitted knowledge of tradition and learn Islam from other than Muslims, the alluded to expertise becomes a requirement.
I will begin this series from the beginning, meaning I will discuss each Islamic concept as it first appears in the Qur’an in order to place it in the broader framework of a discussion of the language of the Qur’an. In previous articles I have discussed things such as how words such as ‘islam” carry different meanings if one discounts the nuances of the Arabic language. As alluded to in the previous paragraph I will incorporate a discussion of translation and its significance for understanding Islamic concepts, specifically things that are lost in translation, throughout this series. The first word in the Qur’an is bismillah, so we will begin with an extended discussion of topics related solely to this word, it’s translation, and its significance for a contextual discussion on language usage in the Qur’an. As previously stated one must not only have a knowledge of Arabic, but the Arabic of the Qur’an, sometimes called Classical Arabic.
The normal translation of the particle ba does not carry the same sense in Arabic as it does in English or many other languages. Translated as “in” which carries the meaning “on account of” or “because” in English, something is lost in translation as the Arabic signification of “by”, “through” or more exactly “with the assistance of ” is obscured. A more exact phrasal English equivalent of “bismillah” would be “with the assistance of Allah” or even the prayerful “I seek the assistance of Allah”, with the retention of the literal, plain sense connotation of “in the name of Allah”. Like many Quranic words, whose usage in the Qur’an often has dual or even multiple meanings, bismillah has a dual meaning. And example is the word dahaha, a word describing the Earth that carries the dual meaning of “flat”/ “spread out” and “egg-shaped”. The significance of this should not be lost, as all devout Muslims begin every important affair with this term, and every surah of the Qur’an, except one, begins with the formula “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim”. Muslims understand that this significance extends to an understanding of the arrangement of the Qur’an as well.
Al-Fatihah was not the first surah revealed to Prophet Muhammd( saws), although one of the earliest Meccan revelations. A hujja, or proof, of the Divine origin of the Qur’an can be found in the final arrangement of the Qur’an, believed to have been finalized by the Prophet(as), not of his own accord, but as a result of Divine Guidance. Reading this very first surah can help the non-Muslim understand the importance of finding a basmallah at the beginning of not only most of the surahs, and in the middle of a passage of the Qur’an, making the number of its appearance 114 times, but also at the beginning of the Qur’an itself. This understanding is lost when we hear or read of historians who tell us that the Qur’an was finally compiled in a book by the third Khalifah Uthman ibn al Affan(ra), years after the death of the Prophet(as), suggesting somehow that its present arrangement wasn’t finalized by the Prophet(as) himself. So, as the Fatiha is considered the quintessence of the Qur’an, encapsulating the whole of the Qur’an in a nutshell, in an almost mystical way, the basmallah is the quintessence of the Fatihah, itself a prayer. So in addition to the entire Qur’an being used liturgically and ritualistically in prayers through recitation, the fatihah was revealed specifically as a prayer, whose essence is to be found in a simple phrase that encapsulates its essence.
The significance of the basmallah cannot be minimized as it often is through translation. To gain somewhat of an understanding of this significance one should understand the significance of the Fatihah. The Fatihah is known as the Opening and is called by many other names that describe its importance in Islam. It is referred to as the Seven Oft-Repeated Verses, since these seven, essential for prayer, are constantly repeated by every practicing Muslim in salah. The Holy Prophet(saws) said in an authentic hadith:
No prayer is complete without the recitation of Fatihat al-Kitab[Bukhari 10:95]
So it is called the Opening of the Book. Because of this it is also referred to as Surat al Salat, the Chapter of Prayer and the Surat al -Du’a, the Chapter of Supplication, as it really is more of a prayer than anything else, as explained above. It is also known as the Umm al-Kitab(not to be confused with the Book as it is in Heaven), the Mother or Basis of the Book, because it encapsulates the entire Qur’an and serves as its fitting introduction. So the head of the head of the Book, the basmallah, reminds Muslims that every action should not be taken without seeking support from the Mighty One. We have in the utterance of a formula a constant practical expression of Faith in Allah.
Usage in the Qur’an
We have already seen how the basmillah is found at the beginning of almost every surah in the Qur’an. But there is no other mention among the scholars of it’s usage in the Qur’an besides this introductory use. This has to do with the fact that it occurs in the Qur’an in only one other place besides the head of every chapter except one. In Surah 27:30 we read:
It is from Solomon, and it is in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful:[ Qur’an 27:30]
The significance of this is that something done in the name of Allah has all the more importance because of it. And the formula Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim at the beginning of the Qur’an is a proclamation, in the clearest terms, from its Author, of its Divine Origin. As for the one verse where the Basmallah is not found, we find the opinion of the most respected scholars is that this is in one sense because Surah at-Tauba(Repentance) or Surah al-Bara’at(The Immunity), as it is variously known, is not really a chapter separate from Chapter 8(Surah al-Anfal), the chapter referred to as entitled “Spoils of War”, but more accurately translated as “Voluntary Gifts”. Be that as it may, although Tauba introduces an entirely different subject matter necessitating and justifying a separate chapter, it is a continuation of chapter 8, and this serves as an explanation for the missing basmallah.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim is a familiar phrase among Muslims that perhaps may have lost its significance among many Muslims,beyond mindlessly repeated ritual and tradition, and of which the non-Muslims may be unaware there is a significance to. It is of course familiarly accepted that the term carries the English meaning “In the Name of Allah”. Yet the significance of it goes beyond this, as it is a spiritual concept and not some empty religious concept, useless beyond the doctrine, dogma, tradition, and ritual of Islam. The first word in the Qur’an is bismillah and a more exact phrasal English equivalent of “bismillah” would be “with the assistance of Allah” or even the prayerful “I seek the assistance of Allah”, with the retention of the literal, plain sense connotation of “in the name of Allah”.
Like many Quranic words, whose usage in the Qur’an often has dual or even multiple meanings, the basmallah is no exception. This dual meaning, itself a proof of Divine origin, should not be lost. As the Fatiha is considered the quintessence of the Qur’an, encapsulating the whole of the Qur’an in a nutshell, the bismillah is the quintessence of the Fatihah, itself a prayer. The significance of the basmallah cannot be minimized as it often is through translation: the head of the head of the Book, reminds Muslims that every action should not be taken without seeking support from the Mighty One, exemplified by the utterance of a formula that is a constant practical expression of Faith in Allah.