The Doctrine of an-Nasikh wa’l Mansukh: Abrogation in the Qur’an and the Idea of a Hijacked Religion
One of the most confusing Islamic concepts to those without the necessary Islamic education, a subject that is the locus of much misinterpretation even among Muslims, possibly more so than jihad, is the concept of abrogation. Abrogation is an exceptionally complex Islamic science involving Quranic exegesis (tafsir), Islamic jurisprudence(fiqh) as well as that of Islamic Legal Theory (usul al-fiqh). It is of course no surprise that this concept is misrepresented as we will see that taqiyya, friendship with Muslims, perpetual jihad, and abrogation are all interrelated. Three types of abrogation concern us here:
1. Abrogation of previous revelations and the religions that arose from them.
2. Abrogation within the Qur’an itself.
3. Abrogation of the Sunnah.
The issues that surround and cause much of the confusion have to do with the disagreement among the Islamic scholars, early, classical, and contemporary. Some scholars and laypersons say that there is absolutely no abrogation, others say that the abrogation spoken of in the Qur’an refers to abrogation of previous scriptures. Still others acknowledge the possibility of abrogation within the Qur’an but that the subject must be approached cautiously, while others say only a few verses of the Qur’an are abrogated. Others come up with lists of abrogating and abrogated verses numbering in the hundreds.The so-called “ayat as-sawf” or the “Verse of the Sword” (Qur’an 9:5) is said, by Islamophobes and Muslim extremists, to abrogate some 124 or 140+ other verses of the Qur’an advocating for peace, amicable relations, forgiveness, patience, and forebearance.
When I was a non-Muslim nearly 20 years ago I was always baffled at the arrogant audacity of certain Islamophobes that made negative declarations directed at Islam, suggesting that “they were not making up” the things they were saying out of whole cloth. All we had to do was read the Qur’an and other texts of the Sunnah and we would come to see that the detractors of Islam were giving us the full, truth-filled picture. Needless to say that every time I did check, it became apparent that even without placing the relevant verses in context or without an exegetical method, it was easy to see how the Islamophobes deceive. Islamophobes are counting on the laziness of Westerners when it comes to Islam. This is a media-driven laziness that substitutes real, comprehensive and nuanced knowledge for sensationalism, “sound-bite knowledge”, and manufactured narrative that does not allow facts to speak for themselves. It is a laziness borne of fear, where a perceived ubiquitous enemy is best homogenized in order to better deal with the supposed threat. In fact, many Islamophobes will tell you that the facts do speak for themselves; after providing a police-blotter style presentation of these “facts”.
It should be seen how this skews the facts and distorts all information, placing knowledge at the service of a prefabricated narrative. Islamophobes even go so far as to declare that the Qur’an has no historical context. We will deal with this accusation later in the article series, but needless to say, divorcing the Qur’an from it’s context, both historical/situational and contextual as the Islamophobes do, and divorcing oneself from Islamic tradition, specifically the exegetical tradition, is what allows both the Extremists and the Modernists of Islam, as well as the Islamophobes, to engage in unlimited ijtihad and indulge fanciful, heretical, and outlying interpretations of the Qur’an. We will also investigate what the real purpose of affirming the theological and ideological claims of Muslim extremists and linking said claims to Islam.
So what exactly is the narrative that is being pushed in the larger Islamophobic meta-narrative? Well, similar to the Islamophobic explanation of taqiyya, it is another intellectual cop-out designed to instill fear and perpetual, paranoid suspicion in the minds of non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are being lead to believe that Muslims are simply using taqiyya (which they define as lying about Islam to protect and advance Islam) to deceive non-Muslims by not telling the non-Muslims about the doctrine of abrogation in the Qur’an. We are accused of not telling the non-Muslims that the Quranic commands of peace, amicable relations with non-Muslims, forgiveness for non-Muslims, patience and forebearance in the face of persecution from non-Muslims are abrogated and replaced with commands to wage unmitigated, aggressive war until such a time as the non-Muslims convert to Islam or submit to Muslim rule. In other words we are being told that true friendship with non-Muslims is abrogated in favor of pretense when the Muslims are weak,numerically,militarily, and otherwise; taqiyya is defined as lying about Islam to protect the Faith as already mentioned; jihad is only an offensive war against non-Muslims that is primarily fought on account of the disbelief(kufr) of the non-Muslims.
In other words jihad is for the purpose of forced conversion or establishing political dominance over the non-Muslim world. Indeed it is believed by Islamophobes that Islam is nothing more than a politico-military ideology in the guise of religion so it is not surprising that they equate “establishing Islam” with “political dominance over non-Muslims through utilization of military means”. In addition, we are told that there is a doctrine in Islam that says all peaceful verses from the Qur’an are abrogated by violent ones, so don’t believe the Muslims who quote these verses, for the legal(fiqhi) application of these verses have been abolished and nullified by the Qur’an itself. Furthermore, the other part of this narrative is to suggest to non-Muslims that Islam cannot be a valid religion if Allah either changes his mind about a ruling, or somehow could not get it right the first time, so He introduced abrogating verses within His own revelation, changing the Revelation(astagfirullah). The point to all this deceptive, disingenuous rhetoric is to illustrate the human, rather than Divine, origin of Islam and the Qur’an, since Islamophobes neither believe in Allah or, if they are Christians and Jews, that He is the same god that they also worship.
In this series of articles we will attempt to define abrogation as it is described in the Qur’an and as it was understood in the Sunnah literature(ahadith) and by Islamic scholars. We will discuss the origins of the doctrine of abrogation and the views of the various madhahib. Although there are four surviving Sunni fiqh(legal) schools, three Shi’i schools of legal thought, and the outlier Ibadi legal school, it must remembered that there have been over a hundred legal schools in Islamic history. In fact almost every Companion and tabi’in practically founded their own legal school. This becomes important to remember when we discuss the relationship between the extinct Zahiri legal school, Hanbalism and various issues of fiqh, usul-al-fiqh, tafsir, and various other shar’ issues.
We will be exploring the early, classical, and contemporary ideas surrounding the doctrine an-nasikh wa’l mansukh(abrogation) as well as the related doctrine of takhsis.We will exclusively explore the view of the madhahib, summarizing their views in the latter part of the series, as well as the views of individual scholars who wrote on the topic by showing just what it was that was believed to be the abrogating and abrogated.This will lead to a discussion of the technical usage and understanding of abrogation and the moral as well as the legal considerations and implications of the views on abrogation. We will delve into a detailed discussion of just what is considered even eligible for abrogation. Embedded in this series is a critique of such authors as David Bukay and Raymond Ibrahim, who put a scholarly veneer to Islamphobic fear-mongering and deception. We will examine the concept of a hijacked religion and how offensive jihad and friendship with non-Muslims is intricately tied to this doctrine of abrogation and its understanding. In our exploration we will also introduce a case-type study related to extremism and terrorism to discuss whether the command not to harm innocents in war has been abrogated. In our final discussion we will go into further detail about abrogation of previous revelations and the religions that arose from them, and the much lesser discussed topic of abrogation of the Sunnah, before drawing our conclusions.
The Islamophobic Claims About the Origins of this Doctrine Center Around Three Key Issues:
1.The belief that Muslims believe that the Qur’an has contradictions(which are ostensibly resolved by recourse to the doctrine of abrogation and other shari’ principles).
2. The idea that the ‘ulama were initially baffled as to which verses to codify into the “Shari’ah worldview”, as Ibrahim claims.
3. The claim that peaceful and tolerant verses lie almost side by side with violent and intolerant ones and the violent verses supercede the peaceful verses.(This is a very important claim with respect to abrogation as we will see later)
4. The operating assumption that the message of the Qur’an was different in the Pre-Hijra and Post-Hijra periods, which non-Muslims referred to as the Meccan and Medinian Periods(a typology that later Muslim scholars adopted).
The additional arguments of the Islamophobes, namely:
1. That the Qur’an has no historical context.
2. That Muslims are simply using taqiyya (which is defined as lying about Islam) to deceive non-Muslims by not telling the non-Muslims about the doctrine of abrogation in the Qur’an. In addition, there is a doctrine in Islam that says all peaceful verses from the Qur’an are abrogated by violent ones, so don’t believe the Muslims who quote these verses, for the legal(fiqhi) application of these verses have been abolished and nullified by the Qur’an itself .
3. That Muslims fail to tell the non-Muslims that the Quranic commands of peace, amicable relations with non-Muslims, forgiveness for non-Muslims, patience and forebearance in the face of persecution from non-Muslims are abrogated and replaced with commands to wage unmitigated, aggressive war until such a time as the non-Muslims convert to Islam or submit to Muslim rule.
4. That true friendship with non-Muslims is abrogated in favor of pretense when the Muslims are weak,numerically,militarily otherwise; taqiyya is defined as lying about Islam to protect the Faith.
5. That Jihad is an offensive war against non-Muslims that is primarily fought on account of the disbelief(kufr) of the non-Muslims.
6. That Jihad is for the purpose of forced conversion and/or establishing political dominance over the non-Muslim world.
7. That Islam cannot be a valid religion if Allah either changes his mind about a ruling, or somehow could not get it right the first time, so introduced abrogating verses within His own revelation(astagfirullah).
8. And that the origin of Islam and the Qur’an is human, rather than Divine.
These arguments will all be deconstructed in the course of this study and in the “Discussions” section of the article. Another dimension to the Islamophobic claims regarding abrogation is the assumption that “the standard view on Quranic abrogation concerning war and peace verses is that when Muslims are weak and in a minority position, they should preach and behave according to the ethos of the Meccan verses (peace and tolerance); when strong, however, they should go on the offensive on the basis of what is commanded in the Medinan verses (war and conquest)”. This is nothing is more than a lie, but, Insha’Allah, what I will have to say on the matter will be much more than denial, polemics and apologetics. Again, we have authors such as Ibrahim elucidating the Extremist positions and mischaracterizing the mainstream Muslims, insisting that what they say is a part of Islam must be accepted by Muslims. Islamophobic non-Muslims are playing the role of “Pope of Islam” that Islam denies to even our most eminent, influential, and learned scholars; when the Extremists themselves acknowledge that they must twist and discard actual Islamic principles in order to arrive at their conclusions. It is a twisting of the “twin” shari’ah principles of “what is prohibited becomes permitted in times of necessity” and “changing times necessitate a change in the rulings subject to change” that makes up much of Extremist theology(‘aqeeda) and methodology(manhaj).
Muslims do not believe that any real contradictions exist within the Quranic text, rather it is believed, according to the view of many scholars, that apparent contradictions can be resolved and explained by the doctrines of abrogation and takhsis. However, as we will see, no genuine case of abrogation of the Qur’an exists; or at the very least, if we are to be completely fair, honest, and balanced, very few cases are verified. In any event abrogation does not pertain to or apply to taqiyya, lying to non-Muslims, false opportunistic friendship with non-Muslims, or jihad. The main point of this article series, then, is to drive the point home that there is abrogation in the Qur’an, but no conclusive abrogation by the Qur’an.
In other words there is no Quranic text that conclusively abrogates another text of the Qur’an. The other point is that what will be said in this series does not negate the fact that some Muslims do believe in abrogation of the Qur’an, and that some Muslims Extremists extend this understanding to taqiyya and jihad and the like. The aim of presenting authentic Islamic information is not denial of uncomfortable realities, or “apologetic whitewashing”, as some would say, but clarification. That being said, however, abrogation in principle cannot be denied as will be explained when an explanation of the definitions and applications of abrogation is given. The idea that the ‘ulama were initially baffled as to which verses to codify into the “Shari’ah worldview”, because of the existence of apparent contradictions is entirely the opinion of the Islamophobes, with no basis in the Islamic tradition. The early jurists where concerned with the fiqhi(ahkam) texts of the Qur’an, that is to say they were primarily concerned with the Quranic texts that could be used to derive legal rulings. They were concerned with ahkam and legal application of the revelation; what could be considered as binding law and what was enforceable by an Islamic State.
Most of the bogus assertions of the Islamophobes amount to reading into the sources unwarranted conclusions, bringing to the text their own operating assumptions and drawing the conclusions they wish, according to their own desires. This is a lesson to Muslims as well, as the the consequences of separating oneself from the living Islamic discursive tradition and making conclusions about Islam is always disastrous. It is exactly this type of unqualified and non-qualified tafsir and ijtihad that I find non-Muslims doing often, which becomes particularly dangerous when engaged in by those who hate Islam and Muslims. Unqualified because the requisite Islamic education is lacking, and non-qualified because people presenting themselves as experts on everything Islam will either never acknowledge that they lack the proper Islamic education and training or will deny its necessity.(It is often sarcastically asked if one should be able to speak, read, and write Arabic fluently in order to understand Islam)
The claim that peaceful and tolerant verses lie almost side by side with violent and intolerant ones is undeniable. Yet the conclusions drawn from this fact, i.e. that the violent verses supercede the peaceful verses, is completely unwarranted; a fanciful assumption indeed.This is a very important claim with respect to abrogation, because in these very same “sword verses”, we can see a sort of “abrogation” which amounts to qualification or restriction. In every single instance, a “violent” verse is mitigated in a way as to render the abrogation of other peaceful verses impossible. As we will see later in the series, the doctrine of jihad held by medieval Muslim jurists was in effect the foreign policy of the time. It was completely circumscribed by the prevailing situation in which Muslims assumed a state of hostility between the Ummah and the non-Muslim nations. With the advent of the modern nation-state this perpetual state of war is replaced by concepts of national sovereignty, assumed peace between nation-states, and treaties guaranteeing this prevailing state of peace(Islam recognizes treaties with no expiration date(hudna)). In other words the doctrine of jihad was determined by circumstance and is defined by historical context. Abrogation of verses of the Qur’an in order to justify an offensive, aggressive military jihad designed to forceably convert non-Muslims to Islam is completely unsupported by the Qur’an and Sunnah. That being said, the majority of Muslim jurists held that jihad was for the security of the Ummah rather than forceable conversion to Islam, and there were much difference of opinion about offensive military jihad and and its relation to abrogation. There is no such thing as “holy war” in Islam, however, medieval Muslim jurists adapted the Christian notion of “just war” to Islam. Please read Dr. Sherman Jackson for a refutation of the Islamophobic claim of perpetual jihad.
The operating assumption that the message of the Qur’an was different in the Pre-Hijra and Post-Hijra periods, which are referred to as the Meccan and Medinian Periods(a typology that later Muslim scholars adopted, but it is much more accurate to use the term pre-hijri and post-hijri as the Prophet(as) was receiving Revelation in Mecca after it’s conquest almost to the day of his death), is baseless. The Qur’an was revealed piecemeal, over a 23 year period and any apparent differences in its message were reflections of Allah responding to the various situations that confronted and challenged the early Muslim community. All of this was done without undermining the underlying them of tawhid. I will discuss the concept of progressive revelation later and how this concept refutes any claim of abrogation.
While it is true that many extremists use a twisted understanding of a doctrine of abrogation, ostensibly that verses revealed later in the life of the Prophet(as) take precedence over earlier ones, such that one ruling set forth in the Qur’an abolishes another ruling, also set forth in the Qur’an whenever there is a discrepancy, this is neither the classical consensus understanding of the doctrine of an-Nasikh wa’l Mansukh, nor the contemporary understanding; again yet another instance of unfairly insisting that Muslims believe something that we do not. There is a majority view, but no real ‘ijma, a point I will discuss later. In order to document which verses abrogated which, a religious science devoted to the chronology of the Qur’an‘s verses and determining which verses abrogated which was developed (known as an-Nasikh wa’l Mansukh, the abrogater and the abrogated). And this is a science that is almost wholly dependent on the science of azbab al nusul(reasons for revelation). Both are prerequisites for tafsir, among other sciences that should mastered. Can we honestly say that Muslim Extremists and Islamophobes are experts in the Islamic sciences of azbab al nuzul, ulum al-qur’an, nasikh wal mansukh, fiqh, usul al-fiqh, and usul at-tafsir, not to mention ulum al-hadith? Of those who acknowledge this deficiency, can we honestly say that they have access to real Muslim scholars who are experts in these Islamic sciences? I think it is very clear that for both groups their concept of ijtihad is the same as the likes of Irshad Manji.
Most cases that were understood to be cases of abrogation of the Qur’an turn out to be takhsis or tazid upon further, careful study. Takhsis and tazid will be elaborated further in the next part of the series where I discuss definitions of abrogation, but I briefly explain them here. Takhsis refers to specification, qualification, or restriction of a general text and tazid refers to addition to a previous ruling.
Imam Suyuti(rahimullah) mentions that there were many verses that served to give exceptions or limitations to other verses, and “those who considered them as cases of abrogation were incorrect.” He also mentions in his monumental book, “Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an”, a countless number of scholars authored works solely on the topic of abrogation, and that many Imams said,
“No one is allowed to give explanation [tafsir] of the Book of Allah until they understand abrogation.” Our Master Ali (may Allah ennoble his face) asked a judge if he knew which verses abrogated others, to which the judge replied that he did not. Imam Ali said, “You are ruined, and you have ruined others.”
Let us keep these quotations in mind throughout the rest of this series, Insha’Allah.