The Doctrine of Abrogation in Islam

One of the most striking passages in the Qur’an is 2:106, which provides the basis for the doctrine of abrogation:

“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except when We bring forth one better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?”

Allah, in other words, changes revelations as he goes along, and the later revelations supersede the earlier ones. There is disagreement among Muslim theologians as to exactly which verses have been abrogated and replaced, but the general idea has been clear. When Muslims are weak and in a minority position, they should behave peacefully according to the Meccan passages (which reflect the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base), and when strong, they are obligated to wage war according to the later Medinan passages (written when Muhammad was in power).

The suras of the Qur’an obviously aren’t in chronological order (for a reconstruction see here). The ninth sura, known as the Ultimatum, is the latest revelation and takes precedence over all. Muhammad received it the year before his death (631 AD), when he was at his strongest, and it’s here that we get the famous verse of the sword, which commands Muslims to kill pagans unless they convert to Islam (Qur’an 9:5). Jews and Christians must also convert or die, though they are allowed a third option, to become subjugated “with willing submission” by paying the jizya (a head tax) as second-class citizens (Qur’an 9:29). Wayward Muslims — hypocrites, liberals and heretics of different sects — are also to be killed (Qur’an 9:73). True Muslims enforce all of this. They are to kill infidels and heretics until they die in martyrdom (Qur’an 9:111).

Groups like ISIS take direct inspiration from these and other late suras, such as the fifth: “The punishment for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be imprisoned. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter will be a grievous punishment.” (Qur’an 5:33) “Making mischief” is something that can mean almost anything to justify said killing, crucifying, etc. Mere unbelief can be construed as mischief and has been.

Another late revelation is the forty-seventh, which explicitly forbids Muslims to seek peace when they have the wherewithal to wage war. “Do not weaken and call for peace when you should be uppermost” (Qur’an 47:35). Muslims who live in western nations are exempt from this command, because they are not in a superior (uppermost) position, but those, say, in Iraq or Syria, are obligated to not seek peace; they must wage war. Likewise, Muslims living in secular Islamic states (i.e. under the Shah in pre-1979 Iran) are exempt from the command, but once fundamentalist figures (like the Ayatollah) gain power, they must wage war.

When modern liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), we should of course applaud them. But theirs is an uphill battle, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. To my knowledge, there is nothing comparable to this phenomenon in the scriptures of other religions. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text within the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable.

Islam provides little enough ammunition to counter its unpleasant elements as it is. So it’s all the more troubling that what little it does provide has been rendered obsolete by that very tradition. The Islamic reformer Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was killed for essentially trying to reverse the doctrine of abrogation, and make the Qur’an’s early revelations supersede the later ones. This all adds up to a significant difference between the scriptures of Islam and those of other religions.

15 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Abrogation in Islam

  1. This is very well put. You should post it more broadly because it explains quite clearly a key problem with the notion that Islam is, at heart, “a religion of peace.” The very idea that Allah changes his mind as he goes along (so that the later revelations supersede the earlier) elevates the later revelations, when Muhammad was politically ascendant and therefore in a position to enforce his dicta on others, over the apparently more liberal earlier ones. Thus a fundamentalist interpretation of the Qu’ran militates in favor of harsh repressiveness over tolerance, often espoused in parts of that book, since the tolerant phase of Muhammad’s career occurred early on, before he had gained control over Medina.

  2. There’s still a strong tendency among Westerners to denigrate their own traditions and elevate those of others, often the more “other” the better. There’s no question that there’s much in Western history to regret and to be ashamed of. But that’s true in just about any culture. None of them have a lock on moral perfection (were such a thing even possible). But this inclination to always think ill of one’s own just because others aren’t us strikes me as irrational, unfortunate and downright harmful. But you’re probably right. The vast majority of people who see your post will feel uneasy about any criticism of Islam because, well who are we to criticize, having taken our land from its native peoples, allowed slavery in the first eighty or so years of our existence as a nation and having used gunboat diplomacy (albeit to a lesser degree than many European nations in the 19th century)! America’s (and the West’s) sins, according to these folks, utterly undermine any possible claim to being in the right we might make even while Islamic terrorism ramps up, lops off heads, blows up civilians, enslaves women and children and tries to annihilate whole communities!

    Hey, that’s just their culture man. Who are we to judge?

  3. Yes — our culture of self-loathing will kill us if nothing else. We should critique ourselves constantly, of course, as we’re full of faults. But there are others we should critique far more, and we should be comfortable calling ourselves not just different, but better, when warranted.

    In the case of religions we need to be especially critical. Casting all religions as basically equivalent may seem like “fair play” but it’s exceedingly dishonest. We can’t fix a problem that’s improperly diagnosed. Nor, especially, can liberal well-meaning Muslims. Removing the violence, intolerance, and expansionism out of Islamic doctrine kills the patient — or at least it comes very close. It transforms Islam into something fundamentally different, and most liberal Muslims seem oblivious to this. When Christian reformers attempted to recover the early teachings of Jesus and the apostles, they were successful because, for all of early Christianity’s archaisms (hopes for the apocalypse, etc.), there is plenty in New Testament teachings to facilitate progressive moves. There has never been anything like a Catholic or Protestant Reformation in the Islamic world, because harking back to the example of Muhammad would be drastically counter-productive. Indeed, on the usual understanding of reform (“recovering the essence of scripture”), it is arguably the jihadists and sharia-advocates who are Islam’s true reformers. It’s only on the other understanding of reform (realigning beliefs in progressive directions), that liberal Muslims can be construed as the torch-bearers. And that, in my opinion, is the real rub: in most religions, the two understandings of reform can usually work as one; in Islam that’s virtually impossible. You’d have to rely on revisionist historical fantasies (like those of Karen Armstrong) to make Muhammad a benign progressive.

    Ah, who are we to judge indeed?

    • Well put, again Loren. Especially your reference to Karen Armstrong! I read one of her books years ago and was struck by how starry eyed she seemed in her interpretation of Islam. But of course, Muslims have been on the losing side of history in the last couple of centuries so the impetus of people like Armstrong is to side with them, truth be damned, while their own impetus, apparently, is to do everything they can within their worldview to right the wrong history has done them.

      And they do that not by building their own nations and cultures but by raging against and seeking to tear down those nations and cultures who seem to have been on the right side of history. The big thing for any religion is its justification. Jews justify their faith by explaining how their people were abandoned by the God that loved them for having screwed up but cling to the promise that, eventually, God will restore them to the place in history they believe is theirs. And so the religion has motivation too change, to improve, and 2,000 years of adverse history has leavened their culture and belief system. Christianity, as you say, has the moral teachings of the gospels and the person of Jesus as its underpinning, a moral teacher who manifestly cared for others and exemplified the idea of loving compassion. Islam, on the other hand, found its justification in the sudden and really quite remarkable military successes of a backward tribal people suddenly welded together by Muhammad and his immediate successors who exploded out of Arabia to overrun much of the then known world.

      For Muslims, Islam’s success in its formative years was proof of God’s favor. Islam speaks for God and God makes Islam triumphant. How then could they deal with a world in which Muslims were suddenly left behind by history, confronted by more energetic more successful peoples suddenly issuing from what they had always considered backward Europe? Of course, history shows that all peoples get their moments in the sun and then history moves on. The post-European Western world dominated the 19th and 20th centuries and seems to be set to continue that in the 21st, albeit with strong competition from the up and coming countries of eastern Asia. But Islam seems stuck and, if you are a devout Muslim, you must wonder with anguish, how can that be? If the Qur’an was God’s final revelation and its proof was the establishment of Islam triumphant, what must now be said of the doctrine when Islam no longer is?

      And so angry Muslims in backward countries rage against the West, and against other non-Muslims, in a desperate and often violent effort to restore Islam’s justification for being.

      • Very insightful, and far more helpful than the usual explanations as to why Islam remains “stuck”, as you say — poverty, lack of education, political grievances, we’re told. Not that those aren’t factors (they obviously are), but religion itself is the biggest factor. Plenty of other places (Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it) are plagued by colonialism, poverty, and/or lack of education, yet aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures. Yes, there is a big difference between Islam’s raison d’etre and justification, and those of Judaism and Christianity, and this has everything to do with how religions evolve.

      • Well, muslims usually deal with their historical misfortunes the same way Jews and Christians have dealt their misfortunes – like the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD or the plague in Europe in the Middle Ages. You see it as God’s just punishment for your own or others sins. The boys in Isis (arabs usually call them Daesh) use this argument all the time,

  4. I’ve seen some thinking (can’t recall where just now) that Islam’s Qur’an was not, in fact, an artifact of Muhammad and his time but was cobbled together a hundred years or so afterwards by their successors to create the Muslim narrative of how things are (or were) and so explain Islamic triumphs, i.e., by showing that they reflected God’s will. It’s a possibility I had never considered, for I had always taken seriously the official story of Islam, that Muhammad received his revelations (with allowance, of course, for the mode of delivery) in his lifetime and recited them to others who then wrote them down and later collated the whole shebang into the Qur’an, making it, you might say, “official.” But when you think about it, the alternative view makes some sense.

    What are the chances that the verses would have been repeated correctly time after time until finally written down by others, without change, the first record of such writing occurring around a century later? One could, of course, assert one’s faith that that is how it was, of course, but if the whole point is to take the Qur’an as the basis of that faith then one is saying no more than the Qur’an is itself evidence for its truth. Human beings do sometimes make such a move (see our Western views on the Bible) but doing so doesn’t stand up to scrutiny which is why, I suppose, faith is often thought to be Faith, as if the latter term, with the capital “F” represents a special sort of belief. It’s certainly easier to ascribe victories on the field of battle to a God after the fact than proactively if one already believes that God is, in fact, running the show which we are told by the very document in question. So the Qur’an is taken to be what it is on faith and its justifying basis, that it describes the victories of the faithful faithfully, becomes evidence for the faith one is supposed to place in it.

    Since there were no mass media in those days and no Internet, people only knew what they were told. There was no videotape to check against (such as Nancy Pelosi saying she never heard of Jonathan Gruber and then having a video surface in which she’s seen praising him for his work on health care modeling only a couple of years earlier!). If you’re living a hundred years or so after the Muslim conquests and want to know how it all happened, the folks in charge, the inheritors of those initial conquerors, can create a book which puts it all together in a more or less coherent account. And then throw in things like the Doctrine of Abrogation (along with the usual suspension of disbelief enjoined on the Faithful) to finesse any apparent problems and disjunctions in the story. The upshot is a ready made “tradition” which the book sustains.

    Of course, against this one must weigh the fact that the Muslim Arab conquests had a lasting effect in a way that other comparable conquests did not, and that alone does lend some credence to the idea of a sustaining system of beliefs initially underlying the conquering armies which were not, perhaps, in evidence in other comparable cases of conquests by tribal peoples. Other barbaric peoples, like the Huns and the Mongols, made comparable conquests which did not last unlike the Arabs’ conquest which did. Those groups left their mark in other ways, of course, by shattering pre-existing cultures and civilizations, but they did not leave behind a coherent cultural narrative which superseded and replaced what came before. The cultures they conquered re-emerged, albeit in much altered form. In the case of Islam, however, a strong argument exists that the conquerors had something else going for them for they submerged all they conquered. What else might it have been? Either the favor of God, as the Muslim narrative asserts, or a strong early belief in the favor of God which had a unifying and galvanizing effect upon the tribal armies. This last suggests that the belief in the religious project of Muhammad may have been present very early in Islamic history, even as the Qur’an suggests, whether or not the Qur’an itself presents us with a true, contemporary account of that project.

    The Arab language certainly supplanted its predecessors in much of the conquered area, unlike the Hunnic and Mongolian languages. Islamic traditions, whenever they were actually formulated, blotted out the previous polyglot Christian traditions and Zoroastrianism, Manicheeism and, in parts of India, Hinduism and various forms of paganism (across the Pacific islands eventually reached by Muslims). Islam secured itself in all those regions where it supplanted the belief systems that preceded it, driving the others into near extinction (at least where conquest formed the basis of its propagation). Perhaps that was only because of the aggressive ferocity of the Islamic proselytizing methods. But was it the power of the Muslim tradition itself or the failures and exhaustion of the earlier beliefs and cultural practices they supplanted that made room for the new faith?

    Of course some of the old practices survived as they always do and many were absorbed into the new, more homogeneous Islamic culture but, for the most part, the new homogenized Islam blanketed almost all the regions in which it came to dominate. Perhaps it was due to the strong appeal of the Islamic narrative, God’s people united in a holy cause, justified by a history of remarkable successes. How many among a conquered people would not rush to join themselves to the winners, the “strong horse,” and so obtain the same fruits of victory God has vouchsafed his followers, particularly when his followers invite you into the fold while threatening to annihilate you and yours if you refuse? This, too, indicates why the very heart of Islam depends on belief in a history of success, in victory over unbelievers. If the argument that brought the conquered peoples into the fold stood on winning, then losing is not only an insult to that tradition but something far worse: Evidence of untruth. Muslims, confronted by a counter narrative in which believers have been left behind, would take it badly. If Islam is true, then Muslims must be triumphant and unbelievers must knuckle under for, if they don’t and continue, instead, to prosper, then there’s something wrong with the Islamic account.

    • I like this thread. Reminds me again about Robert Spencer (the inimitatable Catholic Sionist Obama
      hater behind Jihad Watch). Spencer has been arguing lately that Mohammed probaby never existed and that the Quran was cobbled together by the Ummayads (and only God knows who was involved more in the cobbling process, since Spencer isn’t very specific about who exactly did what,,,). Some months ago on this blog I called Spencer’s book “Did Muhammad exist” rubbish or an even stronger invective. I haven’t found any reason to retract my strong words – on the contrary. The more I read the book I only find that Spencer has really put on the turbo to use all kinds of dirty tricks to sell us a really farfetched hypothesis while masquerading as a historian. He has nothing original himself to offer on the subject except making a very badly tasting cocktail of ideas taken from people like John Wansbrough (argues that the Quran was “cobbled” together decades, even centuries after Muhammads death by other folks). I don’t give a farthing for Wansbrough’s ideas and neither do most islamologists, be they attheists or believers. Spencer also puts the ideas of an “anonymous” scholar called Luxenberg into his cocktail. As far as I can see the man is an idiot, and even if he holds a real scholarly title, I know from my own experience after being for years in the Bible business that these particular academic fields (studying
      the Bible or the Quran) is filled with pompous idiots (NT Wright just to name one…).
      To see how a really good scholar picks apart arguments like Wansbrough’s (which also means pseudoscholars like Spencer since he largely depends on Wansbrough and other likeminded scholars) I recommend Fred Donner’s “Narratives of Islamic Origins”. Specially the Introduction and and first chapter called “The date of the Quranic Text”. I hold the book in my hand at this very moment. God bless Fred Donner.

  5. Oops, I just noticed that I logged into Loren’s blog with my WordPress alias. Although I am not that very happy today after being reminded of the abominal Robert Spencer and his book I still go by the name Antonio Jerez in my little corner of reality in Sweden.

  6. Yes Antonio, I knew it was you. You have a clear signature in your voice if not your alias. I think it’s a mistake to put Robert Spencer in the same category as Wright. Spencer’s positions are controversial, but he is at least a solid thinker, whereas Wright pushes pet theories around with lazy thinking, and he has half-convinced himself these theories are ground-breaking and challenging but I don’t think ultimately are for a neo-orthodox Anglican.

    Now, as I said back in July, I have not been moved to the Wansbrough/Luxenberg/Spencer position on Muhammad’s existence or the Qur’an’s origins, but it’s a position which I do believe merits consideration. I want to go back and reread some of the essays in The Qur’an in Context you sent me. I still have a draft which I never finished for a post on the Stefan Wild article about the virgins in paradise. Virgins are always a good topic.

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