To investigate whether abrogation took place in the Qur’an, it is important to firstly define what abrogation is. Abrogation is an English term meaning ‘cancellation’, ‘annulment’ or ‘repeal.’ The word corresponds with the Arabic term nasikh. However, the Arabic term does not have the same negative connotations as abrogation. Now that the word abrogation has been defined, it is possible to investigate whether abrogation took place in the Qur’an and whether it corresponds to the English terminology or not. One of the methods used to do this was to look at the chronology of the revelations. Another method is to look at the verses and to see whether they can be classified as abrogating or abrogated.
In the book The Qur’an and its Exegesis: Selected Texts with Classical and Muslim Interpretations, The author says that the Qur’anic doctrine itself said, “Certain verse can be abrogated by others,” therefore the task of discovering those verses was important.1 Chronology was a method used to determine when verses were revealed. It helped to understand the situation the verses were revealed in.2
By understanding the order of the verses, it allowed scholars to distinguish between those verses that were abrogating and those that were abrogated. The early Muslim scholars categorized verses into Meccan and Medinan periods. These were then further divided “into sub-periods, early, middle and later for example.”3 This was significant for the concept of abrogation because a verse said to be abrogating had to have been revealed after the abrogated verse.
It is important to find out why abrogation took place in the Qur’an. For this we have two perspectives: the Orientalist and the Muslim. Abrogation is the term generally used by Orientalists in a negative way. They use the abrogation concept for criticisms of the Qur’an. For them abrogation was a method of cancelling or replacing another verse because the abrogated verse was contradicting or deviating in some way.4 One of the reasons they put forward for abrogation is that the Prophet Muhammad was the one who abrogated verses.5 This theory stems from the Orientalist view that Muhammad was really the one who created the Qur’an.
They go on further by saying that verses, which were abrogated, would suggest that God changed his mind about certain revelations.6 For Muslim scholars, the abrogation in the Qur’an had a complementing and amending nature. The Prophet Muhammad had in no way abrogated the verses in the Qur’an because the Qur’an specifically states that changes in verses were not left to Muhammad’s whims and that they were divinely revealed to him.
Muhammad was told to respond to those who taunted him to change the Qur’an “Changing it is not left to my whim, for I follow only what is revealed to me; and I fear an overwhelming day of retribution should I disobey my Lord”(10:15).7 The claim that ‘God changed his mind’ was an absurd claim because divine revelations were revealed in certain circumstances to have a greater impact and more relevance.8
The Orientalists have pointed out a few examples of abrogation of verses in the Qur’an. The abrogations are said to occur only in the Medinan revelations.9 This is because they deal with various subject matters. There are three subjects that the Orientalists have focussed upon to prove that abrogation took place. The first subject is intoxication. The Orientalist Levy criticizes the prohibition of wine in the Qur’an.10 He says that wine was at first associated with health benefits and was seen as pleasurable and that there was a river in paradise that would be of wine. He argues that this contradicts is a contradiction as the Qur’an on one hand prohibits it yet presents wine as a gift in paradise.11 The Muslim response to this is that it is true that wine is a reward that believers will receive in paradise.
However, the wine that is in paradise is totally different to the earthly wine. It will be of better quality, have a different taste and will not have the harmful derivatives that are present in the wine that we have on earth.12 The initial verses- that are now abrogated- did not prohibit wine completely. The reason for this is because the people were accustomed to drinking wine and those who were embracing Islam needed time to change their previous habits such as drinking wine.13 Therefore the first revelation did not recommend intoxicants (16:67). The second stage was to limit the consumption of intoxicants at certain times; “The believers were commanded to shun intoxicants while making ready for prayers, lest they might not know what they were saying” (4:43). The final stage was a complete ban on intoxicants, which is in Surah 5 verses 90-91.
Some Muslim scholars see the final verses as abrogating the previous two.14 Others say that they complement each other because all of them portray intoxicants in a negative way. So there is no contradiction between the verses as Levy points out. Ahmed Von Denffer gives examples of verses that are not abrogating but are specifying and clarifying. Verse 2:183 refers to fasting and tells the believer to feed a poor person if they are not fasting. The verse after that 2:184 specifies which people this rule applies to i.e. old people who are weak or someone who does not have the strength to keep a fast.
Hughes who believes that verse 240 in Surah 2 abrogates verse 234 in the same Surah has criticized the verses, which deal with widow’s rights.16 However, by reading the verses, it is clear that verse 234 outlines the procedure the widow has to follow after her husband’s death. She cannot marry within four months and ten days because she will be grieving and she might be pregnant. The verse 240 addresses the rights and privileges of the widow.
If the husband knows that he will die soon then he should leave provisions for the wife. The wife can have financial rights and she can stay in her late husbands house for up to a year if she wants to, or she could move out. In no way do these verses contradict or abrogate each other. Instead they outline a procedure for the widow and then her rights and privileges.17 Close examination reveals that some verses complement each other or are refined in some way and they are not abrogating.
The verses revealed after are actually providing more detail than the previous verse/s.18 The Orientalists alleged that abrogation took place in a Meccan Surah 53, “The Star.” Sir Mark Sykes and other Orientalists claim that there was actually a verse in the Surah, between 20-21, that praised the idols but it was deleted.19 However, none of the critics have anything to support such a claim.