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The Doctrine of Abrogation

This doctrine has its origin in two verses of the Qur'an: "We do not abrogate any verse or cause it to be forgotten unless We substitute for it something better or similar; do you know that God has power over all things?" (2.100). "When we substitute one verse for another - and God knows best what He reveals - they say 'you are but a forger"' (16.103).

That there are cases of abrogation in the Qur'an is undisputed, but the authorities differ widely in identifying the abrogated verses, some limiting their number to as few as 5, others pointing to as many as 225. The doctrine has been developed in the course of interpreting the Qur'an. The task has not been free from difficulties, as it has required the establishment of two conditions in each case: i.e., that the abrogating verse is posterior to the abrogated verse, which raises the moot problem of the chronology of the Suras of the Qur'an, and that there is no possibility of reconciling the contents of the two verses concerned.

The authorities distinguish three kinds of abrogation: (1) where both the written word and the content are eliminated (as in reported cases where a recorded verse is said to have disappeared mysteriously and its substance to have faded from memory; (2) where the written word somehow vanished but the content remained in force (a once-existing verse ordering the punishment for adultery by lapidation is believed to have disappeared, but the commandment has been maintained by tradition); (3) where a still-existing verse is in effect repealed or modified by the introduction of a new text (all references in the commentaries to the doctrine of abrogation fall into this category).

By far the greatest number of verses held to have been abrogated are those which counsel the Prophet to be patient with the unbelievers and to remember that he is no more than a warner, leaving the punishment of recalcitrants to God. The abrogating verses, on the other hand, are those which command the Prophet and the faithful to fight and kill. Below are cited by way of illustration, a few verses of both kinds: the abrogated as well as the abrogating.

The abrogated: "Say 'O men, I am sent to you only to give a clear warning"' (32.48). "If they contend with you, say, 'God knows best what you are doing"' (32.67). "Repel evil with that which is best" (23.98). "Leave them (the unbelievers) in their confused ignorance for a time" (33.56). "Be patient at what they say" (20.130, 38.16). "All are waiting, so you too wait if you will" (20.135). "Have patience with what they say and leave them with dignity" (73. 10). "Make no haste against them (19.87). "Warn them of the Day of Distress" (19.40). "Forgive and overlook" (2.103).

The abrogating: "Fighting is prescribed for you" (2.212). "Fight those who do not believe" (9.29). "Fight the unbelievers whom you find round about you" (9.124). "Fight them (the unbelievers) until Allah's faith prevails" (2.189). "Slay the pagans wherever you find them" (9.5). "Slay them wherever you catch them" (2.187).

Several inconsistencies exist in the verses of the Qur'an which may be, and by some commentators have occasionally been, brought within the doctrine of abrogation. One important incompatibility is that which exists between the statement in 2.257 to the effect that there shall be no compulsion in religion, and that in 9.29 which commands Moslems to fight non-Moslems, including the People of the Book, namely Jews and Christians, until they accept Islam or humbly pay tribute. Similarly the dictum in 49.13 to the effect that God's purpose in creating men in nations and tribes is that they shall know each other is contradicted by several verses which forbid Moslems from associating with non-Moslems. Thus verse 5.56 enjoins on Moslems not to take Jews and Christians for friends; to the same effect are verses 3.27, 3.114 and 4.143.

A further reference to abrogation is made in the Qur'an where it states that Allah abrogates the interpolations of Satan into the utterances of Prophets (22.51). It is generally believed that reference is made here to the words pronounced by the Prophet when, in the course of reciting Sura 53, he said (following verses 19 and 20) that the three female idols of Arab paganism were acceptable to Allah as intercessors. These words, having been interjected by Satan, were soon withdrawn.

Islamic theology and jurisprudence give the widest scope to the doctrine of abrogation. One commentary (Kashf-al-Asrar in commenting on verse 2.100) says: "The orthodox view is that abrogation applies both to the Qur'an and to tradition. Thus the Qur'an abrogates the Qur'an, tradition abrogates the Qur'an, tradition abrogates tradition, and the Qur'an abrogates tradition. All this is firmly established and is recognised by jurisprudence."

An example of an existing verse held to have been abrogated by another is verse 24.3 which says: "An adulterer may only marry an adulteress, and an adulteress only an adulterer", and which is considered to have been repealed by verse 32 of the same Sura which contains this commandment: "Marry those among you who are single". Incidentally the same abrogation is also indirectly deduced from circumstantial evidence furnished by Tradition: the Prophet is reported to have meant the ruling in 24.3 to apply only to the case of two men who intended to marry two particular women of easy virtue plying their trade in Mecca, the ruling having lapsed after these cases had been disposed of.

Finally, it does not appear that commentators have discussed the question as to how the doctrine of abrogation stands in relation to the Qur'anic affirmation that Allah's word is unchangeable. "No change can there be in the Words of Allah" (10.64).


From Sherif, Faruq. A Guide to the Contents of the Qur'an. London: Ithaca, 1985.