Peace or Jihad? Abrogation in Islam

That there is no compulsion in Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace are common refrains among Muslim activists, academics, officials, and journalists. In an age of terrorism and violent jihad, nowhere, they argue, does the Qur’an allow Muslims to fight non-Muslims solely because they refuse to become Muslim. Proponents of Islamic tolerance point to a number of Qur’anic verses which admonish violence and advocate peace, tolerance, and compromise.

But not all verses in the Qur’an have the same weight in assessment. Unlike the Old or New Testaments, the Qur’an is not organized by chronology but rather by size of chapters. Even within chapters, chronology can be confused. In sura (chapter) 2, for example, God revealed verses 193, 216, and 217 to Muhammad shortly after he arrived in Medina. God only revealed verses 190, 191, and 192 six years later. This complicates interpretation, all the more when some verses appear to contradict.

Abrogation in the Qur’an

The Qur’an is unique among sacred scriptures in accepting a doctrine of abrogation in which later pronouncements of the Prophet declare null and void his earlier pronouncements. Four verses in the Qu’ran acknowledge or justify abrogation:

  • When we cancel a message, or throw it into oblivion, we replace it with one better or one similar. Do you not know that God has power over all things?
  • When we replace a message with another, and God knows best what he reveals, they say: You have made it up. Yet, most of them do not know.
  • God abrogates or confirms whatsoever he will, for he has with him the Book of the Books.
  • If we pleased, we could take away what we have revealed to you. Then you will not find anyone to plead for it with us.

Rather than explain away inconsistencies in passages regulating the Muslim community, many jurists acknowledge the differences but accept that latter verses trump earlier verses. Most scholars divide the Qur’an into verses revealed by Muhammad in Mecca when his community of followers was weak and more inclined to compromise, and those revealed in Medina, where Muhammad’s strength grew.

Classical scholars argued that anyone who studied the Qur’an without having mastered the doctrine of abrogation would be “deficient.” Those who do not accept abrogation fall outside the mainstream and, perhaps, even the religion itself. The Ahmadiyah sect, for example, today concentrated in Pakistan, consistently rejects abrogation because it undercuts the notion that the Qur’an is free from errors. Many Muslims consider Ahmadis, who also see their founder as a prophet, to be apostates.

Because the Qur’an is not organized chronologically, there has been a whole subset of theological study to determine which verses abrogate and which are abrogated. Muslim scholars base their understanding of theology not only upon the Qur’an but also upon hadiths, accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. One hadith in particular addresses abrogation. It cites Abu al-A‘la bin al-Shikhkhir, considered by theologians to be a reliable source of knowledge about the Prophet’s life, as saying, that “the Messenger of God abrogated some of his commands by others, just as the Qur’an abrogates some part of it with the other.” Muhammad accepted that God would invalidate previous revelation, often making ordinances stricter.

Abrogation occurs not only within the Qur’an, but also by the Qur’an toward earlier revelations, such as those passed on by Jesus or Moses. Sura 2:106 refers to commandments sent to prophets before Muhammad. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, commentator and translator of the Qur’an, interpreted the verse to mean that God’s message is the same across time, but its form may differ according to the exigencies of time. ‘Abd al-Majid Daryabadi, a Pakistani Qur’an commentator, suggested, however, that the laws might differ across time but that there should be no shame in the same lawgiver replacing temporary laws with permanent ones (Continue reading at http://www.meforum.org.)

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