The Islamic doctrine of abrogation (Naskh in Arabic) is of particular interest to non-Muslims because of the implications it has for us when we read their scripture or when the Koran is quoted to us by Islamic apologists.
Because of the doctrine of abrogation, we simply must not assume that, if we read something in the Koran, it is considered true by most Muslims. The rules may have changed! There are some apparent contradictions found in the Bible and these are considered problematic by most Christians until the contradiction is resolved. This is not true with the Islamic scriptures, especially with the Koran. The doctrine of abrogation says that verses that were delivered later replace or abrogate earlier verses on the same issue. That is, the idea that Allah can - and does contradict himself is acceptable to Islam. On the other hand, non-Muslims tend to wonder how this doctrine could ever be accepted by Mohammad’s followers.
Islamic scriptures show us that, as Mohammad’s Koranic verses continued to be delivered, his followers noticed that the instructions had changed on several issues. When he was questioned on the issue, Mohammad conveniently delivered surah 16 verse 101 of the Koran which said: “And when We change one communication for another communication, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say: ‘You are only a forger. Nay, most of them do not know’”. Apparently, the issue didn’t go away completely because Mohammad had to deliver another, more pointed, verse on abrogation in his first Medinan surah. In surah 2, verse 106 he said, “Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?”. Notice especially the “We” in this passage. When Mohammad moved to Medina he seems to have been promoted to a co-regent with Allah. In almost every subsequent surah, the instructions are attributed to “Allah and his Prophet” or his Apostle (depending on the translation).
Here are two examples of abrogation. One; Jews and Christians were to be tolerated in the earlier (Meccan) verses and dominated and humiliated in the later (Medinan) verses. Two; in earlier verses Mohammad said that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Later, when it became apparent that large numbers of Jews, Christians and even Arabs were unwilling to submit to Islam, Mohammad delivered many verses in the Koran and especially in the hadith that instructed his followers to physically force submission of non-believers to Islam or to kill them if they would not submit. When non-Muslims are shown Koranic verses talking about the tolerant attitude of Islam toward non-believers or the lack of compulsion in religion, they need to remember that Muslims have every reason to believe that these verses have been abrogated and replaced by Allah.
Probably the most important example of the application of abrogation was the evolution of Mohammad’s positions on the issue of when Muslims were allowed or required to resort to war to defend or spread Islam. A well-known medieval Islamic scholar, Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350), described the stages of the Muhammad’s position on warfare. Each of these steps were abrogations of previous so-called “revelations” from Allah. He pointed out that for thirteen years after the beginning of his cult (Our word), he was instructed to call people to God through preaching, but without fighting or demanding Jizyah (a tax). Mohammad, and Muslims were commanded to practice restraint, patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate. This brought about the hejira to Medina. Mohammad claimed he was later given permission to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight all of the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.
The doctrine of abrogation is well established within Islam generally, but it is apparently applied differently by different schools of thought within Islam. Many Muslims even believe that the hadith (or the sayings of Mohammad) can abrogate verses in the Koran (which, as we have seen, is believed to be the words of Allah). Thus, this school of thought believes that the words of their prophet can over-rule the words of their god. It should be remembered that many others within Islam do not subscribe to this belief. But perhaps this gives us greater insight into the degree to which Mohammad is revered as compared to Allah.
We didn’t find any list that has been compiled of all the abrogated verses in the Koran, but Wikipedia says that 71 of the 114 surahs of the Koran contain abrogated verses. This emphasizes the need to know when a verse was written and whether additional verses have been written on the issue before we take any Koranic quotation as indicative of the position of Islam on an issue. For reasons that we will discuss later, including the Islamic doctrine of takkiya, it is probably futile to ask an Islamic apologist if a particular verse has actually been abrogated – we probably need to research this ourselves. The critical issue is to remember that the doctrine of abrogation exists and that it can cause us to mistake the true message of the Islamic Scripture.It is therefore very helpful to know when a particular Koranic passage was written as compared to other verses. We provide a spreadsheet comparing the position of the surahs in the Koran with the order in which they were written. See below.
- Abrogation - Changing Allah's Rules