The Farce of Quranic Abrogation

A unique feature that is found in the Quran is the doctrine of abrogation, where Allah cancels out or effaces one verse with something similar or better:

And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything? S. 2:106 Arberry

God blots out, and He establishes whatsoever He will; and with Him is the Essence of the Book. 13:39 Arberry

And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse and God knows very well what He is sending down — they say, ‘Thou art a mere forger!’ Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge. S. 16:101 Arberry

We shall make thee recite, to forget not save what God wills; surely He knows what is spoken aloud and what is hidden. S. 87:6-7 Arberry

Suffice it to say there are glaring problems with this rather convenient teaching.

The immediate problem comes from the fact that the Quran teaches that none can ever change the words of Allah, not even Allah himself:

Rejected were the apostles before thee: with patience and constancy they bore their rejection and their wrongs, until Our aid did reach them: there is NONE that can alter the words (and decrees) of God. Already hast thou received some account of those apostles. S. 6:34 Y. Ali  

The word of thy Lord doth find its fulfilment in truth and in justice: NONE can change His words: for He is the one who heareth and knoweth all. S. 6:115 Y. Ali           

For them are glad tidings, in the life of the present and in the Hereafter; no change can there be in the words of God. This is indeed the supreme felicity. S. 10:64 Y. Ali         

And recite (and teach) what has been revealed to thee of the Book of thy Lord: NONE can change His Words, and none wilt thou find as a refuge other than Him. S. 18:27 Y. Ali

That had been the Sunnah of Allah which definitely continued and persisted since before. And you will NEVER find a change for the Sunnah (Practice) of Allah. S. 48:23 (Dr. Kamal Omar

These passages make it abundantly clear that even Allah himself will never change his own words, laws, sunna etc. And yet this is precisely what Allah did!

The second dilemma with the doctrine of abrogation is that, according to Islamic sources, Allah at times changed and/or improved his statements immediately, sometimes on the very same day!

The following is an example of what we mean:

O Prophet (Muhammad)! Urge the believers to fight. If there are twenty steadfast persons amongst you, they will overcome two hundred, and if there be a hundred steadfast persons they will overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve, because they (the disbelievers) are people who do not understand. Now Allah has lightened your (task), for He knows that there is weakness in you. So if there are of you a hundred steadfast persons, they shall overcome two hundred, and if there are a thousand of you, they shall overcome two thousand with the Leave of Allah. And Allah is with As-Sabirin (the patient ones, etc.). S. 8:65-66 Hilali-Khan

In a matter of two verses Allah changes his command regarding the number of disbelievers that Muslims will be able to successfully engage in combat. In the first verse Allah says that twenty Muslims will be able to overcome two hundred and that a hundred will overpower a thousand. Yet in the reference right after Allah changes the ratio since now he says that it will take one hundred Muslims to overpower two hundred and a thousand to defeat two thousand, which means that it will take approximately five times as many Muslims to defeat the same number of disbelievers!

One of the earliest Islamic biographers Ibn Ishaq, in his Sirat Rasulullah, implies that this change in ratio occurred on the same day:

Then He said: ‘O prophet, God is sufficient for thee and the believers who follow thee. O prophet, exhort the believers to fight. If there are twenty steadfast ones among you they will overcome a thousand unbelievers for there are hundred of you they will overcome a thousand unbelievers for they are senseless people,’ i.e. they do not fight with a good intention nor for truth nor have they knowledge of what is good and what is evil. Abdullah b. Abu Najih from ‘Ata’ b. Abu Ribah from ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas told me that WHEN THIS VERSE CAME DOWN it came as a shock to the Muslims who took it hard that twenty should have to fight two hundred, and a hundred fight a thousand. So God relieved them AND CANCELED THE VERSE WITH ANOTHER SAYING: ‘Now has God relieved you and He knows that there is weakness amongst you, so if there are a hundred steadfast they shall overcome two hundred, and if there are a thousand of you they shall overcome two thousand by God’s permission, for God is with the steadfast.’ (‘Abdullah) said, ‘When they numbered half of the enemy it was wrong for them to run from them; but if they were less than half they were not bound to fight and it was permissible for them to withdraw.’ (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Karachi Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth Impression 1995], p. 326; bold and capital emphasis mine)

Renowned Sunni exegete Ibn Kathir adds:

Allah said next, commanding the believers and conveying good news to them…

<If there are twenty steadfast persons among you, they will overcome two hundred, and if there be a hundred steadfast persons, they will overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve.>

The Ayah says, one Muslim should endure ten disbelievers. Allah abrogated this part later on, but the good news remained. `Abdullah bin Al-Mubarak said that Jarir bin Hazim narrated to them that, Az-Zubayr bin Al-Khirrit narrated to him, from `Ikrimah, from Ibn `Abbas, “When this verse was revealed…

<If there are twenty steadfast persons among you, they will overcome two hundred…> it became difficult for the Muslims, when Allah commanded that one Muslim is required to endure ten idolators. Soon after, this matter was made easy

<Now Allah has lightened your (task)>, until…

<they shall overcome two hundred…>

Allah lowered the number [of adversaries that Muslims are required to endure], and thus, made the required patience less, compatible to the decrease in numbers.” Al-Bukhari recorded a similar narration from Ibn Al-Mubarak. Muhammad bin Ishaq recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, “When this Ayah was revealed, it was difficult for the Muslims, for they thought it was burdensome since twenty should fight two hundred, and a hundred against a thousand. Allah made this ruling easy for them and abrogated this Ayah with another Ayah

<Now Allah has lightened your (task), for He knows that there is weakness in you…>

Thereafter, if Muslims were half as many as their enemy, they were not allowed to run away from them. If the Muslims were fewer than that, they were not obligated to fight the disbelievers and thus allowed to avoid hostilities.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; bold and underline emphasis mine)

Now if Allah is truly all knowing and doesn’t change his mind wouldn’t he have known beforehand that the Muslims were not up to the task of facing so many disbelievers? If so then why did he give them this instruction in the first place? Isn’t this proof that Allah doesn’t know all things and does change his mind, especially when he discovers new facts or encounters new situations that he hadn’t foreseen?

It gets a whole lot worse for Allah. The Muslim commentators mention that Muhammad had to an exception clause to Q. 4:95 as a result of a blind man complaining about the passage!

(Those of the believers who sit still, other than those who have a (disabling) hurt, are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah…) [4:95]. Abu ‘Uthman Sa‘id ibn Muhammad al-‘Adl informed us> his grandfather> Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Sarraj> Muhammad ibn Humayd al-Razi> Salamah ibn al-Fadl> Muhammad ibn Ishaq> al-Zuhri> Sahl ibn Sa‘d> Marwan ibn al-Hakam> Zayd ibn Thabit who said: “I was with the Prophet when the verse (Those of the believers who sit still are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah) and did not mention (other than those who have a (disabling) hurt). Ibn Umm Maktum said: ‘How is this so when I am blind and unable to see?’ The Prophet was overwhelmed with revelation in this assembly and he leaned on my thigh. By Him in whose Hand is my soul, his weight grew so much on my thigh that I feared he would crush it. Then he was relieved, upon which he said: ‘Write: (Those of the believers who sit still, other than those who have a (disabling) hurt, are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah)’, and I wrote it down”. This was narrated by Bukhari> Isma‘il ibn ‘Abd Allah> Ibrahim ibn Sa‘d> Salih> al-Zuhri. Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Yahya informed us> Muhammad ibn Ja‘far ibn Matar> Abu Khalifah> Abu’l-Walid> Shu‘bah> Abu Ishaq> al-Bara’ who said: “When the verse (Those of the believers who sit still are not on an equality…), the Messenger of Allah called Zayd who went to him with a shoulder blade and wrote on it this verse. But Ibn Umm Maktum complained about the fact that he is blind, and so the verse (Those of the believers who sit still, other than those who have a (disabling) hurt, are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah) was revealed”. This was narrated by Bukhari from Abu’l-Walid and by Muslim from Bundar from Ghundar, and both Abu’l-Walid and Ghundar related it from Shu‘bah. Isma’il ibn Abi al-Qasim al-Nasrabadhi informed us> Isma’il ibn Najid> Muhammad ibn ‘Abdus> ‘Ali ibn al-Ja’d> Zuhayr> Abu Ishaq> al-Bara’ that the Messenger of Allah said: “Call Zayd for me and ask him to bring with him a shoulder blade and an inkwell”, or he said: “a slate”. (Al-Wahidi, Asbab Al-Nuzul; bold emphasis mine)

When he came, he said to him: “Write for me (Those of the believers who sit still are not on an equality)” I think he said: (with those who strive in the way of Allah). Ibn Umm Maktum said: “O Messenger of Allah, but I have hurt in my eyes, and before he left it was revealed (other than those who have a (disabling) hurt)”. This was narrated by Bukhari> Muhammad ibn Yusuf> Isra’il> Abu Ishaq. (Ibid.

Al-Bukhari recorded that Al-Bara’ said, “When the Ayah

<Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home),> was revealed, the Messenger of Allah called Zayd and commanded him to write it. Then, Ibn Umm Maktum came and mentioned that he was blind. Allah revealed…

<except those who are disabled (by injury or are blind or lame)>.”

Al-Bukhari recorded that Sahl bin Sa`d As-Sa`di said, “I saw Marwan bin Al-Hakam sitting in the Masjid. I came and sat by his side. He told us that Zayd bin Thabit told him that Allah’s Messenger dictated this Ayah to him…

<Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled, and those who strive hard and fight in the cause of Allah>

Ibn Umm Maktum came to the Prophet as he was dictating that very Ayah to me. Ibn Umm Maktum said, `O Allah’s Messenger! By Allah, if I had power, I would surely take part in Jihad.’ He was a blind man. So Allah sent down revelation to His Messenger while his thigh was on mine and it became so heavy for me that I feared that my thigh would be broken. That ended after Allah revealed…

<except those who are disabled>.” This was recorded by Al-Bukhari. At-Tirmidhi recorded that Ibn `Abbas said…

<Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled>, refers to those who did not go to the battle of Badr and those who went to Badr. When the battle of Badr was about to occur, Abu Ahmad bin Jahsh and Ibn Umm Maktum said, `We are blind, O Messenger of Allah! Do we have an excuse’ The Ayah

<Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled> was revealed. Allah made those who fight, above those who sit in their homes not hindered by disability. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, pp. 555-556)

Although the last quotation above is, strictly speaking, not an example of abrogation, it does serve the purpose of showing how Muhammad’s god was quick to change the revelation to suit Muhammad’s own purposes and desires, as well as the purposes of Muhammad’s friends.

Once again, was Allah not aware of the blind, the disabled and the sick among the Muslims who were incapable of carrying out jihad? If so, then why did he wait until a blind Muslim complained to clarify and improve upon his commandment?

A final problem with this doctrine has to do with the belief of Muslims that the Quran is the uncreated speech of Allah. Since Allah is supposed to be perfect, and therefore immutable, there cannot be any aspect of his speech that superior to another part. And yet according to the following text, there are portions of Allah’s speech that are actually better than other parts!

Any message which, We annul or consign to OBLIVION We replace with a BETTER or a similar one. Dost thou not know that God has the power to will anything. S. 2:106 (Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Quran

The foregoing raises additional difficulties for Muslims. How can Allah replace one verse with a better one without this implying that certain aspects of his speaking are inferior to other parts of his speech? Does Allah’s speech improve over time so that Allah’s communication skills are getting better with the passing of time? If so, then doesn’t this prove that the Islamic deity is a mutable imperfect being who is in the process of perfecting himself as time progresses with the aid of his creatures since experiences directly shape and mold the manner of his speaking?

Moreover, why replace one verse with something similar if they are that much alike? Why not stick with the initial statement uttered or reveal the latter passage from the very get go?   

The fact of the matter is that abrogation is nothing more than an expedient attempt of explaining away the major contradictions within the Quran, something that is even admitted by Muslims themselves. For instance, the late Muslim scholar and Quranic translator Muhammad Asad himself believed that abrogation may have been concocted as a result of the inability of scholars to satisfactorily harmonize the major discrepancies within their religious text. Note what he wrote in respect to Q. 2:106:

“… The principle laid down in this passage – relating to the supersession of the Biblical dispensation by that of the Qur’an – has given rise to an erroneous interpretation by many Muslim theologians. The word ayah (‘message’) occurring in this context is also used to denote a ‘verse’ of the Qur’an (because every one of these verses contains a message). Taking this restricted meaning of the term ayah, some scholars conclude from the above passage that certain verses of the Qur’an have been ‘abrogated’ by God’s command before the revelation of the Qur’an was completed. Apart from the fancifulness of this assertion – WHICH CALLS TO MIND THE IMAGE OF A HUMAN AUTHOR CORRECTING, ON SECOND THOUGHT, THE PROOFS OF HIS MANUSCRIPT, deleting one passage and replacing it with another – there does not exist a single reliable Tradition to the effect that the Prophet ever declared a verse of the Qur’an to have been ‘abrogated’. At the root of the so-called ‘doctrine of abrogation’ MAY LIE THE INABILITY OF SOME EARLY COMMENTATORS TO RECONCILE ONE QUR’ANIC PASSAGE WITH ANOTHER; a difficulty which was overcome by declaring that one of the verses in question had been ‘abrogated’. This arbitrary procedure explains also why there is no unanimity whatsoever among the upholders of the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ as to which, and how many, Qur’an-verses have been affected by it; and furthermore, as to whether this alleged abrogation implies a total elimination of the verse from the context of the Qur’an, or only a cancellation of the specific ordinance or statement contained in it. In short, the ‘doctrine of abrogation’ has no basis in historical fact, and must be rejected…” (Asad, Message of the Qur’an [Dar Al-Andalus Limited 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar rpt. 1993], pp. 22-23, fn. 87; bold and capital emphasis mine)

Asad correctly pointed out that abrogation is an indication of human imperfections and weakness.

Asad wasn’t the only one who felt this way since the late Maulana Muhammad Ali of the Ahmadiyya sect also rejected abrogation precisely because it violates the claim of the Quran that it is free from errors and discrepancies.

Like Asad, Ali acknowledged that Muslims developed this concept because they were confronted with references that conflicted with one another, which they could not satisfactorily explain:

The principle on which the theory of abrogation is based is unacceptable, being contrary to the clear teachings of the Qur’an. A verse is considered to be abrogated when the two cannot be reconciled with each other; in other words, when they appear to contradict each other. But the Qur’an destroys this foundation when it declares that no part of it is at variance with another: “Will they not then meditate on the Qur’an? And if it were from any other than Allah, they would have found in it many a discrepancy” (4:82). It was due to lack of meditation that one verse was thought to be at variance with another; and hence it is that in almost all cases where abrogation has been upheld by one person, there has been another who, being able to reconcile the two, has repudiated the alleged abrogation. (Ali, The Religion of Islam [The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam (Lahore) U.S.A., Eighth Edition 2005], p. 32; bold and italicized emphasis mine)

Ali’s candid admission shows that those who appeal to abrogation do so primarily because they are unable to reconcile the errors within the Quran. Abrogation therefore becomes the convenient way of explaining away these discrepancies as well as the variant corruptions to the text of the Quran.

Amazingly, even controversial Sunni scholar Yasir Qadhi who, despite accepting the doctrine of abrogation, candidly admits that one of the reasons for classifying specific texts as nasikh (abrogating) or mansukh (abrogated) is because they contradict one another and cannot be harmonized:

There are a number of conditions that the scholars of usool al-fiqh and ‘uloom al-Qur’aan have laid down in order to substantiate any claim of naskh. One of the reasons for this is that naskh is called only as a last-resort, since the very concept of naskh implies discarding a ruling for another. As long as both rulings can be applied, naskh is not resorted to.

The more important conditions are as follows:

1) The most important condition for naskh to have occurred is that the two rulings in question must directly contradict each other, such that both rulings cannot be applied at the same time, and there exists no way to reconcile them. This is because, as just mentioned, naskh is only called as a last-resort, when there exists no other way to explain the two rulings. Therefore, if one of the rulings can apply to a specific case, and the other ruling to a different case, this cannot be considered an example of naskh. (Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan, Chapter 13. Abrogation in the Qur’aan: An-Naskh Wa Al-Mansookh, III. The Conditions for Naskh, pp. 236-237; bold emphasis mine)

Finally, abrogation questions the integrity, reliability and honesty of Allah. After all, since Allah changes his statements and improves upon his speech over time, a Muslim has no assurance that his god won’t continue to change his mind by abrogating the claim that Islam is the true religion and that Muhammad is the final prophet. What assurance do Muslims have and what guarantee can they give to others that Allah hasn’t abrogated his statement that Muhammad is the seal of prophethood by raising up other prophets such as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism?

The simple fact of the matter is they have no assurance whatsoever that such is not the case. Therefore, their god is not worthy of anyone’s love, trust and worship since he is totally unreliable and untrustworthy, being of a capricious mind who changes his words and instructions whenever he so chooses and desires.  

Muslims must therefore accept that the Quranic teaching of abrogation is simply incompatible with the belief in an omniscient and immutable God. As such, they must face the reality that Muhammad’s Allah cannot be the one true God of the Holy Bible, that infinite, majestic Being revealed in the glorious Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the late Christian Evangelist Dr. Anis A. Shorrosh put it:

“Muslims resolve some internal contradictions in the Quran by stating that certain passages of the Quran are mansukh, or annulled by verses revealed chronologically later than themselves, which are called nasikh. This is taught by Muhammad in Surat al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2:106…

What is called ‘the sword verse’ in Surat al-Taubah (Repentance) 9:5 annuls 124 verses which originally encouraged tolerance…

“One tradition has it that ‘Ayisha declared emphatically that the Surat al-Saff (The Ranks) 61 had 200 verses during Muhammad’s lifetime. But when Uthman standardized the Quran, the Surat had only 72 verses.

“This idea is certainly unacceptable and foreign to an all-wise God who, according to this Muslim doctrine, is presented as an ignorant Allah who dictates wrong commands and later corrects them because they do not work. Compare this belief of Muslim theology with what Christ Jesus announced according to Matthew 5:17-19:

‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’”(Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam [Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN 1988], PART ONE. Islam: The Evidence Examined, 5. Islam Unveiled, pp. 163-165)

Christian author and evangelist Gerhard Nehls concurs:

We should like to find out how a divine revelation can be improved. We would have expected it to have been perfect and true right from the start… God has revealed His Word progressively, the revelation being levelled at the comprehension and culture of the people to whom it was first given. Everybody will agree that an allegory should not be taken literally. But what about the law of ‘mansukh’ (=abrogated verse; please note Sura 2:106 does not speak of intellect, culture or progressive revelation with reference to scriptures given prior to Mohammed, but to Quranic verses only!) and ‘nasikh’ (=the verses that take the place of the mansukh verses)?… To us it is surprising to find the mansukh and nasikh verses often near to each other. We judge these to be cases of interpolation.

“As stated earlier, we do believe in progressive revelation. The Old Covenant of the Law, as given to Moses, was superseded by the New Covenant of grace, which Jesus introduced. But these developments took place over a considerable time (1500 years) with many prophetic warnings and predictions in between, so that no arbitrary action may be assumed on the side of God. In the light of this we find it unacceptable that within a space of 20 years a need for change or correction can become necessary. This surely suggests that God is either not all-knowing or else the recorder made a correction.

“There are other verses which further add to the confusion… Why should anything be forgotten of an eternal revelation? To ‘substitute for it something better’? We do admit that an inspired man can err at times, but an inspired book (nazil) cannot!

“We suggest that Allah could have spared us a lot of confusion, doubt and explaining, had He given the better text right from the beginning.

“A further problem arises from the fact that there is by no means any certainty which verses are mansukh and which nasikh, since the order in which the Quran was written down is not chronological, but according to the length of the Suras. However, even the Suras were not necessarily given in one piece. It happened that a certain portion of a Sura was given, and the next given text would be directed by Mohammed to be added to another Sura, and later again another addition was made to the first again, etc. The Hadis gives no conclusive information about the chronological order either, so that strictly speaking, there is no means of determining which of two disagreeing texts is mansukh, and which nasikh.” (Nehls, Christians Ask Muslims, Contradictions in the Quran; bold emphasis mine)

Christian apologist Ron Rhodes wonderfully sums up the dilemma this unique Islamic doctrine raises for Muslims who believe Allah is God and the Quran is a divine revelation:

“The doctrine of abrogation is extremely problematic for the view that the Quran is a divine book. This is especially so since the Quran on earth is viewed as a perfect copy of the eternal Quran engraved on a tablet in heaven, which is in the presence of Allah. The problem, simply put, is this: If the Quran is eternal, authored by almighty God, why the need for changes in the revelation given to Muhammad? Does God change His mind? If God is all-knowing, then wouldn’t the initial revelation given to Muhammad be final–and absolutely beyond the need for change?…

1. We cannot trust the Quran, not only because it has divinely inspired contradictions, but because we have no assurance that God will not abrogate part of it again and annul the present revelation.

2. Muslims may argue that future abrogation will not occur because Muhammad was the last prophet, but what if God abrogates that and brings still another prophet?

3. How can we trust God with our eternal souls, knowing it is possible that God could abrogate his mercy on us?

4. Abrogation involves not just adding new revelation, but contradicting and annulling former revelation. This necessarily means that God has either changed his mind on a matter, or that he was unaware of how future contingent events would turn out, and thus forced to make a change.

5. Abrogation calls into question God’s attributes, such as his foreknowledge (that is, he did not have sufficient knowledge to avoid abrogation).

6. Since God is inconsistent, what basis is there for morality and ethics? There is no absolute right and wrong that serve as a foundation for our ethics…

Many Christians have wondered why Muslims persist in arguing against veracity of the Bible because of its alleged contradictions while at the same time holding to the doctrine of abrogation in the Quran. This does not seem to make much sense. Christians have also noted that whereas one verse in the Quran affirms the doctrine of abrogation (Sura 2:106), another verse says, ‘No change there be in the words of God’ (Sura 10:64). It is not clear how Muslims reconcile these verses.” (Ron Rhodes, Reasoning From the Scriptures with Muslims [Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 2002], pp. 87-89; bold emphasis mine)

So much for Allah being God and Muhammad being a true prophet!

2 thoughts on “The Farce of Quranic Abrogation

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