In this short post, I will cite what one of Sunni Islam’s greatest commentators, namely, al-Qurtubi, claims in respect to the Quranic doctrine of abrogation. But first, I quote what he wrote in relation to the Quran being the uncreated word of Allah:
The word ‘Qur’an’ designates the Words of Allah Almighty and means ‘recited’. This is a common linguistic usage in Arabic as ‘maktūb’ (written) is a book. It is also said that it is a verbal noun.
We find in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim from ‘Abdullāh ibn ‘Umar that in the sea there are imprisoned shayṭāns who were shackled by Sulaymān who are close to emerging and reciting something to people. Sūrat al-Isrā’ uses the word ‘Qur’an’ to mean ‘recitation’ (17:78) The Arabs often use a verbal noun for a passive participle. This common usage is known legally and the Qur’an is a name for the Word of Allah so that it can be said that the Qur’an which is recited is not created. That means what is recited, not the recitation itself. Sometimes the word is also used for the bound book (muṣḥaf) in which the words of the Qur’an are written down. The Prophet said, ‘Do not travel to the land of the enemy with the Qur’an,’ meaning a copy of the Qur’an. It is derived from the root qara’a, to collect something. It is said that it is a name for the Book of Allah without any derivation, like Torah and Gospel. This is related from ash-Shāfi‘ī. What is sound is that all of it is derived. (Tafsir al-Qurtubi: Juz’ 2: Sūrat al-Baqarah 142– 253, translated by Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley [Diwan Press, 2019], Volume 2, p. 158; bold emphasis mine)
With that said, here’s what this renowned exegete stated in respect to Q. 2:106 as it relates to abrogation:
106 Whenever We abrogate an āyah or cause it to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or equal to it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? Whenever We abrogate an āyah or cause it to be forgotten,
This is a very important āyah about judgments. Its cause was that the Jews envied the Muslims when they turned away from Jerusalem and faced the Ka‘bah, and they attacked Islam for that, saying that Muḥammad commanded his Companions to do one thing and then forbade it, and maintained that the Qur’an was of his own making. They contradicted one another and so Allah revealed: ‘If We replace one āyah with another one…’ (16:101) and this āyah.
This subject is very important and scholars must be aware of it. Only ignorant fools deny it because of the effect of events on rulings and recognition of the lawful and unlawful. Abu-l-Bakhtarī said, ‘‘Alī entered the mosque while a man was causing the people there to become frightened. He asked, “What is this?” They answered, “A man who is reminding people.” He said, “He is not a man who reminds people. He says, ‘I am so-and-so son of so-and-so, so acknowledge me.’” He sent for him and asked, “Do you know the abrogating from the abrogated?” “No,” he replied. He said, “Then leave our mosque and do not admonish people in it.”’
There are two aspects to abrogation or supersession (naskh). The first is transfer, like from one Divine Book to another. According to this, all the Qur’an is ‘abrogated’ in the sense that was taken from the Preserved Tablet and sent down to the House of Might in the lowest heaven. This has nothing to do with this āyah. The second form of abrogation is invalidation and removal, which is what is meant here. This, in turn, is divided into two types.
The first is supersession, which is the invalidation of something and its removal, and then putting something else in its place. The verb, nasakha, is used for the sun replacing the shadow when it takes its place. That is its meaning in this āyah. In Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim we find: ‘There is no Prophethood at all which is not superseded by the next (tanāsakha).’ The community has moved from one state to another. Ibn Fāris said that naskh refers to the Book, and it means to remove a command before it is acted on and then supersede it with something else, like an āyah revealed about a matter and then superseded by another. The verb is used for the sun replacing shade, old age replacing youth and the succession of heirs by successive deaths. There is a succession of ages and generations.
The second type of abrogation is the removal of a thing without replacing it with something else, as wind obliterates (nasakha) a track. This meaning is seen in the words of Allah: ‘Allah revokes (yansakhu) what Shayṭān insinuates’ (22:52), i.e. removes it and so it is not recited nor does it have a replacement elsewhere in the Qur’an.
Pertinent to this matter is what is related from Ubayy and ‘Ā’ishah to the effect that Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (33) was originally the same length as Sūrat al-Baqarah as will be later clarified. Evidence for this is also found in what Abū Bakr al-Anbārī transmitted that Sahl ibn Ḥunayf said while in the assembly of Sa‘īd ibn al-Musayyab. He said that a man stood up in the night to recite a sūrah of the Qur’an but was unable to recite any of it. Another man rose and could not recite any of it either. So in the morning they went to the Messenger of Allah. One said, ‘I stood in the night to recite a sūrah of the Qur’an and I could not recite any of it.’ The other stood up and said, ‘The same thing happened to me, Messenger of Allah!’ Yet a third rose and said, ‘And the same thing happened to me, Messenger of Allah.’ The Messenger of Allah said, ‘It was part of what Allah abrogated yesterday.’
Some modern groups of those who are called Muslims deny that such an occurrence is possible. They are veiled from the consensus of the Salaf that it occurs in the Sharī‘ah. Some Jewish groups also reject that and they are veiled from what comes in the Torah since they claim that Allah told Nūḥ when he left the Ship, ‘I make every animal edible for you and your descendants. I allow all of them for you, like plants, except for blood. Do not consume it.’ Then He forbade many animals to Mūsā and the tribe of Israel. There is also the fact that Ādam married a brother to a sister, and Allah forbade that to Mūsā and others. Ibrāhīm was ordered to sacrifice his son and then told not to do it. Mūsā commanded the tribe of Israel to kill those of them who worshipped the Calf and then stopped that. There are many examples of this. This is transfer from one act of worship to another and one ruling to another for the sake of best interest.
Intelligent people do not disagree that the laws of the Prophets are intended to meet the best interests of people in the dīn and this world. It would have been obliged in the beginning had He not known the end of matters. The One Who knows that changes things addressed according to the change in what is in their best interests, just as a doctor takes note of the changes in his patient. Allah takes note of that in His creation by His will and volition. There is no god but Him. What He asks of them changes, but His knowledge and will do not change. That is impossible in respect of Allah.
The Jews considered supersession and initiation to be the same and therefore they did not permit it and were misled. An-Naḥḥās said, ‘The difference between abrogation and initiation is that supersession is transferring an act of worship from one form to another so that something lawful becomes unlawful or something unlawful becomes lawful. As for initiation, it is leaving what was previously obliged as when you say, ‘Go to so-and-so today,’ and then you say, ‘Do not go to him.’ You decide to turn from the first statement. This is connected to people’s imperfections. Know that the real Abrogator is Allah Almighty. What He says is called abrogation since abrogation occurs by it, one judgment being replaced by another. It is said that the fast of Ramaḍān superseded the fast of ‘Ashūrā’, replacing one form of worship with another.
The sayings of our scholars differ regarding the definition of naskh. That which intelligent people who follow the Sunnah hold is that it is the removal of an established legal ruling by a further instruction which comes later in time. That is the definition of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb and Qāḍī Abū Bakr, who added, ‘If it were not for that, the prior ruling would remain firmly in place.’ So they retain the linguistic definition which means ‘removal’ while avoiding the logical consequence of taking that literally. That which was abrogated, according to our Imams, the people of the Sunnah, constitutes a firm judgment in itself.
Our scholars disagree about whether reports are subject to abrogation. Most say that abrogating is specific to commands and prohibitions and that reports cannot be affected by abrogation since it is impossible to attribute falsehood to Allah. It is said that when a report contains a legal ruling, then supersession is permitted. It might be imagined that making what is general specific is abrogation, but that is not the case because specification does not remove the general (‘āmm). If something moves the general ruling to something else, then that is abrogation, not specification. If someone refers to it as abrogation, that is metaphorical rather than actual. One should know that there are reports in the Sharī‘ah which appear to be general and all-inclusive but are then limited later so that that their generality is removed. It is like Allah’s words: ‘If My slaves ask you about Me, I am near. I answer the call of the caller when He calls on Me.’ (2:186) The literal meaning of this āyah is that he answers everyone who calls on Him in any case, but this is limited elsewhere as when He says: ‘If He wills, He will deliver you from whatever it was that made you call on Him.’ (6:41) Someone without intelligence must suppose that this is abrogation in reports, but that is not the case. It is part of restriction of the unrestricted.
Our scholars say that abrogation is permitted from what is onerous to what is easier. A case in point is the abrogation of the ruling on standing firm in jihād when the odds are ten to one by that of standing firm when they are two to one. But it is also permitted to move from the easier to the harder, as happened when the fast of ‘Ashurā’ and some other days were exchanged for Ramadan as will be mentioned. And like can be abrogated by like, as happened in the case of the qiblah changing from Jerusalem to the House of Allah in Makkah. Matters can also be abrogated without being replaced, like giving ṣadaqah before conversing with the Prophet. The Qur’an can be abrogated by the Qur’an, the Sunnah by a mutawātir hadith, and a single hadith by another single hadith.
Astute Imāms also say that the Qur’an can be abrogated by the Sunnah. An example of that is the words of the Prophet: ‘There is no bequest to an heir.’ It is acknowledged by Mālik but ash-Shāfi‘ī and Abu-l-Faraj al-Mālikī rejected it. The first is a sounder approach by the evidence that all is the judgment of Allah Almighty and from Him, even if the names differ. Flogging was also dropped in the ḥadd punishment for the adulterer who is stoned. That was only dropped by the Sunnah which the Prophet g made clear.
They also say that the Sunnah can be abrogated by the Qur’an. That happened when the qiblah was changed when the original qiblah was not mentioned in the Qur’an. The āyah we are looking at here is another case: it demands that women should not be returned to the unbelievers when that had been part of the treaty that the Prophet g made with Quraysh. Astute scholars agree that it is logically permitted for the Qur’an to be abrogated by a single hadith but they disagree about whether it actually occurs. Abu-l-Ma‘ālī and others believe that it happened when the people of the Mosque of Qubā’ changed their qiblah but others reject that. It is not proper to abrogate a text through analogy since one of the preconditions of analogy is that it does not differ from a definitive text.
All of this occurred during the lifetime of the Prophet. The Community agree that there is no abrogation after his death, once the Sharī‘ah was firmly in place. This is why there is a consensus that there is no abrogation after the end of Revelation. When we find a consensus which is apparently contrary to a text, it is known that the consensus relied on an abrogating text which we do not know about. An opposed text is not acted upon and, therefore, it must have been abrogated even though it remains a sunnah which is read and reported. An example of this is the āyah of the ‘iddah (waiting period of a widow) of a year which is recited in the Qur’an. Reflect on this. It is something important. There is abrogation of a ruling while its recitation is left, like the giving of ṣadaqah before conversing with the Prophet (58:12). The opposite can also occur when the recitation is abrogated but not the ruling, which happened in the case of the āyah of stoning. It is also possible for both recitation and ruling to be abrogated. What astute scholars believe is that if someone has not heard about the abrogation, he continues to act according to the first ruling. They also permit abrogation of a ruling before it is acted on, as in the story of Ibrāhīm sacrificing his son and the obligation of the prayer being fifty prayers before it was made five.
There are means for recognising an abrogating text. One is when the expression indicates it, like the words of the Prophet, ‘I used to forbid visiting graves. Now you may visit them. I forbade drinking except from skins, now you may drink from every container, but do not drink intoxicants.’ Another indication is when the transmitter mentions the date, as when he says, ‘It was the year of the Ditch,’ when it is known that what was abrogated occurred before it. Another indication is when it is stated: ‘Such-and-such a ruling is abrogated.’ Yet another means is when the entire Community agree that the ruling is abrogated.
Most recite ‘abrogate’ as ‘nansakh’ which is the normal usage. Ibn ‘Āmir recites ‘nunsikh’ from Form IV.
or cause it to be forgotten,
It is said that this means: ‘omit it’. It is removed from you so that you do not read or remember it. ‘nunsihā’ (forgotten) is also recited with a hamzah (nunsi’hā) meaning ‘to defer’, meaning ‘We defer its sending down or its abrogation to a later date.’
We bring one better than it or equal to it.
This means ‘more beneficial for people’. The benefit is immediate if the abrogating ruling is easier and in the Next World if it is harder. It is also said that it is superior in that it has a greater benefit and reward since there is no disparity in the worth of the Words of Allah. (Tafsir al-Qurtubi: Juz’ 2: Sūrat al-Baqarah 142– 253, translated by Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley [Diwan Press, 2019], Volume 2, pp. 364-370; emphasis mine)