Do You Really Believe That? (Abrogation)

Today’s installment of “Do You Really Believe That?” will leave behind Judaic and Christian mythologies to examine a doctrine specific to Islam, the doctrine of abrogation. This belief holds that Allah originally revealed certain practices and rules to Mohammed, only to later issue new revelations which canceled the earlier ones and instituted different practices in their place. In Arabic, this is usually called al-Nasikh wal-Mansoukh (“the Abrogator and the Abrogated”).

It should be said that this is a somewhat controversial topic in Islam. Some Muslim sites denounce the idea as a blasphemous falsehood. Many more, however, teach it explicitly and go to some length explaining why the perfect, unchangeable Allah would do such a thing. And their position does seem better supported textually:

“Nothing of our revelation do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is able to do all things?”

—2:106

Although the other Abrahamic religions believe in similar doctrines, the idea of abrogation seems more problematic in Islam, since Muslims hold a far more exalted view of the Quran than Jews or Christians do of their own holy books. To Muslims, the Quran is not simply a set of teachings or rules given by God as needed to address varying historical circumstances; rather, it is a word-for-word, letter-for-letter copy of a perfect, Platonic text that exists in the divine realm. Most Muslim theologians believe that the text of the Quran is unchanging, eternal and uncreated. Why, then, would it contain abrogation at all? If all the text is eternal, then some verses have been abrogated from eternity past by other verses. In a book of divine perfection, why would one verse simultaneously have been spoken along with another one that undoes it?

The usual reply given by Muslim apologists is that Quranic abrogation is a form of progressive revelation, where human societies that were unprepared for stricter rules were gradually accustomed to them through the initial introduction of less strict rules. This doesn’t explain why, in some cases, less strict commandments abrogated stricter ones (Quran 3:50; see also this page regarding the Tahajjud prayer).

However, there’s a larger problem which most Islamic sites I’ve checked don’t address. The question is this: Does the Quran abrogate the Old and New Testaments?

The obvious answer is yes, and Muslims agree. To them, Islam is God’s last and most perfect revelation, superseding the earlier, partial revelations given in the Torah and the Gospels:

One of the fundamentals of faith in Islam is what Allah’s Book (the Qur’an) is the last Book that was revealed by the Cherisher of the Worlds. It abrogated all the Books revealed by Allah before it, such as the Torah, the Psalms, and the Bible, and as such no other Book has been left by which Allah can be worshipped except the Qur’an.

…It is our belief that both the Torah and the Bible were abrogated by the Qur’an, and that they were changed by means of additions or deletions by their followers.

Also:

Allaah, The Almighty, revealed the Quran to be His last, all-embracing Scripture containing the final manifestation of the Divine Law. This necessitates that it has to be safeguarded from the mischievous hands of men and from all corruption. This protection has been a reality from the time the Quran was revealed until today and will remain so forever.

…As for the previous Scriptures, they were for a limited duration of time. Allaah gave human beings the responsibility of preserving them, and they lost them through corruption, alteration, and concealment.

None of these sites address the obvious followup question: Given that Allah did not protect earlier revelations from corruption, why has he now changed his mind and decided to do so? If his goal was to issue a perfect and unimpeachable revelation, why not do that from the very beginning, rather than spend thousands of years with imperfect revelations which he always planned to supersede anyway?

A similar question can be asked of Christianity: Why did God spend millennia setting up a religion called Judaism which he never intended to be the ultimate path to salvation? Why not start with Jesus and the crucifixion if that was what he always intended? But the problem is even more acute for Islam, given its strong belief in Quranic infallibility. The more they claim this, the more they make it seem that Allah was just wasting people’s time, spending millennia slowly dribbling out inferior revelations when he had a better one up his sleeve all along. Such a belief system makes an allegedly perfect god appear incompetent or illogical, which is why I ask: do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Bells and Whistles
Atlas Shrugged: Welcome to Atlantis
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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