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?”


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.


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: The Rapture of the Capitalists
Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

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

  • Lirone

    There’s an interesting blog on the UK Guardian website going through the Qu’ran week by week which I have been following and occasionally commenting on – Blogging the quran.

    The most recent article was on abrogation and I’m sure some of these points will come up in the debate. It taps into an issue that I’ve been raising several times in the comments section – is this a holy book, with all that entails, or is it a human product? If the former, then why does it need interpretation/abrogation, and if the latter, then why revere it? You can’t have a holy book and interpret it too!

  • DAM10N

    Christians also believe in the idea of “new revelations which canceled the earlier ones and instituted different practices in their place” such as the cancellation of the Levitical dietary code in Acts 10, and the cancellation of scripturally mandated periodic animal sacrifices in favor of a one-off deicide.

  • velkyn

    I’ve also been wondering why God couldn’t seem to get down what he really needed for humans to do to get “saved”. It seems that yet again, God is evidently no better than any other Bronze Age deity. Stupid, violent and sadistic.

  • OMGF

    Could we also say that the NT is an abrogation of the OT?

  • TheNerd

    It’s good to see an atheist post on a religion other than Christianity. Having grown up in a Christian home, I am quite familiar with it’s shortcomings, but I know very little on any other world religion. I am glad to see an educational post on Islam.

  • Tommy

    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?

    Ebon, Rodney Stark addresses this question. He uses (though I don’t know if he coined) the term “divine accomodation”, by which he means God reveals himself according to the capacity of humans to understand. Stark also believes that certain people have the capacity to receive revelations from God. Thus, certain Jewish prophets and their forebears received God’s message. Jesus couldn’t come along until his coming could be prophesied, and his “sacrifice” was God’s way of telling the world that the sacrifice of animals (and the occasional human) was not necessary.

    Of course, as an atheist, I reject Stark’s divine accomodation argument, and I addressed it in a post on my blog. One weakness of Stark’s argument from a theistic point of view is that it leaves open the possibility that God could provide new revelations in the future that negate the return of Jesus Christ and that belief in Christ is the only means to salvation.

    Stark is an interesting character. He apparently was agnostic until at some point he started leaning towards Christianity, and possibly Mormonism. In spite of his theistic inclinations and his revisionism on the history of Christianity, he does make some valid and worthwhile points at times. To his credit, he is not a Biblical literalist. For example, he describes the Creation account in Genesis as “baby talk” to a Bronze Age culture not capable of understanding science. However, he also makes no secret of his distaste for “militant atheists” as well as for people who try to find naturalistic explanations for the “miracles” described in the Bible. Stark posits that all that is necessary is a God that can intervene in human history, and to his discredit, he considers for example that not believing that the stopping of the sun in the sky described in Joshua really happened is simply an opinion that carries no more weight than a belief that it really did happen. Stark believes that both opinions are simply matters of faith.

  • velkyn

    I love a theist who claims that Genesis is “baby talk” but magic man coming back from the dead to satisfy his bloodthirsty omni-max deity father is literal!::shakes head::

    as for the sun stopping, no sorry Mr. Stark, we can tell if that happened. Let me guess, God made it so we suddenly can’t! $*#*&# last-Tuesday theists. Faith has no evidence supporting it, astronomy certainly does.

  • Ubi Dubium

    The christians believe that god superseded his teachings to the Jews with new and superior teachings from jesus. The Muslims believe that god then did that again, with the teachings of muhammed, and that muhammed even superseded his own teachings with better ones. Yet neither of these groups is prepared to accept the idea that if god did this once, or multiple times, that he might do it yet again.

    Among all the abrahamic faiths, the only one that I have seen that has a real answer for this dilemma is Ba’hai. They not only accept all of those “divine messengers” prophets, but believe there have been several more since. As far as I can tell, they consider divine revelation as an ongoing process, not a one-shot, “now we know the truth” kind of deal. If I were a theist (which I’m not), I would certainly be more attracted to something like this.

  • nfpendleton

    Evolution of theology over time means that everyone before the changes was damned. Moving goal posts and similar ideas used to rationalize away the flaws in all the major religions can be summed up in a couple of words: “How convenient.”

  • Ebonmuse

    The christians believe that god superseded his teachings to the Jews with new and superior teachings from jesus. The Muslims believe that god then did that again, with the teachings of muhammed, and that muhammed even superseded his own teachings with better ones. Yet neither of these groups is prepared to accept the idea that if god did this once, or multiple times, that he might do it yet again.

    The amusing part is that all three of these religions contain clear scriptural directions that their holy book represents the absolute last additions to the canon, and any later claims of new revelation should be disregarded:

    In the Torah:

    “If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” —Deuteronomy 13:1-3

    In the Bible:

    “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” —Galatians 1:8

    In the Quran:

    “So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires, but beware of them lest they seduce thee from some part of that which Allah hath revealed unto thee. And if they turn away, then know that Allah’s Will is to smite them for some sin of theirs. Lo! many of mankind are evil-livers.” —5:49

  • Samuel Skinner

    The only solution I can think of for theists to use is that God wants to see how much logical inconsistancies the mind can take- a “stress test”.

  • Eshu

    The only solution I can think of for theists to use is that God wants to see how much logical inconsistancies the mind can take- a “stress test”.

    Interesting idea. I think some religious believers almost take pride in how illogical their beliefs are and therefore how strong their faith must be. Isn’t the Catholic Trinity one of those?

  • LindaJoy

    Eshu- Thomas Jefferson called the concept of the Trinity “unintelligible” and John Adams agreed with him and became a Unitarian. They wrote often of this concept and had a bit of fun deriding it. I love the word “unintelligible”.

    Once on a newspaper blog I asked why “God” didn’t just hang Jesus in the Garden of Eden and get it all over at once. You wouldn’t believe the variety and the incomprhensible responses I got to explain that. When questions like that are offered, there is not limit to the human imagination to come up with new theological explanations. When minds are entrenched in irrationalism, there’s just not much you can do about it. I’d like to think at least one of the people that read my question really started to think about it.

  • yunshui

    A simple solution – God keeps changing his mind.

    Look at the evidence. To begin with, he sits down with Abraham, and says, “Right Abes, here’s the deal: you get all your kids, and their kids, and so on, yada yada yada, to worship me – just me – and in exchange I’ll make sure you have loads of offspring, right, just… you won’t even be able to count ‘em all, trust me. Shake on it? Oh, by the way, you have to cut the ends of their dicks off too. Yeah, did I not mention that? Yeah, that’s part of the deal too, ‘kay?”

    Only problem is, he can’t keep track of all Abraham’s wayward descendants, running all over the place, worshipping false gods and all, so he figures, “screw this,” reneges on the contract and packs them all off to Babylon. Big change of plan there. But there still seem to be some good ‘uns amongst the exiles, so he lets them go home. Change of plan, again. Now he’s thinking, “Mmm, all this sacrificing is stinking up the joint a bit – maybe that was a bad idea. I know – we can do a one-off sacrifice special, atone for all time! Yeah, that would be great! Hey, Jesus! Jesus! I’ve got a job for you, son…” Another change of plan.

    So Jesus dies, and comes back to life, and apparently that means everything’s hunky dory again. Except now, all the non-Jews are getting in on the act as well. That was never part of the original plan! Well, the more the merrier, thinks God. Hey wait, those Arab tribes don’t seem to have much of a clue, though. “Yo, Mohammed! Yeah, you! I’ve got a message for you. No hang on, I’ve changed my mind… Ah sod it, tell ‘em everything, they can pick the bits they like.” But that didn’t go down well at all.

    Personally, I reckon we’re about due a new Messiah. Michael Trevasser (well, if I was called Wayne Bent I’d be on the phone to Deed Poll too…) was a bit of a non-starter, although he did have a suitable beard. Any takers for the position?

  • Ric

    Love this post and can’t wait for the book.

  • InTheImageOfDNA

    Ebon, were you aware of this ?

    Be warned, the guy is a kook of the first degree. He has talked about mourning the fact that he can’t shoot up an abortion clinic, carrying a gun to defend himself from “evil doing skeptics” etc before. He’s bipolar and unstable and a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. I only keep up on his stuff because its like watching a train wreck. He does have his lucid moments from time to time though.

  • LindaJoy

    I’ll take a copy of Yunshui’s version of the Bible too. It’s like one big giant stand up comedy routine!

  • Bill

    What is the point of debating ad nauseam, the various tenets of the world religions and superstitions, when they all have in common the same preposterous ” invisible friend” premise without which they all fall apart. If you first drink the basic kool aid, everything else follows.

  • yunshui


    I love Christian Cross Talk! Especially the diagrammatic representations of how atheism will destroy the world. Someone there could make a fortune designing business presentations.

  • Ebonmuse

    InTheImageOfDNA: Yes, I’m aware of that person. He’s actually been posting comments to this site, along the lines of, “Who cares about Islam? Let’s talk about why you atheists need to believe in Jesus Christ or else you’ll burn in hell.” Needless to say, he’s not getting through moderation until he has something relevant to contribute.

  • Alan

    God (called Allah in later versions) is apparently the divine version of a shoddy programmer. OK, we are having problems with Eden 1.0 in a limited environment, maybe it will run better if we expand its horizons…whoa, now it is totally out of control, reduce the objects to 7 pairs of the stable ones and a single pair of the betas, wipe and reboot the system, Noah, then reintroduce the objects…Wow, serious coding errors, is the Babel patch ready?…OK, not bad now, but we need to migrate it to the new Moses environment with stricter rules…OK, its shot, save the data and try running it under Jesus..What do you mean, I have to upgrade to Quran? You go ahead, we will stick with our current OS

  • lpetrich

    LOL at Alan’s way of putting it. That’s great!

  • shihabshihabi


    You guys need to first define abrogation.

    You can abrogate a news (e. g. you say something has happened and later on you say no, it did not happen) which makes you an ignorant or a liar. This is does not happen in Quran/Islam because Allah is all-knowledgeable, he always tells the truth and he does things after being pre-planned.

    And you can abrogate a law to a less strict or stricter law and this is acceptable in Quran/Islam because Allah knows that the first law is suitable for this circumstance (people/location/time) but the second law is more suitable to a new circumstance (people/location/time). He does all this according to his pre-planning. He is not ignorant. He is not a liar. He did not change his mind. He is wise, knowledgeable, makes & knows the future and therefore legalizes what is suitable for his servants in specific location/time.

    All prophets before Muhammed were local (sent for their own people only) while Muhammed was universal. And since Mohammed was the seal (last) of prophets, Allah promised to protect his book from being changed.

    Prophet came with the same basic theology but with different laws which are suitable for their people.

    As far as Deuteronomy 13:1-3 is concerned (where God said on the tongue of the false prophet ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them’), Muhammed/Islam call people to go after the very same Torah God so you do not violate the verse if you follow Islam.

    But this is not the case if you follow Pauline Christianity as they call people to go after both Jesus and the holy spirit as gods beside the Torah God which proves that Pauline Christianity is not from God and Paul is an imposter. Jesus himself was not in violation to Deuteronomy 13:1-3 as he clearly called people to go after the Torah God.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Hey, if Allah’s wise, what’s up with my appendix?

  • OMGF

    So, Shihabshihabi, was slavery OK for the people/location/time of Deuteronomy?

  • kennypo65

    To quote Archie Bunker, “Crapola”. All of it is crapola, abrogation is just crapola over more crapola.

  • Anon.

    Of course, it’s obvious what the purpose of the doctrine was for MUHAMMED.

    I think he was one of the cleverest designers of a religion in history. Ahead of L. Ron Hubbard and way ahead of Joseph Smith.

    Islam was one of the most tightly constructed applications of religion ever established; it gave its founder power within his lifetime, and a fairly free hand to use and modify it, and he managed to solidify the interpretation of the religion for generations with the instructions regarding the copying, non-translation, and finality of the Quran (though the invention of “oral traditions” eventually did that in).

    I’ve started having an appreciation for religions as tools of power (usable for good or evil, naturally). Most can be much more effectively deployed by the second generation than the first, and Mormonism and Scientology are no exceptions; Islam was most effectively deployed *by* its founder, which is quite impressive. He must have understood the nature of the psychology of religion better than almost anyone.

    This comment anonymous because oh boy it’s gonna offend believers.