The Qur’an and Abrogation

The Qur’an and Abrogation:

It has recently been asserted in YouTube videos, emails, and on numerous anti-Muslim websites that while Muslims say that theirs is a religion of peace, in fact the verses of the Qur’an that preach peace are no longer part of Muslim teaching. The basis for this assertion is what in English is called the doctrine of abrogation. Let’s look at it more closely.

First – note that in the Qur’an neither chapters, nor verses, are in chronological order. So verse in the same chapter may be from different periods.
Second – note that the Qur’an is the Qur’an only in Arabic. No English language translation is authoritative. So any truly authoritative discussion of these issues must focus on the original Arabic.

Muslims uniformly recognize that taken literally some verses of the Qur’an seem to contradict other verses of the Qur’an. This creates a problem of authority. Muslims must ask: in any given situation which verse has authority?

The so-called doctrine of abrogation simply stated that the most contemporary verses had precedence over those revealed earlier. The reason for this is important. Although the Qur’an is regarded by Muslims as an eternal book, it’s actual revelation was situational. Verses were revealed to address specific issues at specific times in Muhammad’s life and the life of the Muslim community, leading to apparent inconsistencies. Over time Muslim scholars addressed this by developing specific lists of verses that had been abrogated (or substituted) in specific situations by later revelations. Such lists guided later Muslims as they tried to understand just which verses in the Qur’an might be relevant to their situation.

But does this mean that earlier verses, particularly those like 2:59 that speak positively of Jews and Christians and their beliefs are irrelevant because later verses like 2:79 seem to speak more negatively of non-Muslim religions? Not necessarily. The verse in the Qur’an that mentions abrogation is also interpreted to mean that verses remain relevant. Verse 2:206 (Yusof Ali translation) says “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten but We substitute something better or similar; knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things?”

Thus traditionally Muslims believed that the Muslim interpreter was not bound to discard one verse in favor of another, but rather to look to the whole Qur’an for guidance in particular situations. Many contemporary Muslim interpreters of the Qur’an (Abdullah an-Naim for example) even assert that the basic principles of justice, peace, equality, and respect “abrogate” all specific and historically contextual verses advocating violence or oppression.

This brings us to a second important point. The Muslim interpretation of the Qur’an is never simplistic or strictly literal. First Muslim interpreters must take into account all of the relevant verses, including those which state more general principles. Secondly they must take into account the exact historical context in which the verse was revealed, something not found in the text itself but known through traditional commentaries on the text. And finally they must take into account the traditional sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. His life was regarded as a living interpretation of the Qur’an. And of course they need to analyze their own situation, and how it corresponds to situations in which the Qur’an was revealed and the Prophet lived. This is one reason that it takes years, even decades, for a Muslim to become a skilled interpreter of the Qur’an. It simply isn’t a text whose meaning is regarded to be publicly accessible to amateur interpreters.

In this respect the Muslim understanding of the Qur’an is much different from the Protestant Christian understanding of the Bible. For Protestant Christians the Bible is a public book, whose meaning is accessible in any good translation into any language. This isn’t true of the Qur’an for Muslims. Although Muslims will gladly make available copies of the Qur’an in translation to non-Muslims it is not an invitation to interpret its meaning, but to listen through it for God speaking. Owning and reading the Qur’an, even in Arabic, doesn’t give a person the right or ability to accurately interpret it.

Ultimately if Christians want to know what Islam teaches then the only source to whom they can reliably turn is contemporary Muslims themselves. They are the only legitimate spokespersons for their religion. When Christians choose to listen to this Muslim voice they will find that it may be troublingly inconsistent. Different Muslims will say different things about specific issues; consequentially different things. How do we judge between them? We don’t. We must deal with Islam as it presents itself to us in specific situations through specific people. There is no short cut to actual dialogue with our immediate Muslim neighbors. No website, no blog, (including this one), and no book, is a substitute for face to face conversation. Anything less is merely looking into the mirror of our own fears, bias, and ignorance.

  • Manfred Marquardt

    Thank you, Robert, for these clarifications! Does this mean, in consequence, that the outcome of any dialogue with a Muslim person or small group is restricted to these few dialogue partners (Christian and Muslim) and their relationship? European and North American Muslims are diverse among themselves and, more so, from persons who joined our societies just recently. To which extent (if there is one how small ever) can we draw conclusions or generalize? I just overheard an interview with Hans-Peter Raddatz, a German scholar in Islamic and Arabic studies, who pointed to the Sharia as “the kernel” of Islam which is binding any Muslim in every detail of its instructions and orders. What do you think? – Have you ever preached on John 14, 1-6?
    With best wishes,

  • Robert Hunt

    The absolute core of Islam that is binding on every Muslim is the five Pillars of Islam and, in terms of belief, the six basic beliefs that summarize the much longer creed of Imam al-Tahawi (and affirmed by many others.) It is hard to see how the Shari’a can be binding on every Muslim in every detail of its instructions when in fact it consists NOT of specific legislation but rather in thousands of case specific legal rulings by Islamic jurists over many centuries. And that practice of creating new rulings in Islamic law continues today now that there is near universal agreement that ijtihad, or independent reason on matters of law, is both permissible and necessary. Moreover there are five schools of Shari’a, and these disagree with each other precisely in “every detail.” In any case I would like to hear an actual Muslim scholar say that Shari’a, as opposed to the Pillars, is the kernal of Islam. I suspect that those who do come from a Hanbali or Deobandi background and indeed believe that they can impose their ideas of Shari’a on all other Muslims. Whether they themselves live up to these ideas is another matter.

    Can we generalize about Islam? Beyond the Pillars and possibly the creed (and even this is highly contested in part) I don’t think that we can. We are, in fact, stuck with the laborious task of abandoning our reading and interpreting of other people’s religious texts and actually speaking to them face to face in all their diversity.

    John 14, 1-6 is much on my mind and I have preached it. The fascinating question to ask is whether either Jesus or the gospel writer intended his answer to Thomas’ question to be applicable to anyone other than his own disciples. I am wary of theological generalizations out of specific situations. Jesus may be the only way to the Father for those who acknowledge him as the Son. But is he (as the historical person answering Thomas) the only way to God? That is a different question – and not so easy to answer with certainty.

    Good to hear from you.

  • George Kosinski

    “Jesus may be the only way to the Father for those who acknowledge him as the Son. But is he (as the historical person answering Thomas) the only way to God? That is a different question – and not so easy to answer with certainty.” – says Robert

    Jesus was VERY certain when He said; “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” – that’s exclusive, as is; “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

    I will go with the latter.

    Finally, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” – spoken by Jesus


  • Robert Hunt

    Thanks for those comments George. Let me note that the first scripture you quote is spoken by the risen Christ, Matthew 28:18. So it doesn’t address the difference between Jesus the historical man and Jesus the risen Christ. All authority was given to the Risen Christ.

    The second passage comes from Acts 4:12. (I always prefer to give the specific location of the verse, since context is important.) Here we find Peter preaching to an entirely Jewish group, but gathered from the ends of the earth. Your translation correctly gives the literal translation from Greek “given to men.” Does this mean his name is not given to women? More importantly Peter finishes saying “given to men by which we must be saved.” “We” here clearly refers to the entirely Jewish group to which he is speaking. It is not clear in this passage that he intends it to mean Gentiles can only be saved by the name of Jesus.

    I say this simply to point out that we cannot cherry pick verses to make a point. One needs to read the whole Bible, and to look at each verse in context, to understand what scripture teaches rather than what just a few verses of scripture teach.

    And this is true of last verse you quote, from Matthew 13:31, is a good example. The previous verse reads, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” The reference is the entire chapter 13, which describes the apocalyptic end of the world. Whatever Jesus said, it cannot have been literally that the generation of he and his disciples wouldn’t pass away before the world came to an end. Because we are still here.

    Which leads us to ask what it means for Jesus to say that “Heaven and earth will pass away, by my words will never pass away.” Which words will never pass away? Those recorded in the book of Matthew? Those in all the gospels? What about all the words that Jesus spoke that we don’t know? (see John 21:25, which tells us that there are not enough books in the whole world to contain an account of the things Jesus did.) Again, accurate interpretation of this verse takes some thoughtfulness. Perhaps the words Jesus meant are those he even how whispers in the hearts of his disciples. You tell me. In any case Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about Peter’s words in the Book of Acts. So why is this passage relevant to Peter’s words?

    To answer that question you need more than a quotation. You need a doctrine of Holy Scripture that explains why the entire New Testament has the same authority as the words of Jesus. But again, such a doctrine won’t allow just picking and choosing verses in order to develop doctrine.