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.