As non-Muslims get better acquainted with Islam, so we need a better understanding of some of the core doctrines and dogmas of Islam.

In this essay I intend to present a summary of one very powerful and pervasive doctrine: that of “Abrogation” or “ Al Nasikh Wal Mansoukh”.

Let me start with an acknowledgement to “Julia” who provided the source for a part of what follows.

I would also refer the reader to this excellent article by David Bukay which links abrogation to Jihad in particular.

Let me say at the outset that Muslim scholars are far from unanimous on this doctrine and it is quite possible to find any of the following positions held (and probably some others I failed to discover).

  • Some Muslim scholars, particularly those of old, are of the opinion that the Quran may abrogate the Quran as well as the Sunnah (deed or example of Mohammad) and vice versa, as well as all preceding scriptures; though they may not agree on the list of abrogating and abrogated verses.

  • Others hold that the Quran may abrogate itself and the Sunnah and all the preceding scriptures, but may not be abrogated by any; again they may not agree on the list of abrogating and abrogated verses.

  • Some Muslim scholars hold that the Quran abrogates all the previous scriptures, specifically the scriptures sent to Musa and Isa, but not itself, nor is it abrogated by any other sources.

  • Some Muslim scholars, especially of recent times, do not believe in the concept of abrogation at all.

Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article we will stick with the first proposition, which is that held by the “ancient scholars” on the grounds that these are the closest to the sources and as such likely (but not certain, of course) to be the most accurate and that this is the position that has informed Shariah law, which is the final arbiter in Islam. This position also has the advantage that it acknowledges both the Koran verses that institute this doctrine and the Hadith that support it.


The Doctrine of abrogation has it's origin within the Koran itself:

2:106 (Malik): We do not abrogate any of Our verses (ayat) (of the Qur'an) or cause it to be forgotten except that We substitute it with something better or similar; don't you know that Allah has full power over everything?

13:39 (Yousaf Ali): Allah blots out or confirms what He pleases: with Him is the Mother [or essence/basis] of the Book.

10:15-16. Say [O Mohammed]: "It is not for me to change it [the Koran] on my own accord; I only follow that which is revealed unto me. Verily, I fear if I were to disobey my Lord, the torment of the Great Day (i.e. the Day of Resurrection)." Say: "If Allah had so willed, I should not have recited it to you nor would He have made it known to you. Verily, I have stayed amongst you a life time before this. Have you then no sense?"

16:101 "When We substitute one revelation for another, and Allah knows best what He reveals (in stages), they say, "Thou art but a forger": but most of them understand not."

87:6-7 (Irving): “We shall make you recite, so do not forget (anything) except whatever God may wish. He knows the obvious and what is hidden.

Thus the basis of abrogation is that the author of the Koran:

  • Replaces one verse with another, either better or similar at a later stage. This is very important because whenever verses in the Koran conflict the later verse (chronologically) “replaces” the earlier one.

  • “Blots out” (i.e. removes) verses from the Koran without replacement. Thus parts of the Koran are simply lost or forgotten by Mohammed and the “reciters”.

You will also note that the Koran's author promptly defends Mohammed from the accusation that all this “change-about” in the Koran's verses is Mohammed's forgery.

Thus the Koran mandates that early verses may be either replaced by later (“better”) ones, or that Mohammed and the Muslims may forget (by Divine intervention) portions of the Koran that are no longer valid (this has a huge consequence for the study of Koran compilation of course, but that lies outside the scope of this article).

However, Muslims have taken it upon themselves to extend the doctrine, because Islam acknowledges:

Three kinds of Abrogation

1. Cases where both the words of the Koran and their effect have been “blotted out”

Obviously, in these cases there is little or no remaining evidence of the verses in question, but the hadith give us instances where such “blotting out” has occurred, For instance:

Bukhari Bk.8 No.446: Narrated Sahl bin Sa`d: I heard Ibn Az−Zubair who was on the pulpit at Mecca, delivering a sermon, saying, "O men! The Prophet used to say, "If the son of Adam were given a valley full of gold, he would love to have a second one; and if he were given the second one, he would love to have a third, for nothing fills the belly of Adam's son except dust. And Allah forgives he who repents to Him." Ubai said, "We considered this as a saying from the Qur'an till the Sura (beginning with) 'The mutual rivalry for piling up of worldly things diverts you..' (102.1) was revealed." A similar hadith is recorded narrated by Anas ibn Malik.

Bukhari Bk.59 No.417(part). Narrated Anas: ...”Then Allah revealed to us a verse that was among the cancelled ones later on. It was: ‘We have met our Lord and He is pleased with us and has made us pleased...’

In Wahidi's Asbab al-Nuzul, p. 19, we read: Ibn ’Abbas himself said, ‘Sometimes the revelation used to descend on the prophet during the night and then he forgot it during daytime, thus God sent down this verse: 2:106."

And a delightfully fantastic one: Abdullah bin Masud said "Muhammad taught me a verse and I got it by heart and wrote it in my book. When I returned to my place I could not remember anything of it. Next morning when I opened my book, I found the page on which it was written white [i.e. blank]. I reported the matter to Muhammad. He said to me. "O Ibn Masud that verse has been taken up (back to God) yesterday." (“The Doctrine of Abrogation” by Anwarul Haqq.) {Precisely how Muslims square this notion with the idea that the Koran is unchanged is something that escapes me.}

  1. Cases in which the words were lost but the effect was not.

Note that this is an extension of the doctrine beyond the limits set out in the Koran itself. Here words of the Koran are “blotted out” without replacement, but their ruling and effect remains. Further, the Koran text only specifies lashing as the penalty for adultery/illegal sexual intercourse, thus in effect the Hadith have abrogated the Koran.

Bukhari Vol.8, Bk.82, No.817; Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: “... Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and revealed the Holy Book to him, and among what Allah revealed, was the Verse of the Rajam (the stoning of married person who commit illegal sexual intercourse) and we used to recite this Verse and understood and memorized it. Allah's Apostle carried out the punishment of stoning and so did we after him. I am afraid that after a long time has passed, somebody will say, 'By Allah, we do not find the Verse of the Rajam in Allah's Book,' and thus they will go astray by leaving an obligation which Allah has revealed. And the punishment of the Rajam is to be inflicted to any married person , who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if the required evidence is available or there is conception or confession ..." And thus the penalty is enshrined within Shariah Law, though it is not within the present Koran text. It is perhaps ironic that in the one occasion when abrogation as per the Koran would have resulted in a lessening of Islamic violence, the Sahaba (Mohammed's companions) took it upon themselves to re-instate that violence. Here is a specific example of the implementation of this law:

Bukhari Volume 8, Bk. 82, No.815, Narrated Abu Huraira and Zaid bin Khalid: “While we were with the Prophet, a man stood up and said (to the Prophet ), "I beseech you by Allah, that you should judge us according to Allah's Laws." Then the man's opponent who was wiser than him, got up saying (to Allah's Apostle) "Judge us according to Allah's Law and kindly allow me (to speak)." The Prophet said, "Speak." He said, "My son was a labourer working for this man and he committed an illegal sexual intercourse with his wife, and I gave one-hundred sheep and a slave as a ransom for my son's sin. Then I asked a learned man about this case and he informed me that my son should receive one hundred lashes and be exiled for one year, and the man's wife should be stoned to death." The Prophet said, "By Him in Whose Hand my soul is, I will judge you according to the Laws of Allah. Your one hundred sheep and the slave are to be returned to you, and your son has to receive one-hundred lashes and be exiled for one year. O Unais! Go to the wife of this man, and if she confesses, then stone her to death." Unais went to her and she confessed. He then stoned her to death.”

3. Cases where the words remain in the Koran, but the effect is abrogated.

These are verses wherein the words remained, but their authority for the formation of Islamic polices and doctrines were nullified on the basis of later 'revelation'.

Bukhari Bk.6 No.33: Narrated Nafi`: Ibn `Umar recited: "They had a choice, either fast or feed a poor for every day.." (K.2:184) and added, "This Verse is abrogated."

Ibid 6.53: Narrated Ibn Az−Zubair: I said to `Uthman bin `Affan (while he was collecting the Qur'an) regarding the Verse:−− "Those of you who die and leave wives ..." (2.240) "This Verse was abrogated by another Verse. So why should you write it? (Or: why should you leave it in the Qur'an)?" `Uthman said. "O son of my brother! I will not shift anything of it from its place."

Such examples of abrogation are to be found in 63 Suras of the Koran (“The Doctrine of Abrogation” by Anwarul Haqq).


How abrogation is applied

Whilst there are possible exceptions to this rule (It is considered that K.2:240 is abrogated by K.2:234 and K.2:286 by K.2:185 for example. In these cases the “rules” given in the lower numbered verses are more detailed than those in the higher numbered verse, which would seem to introduce another reason. This is understandable since Islam is a “legalistic” religion and as such it is following the more tightly prescriptive verse as the “safer” choice. But it is still possible that the lower numbered verses in each case in fact formed part of a passage that was revealed later than verses they abrogated for the reason discussed below) the general rule is that “the later abrogates the earlier” which is deducible from K.2:106.

It is generally well known that Mohammed's recitation of the Koran took place in two entirely separate geographical, social and political environments: firstly at Mecca and then, after “the Hijra”, at Medina.

As will be immediately deduced, it is the (Medinan) Suras that were the last to be recited and which will thus do most of the Abrogating and the early (Meccan) Suras that are the most prone to abrogation. An exception to this is the earliest Medinan Sura, Sura 2, which is very heavily abrogated (it is also the longest in the Koran, so perhaps this is not surprising). It should also be realised that abrogation is done on a verse by verse basis. Therefore within a Sura you can find a verse that abrogates another verse within the same Sura (For example K.2:228 is abrogated by K2:229. It should be realised that just because two verses follow each other in the Koran, we should not automatically infer that they were revealed at the same time, particularly in the longer Suras).

However, it is known that the Koran we have today{The Koran we have today is basically the Uthmanic recension (or at least based on it) and as such, depending on the view taken, it is either the arrangement favoured by Uthman et al or that prescribed by Allah/Mohammed} is not arranged in any sense of Chronology, but rather (with a few exceptions) in the order of Sura length, longest to shortest, thus destroying the chronology of the Koran. It is perhaps ironic that since many of the earliest (Meccan) Suras are also amongst the shortest, the traditional arrangement places them at the end of the Koran where the unwary reader might assume they were the last Suras recited.

What is required then to be able to apply the doctrine of abrogation, is to know the chronological order for the recitation of the Koran.{Although the detail is beyond the scope of this short piece, I would be remiss if I did not point out that, chronologically speaking, the Koran suffers from a “double disarrangement”. Not only are the Suras not chronologically arranged in the traditional arrangement, but the longer Suras in particular are not always chronological within themselves. There is evidence from the hadiths and other traditions that Mohammed would tell his scribes to put a new piece of recitation in with “such-and-such” verses (see also below). Therefore the possibility of insertion of “late” verses into an “early” Sura cannot be ignored}


A simplified Chronology of the Koran

I doubt that it will come as a surprise to any reader acquainted with the Koran that the various Islamic (never mind non-Islamic) sources cannot fully agree on the chronological sequence of the Suras and that any such sequencing is somewhat conjectural {There are parts of the Koran that can be clearly related to events recorded elsewhere, primarily in the Hadith and Sirat (sayings and Biographies). However, given that these were not compiled until up to 200 years after the death of Mohammed, there is always the possibility that these events were sculpted to fit the Koran and not vice-versa. Furthermore, even if we fully accept the veracity of such accounts they can only be said to definitively date the passages (not the Suras) to which they apply}. However, the sequence of Noldecke is still generally sound (it only differs from the traditional in a few respects) and I present it here:

According to Noldecke, the Meccan suras are divided into three periods.

To the first (from the first to the fifth year of Mohammed's mission) belong the following suras — 96, 74, 111,106, 108, 104, 107, 102, 105, 92, 90, 94, 93, 97, 86, 91, 80, 68, 87, 95, 103, 85, 73, 101, 99, 82, 81, 53, 84,100, 79, 77, 78, 88, 89, 75, 83, 69, 51, 52, 56, 55, 112, 109, ll3, 114, and 1.

To the second period (the fifth and sixth year of his mission) are assigned suras 54, 37, 71, 76, 44, 50, 20, 26, 15, 19, 38, 36, 43, 72, 67, 23, 21, 25, 17, 27, and 18.

To the third period (from the seventh year to the Flight) belong the following suras: 32, 41 45, 16, 30, 11, 14,12, 40, 28, 39, 29, 31, 42, 10, 34, 35, 7, 46, 6, and 13.

The Medina suras are those which remain, in the following order: 2, 98, 64, 62, 8, 47, 3, 61, 57, 4, 65, 59, 33, 63, 24, 58, 22, 48, 66, 60,110, 9 and 5.

As noted, this differs slightly from the traditional arrangement and later work (generally carried out by non-Muslim scholars) has tended to “pick apart” the Koran text still further.{Even the “traditional” order is controverted: “When Hadrat Uthman was asked why there was no bismillah at the beginning of Surah al-Tawba like there is at the beginning of other surahs, he replied that there was some doubt as to this surah being a separate surah, because Mohammed passed away without explicitly mentioning anything regarding it. This is why Bismillah was not written at the beginning of Surah Taubah. However, since its subject-matter is similar to that of Surah Anfal [Sura 8], it was placed after it [in the Uthmanic recension of the Koran] and a space for Bismillah has been kept because it is possible that this is a separate surah. (Tirmizi, Vol 2, Pg.139). A rather different tradition on this is given by Abu Dawud in Book 3, Number 0785: Narrated Uthman ibn Affan: Yazid al−Farisi said: I heard Ibn Abbas say: I asked Uthman ibn Affan: What moved you to put the (Surah) al−Bara'ah which belongs to the mi'in surahs (containing one hundred verses) and the (Surah) al−Anfal which belongs to the mathani (Surahs) in the category of as−sab'u at−tiwal (the first long surah or chapters of the Qur'an), and why you did not write "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful" between them? Uthman replied: When the verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) he called someone to write them down for him and said to him: 'Put this verse in the surah in which such and such has been mentioned'; and when one or two verses were revealed, he used to say similarly (regarding them). al−Anfal (Sura 8) is the first surah that was revealed at Medina, and al−Bara'ah (Sura 9) was revealed last in the Qur'an, and its contents were similar to those of al−Anfal. I therefore thought that it was a part of al−Anfal. Hence I put them in the category of as−sab'u at−tiwal (the seven lengthy surahs), and I did not write "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful" between them.” As will be seen, these two hadith neither agree between themselves, nor with the traditional or Noldeckian, as to the order of the recitation.}

What is important here is that Sura 9, the Sura of the infamous “sword” and “fighting” verses is almost the last 'revealed'. Thus these verses (and other verses in Sura 9) are responsible for much of the abrogation in the Koran – particularly in those cases where abrogation is applied to non-Muslims {An-Nasikh -wal- Mansukh, by Ibn Khuzyamh states 113 verses are abrogated by the Sword verse (9:5): “fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them …”, and 9 verses are abrogated by the Fighting verse (9:29): "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day...and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture..." which explicitly widens those who should be fought to include Jews and Christians (the people of the scripture). Other sources refer to Ibn ’Arabi who said, "The verse of the ‘sword’ has abrogated 124 verses" (p. 69, the Suyuti).}

Furthermore, Sura 9 abrogates the verses commonly used by apologists for Islam (or the merely ignorant) to demonstrate the peaceful tolerant nature of Islam.

According to some sources (See here for example), all such “peaceful” verses are thus abrogated by later “verses of violence”.



To effectively debate on (for example) “violence vs. peace in the Koran” with Muslims the non-Muslim interlocutor needs not only to be aware of the doctrine of Abrogation and it's application, but it is essential to know the chronological order of the Koran, otherwise s/he (or his/her) “opponent” may, inadvertently of course, use verses that are abrogated and which are meaningless within the debate.

I hope that this presentation of the doctrine and the chronology of the Koran may be useful.


Further sources: This web-page has links to several good articles on Abrogation. An alternative source for the David Bukay article. A useful overview of the history and development of Abrogation. A brief overview. An argument that Abrogation does not exist, from a Muslim perspective. A more traditional Muslim overview. A relatively scholarly Muslim perspective.

Comments powered by CComment

Joomla templates by a4joomla