‘The Quran in Islam’ — Refutation of Book’s View of Abrogation

by Dr. Zahid Aziz

The Light & Islamic Review (US), November/December 1992 Issue (Vol. 69, No. 6, pp. 11–12)

This short book is an English translation of a Persian book written by one Allamah Sayyid M.H. Tabatabai around 1960. This English version (Zahra Publications, 1987) carries a Foreword by the well-known Iranian author and Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr. In the Foreword, the author (1903–1982) is introduced as

“one of the greatest masters of the traditional sciences in Iran during this century”,

and described as

“one of the greatest of Quranic commentators, a leading contemporary Islamic philosopher in the tradition of Ibn Sina …”,

while this book is

“in a sense the synthesis of the venerable master’s lifelong study of the Noble Quran”.

The book is an introduction to the Holy Quran and covers basic topics such as the interpretation of the Quran, its structure, revelation, compilation, and so on.

This article is not a book review, but we feel it necessary to comment on a certain point whose treatment in the book is seriously in error.


There is a brief section entitled The Existence of Abrogating and Abrogated Verses in the Quran, from which we quote below:

“Among the verses in the Quran containing orders or laws, there are verses that abrogate verses previously revealed and acted upon. … For example, at the beginning of the Prophet’s mission, Muslims were ordered to cultivate peace and friendship with the people of the Book, ‘Forgive and be indulgent towards them until God gives command’ (2:109). Some time later, fighting was allowed and the order to establish peace was abrogated: ‘Fight against such as those who have been given the Book …’ (9:29).

“The common notion of abrogation, that is, a cancelling of one law or code by another, is based on the idea that a new law is needed because of a mistake or shortcoming in the previous one. It is clearly inappropriate to ascribe a mistake in law-making to God, Who is perfect, and whose creation admits of no flaws.

“However, in the Quran, the abrogating verses mark the end of the validity of the abrogated verses because their heed and effect was of a temporary or limited nature. In time the new law appears and announces the end of the validity of the earlier law. Considering that the Quran was revealed over a period of twenty-three years in ever-changing circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine the necessity of such laws.”  (p. 45)

One has hardly finished reading the above argument when, only five lines later, under the next heading, Applicability and Validity of the Quran, the author makes a statement which furnishes an answer to his own belief in abrogation. He says:

“Bearing in mind that the Quran is valid for all times, the verses revealed in special circumstances informing Muslims of their specific duties are also valid for those who, in future, experience the same circumstances.” (p. 46)

Why cannot the same be the case with at least some of the verses which he considers to be abrogated, such as the example he gave earlier? In other words, that they were revealed to deal with particular circumstances; and when, later on in the Holy Prophet’s [Muhammad (pbuh)] life, different circumstances arose, other injunctions were revealed to deal with the new conditions, but not to abrogate forever the earlier verses. The previous injunctions still remained valid for the conditions for which they were revealed. Should those conditions recur, then the so-called abrogated verses would be applicable.

Author’s Example:

As to the particular example of abrogation the author has cited, it will only go to strengthen the hands of the critics of Islam who allege that earlier in his mission the Holy Prophet Muhammad was tolerant of other religions as he had no other choice, but later on when the Muslims became powerful he declared perpetual and permanent war against followers of other faiths. It is just incredible how an eminent scholar of Islam could write this; and moreover, that his translators and editors, who are familiar with the Western criticism of Islam, incorporate this in a book which they urged him to compile for “a Western audience”.

In fact, if the first verse (2:109) is read fully, it is clearly seen that it relates to the exertions of the Jews, in particular, to turn Muslims back into idolatry due to their jealousy of the new faith. Muslims are commanded in that verse to “pardon and forgive” them, and wait “till God brings about His command”, i.e., the Jews will fail in the end and a time will come when they will have to abandon all their efforts. But the manner in which this verse has been presented by the Allamah implies that Muslims were told to “forgive and be indulgent” until such time as God gave a command to the contrary, i.e., the forgiveness was only a temporary matter of expediency and opportunism, not being based on any principle, and the Muslims were merely awaiting the time when this injunction would be rescinded. It is just incomprehensible that scholars of Islam and advocates of its cause do not seem to realise or care what kind of image of Islam they are presenting.

As to the verse, which is supposed to abrogate the one discussed above, i.e., 9:29, it is in reference to a time when the Christian Roman empire to the North of Arabia was mustering its forces to attack Arabia. Therefore, the Muslims were allowed to fight them in response. The circumstances under which the forgiveness was prescribed towards one hostile community in verse 2:109, and those under which fighting is ordered against another nation in verse 9:29, are altogether different. Therefore, no question arises of the later verse abrogating the earlier one. Indeed, a situation may arise which requires us to act on the earlier command as regards one hostile community, while at the same time requiring us to act on the later command towards another nation.

Another Contradiction:

In an extract given above, the Allamah adduced as an argument in favour of belief in abrogation that

“the Quran was revealed over a period of twenty-three years in ever-changing circumstances”,

hence necessitating the replacement of some earlier laws. However, discussing another question a little before this, he quotes and explains a verse as follows:

اَفَلَا یَتَدَبَّرُوۡنَ الۡقُرۡاٰنَ ؕ وَ لَوۡ کَانَ مِنۡ عِنۡدِ غَیۡرِ اللّٰہِ لَوَجَدُوۡا فِیۡہِ اخۡتِلَافًا کَثِیۡرًا ﴿۸۲﴾

“Why do they not reflect upon the Quran; if it were from other than God they would have found in it many inconsistencies” (The Holy Quran, 4:82).

“One of the proofs that the Quran is not the speech of man is that, despite having been revealed in widely varying and difficult circumstances, there is no inconsistency in it, neither in its literal meaning nor in its inner meaning, and any initial inconsistency disappears upon reflection.” (p. 39)

The same “changing circumstances” which were supposed to justify abrogation are here put forward as proof that the Quran is of Divine origin because it contains no inconsistencies despite the tremendous changes! If there is no inconsistency in it, as argued here, then it cannot contain any injunction contradicting or abrogating a previous one!

The belief in abrogation is further surprising as we are told in the Foreword by Prof. Nasr that the Allamah has written a voluminous Arabic commentary on the Quran which is:

“based on the principle of having one part of the Quran interpret other parts (al-Quran yufassiru bada-hu bad-an)” (p. 11)

If this principle is applied, it yields no proof whatsoever that some verses of the Quran have abrogated others. On the contrary, it shows that in the two passages (2:106 and 16:101) speaking of one ayah being replaced by another, the word ayah does not mean a verse of the Quran but a message from God, since elsewhere in the Quran this word is used in that sense. Therefore, interpreting these two verses by means of the Quran itself shows their meaning to be that revelations previous to Islam were now being replaced by the revelation to the Holy Prophet Muhammad.