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Abrogation and the Myth of Missing Verses

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A few months ago, I was asked to give two Zoom talks to academic staff at the University of Al-Mustansiriyya in my beloved Baghdad. One of these talks was an introduction and critique of the theory of abrogation. This topic was the subject of my 2013 book “Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law: A Critical Study of the Concept of ‘Naskh’ and its Impact’ https://tinyurl.com/AbrogationFirst.

The event was organized by the Department of Qur’anic Studies in collaboration with the College of Education. This meant that most of the attendees were specialists in Islamic studies. Islamic studies cover a wide spectrum of subjects, so it was no surprise the attendees had varying levels of familiarity with the concept of “abrogation”. The Q&A session at the end of the talk and the running comments during the session showed that some were very surprised by the serious implications of certain aspects of the doctrine of abrogation for the integrity of the Qur’an. There are good reasons, if good is the right word, as to why the worst parts of the subject of abrogation have remained little known and have continued to claim legitimacy for this long, which I will explain.

Abrogation is usually defined as “the annulment of a divine ruling by a later divine ruling”. This innocent-sounding definition is misleading partly because of how it has been applied, but mainly because it actually covers only one mode of abrogation. It is the other two where the obnoxious nature of this doctrine lies. Let me introduce the three modes of abrogation first:

(1) Legal abrogation: the abrogation of the ruling of a verse but not its wording (naskh al-ḥukm dūna al-tilāwa). In this case, the verse exists in the muṣḥaf (the written Qur’an), so it is recited, but its ruling is inoperative and therefore is not implemented. This mode is mentioned by every work on abrogation.

(2) Legal-textual abrogation: the abrogation of both the ruling and wording of a verse (naskh al-tilāwa wal-ḥukm). This means that a verse that was revealed at some point as part of the Qur’an was not recorded in the muṣḥaf, so it is not recited like the verses in the muṣḥaf and its ruling became invalid.

(3) Textual abrogation: the abrogation of the wording of a verse but not its ruling (naskh al-tilāwa dūna al-ḥukm). Such a verse is not found in the muṣḥaf, so it is not recited, but its ruling remains operative.

As can be seen, the standard definition of abrogation, which deals with rulings but not texts, describes only the first mode. The other two are indirectly and unjustifiably legitimised by being put under the umbrella of the term “abrogation”. As I have pointed out in my book:

The confusing nature of the literature on abrogation and the complexity this doctrine has developed over the centuries make writing about it clearly and coherently quite challenging.[1]

Discussions of abrogation often focus on legal abrogation because it includes most abrogation claims, in addition to being the mode that the standard definition describes. For instance, the sixth-century Hijri scholar Ibn al-Jawzī confirmed as many as two hundred and forty-seven cases of abrogation of Qur’anic verses. This is much more than the number of claimed cases of legal-textual and textual abrogation. For instance, there are only two or three cases of textual abrogation. Also, many claims of legal-textual are vague and refer to unidentified abrogated verses, as we shall below.

There are many serious problems with almost all the claimed cases of legal abrogation. But while they often distort the meaning of their respective verses, these claims do not have any bearing on the integrity of the revealed text. This, however, cannot be said of the legal-textual and textual modes of abrogation. Those who are not familiar with these two are often shocked when they learn what they teach. Some scholars who accept legal abrogation reject the other two.

Legal-textual abrogation and textual abrogation consist of claims of Qur’anic verses that, at some point after their revelation, disappeared by Allah’s will. Accordingly, they are not found in the muṣḥaf. Scholars have claimed that there are two mechanisms in which Allah abrogated revealed texts: He made the Prophet (PBUH) and the first Muslims forget them, or He informed the Prophet (PBUH) of verses that must no more be part of the revealed text that Muslims recite.

When writing my book on abrogation, I estimated from several ḥadīths I studied that at least 729 verses of the Qur’anic verses had been abrogated. This is as much as 10.5% of the revealed text! I must stress that I did not look for all such ḥadīths as I was not particularly interested in counting all those alleged verses. This is an example of such ḥadīths, which is found in the Musnad of Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal:[2]

[Ubayy b. Kaʿb asked]: “How long is the chapter of Aḥzāb that you read?” He (Zirr b. Ḥubaish) replied”: “Seventy-odd [verses].” He (Ubayy) said: “I read it with the Prophet, and it was like the chapter of Baqara or even longer. It contained the stoning verse”.

The chapter of Baqara, which is the second chapter in the muṣḥaf, is the longest in both the number of verses and the length of text. It consists of two hundred and eighty-six verses. The thirty-third chapter of Aḥzāb consists of seventy-three verses and is less than one-quarter the length of the chapter of Baqara. What this one ḥadīth alleges, therefore, is that over two hundred Qur’anic verses have not survived in the muṣḥaf! Amazingly, the author of the ḥadīth does not even bother to tell us how those verses were erased from history. Unfortunately, even highly regarded scholars have deemed this narrative has enough merit to include it in their Ḥadīth compilations and books.

This ḥadīth is one example of the heavy burden of abrogation that Islamic tradition and literature has been carrying for many centuries.

Ḥadīths like this would sound absurd to most people, including non-specialists. No one who knows how Muslims have revered and preserved the Qur’an from the day its first verse was revealed can credit these kinds of narrative with any credibility. No one in the audience who spoke after my lecture offered any support for such ḥadīths, not that I was expecting any. Yet the history of Islamic scholarship has always featured scholars who promoted and even strongly defended the legal-textual and textual modes of abrogation. Thankfully, an increasing number of scholars now reject at least the aspects of obvious absurdities in the doctrine of abrogation.

In a remarkable act of double standards, Muslim scholars who believe that hundreds of the verses of the Qur’an were abrogated without the blink of an eye never miss an opportunity to attack the integrity of the Old and New Testaments! Apparently, previous scriptures are unreliable because they were tampered with and compromised by humans, whereas the disappearance of hundreds of Qur’anic verses is an act of God!

The reality is that there are no missing Qur’anic verses. The concept of the abrogation of Qur’anic revelation is a collective act of men; not very wise men, I must add.

Footnotes

[1] Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law: A Critical Study of the Concept of ‘Naskh’ and its Impact, New York: Routledge, 2013, p. 5.

[2] Musnad al-Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, XXXVI, no. 21206, pp. 133–34; also no. 21207, p. 134.

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