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Is the Mushaf a complete record of the Qur’an? The controversy of abrogation

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This is a summary of the third Abdullah Yusuf Ali Memorial Lecture which I will deliver. For more information about the lecture, visit my blog or the lecture page on the organizer’s website.

The term “Qur’an” stands for verses that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad over 22 years. These revelations were compiled and written down in what is known as the “mushaf.” So the mushaf is the written record of the Qur’an. Most people, including many Muslims, use the terms “Qur’an” and “mushaf” interchangeably.

However, there are a number of narratives in the books of Hadith that specify or refer to verses and even complete chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an that are said to have been “withdrawn” by God during the life of the Prophet. The total number of these alleged verses is in the hundreds! As a result, these Qur’anic verses and chapters were not included in the mushaf. Such narratives are found in all major compilations of Hadith, including Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, and others.

These hadiths suggest that the withdrawn verses fall in two categories. First, verses that the Prophet and the Muslims were made to forget by God. Second, verses that were still being remembered. Accepting such narratives as authentic, scholars have considered the process of withdrawing verses a form of a broader divine phenomenon that they called “naskh” or “abrogation”. Abrogation is mainly a legal principle, but it has been applied to the withdrawal of the texts of Qur’anic verses.

Abrogation refers to the mechanism used by God to withdraw the ruling of a verse, its text, or both its ruling and text. In the last two modes of abrogation, the verse does not exist in the mushaf. Most of the alleged verses that are not found in the mushaf are said to have been abrogated with their rulings, but there are a few that are said to have had their texts abrogated even though their rulings are still operative. An example of these is the so-called “stoning verse.”

Scholars have needed to resort to what they consider a divine mechanism to explain how the texts of some Qur’anic verses were withdrawn. Otherwise, it would have looked as if some verses of the Qur’an were wrongly not recorded in the mushaf. This would have questioned the process of compiling the mushaf and, ultimately, the integrity of the latter. This is why they resorted to abrogation, and which is why this doctrine is at the heart of the ongoing debate between Muslims and non-Muslims about the integrity of the process of compiling and writing down the revelation of the Qur’an. But is abrogation the real answer to this extremely important question? If no, what could be the real answer?

I will present the kind of Hadith narratives that suggest that he mushaf does not contain all of the Qur’anic verses and discuss serious issues concerning their credibility. I will also introduce abrogation, trace its historical development, discuss its various modes, and give examples of its role in forming Islamic law and its explanatory function with respects to the withdrawal of the supposed verses.

I will also introduce the controversies surrounding this doctrine and explain how different assumptions, interpretations, and approaches lead to completely different views of abrogation. While most scholars have given abrogation a major role in both the formation of Islamic law and the compilation of the mushaf, a growing minority has rejected the historicity of abrogation, considering it a confused doctrine under which different concepts and phenomena have been lumped together. Indeed, even scholars who accept abrogation have expressed very different understandings of what this doctrine is supposed to be!

Exposing the inauthenticity of those hadiths and the non-historicity of abrogation while quoting the Qur’an itself, I will show that the mushaf has preserved every verse and word of the Qur’an that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

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