A Fresh Look at the Reason for Abrogation in the Quran
Sam Shamoun & Jochen Katz
The official position of Sunni Islam is that the Quran contains a unique feature known as abrogation. Sunni scholarship maintains, on the basis of a few Quranic passages, that the Quran has verses that cancel or abrogate other verses within it. The verses that have been canceled or annulled are known as mansukh, and those texts or commands doing the canceling are called nasikh.
Muslims believe that it is Allah who has revealed both sets of texts, i.e. Allah is the one who sent down the canceled and the canceling verses.
Yet a careful study of the Quran actually indicates that Allah is not the one who sent down those specific passages that were then later canceled by the abrogating verses. If one were to pay careful attention to the specific citations that Muslims often use to support their belief in the doctrine of abrogation, not one of them explicitly say that Allah sent down the abrogated verses:
And for whatever verse (ayatin) We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything? S. 2:106 Arberry
Allah makes to pass away and establishes what He pleases, and with Him is the basis of the Book. S. 13:39 Shakir
And when We exchange a verse (ayatan) in the place of another verse (ayatin) and God knows very well what He is sending down -- they say, ‘Thou art a mere forger!’ Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge. S. 16:101 Shakir
The foregoing texts only say that Allah blots out, cancels, annuls specific verses, but do not say that he had originally revealed those passages that he later annulled.
In other words, the Quran explicitly ascribes only the abrogating (nasikh) verses to Allah, but does not state anywhere that the abrogated (mansukh) verses also originated with Allah. The authorship of these verses is left unspecified in these above passages.
A further examination of the Quran actually shows that Satan, not Allah, is the one responsible for at least some if not all of the abrogated passages! Note what the following text says:
Never sent We a messenger or a prophet before thee but when He recited (the message) Satan proposed (opposition) in respect of that which he recited thereof. But Allah abolisheth that which Satan proposeth. Then Allah establisheth His revelations (ayatihi). Allah is Knower, Wise; S. 22:52 Pickthall
Sura 22:52 clearly refers to specific verses that Satan interjected or introduced into the message of Muhammad. Allah proceeds to blot out what Satan has proposed in the recitation of the prophets, thereby establishing his revelation. He does so by revealing something better or similar to what Satan brought, albeit minus the deceptions and/or distortions (that is why it is said to be similar, cf. S. 2:106).
This analysis is further supported by paying careful attention to the immediate context of Sura 16:101:
And when thou recitest the Qur'an, seek refuge in Allah from Satan the outcast. Lo! he hath no power over those who believe and put trust in their Lord. His power is only over those who make a friend of him, and those who ascribe partners unto Him (Allah). And when We put a revelation in place of (another) revelation, - and Allah knoweth best what He revealeth - they say: Lo! thou art but inventing. Most of them know not. S. 16:98-101 Pickthall
There is a connection, a direct correlation, between the Quran being recited, verses being abrogated, and seeking protection from Satan. The conclusion we can draw from this is that Muhammad was to seek Gods protection from Satan anytime he recited the Quran, since Satan had the habit of interjecting his own verses in order to confuse Muhammad and the Muslims regarding the Qurans true reading. This then required Allah to blot out or cancel those verses that Satan introduced into Muhammads message.
To summarize: Some of the passages that speak about Allah abrogating verses and replacing them with better ones leave open the question who was the author of the abrogated verses. However, one passage explicitly says that Allah replaced what Satan had introduced (S. 22:52), and in another passage about abrogation the immediate context commands Muhammad to take refuge from Satan when reciting the Quran, thereby suggesting that Satan regularly tries to take influence over Muhammads recitation and seeks to twist it, though it claims at the same time that Allah will replace some revelations with others (S. 16:98-101). Fact is that the only author of the abrogated verses that is named explicitly in the Quran is Satan.
Therefore, when we seek to understand what all these texts are saying, when we interpret the verses on the issue of abrogation in light of one another, we are left with the conclusion that some of the passages of Satan have been expunged from the Quran (cf. this article), whereas others may not have been removed. They still remain a part of the Quran.
Moreover, it is the consensus of the vast majority of classical Sunni scholars that the Quran contains a substantial number of abrogated verses (cf. these articles).
Since a number of abrogated verses are still part of the Quran, Muslims must come to grips with the fact that their book contains citations which Satan inspired since he is the one who introduced those canceled passages. These texts apparently did not originate from Allah.
Even if a Muslim wants to reject our conclusion (and we would agree that the above outlined conclusion is most likely not what the author of the Quran intended to say), one can hardly avoid to admit that this is in the very least another example of the incoherence and incompleteness of the Quran. It would have been very easy to add a short statement about the origin of those abrogated verses. As it is, the available data seem to make Satan the author of part of the Quran.
Here is an example of abrogated and abrogating verses that can still be found in the Quran:
O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty. S. 2:178
Contradicts the following:
For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men; and certainly Our apostles came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land. S. 5:32 Shakir
We ordained therein for them: "Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal." But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself. And if any fail to judge by (the light of) what God hath revealed, they are (No better than) wrong-doers. S. 5:45 Arberry
One text implies that free men will not be put to death for the murder of slaves, or for women etc., whereas the other texts suggest that a person will be forced to pay for any unjust manslaughter irrespective of the class or gender of the victim. For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see the article on Islam's Unjust Punishments. This article also shows that 2:178 is worded so badly, that it leads to utter confusion and could hardly have come from the omniscient and wise God. It was absolutely necessary to abrogate it with something better that could actually be implemented.
An additional problem and difficulty arises from the statements of Sura 16:98-100. These verses say that Satan has no affect on those who put their trust in Allah. Yet both Sura 22:52 and the Islamic narrations say that Satan not only managed to interject his wishes into Muhammads recitation, but that Muhammad came under the power of Satan since he was bewitched for a time:
Once the Prophet was bewitched so that he began to imagine that he had done a thing which in fact he had not done. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 53, Number 400)
that Allah's Apostle was affected by magic, so much that he used to think that he had done something which in fact, he did not do, and he invoked his Lord (for a remedy). Then (one day) he said, "O 'Aisha!) Do you know that Allah has advised me as to the problem I consulted Him about?" 'Aisha said, "O Allah's Apostle! What's that?" He said, "Two men came to me and one of them sat at my head and the other at my feet, and one of them asked his companion, 'What is wrong with this man?' The latter replied, 'He is under the effect of magic.' The former asked, 'Who has worked magic on him?' The latter replied, 'Labid bin Al-A'sam.' The former asked, 'With what did he work the magic?' The latter replied, 'With a comb and the hair, which are stuck to the comb, and the skin of pollen of a date-palm tree.' The former asked, 'Where is that?' The latter replied, 'It is in Dharwan.' Dharwan was a well in the dwelling place of the (tribe of) Bani Zuraiq. Allah's Apostle went to that well and returned to 'Aisha, saying, 'By Allah, the water (of the well) was as red as the infusion of Hinna, (1) and the date-palm trees look like the heads of devils.' 'Aisha added, Allah's Apostle came to me and informed me about the well. I asked the Prophet, 'O Allah's Apostle, why didn't you take out the skin of pollen?' He said, 'As for me, Allah has cured me and I hated to draw the attention of the people to such evil (which they might learn and harm others with).' "
Narrated Hisham's father: 'Aisha said, "Allah's Apostle was bewitched, so he invoked Allah repeatedly requesting Him to cure him from that magic)." Hisham then narrated the above narration. (See Hadith No. 658, Vol. 7) (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 75, Number 400)
For a detailed discussion of Satans influence on Muhammads life, see the articles listed here.
This either means that the Quran is wrong since Satan does have power over Allahs faithful slaves, or that Muhammad wasnt fully trusting in Allah and therefore wasnt completely pleasing to his god. Either way, these texts pose major problems for Muslims and their belief in Muhammads prophethood, as well as the Qurans alleged divine inspiration in every part of it.
Even though Muslims will disagree with our conclusion, in light of the foregoing we ask them to ponder on the following questions. How can you be sure that Allah managed to remove all those verses that Satan had introduced before Muhammad died? And, since there are many verses in the Quran that Sunni Muslims consider to be abrogated, how do you know that some of these are not actually from Satan, instead of Allah?
Although it would be bad enough if only some of the abrogated verses in the Quran originate with Satan, we must note that these were not introduced in an abrogated state, but they were in operation and considered valid for a certain period, i.e. until Allah sent the abrogation. If Allah did not manage to abrogate all of these false verses, this means that not only the abrogated verses are under suspicion to be from Satan, but potentially all other verses as well, including the nasikh verses, since what would hinder Satan to inspire a verse that abrogates something previously given by Allah? If Satan can introduce verses into the Quran at all — and that is established by S. 22:52 —, then every single verse is doubtful.
Do not underestimate the question, "How can any Muslim be sure that Allah managed to remove all of Satans interjections before Muhammad died?" In the specific case of the infamous "Satanic Verses", the historical data suggest that it likely took several weeks if not months before they were cancelled and replaced. The abolishing and replacing was certainly not immediate. Moreover, the Quran also teaches that Christians were misled about the crucifixion of Jesus. The Gospels without doubt teach that Jesus was crucified. In fact, the crucifixion of Jesus is not only a side issue but is its central message and the core event in the Christian understanding of Gods way of salvation from sin. There is not even a hint in the Gospels that Jesus got replaced by somebody else. If we should believe the Quran, then Allah waited nearly 600 years before he rectified this rather fundamental error that has led astray all of Christendom, several billions of people until this day. This fact does not inspire much confidence that the god of Islam makes it a high priority to correct errors and falsehoods in his scriptures quickly. How can any Muslim trust that Allah has not left similarly fundamental errors and distortions in the Quran as he allegedly allowed to remain in the Gospels?
There is yet another uncomfortable question. S. 22:52 claims that Allah removes what Satan interjected. What does this say about the considerable number of verses that have been in the Quran at some time, but are no longer found in todays version? For details, see our section on Variant Texts of the Quran. Have all of them or most of them been removed because they originated from Satan? The verse on stoning should be particularly troubling in this regard, since it is a foundational part of the Shariah, even though it is no longer in the Quran. Islamic law demands to stone adulterers and Muslims follow this command to this day. Are they actually following a command of Satan since this verse was removed from the Quran, and in it we find instead a verse that commands to flog adulterers (S. 24:2)?
One could also take a somewhat different perspective. When we look at some of the abrogated and abrogating verses, e.g. the principle "there is no compulsion in religion" (S. 2:256) which was later abrogated by "fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them" (S. 9:5) — see these two articles (*, *) for details —, then it seems that oftentimes the earlier and abrogated verses are the better ones, while the later abrogating verses are of the evil and violent variety. Pondering this, one could then come to the conclusion that it was actually the other way around, i.e. Satan managed to abrogate the verses that Allah had originally given. Or, if we stick to the conclusion outlined in the main section of this paper, then the character of Allah in Islam is worse than that of Satan!
One former Muslim commented on the above: "The way the article is written can actually be interpreted as if you are acknowledging that God did indeed deal with Mohammad and was correcting these Satanic verses for him. I believe a better approach would be to write it in a form that proves that the author of the Quran is human and this book was not revealed from God due to the inconsistent nature of these verses (something that God is above). The abrogated and abrogator concept is one strong proof that God has nothing to do with the Quran. It proves the human nature of the author of the Quran."
Response: We fully agree. The whole concept of abrogation is a strong proof that the Quran does not come from the omniscient God. Instead, Muhammad was feeling his way and constantly had to revise his "revelations" when the circumstances changed. However, in the above article we were simply studying the Quran, not because we believe in it, not because we accept its claims, but because we made the discovery that the common Muslim understanding of this issue is actually not supported by the Quran itself. In this article, we sought to explain what the Quran actually says about the issue, without endorsing this teaching as true.
As indicated above, we agree with the likely Muslim objection that the author of the Quran most probably did not intend to say that the abrogated verses, both those removed from the Quran and those left in the text of the Quran, had originally come from Satan. However, the thesis presented above is simply taking the statements of the Quran at face value. We encounter it every day that people say something different than what they actually wanted to say. That is human nature. This very human characteristic can also be found in the text of the Quran. The fact that the Quran says what it didn't want to say on this issue, is simply another piece of evidence that the author of the Quran is not the omniscient God but a fallible human being who didn't realize that he actually said something that he did not mean.
This leaves the Muslims with two uncomfortable alternatives. If one accepts the assumption that the Quran is perfect and most eloquent in its language and formulation then one must accept the statements of the Quran on this issue at face value and is left with the conclusion that some or even all of the abrogated passages may have come from Satan. On the other hand, one can assume that this was not the intention of the author of the Quran, and one should not take the statements literally, but then it will be difficult to hold to the claim that the Quran is of divine origin because it has an inimitable eloquence that is not possible to achieve for human beings. The Quran is simply too human to be what it claims to be.
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