Comments on Commentators:

Abrogations, Allegations, and Alterations in Islam

Razi. Baidawi. Jelaleine, Tabari, Abu l-Aliya, Ibn Juraij, Ibn Abbas, al-Suddi, Ibn Zai names, names, names. And not exactly household names either but perhaps they should be. The men who answered to these names have all helped to shape the face of Islam. The foregoing is a partial list of the great Muslim commentators some of them pioneers in the science, and others the giants of Eastern intellect from the middle ages. This paper provides a brief look at the process of commentary, and sketches the development of commentary over the centuries. In it, I argue that commentators who are alert to the theological and apologetic implications of Qur'anic commentary, maintain unorthodox or inconsistent views to justify a type of pragmatic exegesis.

Comments on Commentators

Any treatment of commentary in the sacred writings of any religion can be a tedious one. To establish credibility particularly with the Muslim fetish for reliable isnad[1] one may not simply make vague references to schools of thought' to validate a point. Particularly when trying to document pragmatic changes in theology and hermeneutics, one is forced to be precise. Yet such a work often becomes a mere catalogue of names and doctrines, and has the interest level and literary worth of a grocery list. To avoid this pitfall I will do what any charitable researcher would do choose a few commentators that are fair representatives of different view points, and with the aid of reams and reams of endnotes consign the remaining savants to the back pages of the paper. A similar tactic will be used to illustrate the differing expositions of the Qur'an. Two issues are used as case studies in commentary: (1) the doctrine of abrogation, and (2) allegations of suppression or alteration of previous revelations.[2] Both play a central role either in commenting, or in understanding the Qur'an itself.

Abrogation in the Qur'an and History

The first thing that becomes obvious when examining the doctrine of abrogation, is the fact that no one seems to agree on the doctrine of abrogation. The doctrine is difficult, multi faceted, and just setting up the scene will occupy the bulk of our discussion.

At least twenty lines of thought regarding abrogation are found in legal and exegetical literature.[3] This makes the task of determining whether modern commentators are unorthodox in their comments a more arduous task.[4] From the time of the companions of Muhammad[5] to the present day there has been disagreement over which verses[6] teach abrogation,[7] what types of verse can be abrogated, and which verses are abrogated (if abrogation is allowed).[8] Others question how many verses abrogate or are abrogating - ranging anywhere from 5 to 248 verses[9] and whether the Sunnah can abrogate the Qur'an and vice versa.[10]

In spite of this variance in thought, all agree that this doctrine is all but trivial. This must be stressed. Western scholars and some Muslim apologists find the concept of 'missing' verses,[11] and contradictions resolved by 'abrogation,' too convenient and irreconcilable with an unchangeable, inspired book by God.[12] But they are not alone in seeing its significance. Traditional Muslims also deem the doctrine to be an important one.

Ibn Salama once stated that "anyone who engages in the scientific study of the Qur'an without having mastered the doctrine of abrogation is 'deficient'.[13] The Caliph's views on abrogation, though in the context of ultra-orthodox conservatism, are fitting.[14] If one does not know which verses are abrogated if one cannot know what is 'current', and what has 'expired', than one cannot truly say that one knows any doctrine from the Qur'an - as the very verse we may be depending on for some truth may have previously been cancelled. This cannot be grasped simply by listening to a knowledgable Muslim read the Qur'an, as the abrogated portions are not left out in the reading or recitation.[15]

Now there are no simple three step resolutions to the difficulties of abrogation or anything of the sort. But as this paper is about the Qur'an, and Ibn Salama has informed us (and it is a commonly held position) that if one does not understand abrogation, then one cannot understand the Qur'an - one must at least address it. So we will, for the duration of this paper, propose that to properly understand the Qur'an, one must either (a) master the principles used in determining what verses are abrogated, or (b) have a knowledge of all the verses potentially affected by the doctrine, and not build any doctrine on those verses. Our first option is by far the most difficult as the doctrine of abrogation depends heavily (according to most commentators) on chronology - and the Qur'an is not arranged in chronological order.[16] The second option simply requires a good memory - though it does leave us with some uncertainty regarding some points of law - and the infamous 'sword-verse' leaves both the Muslim uncertain (and the non-Muslim uneasy) about how the People of the Book are to be treated.[17] But it is at least feasible, and we will follow it by avoiding claims about Islam based on these verses.

Now after painting a rather gloomy picture of Islam's scholastic landscape, I am pleased to announce that it is still possible to pick out four main perspectives on abrogation perspectives typified by four schools of thought, and which reveal the definite trend towards a conveniently untraditional, and pragmatic type of exegesis amongst Muslim apologists. Representing medieval Islam and the rational, non-traditional Muslims, we have the famous Fakhr al-Din al-razi (d. 1209);[18] for the modern Muslims and apologists we have Abdullah Yusuf Ali (d.[19]); in the Western corner we have William Montgomery Watt;[20] and for the traditionalists and the ancients, we join the majority of Muslim scholars in relying heavily on Abu Ja'Far Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923) and the companion of Muhammad, Abd Allah Ibn Abbas (d. 688).[21] And now for the doctrine. . .

Whatever message WE abrogate or cause to be forgotten, WE bring one better than that or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that ALLAH has the power to do all that HE wills? - 2:106.[22]

Since the earliest times in Islam, three main forms of abrogation have been distinguished, and are common to every text on the subject. Faruq Sherif delineates them for us:

The authorities distinguish three kinds of abrogation: (1) where both the written word and the content are eliminated (as in reported cases where a recorded verse is said to have disappeared mysteriously and its substance to have faded from memory;[23] (2) where the written word somehow vanished but the content remained in force (a once-existing verse ordering the punishment for adultery by lapidation is believed to have disappeared, but the commandment has been maintained by tradition); (3) where a still-existing verse is in effect repealed or modified by the introduction of a new text (all references in the commentaries to the doctrine of abrogation fall into this category).[24]

As Sherif has parenthetically noted, traditionally commentators have paid very little attention to the first two brands of abrogation. Both the missing-word-and-content brand of abrogation and the missing-word type of abrogation are not popular dinner party topics amongst the ulama. Important as they are, this paper focuses on the last type of abrogation, and a distinction made within that category, for it is significant on its own right.

Tabari informs in his commentary that already by his time there are disagreements on whether abrogation applies to matters of law, matters of fact,[25] or both Abu-Muslim being the only commentator to hold that there is no abrogation in the law, but rather that abrogation refers to the earlier Scriptures. Later, we find out from Razi that the issues of contention are basically the same in his time, though Razi has acknowledged the 'lost verse' of the Qur'an. He also informs us that Abu Muslim is still alone in his view of abrogation - over three centuries later. Then, after Razi, something happens. The number of verses which are deemed abrogated begins to dwindle, and dwindle dramatically.

While the non-Muslim scholar, such as Watt, maintains that the Qur'an teaches abrogation (largely in accord with the majority of Muslim commentators on this point), the modern Muslim diverges radically from the early commentators. Shah Walli Allah (d. 1762) reduces the number of abrogated verses from an excess of 200 down to five.[26] Yusuf Ali is more radical yet. While he holds that there may be some laws abrogated (playing down the millennia of commentators that did not doubt the fact),[27] he informs us that most, if not all references dealing with abrogation have to do with the Bible.[28]

The trend is very interesting. One author suggest that the commentators became aware of the significance of abrogation, and were thus moved to minimize it:

There also appears to have been a reaction, among certain scholars, to the wholesale application of the naskh doctrine to verses of the Qur'an. Sensitive, perhaps, to theological considerations. . . .[29]

It is also important to note the almost universal agreement on the existence of abrogation up to the time of Razi and even today, there are few Muslim or non-Muslim scholars who will go as far as Abu Muslim in denying abrogation. Watt doesn't deny it. He simply looks at the text and informs the world that it teaches abrogation.[30] When one enters this century and sees the commentary of Yusuf Ali, one sees his conscious awareness of his predecessors - and his conscious rejection of their opinions. He marginalizes historic Islam, in his attempts to defend against historic Christianity and Judaism. One sees Yusuf Ali making statements such as "Commentators usually understand. . . . But. . ."[31] or "I am sorry that I cannot follow that opinion. . . "[32] etc.

Where Razi, Watt and Ibn Abbas[33] accept 16:101-102 as teaching abrogation, Ali somehow relates that it refers to Biblical corruption. He says the same for 2:102, but adds that "some commentators" apply it to the Qur'an. Now one can grant that Yusuf Ali may be correct in this novel interpretation - but honesty requires him to tell his readers that in thirteen centuries, there has been one commentator who did not see the verse as having direct reference to the Qur'an. Here are his words:

The word which I have translated by the word "revelations" is Ayat. See n. 15. It is not only used for verses of the Qur'an, but in a general sense for Allah's revelations, as in ii. 39 and for other Signs of Allah in history or nature, or miracles, as in 11. 61. It has even been used for human signs and tokens of wonder, as for example, monuments or landmarks built by the ancient people of 'Ad ( xxvi. 128). What is the meaning here? If we take it in a general sense, it means that Allah's Message from age to age is always the same, but that its form may differ according to the needs and exigencies of the time. That form was different as given to Moses and then to Jesus and then to Muhammad. Some commentators apply it also to the Ayat of the Qur'an. There is nothing derogatory in this if we believe in progressive revelation. In iii. 7 we are told distinctly about the Qur'an, that some of its verses are clear (and of established meaning), and others are not entirely clear, and it is mischievous to treat the verses that are not entirely clear and to follow them (literally). On the other hand, it is absurd to treat such a verse as ii. 115 as if it were abrogated by ii. 144 about the Qibla[emphasis added].[34]

The manner in which Ali ends his comment is also of great significance. Again, while he may be correct in his opinion that 2:144 does not abrogate 2:115, it is unacceptable for him to scoff at the tradition and depict it as some absurd view of a fringe scholar - while great men like Razi and Baidawi disagree with him. In fact, Yusuf Ali's entire, and quite original treatment of the whole issue of 'clear' and 'unclear' verses is worthy of note and is reprinted in the appendix.

But though Yusuf Ali is in a way original' when compared to historical Islam, he is not completely alone in new interpretations. He is representative of a movement of commentators who have novel turns on historic doctrines. And their variance from orthodoxy in terms of abrogation is slight in comparison to their views of former Revelations.

Allegations of Alterations: What do the Commentators say?

Mustansir Mir informs his readers, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that abrogation really refers to the Qur'an abrogating previous scriptures: "the word naskh in 2:106 refers to the abrogation, by means of the Qur'an, of injunctions found in earlier scriptures."[35]

His position is shared by Yusuf Ali, but Ali goes one step further. He does not only try to resolve the contradictions between the Bible and the Qur'an by reference to abrogation but holds that the Biblical text is 'corrupted' or 'altered'. He believes that 2:101, 174; 3:187; 5:14, 47; 6:91; 11:110; 16:101-102 and 62:5 all teach that the Biblical text is corrupted. On the other hand, he sees 2:75; 3:70-71; 5:13, 44 and 6:20 as revealing that the Jews and Christians suppressed the truths of their Scriptures. There are few reasons why the assertions of Ali and the definition of Mir are problematic.

The first thing one must note, is the difference between Ali and other commentators. Ali often sees a verse teaching Biblical corruption where other commentators see either (1) no reference to the topic, (2) suppression or concealment of the truth, or (3) poor exegesis of the Bible or Qur'an. This is interesting, but not the biggest problem. There are, after all, other times where he finds reference to mere suppression (5:44), or nothing at all (2:42), where others hold that there has been some kind of corruption.[36] Watt never once agrees with him, holding that the corruption interpretation' of verses are a later development.[37] He has this to say about it:

This is one of the verses on which is based the later Islamic doctrine that Jews and Christians have 'corrupted' their scriptures. The Qur'an itself, however, does not assert any general corruption, but seems to speak only of playing with words in a blasphemous way, and also of concealing verses, such as those alleged by Muslims to be prophesies of the coming of Muhammad.[38]

The closing sentence of Watt's comments on Surah 2 verse 75 indirectly sums up our problem: the Qur'an does not teach Biblical corruption, but suppression. This is the problem. Razi agrees,[39] and in reference to Biblical corruption tells us that

this cannot be accepted by the learned, for both Tourat and Gospel had been handed down in widespread and unbroken succession, which rendered that out of the question. The meaning, well known amongst them to bear on the mission of the Prophet, and introduced false explanations which diverted their true meaning as revealed by God, or in other words, hid it.[40]

Now Yusuf Ali will no doubt stoutly stand by his interpretation of these texts. He may even try and enlist the support of the great Ibn Abbas for Biblical 'alterations'. He will tell us that the Companion of the prophet taught that there was Biblical corruption - who could be a better authority as to what the Prophet was saying? But what exactly do Ibn Abbas and the other greats have to say about this? Thankfully, Razi cites Ibn Abbas in his comments on 2:170:

Ibn Abbas tells us that this text was revealed in respect of Kab Ibn Ashraf and other leading Jews, who were in the habit of receiving offerings from their followers. When the Prophet appeared, they feared the loss of these gifts, and so they concealed the prophecies regarding him and his dispensation; he also considers that the "hiding" consisted in altering . . . the Tourat and the Gospel [emphasis added].[41]

This point is of monumental import. If the Qur'an teaches Biblical corruption, it teaches us that the Bible is corrupted precisely where it speaks about Muhammad. The commentators, particularly those who knew the prophet best, are very much in agreement about this - and it puts Yusuf Ali in an awkward spot. Yusuf Ali wants to argue that the Bible is corrupted. And he wants the support of history. He wants to say that the Bible is corrupted almost beyond recognition - but there are a few verses that are still intact: the verse that speak about Muhammad (to the surprise of Jews and Christians) are still authentic prophecies of Muhammad and his coming.[42] But this is precisely the opposite position from what the other commentators take.

Ali may make vague references to commentators, and tell us that they too maintain that the Scriptures are altered - but in the final analysis, they hold to a position diametrically opposed to his own. Simply put, Islam's current apologists have found themselves denying historic Islam, to defend it.

Final Thoughts

Both Muslims and non-Muslims are sure to find a study of the commentators a very interesting one - but not a study without its problems. We have really, to be hopelessly reductionistic, two separate understandings of each doctrine. Leaving Montgomery Watt out of the picture, we have Yusuf Ali's doctrines, and we have the traditional doctrines. If one is to remain a Muslim and a thinking one, he has to make a choice. Is the Muslim to follow orthodoxy? Is he to follow the hallowed traditions of ancient Islam, the words of the Companions, the logic of Razi - or the apologist? The apologist is dealing with today's challenge to Islam - but has adopted an eclectic approach to history and commentary. An approach which, in the final analysis, is very different than that of the great Muslim savants of history. The ancients refused to say that the Bible was an almost unrecognizable remnant of a former message of Allah. They espoused abrogation and suppression of Scripture to deal with the contradictions between the two books. Our apologist friend will not accept that approach. He feels he cannot accept that approach after he has read the Bible. The two books have little in common. So he tells us that the original inspired word of Allah who promised that his word cannot be corrupted[43] - is corrupted. An unchanging God with a changing Message.

The Muslim has to reject the defences of the past, the defences of the present, or, simply put, reject Islam. Yusuf Ali wants to keep all three. He thinks he can reconcile the problem he thinks he has reconciled the problem. I say he hasn't reconciled the problem. And I say he can't.

End Notes:

1. Chain of transmission - one of the main criteria for determining the authority of an ancient transmission.

2. This paper, though approaching some issues dealt within my previous paper, does deal with a different aspect of alleged Biblical corruption. The previous dealt with the logical problems in holding to Biblical corruption. This one deals the trends in commentating regarding Biblical corruption.

3. "Abu Ubaid's [introduction to his commentary] provides ample illustrations of the complex and confused state of the Muslim discussions on naskh." Burton, John. Kal-nasikh wa-l-mansukh. (Cambridge: Trustees of the "E.J.W. Gibb Memorial" Trust, 1987), 57.

4. Fazlur Rahman tells us that "it is quite true to say that whatever views Muslims have wanted to project and advocate have taken the form of Quranic commentaries." From the plethora of commentaries to choose from, and their widely diverging views on many issues, I must agree that this seems to be the case. Islam (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 41. Helmut Gatje tells us that some later commentators dealt with these conflicting alternatives by not dealing with them at all: "the contradictions resolve themselves in part by the fact that differing interpretations are accepted alongside each other as admissable and correct." The Qur'an and its Exegesis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 32. This may account for why so many do hold to baffling contradictions.

5. Powers, David S. "The Exegetical Genre nasikh al-Qur'an wa mansukhuhu." In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Quran, Andrew Rippin, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 119.

6. Powers has this helpful note: "To speak of abrogated and abrogating 'verses' of the Quran frequently distorts the abrogation phenomenon, for in a great many instances, only part of a verse, and sometimes only a word, is either abrogated or abrogates." Powers, 128.

7. Powers, for example tells us that "The commentators and legalists find Quranic sanction for the doctrine of abrogation in four verses...2/106...22/52...53/19...22/52. The more conservative Faruq Sherif, only cites two - 2:100 and 16:103. A Guide to the Contents of the Quran (London: Ithaca Press, 1985), p. 38. These verses appear as 2:102 and 16:99-100 in Yusuf Ali's translation. For the remainder of the paper, I will indicate the numbering in accordance with Yusuf Ali by a lower case 'y' following the verse (eg. 2:100y).

8. Ibn Salama maintains that those who say that the Qur'an does not contain abrogating or abrogated verses "have deviated from the truth and by virtue of their lying have turned away from God." Powers, 127. The important thing to note here, is that some do reject abrogation and are considered by this orthodox savant to be heretics. Most Muslim scholars do accept abrogation. Abu Muslim, Zamakhshari and his follower (to a large degree) Razi, Baidawi, Jelalein, Tabari, the famed Ibn Abbas, Abu Hanifa, Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, ash-Shabi, an-Nakhi, Qatada and ath-Thauri - to name a few - all accepted abrogation as orthodox, though differing on every conceivable aspect of abrogation.

9. Al-Farisi has the highest total with 248 verses, and Shah Wali Allah the lowest with 5 verses. Powers, 122-123.

10. Razi, in opposition to Shafei and in agreement with the Hanifa school, holds that the Sunnah can cancel the Qur'an and vice versa. William Muir. The Beacon of Truth (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1894), pp. 59, 62. Baidawi concurs with Razi on this point. (Gatje, op. cit. p. 59). He focuses on the phrase "equal to it" in 2:102y, and maintains that this does not mean that a Quranic verse can only be replaced by another Quranic verse - he argues that God revealed the Sunnah also, and knows when to bring in a more useful law. The debate on this issue focuses in on the laws regarding adultery found in 4:14y, a tradition of Muhammad, and 24:2y. Imam Mohamad M. Algalaiene informed me in an interview that there was no need to invoke the doctrine of abrogation here, and that there was no place where the Sunnah could abrogate the Qur'an - holding a position similar to that of Shafei.
Sherif tells us that "Islamic theology and jurisprudence give the widest scope to the doctrine of abrogation. One commentary (Kashf-al-Asrar in commenting on verse II.100) says: 'The orthododox view is that abrogation applies to both the Quran and to tradition. Thus the Qur'an abrogates the Qur'an, tradition abrogates the Qur'an, tradition abrogates tradition, and the Qur'an abrogates tradition. All this is firmly established and is recognized by jurisprudence." Sherif, 40.
I also found this helpful piece by Abu Ubaid:

An alleged instance of the naskh of the Qur'an by the Sunna:
The fuqaha were unanimous that the Islamic penalty for adultery was death by stoning. The task of the usuli was to trace the individual hukm of the Fiqh to its ultimate source. In Abu Ubaid's day, the usulis traced this penalty to the Sunna, as he is content to report approvingly [ff. 89a-90b].
Comparing the Fiqh penalty with the Qur'an, which lays down a flogging penalty for sexual misconduct [Q 24,2] Abu Ubaid's informants, reporting from Ibn Abbas and especially from Ubadah b. al-Samit, [both considered to be Companions] asserted that, as opposed to the Qur'an, the Sunna had made a distinction between fornication and adultery, applying appropriate penalties in each case. The author accepts the reports with no discussion whatever, and without the least hint any dissent or disagreement among earlier or contemporary usulis on the question. He accepts without demur taht this is one ascertained instance of the naskh of the Qur'an by the Sunna. In this, his attitude is the same as that of the older imams, Malik [d.179/795] and Abu Hanifa [d.141/758]. (Burton, 24).

11. "The words 'cast into oblivion' suggest that some verses from what was revealed have not been retained in the present Qur'an, but from the nature of the case there can be little certainty about this." Watt, 26.

12. In defence of abrogation, Tabataba'i tells us that "in the Qur'an, 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 Qur'an was revealed over a period of twenty-three years in ever-changing circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine the necessity of such laws." Tabatabai, 45. Also support can apparently be found according to Rodwell, in the Talmud where, he tells us, the doctrine of abrogation is also expounded by the Jewish doctors. Rodwell, J.M., trans. The Koran. 2nd ed. (London: J.M. Dint and Sons Ltd., 1953), 349.
But Cragg points out: "If and when the relevance is legal or administrative, one may readily see how circumstances would make early directives obsolete and new ones imperative, though there remains the problem of the 'eternity' of the whole." Cragg, 146. I also find it interesting to note that verses needed abrogation over a mere 22 year period, due to changes. As the modern world has changed considerably more in the last 13 centuries than it has in those two decades, the doctrine leaves room for Islamic modernists to perform some exegetical feats of their own. An allowance for a changing Word of God, results in a very shallow Word of God.

13. Ibn Salama relates the following story: "It has been related about the Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib... that one day he entered the Friday mosque in Kufa, where he saw a young man known as 'Abd al-Rahman Ibn Dabb, a follower of the Abu Musa al-Ash'ari. The people had gathered around him to ask questions, but he was mixing commands with prohibitions, and permissions with restrictions. 'Ali asked him, 'Can you distinguish between the abrogating and abrogated verses?' He replied, 'No.' Then 'Ali said, 'You destroy yourself and you destroy others. Of whom are you the father?' He said, 'I am the father of Yahya.' 'Ali said, 'You are only talking to increase your reputation!' And he grabbed his ear and twisted it. Then he said, 'Do not tell stories in our mosque ever again.'" Powers, 124.

14. The Caliph sees this unlearned man as committing some sacrilege, a travesty of tradition. I too see the importance of understanding abrogation - though for very different reasons.

15. Imam Mohamad M. Algalaiene informed me in an interview that abrogation is too trivial and rare to worry about when reading the Qur'an. The abrogated verses are to be read with the unabrogated.

16. David Powers tells us, in reference to chronology in abrogation, that "if the Qur'an does sanction the doctrine of naskh in the sense of the replacement of one legal ruling by another, it nevertheless remains the case that the overwhelming majority of pairs of abrogated and abrogating verses are not identified as either 'abrogated' or 'abrogating'. Hence, it becomes essential to determine the relative chronology of the two verses because, if one mistakes the abrogating verse for the abrogated, Muslims would be adhering to a legal ruling that has been suppressed, and at the same time they would be neglecting a ruling that has been commanded. It is for this reason that the literary genre al-nasikh wa'l-mansukh developed hand-in-hand with the asbab al-nuzul on the one hand, and the usul al-fiqh on the other." Powers, 119.
"Despite the fact that the pattern had been violated over a hundred times, later authors continued to make reference to it. Fakr al-Din al-Razi (d.607/1210) cites the phenomenon of tartib as one of his grounds for the contention that 2/240 was not abrogated by 2/234. 'The abrogating verse should be revealed after the abrogated one. If it was revealed subsequently, then it is preferable that it should also be read subsequently, because this arrangement is better. As for the abrogating verse being read before the abrogated one, even if this were permissable in general, still, it is considered to be a poor arrangement, and the word of God must be free from such defects, to the extent possible. Since Q.2/240 is recited after 2/234, it is preferable that it not be considered to have been abrogated by it."
"Thus, in the midst of the seeming 'disorderliness' of the Qur'an there emerges a concious, deliberate, and rational pattern according to which a small body of verses are supposed to have been arranged. This phenomenon, which has not previously been recognized, must somehow be reconciled with the various theories that have been advanced to explain the collection of the Qur'an." Powers, 135.

Gatje adds: "Although neither a uniformly objective nor a chronological point of view served as a criterion in the arrangement of the material in the 'Uthmanic Qur'an, the Muslims, too, raised questions concerning the dates and order of the revelations. Not only because it is not unimportant for the understanding of the individual revelations to know when and under what circumstances they occurred, but also because of the Quranic doctrine that certain verses can be abrogated by others, a motive existed for research into the relative chronology. Given the variety of situations and the inner development of many of Muhammad's views, there occurred in the Qur'an rulings on various subjects which deviated from each other or even contradicted one another. Now, if one believes that such deviations are inconsistent with the perfection of holy revelation, this problem could be resolved by assuming from the start that a proclaimed decision is made only for a specific period or situation, and that it may be later expanded, refined, or even rescinded by another decision. The application of this principle could not have been so much a problem for Muhammad himself as for the later Muslims who in retrospect had to determine the chronological sequence in order to determine which parts of the revelation were abrogating (nasikh) and which abrogated (mansukh)." Gatje, 27.
As Andrew Rippin tells us, in the final analysis, "the question remained of how to know which verses were abrogated and which were still in force." Rippin, 13. And this is not easy to decide with the lack of Quranic chronology.

17. "The distinction of abrogating the greatest number of verses in the Qur'an belongs to Q.9/5, known in Arabic as ayat al-sayf ('the sword verse'), which abrogated no less than 124 other verses. This verse which commands the believers to 'slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them and confine them, and lie in wait at every place of ambush', abrogates every other verse in the Qur'an which commands or implies anything less than a total offensive against the non-believers.
Remarkably, the sword verse, which abrogated no fewer than 124 other verses, is itself considered to be abrogated by the conditional clause with which it concludes: 'But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.' Small wonder, then, that Ibn al'Ata iqi refers to the sword verse as one of the marvels ('aja'ib) of the Quran!" Powers, David S. "The Exegetical Genre nasikh al-Qur'an was mansukhuhu." in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an, Andrew Rippin, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 130-131. Zamakshari, for one, agrees.

18. I had no access to Razi's work, Fi Zilal al-Qur'an but I did find his comments reprinted in full (the one passage that is abridged is identified as such) on the relevant verses in William Muir's The Beacon of Truth (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1894), and Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qur'an and Its Interpreters, Vol. 1. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984). Muir, though a Christian, has a view of the integrity of the Quran that would make any Muslim apologist very happy (see The Life of Mahomet Osnabruck: Biblio Verlag, 1988. pp.vii-xxvii). This work will not be referred to for the rest of the paper. All references to Muir will be to The Beacon.

19. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Qur'an: English Translations of the meanings and Commentary Revised and Edited By The Presidency of Islamic Researchers, IFTA, and Call and Guidance. (King Fahd Holy Qur'an Printing Complex, ND).

20. Watt is, I believe a very charitable choice. He is often cited in Muslim apologetic literature for his favorable comments towards Islam - eg. What They Say About Islam (Chicago: The Institute of Islamic Information and Education, III and E, WAMY pamphlet). In this paper, I use Watt's commentary: Companion to the Qur'an (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1994).

21. Al-Tabari, Abu ja'far Muhammad B. Jarir. The Commentary on the Qur'an, Volume 1 (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1987). This is ab abridgement of Tabari's massive Tasfir (lit. "The Commentary"). Tabari is invaluable for listing all the comments of all known commentators up to his day, and for his meticulous isnad. Helmut Gatje informs us that "Traditional exegesis found a high point, and at the same time a certain finality, in the activity of Abu ja'far Muhammad B. Jarir Al-Tabari" - The Qur'an and its Exegesis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976).

22. The other key text is 16:101-102: "And when WE bring one Sign in place of another - and ALLAH knows best the object of what HE reveals - they say, 'Thou art but a fabricator,' Nay, but most of them know not. Say, 'The Spirit of holiness has brought it down from thy Lord with truth, that HE may strengthen in faith those who believe and as a guidance and glad tidings for Muslims.'"

23. "A further reference made to abrogation is made in the Qur'an where it states that Allah abrogates the interpolations of Satan into the utterances of Prophets (XXII.51). It is generally believed that reference is made here to the words pronounced by the Prophet when, in the course of reciting Surah LIII, he said (following verses 19 and 20) that the three female idols of Arab paganism were acceptable to Allah as intercessors." Sherif, 39.

24. Sherif, 39.

25. "According to the orthodox view, abrogation only applies to regulations and not statements which are subject to the criterion of truth" - such as the opinion of Zamakhshari for example. Gatje, 267, n.43.

26. Powers, 123. Walli Allah was more political activist than commentator, but seems to have grasped the apologetic importance of almost four percent of the verses in the Qur'an being in some way affected by abrogation.

27. 2:106, n.107.

28. Yusuf Ali, 2:106, n.107.

29. Powers, 123.

30. Watt, 26.

31. 3:7, n. 347.

32. 2:144, n.148.

33. Along with Baidawi and Jelalain. Muir, 59-60.

34. 2:106, n.107.

35. Sceptical as I am, I feel that it is only fair to cite Muir's full position and his defence of it as it isn't very long:

That 2:106 refers to the abrogation of injunctions found in pre-Islamic scriptures is made very clear by the immediately preceding verse ("Those from among the People of the Book [q.v.] who have disbelieved and do not want, nor do the Idolaters, that any good be sent to you from the Lord. God, however, singles out for His mercy whomever He likes; God is extremely bounteous"), and by the concluding words of 2:106 itself ("Do you not know that it is God to Whom belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth?"). Thus, to the criticism made by the People of the Book - that it is inexplicable that the Qur'an, presented as a revealed book, should abrogate the injunctions of a previously revealed book, the Bible - 2:106 responds by saying that, in abrogating some of the Biblical injunctions, the Qur'an offers others that are either better than them or at least comparable to them, the concluding part of 2:106 adding by the way of comment by God, Who is Almighty, has the power to do everything (see also 2:107). The context of 2:106 becomes even more clear when 2:104 - 121 are read as an integrated unit.
Besides "that which We abrogate" (naskh, another expression in the verse needs attention: "that which We cause to be forgotten" (insa'). Insa', the Qur'an seems to suggest, takes place in accordance with a certain law of God (see Sunnah of God ), namely that those who seek misguidance are misguided by God. In other words, if a people neglects the verses of God, then God causes it to forget those verses. For practical purposes, insa' may be subsumed under naskh... Abrogation of Qur'anic Injunctions. Although the word naskh in 2:106 refers to the abrogation, by means of the Qur'an, of injunctions found in earlier scriptures, Qur'anic injunctions themselves may be abrogated, as has happened in a few cases. An example of this abrogation is 24:2, which abrogates the punishment of adultery stated in 4:15-16. A study of the Qur'an shows, first that only a limited number of Qur'anic verses have been abrogated, and, second, that the abrogation pertains to legal and practical matters only, and not to matters of doctrine and belief. Mir, Mustansir. Dictionary of Qur'anic Terms and Concepts (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1987), 5-6.

36. Without any particular order, here is a summary of current and ancient apologists and commentators on Biblical corruption and suppression. All verses have been renumbered to coincide with Yusuf Ali's text. Esposito sees corruption in 5:15, Yusuf Ali has already been covered, Razi sees suppression in 2:42, 75, 101, 174; 3:70, 78; 5:44, 47; 6:20 and maybe in 3:187 and 4:46. Baidawi sees suppression in 2:42 and 2:75, and corruption in 2:174. Jelalaine sees suppression in 2:42, 101; 5:44 and corruption and suppression in 3:187. Tabari sees suppression in 2:42 as does Abu l-Aliya, Ibn Abbas, Mujahid, Watt, and Ibn Zaid, while Ibn Juraij and Al Suddi do not seem to. Tabari holds that there is corruption revealed in verse 75 of Surah 2. Mujahid, Ibn Zaid, Al-Rabi, and Muhammad Ishaq agree with him. Zamakhshari alone sees corruption in 5:44, a parallel passage to 2:42 where again, no one else finds signs of corruption.

37. Watt, William Montgomery. Companion to the Qur'an (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1994), 22. Watt says the proper interpretation should be 'tampered with.'

38. Watt, 22.

39. Mahmoud M. Ayoub in his commentary on the Quran tells us that Razi also comments that if the Torah was corrupted at the time of Moses, then nothing about Muhammad would be altered, and if it was corrupted at the time of Muhammad, than that which speaks of Muhammad would be altered. He says that "the literal sense of the Quran does not indicate what they altered." His apparent neutrality here is interesting, given his other comments. The House of 'Imran (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 121. Razi does waver, interestingly enough, on 3:187 and 4:46 (see Muir, 87-88). But if we understand him to be advocating textual corruption, then we have a baffling case with a clear contradiction.

40. Muir, 82.

41. Muir, 82.

42. Except for the odd verse that refers to Muhammad, we are told, is 'partially corrupted.'

43. Surah 41:42 says in part that "No falsehood can approach [the Quran] from before or behind it." We are told that "there is none that can alter the Words (and Decrees) of Allah..." (Surah 3:34) and "...none can change His Words..." (Surah 18:27)

Appendix: Clear and Unclear

This appendix is essentially a collection of quotes on the muhkamat and the mutashabihat the clear and the unclear. "The muhkamat (literally, "firm ones") are said to be those verses which present self-evident truths, incontestable ethical norms, and established principles of truth, justice, and good conduct. The mutashabihat (literally, "ambiguous ones") are verses which speak of a realm of existence that is beyond our ken (e.g. the hereafter [q.v.], paradise [see heaven], and hell [q.v.], using such modes of speech as similes, metaphors, and similitudes."

Tabataba tells us that "The muhkam and those verses which are explicit, clear and immediate in their message and, therefore, incapable of being misinterpreted; the mutashabih verses are not of this nature. It is the duty of every firm believer to believe in and act according to the verses, which are muhkam.

"It is also his duty to believe in the verses which are mutashabih, but he must abstain from acting on them; this injunction is based on the premise that only those whose heart is corrupt and whose belief is false follow the implicit, mutashabih, verses, fabricating interpretations and, thereby deceiving common people."

"Tabari characterizes the clear and decisive' verses as those which are decisive in their clarity and comprehensiveness, and whose proofs and arguments are incontrovertibly established for the things they are meant to affirm or deny: lawful and unlawful things (halal and haram), promise and threat (wa'd and wa'id), rewards and punishments, commands and prohibitions, narratives and parables (qisas and amthal), admonitions and lessons, and the like.' Tabari interprets the phrase mother of the Book' to mean the foundation (asl) of the Book.' He argues that such verses are the foundation of the Book, which contains the fundamentals of the faith: its obligations (fara'id), bounds (hudud), as well as all that which human creatures require in the affairs of their religion, and all the obligations which God has laid upon them both in this life and the next. God called these verses the mother of the Book' because they constitute the major part of the Qur'an, and because they are the final resort for the people of the Qur'an in times of need' (Tabari, VI, p. 170). Tabari's interpretation of this phrase has already been discussed (see "Titles of Surat al-Fatihah" in vol. I)

"Tabari then reports the disagreements among tafsir masters as to which verses can be considered clear and decisive,' and which multivalent.' According to some early authorities, the clear and decisive verses are those which are to be followed. They are the abrogating verses, or those whose precepts are firm and unchangeable. Multivalent verses are those which are not to be followed, they are abrogated verses.'

"Tabari further reports that Ibn 'Abbas is said to have specifically identified certain verses as belonging to either category. Among the clear and decisive verses are 6:151-153 and 17:23-39. It is further related that he asserted that the clear and decisive verses are the Qur'an's abrogating verses, its sanctions and prohibitions, its bounds and obligations, and all that which may be believed in and followed. As for the multivalent verses, they are those which are abrogated, those whose meaning might be made clearer by construing a phrase as belonging to either the context before or after it (muqaddam and mu'akhkhar), its parables and oaths, and all that which must be believed in but not followed.'

"This view is also reported on the authority of a number of the Prophet's Companions, as well as Qatadah, al-Rabi'b. Anas, and al-Dahhak."

Imam Mohamad M. Algalaiene informed me in an interview that it is "Better not to think of God we are to weak. We should think of creation and the signs of God." In reference to 3:7, he held that a "Hadith explains this verse. The Prophet doesn't allow us to go so deeply." "Yet, intelligible as this posture is, it can hardly be denied that the development of faith also requires and engages the liveliness of soul which allegory suits and to which metaphor ministers. These are inseparable from the nature of revelation itself. In so far as a scripture is a cypher, it fails to disclose. To say: 'We believe and go no further' is to qualify belief itself. The very authority of omniscience to which faith defers needs minds for its ally. Its very use of language means that it supposes those minds to be active. No text can have adequate readers, however reverent, if they are not also partners with it in an active apprehension."

Interestingly, Ali thinks of the scope of the clear' as far beyond the law, and into the deepest areas of the Qur'an he holds that the very foundation of the book must be clear:

This passage gives us an important clue to the interpretation of the Holy Qur'an. Broadly speaking it may be divided into two portions, not given separately, but intermingled: viz (1) the nucleus or foundation of the Book, literally "the mother of the Book". (2) the part which is not entirely clear. It is very fascinating to take up the latter, and exercise our ingenuity about its meaning, but it refers to such profound matters that are beyond human language and though people of wisdom may get some light from it, no one should be dogmatic, as the final meaning is know to Allah alone. The Commentators usually understand the verses "of established meaning" (muhkam) to refer to the categorical orders of the Shari at (or the Law,), which are plain to everyone's understanding. But perhaps the meaning is wider: the "mother of the Book" must include the very foundation on which all Law rests, the essence of Allah's Message, as distinguished from the various parables, allegories, and ordinances.

In summary, "The Qur'an contains many verses which describe the essential characteristics of the Holy Book. It is an earthly copy of a heavenly original (The Reserved Tablet: LXXXV.22); it is a Revelation sent down through the angel Gabriel; it is in pure Arabic, free from crookedness; it is expressed in a clear, inimitable language; God has made it easy to understand. This last characteristic is given such prominence that the verse in which it is expressed ( We have indeed made the Qur'an easy to understand and remember') is repeated four times in the form of a refrain in Sura LIV. The description of the Qur'an as the Book that makes all things clear' is repeated at least seven times. (XV.1, XXVI.2, 195, XXVII.2, XXXVI.69, XLIII.1.).

"Here arises a substantial difficulty. There are several passages in the Qur'an which fall clearly into the category of the allegorical. As examples one might point to: the parable of the Light of God contained in verse XXIV.35; verse XXXIII.72 concerning God's offer of the Trust' to the heaven, the earth and the mountain, their refusal and Man's assumption of the Trust;' the mysterious journey undertaken by Moses, his meeting with a sage endowed with divine knowledge and all the incidents arising in the course of the journey, such as the coming to life of the dead fish which was to serve as a meal (related in Sura XVIII). Such obviously allegorical themes invite serious reflection in order to make their meaning clear, but as no help can be obtained from the apparent sense of the relevant words, one is inevitably led to search for a hidden meaning but such search might, following the strict letter of the Qur'an, be held to fall within the prohibition expressed in verse III.5. Indeed, on a narrow interpretation of the terms of the Qur'an, it could be maintained that not only the exegesis of allegorical texts, but even the explanation of ordinary passages of the Holy Book pertains exclusively to God. In verse LXXXV.17 God, warning the Prophet as to how the verses of the Qur'an should be recited, affirms that He Himself will determine the manner of their recitation, and ends by saying: It is for us to collect them and to explain them.

"However, as a study of the numerous classical commentaries on the Qur'an will show, the arguments outlined above have not in fact stood in the way of adopting important interpretations in respect of difficult, including metaphorical passages of the Qur'an. . . . Attention may here be drawn to the fact that certain terms in the Qur'an have been held by some to have an allegorical' and by others in precise' meaning. The first group have not hestitated [sic] to interpret them, and their opponents, while disagreeing with the interpretation, have not condemned it as conflicting with verse III.5."

It appears that Yusuf Ali belongs to the first group. Whether his exposition of Surah 3 verse 7 violates Surah 3 verse 7, is a question that will probably be ignored.


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Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qur'an and Its Interpreters, Vol. I. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

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Esposito, John L. Islam the Straight Path. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1992.

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Muir, William. The Beacon of Truth. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1894.

Powers, David S. "The Exegetical Genre nasikh al-Qur'an wa mansukhuhu." in Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an, pp. 117-138. Andrew Rippin, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Rippin, Andrew and Knappert, Jan. The Textual sources for the Study of Islam. Manchester: University Press, 1986.

Rodwell, J.M., trans. The Koran. 2nd ed. London: J.M. Dint & Sons Ltd., 1953.

Sherif, Faruq. A Guide to the Contents of the Qur'an. London: Ithaca Press, 1985.

Tabataba'i, Allamah Sayyid M.H. The Qur'an in Islam. London: 1987.

Von Denffer, Ahmad. Ulum Al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an. Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1989.

Watt, William Montgormery. Companion to the Qur'an. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1994.


Nasikh, Mansukh, Muhkamat & Mutashabihat in the Qur'an: An interview with Imam Mohamad M. Algalaiene. London, Ontario. March 19, 1996.

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