by David Bukay
Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2007, pp. 3-11
That there is no compulsion in Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace are common refrains among Muslim activists, academics, officials, and journalists. In an age of terrorism and violent jihad, nowhere, they argue, does the Qur’an allow Muslims to fight non-Muslims solely because they refuse to become Muslim. Proponents of Islamic tolerance point to a number of Qur’anic verses which admonish violence and advocate peace, tolerance, and compromise.
But not all verses in the Qur’an have the same weight in assessment. Unlike the Old or New Testaments, the Qur’an is not organized by chronology but rather by size of chapters. Even within chapters, chronology can be confused. In sura (chapter) 2, for example, God revealed verses 193, 216, and 217 to Muhammad shortly after he arrived in Medina. God only revealed verses 190, 191, and 192 six years later. This complicates interpretation, all the more when some verses appear to contradict.
Classical theologians accepted that Medinan chapters supersede Meccan, not only for chronological reasons, but also because the Medinan verses represent Islam during a period of strength.
Chapter 9 of the Qur’an, in English called “Ultimatum,” is the most important concerning the issues of abrogation and jihad against unbelievers. It is the only chapter that does not begin “in the name of God, most benevolent, ever-merciful.” Commentators agree that Muhammad received this revelation in 631, the year before his death, when he had returned to Mecca and was at his strongest. Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari (810-70), compiler of one of the most authoritative collections of the hadith, said that “Ultimatum” was the last chapter revealed to Muhammadalthough others suggest it might have been penultimate. Regardless, coming at or near the very end of Muhammad’s life, “Ultimatum” trumps earlier revelations.
Because this chapter contains violent passages, it abrogates previous peaceful content. Muhsin Khan, the translator of Sahih al-Bukhari, says God revealed “Ultimatum” in order to discard restraint and to command Muslims to fight against all the pagans as well as against the People of the Book if they do not embrace Islam or until they pay religious taxes. So, at first aggressive fighting was forbidden; it later became permissible (2:190) and subsequently obligatory (9:5). This “verse of the sword” abrogated, canceled, and replaced 124 verses that called for tolerance, compassion, and peace.
Suyuti said that everything in the Qur’an about forgiveness and peace is abrogated by verse 9:5, which orders Muslims to fight the unbelievers and to establish God’s kingdom on earth.
How does the theological debate over abrogation impact contemporary policy formulation? While not all terrorism is rooted in Islam, the religion is an enabler for many. It is wrong to assume that more extreme interpretations of religion are illegitimate. Statements that there is no compulsion in religion and that jihad is primarily about internal struggle and not about holy war may receive applause in university lecture halls and diplomatic board rooms, but they misunderstand the importance of abrogation in Islamic theology. It is important to acknowledge that what university scholars believe, and what most Muslims—or more extreme Muslims—believe are two different things. For many Islamists and radical Muslims, abrogation is real and what the West calls terror is, indeed, just.
Prior to receiving “Ultimatum,” Muhammad had reached agreements with various Arab tribes. But when God gave Muhammad a revelation (2:190-2), Muhammad felt justified in breaking his cease-fire. For Isma’il bin Kathir (1301-73), a student of Ibn Taymiyya and an influential Qur’an interpreter in his own right, it is clear: As jihad involves death and the killing of men, God draws attention to the fact that disbelief, polytheism, and avoidance of God’s path as shown by the Qur’an are worse than killing them. This creates license for future generations of Muslims to kill non-Muslims solely on the basis of their refusal to accept Islam.
The issue of abrogation in Islam is critical to understanding both jihad and da’wa, the propagation of Islam. Some Muslims may preach tolerance and argue that jihad refers only to an internal, peaceful struggle to better oneself. Western commentators can convince themselves that such teachings are correct. However, for learned Muslim scholars and populist leaders, such notions are or should be risible. They recognize that, in practice, there is compulsion in Islam. They take seriously the notion that the Qur’an teaches not just tolerance among religions, but tolerance among religions on the terms of Islam. To understand the challenge of the current Islamist revival, it is crucial for non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike to recognize that interpretation of Islamic doctrine can have two faces, and that the Medinan face may very well continue to overshadow the Meccan face for a major portion, if not the majority, of contemporary Muslims.
Over the years, a number of Muslims and some non-Muslims have asked me why I had problems defending my Islamic faith. While a Muslim in the late 1980’s, and seeking the truth within Islam, I was faced with a number of issues in defending my faith. One such issue was “abrogation.” Abrogation means to annul or cancel something with appropriate or legal authority. The purpose of writing this response has been to provide an answer to my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters regarding the challenges I faced at that point in my faith. During this time I was not seeking to put down or reject Islam, on the contrary, my goal was to invite others to Islam. In trying to grapple with this topic, I was armed primarily with the Quran, Hadith (the documented words and/or deeds of Mohammad) and other supporting works by Muslims and some non-Muslim authors. Please note that the purpose of this response is not to publish an academic work with a thorough and critical evaluation on the entire topic of abrogation, but mostly a reflection on a personal journey as I was contending with my Islamic faith.
The concept of “abrogation” in the Quran is that Allah chose to reveal ayat (singular ayah – means a sign or miracle, commonly a verse in the Quran) that supercede earlier ayat in the same Quran. The central ayah that deals with abrogation is Surah 2:106:
None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?
I struggled with the question of how an eternal revelation of Allah could have such time-bound revelation in it. It seemed at odds with the nature of Allah – the all-knowing, all-wise, creator and sustainer of the universe; the eternal, self-existent one. As a Muslim this was one of the bigger challenges I faced with regard to the Quran. Although the Quran is said to be an eternal and universal scripture, I found it to be time-bound.
Not all Muslim scholars agree on what abrogation covers. Briefly here was my discovery.
- Muslim scholars of old hold to the concept that some ayahs in the Quran abrogate other ayahs in the Quran, but do not all hold to the same set of abrogated and abrogating ayahs.
- Other Muslim scholars are of the opinion that the Quran may abrogate the Quran as well as the Sunnah (deed or example of Mohammad) and vice versa.
- Some Muslim scholars hold that the Quran abrogates all the previous scriptures, specifically the scriptures sent to Musa and Isa, but not itself.
- Some Muslim scholars, especially of recent times do not believe in the concept of abrogation at all.