Understanding Abrogation in the Qur’aan


بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ ,

Unfortunately, most Muslims learn of abrogation in the Qur’aan from the wrong persons. This simple explanation was provided by SeekersGuidance:

Abrogation is one of the lengthiest, most complex, and most important topics in both the science of Qur’anic exegesis [tafsir] as well as that of Legal Theory [usul al-fiqh]. Imam Suyuti mentions that a countless number of scholars authored works solely on the topic of abrogation, and that many Imams said, “No one is allowed to give explanation [tafsir] of the Book of Allah until they understand abrogation.” Our Master Ali [may Allah ennoble his face] asked a judge if he knew which verses abrogated others, to which the judge replied that he did not. Imam Ali said, “You are ruined, and you have ruined others.” [Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an]

Insha’Allah, the discussion below will serve as a brief overview of abrogation, followed by answers to the various points you bring up in your question. May Allah Most High provide us all clarity with these and related issues.

Abrogation: Definition

According to Hanafi legal theorists, “abrogation” [naskh] is defined as “the removal or annulment of one legal ruling by a subsequent legal ruling.”

Of course, the “change” entailed in abrogation is perceived only by humans. In Allah’s preeternal knowledge, each ruling had its appointed term. Therefore, some Hanafis put forth a more detailed definition as follows:

“A clarification of the end point of one legal ruling, an end point that was preeternally known to Allah Most High yet nevertheless concealed from those addressed by the Sacred Law, such that it appeared to be a lasting ruling from the perspective of humans.” Hence, abrogation entails replacement from our perspective, yet mere clarification from the Divine perspective, i.e., clarification of the termination of a legal ruling and the beginning of a new legal ruling in its place.

[Ibn Malak/Nasafi, Sharh al-Manar; Bazdawi, Usul al-Bazdawi; Ibn ‘Abidin/Haskafi, Nasamat al-Ashar Sharh Ifadat al-Anwar].

The key aspect of these definitions is the concept of “complete annulment or termination of a legal ruling,” that is, such that it is no longer applicable whatsoever [i.e., irrespective of whether abrogation itself is that termination or merely a clarification of that termination]. This basic understanding is shared in the definitions of major legal theorists of other schools as well, such as Imam Baqillani, Imam Ghazali, Imam Amidi, Imam Baydawi, Imam Mahalli, Imam Qarafi, Imam Razi and others.

[Amidi, Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam; Ghazali, Mustasfa; Baydawi, Minhaj al-Wusul ila `Ilm al-Usul; Dimyati/Mahalli/Juwayni, Hashiyat ala Sharh al-Waraqat; Qarafi/Razi, Nafa’is al-Usul fi Sharh al-Mahsul].

Abrogation: Differences in Technical Usage

It is important to understand that definitions were formalized later in Islam. Earlier scholars, especially of the first few generations [salaf], might have used similar terms yet with different meanings. One would have to examine the exact intent of an early scholar and how he used the term before arriving at any conclusions.

As Mufti Taqi Usmani (may Allah preserve him) explains in his “An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences,” the term “abrogation” had a very wide scope in the technical usage of earlier scholars, due to which in their view it included many verses that later scholars did not consider to be abrogation based on the above technical definitions [mustalah]. A common example is if an earlier verse is very general in its wording and then a later verse limits its scope or conditions it in some way – they would deem the earlier verse to be “abrogated” and the later verse to be its “abrogator.” They did not mean that the ruling of the earlier verse was completely replaced or annulled, but rather that it is no longer general but instead limited or contextualized in some way.

An example is the verse, “And marry not polytheist women until they believe.” (2:221) The ruling here is general in that it is unlawful for Muslims to marry any type of polytheist women, whether idol-worshipers or People of the Book.

Yet a later verse states, “[And you may marry] the chaste of those given the Book.” (5:5) This verse serves to limit the general scope of the earlier verse, whereby it is known that the prohibition refers only to polytheist women that are not from the People of the Book.

Earlier scholars would deem this to be a case abrogation: verse (5:5) serves to “abrogate” verse (2:221). However, it is clear that their understanding of abrogation was not a complete annulment of a previous ruling but rather a change in its scope or applicability.

Later scholars, however, would not deem such cases as abrogation, but only cases in which the earlier legal ruling is completely annulled. According to them, therefore, there are far less cases of abrogation in the Qur’an.

Imam Suyuti states that there were many verses that served to give exceptions or limitations to other verses, and “those who considered them as cases of abrogation were incorrect.” [Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an].

[Mufti Taqi Usmani, “An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences;” Muhammad A. Zurqani, Manahil al-Irfan].

Finally, scholars of legal theory mention that limitation or specification of a general verse is not complete annulment but rather can be related to context and circumstances, while abrogation is complete annulment and therefore negates any usage or applicability of the earlier abrogated verse. [Ghazali, Mustasfa].

Further Reading:

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