The Quran and the Problem of Abrogation

The doctrine of abrogation. As Christians we believe that God can give revelations in one Covenant and then later on make a different Covenant with a different group of people. What’s the difference here with this doctrine of abrogation that Muslims believe in? Why would we consider this a problem?

The difference is: In the scriptures we have God announcing a future Covenant that will take centuries for it to be fulfilled. So circumstances have changed, the people have changed and God is preparing people for a New Covenant that doesn’t necessarily cancel out the previous commandments but fulfills them and they are consummated in the coming of Christ. What you have in the Quran is a phenomenon in which Muhammad will say “This is what we’re going to do today or this is what should be done today.” and then the very next day or the next week he comes and says “What I told you that week prior, forget about it. It’s been abrogated, it’s been canceled out.” That led the disbelivers to accuse Muhammad of forging the Quran and their response is actually reflected in the Quran itself. Let me just look at two references to see what the Quran says were the response of the people to Muhammad saying “That’s been canceled out, that’s been abrogated what I told you the day before or the week prior.” Surah 2:106 says “None of our revelations do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten but we substitute something better or similar. Knowest thou not that Allah has power over all things?” “Don’t you know that we have power over all things”. “This is a demonstration of our power.” But let me read them in a little more accurate translation. “Whatever a verse do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring a better one or similar to it. Know you not that Allah is able to do all things?” This is a word of rebuke to those who are questioning the wisdom behind abrogating passages. Allah was saying “Don’t you see this as a display of my power, my sovereignty? I have the right to do this because I have the power to do this.” 

Surah 16:101 “And when we change a verse in place of another and Allah knows best of what he sends down, they (i.e. the disbelievers) will say ‘You are a forger, a liar.’ Nay, but most of them know not.” You see the response of disbelievers? You’re making this thing up? If this is really from an all-knowing God, surely God is not going to cancel out the previous verse when he knows all things. He knows all factors so he’s going to write the correct verse from the get-go. And Muhammad says “No, this is a display of the power of Allah. He’s showing you that he can do what he wants because he has the power to do it. So He’ll tell you ‘don’t do this today’ but then tomorrow ‘I want you to go and do it.’ 

But you know what’s even more troubling for a Muslim? Surah 2:106 “Whatever verse do we ever going to cause to be forgot, we bring a better one or similar to it.” I can understand you bringing something better but why would you replace a verse with something similar? I can understand that you would give something better in its place but even that introduces problems. How can some versus be better than other versus? I thought all of this is the speech of God and not only the speech of God, it’s the uncreated eternal speech of God. Are you saying that in some instances Allah speaks better than in other instances?

In Allah’s eternal word, he has a verse that says there are no discrepancies in this book. And he’ll have a saying that you’re supposed to do one thing and another saying that you’re supposed to do something completely different. For instance, you go to one passage of the Quran and find out that the the penalty for sexual sin is house arrest. You can go to another passage find out that the penalty for sexual sin is lashes. And you go to the hadiths and find out that the penalty for the sexual sin is stoning. This is part of the eternal Quran (because even though a sheep ate the versus, they’re still part of Allah’s laws). You have these different penalties and there’s another verse saying there’s no discrepancies. So you have is eternal Word, and you have all the verses that apply, and you have all these verses that are abrogated, and they’re all mixed in there together telling people to do completely different things. This is the problem even the pagans in Muhammad’s time could recognize. What you’re saying about the Quran makes no sense, there’s no way you can possibly be a prophet. And that’s why you have to fight and subjugate them.

Interesting, this contradicts two other eternal words – Surah 18:27 and Surah 6:115. It says “There is no changing to the words of Allah. None can change the words of Allah.” Those passages have actually let certain Muslims, like the late Muhammad Asad, to deny the doctrine of abrogation. He admits in his commentary that the doctrine of abrogation, traditionally understood, conflicts with these passages i.e. none can change his words. But here we have many changes taking place by direct orders from Allah. So abrogation is a serious problem.