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Two people are at a Bible study. One asserts that Islam is a religion of peace and cites: "There is no compulsion in religion, to me my religion and to you yours, and if you kill one person it is like killing all of humanity." The other asserts that the verses of the sword tell Muslims to "kill infidels where they find them." Both appeal to the Qur'an. Who is right?   

Actually, both are right and both are wrong. Allow the Islamic doctrine of abrogation to explain the dilemma.

The doctrine of abrogation

Depending on which version of the Qur'an you have in front of you, different ones have lists with columns that have two prominent Arabic words, namely Nāsikh and  Mansūkh. In plain English, the abrogating and the abrogated. This still sounds like something from another place and time, so let us explain.

As the Qur'an was revealed, certain verses or ayat as they are called, were replaced by other later ones. Generally speaking the early verses that were revealed at Mecca when Muhammad and his followers were in the minority were replaced by others that were revealed by that at Medina when Islam was gaining power on all fronts. The very last chapter, or more precisely Surah of the Qur'an, number 9 is said to have the final say. Muslim commentators throughout Islamic history, with their science of the "occasions of revelation"---or when and why something was revealed--- are largely unanimous that Surah 9 takes precedence over anything before it that would contradict it.

If all of this sounds like an overstatement let us listen to the words of the Muslim cleric Abul-Qásim ibn Saláma (d. A.D. 1019):

'The very first point that occurs to me for anyone who wishes to be familiar with the Quran is the importance of an elementary acquaintance with 'the abrogating and the abrogated, following what has come to us from the ancient imanis [i.e. religious teachers], and may Allah be pleased with them all! For assuredly no one should venture to speak authoritatively of this precious Scripture unless he is acquainted with the teaching in regard to the abrogating and the abrogated"

Just how many verses were abrogated is a subject of discussion among Muslims, but suffice it to say the number ranges from about 5 to 100. All agree that this teaching is based on Surah 2:106 which various people have rendered as such their English renditions:

Sahih International: We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?

Pickthall: Nothing of our revelation (even a single verse) do we abrogate or cause be forgotten, but we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is Able to do all things?

Yusuf Ali: 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?

Shakir: Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?

Muhammad Sarwar: For whatever sign We change or eliminate or cause to recede into oblivion, We bring forth a better sign, one that is identical. Do you not know that God has power over all things?

Mohsin Khan: Whatever a Verse (revelation) 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?

Arberry: And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything?

Observation: All renditions plainly state that the so called "previous" is caused to be forgotten [ =abrogated] by the latter and this is because Allah of Islam can do whatever he pleases.  [Just how much confidence a Muslim can have that whatever he presently believes in cannot be abrogated and the insecurity that this might cause is a whole other matter of discussion.]

So who is right at the Bible study?

  • Person #1?

That person is absolutely right that there are peaceful verses in the Qur'an. "Let there be no compulsion in religion" or from Sahih International, There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion " {Surah 2:256). However what is not said is that this verse [=ayah] has been abrogated, according to two definitive Muslim works, namely Tafsir Jalalain by Abi Abdullah Mohammad bin Hazam, published by Al-Babi Al-Halabi and Brothers, Cairo and  Annasikh-wal-Mansukh by Abul Qasim, published by Hindia Press, Cairo by the "Sword verse" from Surah 9:5 which reads:

Sahih International: And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

Pickthall: Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

Yusuf Ali: But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

Shakir: So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

Muhammad Sarwar: When the sacred months are over, slay the pagans wherever you find them. Capture, besiege, and ambush them. If they repent, perform prayers and pay the religious tax, set them free. God is All-forgiving and All-merciful.

Mohsin Khan: Then when the Sacred Months (the Ist, 7th, 11th, and 12th months of the Islamic calendar) have passed, then kill the Mushrikun (see V.2:105) wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and give Zakat, then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Arberry: Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

Observation: This text says that idolaters--i.e. non-believers in Islam-- are to be killed unless they turn to Islam. The only type of peace guaranteed here is that a person who capitulates to Islamic demands can ensure their survival.  The person also appeals to Surah 109:6, which according to the list furnished by Anwarul Haqq [see below] was also abrogated by Surah 9:5. Finally the person appealed to Surah 5:32, which is simply a Qur'anic verse that applies to Jews and is taken out of context. It would be wise, as per the video instruction by David Wood [see below] to read the verse in context and also the following one.

  • Person #2. This person suggested that Islam is violent and appealed to Surah 9:5. It would have been better for this person to have given a more nuanced argument about the change from the peaceful revelations to the "sword verses."


There was a Sudanese cleric named Mahmoud Muhammad Taha [d. 1985] who suggested that it would be much better if the flow of abrogation went from the violent verses to the more peaceful ones, in effect reversing the whole direction of abrogation through Islamic history. He was killed as a heretic. What the doctrine of abrogation shows us is that Islam must be interpreted on its own terms. It is both noble and generous to ascribe peacefulness to Islam as person #1 did. That person, however, failed to give proper respect to the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, and in effect actually disrespected Islamic thinking. Secondly, by taking Surah 5:32 out of context, this person violated the very fundamental laws of hermeneutics or interpretation that one would want applied to the Bible. Again this disrespects Islamic thinking and its history of interpretation. The second person, although getting the sense of the sword verses about right, could easily be accused of presenting a caricature of Islam with an agenda to tar and feather it. This too should be avoided. 

On its own terms, and by its own doctrine of  'naskh' as well as its own history of interpretation, Islam as presented in the Qur'an tells us whether or not it is a "religion of peace." The hadiths and the Life of Muhammad will give further insight into this. 

Isn't it high time we stop telling Muslims and Islam what it is, and let it speak for itself? That would appear to be respectful.     

For further reflection:

1. Khaled Abou El Fadl  as distinguished fellow in Islamic Law at UCLA in his The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), p. 100 said: "According to the doctrine of abrogation, some rulings or determinations set out in the Qur'an can be annulled by subsequent Qur'anic rulings. The doctrine of abrogation thus expresses the idea of an incremental evolution of Qur'anic and Prophetic laws."  Given its importance in Islamic thought are non-Muslims being overly hasty in deciding what the Qur'an does or does not say about a certain subject?

For further reading:

  1. Anwarul Haqq. Abrogation in the Quran. Lucknow, India, Methodist Publishing House, 1926. 
  2. David Bukay, "Peace or Jihad? Abrogation in Islam," Middle East Quarterly 14 no 4 (Fall 2007), pp. 3-11
  3. The contemporary convert to Islam, Ahmad von Denffer (1949-present)  asserts that "understanding of abrogation is important to understand the correct application of God's laws and is among the most important preconditions for interpretation of the Qur'an" in his "Asbab al Nuzul" and "Al-Nasikh wal-Mansukh," Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1989), chap. 5.
  4. "Abrogation of Legal Norms" (Naskh) in The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History. See also  John Burton, The Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 7, s.v. "Naskh," p. 1010 and his "Abrogation" Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2006. Brill Online. 
  5. David Wood."The Qur'an and the Siege of Paris" video   

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