Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Rhology provides an example to illustrate how difficult it can be to exegete the Quran.

The Islamic concept of abrogation (naskh) doubtless factors into the equation as well:
Those Westerners who manage to pick up a translation of the Quran are often left bewildered as to its meaning thanks to ignorance of a critically important principle of Quranic interpretation known as "abrogation." The principle of abrogation -- al-naskh wa al-mansukh (the abrogating and the abrogated) -- directs that verses revealed later in Muhammad's career "abrogate" -- i.e., cancel and replace -- earlier ones whose instructions they may contradict. Thus, passages revealed later in Muhammad's career, in Medina, overrule passages revealed earlier, in Mecca. The Quran itself lays out the principle of abrogation:
2:106. Whatever a Verse (revelation) do We {Allah} 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?
It seems that 2:106 was revealed in response to skepticism directed at Muhammad that Allah's revelations were not entirely consistent over time. Muhammad's rebuttal was that "Allah is able to do all things" -- even change his mind. To confuse matters further, though the Quran was revealed to Muhammad sequentially over some twenty years' time, it was not compiled in chronological order. When the Quran was finally collated into book form under Caliph Uthman, the suras were ordered from longest to shortest with no connection whatever to the order in which they were revealed or to their thematic content. In order to find out what the Quran says on a given topic, it is necessary to examine the other Islamic sources that give clues as to when in Muhammad's lifetime the revelations occurred. Upon such examination, one discovers that the Meccan suras, revealed at a time when the Muslims were vulnerable, are generally benign; the later Medinan suras, revealed after Muhammad had made himself the head of an army, are bellicose.

1 comment:

  1. I personally don't see anything wrong with a law/principle of abrogation per se. Even in the Christian Scriptures some laws are abrogated or superceded by others.

    The problem with the Qur'an is exactly what's mentioned and alluded to in the quote. Even with the aid of tradition, there are times when interpreters can't tell which Quranic laws abrogate another because we sometimes don't know which passage was written before or revealed before another passage. So that we don't know whether law X abrogates law Y, or whether law Y abrogates law X.

    When it comes to the Bible, we know which laws abrogate or supercede others because we have a good knowledge of the chronology of those passages.

    That's according to my (admittedly limited) understanding.