Answered by Ustadh Faraz A. Khan
Question: I’ve recently been reading about abrogation in the Qur’an, and I am now supremely confused. Some people say that there is no abrogation, some people say that only a few verses were abrogated (mostly dealing with inheritance), and some say that over 200 verses were abrogated, including all of the verses about peace and restraint. I’m not sure what to believe. For me, the opinion that makes the most sense is acknowledging the fact that abrogation is possible, but it only occurs a few times in the Qur’an. I am also confused about the “Verse of the Sword” (9:5). I’ve heard some people say that it abrogated any and all verses dealing with peace, including “but if the enemy inclines towards peace, you also incline towards peace”, “there is no compulsion in religion”, and “fight in the cause of ALLAH those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for ALLAH loveth not transgressors”. There are others that say that this verse must be taken in context, which if you read the preceding and following verses in Surah Tawbah, is referring to the specific case of the Makkans who continuously broke treaties and were constantly aggressive. I have always been taught, and believed, that Islam is essentially peaceful and reasonable, but with some of the stuff I’ve read, they’re making it seem like Islam is harsh and unreasonable (I’ve even heard people quote hadiths saying that it’s okay to kill innocent women and children if they belong to the “people of the enemy”). I am so confused, and I have no idea what to think. Can you shed a little light on this? Jazakallah khair.
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and faith.
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.
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] This is important in understanding the verses of fighting and peace discussed below.
Number of Abrogated Verses
Because of this difference between earlier and later scholars in the technical usage of the term abrogation, scholars differed as to how many verses in the Qur’an are abrogated. As you mention in your question, some did indeed say that up to 200 verses were abrogated. This, again, is based on a broader understanding of “abrogation.” Others said less than 100. Imam Suyuti stated that only 19 verses of the Qur’an were abrogated, and Shah Wali Allah agreed with Imam Suyuti on only 5 of those 19. Incidentally, those 19 verses do not deal with the Verse of the Sword or the like vis-a-vis the verses of peace that you mention in your question.[Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an; Mufti Taqi Usmani, “An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences”]
Of course, some scholars differed on the number merely because the nature of such discussions is difference of opinion.
The Verse of the Sword [9:5] and Abrogation
Imam Suyuti specifically discusses this verse in relation to other verses of peace, patience, and forgiving. He explains that, contrary to what some Imams believed, this is not a case of abrogation but rather of context. In certain situations, the verses of patience and forgiving apply, while in other situations the verse of the sword applies. No verse was completely abolished by another, but rather each has a specific context and applicability.[Al-Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur’an]
This understanding is reinforced by the eminent jurist and legal theorist Imam Zarkashi in his masterful work on Qur’anic sciences, “Al-Burhan fi Ulum al-Qur’an.” He explains that many commentators of the Qur’an were incorrect in their understanding that the Verse of the Sword abrogated the various verses of patience and forbearance. This is because “abrogation” entails a complete termination of a legal ruling, never again to be implemented. This is definitely not the case with these verses. Rather, each verse entails a particular ruling conjoined to a particular context and situation. As circumstances change, different verses are to applied instead of others. No ruling is permanently terminated though, which is what is entailed by true abrogation.
He concludes his discussion by saying, “The verse of the sword by no means abrogated the verses of peace – rather, each is to be implemented in its appropriate situation.”[Al-Burhan fi Ulum al-Qur’an]
Context of the Verse of the Sword [9:5]
As you mention in your question, the Verse of the Sword deals specifically with the situation of Meccan polytheists breaking peace treaties and openly declaring war on the Muslim polity. The verse, then, commands the Muslim state to take up arms and defend itself against those that breached their covenants and attacked out of treachery.
This explanation is confirmed by the most reliable Imams of Qur’anic exegesis [tafsir], including Imam Razi, Imam Jamal, Imam Zamakhshari, Imam Baydawi, Imam Nasafi, Imam Biqa`i, and others.[Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb; Jamal, Hashiyat al-Jalalayn; Zamakhshari, Kashshaf; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzil; Biqa`i, Nadhm al-Durar]
The verse, therefore, can by no means be generalized to refer to all disbelievers. Such an interpretation is not confirmed by scholars of Qur’anic interpretation. It would be both contrary to the intent of the verses as well as disastrous for the security of both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens and nation-states.
Citizenship and Visas: Binding Covenants
Muslims are commanded according to Sacred Law [shari’a] to honor and fulfill all covenants and contracts, as Allah Most High unequivocally states, “O believers, fulfill your covenants.” (5:1)
Citizenship and visitor visas are legal contracts [‘uqud aman] between an individual and the state; the individual agrees to abide by all laws of the state in return for the right to live there in security and peace. Muslims in non-Muslim lands must fulfill these covenants by respecting and following the laws of those lands, the foremost of which are respecting the life, property and honor of their fellow citizens. Muslim governments must do the same with non-Muslims in their lands, that is, respect and secure their life, property and honor.
These rules are binding, unequivocal, and absolute. They are affirmed by major classical texts of all four schools of Islamic law, amounting to scholarly consensus [ijma’].[For details of ‘aqd aman and ‘aqd al-dhimma, see in the Hanafi school: Marghinani, Hidaya; Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i; Sarakhsi, Mabsut. In the Maliki school: Sawi, Hashiyat al-Sawi ala l-Sharh al-Saghir. In the Shafi’i school: Ibn Hajar al-Haytami/Nawawi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj fi Sharh al-Minhaj. In the Hanbali school: Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina`; Ibn Qudama, Al-Mughni]
It states in the Kuwaiti Fiqh Encyclopedia [which was authored in the last century by a council of scholars and jurists, and which is based on classical legal works of all four schools of Sunni Islam]:
“It is unlawful for a Muslim that enters non-Muslim lands with a covenant of security to be treacherous, because they [the non-Muslim government] only granted the Muslim the covenant of security [f: such as a visa or citizenship] with the condition that the Muslim not be treacherous, even if that condition is not explicitly mentioned in the contract, since it is understood in context [f: which is the case with citizenship, as there is no explicit contract but rather an implied agreement of mutual security that is akin to a contract and which is just as binding]. For that same reason, if a non-Muslim comes into our lands with a security covenant and then proves treacherous [by attacking civilians], he would have broken his covenant.
Based on this principle, a Muslim that enters non-Muslim lands with a covenant of security may not be treacherous towards non-Muslims since that entails deception, which has no place in our religion. Our Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] said, ‘Muslims are bound by the conditions of their contracts.’ [Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Daraqutni, Mustadrak Hakim]”
It also states later: “Such a contract [i.e., visa or citizenship] protects both life and property, and necessitates withholding from any sort of violence.”
The Qur’an on Covenants and Treachery
In many verses, Allah Most High both commands believers to fulfill covenants and harshly condemns those who break them, such as:
“And fulfill every covenant. Verily, covenants will be reckoned.” (17:34)
“Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: Those are they who are the losers.” (2:27)
“Or is it that every time they make a covenant, a group among them casts it aside. Nay, rather most of them are not true believers.” (2:100)
“Those with whom you made a treaty, and then at every opportunity they break their treaty, and they do not fear [Allah with respect to covenants].” (8:56)
These and other primary texts were used by jurists classically to formulate the above rulings regarding the absolute binding nature of citizenship and visa contracts, irrespective of whether the contracts are among Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Hadiths on Treachery
Our Beloved Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him] also sternly emphasized the enormity entailed in deception and treachery, whether by an individual towards society or by a government towards an individual.
The Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] listed among the signs of a hypocrite, “When he enters into a contract, he breaks it treacherously.” [Sahih Bukhari]
He [peace and blessings be upon him] also stated, “When Allah gathers the first and last of humanity on the Day of Resurrection, every treacherous person will be given a huge raised banner and it will be announced, ‘This is the treachery of so-and-so.'” [Sahih Muslim]
This particular hadith is cited frequently by jurists when discussing the enormity of breaking covenants of mutual security, whether with Muslims or non-Muslims. One narration of the hadith actually ends with, “And there is no treachery greater than that of the national government.”
Commentators explain that the significance of the large banner is to humiliate such people in front of all of humanity. One narration has the addition, “It will be raised commensurate to his treachery,” and yet in another narration, “It will come out of his anus” – the absolute epitome of disgrace, shame and humiliation. The enormous crime of treachery – a sin based on secrecy – is fittingly met with a gross punishment for all eyes to see.[Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih Bukhari; Ibn Battal, Sharh al-Bukhari; Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, Ihkam al-Ahkam Sharh `Umdat al-Ahkam]
Is Islam Peaceful or Harsh?
This question is of course far too broad to be addressed in this discussion, but perhaps it is sufficient to examine the three verses dealing with peace that you mention in your question.
1) “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors.” (2:190)
In his Qur’anic exegesis, Imam Fakhr al-Din Razi rejects the opinion that this verse was abrogated, and interprets the phrase “do not transgress limits” as a timeless prohibition of deception, breaking covenants, or attacking non-combatants such as women, children, or the elderly. This interpretation of “trangression” is affirmed by major commentators of the Qur’an, such as Imam Baydawi, Imam Biqa`i, Imam Abu Suud, and others.[Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb; Baydawi, Anwar al-Tanzil; Biqa`i, Nadhm al-Durar; Abu Suud, Irshad al-Aql al-Salim]
2) “But if the enemy inclines towards peace, you too incline towards peace.” (8:61)
The great exegete Imam Zamakhshari denies that this verse was abrogated, as many claimed. Imam Biqa`i also interprets the verse as applicable to all times.[Zamakhshari, Kashshaf; Biqa`i, Nadhm al-Durar]
It is also important to keep in mind what we mentioned above, namely, that many of the early Muslims [salaf] that understood the verses of fighting as abrogators of the verses of peace did so based on a very broad definition of abrogation, which would include specification or limiting general verses or making exceptions to general verses. And many later scholars would often simply cite those early Muslims as stating that such-and-such was “abrogated.” The intent was not that the earlier verses of peace had no application anymore, but rather that their application was no longer broad and general for all situations. This is why several later scholars [as we have seen] rejected the notion of abrogation of these verses, based on their more formal definition of “complete annulment of a legal ruling,” which certainly is not the case with verses of peace.
This also sheds light as to what our illustrious early Imams might have meant with statements such as, “No one is allowed to give explanation [tafsir] of the Book of Allah until they understand abrogation.” That is, unless they understand which verses serve to limit the scope of other verses, specify the generality of other verses, make exceptions to other verses, and completely annul the rulings of other verses. It is no wonder, then, that commentary on the Qur’an was not allowed without understanding this very broad meaning of “abrogation.”
3) “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256): The concept that this verse was abrogated is directly related to the understanding – or misunderstanding – of the following hadith.
“I was ordered to fight people…”
One well-known hadith that is often misunderstood is as follows:
“I was ordered to fight people until they bear witness that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; establish the ritual prayer; and pay almsgiving. So if they do that, their lives and wealth are safe from me, except for a right recognized in Islam. Their accounting, however, will be with Allah.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
Unfortunately, this text is often grossly misinterpreted as calling for continuous “holy war” against all non-Muslims until and unless they become Muslim. But examination of context and scholarly interpretation reveals that the hadith by no means refers to all people and is not calling for any sort of war, holy or unholy. The key to understanding the hadith, then, is to understand who exactly is meant by the word “people” in the statement, “I was ordered to fight people.”
This same hadith has various narrations as recorded by different hadith scholars. Imam Nasa’i’s narration reads: “I was ordered to fight the polytheists” rather than the word “people,” and it is an established principle in hadith methodology that various narrations of the same hadith serve to clarify its actual meaning. Hence, the narration of Imam Nasa’i indicates that the word “people” in the first narration does not refer to all people, but rather a specific group of people, namely, certain polytheists. This understanding is confirmed by both the Qur’an and the Sunna, as many incidents in the life of the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] clearly show that all of humanity was not intended in the hadith.
This understanding is also confirmed by our codified legal tradition, which is a reflection of the Qur’an and Sunna. Imam Abu Hanifa and his legal school limited this hadith to only the polytheists among the Arabs. And Imam Malik and his legal school limited it to only the Quraysh tribe among them. [Ibn Battal, Sharh al-Bukhari]
That is to say, according to both schools of law, all non-Arabs are excluded from the hadith – whether polytheists, atheists, Jews, Christians, or otherwise. Among the Arabs, any group that does not worship idols are also excluded, whether Jews, Christians, Magians, or otherwise. Only Arab polytheists – or perhaps just the tribe of Quraysh among them – were being addressed by the Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him]. Incidentally, the Hanafi and Maliki schools historically and up to today have constituted the vast majority of the Muslim world.
Imam Kasani, the eminent 6th-century Hanafi jurist, explains that the reasoning of this position is based on the difference between Arab polytheists and all other peoples, including People of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians, Arab or non-Arab] and non-Arab polytheists. With respect to peoples other than Arab polytheists, it is hoped that by mutual coexistence between them and Muslims, they will be drawn to Islam after reflecting over the beauty of the religion and its Sacred Law [shari’a]. [f: And that hope is sufficient; whether they become Muslim or not is irrelevant to the Hanafi and Maliki perspective that they are not addressed by the hadith.]
The nature of Arab polytheists, however, was to reject anything that conflicted with their customs and traditions, deeming all else to be madness and worthy of scornful ridicule. They were a people – as repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an – that refused to reflect over anything but “the ways of their forefathers.” Therefore, because the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings be upon him] was from their same tribe and knew them intimately, he gave them no option but acceptance of Islam or fighting [f: And this statement, of course, was after years of being oppressed by those Arab polytheists].[Kasani, Bada’i al-Sana’i]
The great early Hanafi jurist and legal theorist, Abu Bakr al-Jassas, confirms this understanding with respect to both the above hadith as well as the related verse, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). In fact, he states that all the early Meccan verses of peace and forbearance with respect to non-Muslims remain in effect and are not abrogated with respect to all peoples other than the Arab polytheists. And with respect to all the later verses commanding Muslims to fight the polytheists, they abrogate the early verses of peace only with respect to the Arab polytheists.
This understanding is also confirmed by the early Hanafi scholar Abu Layth al-Samarqandi, who comments on the verse “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), “That is, do not compel anyone whatsoever to this religion, after the Conquest of Mecca and after the Arabs become Muslim [i.e., the Arab polytheists of that time].”[Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an; Samarqandi, Bahr al-Ulum]
Killing Innocent Women and Children
Our Beloved Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him] sternly condemned the killing of women and children in battle. He made this statement after being informed by his Companions that a woman was found killed in the battlefield.
This hadith is recorded in all six canonical books of hadith: Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, and Ibn Maja.
According to Imam Suyuti and Imam Kattani – both of whom were hadith masters [hafidh] – it is related by multiple-chain transmission rendering it undeniable [mutawatir]. In other words, the narration is so strong that it is logically impossible for the Prophet not to have said it, such that it is akin to a verse of Qur’an in its strength of transmission.
For this reason, all four schools of law are in agreement that women and children cannot be killed in battle [and a fortiori outside of battle]. Imam Nawawi mentions scholarly consensus [ijma’] on this matter.[Munawi/Suyuti, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh Jami` al-Saghir; Kattani, Nadhm al-Mutanathir min al-Hadith al-Mutawatir; Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]
As mentioned above, this is also how many scholars understood the “transgression” mentioned in the verse “And do not transgress limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors.” (2:190) It is related that the great Companion Ibn `Abbas [may Allah be pleased with him] understood the verse as such. [Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina`]
I hope this helps answer your questions. Islam in undoubtedly peaceful, reasonable, and a manifestation of Allah’s infinite kindness on earth. Its Sacred Law is applicable for all times and places, without exception. And its Blessed Messenger is as Allah states, “Not sent except as a mercy to all of creation.”
May Allah Most High provide us all with clarity from any confusion we might have regarding His perfect religion and pristine Sacred Law [shari’a]. Amin.
And Allah alone gives success.
Faraz A. Khan
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani