The Doctrine of Abrogation
Abrogation is the act of canceling, nullifying, or repealing something, almost always in a legal context. A new law can repeal an old rule. For example, Muslims believe the Qur’an abrogates all the holy books which precede it. Also, Muslim theologians use abrogation as a way of explaining the inconsistencies of the Qur’an. If verses seem to contradict each other, the scripture's chronology determines their significance and proper interpretation. Later verses abrogate earlier contradictory verses. Abrogation has evolved to become a legal principle, and Islamic legal scholars are required to master the science of understanding and which verses cancel earlier scripture before they can be appointed a judge (qadi).
Since the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad over 23 years, Islamic scholars claim Allah needed to change some of the scriptures as the people became adept at following them. Because of this “progressive revelation,” some laws were replaced with others. As the Qur’an itself puts it: “Any revelation We cause to be superseded or forgotten, we replace with something better or similar” (2:106).
The Qur’an has 114 chapters (suras), of which 86 originated in Mecca, followed by 28 in Medina. Almost all the serenity and tolerance verses of the Qur’an come from the earlier period of Muhammad’s life in Mecca. At that time, the Prophet still hoped to convince the Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia that his religion had compatibility with their beliefs. When Muhammad’s efforts to persuade the Jews and Christians that he was the final and authoritative Prophet of God failed, the verses of the sword, fire and destruction, and oppressive slavery for those who do not convert to Islam became unleashed. These verses, which emphasized force and violence, originated during his time in Medina. The location of the “Sword” verse is sura (chapter) 9, verse 5:
When the (four) forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post, but if they repent, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.
This verse comes from a chapter that is considered the most militant, violent, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian chapter in the Qur’an. Although scholars disagree on the exact number of verses that became abrogated, estimates range from 124 to 140 verses that initially encouraged tolerance. The Prophet reveals this chapter when he is in Medina, and it is one of the last revelations from the angel Gabriel. Thus, it has a final word status in the Qur’an and would abrogate any earlier chapters. One classical jurist from the fourteenth century, Ibn Rajab (d. 1393), maintained that abrogation did not mean the cancellation of previous scripture. Instead, later verses clarified, explained, and sometimes provided exceptions to general rules laid down in preceding verses. As to the “sword verse,” he maintained that war and defense were exceptions to the general direction of peace only after persecution became intolerable.
Abrogated verses are helpful to show how their faith evolved from tolerant and peaceful to aggressive and assertive. They are used in early training and education to soften the religion to neophytes. Also, the abrogated verses are usually applied disingenuously by Muslim propagandists and naively by their Western devotees to present a far more appropriate and much less threatening image of Islam to the West.
This misdirection generates a massive issue for those in the West who insist on thinking Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace. Moderate Muslims characterize the body of the Qur’an as being equally weighted towards forbearance as well as militarism. However, abrogation is a doctrinal instrument that Islamic jihadis use to justify their case of extremism.
Is abrogation in the Bible? Many biblical scholars believe that the Old Covenant Laws, sometimes known as the Mosaic Laws, have been set aside as the Laws of Christ. The Bible nowhere defines explicitly what precisely is the law of Christ. However, most Bible teachers understand it to be what Christ stated were the greatest commandments in Mark 12:29-31:
(Jesus says) The most important one is this ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’
Most of the Old Covenant Laws were related to Judaism, while the Law of Christ is inclusive to all – Jews and Gentiles alike. However, this scripture from Matthew 5:17-18 would suggest abrogation is not intended:
(Jesus says) Do not think I have come to abolish the law of the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth. Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.