The Concept of Abrogation in Scripture
By QuranandBibleBlog Contributor stewjo004
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
“Whenever I abrogate any verse or cause it to be forgotten, I bring one better than it, or similar to it, don’t you know that God is able to do all things?”
– The Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:106
Abrogation is the act of one law ‘replacing’ or abolishing another. One of the wisdoms may be that a certain law is appropriate under a set of certain circumstances, and a modified form of the law replaces it to accommodate another different circumstance. Some misconceptions among readers is that this is a ‘contradiction’ or that the Prophet ﷺ was changing the Qur’an according to his own desires. However, this is not the case. A contradiction is defined as something that cannot be both true and not true at the same time when dealing with the same context. Abrogation is not something new from Islam. It exists in both secular laws and in previously revealed Scriptures as we will soon explore. God is free to choose to abrogate His laws how and when He pleases. With the Qur’an, the reason why abrogation of certain laws happened within 23 years is because of the sweeping changes that occurred in the Muslim world and Arabian Peninsula in a short period of time. God, out of His wisdom and mercy for mankind, does not always enact His ultimate will in the first laws that are revealed. He sometimes reveals them in gradual stages, so any temporary laws act as stepping stones toward the final law He wants in place.
Abrogation in the Quran
A common example that is used is the gradual prohibition of alcohol:
“They ask you about substances that cloud the mind and gambling. Tell them: “There’s great sin in both, and some benefit for people, but the sin is greater than the benefit…””
“Oh you believe, do not go near prayer while you’re in an intoxicated state, until you know what you’re saying…”
“Oh you who believe! Substances which cloud your mind, gambling, shrines and superstitious acts are abominations from the works of Satan so avoid them at all cost so that you can become successful. Satan only wants to put hostility and hatred between you all through the use of mind-altering substances and gambling. As well as prevent you from remembering God and the prayer, so will you still not stop? Obey God, obey the Messenger and be on your guard against these things. If you ignore this and turn away, keep in mind that the only duty of My Messenger is to deliver the Message clearly. Those who have attained faith and do good deeds will not be blamed for whatever they may have eaten or tasted in the past, so long as they are mindful of God, truly believe and do good deeds. Then continue to be mindful of God and believe, then grow even more conscious of God, and continue to do even more good deeds, because God loves those who do good.”
So we saw God first mention how there are benefits in alcohol but the harm and sin that comes from it is greater. This is to get the people thinking that maybe it’s best to stop doing this. Next God says don’t pray while you’re drunk. This allowed people to now get used to not drinking at certain times. And, finally, God makes alcohol forbidden to drink.
Another simple example to use is during Adam (peace be upon him) and Noah ’s (peace be upon him) times, brothers and sisters were allowed to marry each other. It’s highly doubtful any Jew, Christian or Muslim will say that this is still allowed nowadays. I hope this example is clear for everyone.
So now we’re going to explore other examples of abrogation in the Bible starting with the gospels and then the Tanakh (aka the ‘Old’ Testament).
Abrogation in the New Testament
In the Tanakh (Old Testament) the law of divorce is as follows:
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…”
Jesus (peace be upon him) is said to have abrogated this:
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
Notice that in this case, Jesus (peace be upon him) cited nothing within the Tanakh to substantiate that one can only divorce for adultery. From the time that Moses (peace be upon him) received his laws Jews could divorce for any reason. However whatever the wisdom behind it, the law is supposed to have been done away with by Jesus.
At a more important level, God also can abolish His previous revelations. The entire basis of Christianity is that Jesus, by ‘fulfilling’ the Covenant between God and man, has abrogated the need for keeping the Mosaic laws (not eating pork, stoning for adultery, killing apostates, etc.), which now brings us to the next point.
Abrogation In The Tanakh (aka Old Testament)
Jews argue that the Torah can never be abrogated and they are forever bound to it. The verses they cite for their evidence are as follows:
“…any of the LORD’s commands to you through him, from the day the LORD gave them and continuing through the generations to come…”
“Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”
“See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”
So, Jewish scholarship has argued that they don’t have to become Christian or Muslim because the Torah cannot be abrogated by any prophet.
The first point is that the Jews themselves continue to abrogate their own laws. Today they no longer carry out the various punishments in the Tanakh such as the marriage of the raped women to their rapists, execution for breaking the Sabbath, etc.
The next point is the Talmud itself is very clear on abrogation:
“The abrogation of a law is sometimes equivalent to the maintenance of the law”; that is, to set a law aside is sometimes as meritorious as to establish it” (Men. 99b).
“It is better that a single law be uprooted than that the whole Torah be forgotten” (Tem. 14b).
“There are times when the duty of working for the glory of God requires the abolition of a law” (Ber. 54a and 63a).
“The court [the religious authority] may, under circumstances, decree to uproot a positive law of the Bible” (Yeb. 89b).
So, the rabbis over the centuries can change the laws but prophets from God can’t? Very odd indeed.
However, because certain sects of Jews don’t follow the Talmud, Moses (peace be upon him) himself does abrogation in the Torah regarding the laws of land inheritance in Israel. The background story is that each of the 12 tribes would own a specific region of land, and all of the families in that tribe would own some portion of the land. The land would remain in the tribe and within the family. In fact, if the land were sold, it would revert back to the family in the Jubilee year every fifty years. Since one’s tribe is determined on the father’s side, only males can inherit land. So, a father’s land holdings would be passed down to his son or sons. A daughter would presumably marry and join the family of her husband, and their sons would inherit the land from their father. In short, the law set up a fairly conservative and static system that would preserve family land through male inheritance.
This was the law until the daughters of Zelophehad showed up. Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Manasseh, and he died with five daughters but no sons. Under the rules in place, his daughters would be left with no inheritance. The daughters argued to Moses (peace be upon him) and everyone else that they should be allowed to inherit his share:
“Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.”
Moses (peace be upon him) checked with God, and God said:
“What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right.”
From now on, the rule is that if a man dies without sons but with daughters, the property should be transferred to his daughters. If he dies without any children, there is a more complex hierarchy of inheritance.
Importantly, this was not merely an elaboration or clarification of the existing law but an entirely new law. Before this ‘case’ was brought, the daughters would’ve received nothing and Zelophehad’s other relatives would have inherited the land. Now the daughters inherit and the other relatives receive nothing. And the basis for this change in the law, according to God, is simply justice.
This story shows an evolution of the law. The children of Israel started with one set of legal rules, but they proved to be unjust in a particular situation. God then modified the rules to comport with justice, producing a second set of rules. This is the exact same way of Qur’anic abrogation.
If this story does not show that the law evolves, there’s more. Nine chapters later, in the last chapter of Numbers, new people show up with a new problem with this law, and it changes again. The family heads of Zelophehad’s clan show up with a complaint. If the daughters of Zelophehad marry someone from another tribe, their sons will inherit not only their father’s land (from the other tribe), but also the land of Zelophehad (from Manasseh). So someone from another tribe will end up owning land smack dab in the middle of Manasseh. Not only that, but the total amount of land that the people of Manasseh own will be permanently reduced because they can never re-inherit their share.
Moses (peace be upon him) agreed with this argument and “commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying “What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right.” Moses (peace be upon him) then set forth a new rule: daughters may inherit under the old rule only if they marry members of their own tribe. If they marry members of a different tribe, they may not inherit. The end of the story is that the Daughters of Zelophehad ended up marrying their uncles or cousins, and everyone lived happily ever after.
So by this time, the law has now gone through three stages of development: the original law (only sons inherit), the modified law (daughters can inherit if there are no sons), and the modified modified law (only if they marry someone from their tribe). Several points are worth noting here:
- First, the Torah could have given us just the final rule without showing any of its intermediate forms of development. The fact that we see the evolution of the law suggests that the evolution itself is important, not just the final law.
- Second, Moses (peace be upon him) used the identical language (and the Hebrew is identical: כֵּן kayn) to describe the plea of the Manasseh tribe that God used to describe the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad. What they are saying is “right”.
- Third, the text does not say that Moses (peace be upon him) checked with God before stating the new rule. Instead, Moses (peace be upon him) himself spoke to the Children of Israel “al pi Adonai” (according to the work of God).
- Fourth, Moses (peace be upon him) changed the very law that God himself had changed.
So what do we make of this? God, responding to the daughters of Zelophehad, set forth a methodology for determining when laws should change. Once God established this methodology, Moses (peace be upon him) was free to employ it himself in response to the other members of the tribe of Manasseh, and in doing so he spoke “al pi Adonai.” These points are important because earlier this week a certain commentator in the comment section of this blog argued that Muslims ‘worship’ prophet Muhammad ﷺ because of his ability to command laws that are binding on the believers.
This all may seem like radical notions of law. But in fact, it’s exactly how Anglo-American common law works. Judges initially promote a set of rules, one case at a time. But over time, new situations arise that do not merely require the application of existing laws to new situations, but actually, require the legal rules themselves to change in response to these new situations. Abrogation is not a ‘bad thing’, and we should all be grateful that we have a God that takes into consideration our circumstances as humans because He has created weak.
With that being said, comment below on what you thought about the article. Also, whether you are Muslim or not, tell me about some topics you would all be interested in hearing about. I look forward to your responses and may God guide us all to the path most pleasing to Him.
 Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:219
 Surah An-Nisa, 4:43.
 Surah Al-Maidah, 5:90-93.
 Deuteronomy 24:1.
 Matthew 5:31-32.
 Numbers 15:23.
 Deuteronomy 4:40.
 Deuteronomy 12:32.
 Leviticus 25:13, 23-24.
 Numbers 27:1-11.
 Numbers 36:1-12.