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In Islam there exists a very special principle, namely the cancellation of certain early Koran verses by later revelations, the so-called ‘abrogation’. In Arabic this is called “nasikh wa mansukh”, the abrogated verses and the substituting verses.

This principle is described in verse 2.106:  

None of Our revelations (Signs) 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?

Verse 2.106 uses the word Ayah (Sign), which means a verse in the Koran.

This is in itself a very strange principle. A book that, according to Muslims, is handed down directly from Allah and proclaimed valid for all times and places really should not be in need of corrections. Unless its author happens to be human.

Muhammad’s contemporaries did, indeed, catch on to this and said that he was just inventing these things. In return, Allah “revealed” the following response:

16.101. When We substitute one Sign [Koran verse] for another - and Allah knows best what He reveals - they say, "Thou art but a forger": No, but most of them understand not.

An example of abrogation is the alcohol prohibition that was gradually introduced. First it was proclaimed that alcohol had its good and bad sides, then you must abstain from it before prayer, and ultimately it was totally prohibited. Muslims state that also confirmed alcohol drinkers need to gradually ‘kick’ the habit since otherwise they would compromise their health. And that Allah did not wish to create social or medical problems by an abrupt prohibition of alcohol consumption. On the other side, there is the introduction at a given moment of polygamy, limited to four wives and not two sisters simultaneously, forcing men with more than four wives to shed the excess number of them or send away one of the two sisters, case pertaining. This is undoubtedly a far greater social problem than the abrupt banning of alcohol. All of this simply proves the ad hoc evolution of the Koran, the manner in which Muhammad, via these alleged revelations, solved perceived problems as they occurred.

But Muhammad faced a problem. In the beginning of his prophetic career he was quite powerless and hoped to be able to convince everybody with sounding phrases and, also, with threats of hell and damnation, but without physical threats. This is reflected in the first “revelations”. Surah 109 is directed to the polytheists and even says that all people are free to believe as they see fit.

Ten years later, Muhammad had acquired military might and he stood in need of different kinds of verses. One of these states that polytheists who refuse to convert to Islam must be hunted down and killed. This stands written in the famous verse of the sword, e.g., 9.5. The verse of the sword abrogates all of the previous peaceful verses.

Likewise verse 2.256 states that “let there be no compulsion in religion”, the practical explanation of which as explained here (Jews and Christians cannot be forced to become Muslims) is curtailed by verse 9.29. Verse 9.29 states that they must pay a special poll tax and, as second-class citizens, must submit to the Islamic authority. Hence, their freedom became obviously very relative.

In order to justify new verses contradictory to the earlier verses of “revelation”, Muhammad had to have recourse to verse 2.106.

The problem is that there does not exist a list of abrogated verses, a source of much controversy and speculation. Broadly, one may say that the “tolerant” verses have been abrogated by the “militant” ones. The tolerant verses generally date back to Muhammad’s period in Mecca when he possessed little power. The militant verses, in contrast, date from his Medina period when he had become a powerful military leader. Surahs 9 and 5 are considered to belong to the latter revelations.

A phenomenon similar to what we witness at the early stages of Islam is again in evidence today. Muslims in the minority, feeling powerless, mostly quote the tolerant verses from the Koran and, not being in a position to exert pressure, hence are not very successful in converting non-Muslims to their belief. When Muslims are in the majority, or find themselves strong, the “militant” verses are dusted off and there is no longer question of tolerance. We notice this in countries with a Muslim majority such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The problem is that Muslims in the West, including converts, move from a tolerant to a militant phase. They are said to ‘radicalize’. In the practice, they drop the abrogated tolerant verses for the substitute militant ones, favouring the Jihad. In the West, they are said to adhere to a stricter version of Islam. All of this is obviously self-deception. In practice fact, they are adhering to the true Islam.


Abrogation of Verses of the Quran