A further question arises here: how can Revelation alter and be replaced? Does this affect the sanctity of the fixed word of God? It is this that has called for the emergence of a major, important topic in the Qur’anic sciences, the theme of ‘the abrogator and the abrogated in the Holy Qur’ān’. This phenomenon was noticed by the Quraysh who stated: “Do you not see how Muhammad issues an order to his Companions and then vetoes it and orders them to act contrary to it?  He says something today that he retracts tomorrow.”


THIS IS THE SAME theme that the Jews of Yathrib expressed following the migration, when the Prophet turned the Muslims from praying towards the Holy Sanctuary (Jerusalem) to the Kaʽba of Mecca.[1] This alternation and replaced came as a response to the Qur’ānic verses:

And when We change (one) communication for (another) communication, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say: You are only a forger. Nay, most of them do not know.[2]

And the meaning here is that there are verses that have been replaced by others, with a clear indication that the polytheists considered that replacement to constitute a slander against God  on the part of the Prophet, something that God was innocent of. However, the verses made it clear, without any ambiguity, regarding those who reject the logic of substitution and transformation that “most of them do not know”. This was supported by other verses saying: “Allah doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book”. [3] What is being referred to here is not only substitution, but also erasure of specific verses, as indicated by:

Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it.[4]

In the commentary by Ibn ‘Abbās on the verse, “Allah doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth” he writes that:

God replaces whatever He wills from the Qur’ān and abrogates it, and He confirms what He wills without replacing it; but whatever He does replace or affirm is nonetheless within the Book.

And on the authority of Qatāda, from the authority in turn of Ikrimah, Ibn ‘Abbās goes on to say:

God abrogates verse by another verse, so it is thus removed, while with Him is the Mother of the Book, that is, the original of the Book.

On the authority again of Qatāda, when explaining the verse “some of its verses are decisive”[5] he states that: “the decisive verses are the abrogating verses that are acted upon,”[6] all of which indicates that there are non-decisive verses that are not to be acted upon – on the authority of this Qatāda.

As regards the statement that the verses – abrogated or abrogated, those known or unknown to us, those to be abrogated or erased – are contained in an eternally preserved book that is the ‘mother of the Book’, Dr. Naṣr Abū Zayd says the following:

Abrogation means the abolition of a ruling and its cancellation, whether the abrogation relates to cancellation by erasing the Text underpinning the ruling and removing it from recitation, or whether the Text remains present in order to indicate the abrogated ruling. But the phenomenon of abrogation raises two problems for the prevailing, established religious thinking which avoids discussing them.

The first problem is: How can one reconcile this phenomenon with its implied adjusting of the Text, with the widely held belief that affirms the eternal existence of the Text on the Preserved Tablet?[7]

The second problem … is the problematic element of the compilation of the Qur’ān … and the problem of reconciling the examples adduced by the Qur’ānic scholars that might give the illusion that some parts of the text had lapsed from human memory … and that scholars failed to discuss what could lead toward the phenomenon of the abrogation of the recitation, or the deletion of the Texts, irrespective of whether their ruling remained or was also abrogated – which eliminates entirely their conception, previously referred to, of the eternity of the written presence of the Text on the Preserved Tablet.

For the revelation of the verses that are fixed on the Preserved Tablet, and then their abrogation and removal from the recited Qur’ān, denies this supposed imaginary eternity … If we then add the many narrations concerning the falling away of parts of the Qur’ān and their lapsing from the memory of Muslims, the problem only intensifies… There is also the undoubted fact that the way the ancient scholars understood the issue of abrogation not only leads to contradicting their mythological perception of the eternal existence of the Text, but also leads to eliminating the concept of the Text itself.[8]

But despite the importance of this vision and its scientificness, which insists on adhering to the methodology and conditions of scholarly study, as well as insisting at the same time on the Text and its concept, it is clear that it has fallen into the traps of the old system and its ready-made templates and become entangled in them. Despite what Professor Dr. Zayd warned about the dominating control of such a system and its templates on the researcher, in the introduction to his aforementioned book, and despite his keenness to deal with the Qur’ānic Text as a literary text, and despite his reference to the connection of this Text to the actual conditions of the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the revelation sequence of that Text, this does not in itself cast any clear, practical light on his abrogation theme.

In view of the intertwining of that vision with the old templates, the Professor did not carry the argument to its conclusion, or rather to the possible extent available, since he accepted in advance the traditional division of the phenomenon of abrogation in the Holy Qur’ān. By this I mean the triptych that states that firstly there are verses  ‘where the ruling was abrogated but their recitation remains’, in the sense that there are verses in the Holy Book whose pronunciation is fixed, while activating their ruling is invalidated in the light of other verses that brought a new ruling abrogating the earlier verses.

The mujtahidīn did not take events and circumstances into account since they insisted on dealing with the Holy Qur’ān as a Text with an eternal existence

Secondly, we have verses ‘whose recitation was abrogated while their ruling remains’, meaning that there are verses that were known during the lifetime of the Prophet and his ruling was applied, but in certain circumstances their recitation –  that is, their expression or wording – was abrogated while their ruling remained applicable after the death of the Prophet. The ideal example of this is the ruling on stoning the adulterer, male and female, if he is muḥṣan, (‘inaccessible’, i.e. married).

As for the third case, these are verses ‘whereby their ruling as well as their recitation are abrogated’ and therefore no longer exists among the verses of the Holy Qur’ān, and consequently their ruling is no longer acted upon either.

This is where we find indications – looking carefully in the reports – that there were events and circumstances that took place with which the Revelation interacted, in addition to events that followed the Revelation, while the collection of the Qur’ān was in progress, and that all of this eventually led to the final version of the Qur’ān that we now have in our hands.

The ‘Uthmanic Qur’ān’ is attributed to ‘Uthmān ibn ʽAffān, and in dealing with the phnomenon of abrogation the mujtahidīn did not take these events and circumstances into account – despite the Texts’ reference to them – since they insisted on dealing with the Holy Qur’ān as a Text with an eternal existence, which led to them inventing the triptych. So we shall attempt to re-investigate how things actually were, as these relate to the phases of the Revelation sequence, and from the indications, fragments, and testimonies presented by our ancient scholars referring to what happened during the twenty-three years that the sequence of the Qur’ānic Revelation took place. This will be sufficient for dealing with it as a historical text, in addition a doctrinal and literary text.

The Revelation sequence during that period of time was scattered and piecemeal, a process of continuous communication with real events of that time, and interaction with newly emerging circumstances. And it was that that fed the main objection of the polytheists, as recorded in the noble verses: 

And those who disbelieve say: Why is the Qur’ān not revealed unto him all at once?[9]

Such an argument would be consistent with the ideal view of the concept of divinity and the concept of prophecy, in which God is characterized by absolute constancy, whereby His words are established at one and the same time, neither substituted nor altered – if the words of God are to be as constant as His essence. This is the same view upon which the early forerunners of the Muslim scholars read the Holy Book, heedless of the fact that this could – indeed – destroy the very concept of the Text itself as Dr. Naṣr Abū Zayd indicated.

The Prophet was never left with a single, eternal Text in his hands to face a reality that was ever changing

For all this was believed despite the fact that the fluidity of the Holy Qur’ān, and its phased emanation in response to events and circumstances, was continuously and constantly in step with the variation of the subject matter. The result of this was that the Prophet was never left with a single, eternal Text in his hands to face a reality that was ever changing. Hence the verses fully clarified this in saying:

And those who disbelieve say: Why is the Qur’ān not revealed unto him all at once? (It is revealed) thus that We may strengthen thy heart therewith; and We have arranged it in right order.[10]

So the prophetic act has changed from being a method for dazzling people with enchanting miraculousness, since it did not wave a magic wand and perform wonders, or mutter incantations to revive the dead. Rather, it became a truthful, selected speech, corresponding to the reality of its time and its place. And it was this that made the Revelation for the Prophet Muhammad something different from a revelation of illusion or instinct.

It transformed its certainty towards things as they currently were in order to interact with them, to read reality, to answer its questions and contribute to solving its problems. It is bound up with the land and the interests and demands of its folk, holding people rather than heaven to be its main purpose. This meant that people – who change according the vicissitudes of real events – formed an essential element in the coming of the Revelation piecemeal:

… a Qur’ān which We have revealed in portions so that you may read it to the people by slow degrees, and We have revealed it in portions.[11]

On the basis of the foregoing – and fully bearing in mind that the work of Dr. Naṣr, in our view, is a pioneering work that opens up new research on this matter – we see that the status of the triptych is to be shifted; it is neither to be acquiesced to, nor dealt with by Dr. Naṣr’s approach and recognition of it, but rather by elucidating the reasons that informed each of the categories in that tripartite division, or more appropriately, invention.

[1] ‘Alī Ḥasan al-ʽArīḍ,  فتح المنان في تفسير القرآن , Maktabat al-Khānjī, Cairo, pp.85-86. See also al-Qurṭubī, : الجامع لأحكام القرآن , Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya, Cairo, Vol. 2, p.61.

[2] Qur’ān XVI (al-Naḥl), 101.

[3] Qur’ān XIII (al-Raʽd), 39.

[4] Qur’ān II (al-Baqara), 106.

[5] Qur’ān III (Āl ‘Imrān), 7. The full verse runs: He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do heed except those having understanding.

[6] Ibn al-Jawzī (Jamāl al-Dīn), نواسخ القرآن , Dār al-Kutub al-ʽIlmiyya, Beirut, 1985, pp.13,14.

[7] The doctrine of The Preserved Tablet (al-Lūḥ al-Maḥfūẓ) takes its origin from texts such as Qur’ān LXXXV (al-Burūj) 21-22:    بَلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَجِيدٌ فِي لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظٍ  (‘Nay, but it is a glorious Qur’an on a guarded tablet’) and Qur’ān XLIII (al-Zukhruf), 4: وَإِنَّهُ فِي أُمِّ الْكِتَابِ لَدَيْنَا لَعَلِيٌّ حَكِيم  (‘And verily it is in the original of the Book with Us, truly elevated, full of wisdom’). (Ed.)

[8] Dr. Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd, مفهوم النص  (‘The Concept of the Text’), Dirāsāt fī ‘Ulūm  al-Qur’ān, AL-Hay’a al-Miṣriyya al-ʽĀmma lil-Kitāb, Cairo, 1990, pp.131, 148, 152.

[9] Qur’ān XXV (al-Furqān), 32.

[10] Qur’ān XXV (al-Furqān), 32.

[11] Qur’ān XVII (al-Isrāʽ), 106.

Main image: وَاللَّهُ مِنْ وَرَائِهِمْ مُحِيط بَلْ هُوَ قُرْآنٌ مَجِيدٌ فِي لَوْحٍ مَحْفُوظٍ And Allah, all unseen, surroundeth them. Nay, but it is a glorious Qur’ān on a guarded tablet. Volume seven of a seven-volume Qur’ān commissioned by Rukn al-Dīn Baybars, later Sultan Baybars II, British Library Add MS 22412.

Read Part 1 of this essay here