The Bible, the Qur’an, and the Abrogations

People who read the Qur’an find pairs of ayat (verses) like this:

Surely, those who believe and the Jews and the Christians and the Sabians – whichever party from among these truly believes in ALLAH and the Last Day and does good deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon then nor shall they grieve. (Sura 2:62).

O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends of each other. And whoso among you takes them for friends is indeed one of them. Verily ALLAH guides not the unjust people. (Sura 5:51).

How does one explain verses which seems to contradict each other in this way?

Although not all Muslims subscribe to it, the concept of the abrogations is probably the most widespread way of addressing the problem of verses in the Qur’an which contradict each other. They base this on the following:

Whatever message WE abrogate or cause to be forgotten, WE bring one better than that or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that ALLAH has the power to do all that HE wills? (2:106)

Although this might seem sensible to the Christian, it contradicts the entire Islamic concept of the Qur’an.

When we speak of the Bible as being the revealed Word of God, we understand that it was written over a long period of time with a number of human agents in the process:

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

We also understand that the Bible, although certainly inspired, was not mechanically dictated:

“For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

As explained in Apologetics for the Rest of Us:

Although the scriptures are God breathed, they are not without the human agency of the men that God chose to transmit his inspired word to. The phrase “carried along” is the Greek pheromenoi, which is the same root word used in conjunction with the wind at the end of another verse: Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along (Acts 27:17b). Thus, although the Holy Spirit carried the human writers of Scripture along, the New Testament denies the concept that God did all the work and merely used these writers as tools. (p. 22)

As mentioned earlier, the Islamic concept of the Qur’an’s inspiration is entirely different:

Nay, but it is a glorious Qur’an, In a well-guarded tablet. (85:21-22)

And, indeed, WE sent Messengers before thee, and WE gave them wives and children. And it is not possible for a Messenger to bring a Sign save by the command of ALLAH. For every term there is a divine decree. ALLAH effaces and establishes what HE wills, and with HIM is the source of all commandments. (13:38:39)

The term “source of all commandments” is literally translated “mother of the Book.” Islam teaches that the Qur’an is a perfect, earthly copy of the Mother of the Book in heaven with Allah. Human transmission has no place in this process.

But herein is the source of the difficulty. On the one hand, Muslims state that it is a perfect book, a copy of the eternal original with Allah. But if that is the case, and given the fact that it was set forth in such a short period of time, one would not expect the need for abrogation or change in its message. These changes are especially important since Islam is a religion where one’s eternity depends upon what one does in this life.

On the other hand, if we toss out the abrogations and take the statements at variance with each other at face value, then it is possible to see Allah depicted as very changeable in his expectations. If his expectations changed in such a short period of time, then how can we know that his expectations will not change again? Or have not changed again? Now the way out of this is to assume some kind of progressive revelation. But progressive revelation makes more sense in the context and especially the time frame that the Bible is written in, and is more compatible with the method of inspiration that the Bible claims. But with the Qur’an, given the claims made for its nature, there should be no “progressive revelation” there.

The problem of contradictory statements in the Qur’an-and we showed a good example of this at the beginning of this piece-cannot be solved. If we affirm the abrogations and say some verses nullify others, then the Islamic concept of the inspiration of the Qur’an is undermined. If we deny the abrogations, then Allah is depicted as rapidly changeable, which not only undermines representations of his character, but also undermines the idea that the Qur’an is a final revelation.

One thought on “The Bible, the Qur’an, and the Abrogations”

  1. The traditional apologia from Muslims on your points is that it is not Allah who changes, but he gradually introduces changes due to our own weakness and inability to handle sudden shifts in how we live and worship.

    That still leaves them with many problems of course.

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