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Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Koran and the Notion of Abrogation [by Flashbuck]

On the one hand it’s alleged that Islam is a so-called 'religion of peace': there’s nothing to worry about, because muslims are generally moderate, just like me and you. But on the other hand, there’s a lot to worry about, because even if muslims are non-belligerent, it’s still a fact that terrorism is a very real Muslim problem. And so the question is: How can something be both peaceful and dangerous, friendly but also hostile?

Islam is benign, and most muslims are no more deadly than your average Quaker. Even so, Islam is still the main motivation behind the vast majority of the world’s terrorist attacks. How can we account for that? A good place to start is the Koran; but in doing so we need to remember the koran was promulgated over a period lasting more than twenty years, from about 610 to 632. So some chapters date from Muhammad’s earlier years in Mecca (to 622) and some from his ten years in Medina (622-632). This is an important point.

It’s an important point because koranic passages that originate in Mecca are appreciably different to those that come out of Medina. For example, in Mecca Muhammad is very keen that Jews and Christians should recognise that he’s a prophet. Thus, koranic passages proclaimed in Mecca typically assert a positive attitude towards Jews and Christians.

But Muhammad’s message was largely rejected by Mecca’s Jews and Christians, and even his native tribesmen abandoned him. Basically, in Mecca, his preliminary effort to be seen as a prophet from God was a dismal failure. Consequently, it was clear he could no longer stay put, and so Muhammad fled from Mecca for Medina, a fertile settlement about two-hundred and seventy-five miles to the north-east.

Upon arrival, Muhammad found the situation in Medina somewhat strained. Medina’s tribes and clans had fought each other before and it was very probable that feuding could soon break out again. Accordingly, since he was a newcomer, leaders from the bickering tribes and clans invited Muhammad to serve as a kind of independent mediator, which he accepted.

As Medina’s mediator, Muhammad resolved disputes by drawing up a pact specifying that issues for resolution had to be submitted to “Muhammad the Prophet”. In due course he consolidated greater powers, and his authority advanced even further when most of Medina’s pagans acknowledged his prophetic claim and absorbed his message.

In effect, Islam was established in Medina. Its cluster of Muslims eventually becomes an Islamic dominion with Muhammad as its religious, military and political leader. Back in Mecca, Muhammad was powerless and therefore mainly confined to offering advice, issuing warnings, and articulating glad tidings. But as soon as he’s secure in Medina what we begin to see is Muhammad issuing a radically different set of revelations.

Whereas his Meccan revelations are generally religious, emphasising the pleasures of paradise for anyone accepting his message, or the torments of hell for anyone rejecting it, a more powerful Muhammad in Medina now sets forth a totally different kind of inducement, and an equally different kind of punishment. Besides promising paradise or hell, koranic passages from Medina now start guaranteeing believers the hand of captured females and a share of plundered booty. In addition, non-believers are now threatened with crucifixion, mutilation and decapitation.

Thus, in his native Mecca, when Muhammad and his followers were weak and overwhelmingly outnumbered, koranic passages tended to be peaceable. For example, one such Meccan verse says: “Invite all to the way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching…” (Koran, 16:125). But of course, the fact is Muhammad really couldn’t do anything else: given his circumstances in Mecca, what else could he say? Anyway, after consolidating power in Medina, Muhammad’s conciliatory attitude steadily disappears. Instead, with Islam now firmly established, he increasingly introduces revelations of a thoroughly different kind.

For instance, in contrast to the peaceable message put out in Mecca, Muhammad now begins to tell his fellow Muslims that “Fighting is prescribed for you…” (Koran, 2:216), and he orders them to “…fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them…” (Koran, 9:5). Basically, confident and no longer vulnerable, Muhammad starts to launch an offensive war against disbelievers: he tried his luck in Mecca by giving peace a chance, and by promulgating tolerant koranic passages, but as soon as he’s secure in Medina he quickly realises that the best way forward is through warfare, killing and fighting.

So the koran contains some friendly, peaceful passages as well as plenty of brutally violent passages. Thus, when modernizers and moderates tell us that Islam is innocuous, they do so by diving into the koran to seize any Meccan passage which substantiates their view. Likewise, Islamists, jihadists, and so-called radicals will validate their own vicious campaign by appealing to certain verses stemming from Medina.

Today, therefore, we’ve got proponents of modernization and moderation maintaining that Islam is a 'religion of peace', and that the Koran supports freedom and basic civil liberties. However, we’ve also got radical proponents of Islamism and jihad, and they believe the Koran mandates terrorism. But each side is just pushing their respective agenda by simply cherry-picking specific passages from the text, surely?

Not quite, because even though the Koran contains many questionable and bizarre statements, including a large number of inconsistencies and contradictions, that doesn’t mean to say it can be treated like a pick-and-mix buffet. In other words, as far as the Koran is concerned, it’s not a question of just choosing the peaceable passages if you want peace, or seeking out the bellicose passages if you want war.

It doesn’t work like that because the Koran explicitly affirms that not every verse (or ayah) has the same legal force (see Koran, 2:106). But how can that be? Isn’t the Koran supposed to be perfect, timeless, unchanging and complete? In which case, surely each and every verse (or ayah) is equally valid?

That’s very true: Muslims do in fact believe that the entire Koran is the perfect word of Allah. Nevertheless, it still contains more than a few inconsistencies and contradictions. Accordingly, the problem for Islam is how to reconcile these inconsistencies and contradictions whilst also keeping the Koran’s integrity intact. For example, The Encyclopaedia of Islam states that:

“Rather than attempting to explain away the inconsistencies in passages giving regulations for the Muslim community, koran scholars and jurists came to acknowledge the differences, while arguing that the latest verse on any subject ‘abrogated’ all earlier verses that contradicted it.” (The Encyclopaedia of Islam, published by Brill).

In other words, Islam resolves the matter by resorting to the 'law of abrogation', which means that whenever there’s a disagreement between two koranic passages, the standard practice is to accept the later passage rather than the earlier. Alternatively put, if two koranic verses conflict, the later verse cancels out the earlier verse:

“The koran is unique among sacred scriptures in teaching a doctrine of abrogation according to which later pronouncements of the Prophet abrogate, i.e.: declare null and void, his earlier pronouncements” (Arthur Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958, page 66).

So what does this mean as far as the Koran’s coherence and integrity are concerned? If some koranic verses have been abrogated by other verses, how can muslims maintain that the Koran is completely true and perfect in every respect?

Muslims generally respond to such questions by insisting that they don’t have any problem with the fact that some koranic verses have been annulled – it isn’t a problem, as they see it, because it appears from what they say that God’s plan involves moulding muslims by gradually adjusting things.

For example, Muhammad’s revelations recommended fundamental changes in lifestyle; and so the claim is that it would have been very difficult for the first muslims to fully adopt such a sudden and total remodelling, which is why god simplified the struggle by framing certain things in a temporary manner.

Moreover, even though their original purpose was valid for just a limited time, Muslims nevertheless believe that the koran’s abrogated verses remain sacred and true, because abrogated verses still apply to anyone experiencing the very same circumstances in the future.

Anyway, that’s what mainstream muslims believe as far as the integrity of the Koran is concerned. But whatever merits their claim may have, the reality of course is that it just doesn’t make sense for Muslims to keep on insisting the Koran is perfect and unchanging: whichever way you slice it, when something is modified that means it’s been changed.

But questions about the integrity of the Koran are really neither here nor there. What fundamentally matters is the fact that the law of abrogation is standard practice in Islam, and for moderate Muslims that’s an enormous problem.

To see what the law of abrogation involves, and why it’s a huge problem for moderates, it’s instructive to briefly consider a classic example. Drinking alcohol, for instance, was once a firmly-rooted practice in Arabian social life. It’s unwholesome effects were well-known, but by and large it was customarily accepted and widely consumed. Accordingly, there are a number koranic revelations from Muhammad’s early phase that acknowledge this attitude (see Koran 16:7, and 2:219, also 4:43).

Now it’s important to note at this point that at the initial stage of its development the Koran actually tolerates drinking – alcohol is condoned and there’s nothing in the koran just yet which expressly forbids its consumption. Later, however, we’re told that “…intoxicants… are abominations of the devil; you shall avoid them…” (Koran 5:90).

It is clear, then, that the Koran is inconsistent as far as alcohol is concerned: at first it’s frowned upon but tolerated, then subsequently it’s totally proscribed. But, as we’ve already seen,

“Rather than… explain away the inconsistencies… koran scholars… came to acknowledge the differences… arguing that the latest verse on any subject ‘abrogated’ all earlier verses…” (The Encyclopaedia of Islam, published by Brill).

And so, since the verse totally proscribing alcohol was revealed after the earlier verses which condone it, Islam’s learned and authoritative ruling is that the proscription revokes the toleration. In other words, despite what the Koran originally claimed, alcohol is now forbidden and that’s the end of the matter.

But where do these Islamic scholars and jurists get the right to control whether Muslims can have a glass of wine? Aren’t they just boosting their own power and imposing their authority by arrogantly laying down overbearing rulings? Not at all, because, as we’ve already seen, the legal justification for the law of abrogation comes from the Koran itself:

“None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar…” (Koran, 2:106, see also 16:101, and 13:39, and 17:86).

Abrogation, therefore, is a koranic concept. As such, it’s authoritatively used within mainstream Islam. But also, and more importantly, the law of abrogation is the most crucial factor of all when it comes to choosing between the moderates who claim that Islam is a religion of peace, and the radicals who stress that Islam mandates jihad, killing and terror.

For example, in maintaining that Islam is a religion of peace, moderates argue the Koran expounds compassion, understanding, generosity and mercy, claiming also that it enjoins Muslims to respect the existence of non-muslims, such as Jews and Christians. Typically, they’ll highlight verses from Islam’s early Meccan phase, such as:

“…those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Christians… any who believe in god and the Last Day, and work righteousness, they shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear…” (Koran 2:62).

Now when it comes to Jews and Christians, the aforesaid verse is, of course, liberal and very easy going: as it stands this verse (and others like it) would seem to support the moderate view that Islam really is a religion of peace. But though the verse just cited claims that Jews and Christians will have “their reward” and nothing to “fear”, the bad news is that this compassionate view isn’t definitive: it’s not Islam’s definitive view because passages extolling peace and tolerance were all proclaimed during the formative stages of the Koran’s unravelling; during later stages, however, revelations were issued threatening unbelievers with death and physical violence.

And so the Koran does indeed contain some compassionate verses, but according to the law of abrogation they have no applicability. In effect, this means moderates haven’t got a leg to stand on: their claim that Islam is a religion of peace rests on a number of early koranic verses, but the verses they rely on lack legitimacy because they’ve all been flatly cancelled by later verses carrying greater legal force.

Moreover, the key point to underline here is that the aforementioned account isn’t eccentric or controversial – the law of abrogation is not some sort of extremist fringe view cooked up by swivel-eyed radicals seeking to justify their violent agenda. In actual fact, as a doctrine it dates all the way back to the beginning of Islam. Indeed, nearly every classical work on abrogation describes how a certain preacher had to be prevented from talking about the Koran due to the fact he was unschooled in the principles of abrogation.

Recognised Islamic scholars have repeatedly confirmed and applied the law of abrogation. Ibn Hazm, for instance, is the distinguished author of The Abrogator and the Abrogated, and he remarks that 114 early verses expressing peace and toleration have all been abrogated by subsequent verses, such as 9:5, which says: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (see: Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi, An-Nasikh wal-Mansukh, Dar al-Kotob al-’Elmeyah, Beirut, 1986, page 19). Similarly, in his distinguished work Al-Itqan fi Ulum Al-Quran, the highly esteemed fifteenth century Islamic scholar al-Suyuti identifies and discusses a number of koranic verses which in his expert view have all been abrogated.

Thus, the doctrine of abrogation is a fixed and essential teaching in orthodox Islam. Accordingly, Islam is not a religion of peace and tolerance hijacked by extremists. If anything, it’s the moderates who are trying to usurp Islam: by ignoring or even airbrushing out the Koran’s violent (but legally compelling) passages moderates hope to present Islam in a more attractive manner, fooling non-muslims into accepting that Islam is a force for good when the reality is the exact opposite.

The origins of Islam are immersed in violence, and it’s well documented that Islam’s founding prophet went around fighting, killing, plundering and enslaving; so let’s give Muhammad the final word:

“I swear by Him who has my soul in his hands, I was sent to you with nothing but slaughter” (Ibn Haban in his Sahih, vol. 14, page 529).

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