Do “Later” Verses of the Qur’an Abrogate “Earlier” Verses?

I was asked once whether I would state that extremists hew to later Suras of the Qur’an and “ignore all the teachings of love and tolerance that came before that.” The question was repeated to me again recently in the form of whether “sweeter pre-Medina surahs” were “abrogated” by “vengeful later surahs.” As there is so much nonsense written about “abrogation” both my critics of Islam and by some Muslims as well, I want to share the substance of my response here.

I cannot accuse the extremists of following “later surahs” rather than “early surahs” because it is the later as well as the early surahs that call for justice. For example “Let there be no coercion in religion” is from a later, not an early, surah. I blame them for ignoring or distorting the Qur’an (as do Islam’s critics).

There can be no abrogation in Qur’an. The book is taken as a whole in which later Surahs may explain or qualify earlier ones, but not abrogate (i.e., repeal or annul) them. Further, there are no “vengeful” surahs in the Qur’an. Warfare is authorized in a just cause and by just means. There is a verse on revenge, but its purpose is to strike a moderate road between the Jewish and Christian views. Without mandating or rejecting either the Old Testament “eye for an eye” or the New Testament “turn the other cheek,” the Qur’an asserts that while you have a right to retaliation in kind for a wrong, it is better for YOU if you forgive. (5:45; the theme is echoed many other places, such as 2:194).

Further, there seems to be much confusion among critics of Islam as to which are the early surahs and which the late ones. It is quite incorrect to say the early ones are sweet and the later ones vengeful (even apart from the abuse of the term vengeful mentioned above). It is the early surahs that are apocalyptic and the later surahs legalistic. The apocalyptic surahs speak of God’s vengeance, not man’s. The legalistic surahs call for both mercy and justice. In fact one can find calls to peace and to (just) war within a single passage, as in this example:

“Let not the unbelievers think that they can get the better (of the godly): they will never frustrate (them). Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power including steeds of war to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies of God and your enemies and others besides whom you may not know but whom God knows. Whatever you shall spend in the cause of God shall be repaid unto you and you shall not be treated unjustly. But if the enemy incline towards peace do you (also) incline towards peace and trust in God: for He is the one that hears and knows (all things). Should they intend to deceive you verily God suffices you: He it is that has strengthened you with his aid and with (the company of) the believers: And (moreover) He has put affection between their hearts: not if you had spent all that is in the earth could you have produced that affection but God has done it: for He is Exalted in might Wise. O Messenger! sufficient unto you is God (unto you) and unto those who follow you among the believers.” (8:59-64) Now one can easily quote one phrase or another from this passage out of context to argue that the Qur’an calls for terrorism or for pacifism, but intact the passage calls for neither, only for justice.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

Minaret of Freedom Institute

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