The issue of abrogation in the Qur'an has remained a widely researched area of study regarding the divine book. In technical parlance, abrogation is called 'Naskh'. If one casts a deep look at the works of the scholars who have presented their views on this issue, one can easily discern the following three schools of thought:
a) Those who not only believe that theQur'an is subject to abrogation, but who also contend that a great number of its decrees have been abrogated.
b) Those who maintain that no abrogation took place in the Qur'an.
c) Those who opine that though abrogation has taken place in the divine book, yet the number of abrogated verses is very small.
As far as the exponents of the first view are concerned, the reason they say that large-scale abrogation has taken place in the divine book is because they assign a specific meaning to the word naskh. They hold that curtailing the sphere of a general commandment and explaining a commandment, which possesses brevity, are also instances of abrogation. This viewpoint's weakness is so pronounced that it doesn't need any rebuttal. All such verses can be reconciled very easily. This is a common feature of all the languages of the world that a certain directive is given and then it is explained or specified by another directive. This explanation or specification is never considered abrogation of the original command. Consider an example: 2:173 states that dead meat, blood, flesh of the swine and meat on which any other name save Allah has been invoked are forbidden to eat. The last part of the same verse reads: 'if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience, or transgressing due limits, then he is guiltless'. Scholars of this category say that the later part abrogates the first part. A little deliberation shows that the later part is an explanation, which allows believers to act contrarily in case they are forced to. It does not seem proper to regard is as abrogation.
The advocates of the second view argue that all the commandments of Islamic Shari'ah are subject to prevalent conditions and circumstances. Therefore, some directives are abrogated because of a change in the circumstances in which they were revealed and would hold good if these circumstances re-emerge. So these verses are not abrogated in the real sense though apparently they seem to be. They say that since the Islamic Shari'ah gradually developed from milder to stricter injunctions, so the former will come to effect in conditions similar to the ones in which they were revealed.
This viewpoint is untenable because of the following reasons.
First, the claim that the Islamic Shari'ah was mild in the beginning is unsubstantiated. A study of the Qur'an reveals that while some directives evolved from milder forms to more demanding ones like the prohibition of drinking and the injunction of fasting, the reverse is also true in some cases. For example, initially, the Tahajjud prayer was more exacting; later a relaxation was given through a divine directive. Similarly, initially Muslims were required to fight the disbelievers even if they were outnumbered by a ratio of 1:10. Later this ratio was reduced to 1:2. Therefore, the inference that all the directives of the Islamic Shari'ah evolved from mild to strict is not very accurate.
Second, the difference between our time and that of the Prophet (sws) has not been considered. At the time when the Prophet (sws) disseminated Islam in Arabia, its teachings were quite unknown to his addressees. The number of his Companions (rta) was also very small. The traditions and customs of the Age of Ignorance were so deeply entrenched in the society that it was hard for people to abandon them. On the contrary, the situation today is totally different. There are almost two billion Muslims in the world today. Islamic teachings and laws are not alien to the world. Therefore to regard these circumstances as analogous to those of the Prophet (sws) and apply the decrees relating to his time to the present one is not correct at all.
Third, reverting to the abrogated verses of the book of God with the change in circumstances could be used by some devious people to excuse themselves from religious obligations. Once open, the process will be difficult to stop. People will start doing ijtihad regarding fasting, prohibition of drinking, and the punishment of fornication under cover of this argument. We have examples of people going astray in the past and are still witnessing the phenomenon.
The above-mentioned analysis brings to light the limitations of the second view.
Now consider the third viewpoint which says that some directives of the Holy Qur'an have been abrogated. This view seems to be the most plausible. Leaving aside questions like the rationale behind abrogation and the actual verses of the Qur'an which have been abrogated and which are the abrogating verses, some basic principles regarding this issue are asserted in the following paragraphs.
First, only a Qur'anic verse can abrogate another verse. Nothing extraneous to the Holy Qur'an can abrogate it. Both the abrogated and the abrogating verses are present in the Holy Qur'an. Some jurists believe that A%hadith can abrogate the Holy Qur'an. This cannot be accepted because the Qur'an is the final authority in matters of religion. It is the Mizan (the balance) and Furqan (the distinguisher between good and evil), which in no way can be altered by any thing extraneous to it.
Second, abrogation is only related to the legal injunctions. Beliefs, articles of faith, moral precepts, attributes of Allah and historical facts are not subject to abrogation. These have remained unaltered.
Third, abrogation is not caused by the fact that God does not have perfect knowledge and His decrees need to evolve before culminating in their ultimate form. The basic reason for abrogation lies in the fact that human beings are naturally weak and can only accept certain decrees after training and gradual instruction. In some instances, the society was not organized; therefore, a temporary commandment was issued which, on development of the society, was replaced with an eternal law. For example, in the beginning, it was ordered that a dying person should write a will in order to secure the rights of all the members of his family. A tribal arbitration council used to execute punishment of fornication. All such transitory laws were admittedly superseded by lasting and eternal commandments of inheritance and prescribed punishment for fornication, when the Islamic society gained maturity.
In some cases, laws evolved and developed into their ultimate form considering the general human nature. For instance, Arabs were addicted to drinking. Therefore, initially, it was forbidden only during the prayer. As it was hard to fast in the hot and dry Arabian Desert so atonement was allowed for the sick and the wayfarer. Later, when the people became familiar with these obligations, the permission of atonement for fasting was taken back and complete prohibition of drinking, and fasting for the whole month of Ramadan was made compulsory. In some cases, the Prophet (saw) was allowed to put any of the decrees of previous Divine laws in practice for sometime. Later on it was also taken back and replaced with a permanent injunction of the Islamic Shari'ah as in the matter of the direction of prayer. It was only to test Muslims and make a clear distinction between those who follow the Prophet (sws) and those who turn on their heels in adherence to the previous traditions. Obviously this is an essential part of training.
Similarly, some laws were enforced to make up for the lack of people, which increased the devotion and enabled a small number of Muslims to bear more responsibilities. For example, initially all Muslims were required to offer the Tahajjud prayer at night. One Muslim fighter was initially required to face ten disbelievers in the battlefield. Alms giving was advised before having a confidential talk with the Prophet (sws) in order to strengthen and purify the Muslims. Later, when the number of Muslims increased and they grew disciplined and purified, these transitory directives were replaced with permanent ones.
(Adapted from Amin Ahsan Islahi's Tadabbur-i-Qur'an)