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Reply to allegation that Holy Quran is composed of verses cancelling each other?

by Waseem A. Sayed Ph.D

This allegation is based on the thesis that verses of the Holy Quran revealed late in the ministry of the Holy Prophet of Islam abrogate the verses that he received early in his ministry.  Thus, it is argued, that all that is said about Islam being a religion of peace is just a charade since such statements are always based on verses that were revealed early on.  What people are not told, it is said, is that these ‘peace promoting verses’ are no longer valid.  So people need to be made aware that the true and permanent stance of Islam is the one based on the later revealed verses that call for violent Jihad and the killing of all infidels etc.

Before dealing with this allegation specifically, let me make some general comments.

This allegation is not new – it has been around for a long time and have been refuted not only in detail and by reference to the Holy Quran but also common sense invalidates all such claims: Could even a single person – let alone a whole world – have been won over by Muhammad(sa) on the basis of such [God forbid] lying, cheating and fabricating?

By an orientalist, I have not found a truer, sounder, more logical assessment of Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, then so eloquently summarized by Thomas Carlyle [May 8, 1840] in the beginning of his famous Lecture: THE HERO AS PROPHET. MAHOMET: ISLAM.

“Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only. …… It is really time to dismiss all that. The word this man spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred and eighty millions of men these twelve hundred years. These hundred and eighty millions were made by God as well as we. A greater number of God’s creatures believe in Mahomet’s word at this hour, than in any other word whatever. Are we to suppose that it was a miserable piece of spiritual legerdemain, this which so many creatures of the Almighty have lived by and died by? I, for my part, cannot form any such supposition. I will believe most things sooner than that. One would be entirely at a loss what to think of this world at all, if quackery so grew and were sanctioned here.”

“…… A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house! If he do not know and follow truly the properties of mortar, burnt clay and what else be works in, it is no house that he makes, but a rubbish-heap. It will not stand for twelve centuries, to lodge a hundred and eighty millions; it will fall straightway…..”

Let me now turn to the the allegation specifically:

Holy Quran verses have been abrogated: This is an utterly baseless claim.  The Holy Quran declares itself to be perfect at the outset [2:3] and says again and again that no one would ever be able to compile even a single Chapter like any of its Chapters [2:24-25]

And if you are in doubt as to what We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a Chapter like it, and call upon your helpers beside Allah, if you are truthful. But if you do it not — and never shall you do it — then guard against the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, which is prepared for the disbelievers. [2:24-25]

Commentary: The subject of the incomparable excellence of the Qur’an has been dealt with at five different places, i.e., in 2:24; 10:39; 11:14; 17:89 & 52:34, 35. In two of these five verses (2:24 & 10:39) the challenge is identical, while in the remaining three verses three separate and different demands have been made from disbelievers. At first sight this different in the form of the challenge at different places seems to be incongruous. But it is not so. In fact, these verses contain demands which stand for all time. The challenge is open even today in all the different forms mentioned in the Qur’an as it was in the time of the Holy prophet.

Before explaining the various forms of these challenges it is worth noting that their mention in the Qur’an is invariably accompanied by a reference to wealth and power, except in the present verse which, as already stated, does not contain a new challenge but only repeats the challenge made in 10:39. From this it may be safely concluded that there exists a close connection between the question of wealth and power and the challenge for the production of the like of the Qur’an and part thereof.

This connection lies in the fact the Qur’an has been held out to disbelievers as a priceless treasure. When disbelievers demanded material treasures from the Holy prophet (11:13), they were told he possessed a matchless treasure in the form of the Qur’an; and when they asked, wherefore has not an angel come with him (11:13), they were told in reply that angels did descend upon him, for their function was to bring the Word had already been vouchsafed to him. Thus both the demands for a treasure and for the descent of angels have been jointly met by the Qur’an which is a matchless treasure brought down by angels, and the challenge to produce it’s like has been put forward as a proof of its peerless quality.

Now, take the different verses containing this challenge separately. The greatest demand is made in 17:89, where disbelievers are required to bring a book like the whole of the Qur’an with all its manifold qualities. In that verse disbelievers are not required to represent their declare it to be the equal of, or, for that matter, better than, the Qur’an. But at the time disbelievers were not required to produce the like of the Qur’an then and there; and the challenges thus implied a prophecy that they would never be able to produce the like of it, neither in the form in which it then was, nor when it became complete. Again, the challenge was not confined to the disbelievers of the Prophet’s time alone, but extended to doubters and critics of all time. The reason why the disbelievers in 11:14 have been called upon to produce ten Surahs and not the whole of the Qur’an in all respects, but to that of only a portion of it. The disbelievers had objected to some parts of it being defective. Hence they were not required to bring a complete book like the whole of the Qur’an, but only ten truth of their assertion might be tested. As for the selection of the specific number 10 for this purpose, it may be noted that since in 17:89 the whole of the Qur’an was claimed to be a perfect Book, its opponents were called upon to produce the like of the whole of it; but as in 11:14 the point was that certain portions of it were objected to, so they were asked to choose ten such portions as appeared to them to be most defective and then produce a composition even like those portions. In 10:39 disbelieves were called upon to produce the like of only one Surah of the Qur’an. This is because; unlike the above-mentioned two verses the challenge in that verse was in support of a claim made by the Qur’an itself and not in refutation of any objection of the disbelievers. In 10:38 the Qur’an claimed to possess five very prominent qualities. In support of this claim, verse 10:39 throws out a challenge to those who deny to doubt it to produce a single Surah containing these qualities in the same perfect form in which they are contained in the 10th Surah. The fifth challenge to produce the like of the Qur’an is contained in the verse under comment (2:24) and here also, as in 10:39, disbelievers have been called upon to bring forward a single Surah like that of the Qur’an. This challenge is preceded by the claim that the Qur’an guides the righteous to the highest stages of spiritual progress. The disbelievers are told that if they are in doubt about the Devine origin of the Qur’an, then they should bring forward a single Surah that may be comparable to it in the spiritual influence it exercises over its followers. See also “The Larger Edition of the Commentary,” pp. 58-62.

The above explanation will show that all these challenges calling upon disbelievers to produce the like of the Qur’an are quite distinct and separate one from the other, and all of them stand for all time, none of them superseding or cancelling the other. But as the Qur’an comprises sublime and lofty ideas, it was inevitable that a most beautiful diction and the chastest style should have been employed as the vehicle for the expression of those ideas; otherwise the subject-matter was liable to remain obscure and doubtful and the perfect beauty disbelievers have been challenged to produce a composition like the Qur’an, the demand for beauty of style and elegance of diction comparable to that of the Qur’an also forms a part of the challenge.

Furthermore, and so as to leave no doubt on what the Holy Quran itself claims, it says itself that if it was not the Word of God surely there would be many contradictions in it.

[4:83] Will they not, then, meditate upon the Qur’an? Had it been from anyone other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much disagreement.

The claim made that the Holy Quran has itself declared that some of its verses have been abrogated by others…later verses abrogating earlier ones etc. is totally unsustainable.  The verse cited in support of this allegation usually is [2:107]

Whatever Sign We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than that or the like thereof. Dost thou not know that Allah has the power to do all that He wills?

Commentary: It is mistakenly inferred from this verse that some verses of the Qur’an have been abrogated. The conclusion is patently erroneous and unwarranted. There is nothing in this verse to indicate that the Ayah spoken of in this verse as being abrogated, refers to the previous Revelations. It is pointed out that the previous Scriptures contained two kinds of commandments: (a) Those which, owing to changed conditions and to the universality of the new Revelation, required abrogation. (b) Those containing eternal truths which needed resuscitation so that people might be reminded of the forgotten truth. It was, thereof, necessary to abrogate certain portion of those Scriptures and bring in their place new ones, and also to restore the lost ones. So, God abrogated some portions of the previous Revelations, substituting them with new and better ones, and at the same time re-introduced the missing general spirit of the Quranic teaching. The Qur’an has abrogated all previous Scriptures; for, better than all the old Laws, but is also meant for all men for all times. An inferior teaching verse the word Nansakh (We abrogate) relates to the word Bi-Khairin (one better) and the word Nunsiha (we cause to be forgotten) relates to the word Bi-Mithliha (the like thereof), meaning that when God abrogates a certain thing He brings a better one in its place and when He causes a thing to be forgotten, He resuscitates it. It is admitted by Jewish scholars themselves that after the Israelites were carried away in captivity to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, the whole of the Pentateuch was lost (Enc. Bib.).

There is another verse that is sometimes quoted in this context: 16:102.  Here also the meaning that somehow a verse abrogation is meant is quite untenable:

102. And when We bring one Sign in place of another1577 and Allah knows best the object of what He reveals they say, thou art but a fabricator.’ Nay, but most of them know not.

1577. The meaning is: “When We avert or delay punishment on account of a change for the better on the part of those who are threatened with it.” There is no reference here to the abrogation of any of the verses of the Qur’an. There is no verse in the Qur’an which clashes with any other verse of the Book and which may therefore have to be regarded as abrogated. All parts of the Qur’an support and corroborate one another. There is nothing in the context either to suggest any reference to the idea of abrogation.