Interesting and disturbing article in the Fall 2007 Middle East Quarterly by David Bukay, Peace or Jihad? Abrogation in Islam:
That there is no compulsion in Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace are common refrains among Muslim activists, academics, officials, and journalists. In an age of terrorism and violent jihad, nowhere, they argue, does the Qur’an allow Muslims to fight non-Muslims solely because they refuse to become Muslim. Proponents of Islamic tolerance point to a number of Qur’anic verses which admonish violence and advocate peace, tolerance, and compromise.
But not all verses in the Qur’an have the same weight in assessment. Unlike the Old or New Testaments, the Qur’an is not organized by chronology but rather by size of chapters. Even within chapters, chronology can be confused. In sura (chapter) 2, for example, God revealed verses 193, 216, and 217 to Muhammad shortly after he arrived in Medina. God only revealed verses 190, 191, and 192 six years later. This complicates interpretation, all the more when some verses appear to contradict.
Abrogation in the Qur’an
The Qur’an is unique among sacred scriptures in accepting a doctrine of abrogation in which later pronouncements of the Prophet declare null and void his earlier pronouncements. Four verses in the Qu’ran acknowledge or justify abrogation:
When we cancel a message, or throw it into oblivion, we replace it with one better or one similar. Do you not know that God has power over all things?
When we replace a message with another, and God knows best what he reveals, they say: You have made it up. Yet, most of them do not know.
God abrogates or confirms whatsoever he will, for he has with him the Book of the Books.
If we pleased, we could take away what we have revealed to you. Then you will not find anyone to plead for it with us.
Rather than explain away inconsistencies in passages regulating the Muslim community, many jurists acknowledge the differences but accept that latter verses trump earlier verses. Most scholars divide the Qur’an into verses revealed by Muhammad in Mecca when his community of followers was weak and more inclined to compromise, and those revealed in Medina, where Muhammad’s strength grew.
Classical scholars argued that anyone who studied the Qur’an without having mastered the doctrine of abrogation would be “deficient.” Those who do not accept abrogation fall outside the mainstream and, perhaps, even the religion itself. The Ahmadiyah sect, for example, today concentrated in Pakistan, consistently rejects abrogation because it undercuts the notion that the Qur’an is free from errors. Many Muslims consider Ahmadis, who also see their founder as a prophet, to be apostates.
Because the Qur’an is not organized chronologically, there has been a whole subset of theological study to determine which verses abrogate and which are abrogated. Muslim scholars base their understanding of theology not only upon the Qur’an but also upon hadiths, accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. One hadith in particular addresses abrogation. It cites Abu al-A‘la bin al-Shikhkhir, considered by theologians to be a reliable source of knowledge about the Prophet’s life, as saying, that “the Messenger of God abrogated some of his commands by others, just as the Qur’an abrogates some part of it with the other.” Muhammad accepted that God would invalidate previous revelation, often making ordinances stricter.
How does the theological debate over abrogation impact contemporary policy formulation? While not all terrorism is rooted in Islam, the religion is an enabler for many. It is wrong to assume that more extreme interpretations of religion are illegitimate. Statements that there is no compulsion in religion and that jihad is primarily about internal struggle and not about holy war may receive applause in university lecture halls and diplomatic board rooms, but they misunderstand the importance of abrogation in Islamic theology. It is important to acknowledge that what university scholars believe, and what most Muslims—or more extreme Muslims—believe are two different things. For many Islamists and radical Muslims, abrogation is real and what the West calls terror is, indeed, just.
During the lifetime of Muhammad, the Islamic community passed through three stages. In the beginning from 610 until 622, God commanded restraint. As the Muslims relocated to Medina (623-26), God permitted Muslims only to fight in a defensive war. However, in the last six years of Muhammad’s life (626-32), God permitted Muslims to fight an aggressive war first against polytheists, and later against monotheists like the Jews of Khaybar. Once Muhammad was given permission to kill in the name of God, he instigated battle.
Chapter 9 of the Qur’an, in English called “Ultimatum,” is the most important concerning the issues of abrogation and jihad against unbelievers. It is the only chapter that does not begin “in the name of God, most benevolent, ever-merciful.” Commentators agree that Muhammad received this revelation in 631, the year before his death, when he had returned to Mecca and was at his strongest. Muhammad bin Ismail al-Bukhari (810-70), compiler of one of the most authoritative collections of the hadith, said that “Ultimatum” was the last chapter revealed to Muhammad although others suggest it might have been penultimate. Regardless, coming at or near the very end of Muhammad’s life, “Ultimatum” trumps earlier revelations.
Because this chapter contains violent passages, it abrogates previous peaceful content. Muhsin Khan, the translator of Sahih al-Bukhari, says God revealed “Ultimatum” in order to discard restraint and to command Muslims to fight against all the pagans as well as against the People of the Book if they do not embrace Islam or until they pay religious taxes. So, at first aggressive fighting was forbidden; it later became permissible (2:190) and subsequently obligatory (9:5). This “verse of the sword” abrogated, canceled, and replaced 124 verses that called for tolerance, compassion, and peace.
Suyuti said that everything in the Qur’an about forgiveness and peace is abrogated by verse 9:5, which orders Muslims to fight the unbelievers and to establish God’s kingdom on earth.
I’d recommend reading the entire article.