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Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness - Understanding Abrogation
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Article Index
Qur'anic Concepts of the Ethics of War: Challenging the Claims of Islamic Aggressiveness
Understanding Abrogation
Explaining the Verse of the Sword
The Origins of Self-Defensive Concepts of War
Proportionate Response, Last Resort and Discrimination
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Understanding Abrogation


While Muslims hold the Qur’an to be God’s literal, definitive and final revelation to humankind, they recognise that it is not intended to be read as a systematic legal or moral treatise. They understand it to be a discursive commentary on the stage-by-stage actions and experiences of the Prophet Muhammad, his ever-increasing number of followers and his steadily decreasing number of opponents over the twenty-three year period which took him from his first revelation to his political hegemony in Arabia.15 Consequently, several legal rulings within the Qur’an emerged or developed in stages throughout that period, with some early rulings on inheritance, alcohol, law, social arrangements and so on being superseded by later passages; a phenomenon known in Arabic as “naskh” that the Qur’an itself describes. For example, Surah 2:106 reveals that when Allah developed any particular legal ruling beyond its first revelation and He therefore wanted to supersede the original verses, He would replace them with clarifying verses.

The removal or annulment of one legal ruling by a subsequent legal ruling in some instances certainly does not mean that Muslims believe that all later scriptures automatically cancel out or override everything, on all issues, that had appeared earlier. The Qur’an itself states in several Surahs that Allah’s words constitute a universally applicable message sent down for “all of mankind” and that it was “a “reminder” (with both “glad tidings and warnings”) to “all” of humanity.16 With this in mind, Muslims believe that to ignore scriptures on the basis of a that-was-then-this-is-now reading would be as mistaken as conversely believing that one can gain meaning or guidance from reading individual verses in isolation, without seeing how they form parts of consistent concepts which only emerge when the entire book is studied. Adopting either approach would be unhelpful, self-serving and ultimately misleading. It is only when the Qur’an’s key concepts are studied holistically, with both an appreciation of the context of particular revelations and the consistency of ideas developed throughout the book as a whole, that readers will be able to understand the Qur’an’s universally applicable ethical system.

Opponents of Islam take a different view. Embracing a view that all later Qur’anic scriptures modify or cancel out all earlier ones, they have devised an unusual narrative. They have routinely argued that, in the early years of his mission while still in his hometown of Mecca, the powerless Muhammad strongly advocated peaceful co-existence with peoples of other faiths, particularly Jews and Christians. Despite mounting resistance and persecution, some of it violent and all of it humiliating, Muhammad had to advocate an almost Gandhian or Christ-like policy of forbearance and non-violence. Then, after he and his followers fled persecution in 622 by escaping to Medina, where they had more chance of establishing a sizeable and more influential religious community, the increasingly powerful Muhammad became bitter at his intransigent foes in Mecca and ordered warfare against them.17 Finally (the critics claim), following the surprisingly peaceful Islamic occupation of Mecca in 630, the all-powerful Muhammad realised that Jews and others would not accept his prophetic leadership or embrace Islamic monotheism, so he then initiated an aggressive war against all disbelievers.18 The critics furthermore claim that, because Muhammad did not clarify or change his position before he died two years later, in 632, after Allah’s revelation to mankind was complete, the verses encouraging the martial suppression of disbelief (that is, of the disbelievers) are still in force today. These supposedly include the so-called “verse of the sword” of Surah 9:5 (and 29), quoted above and revealed to Muhammad in the year 631.19 As scholar David Bukay, a strong critic of Islam, wrote:

Coming at or near the very end of Muhammad’s life … [Surah 9] trumps earlier revelations. Because this chapter contains violent passages, it abrogates previous peaceful content.20

The critics of Islam who hold this view insist that these warlike verses abrogate (cancel out) the scores of conciliatory and non-confrontational earlier verses which had extolled spiritual resistance (prayer and outreach) but physical non-violence.

They note that Osama bin Laden and other leading radical “Islamists” — who also insist that the later Qur’anic versus on war have cancelled out the earlier peaceful and inclusive verses — have justified their terror attacks on America and other states by quoting from the “verse of the sword” and the other reportedly aggressive scriptures mentioned above.

Bin Laden certainly did draw upon the verse of the sword and other seemingly militant Qur’anic scriptures in his August 1996 “Declaration of War against the Americans occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”21 as well as in his February 1998 fatwa.22 The first of these fatawaa (verdicts) instructed Muslims to kill Americans until they withdrew from their occupation of Saudi Arabia, and the second more broadly instructed them to kill Americans (both civilians and military personnel) and their allies, especially the Israelis, for their suppression of Muslims and their exploitation of Islamic resources in various parts of the world.

Of course, the obviously partisan bin Laden is not a cleric, a religious scholar or a historian of early Islam. He is an impassioned, violent and murderous extremist without judgement or moderation. He is not representative of Islamic belief or behaviour and he has no recognised status as an authority in Islamic Sciences that would allow him to issue a fatwa. His assertions that the verse of the sword and other martial Qur’anic verses are still in place and universally applicable therefore do not hold a shred of authority or credibility, except perhaps among already-radicalised fanatics who share his worldview and consider him worth following. Thankfully they are very few in number.

Certainly most Islamic authorities on the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad today, as opposed to scholars from, say, the war-filled medieval period, are firm in their judgement that the most warlike verses in the Qur’an, even those revealed very late in Muhammad’s mission, do not cancel out the overwhelming number of verses that extol tolerance, reconciliation, inclusiveness and peace.23 For example, according to British scholar Dr Zakaria Bashier (author of many books on early Islam including a thorough analysis of war), all the beautiful verses throughout the Qur’an which instruct Muslims to be peaceful, tolerant and non-aggressive are:

Muhkam [clear in and of themselves] verses, i.e. definite, not allegorical. They are not known to have been abrogated, so they naturally hold. No reason exists at all to think that they have been overruled.24

Bashier adds that even the contextual information revealed within the Qur’an itself will lead readers to the inescapable conclusion that the verse of the sword related only to a particular time, place and set of circumstances, and that, in any event, claims of it superseding the established policy of tolerance are “not borne out by the facts of history.”25 Prolific British scholar Louay Fatoohi agrees, arguing that an “overwhelming number” of Muslim scholars reject the abrogation thesis regarding war. Fatoohi highlights the fact that throughout history the Islamic world has never acted in accordance with this extreme view. Fatoohi observes that Muslims have almost always co-existed very well with other faith communities and that the 1600 million peaceable Muslims in the world today clearly do not accept the view otherwise, if the did, they would all be at war as we speak.26 Muhammad Abu Zahra, an important and influential Egyptian intellectual and expert on Islamic law, summed up the mainstream Islamic view by rejecting any abrogation thesis pertaining to conflict and stating that “War is not justified … to impose Islam as a religion on unbelievers or to support a particular social regime. The Prophet Muhammad fought only to repulse aggression.”27

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:33