God revealed the Qur’ān to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), not in one single moment but piecemeal over a period of twenty-three years. During this era of revelation, the Prophet (ﷺ) was raising a community of new believers, where new verses were revealed periodically. New laws and codes of behaviour were added to an expanding ethical and legal code.
In this piece, we will pose three questions on the topic of naskh or abrogation, and provide answers to them.
Dual functions of revelation
The twin functions of revelation were to provide a guide for humanity for the rest of time, and also to nurture and raise the most important first generation of believers – the generation charged with the onerous duty of receiving the divine message and ensuring its preservation and propagation to the peoples of the world and posterity.
Through this fluid period in the history of revelation, God not only revealed new verses. Some verses were also removed, earlier rulings repealed and superseded by later ones, progressively moving towards the final body of verses that would make up the Qur’ān.
In this two-way process of addition and deletion, the phenomenon of removing verses that had been previously revealed or repealing temporary laws came to be referred to as naskh, often translated as abrogation.
Some key questions
Below are some questions, the answers to which will hopefully help in gaining a fuller understanding of this topic:
- What is the meaning of naskh?
- What are the different connotations of the term?
- Why is its understanding pertinent?
Q1 | What is the meaning of naskh?
As with all technical Arabic terms across the broad sweep of the Islamic sciences, the word naskh had its usage among the Arabs before the coming of Islam.
It then began to be used with a specific connotation as a term within the emerging field of Qur’ānic sciences.
Thus, we can speak of the original Arabic connotation of the word and the more specific connotation used as a term when referring to a phenomenon of divine revelation.
i) Linguistic meaning
The pre-Islamic linguistic meaning:
The word naskh is often glossed by the Arabic word izālah.
Its linguistic meaning in English is captured or approximated by words like ‘remove’, ‘erase’, ‘efface’, and ‘expunge’.
ii) Technical meaning
Amongst the ways it has been defined in the scholarly literature are as follows:
Replacing a ruling based on words of scripture with another ruling, or replacing the actual words.
There are two other related terms that should be noted here: nāsikh and mansūkh. Both are derived linguistically from the word naskh.
- Nāsikh refers to an abrogating item;
- Mansūkh refers to the item that has been abrogated;
- Naskh refers to the concept of abrogation.
Q2 | What are the different connotations of the term?
Following its emerging use in the early Islamic community, the term underwent something of an evolution with an earlier broader range of meaning and a later narrower meaning.
This narrower meaning or more precisely defined form than in its early Islamic usage is what is found in works devoted to Qur’ānic sciences (`ulūm al-Qur’ān) and Islamic legal theory (usūl al-Fiqh). The definition above relates to this later technical usage.
Prior to its coinage to refer to this, it had a non-technical use. It was used by scholars in the early centuries of Islam more loosely. Essentially, it was used to refer to the modification of a scriptural text by another. Sometimes, this involved completely replacing it – which became the narrower sense of the term for later scholars. Other times, it was only an alteration of the meaning of the first text, not a complete replacement.
For example, to alter a general meaning with a more specific one, or an unrestricted sense with a restricted one, or other types of modification of the earlier text. Everything of this nature was described by early scholars as naskh.
When reading the discussion of such scholars speaking of naskh, one must look closely at precisely what that scholar meant by the term, and determine which type of modification was being referred to.
Examples of the two connotations
1 | Later scholastic usage of the term
This is the usage of the term as codified and defined in the later scholarly tradition.
A Qur’ānic example of this is the abrogation of the verse:
“Those of your women who commit the shameful act, have four witnesses (against them) from among you. So, if they testify, then confine those women to their homes until death overcomes them, or Allah prescribes a way for them. Those two of you who commit it, chastise both of them. However, if they repent and make amends, then, overlook them. Surely, Allah is Most- Relenting, Very-Merciful.” 
…by the verse:
“The fornicating woman and the fornicating man, flog each one of them with one hundred stripes. No pity for them should prevail upon you in the matter of Allah‘s religion, if you really believe in Allah and the Last Day; and a group of believers must witness their punishment.” 
The famous 6th century Iraqi scholar, Ibn al-Jawzī [d. 597 (H)], noted that,
“The first verse indicated that the punishment for an adulteress at the beginning of Islam was life imprisonment… It was inclusive of married and unmarried women…
“These two separate rulings for adulterers and adulteresses were abrogated by the verse,
“‘The fornicating woman and the fornicating man, flog each one of them with one hundred stripes.’” 
2 | Early pre-scholastic usage of the term
This is the usage of the term naskh prior to its coinage to refer to the more specific use shown in the previous example.
For example, it is reported that Ibn Abbās (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu) said the verse,
“Whoever opts for the immediate (benefits from) life herein, We give him, right here in this life, as much as We will, to whomever We intend. Then We assign Jahannam for him, where he shall enter condemned, discarded.” 
…abrogates the verse:
“Whoever intends (to have) the harvest of the Hereafter, We will increase in his harvest; and whoever intends (to have) the harvest of the world (only), We will give him thereof, while in the Hereafter he will have no share.” 
Commenting on this, the great 8th century Andalusian legal thinker, al-Shātibī [d. 790 (H)], said,
“The reality of what is being referred to here is a restriction being placed on something previously unrestricted. The verse, ‘Whoever opts for the immediate (benefits from) life herein, We give him, right here in this life’ is unrestricted. Its meaning is restricted by ‘intent’ in the verse, ‘Whoever intends (to have) the harvest of the Hereafter, We will increase in his harvest’.” 
Q3 | Why is its understanding pertinent?
The phenomenon of naskh or abrogation is crucial to the proper understanding of revelation and the teachings of Islam that are imparted through scripture.
All Islamic disciplines concerned with the study of the Qur’ān; that which relates to studying it to expound upon its meanings (tafsīr); or that which is concerned with derivation of sacred law from scripture (fiqh); or indeed that which pertains to the theory of deducing sacred law from scripture (Usūl al-Fiqh), require a thorough grasp of the issue of naskh.
It is reported that Ali ibn Abī Tālib (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu), the fourth caliph of Islam, once passed by a storyteller regaling a crowd with his tales or a preacher admonishing his audience in a mosque.
He asked him,
“Do you have knowledge of the abrogating and abrogated?”
…to which he replied in the negative.
Ali (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu) commented,
“You are ruined and leading others to ruination.”
This man was speaking to a crowd about Islam whilst ignorant of this topic. The topic is so crucial that it led the great Companion to pass a severe judgement.
The subject is all the more important when we take into consideration the wider connotation of the term naskh.
In this sense, as explained above, naskh can refer to any type of modification of the meaning of an earlier text or teaching of scripture by a later one, not merely complete abrogation. This covers a large field within the subject of Qur’ānic interpretation (tafsīr) and its study is indeed essential.
In the next part, we will cover three further questions and provide answers to those, and hopefully they will also aid in understanding this topic.
 al-Qur’ān | 4:15-16
 al-Qur’ān | 24:2
 Ibn al-Jawzī
 al-Qur’ān | 17:18
 al-Qur’ān | 42:20
 al-Shātibī, al-Muwāfaqāt