Biblical Consummation versus Islamic Abrogation

A Comparative Look at Two Different Interpretive Approaches

[Part 1] Part 2

Sam Shamoun

We anticipate that some Muslims will challenge our explanation and understanding of the biblical data by arguing that this is nothing more than an attempt at damage control. Someone may say that this understanding of the New Testament fulfilling and interpreting the Hebrew Bible in a spiritual manner is simply ad hoc; it is nothing more than the New Testament writers’ way of conveniently coming up with some explanation to account for the vast differences which exist between the Law as given to Moses and with their articulation and application of it. The objector may argue that anyone reading the Hebrew Bible itself would never draw the conclusion that its laws and regulations were to be fulfilled and interpreted in the manner proposed by the New Testament. These laws were intended to be eternal, not reinterpreted or spiritualized.

Man is unable to keep the law

The fact of the matter is that, long before the Lord Jesus and his disciples walked this earth, the Hebrew prophets had already announced that this is what was going to happen when the Messiah arrives. For instance, God already told Moses that Israel will not be able to live the Law and would forsake him for other gods:

"And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, the days approach when you must die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.’ And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. And the LORD appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, "Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?" And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me AGAINST the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.’ So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel… When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness AGAINST YOU. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death! Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness AGAINST THEM. For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.’" Deuteronomy 31:14-21, 24-29

Man is sinful and unrighteous before God

The Hebrew Scriptures, in perfect agreement with the Christian Greek Scriptures, teach that man is sinful by nature and incapable of achieving the righteousness that God requires for eternal life:

"Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.’" Genesis 8:20-21

"If they sin against you--for there is no one who does not sin--and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near," 1 Kings 8:46

"Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? Even in his servants he puts no trust, and his angels he charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like the moth." Job 4:17-19

"Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, Job 14:1-5

"What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous? Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks injustice like water! Job 15:14-16

"How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!" Job 25:4-6

"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." Psalm 51:5

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you." Psalm 51:10-13

The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies." Psalm 58:3

"Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name." Psalm 86:11

"If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?" Psalm 130:3

"Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you." Psalm 143:2

"Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?" Proverbs 20:9

"Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins… See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes." Ecclesiastes 7:20, 29

"This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead." Ecclesiastes 9:3

"And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’" Isaiah 6:5

"We have all become like one who is unclean, and ALL our RIGHTEOUS DEEDS are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities." Isaiah 64:6-7

Note that the prophet didn’t say our evil deeds are as a polluted garment, but our righteous deeds are!

"To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it." Jeremiah 6:10

"Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil." Jeremiah 13:23

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9

Because of man’s needs, God promises a New Covenant

As a result of man’s fallen condition, and because of Israel’s failure to observe God’s laws, the Hebrew Scriptures predict a time when Yahweh would establish a new covenant and a new law, one that would be eternal, one which would be instituted through his servant, the Messiah. As we have already mentioned, it also speaks of God transforming humans, granting them a new heart and a new mind so as to enable them to delight in performing Yahweh’s law.

The promise of a New Covenant is a prominent theme of the Old Testament

"Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them." Isaiah 42:1-9

"Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.’ And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him-- for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength-- he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: ‘Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’ Thus says the LORD: ‘In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Appear." They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.’" Isaiah 49:1-10

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." Isaiah 55:1-7

"‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the LORD. ‘And as for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the LORD: ‘My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,’ says the LORD, ‘from this time forth and forevermore.’" Isaiah 59:20-21

"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy. For I the LORD love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed." Isaiah 61:1-9

"I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart." Jeremiah 24:7

"Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34

"I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul." Jeremiah 32:39-41

"In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’" Jeremiah 50:4-5

"For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD.’" Ezekiel 16:59-63

"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." Ezekiel 36:25-27

"I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever." Ezekiel 37:22-28

The reason why we cited so many passages is to show the readers that this is a major and consistent theme of the OT Scriptures. The foregoing emphatically shows that the OT already announced and anticipated a new law and a new covenant for a people whom God would enable to observe his commands and stipulations. To put it in another way, the Hebrew Bible already announced in advance that God would institute a new order where there would be a new law given, one written in the hearts of a people whom God would transform by his Spirit living in them so as to walk in his ways.

Jesus Christ inaugurates the New Covenant

It is little wonder that the New Testament Scriptures speak of the Lord Jesus inaugurating, instituting, a new covenant, also referred to as the eternal or everlasting covenant:

"And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’" Luke 22:20

"Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." Hebrews 13:20-21

The NT also says that this covenant is made with people who are made new in Christ, individuals who have received a new heart, mind and spirit, in fulfillment of the OT anticipation:

"Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’" John 3:3-8

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." 1 Peter 1:2-5

"who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;" 1 Peter 1:21-23

"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him." 1 John 5:1

Hence, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that there is nothing ad hoc about the teaching of the New Testament, but a perfect fulfillment of what was already anticipated and announced in the Hebrew Bible.

Abrogation in the Quran

This anticipated and announced fulfillment is quite unlike the Quran which only refers to abrogation after the fact, implying that Muhammad only mentioned abrogation after the unbelievers started questioning him for changing his mind and contradicting himself:

And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse and God knows very well what He is sending down -- they say, 'Thou art a mere forger!' Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge. S. 16:101 Arberry

And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything? S. 2:106 Arberry

Renowned Muslim philologist and commentator Al-Zamakhshari stated in reference to Sura 2:106:

(As the occasion of the revelation of this verse) the following is related: The unbelievers had challenged the canceling of verses and said: 'Look at Muhammad, how he commands his companions to do something, and then forbids it to them and commands the opposite. He says something today and retracts it tomorrow.'


Instead of whatever verse We abrogate (nansakh), some read: whatever verse we allow (or cause) to be abrogated (nunsikh). ...

Or cast into oblivion (nansa'ha): Some read: or cause to be cast into oblivion (nunsiha or nunassiha). Others read this as if addressed specifically to the Messenger of God: or when you forget it (tansaha). Still others read: or when you are caused to forget it (tunsaha). 'Abd Allah (ibn 'Abbas) read: when we cause you to forget (nunsika) or to abrogate it (nansakkha). And Hudhaifa read: when we abrogate (nansakh) a verse or cause you to forget it (nunsikaha).

To abrogate a verse means that God removes (azala) it by putting another in its place. To cause a verse to be abrogated means that God gives the command that it be abrogated; that is, he commands Gabriel to set forth the verse as abrogated by announcing its cancellation. Deferring a verse means that God sets it aside (with the proclamation) and causes it to disappear without a substitute. To cause a verse to be cast into oblivion means that it no longer is preserved in the heart. The following is the meaning: Every verse is made to vanish whenever the well-being (maslaha) (of the community) requires that it be eliminated - either on the basis of the wording or the virtue of what is right, or on the basis of both these reasons together, either with or without substitute.

We bring a verse which is better for the servants (of God), that is, a verse through which one gains a greater benefit, or one which is equal to it in this respect.

God is powerful over everything: he is able to produce what is good, but also something which is even better or something which is equal in its goodness to the first. (Helmut Gätje, The Qur'an and its Exegesis [Oneworld Publications, Oxford 1996], p. 58; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Clearly, Muhammad’s doctrine of abrogation was nothing more than his attempt of trying to explain away all his contradictions and inconsistencies. Muhammad needed to come up with an explanation for having changed his mind regarding certain issues which resulted in contradictions with what he had previously said about those same things.

Contrasting Biblical fulfillment with Quranic abrogation

In the Bible an old covenant is replaced by a new covenant because a new era has begun. The old one was for a certain people (the Israelites) and for a certain time (until the coming of the Messiah). Already in the old covenant it was announced that a new one would replace it later on, a new covenant for a new time and one that would also include the Gentiles. It is a coherent story. There is a clear reason for the new covenant, because God started a new phase of dealing with humanity. None of the Biblical prophets had to repeatedly abrogate his own words. There is no changing one command here, and another command there. The paradigm, the whole covenant is changed at once.

The Quran is very different. The same alleged prophet gave all the abrogated and the abrogating verses to the same people within a few years, sometimes even abrogating them within a few months. There was no grand plan, but simply confusion, trying to cover up errors and false revelations (satanic verses), changing rules because the original ones turned out to be insufficient (the statements on alcohol) or never worked at all (the law of retaliation). Somebody who could not foresee the consequences of some of his statements and commands designed the Quran, and when realizing that things did not work out as intended, he changed his mind and gave new commands (when the Jews did not join him, he changed the Qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca).

Further Reading

Articles by Sam Shamoun
Answering Islam Home Page