Mecca Qur’an vs. Medina Quran

As-salamu alayka Ahmed,

Can one believe ‘only metaphorically’ those parts of the Qur’an that refer to Jewish ‘history’ from the Old Testament? I put this in quotes because, to be blunt, it is common knowledge that the OT is partially invented. What I’m getting at is that it is admitted even by Jewish scholars (as well as skeptics, scientists, archaeologists, etc.) that certain characters literally didn’t ever exist.

Also, I’ve heard that the Mecca and Medina verses are to be applied according to which situation one is in. I’ve also heard about the tradition of Abrogation, and how that is supported when I read in my Qur’an that new verses are the better to follow. Which is correct? Or is there room for both to be right?

– former Islam 101 student

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Belief in Divine Books and Prophets

The Qur’an has verses which are “muhkam” and others which are “mutashabih.” Muhkam means “Clear” and Mutashabih means “Ambiguous.” So the first type of verses (which are the great majority) are verses that have plain meaning and can and should be understood on the face value as the Prophet and his Companions understood it. Notice this does not mean to understand it “literally” because the Arabic rhetoric used in the Qur’an often used Arab idioms and expressions that were clear to 7th Century Arabs. The second type of verses (minority) can have multiple meanings so we must look to the Sayings of the Prophet or the Companions or the early scholars to derive the meaning. So in general, the Qur’an is not considered a metaphorical book, because it says in it many times that it is a “Clear Book” and a “Guide to Humanity” which necessarily means it should be seen as a series of communications from the Lord of Humanity to Humanity.

However, there are some passages that can only be approached metaphorically but those verses are usually very obvious. As for the previous revelations, whatever agrees with the Qur’an is accepted as a nugget of the Truth that was previously revealed by God, and whatever disagrees with the Qur’an is dismissed as man-made. Getting to the issue you hinted at, if a character is mentioned in the Qur’an, then it is accepted that such a person actually existed. I know there are some scholars who claim that Moses did not actually exist because there is no archaeological remnants of him or the Exodus. Nevertheless, since we believe that the Creator sent revelation to inform us of Divine Truth and use True stories to teach us, we believe that Moses and the prophets and characters mentioned in the Qur’an were real. There is no difference of opinion from any school of thought about the reality of the characters and stories mentioned in the Qur’an. Even Sunni and Shia agree that Qur’an is the Word of God and that God would not tell tales to make His point.

Mecca and Medina Verses

This is a little more complicated. You have to understand that the revelations of the Qur’an came down in a period of 23 years. The Prophet experienced many different situations in those 23 years and the Qur’an was revealed in the context of those situations. You can almost think of them as a series of “letters” or “dictations” from Allah to Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel. So in the beginning, God is telling Muhammad about Himself, His existence, power, and mercy. Also teaching Muhammad about the Prophets and that Muhammad is one of those noble messengers. Also teaching Muhammad about the Day of Judgment and that it is coming and that human beings should prepare for that meeting with their Creator. As the Prophet invites his community to worship God and God alone, he encounters resistance, persecution, and hardships. God responds with lessons on humility, reminders of the final reward in Paradise for this work and for following this path, warnings against being heedless of this message, and stories of previous prophets and believers to soothe the Prophet and his followers in the face of all the hardships they are enduring for God’s Cause.

Then finally, the Prophet and his followers migrate to Medina. Now the yoke of persecution is lifted. Muslims can practice and preach without fear of retribution. Now the 13 years of emphasizing God and the Meeting with Him, the followers are ready for “How to Live a Godly Life?” So now God starts sending down instructions on morals, ethics, behavior norms, and so on. Also, as the Meccans start threatening the very lives of all who follow Muhammad, God grants the Muslims permission to bear arms, to fight and defend themselves until they are able to practice and preach God’s message.

So the concept of “abrogation” is not as clear cut. Some scholars only cite 5 verses what were abrogated by later verses, while some scholars cite over 90 verses that were abrogated. The majority claim that only 10-12 verses were actually completely abrogated and the rest were “specifications” instead of outright “replacements.” The most famous example of this is the explicit prohibition on wine. This prohibition was revealed in several stages, to make it easier for the wine-loving Arabs to give up this destructive vice.

  • Stage 1 (Declaring the moral status of wine): They ask you about wine and gambling. Say: “In them is great sin, and some benefit for men; but the sin is greater than the benefit.” (2:219)
  • Stage 2 (Restricting consumption of wine): O Believers! Do not approach prayers when drunk until you know what you say… (4:43)
  • Stage 3 (Commanding the avoidance of wine): O Believers! Wine and gambling, idols and divining arrows are abominations of the Devil – shun them so that you may prosper. The Devil seeks to cause enmity and hatred among you by means of wine and gambling, and to keep you from the remembrance of God and your prayers. Will you not then abstain? (5:90-91)
    The latter of these verses technically do not “replace” the previous ones. They make more and more specific instructions. However, while these are not technical replacements, they ARE a more developed meaning. No one now would try to argue that it is sufficient for Muslims to simply avoid being drunk during prayer. The Muslim community is now past that phase and it is expected for all observant Muslims to abstain from drinking totally.

Another example is the infamous Verse of the Sword (9:5) that many Islam-Haters use to show that Muslims are not allowed to be nice or peaceful with non-Muslims. That is simply not true. First, looking at the immediate context, we see that verse 13 of the same chapter mentions a few reasons for this particular war declaration. This verse mentions people who initiated hostilities, who drove the Prophet and the believers out of their homes (referring to the forced migration to Madinah), and who broke their pacts (referring to the Treaty of Hudaybiyah). Verses 8 and 10 mention those who have total disregard to ties of kinship and to contracts.

It’s clear here that Islam is not waging war against all pagans or non-believers. Looking at the historical context, the Prophet didn’t understand this verse to mean the killing of all pagans. For example, when the conquest of Mecca took place, the Prophet issued a general pardon to all its inhabitants, who were not only pagans but also those that had fought him for the longest time, and regarding whom many of those verses had been revealed. More importantly, it is clear that these verses don’t “replace” the previous verses which talk about being just and kind to people in general.

So it is not that the Qur’an “used to” preach peace and tolerance and then “in the end” advocated stern warfare. Rather, the context of the peace and tolerance verses are the general normative teachings and the stern warfare verses are the specific teachings when dealing with a group who are threatening your very existence.

And God knows best.

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