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Can the Sunnah Abrogate the Qur’an?

Answered as per Hanafi Fiqh by Seekersguidance.org

Answered by Sidi Faraz A. Khan

Question: My question is whether or not a Hadiath could abrogate (Naskh)an ayat of the Quran? For example, the ruling of Masah over Regular Socks/leather socks by the hanafis given the Quranic ayat (5:6).

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health and faith.

Before answering your question, it would help to first understand what exactly abrogation refers to.

Abrogation [naskh] is generally defined as, “A clarification of the end point of one legal ruling, an end point that was preeternally known to Allah Most High yet nevertheless concealed from those addressed by the Sacred Law, such that it appeared to be a lasting ruling from the perspective of humans.” Hence, abrogation entails replacement from our perspective, yet mere clarification from the Divine perspective, i.e., clarification of the termination of a legal ruling and the beginning of a new legal ruling in its place.

Scholars are in agreement that the Qur’an can abrogate Qur’an and that the Sunna can abrogate Sunna. However, there is disagreement as to whether the Qu’ran can abrogate Sunna and whether the Sunna can abrogate Qur’an.

[Ibn Malak/Nasafi, Sharh al-Manar; Bazdawi, Usul al-Bazdawi]

Sunna Abrogation of Qur’an

There were two main opinions on this matter:

(1) The Hanafis, Imam Malik, and most theologians maintained that the Qur’an can be abrogated by a Sunna that is established by multiple-chain transmission [mutawatir] or by a Sunna that is well-known [mash’hura], “well-known” according to the Hanafis meaning a prophetic report that is accepted and implemented by the vast majority of jurists such that it is akin to multiple-chain transmission.

Imam Karkhi narrates that Imam Abu Yusuf [one of the two companions of Abu Hanifa] said, “It is valid for the Qur’an to be abrogated by the likes of the report of wiping over leather socks [khuffs], which is well-known [mash’hur].” Incidentally, this is the example you brought up in your question.

(2) Imam Shafi’i, most scholars of his school, and [according to one narration] Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal maintained that the Qur’an is not abrogated by the Sunna. Imam Shafi’i stated this in his famous “Epistle” [al-Risala]. There was some disagreement, however, among Shafi’i scholars as to whether the Imam meant that it is not possible or simply that it never occurred.

[Amidi, Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam; Sarakhsi, Usul al-Sarakhsi; Farfur, Madarik al-Haqq]

There is quite a bit of debate and discussion on this complex topic, but the following will hopefully serve as a basic, summarized presentation of the issue.

The Shafi’i Perspective

The general perspective of the Shafi’i position is that the Qur’an states:

– “None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, except that We substitute something better or similar.” [2:106] Allah Most High ascribes substitution to Himself in the statement, “We substitute.”

– “But when Our Clear Signs are recited unto them, those who hope not for Our meeting say: ‘Bring us a reading other than this, or change it.’ Say: ‘It is not for me to change it of my accord: I follow not but what is revealed unto me.’” [10:15] The Prophet is commanded to say that he cannot change revelation based on his own perspective or desire, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him.

– “And when We substitute one verse for in place of another…” [16:101] Again, Allah Most High ascribes substitution to Himself, and specifically of “one verse” for another.

In general, the Shafi’is deemed the Sunna to be of lesser strength than the Qur’an. They also maintained that abrogation of the Qur’an by the Sunna could allow for criticism by non-Muslims that the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] contradicted what he deemed to be Divine speech.

[Sadr al-Shari’a, Tawdih fi Hill Ghawamid al-Tanqih; Farfur, Madarik al-Haqq]

The Hanafi Perspective

The Hanafi perspective is that abrogation of a Qur’anic verse by the Sunna does not entail abrogation of the verse the Prophet from his own accord, but rather merely his conveying Allah’s abrogation of His own verse, which is not very different from the normal Prophetic conveying of Divine rulings on behalf of Allah Most High. That is, just as the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] would normally convey Allah’s initial command, he can also convey Allah’s replacement of one command with another, both commands being issued from Allah Himself alone. This is not only possible according to the Hanafis, but in fact did occur. [Ibn Malak/Nasafi, Sharh al-Manar]

This is further reinforced by Allah’s statement regarding Prophetic speech in general, “And he does not speak of his own desire; it is not except inspiration sent down to him.” [53:3-4] This verse, then, serves as explanation of the verse cited above that states, “Say: ‘It is not for me to change it of my accord: I follow not but what is revealed unto me.’” [10:15] That is, abrogation of the Qur’an by the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] would never be from his own human desire, but rather based solely on Divine inspiration, with which the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] is then entrusted to convey to humanity in his own expression. The new ruling that abrogates the previous Qur’anic ruling is from Allah alone, merely conveyed to us by the word choice of the Beloved Messenger [peace and blessings be upon him]. [Sarakhsi, Usul al-Sarakhsi]

The only condition for its acceptance by jurists historically after the Prophetic period is that the Sunna is relayed by multiple-chain transmission [tawatur] such that there is no doubt whatsoever that the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] made the statement, or that the overwhelming vast majority of jurists accept the narration and act upon it, such that it becomes “well-known” [mash’hur] and therefore akin to such multiple-chain transmission.

An Example

The example cited most in books of legal theory [usul al-fiqh] is that of the verse, “It is prescribed for you, when death approaches any of you, if he leaves any wealth that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin…” [2:180]

The legal ruling derived from the verse is that a bequest to parents and relatives is prescribed and hence mandatory. This ruling is considered abrogated by the following hadith, “There is no bequest for an inheritor.” [Tirmidhi, Ibn Maja, Daraqutni]

Even though the hadith is not related by multiple-chain transmission, it was accepted and used by the vast majority of jurists such that, according to the Hanafis, it is deemed well-known and hence akin to multiple-chain transmission.

[Ibn Malak/Nasafi, Sharh al-Manar; Amidi, Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam; Ala’ al-Din Bukhari, Kashf al-Israr ‘an Usul al-Bazdawi]

A Reflection of Allah’s Veneration of the Prophet and the Noble Sunna

The great Hanafi scholar Ibn Amir Hajj states regarding the Hanafi position:

“The opinion that the Sunna can abrogate the Qur’an entails an honoring of the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings be upon him] and a veneration of his Noble Sunna, in that Allah Most High consigned the elucidation of a legal ruling – that was originally divine revelation – to him [peace and blessings be upon him], so that he may clarify it by his own prophetic expression; and He Most High moreover granted his prophetic expression such a high rank whereby by it,  the end point of a legal ruling – that was affirmed by Divine Speech – is established, since by that prophetic expression its abrogation is elucidated; and that He Most High made his prophetic Sunna akin to His own Divine Speech with respect to affirming legal rulings…”

[Taqrir wal-Tahbir/Tahrir, Ibn Amir Hajj/Kamal ibn Humam]

And Allah alone gives success.

Faraz A. Khan

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

This answer was collected from Seekersguidance.org. It’s an online learning platform overseen by Sheikh Faraz Rabbani. All courses are free. They also have in-person classes in Canada.