Abrogation can be of two things: text and ruling.
Abrogation of text is when a verse used to be part of the Quran but Allah decides to no longer include it in the Quran. It is no longer recited in prayer or written in the mushaf.
Abrogation of ruling is when a rule is no longer applied and is replaced with another rule. Abrogation of ruling can (obviously) only apply to laws and rules, and it cannot apply to informational texts.
We can thus divide abrogation in terms of the abrogated verse into three groups:
- Abrogated in ruling but not in text
- Abrogated in text but not in ruling
- Abrogated in both ruling and text
We can divide the abrogation of rulings into three according to the difficulty of the new command:
- New command is easier
- New command is harder
- New command is the same in difficulty
There are different wisdoms that may be behind different instances of abrogation. Every instance has its own subtle benefits and wisdoms. So, it is hard to list wisdoms that apply generically. However, the following is an attempt to do that.
Wisdoms Related to Difficulty
Difficulty to Ease:
When a ruling is replaced with something easier, that is a mercy to the believers. The difficult ruling in the beginning existed because that is the original law we deserve to follow or that was the law needed to combat a specific problem, and the change is a mercy from God.
When the difficult ruling still exists in text, that is to show Allah’s mercy. It tells future generations: Allah could have commanded this because it is what you deserve to do, but He chose to lighten your burden. This should lead us to be grateful.
An example of this is the command to pray half the night in Surah Muddathhir before it was abrogated. In the first few verses of the Surah, Allah tells the Prophet to pray around half the night. In the last verse, Allah forgives them and lets them pray however much they are able to.
It could also portray to future generations the great challenges the Prophet and the Muslims faced such that they would need this rule.
An example of this is the command to give charity before speaking privately to the Messenger before it was abrogated. Some hypocrites used to waste the Prophet’s time intentionally with useless conversation. To discourage them, Allah commanded people to give a certain amount of charity before speaking to the Prophet. Then, this command was lifted. It shows us the problem of hypocrites the Muslims were facing such that they needed to implement this rule.
Ease to Difficulty:
When a ruling is replaced with something harder, the easier ruling existed as training before the final ruling was put into place. If people were commanded with difficult things immediately when Islam was new, that would make it difficult for them to accept it.
An example is that alcohol was allowed in the beginning of Islam but forbidden later. It was discouraged gradually before it was completely forbidden. In verse 2:219, Allah said it contains some benefit and a lot of bad but did not explicitly forbid it. Then, Allah forbade praying while drunk in verse 4:43, and this reduced the times someone could drink (since prayers are throughout the day). Finally, it was completely forbidden in verse 5:90-91.
When the easier ruling still remains in text even though its ruling no longer applies, that is because it still applies in a different way or it shows us the importance of teaching Islam gradually. The verse that forbids praying while drunk remains even when alcohol is haram because people might still drink illegally. The verse that mentions there is benefit in alcohol remains because it shows people Allah was not ignorant of its benefit when He forbade it. The verses also remain to portray to Muslims that laws should be taught gradually.
When a ruling is replaced with something equal to it in difficulty, that is a test for people to see whether they will obey or disobey the Prophet (SAW).
An example is the change of the qiblah from Jerusalem to Makkah. Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem in the beginning days of Islam, then Allah revealed verse 2:144 and its surrounding passage to command them to pray towards Makkah.
Allah mentions a couple of reasons for why He changed it, among which are to test people and because of the wish of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). It exposed the hypocrites and the Jews who pretended to believe. Allah says about them, “Soon, the foolish will say: What turned them away from their qiblah that they used to be upon?” (2:142)
The change of the qiblah has many more benefits specific to it like showing the status of the Prophet (SAW) in that Allah would change the entire qiblah for his wishes. Allah says, “We will surely turn you [O Muhammad] to a qiblah that will please you” (2:144). It also symbolized that the era of the Jews had ended.
Wisdoms Related to Text
Abrogation of Text:
The reason a text would be removed along with its ruling is obvious. Why keep a text that no longer applies?
The reason a text would remain while its ruling is abrogated is what needs contemplation. The verse can have lessons in it that are useful even when the ruling is gone, and examples of that are given in the previous section. Its recitation also serves to give reward to people for reciting the words of Allah.
Abrogation of Text While Ruling Remains:
When a text is removed while the ruling remains, that is a test to see who obeys something even when they have some excuse to reject it, and this obedience raises the status of this Ummah in reward.
I only know two examples of this: stoning of the adulterers and five sucklings to establish a foster relationship.
The punishment for married adulterers is stoning to death according to the consensus of the scholars. This is not stated in the Quran as it is today. The Quran only mentions the punishment for unmarried adulterers, which is 100 lashes. The punishment of stoning was originally revealed in a verse of the Quran, then that verse was abrogated from the text. See Sahih Bukhari.
Because the Jews tried to ignore stoning even when it is clearly stated in the text of their scripture, Allah gave Muslims this command in scripture and abrogated it from the text to show their superiority over the past nations: Muslims will obey even when it is not clearly stated in the text. As for the one who disobeys, he is exposed for following his desires and using excuses to reject things that come in the clear Sunnah.
As for stoning, it is clear why it is a test for people to accept it. A lot of people, as can be seen in many modernists, desire to reject it because they dislike the command. As such, stoning becomes almost a litmus test to determine whether someone values his desires over the religion, even if he does so unknowingly.
It can also be noted that the only two examples of this were revealed to abrogate or specify other verses of the Quran. So, it is possible the reason these were initially revealed was because only the Quran can abrogate other parts of the Quran and the reason they were removed is because Allah did not intend these rulings to stay in the text for the above reason or other reasons.
Abrogation of Text of Information:
When a text that is informational (i.e. not a ruling) is removed, that can be used as a method of explanation before something more concise and eloquent.
An example is the abrogated verse “If the son of Adam were given a valley full of gold” (Sahih Bukhari) before it was replaced with Surah Takathur. The abrogated verse is a longer elaboration on the greed of people, and Surah Takathur says the same thing but more concise.
There is difference of opinion whether this was truly an example of abrogation. I take the opinion in this article that it was. Other people said: Some Sahabah thought it was as important as the Quran, but it wasn’t actually a part of the Quran.
And Allah knows best.