When we try to interpret the sources of Qur’an and the hadith, perhaps the most important tool we have is proof by contradiction. In this method, as any good student of logic knows, if you find a contradiction then you have disproved the interpretation.
Allah refers to this when He states: in the Qur’an in 4:82
Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other Than God, they would surely have found therein Much discrepancy.
Our knowledge is inevitably built by forming simple models of the world which then get modified by what we discover that contradicts our models. We need consistent models of meanings that fit all the evidence we have. The same approach is inevitably taken to the evidence we use to interpret the guidance of the Qur’an into rules we apply in our lives. We may find from time to time things which seem to contradict, paradoxes in our models. Physics today suffers from basic paradoxes of wave particle duality, so we make better models that fix those paradoxes with a new understanding.
One way some people are tempted to “fix” the contradictions in their understanding is to cherry pick the evidence they pay attention to and ignore the evidence that goes against their preferred understanding. This willful blindness almost defines the sin of disbelief in Islam.
This approach of ignoring the evidence you don’t like is the basis of hypocrisy and can always be a temptation if resolving those contradictions seems too difficult.
This happens to some large extent in how people use abrogation in their interpretation of the Qur’an. They say this verse no longer applies, because this other verse changed the guidance.
The Qur’an does talk about abrogation in verse 2:106
None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar
This is connected with an argument that ties directly with a general change of religious obligations from Jews, Christian towards those for Muslims symbolised in the change of direction of prayer (qibla) towards Makkah from the direction used by the Jews. The Muslim community were given at the time of the change of qibla a new set of rituals, that while similar to those of previous religious communities was distinct and specific to them. This was an abrogation of earlier religious law. Although there is no specific instruction in the Qur’an to pray towards Jerusalem which is abrogated, this was the practice of prophet Muhammad (pbuh). What we can see from this is that prophet Muhammad was trying to follow what he knew of earlier revealed guidance as well as what he got revealed to him primarily in the Qur’an. After the change of qibla and with the Qur’an providing a now full set of principles, his approach changed and he no longer relied on earlier revealed guidance but only on the Qur’an.
The conclusion of this is that the one recognised dismissal of inconsistencies is that the Qur’an gave instructions that as a whole abrogate the religious laws of earlier revelation to previous prophets. These abrogations also changed the behaviour and instructions given by Muhammad to his followers accordingly.
A common cited example of abrogation within the Qur’an was that wine was not forbidden initially, but allowed, then was discouraged, then it was forbidden to be intoxicated when praying, then finally forbidden.
However, there is no verse specifically allowing it. The Qur’an’s instruction essentially is like : “Don’t be drunk and drive, being drunk is bad for you and those around you, so don’t drink. ”
To claim this is a change of rules from an implicit permission to drink when you are not driving to a prohibition of drinking at all times, is I think a stretch of the meaning of abrogation. It remains a bad thing to drink and drive or drink and do your prayers when you know that it is a bad thing to be drunk generally. The guidance of the first verse is not abrogated and so can be ignored. Rather it is still true; the assertion that being drunk is bad confirms the previous assertion that drink driving is bad, it does not contradict it.
Understanding of the Qur’an can rule out the notion that one part of it is in contradiction to another because of abrogation. It can and does correct and change rules from earlier religious communities and it confirms many as well, but the Qur’an is consistent taken as a whole and so any contradiction we find means we have misunderstood something.
Understanding the example of prophet Muhammad as reported in sayings and actions attributed to him is more involved and needs to separate out when he was following practices and teachings of earlier revealed religions, such as praying towards Jerusalem, and when he was following only the Qur’an later on.
When it comes to verses in the Qur’an that people cite as having contradictions perhaps the clearest case is made for rules on inheritance. For example the husband is given a share of 1/4 of his wife’s estate whereas her parents are given shares of 1/6 each and if there are only daughters, they have a 2/3 share. These shares when simply added up are more than 100%. There are several other cases like this and there are lots of permutations. Some of these are down to possible interpretations of the word “kalalah” which linguistically means someone weak and therefore has the usage of someone who has no parents. Due to the separate other verse specifically about kalalah with no children being necessary to clarify the shares it could be argued that it has some ambiguity in meaning.
To look at all these issues and see what interpretations would resolve the issue we need to consider all permutations of inheritance shares. The permutations involved are for the following heirs (possible significantly different calculations in brackets):
- Mother (2 Yes/No)
- Father(2 Yes/No)
- Spouse(3 Wife/Husband/None)
- Sons(2 Some/None)
- Daughters (3, Many/One/None)
- Brothers(2, Some/None)
- Sisters(3, Many,One/None)
So there are 2 x 2 x 3 x 2 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 432 permutations. To look into all these the easiest thing for me is to build a nice piece of software to run the numbers for different interpretations and see which ones can remove the situations when the shares add up to more than 1.
What I have found is that the only way to resolve all these cases is with the following observation: The shares are subject to the overriding principles set out that you have rights of inheritance over your parents and those closest to you. This implies that shares have a priority and the closer relative has the greater right of inheritance. This principle is reiterated in the Qur’an by the assertion that the rights of children and parents are obligatory and that we cannot say whether parents or children are closer to the deceased. The other shares described in the following verse for spouses, brothers and sisters are described as limits rather than obligations, implying that these relatives can claim up to these shares but not beyond them. If we apply this principle of closest relatives have greater rights, then the problems can readily be solved. First the parents and children get their shares, then the spouses get up to their shares from what is left, then the brothers and sisters get up to their shares from what is left finally, there is an instruction to provide in general for the needy from the estate.
One particular rule worth noting is that if the deceased leaves a mother and no children then the mother would get a third, but only if the deceased left no brother. This implies that the deceased’s brother(s) have an obligation to support their mother and that her reduced share would correspond to an increased share for brothers. This led me to adopt an interpretation of the meaning of kalalah as someone who either has no parents or has no children or has neither parents nor children.
There are a number of other details to this which I worked through and I have now put the software into a website. It is available as source code to inspect in detail for any who care to do so. The software can be found at