In a recent comment on my article “Abrogation in the Qur’an” someone asked me if I was aware that there are in fact a few instances of abrogation within the Qur’an – specifically referring to the verses on the use of intoxicating beverages. I think this is a very good question, and makes a reasonable objection. So I spent some time looking at the verses on that subject, and then posted this answer to the question in the comments section. I have decided to post it as an article also, so that others who may not refer back to that article and its comments section can get an idea how I approach such specific examples of possible abrogation. Here’s my answer:
Since I have come to the conclusion that any ‘abrogation’ in the Qur’an invalidates it as a message from the One God, I took some time this morning to examine verses related to drinking of intoxicating beverages. I have to say, with no disrespect for those commentators who have seen an instance of ‘abrogation’ here, that there does not appear to me to be any such thing in those verses. Although the most explicit prohibition of intoxicating beverages came in 5:90 and 91 – revealed in the 10th year after the emigration to Medina and just a short while before the death of the Prophet (PBUH) – the other verses all show disapproval of such drinks, never acceptance of them.
The first of the verses related to this subject was a Meccan revelation: 16:67. “And [We grant you nourishment] from the fruit of date-palms and vines: from it you derive intoxicants as well as wholesome sustenance – in this, behold, there is a message indeed for people who use their reason!” That is Muhammad Asad’s rendering – and he is my primary source for English renderings of the Qur’an (I don’t read Arabic at all). If this rendering is correct, then there is even here an obvious contrast between intoxicants and wholesome food and drink. Thus there is an implied disapproval of intoxicants, although not an explicit prohibition. However, it appears that the translators are divided on how the Arabic word sakar (“intoxicants”) should be rendered. Abdel Haleem, for instance, renders it “sweet juices” and comments that the word can refer to any of the liquids derived from the fruit of the vine: wine, juice, or vinegar. He believes here that the context makes it clear that it is the wholesome drink from the vine that is referred to, rather than the fermented variety. Yusuf Ali renders the verse this way: “And from the fruit of the date-palm and the vine, ye get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” So this verse may not have anything at all to say directly about intoxicating drinks.
The next verse in order of revelation is 2:219 (revealed abut the second year after the emigration) – “THEY WILL ASK thee about intoxicants and games of chance. Say: ‘In both there is great evil as well as some benefit for man; but the evil which they cause is greater than the benefit which they bring.’ ” Here there is obvious disapproval, although it is acknowledged that there is some good in them, such as medicinal use. This is an example of where the last part of 5:3 applies (“As for him, however, who is driven [to what is forbidden] by dire necessity and not by an inclination to sinning – behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace”): while one should avoid intoxicating beverages because of the “great evil” therein, making use of them in situations of necessity (when one is sick and such things are needed as medicine) is acceptable and will not be “held against” anyone. The prohibition in 5:90 and 91 would not abrogate this concession.
The next verse in order of revelation, about the fourth year after emigration, is 4:43 – “O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not attempt to pray while you are in a state of drunkenness, [but wait] until you know what you are saying”. Here again, there is obvious disapproval of intoxication; one should not even attempt the prayers (“Salat”) if he is inebriated and not fully aware of what he’s saying. Muhammad’s (PBUH) hearers who used their reason should be easily able to conclude that if one can’t pray while drunk, then God really doesn’t like intoxication at any time. Muhammad Asad’s note on this verse is very appropriate: “…As regards the prohibition of attempting to pray ‘while in a state of drunkenness,’ some of the commentators assume that this ordinance represented the first stage of the total prohibition of intoxicants, and has been, consequently, ‘abrogated’ by the promulgation of the law of total abstinence from all intoxicants (5:90). However, quite apart from the fact that the doctrine of ‘abrogation’ is entirely untenable (see sūrah 2, note 87 [verse 106]), there is no warrant whatever for regarding the above verse as a ‘first step’ which has become redundant, as it were, after total prohibition was ordained. It is, of course, true that the Qur’ān forbids the use of intoxicants at all times, and not merely at the time of prayer; but since ‘man has been created weak’ (4:28), his lapse from the way of virtue is always a possibility: and it is to prevent him from adding the sin of praying while in a state of drunkenness to the sin of using intoxicants as such that the above verse was promulgated. Moreover, the expression ‘while you are in a state of drunkenness (sukārā)’ does not apply exclusively to alcoholic intoxication, since the term sukr, in its wider connotation, signifies any state of mental disequilibrium which prevents man from making full use of his intellectual faculties: that is to say, it can apply also to a temporary clouding of the intellect by drugs or giddiness or passion, as well as to the state metaphorically described as ‘drunk with sleep’ – in brief, to any condition in which normal judgment is confused or suspended. And because the Qur’ān insists throughout on consciousness as an indispensable element in every act of worship, prayer is permitted only when man is in full possession of his mental faculties and ‘knows what he is saying.’ ”
Nothing in this verse approves or permits intoxication at any time; but it forbids doing “Salat” prayers while intoxicated, thus by implication disapproving it at other times also.
Then comes the final statement about intoxicating drinks (5:90 and 91) in the tenth year after the emigration: “O YOU who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state! By means of intoxicants and games of chance Satan seeks only to sow enmity and hatred among you, and to turn you away from the remembrance of God and from prayer. Will you not, then, desist?” Here, then, intoxicants are explicitly prohibited; but this does not “abrogate” the previous passages disapproving and discouraging the practice.
While it’s possible the “argument” is merely about how one defines “abrogation”, to my mind the explicit prohibition in 5:90 could only be considered “abrogation” if previous verses had explicitly approved or permitted intoxicants. If God had said at one point “drinking of intoxicating beverages is completely permissible”, and then later said “I’ve changed my mind; I don’t want you doing that any more”, then that would obviously be “abrogation”. Or if God had said at one time “it’s allowed”; then at a later time said “it’s okay except when you’re going to be praying”; and then again said “it’s no longer allowed at any time”; then that would be a 3-stage process of abrogation. Such is not the case however. It’s just that prohibition was implied in earlier statements, and made explicit in Sura 5.
That’s how it appears to me, anyhow. God knows best.