To discuss the issue of Islamic law on inheritance, we must first of all understand what “inheritance” entails. Inheritance deals closely with the distribution of wealth, i.e. dealing with the transfer of the property of the deceased to the descendants. In most of the early societies in ancient civilisations, the right to inherit the deceased properties is often given to the eldest son and male relatives. Female relatives are given lesser right to inherit, and most of the time their right is denied. In fact, in the more modern civilization, the English Common Law did not give the right for women to own their properties until 1880s. The Married Women’s Property Act was only approved by Parliament as late as 1882 in United Kingdom, to abolish the previous law which stated that a married woman cannot held any property independent from her husband. A similar situation happened in France, where this right was only recognised in 1930s, which is less than 100 years ago. This is how the early societies dealt with the matter of inheritance, where the treatment is favourable to men, while women were treated as the second class creations.
This paper is intended to examine on how the unfair treatment on women is improved by the new set of rules introduced by Islam, and at the same time answer the critics on the unfair regulations on inheritance in an Islamic environment.
The Qur’an on Inheritance
More than 1400 years ago, Islam has outlined specifically the regulations concerning inheritance via the Holy Qur’an. The regulation set in the Book is used as the basis of distribution of the deceased properties in Islam. The question is whether or not Islam dealt fairly with this matter, especially with regards to the distribution to women heirs? Firstly, whether or not Muslim women can inherit at all out of what is left behind by their family is not an issue, as the Holy Qur’an clearly stated:
“From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share. 1
And that is the clear revolution brought by Islam, as compared to the situation prior to the Islamic era. Before the Qur’?c injunction on inheritance, the Arabs tradition, in line with the early civilizations in the world, gave the entitlement on inheritance of the deceased properties exclusively to the male relatives. While the jahiliyah tradition in Arab during that time considered a woman as an object that can be inherited and can be easily abused, Islam improved the status of a woman with regards to inheritance by giving her the right to inherit properties from her family. In light of this situation, we would see clearly how Islam via the divine revelation revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) managed to overcome the problem of unfair treatment of the early societies, long before any modern society can create an unbiased law on inheritance which will benefit both men and women alike.
A comparison can also be established between this rule on inheritance as set in the Holy Qur’an with that of the other sister religions. Let us see the Biblical injunction on this matter, via the revelation to Moses in the Old Testament.
“Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying : The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying, you shall indeed let them possess inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them, You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”2
Looking at the injunction in the above verses, a daughter can only inherit his father’s property in the absence of a son. In the case, when there is even one son left, the rights of the daughter will be denied altogether. This treatment is somewhat quite biased. In addition, the most important question is: where are the rights of the widow? Numbers 27 continues to outline the list of heirs entitled for the properties left, without a single woman mentioned as the legal heir, not even the widow. One would ask, what is the future of the widow when she is left with no means of support?
Now we shall compare this to the injunction via the revelation in the Holy Qur’an:
“God (thus) direct you as regards your children’s (inheritance) : to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. If only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance. If only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children. If no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third. If the deceased has brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. After payment of legacy and debts. Ye know not whether the parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by God, and God is All Knowing, All Wise.”3
The above verse clearly protects the right of both male and female heirs, whereby it guarantees the right of the sons, daughters, parents as well as brothers and sisters, in a manner not available in Numbers 27.
The Qur’an continues by outlining the following:
“In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child. But if they leave a child, ye get a fourth, after payment of legacies and debt. In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child. But if ye leave a child, they get an eight, after payment of legacies and debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question, has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth. But if more than two, they share in a third, after payment of legacies and debts, so that no loss is caused. Thus is it ordained by God, and God is All-knowing, Most Forbearing.”4
In contrast to the Biblical injunction via Numbers 27, Qur’an specifically includes the right of the widow together in this verse. This verse, together with verse 176 of the same sura also outlines the distribution in the situation where there is no ascendants or descendants of the deceased, in which it still gives a fair right to both male and female. Needless to say, the rules on inheritance stated via the Qur’an is complete, and the most important factor, is that it protects the right of both male and female heirs, the quality in which is not available prior to the Islamic era.
The attacks upon the Islamic inheritance law however concentrates on the issue of the “inequality” between the share inherited by a man and the share inherited by a woman, as stated via verse 11 and 12 of An-Nisa’. Looking at these verses in isolation, it is easy for the ignorant critics to conclude that while the Qur’an still protects the right of the women heirs, it is being done “unfairly” by giving lesser right than that enjoyed by men heirs (although this so-called “unfair” treatment only applies to the children, while parents and siblings are treated equally in both verses regardless of gender).
However, we shall examine this rule together with other rules set by Islam in relation to properties to see the balance and the value behind the regulations outlined in An-Nisa’ verse 11-12. First, we have to see the overall responsibilities of a man with regard to woman in Islamic context:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has give the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means.”5
The Holy Qur’an made it clear in the above verse that the provision for maintenance of a woman is the responsibility of a man. Under the sharia’ law:
a) For a single woman, the maintenance should be provided by her father. In the absence of her father, her male relatives, including brothers, grandfather and uncles, are responsible for the provision of her maintenance.
b) The provision for maintenance of a married woman is exclusively the responsibility of her husband6, and a husband is required to pay the dowry for his wife upon marriage (An-Nisa’:4). This dowry is exclusively owned by the wife, and the husband has no right to take it back even upon divorce7.
c) A woman has no financial obligation at all, and whatever she earns or inherits is exclusively her own property. She is free to spend her treasure the way she wants it, and a husband has no right to take even a single cent, except what is willingly given by her.
d) Upon divorce, a husband is required to pay for her mut’ah (Al-Baqarah:241 ) and maintenance during ‘iddah8. The responsibility for the maintenance of the children upon divorce is on the shoulder of the husband9.
By examining the points as stated above, one could see how heavy is the financial responsibility assigned to a man, with regards to the maintenance of a woman, while woman has very little, and more often than not, no financial obligation at all. If the right of a woman to inherit is denied, it would be unfair for her as she’s related to the deceased. The right is still given to the women, as a protection to the women in case of any dispute, which may result in the insecurity or oppression to the women themselves. However, if the share of the properties assigned equally between a man and a woman, it will be unjust for the man as he has greater financial responsibility than the woman. This is the value behind this injunction, in which most critics failed to consider. Islam outlines this matter beautifully, by creating a balance between the rights enjoyed by both men and women. It is clear that, no one is therefore worse off as a result of this rule.
The accusations of inequality and unfairness of the Islamic law on inheritance therefore stands with no basis for the claims. While the modern society struggles to define the best way to protect the rights of both men and women alike, Islam is a step ahead by outlining the most refined and specific rules on inheritance that is known to the civilized world, 1300 years in advance. What is more amazing is that while Islam emerge at the time when the status of a woman was at an all-time low and her rights were totally deprived, Islam has never failed to gradually improve the status of the women to the highest standard by giving a fair treatment to them, which is beyond imagination if the situation 1400 years ago is taken into consideration.
And only God knows best!
- Qur’an, Sura An-Nisa’:7
- Numbers 27: 5-11
- Sura An-Nisa’: 11
- An-Nisa’: 12
- Al-Talaq: 6