Since Biblical days. Judaism has given no female members of the household including the wife and daughters the right to inherit any part of the family estate. In the more primitive inheritance process the women of the family were considered part of the estate and as remote from any legal personality of an heir as was a slave. Under rabbinic law daughters could inherit if there were no male heirs. However even in such conditions the wife could not inherit anything. Why were the women of the family considered part of the estate? Because of the attitude: “They are owned – before marriage by the father and after marriage by the husband.”

Christianity followed suit for long time. Both the ecclesiastical and civil laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers in their father’s patrimony. Wives also had no inheritance rights. These laws survived until late in the twentieth century.

Among the pre-Islamic Arabs inheritance rights were confined exclusively to the male relatives. Islam also made a great revolution in this respect for the Qur’an declared:

For the male heirs is a share of what parents and near kindred (who die) leave behind and for the female heirs is a share of what parents and near kindred (who die) leave behind whether it (the heritage) be little or much – a share ordained by God. (4:7)

This short verse contains the basic principles of the Islamic law of inheritance and a significant warning:2

  • Both women and men have a share in the inheritance.
  • A deceased person’s property is inherited whether it be little or much.
  • It makes no difference whether the inherited property is movable or immovable.
  • The survivors (e.g. parents grandparents and nearest relatives) can inherit. If there are any “nearest kindred.” “collateral relations” cannot inherit.
  • Heirs cannot be deprived of their share of the inheritance.

The significant warning is: Women in pre-Islamic idolatrous. Christian and Jewish societies could not inherit. By mentioning female heirs separately but in the same words as it mentions male heirs at the risk of repetition and emphasizing that the estate’s size does not matter the verse warns that women cannot be deprived of their share of the inheritance on such pretexts as “the estate is too small.”

Then the Qur’an details the laws for inheritance (4:11-12). Its basic principles and standards were laid down and its precise details were established on these standards the Prophet’s practice and that of his Companions.

With the exception of the parents and the siblings in some cases a son receives twice as much as a daughter a brother twice as much as a sister and a husband twice as much as a wife. This has been the target of unjust objections. However:

  • First it should be noted that Islam is not a religion that answers objections for whatever it decrees is right and just. Therefore all other religions systems and ideologies must design themselves according to the Islamic precepts. So while explaining Islam’s position in matters to which objections have been raised we intend to illuminate sincere minds.
  • Second the verses present Islam’s law of inheritance as God’s absolute command and in their conclusive pronouncements declare that they are based on God’s Knowledge and Wisdom. So we should try to find the instances of Divine wisdom in them. Breaching them means disobeying God and His Messenger while rejecting them amounts to unbelief.
  • Third. Islam is universal and thus considers and addresses the conditions of all ages and communities. Its worldview is holistic and deals with particular matters in its universal frame. So while viewing its law of inheritance we should consider such psychological and sociological factors as the psychology of women and men; their positions and financial familial and social responsibilities; and their contributions to the economy. As the matter is never a matter of equality between men and women we should evaluate every matter with respect to its own nature and context.

In order to understand the rationale behind Islam’s giving a woman half of a man’s share one must remember that the man’s financial obligations far exceed those of a woman. A groom must provide his bride with a marriage gift which then becomes her exclusive property and remains so even if she is divorced. The bride is under no obligation to present any gifts to the groom.
Moreover the husband must maintain his wife and children. The wife on the other hand is not obliged to help him do so. Her property and earnings are for her use alone except for what she may offer to her husband voluntarily. Besides one has to realize that Islam strongly advocates family life encourages young people to get married and discourages divorce. Therefore in a truly Islamic society family life is the norm and single life is the rare exception for almost all marriageaged women and men get married. In light of these facts one would appreciate that men generally have greater financial burdens than women and that the inheritance rules are meant to offset this imbalance.

When a woman receives less than a man she is not deprived of anything for which she has worked. The property she inherits is not the result of her earning or endeavor but something coming from a neutral source something additional or extra. Thus it is a type of aid and any aid has to be distributed according to the needs and responsibilities especially when the distribution is regulated by God’s law.

The Qur’anic injunction of inheritance is a perfect mercy for women in addition to its being perfectly just for a girl is delicate vulnerable and thus held in great affection by her father. Her father in turn and thanks to the Qur’an does not see her as a child who will cause him any loss by carrying away some of his wealth to others. In addition her brothers feel compassion for her and protect her without feeling envious as they do not consider her as a rival in the division of the family’s possessions. Thus the affection and compassion which the girl enjoys through her family compensate her for the apparent loss in the inheritance.
Some still object on the grounds that a woman’s share of the inheritance should be equal to that of a man so that there would be no need to compensate her through a dower and maintenance by her husband.

Those who make this objection think that the dower and maintenance are the effects of women’s peculiar position with regard to inheritance whereas the real position is just the reverse. Further they seem to be under the impression that the financial aspect is the only consideration. If this were so there would have been no need for dower and maintenance or for any disparity between the shares of men and women. As in every other case however. Islam has considered all aspects connected to the individual’s nature and psychology. It has considered women’s unique needs arising out of their procreative function. Moreover a woman’s earning capacity is less than a man’s and her consumption of wealth is usually more. In most cases in her parents’ house her contribution to the family income is far less than her brother(s). In addition there are several other finer aspects of their respective mental makeup. For example a man always wants to spend on the woman of his choice. Other psychological and social aspects that help consolidate domestic relations also have been considered. Taking all of these points into consideration. Islam has made dower and maintenance obligatory.

Thus it is a severe injustice not a kindness to give a girl or woman more than her due out of unrealistic feelings of compassion – unrealistic because no one can be more compassionate than God. Rather if the Qur’anic bounds are exceeded women may become vulnerable to exploitation and tyranny in the family. As for the Qur’anic injunctions all of them like those pertaining to inheritance prove the truth expressed in: We have not sent you (O Muhammad) save as a mercy unto all beings.(21:107)
Modern civilization wrongs mothers more than girls by depriving them of their rights. Being the purest and finest reflection of Divine compassion a mother’s affection is the most revered reality in creation. A mother is so compassionate self-sacrificing and intimate a friend that she sacrifices all she has including her life for her children. For example a timid hen whose motherliness represents the lowest degree has been observed to attack a dog to protect her chicks.

Islam does not approve of wealth circulating only among a few people; rather it wants wealth to be distributed among as many people as possible. In inheritance considering that God’s grace and bountifulness have a share in it it strongly advises and even orders that distant relatives orphans and the poor should also benefit from it.