Islamic Inheritance Laws

The Qur'an outlines detailed Islamic inheritance laws to ensure that no person is denied his or her rights. In addition to specifying the percentages that each surviving relative is to receive, the Qur'an makes clear that distribution of inheritance is done “after the payment of legacies and debts” (Qur'an 4:11). The rights of a lender have priority over the rights of the heirs, unless the debt is forgiven.

Complicated Calculations

As a system of law, inheritance in Islam is a complex financial calculation. The estate of the deceased is divided, according to a set formula, among his or her surviving parents, children, spouse, and siblings. The shares of inheritance may vary from situation to situation, depending on the number of children and siblings and how many relatives are to be included.

In one verse, the Qur'an specifies, “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 left brothers or sisters, the mother has a sixth” (Qur'an 4:11). In a large family, the calculation can get very complicated. However, Muslims attempt to be fair and distribute the estate according to the law and the wishes of the deceased.

In financial dealings, women are generally on an equal footing with men. There is equal pay for equal work, equal rights to own and dispose of property, and so forth. It is only in specific circumstances of inheritance that a man might be given more than a woman in order to compensate for his greater financial obligations in the future.

Half for Girls?

There is much debate over one aspect of Islamic inheritance law: the erroneous claim that boys are “worth” twice as much as girls. The verse in question reads: “Allah thus directs you as regards your children's inheritance: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females” (Qur'an 4:11).

When considering this law, one must keep in mind the whole Islamic economic system, of which inheritance law is just one aspect. Men bear the sole burden of financially supporting every member of the family. In essence, the money a man earns or inherits is not his alone, but belongs to the whole family. Women have the freedom and right to work and receive earnings. However, they are not legally obligated to spend any of their money on the family's needs.

The same is true of inheritance. The men of the family are obligated to use any income, including inheritance, to provide financial support to the entire family. Women receive their inheritance with no strings attached, no financial obligations to fulfill. Therefore, Muslims see it as only fair that the amounts be adjusted to reflect this reality.

In addition, this ruling is applied only in one specific instance: when children (brothers and sisters) are inheriting from their parents. In other situations the male and female decisions are equal. For example, when parents are heirs to their deceased children's estate, both the mother and father receive an equal share of the inheritance. This indicates that the legal ruling is not a matter of men themselves being better or worth twice as much as women. Rather, it takes into consideration a young man's financial obligations to his other family members after his parents are gone.

Before the coming of Islam, women themselves were objects of inheritance, part of the estate to be divided. The Qur'an abolished this practice: “From what is left by parents and near relatives, there is a share for men and a share for women — whether the property be small or large — a determinate share” (Qur'an 4:7). This was a revolutionary idea at the time; indeed, in many parts of the world women gained inheritance rights only in recent times.

Life Insurance

As a concept, life insurance is forbidden in Islam. There are two reasons for this. First, only God knows the date and place of our impending death, and to seek some sort of protection in matters of death is considered “gambling” on God. This is unsavory, particularly if the contract involves the collection or payment of interest-based funds.

Second, in the Islamic social system, there should be no need for this extra protection. Aging individuals are to be cared for and protected by the circle of family or, in the absence of family, the wider community. If all else fails, zakat (alms) may be used by the state to assist people in need.

Nevertheless, Muslims are advised to build savings for their family's care in the event of their death, and in some predominantly Muslim countries there are organized insurance programs that involve mutual investment and cooperative risk.

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