Dr Natalie Schoon
Islamic Finance Specialist
Regular contributor and Islamic finance expert Dr Natalie Schoon, examines inheritance rights for women in Islam.
At a time when women generally had little to no rights, the Quran introduced equality between genders. Women were not owned by their husbands, but were considered independent and could have their own property. Equally, the fact that they had (and have) the right to a share of any inheritance was put beyond dispute. In fact, the inheritance rules are very strict. First, funeral expenses and any outstanding debt is paid from the estate. After that, a Muslim is entitled to leave one third of their estate to any person or charitable organisation as they desire by will or final testament. The remaining two thirds is allocated to heirs as outlined in Surrat al-Nisa (the women), ayats (verses) 11, 12, and 176 and is summarised in the table below. In this context it is generally accepted that parents refer to both biological parents as well as adoptive parents and children refers to both own and adopted children.
||Twice the share of daughters
||Half the share of sonsIf there is only one daughter she receives halfIf there are two or more daughters they share two thirds
||If there are children, one sixth eachIf there are no children and no brothers or sisters, the mother receives one thirdIf there are brothers or sisters, the mother receives a sixth
||If there are no children, halfIf there are children, one fourth
||One fourth if there are no childrenIf there are children, one eighth
||Siblings only inherit when there are no childrenIf the deceased is a man leaving a sister she will receive halfIf the deceased is a woman leaving a brother, he takes all
If there are two sisters they share two-thirds between them
If there are brothers and sister, the brothers receive twice the share of the sisters
It all seems easy enough until you actually start to try and work out an inheritance only to come to the conclusion that the parts can add up to more or less than one. In an attempt to explain the rules of inheritance, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi applied earlier logic to formulate a set of algebraic equations. He published his findings in 830 AD in a book entitled Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala, which is also known as the foundational text of modern algebra. The third and longest chapter of this book is devoted to solving Islamic inheritance problems using linear equations. The way to resolve who inherits what is to treat this question as a balancing equation, the end result of which has to be 1.
Let’s start with an easy example. A man dies, leaves no wife, no debt, and one daughter and one son. His inheritance after funeral cost is 6,000 dinar. We know that the share of a son is twice that of a daughter. If we use the letter a to represent the inheritance, our formula would be as follows:
Therefore, the daughter inherits 2,000 dinar (1/3 of 6,000) and the son 4,000. So far it’s all quite straightforward, but let’s now assume that there were 2 daughters and one son. In this case, bearing in mind the son receives twice the share of a daughter, the son would receive half of the inheritance (3,000) and the daughters one quarter (1,500) each.
All still relatively easy, so let’s look at an example where a man dies and leaves 2 daughters, a wife, and parents behind. His inheritance, after paying for the funeral cost is 15,000 dinars and in his will he has bequeath 2,000 dinar to a cousin, 1,000 to his wife and 2,000 to an unrelated friend.
Applying the rules, the shares in the inheritance are as follows:
Since there are no sons, but two daughters, they receive one third each. Because the couple had children, the wife is entitled to one eight and the parents to one sixth each. In this case our formula would give:
In order to be able to compare these shares to each other, we first have to find a common denominator which, in this case, is 24 and will change our equation to the following:
Adding the different shares show exactly what the issue is, since the total ads up to 27/24a. Knowing that the total will need to be equal to 1, we can work out that 1a = 24/27 since 24/27 * 27/24 is equal to 1. Having established this we can work out every heir’s share. In this case, each heir receives the following:
The daughters: 1/3 * 24/27 * 10,000 dinar = 2,963 each
The wife: 1/8 * 24/27 * 10,000 dinar = 1,112
The parents: 1/6 * 24/27 * 10,000 dinar = 1,481 each
In this particular case, the wife receives an additional 1,000 from her husband’s will, and ends up with a total share of 2,112 dinar. Due to the fact that both women and men are entitled to distribute up to one third of their estate by will, it is possible to increase the share of one or more of the prescribed heirs.
Granted, this is not the easiest subject to work out. However, these examples clearly show that despite the share of sons being higher than the share of daughters, women do have the right to inherit and therefore they can own property. The fact that in many Islamic legal systems, the share of the male heir has been increased and in cases such as Afghanistan, resulted in women not being not entitled to an inheritance at all; is based on cultural interpretation, rather than anything else.