Inheritance Law in Islam

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As the main source of Islamic law, the Quran outlines general guidelines for Muslims to follow when dividing the estate of a deceased relative. The formulas are based on a foundation of fairness, ensuring the rights of each individual family member. In Muslim countries, a family court judge may apply the formula according to unique family makeup and circumstances. In non-Muslim countries, mourning relatives are often left to figure it out on their own, with or without the advice of Muslim community members and leaders.

The Quran only contains three verses that give specific guidelines on inheritance (Chapter 4, verses 11, 12 and 176). The information in these verses, together with the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, allow ​modern scholars use their own reasoning to expand on the law into great detail. The general principles are as follows:

Fixed Obligations

As with other legal systems, under Islamic law, the deceased’s estate must first be used to pay funeral expenses, debts, and other obligations. What remains is then divided amongst heirs. The Quran says: “…of what they leave, after any bequest they may have made, or debt” (4:12).

Writing a Will

Writing a will is recommended in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad once said: “It is the duty of a Muslim who has anything to bequeath not to let two nights pass without writing a will” (Bukhari).

Especially in non-Muslim lands, Muslims are advised to write a will to appoint an Executor, and to affirm that they wish their estate to be distributed according to Islamic guidelines.

It is also advisable for Muslim parents to appoint a guardian for minor children, rather than relying on non-Muslim courts to do so.

Up to one-third of the total assets may be set aside for payment of a bequest of one’s choice. The beneficiaries of such a bequest may not be “fixed heirs” - family members who inherit automatically according to the divisions outlined in the Quran (see below).

Making a bequest to someone who already inherits a fixed share would unfairly increase the share of that individual over the others. One may, however, ​bequest to individuals who are not one of the fixed heirs, other third parties, charitable organizations, etc. The personal bequest cannot exceed one-third of the estate, without unanimous permission from all of the remaining fixed heirs, since their shares would need to be reduced accordingly.

Under Islamic law, all legal documents, especially wills, must be witnessed. A person who inherits from a person cannot be a witness to that person’s will, as it is a conflict of interest. It is recommended to follow the laws of your country/location when drafting a will so that it will be accepted by the courts after your death.

Fixed Heirs: Closest Family Members

After accounting for personal bequests, the Quran explicitly mentions certain close family members who inherit a fixed share of the estate. Under no circumstances can these individuals be denied their fixed share, and these amounts are calculated directly after the first two steps are taken (obligations and bequests).

It is not possible for these family members to be “cut” out of a will because their rights are outlined in the Quran and cannot be taken away regardless of family dynamics.

The “fixed heirs” are close family members including husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, full brother, full sister, and various half-siblings.

Exceptions to this automatic, “fixed” inheritance include disbelievers – Muslims do not inherit from non-Muslim relatives, no matter how close, and vice versa. Also, a person who is found guilty of homicide (either intentional or unintentional) will not inherit from the deceased. This is meant to discourage people from committing crimes in order to benefit financially.

The share that each person inherits depends on a formula which is described in Chapter 4 of the Quran. It depends on the degree of relation, and the number of other fixed heirs. It can become quite complicated. This document describes the division of assets as it is practiced among South African Muslims.

For help with specific circumstances, it is wise to consult with an attorney who specializes in this aspect of Muslim family law in your particular country. There are also online calculators (see below) that attempt to simplify the calculations.

Residual Heirs: Distant Relatives

Once the calculations are done for the fixed heirs, the estate may have a remaining balance. The estate is then further divided to “residual heirs” or more distant relatives. These may include aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, or other distant relatives if no other living close relatives remain.

Men vs. Women

The Quran clearly states: “Men shall have a share in what parents and kinsfolk leave behind, and women shall have a share in what parents and kinsfolk leave behind” (Quran 4:7). Thus, both men and women may inherit.

Setting aside portions of inheritance for women was a revolutionary idea at its time. In ancient Arabia, like in many other lands, women were considered part of the property and were themselves to be shared among purely male heirs. In fact, only the eldest son used to inherit everything, depriving all other family members of any share. The Quran abolished these unjust practices and included women as inheritors in their own right.

It is commonly known and misunderstood that “a female gets half of what a male gets” in Islamic inheritance. This over-simplification ignores several important points.

The variations in shares have more to do with degrees of family relation, and the number of inheritors, rather than a simple male vs. female bias. The verse that stipulates “a share for a male equal to that of two females” applies only to when children are inheriting from their deceased parents.

In other circumstances (for example, parents inheriting from a deceased child), the shares are equally divided between males and females.

Scholars point out that within the complete economic system of Islam, it makes sense for a brother to get double the shares of his sister, as he is ultimately responsible for her financial security.

The brother is required to spend some of that money on his sister’s upkeep and care; this is a right she has against him that can be enforced by Islamic courts. It is fairness, then, that his share is larger.

Spending Prior to Death

It is recommended for Muslims to consider long-term, ongoing acts of charity throughout their lives, not just waiting until the end to distribute whatever money may be available. The Prophet Muhammad was once asked, “Which charity is the most superior in reward?” He replied:

The charity which you give out while you are healthy and are afraid of poverty and wish to become wealthy. Do not delay it to the time of approaching death and then say, ‘Give so much to so-and-so, and so much to so-and-so.

There is no need to wait until the end of one’s life before distributing wealth to charitable causes, friends, or relatives of any kind. During your lifetime, your wealth may be spent however you see fit. It is only after death, in the will, that the amount is capped at 1/3 of the estate in order to protect the rights of legitimate heirs.