Much fuss is made over the fact that women allegedly inherit half of what men inherit under Islamic law. This, however, is only part of the story.
The Qur’an clearly stipulates that everyone is required to write a will when death approaches them. They are expected to leave reasonable bequests for close relatives and the needy. There are no specific instructions given as to what share of inheritance everyone will receive.
“Prescribed for you when death approaches [any] one of you if he leaves wealth [is that he should make] a bequest for the parents and near relatives according to what is acceptable–a duty upon the righteous. Then whoever alters the bequest after he has heard it–the sin is only upon those who have altered it. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” 2:280-281
However, in some cases, deceased individuals haven’t left a will. When there is no will available, wealth is to be divided based on the rules in Surah Nisa.
“Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females. But if there are [only] daughters, two or more, for them is two thirds of one’s estate. And if there is only one, for her is half. And for one’s parents, to each one of them is a sixth of his estate if he left children. But if he had no children and the parents [alone] inherit from him, then for his mother is one third. And if he had brothers [or sisters], for his mother is a sixth, after any bequest he [may have] made or debt. Your parents or your children – you know not which of them are nearest to you in benefit. [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.
“And for you is half of what your wives leave if they have no child. But if they have a child, for you is one fourth of what they leave, after any bequest they [may have] made or debt. And for the wives is one fourth if you leave no child. But if you leave a child, then for them is an eighth of what you leave, after any bequest you [may have] made or debt. And if a man or woman leaves neither ascendants nor descendants but has a brother or a sister, then for each one of them is a sixth. But if they are more than two, they share a third, after any bequest which was made or debt, as long as there is no detriment [caused]. [This is] an ordinance from Allah, and Allah is Knowing and Forbearing.” 4:11-12
According to the italicized words, it is clear that the inheritance rules in verses 4:11-12 only apply after both the will and any relevant debts are paid off.
Why the disparity?
In certain cases, women inherit half of what men inherit. This is because men are given a wider duty of financial responsibility in the Quran. They are required to support their households (2:233, 4:34, 65:6), while anything a woman earns is hers alone. Men are also required to pay a dowry or a marital gift (4:4) and may have to pay monetary compensation in divorce cases (2:241). Additionally, widowed women are bequeathed a year’s worth of financial maintenance (2:240).
Fragmenting the Qur’an
Quranic inheritance laws are based on universal principles of justice/balance (4:32-33). It is notable that rules in the Quran cannot be fragmented; women getting less inheritance is dependent upon men providing for their families. One principle cannot be followed in exclusion of the other.
Unfortunately, in many communities, inheritance is automatically divided based on the rules in 4:11-12 without first leaving a will. In other cases, women are cheated out of receiving any inheritance whatsoever, or do not receive the money they are entitled to from their male relatives. This is unIslamic.