Making Sense of Islamic Rules of Inheritance

If you have ever tried to read the entire Quran with understanding, you have probably come across at least one passage that is difficult to understand. Different people struggle with different parts of the Quran. One part of the Quran that is often difficult to understand is the verses (ayat) of inheritance in Chapter (Surah) Nisa.

Here is part of Muhammad Farooq-i-Azam Malik’s translation of Verse 10 of Chapter Nisa, the Chapter Concerning Women: “In regard to inheritance, Allah commands you concerning your children: that the share of a boy shall be twice that of a girl. In the case where there are more than two girls, their share will be two thirds of the estate; but if there is only one girl, her share will be one half of the estate.”

It might seem unfair that men inherit bigger shares than women do. There are two things to remember: one, in a spousal relationship in Islam, it is the responsibility of the husband to support the wife financially. Women may work, but it is up to their discretion whether that money goes to the family or stays with them. Two, before the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (S), the Arabs did not allow women to inherit at all. Islam imposes reform gradually rather than suddenly . One might also argue that in a polygamous society, men with multiple wives have much heavier financial burdens than women do. However, this rule was set for all Muslim societies and there have been many Muslim societies in which monogamy was the norm.

I have found that one common reason why a particular person finds a particular concept hard to grasp is that it is too abstract. The solution is to use vivid examples to make the concept more concrete. To this end, I have found a website that makes Islamic inheritance very concrete. It is the “Inheritance Calculator”  This is an applet that calculates shares of inheritance in a wide variety of scenarios.

Scenario 1: I have two living parents, an older sister, and an older brother. I am single with no children. If I die in this state, how much will my relatives inherit from me?

In the applet, I entered 1 in the following boxes – Father, Mother, Full Brother, and Full Sister. (The calculation would be different if my siblings were half-siblings, i.e. with only one parent in common with me.)

The applet says my father should inherit 5/6 of my estate, my mother should inherit 1/6 and my siblings should each inherit nothing.

Scenario 2: A friend of mine is married. He has one brother and both of his parents are living. Let’s say Allah blesses him with one son and one daughter. Then he dies. How much does everyone inherit?

This is the answer it produces: Son gets 13/36, Daughter gets 13/72, Wife gets 1/8, Father gets 1/6, Mother gets 1/6.

Scenario 3: Let’s get a little crazy. A man dies with the following living relatives: 1 maternal grandmother, 1 father, 2 full-sisters, 1 full brother,  2 half-brothers, and 3 sons.

Here’s our answer: Sons get 2/9 each, Father gets 1/6, Grandmother gets 1/6, all others inherit none.

It would be interesting to see the way this program was put together. I wonder if there is a grand equation that summarizes the rules or if there are a bunch of branched smaller equations. I think the latter is more likely.


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