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A Uniform System of Islamic Inheritance

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

In my forthcoming book, Muslim Mechanics, I noted that while Muslims believe in the free market system, what they do with their profits and assets, i.e., their wealth, is akin to what I would call a wealth splintering system. In other words, their financial system, while not socialist, has social implications. Capitalism is a system that rewards the mass accumulation of money. Islamic Inheritance does just the opposite. Upon one's death, the deceased's wealth follows a predetermined distribution pathway. Part of the distribution is very complex. Muslims are proud to note that their inheritance distribution system was the origin of algebra back in the ninth century.

If you are a Muslim, you will acknowledge that whatever you own is not your wealth. The Qur'an (3:26; 5:120) states that Allah has dominion over everything in the heavens and the earth. There are other verses in the Qur'an as well. It also says that in the Bible (Genesis 1:26). For a Muslim, how inheritance is distributed acknowledges God's actual ownership of wealth. In the Qur'an, Allah, through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, listed only three verses (4:11, 4:12, and 4:176) that gave specific details on how inheritance should be distributed. A few hadith have altered the outcomes for Shia Muslims, but for the most part, Shia and Sunni distributions are similar. You may not like how it is distributed, but it is a uniform distribution system. It applies to everybody. If you have accepted Islam as your religion, then you have agreed on this means of distribution.

The Qur'an requires that Muslims do certain things, such as pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and give the needed minimum donations to Muslim charities. Interestingly, the Qur'an left many topics without much guidance; thus, the hadith from Muhammad was critical for understanding specific laws. That was not the case for inheritance distribution. In the West, many families fight over who gets what when a person dies. In many cases, some children are disinherited before the person dies. Family members make allegations against each other, and lawsuits go on for years. The Muslim system is a uniform system designed to protect the family. The method of distribution is fixed with its rules and processes. It doesn't matter who you like or dislike or, for that matter, who the deceased liked or disliked. Certain people will get their share no matter what. The family unit is what's vital in Muslim society.

When a Muslim dies, four duties need to be performed. They are:

  1. Pay funeral and burial expenses.

  2. Pay off any outstanding debts of the deceased. What is left is the net estate.

  3. Determine the value of the decedent's wealth. That which can be willed is capped at one-third of the net estate.

  4. The remaining two-thirds of the net estate is distributed to the relatives of the deceased, according to Sharia.

Steps 1 and 2 are identical to the process in the West by which we handle the estate of a deceased person. Step 3 is different regarding how much of the estate a person can give away and to whom they can will it. This step is sometimes referred to as testamentary freedom, as someone who makes a will is called a testator. In Step 3, a testator can designate up to one-third of their net estate to specific people or organizations. They cannot give assets to people who will receive a fixed share in Step 4. In other words, the testator cannot designate wealth to a spouse, child, or parent. However, this is an excellent place to endow charitable institutions or adopted children (adopted children do not receive any benefits from Step 4). It is important to note that it is permissible to designate money to non-Muslim relatives, friends, or organizations. If the will does not give away the full one-third of the estate, whatever is left will go into Step 4 and be gifted to designated patrons.

Step 4

In the final part of asset distribution, only relatives with a legitimate blood relationship to the deceased are entitled to inherit. Thus, illegitimate children and adopted children have no shares in inheritance. There are two community exclusions which are religion and homicide. While it is not permissible for a non-Muslim relative to inherit from a Muslim, it is debatable in certain schools of Islamic jurisprudence whether a Muslim can inherit from a non-Muslim. And for sure, intentional and unjustifiable murder would exclude a person from inheritance.

The primary beneficiaries are the deceased's spouse, children, and parents. Second-level beneficiaries are a range of people, upstream, downstream, and sideways. These contingent relatives may be grandparents, siblings, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, etc. The specific relationship matters, often in granular detail. A paternal grandfather inherits only if the father is deceased. A brother inherits only if various other individuals never existed or are no longer with us. Some people replace specific other people. Dozens of rules lay out who can inherit and under what conditions. In large families, there could be many dozens of relatives that might get some small share. If the deceased has no relatives or will, his/her wealth escheats to the state treasury. Calculating this disbursement is a laborious task, but there are now Islamic inheritance calculators on the Internet that do the job very nicely.

In Islam, women are entitled to the right of inheritance. Generally, Islam allots women half the share of inheritance available to men. For example, where the decedent has male and female offspring, a son's share is double that of a daughter. In tribal Arabia, everything had a reason for being. In this case, under tribal law, men have more responsibility for providing for the family and thus need more resources.

Another example was that a woman received a one-eighth share when her spouse died as opposed to a man who received a one-fourth share when his spouse died. Again, the man received double the percentage, but the reasoning was that Islam required the groom to pay the woman, upon marriage, a dower, not a dowry to the family. This payment placed a financial burden on the man where none existed for the woman. This double inheritance share helped men recuperate their financial obligations.

The Link to Algebra

The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing written by Muhammad Ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmīund in 820 CE, was a landmark work in the history of mathematics, establishing algebra as an independent discipline. The term "algebra" is derived from the book's title. In Arabic, using English script, the title of the book appeared like this: al-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah. The book became known as Al-Jabr. The book was used in Western universities as late as the sixteenth century. About half of the text deals with Islamic rules of inheritance, which are complex and require skill in first-order algebraic equations.

Credit to Wikipedia Commons for allowing the use of the title page image for The Compendious Book, 863 AD.

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