Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Islamic Inheritance

Islamically (i.e. according to the Qur'an), a woman is supposed to inherit half of what a man inherits. At the time the Qur'an came down, this was seen as a monumental shift: now that a woman could inherit and thus participate in the economy, she was no longer seen (could no longer be seen) as property. Thus this inheritance gave her much more power than she had previously known.

At the time, it was rare for women to work, although some women did. Khadija is a well-known example, as well as Umm Salama, one of the Prophet's wives, who sold things she had embroidered. Generally, however, I think we can say that men were the sole bread winners. So it made sense that they would inherit more than their sisters, since they would have to take care of a family.

In the 21st century, I think we can say that in most households across the globe, both men and women work (with maybe the exception of a few countries, like Saudi). I know that in Egypt it is rare to find a family where both sposes do not work, and in fact over 30% of households are female headed, i.e. only the woman works.

So my question is: does Islamic inheritance still apply? If my brother and I are both expected to contribute to raising a family, why should he inherit more than me? Yes, I know, usually the man is more responsible etc etc but from what I see, both spouses usually contribute as much as they can. So is this something that needs to change, since the context has clearly changed? I also know that a Muslim women is not obliged to spend the money she makes, whereas a man is. But seriously, how many people know of a woman who keeps her money when she knows her family needs something? Hardly any, so that argument doesn't make sense to me.

In Iran for example, women now inherit as much as man. I've always wondered why this change happened in Iran: is the culture more open, or is it because Shia's are more open to interpretation? I remember once learning of 2 different ways of seeing the Qur'an: as timeless, for all Muslims at all times in all places, and absolutely no changes should be made; or as specifically meant for 7th century Arabia, and thus certain things cannot be applied today.

Now I know a lot of Muslims will have a problem with the suggestion of "applying something differently than is specified in the Qur'an", but let's remember that the Qur'an is supposed to be timeless, and thus should fit every context. Let's also remember that the Qur'an was clearly written in order to appeal to Arabs (for example, Paradise is always described with rivers flowing, something that would appeal greatly to those living in the desert, but not necessarily to those living in marshlands). Thus certain things may have made sense to 7th century Arabs, but they may not work as well for 21st century Germans, for example. A final point is that there are things that the Qur'an did not ban, but have become taboo. Slavery is an example. The Qur'an does not make slavery illegal, but today most Muslims acknowledge that it is wrong and do not own slaves. I think it should be the same with inheritance: today most women work and thus should have access to the same resources as the men in their family.

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this.


Sarah the Seeker said...

I've always wondered about Khadija because her independence sounded so at odds with the picture of that culture at the time, the oppression that Islam is supposed to have liberated women from.

The question of practicing Qur'anic inheritance, I see it as a question of whether to encourage a type of society where men are mostly the breadwinners and women mostly manage the homes. Is it an essential part of Islam that women have the opportunity to be provided for by men? It seems lots of Muslims think so. I read a lot about women demanding their Islamic wife rights; dowries, and maintenance, and as many children as they want to have. I think it could only work well if it was applied to the whole society. A lot of religious ideals are fairly impractical in modern cultures.

As for how I personally feel about this "traditional" system, I have mixed feelings. I get wistful about it, thinking it would be nice to have. I can't help but feel that traditional roles suit us better in general. But then I would never want to make it hard for ambitious, talented women to have successful careers. It certainly would be harder to do that if there were fewer women in the workplace.

On your general point about interpreting the Qur'an in other cultural contexts, I totally agree, it spoke into a specific cultural context and is not a universal blueprint. It seems that many Muslims are afraid to interpret wrongly, and take the view that it is somewhat arrogant to think you know exactly what God meant and therefore to dare to apply the rules in other than a black-and-white way. Seeing how freely Christians do this with the Bible, and how little sense the Christian implementation of morals within modern culture actually makes, I can understand this view. But I do think we are supposed to have our own understanding of morality, and I don't think 7th century Arabia was as good as it gets. I suppose I think morality is somewhat relative because I don't know how else to accept things in religious history such as slavery that we would consider immoral now. Maybe some few things are absolute, but not an awful lot.

Interesting post!

Lisa said...

The times they are a'changin' as Bob Dylan would say.

My first thought is that I am seeing more and more Muslimah sisters not being given good dowries, not getting their weddings paid for by ther families, and thus having to do a very simple nikah. My point is that the days of saying "she may not get an inheritance, but we're paying for the wedding and other life events" are over.

The Muslim world doesn't seem to want to pay for their daughters period. The husband wants her to work more and more too. It's a difficult time to be a traditional wife and mother in Islam.

In Iran, the culture has changed a lot in recent years. There are more and more women in that country who are unmarried. Some have lost husbands to earthquakes, others to the government imprisoning them on free speech violations. Women want their rights and are no longer afraid to ask for them. This has dictated the change...

If you ask me, it's time to change things. I keep seeing girls who the masjid has to pay for because a ex-husband and family don't want to. This is the fastest way to bankrupt Islam from bringing in new reverts and building masjids....

Anonymous said...

I know of women (without kids) who outright refuse to work no matter how much finsncial troubles the family is having. These women in my opinion deserve squat, but Allah is more generous than I am. I do think however that a woman who recieves an inheritance who is a single mom responsible for her family should recieve the same as the man who gets the inheritance. Islamic inheritance is complicated IMO, so I don't think I can comment on it that much.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if it's because Shia's are more open to interpretation - unlike Sunnis where everything has been "frozen" in time. I haven't read much about inheritance, so I have nothing else to contribute. :))

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

"I've always wondered about Khadija because her independence sounded so at odds with the picture of that culture at the time, the oppression that Islam is supposed to have liberated women from."
I've always wondered the same thing! Leila Ahmed discusses this a lot, and she concludes that women pre-Islam actually had MORE rights than post-Islam, because although Islam gives women a lot of rights on paper, they were usually not realized. Ahmed compares Aisha and Khadija to show the difference between pre-Islam and post-Islam: Khadija was independent, wealthy, a business-woman, she proposed to the Prophet, and she was older than him. Aisha married him when she was extremely young, she didn't work and thus wasn't independent, and she practiced seclusion (or was supposed to). However, Aisha was very outspoken and a very respected scholar, so it's not like they were complete opposites. I do agree with her general point though: Muslims tend to see the pre-Islamic era as completely corrupt, whereas I don't agree with this. Women DID have some rights then, and while the Qur'an gave them even more, they still have not gotten these rights today!

I think that Muslims today see it as an essential part of Islam, even though I'm not sure it is. The Qur'an does say men should be responsible, but in 7th century Arabia was there any choice? No.

I completely agree with your point on cultural contexts. It seems to me idiotic that we would do things exactly the same as they did 1,400 years ago in the desert. Many Muslims insist on this, however, and this is pushing many away from Islam (including Muslims).

Thanks for posting!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

"Women want their rights and are no longer afraid to ask for them. This has dictated the change..." Exactly!! Iranian women have really gone out there and asked for the rights their own religion has given them. The Iranian feminist movement is alive and extensive, mashallah, and more active than most Western feminist movements. I think this also has something to do with Shia's being more open to interpretation, as opposed to Sunnis, of whom many are terrified of looking at context or ijtihad (personal reasoning). It really gets to me that people make their lives so hard when the Qur'an clearly says religion does not need to be difficult!

I agree, it's time to change things!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anon: wow, I cannot see myself ever doing that. If I knew my family was having financial problems there's no way I'd stay at home and not work.
Like you said, a woman who will be contributing to the family's finances should get the same as her brother, especially if she is a single mum.
Thanks for posting!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: the point in my post where I discussed the 2 ways of seeing the Qur'an actually refer to Sunni vs. Shi'a. Sunnis see it as unchangeable and "frozen in time" like you said, whereas Shi'a see it as specific to that context and thus are more open to interpretation.
Then again when we look at the horrific laws imposed on Iranian women by Khomeini, I wonder where this tendency to interpret has gone??

Thanks for posting!

Candice said...

I think that it is the ideal for the man to work and take care of the financial aspect of keeping a family, and for the woman to be in charge of the household (kids, cooking, cleaning). I think that if the woman works, her money is 100% her's. Her duties are still 100% her's so she would be the one to pay for a babysitter if needed, a maid, etc, if needed. If she wanted to buy something like furniture, then it would be considered fully her's. If she wanted to contribute to make the standart of living higher, then it would be her choice to do so. But not her obligation.

That's why I believe that it is fair for the man to get double what the woman gets. I think any Muslim family should operate the way I described above.

I have to say though that if I had a son and a daughter, for example, and that they both had decided taht in their family, financial responsability was split equally (like how it is here now instead of the Islamic way), I would give them equal share of the inheritance.

About things being interpreted, I think that lots of things *can*, but I think that Qur'an is for all times, and the things that are said in plain flat-out language are rules for all times. I don't see much there to be interpretted

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Candice: in your ideal it makes sense for a man to get double, but this ideal barely exists anywhere anymore. Today men and women usually both work, while women STILL have their household and children to look after, thus in a sense working a "double shift". Maybe THEY should get twice as much as their brothers :)

I personally don't believe in any ideal for the division of labour, and feel that if a woman wants to have a career she should, and if a man wants to look after the kids, he should.

The Qur'an is definitely for all times. However, certain things do not necessarily apply today the way they did then. Polygamy is one example. One reason for polygamy then was that there were many widows who had emigrated from Makkah to Madinah, and couldn't fend for themselves, so the Prophet encouraged men to marry more than one woman. Today we don't have that problem in most countries. Maybe one day in the future women will outnumber men 4 to 1 (we are already starting to outnumber men), then polygamy might make perfect sense again.

Same thing with slavery: God clearly wanted to make slavery a thing of the past, but did not outright ban it in the Qur'an, as the society was so immersed in the slave trade that they would probably not have given it up. Today it would have been much easier to just outright ban slavery.

Umm Omar said...

There is nothing in Islam that says that laws cannot be altered/modified to fit the needs of certain groups of people in certain places. This process is called "ijtihad" and is specifically designed to meet the needs of our diverse circumstances.
Now, imo, I don't think, though, that laws should be changed for all-then the wisdom of the original laws would be lost. For example, in this issue-inheritance-if the laws changed (for absolutely everyone) that women would inherit the same as men-imagine the changes that would take place in society over time. Soon, women would be *expected* to work and contribute to the financial responsibilities. The entire dynamic of the family unit would change. Here in the US, that's what families are like-it has become difficult for families to survive on one income and everyone knows that the quality of family life in the US is poor. Because families have suffered at the cost of two working parents, stay at home moms are making a comeback, and unlike just 20 years ago, women are starting to pride themselves on being SAHM's; suddenly everyone realizes that being a mom, is in itself, a full-time job. Anyway, I realize I'm digressing. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

ellen557 said...

This is such an interesting post.
You are right - the Qur'an is timeless. So in order for it to be timeless, it must suit every single context. I guess that means I agree with your last point :P

I feel like it should be done individually. Like, if the man is the sole worker in the family then yes, he should get double. However if the man and the woman both work equally and both contribute to the household then I don't see the need for such a difference. I know that if I ever inherited anything, then I wouldn't spend it just on myself. I would personally feel obligated to give it to my family, for their well being.
Each woman and each family is different, so I really agree with you - everything has to be taken in its context.

I didn't actually know that about Iran. But, women are present in the workforce there (I think about 27%?) so it makes sense. I don't think it's because they've fought for their rights - they're not always able to fight. We have to remember that the situation for women in Iran is still not ideal, we can't see it as a paradise - that is a big mistake and just lets the problems continue.

I agree with you about Khomeini - I do prefer his ideals to the Shahs, but in some aspects I think he didn't do the right thing. It's the same with Khamenei (the supreme leader at the moment). He writes such beautiful things about women and their rights (check out but I think in practice, he loses a lot of that.

I'm rambling, sorry! Just an example of how interesting this post is.

Anonymous said...

cairo - well I've seen quite a few people on blogger who have 1 or more co-wives, and I don't think they'd agree with your interpretation of that. ;) I do agree with you, I believe (from what I've read), that the reason for that is to provide for the widows and orphans. It's not for men to go around and have 4 wives just because they can. My feelings about polygamy are if all members of the marriage are okay with it, then I don't see a problem.
If the husband goes and gets another wife without telling the other wife(s), then that's wrong, IMO. I know one of my husband's uncles in Turkey got a 2nd wife (it's pretty uncommon there, since it's illegal... maybe in the villages it might be more common but not in the cities) and the 1st wife was pressured into not reporting him to the police. In that situation he treats his 2nd (and younger) wife more like the wife, and the older wife doesn't appear to be treated the same.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: you brought up a really interesting point: if the inheritance laws are changed for everyone, women will start being expected to contribute and the entire dynamic of the family unit would change. Never thought about it that way!
I think one mistake the feminist movement made in the 70s was to devalue being a mother/housewife. Now this stigma seems to be disappearing as more women choose to stay at home. In the end it should be about choice.

Ellen: I totally agree with you; if I inherited as much as my brother then it's not like I'm going to go spend it on clothes and jewelery. Obviously I'd use it to contribute to my family, and I think most women would do this. At the end of the day, there are also irresponsible men who inherit twice as much as their sisters and spend the money on gambling and prostitutes, so I think a case-by-case thing would be better for everyone.

Aynur: I feel like a lot of things in the Qur'an were to address specific issues at that time. Whenever someone had a question they'd ask the Prophet and many times a Surah would come down addressing that question.
I personally would never agree to be in a polygamous marriage but if someone else is comfortable with it, that's fine. Judging from most Arab men I've met, I'm guessing their reasons for taking more than 1 wife have nothing to do with "supporting widows and orphans" and more to do with sex. Just my opinion. Like you said, it's not for men to go around and have 4 wives just because they can, but I feel a lot of men do that. It's so interesting that it is illegal in Turkey and Tunisia - these countries have banned something that is allowed in the Qur'an, and yet I feel it's not a big deal since some things don't fit the modern context the way they did then.

Thanks for posting ladies!

Jasmine said...

My personal view is that a lot of laws should be scrapped because they don't fit in anymore. And to that mix I would put: inheritance laws, violent punishments (slashing with whips, throwing stones, polygamy - these are the ones at the top of my head right now)

My academic view is that when you argue an argument like: "when the Quran was written it was written for....(your argument here)" the argument cannot stand without critiquing God.

Here's the two bits where the critique comes in. The first part is that part of acceptance of God, is the acceptance that God knows everything, he knows everything that has been, and everything that will be. He is omnipotent. If we accept that God is omnipotent, then we must also accept that he knew the world would change, he knew developments would take place, he knew women would change, men would change and society would change.

The second part is that God is perfect an makes no mistakes - so whatever God does God does with inention.This intention is good and pure.

So: omnipotence plus perfection means: God would not write something on purpose that we were supposed to reject later.

So changing messages in the Quran is the same as critiquing God. The argument cannot stand.

Jasmine said...

To Sarah and her comment on Khadjiah - yes you are totally right - she is not oppressed at all.

But what is interesting is that women after the message could never be a Khadijah.

So I guess that God's opinion of female liberation, and the females idea of female liberation aren't in complete synch.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Jasmine: interesting comment. Do you think, however, that if God had written social rules and regulations that fit the 21st century, they would have been accepted by 7th century Arabians?
Similarly, if the message of the Qur'an had come down to a tribe in Africa as opposed to Arabia, would it have highlighted rivers and dates, or would it have restricted customs such as marrying large numbers of women or infanticide that may not have necessarily existed in other parts of the world (I'm not sure about this, just guessing that these things varied from place to place)?
I feel even from an academic point of view, the Qur'an is meant for all people and all times, BUT the examples used in it were meant to appeal specifically to 7th century Arabians. Hence the Qur'an says "be good to your wives". To us in the 21st century it means complete equality between the sexes (to me anyway). In the 7th century it probably meant do not beat them as much as you did before and marry ONLY 4.
By adapting certain things to fit different contexts I don't think we are saying that God is not perfect. Rather I think we are doing what God said we should - we're THINKING. Like Umm Omar said in her comment, the concept of "ijtihad" does exist in Islam and unfortunately I feel it is barely used these days.
God does know everything. But for Islam to have been accepted at the time of the Prophet, it had to appeal to the people of the time.

Thanks for the great comment, it really made me think!

Sarah the Seeker said...

Following on from Jasmine's comment, someone recently said to me that they think all holy books and scriptures are a result of mankind's experience with the divine, and the words used are a reflection of their understanding of the divine. This would explain why they are not universal/not outside of culture. I realise this isn't the way most Muslims see the Qur'an, but it is a compelling view for me.

I certainly can't see the Qur'an as eternal and uncreated, considering it contains specific responses to specific situations they were facing. It could be, since God knew the future, but I don't think there's any need for it to be.

I see moral/social rules as being mostly relative; this is how I dealt with things in the Old Testament that I couldn't readily relate to.

And if people aren't able to cope with relativity and ijtihad and insist instead on imitating the past, maybe that's OK for them. Since it's all relative anyway. Why should we think our modern cultural context is automatically better?

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

"And if people aren't able to cope with relativity and ijtihad and insist instead on imitating the past, maybe that's OK for them." That's true, if people want to do this they should be able to. However, many of them try to impose it on others, resulting in social pressure to conform to this type of life, and that really annoys me.

I agree with you about the Qur'an dealing with specific situations that were there at the time, which is why I think not every single thing in the Qur'an needs to be applied exactly the same way across time and place.

Thanks for posting :)

Sarah the Seeker said...

Re women's rights before and after Islam, my knowledge of history is very limited, but what I have heard is:

- Khadija was an independent businesswoman pre-Islam
- some Arab women were bare-breasted, but then some veiled their faces, pre-Islam (??)
- there were cultural differences between Mecca and Medina (could this explain the difference between Khadija's independence pre-Islam vs women being treated as property pre-Islam, not owning anything, etc? Are both these pictures historically accurate?)
- women served in the army and prayed with men in the mosque, etc. whereas now they do not other words it all sounds very complicated. I don't know what to understand from it.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...


I'll try and add some things I know...

- Khadija was an independent businesswoman and a very wealthy widow. She had been married 3 times before the Prophet, and she proposed to him, despite being much older.

- the veil was invented by the Greeks, and then spread to Arab culture after Islam. However, there are accounts of Arab women veiling pre-Islam, which could mean the veil had already reached Arabia by then.
If what you say is right and some Arab women were bare-breasted before Islam, then the verse that says "draw a cloth across your chest" makes much more sense. I'll try find out if this is true.

- Mecca was known to be much more patriarchal, whereas in Medina women had more rights. A lot of the Prophet's companions complained about the women in Medina and how they were "too free". Khadija was from Mecca though so it doesn't explain her independence.

- Women did serve in the army and pray in the mosque with men.

I think women did have rights before Islam, but Islam gave them even more. However, most of these rights were never realized, due mostly to companions such as Omar, who did not believe in women's rights at all (he used to beat his wife for praying at the mosque, and he forbade the Prophet's wives from praying at the mosque or doing Hajj). Until today, a lot of Qur'anic rights have not been given to women.

Sarah the Seeker said...

I got the bare-breasted thing from this blog post which I think you will enjoy reading.

So how did Khadija become wealthy? Did she inherit from her late husband(s)? Or was it all self-earned? Maybe she was just exceptional.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Thanks for that post! Seriously, you've really helped me out with this whole bare-breasted thing! :D

I'm not sure how Khadija became wealthy. Maybe it was a family business until her last husband died. I remember reading a book that stated that Khadija's situation wasn't exceptional. If I remember which book I'll let you know.
There's a story about the Prophet's great grand daughter. She was reported as saying that she was outgoing and bubbly because she was named after her pre-Islamic great grandmother, whereas her sister was quiet and shy because she was named after her Islamic grandmother. I always thought that was interesting!

Anonymous said...

cairo - you'll also find in Muhammad Asad's translation of the Qur'an a footnote about the women being bare-breasted before in the verse talking about drawing the khimaar over the bosoms. :) I've also read that women covered their heads, even prostitutes - they just bared their breasts so guys could see the goods.

Jasmine - I want to point out that stoning is from the hadiths - NOT the Qur'an, (you might know that already but I wanted to mention it). :D

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: thanks for that. Asad's translation sounds good from everything you've said. I'll try to find one. This whole bare-breasted thing changes the way I interpreted that particular verse.

Tryer said...

I would like to say that this is out of mercy that we women are better of being home. In addition to pregnancy, taking care of kids, menstruation and a lot more challenges do we want to go out and work as well? So it becomes wajib for the man and only optional for the woman to take part in the household income. After working for a few years and then staying home the reason became clear to me. The stress both at work and home is just too much. The house is much more blessed with me home. The same worked for my mom. As a kid I hated having to walk into an empty house sometimes. When mum is home it makes all the difference. there is much more wisdom in the Quran and Allah's rulings that we would ever understand!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Tryer: I agree with what you said. For me it's about women having a choice. At this point in my life I would rather study and have a career, and thank God I am able to do that. Many women however can't, because they are told that "Islam doesn't allow that" and "women must stay home". There are benefits to both, in my opinion, and a woman should choose for herself which she wants to do.

wantowearhijab said...

what if a woman has no kids but cannot work due to disibilities and learning problems? IS that being selfish? WHat if NO ONE will hire hher, not even walmart?