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.


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