One of the most important differences between the Qur’an and the Bible is their attitude towards female inheritance of the property of a deceased relative. The Biblical attitude has been succinctly described by Rabbi Epstein:
“The continuous and unbroken tradition since the Biblical days gives the female members of the household, wife and daughters, no right of succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme of succession, the female members of the family were considered part of the estate and as remote from the legal personality of an heir as the slave. Whereas by Mosaic enactment the daughters were admitted to succession in the event of no male issue remained, the wife was not recognized as heir even in such conditions 42.”
Why were the female members of the family considered part of the family estate? Rabbi Epstein has the answer: “They are owned --before marriage, by the father; after marriage, by the husband. 43”
The Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers 27:1-11.
A wife is given no share in her husband’s estate, while he is her first heir, even before her sons. A daughter can inherit only if no male heirs exist. A mother is not an heir at all while the father is. Widows and daughters, in case male children remained, were at the mercy of the male heirs for provision. That is why widows and orphan girls were among the most destitute members of the Jewish society.
Christianity has followed suit for a long time. Both the ecclesiastical and civil laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers their patrimony. Besides, wives were deprived of any inheritance rights. These iniquitous laws survived till late in the last century. 44
Among the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were confined exclusively to the male relatives. The Qur’an abolished all these unjust customs and gave all the female relatives inheritance shares:
“From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large --a determinate share.”(4:7)
Muslim mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters had received inheritance rights thirteen hundred years before Europe recognized that these rights even existed. The division of inheritance is a vast subject with an enormous amount of details (4:7,11,12,176).
The general rule is that the female share is half the male’s except the cases in which the mother receives equal share to that of the father. This general rule if taken in isolation from other legislations concerning men and women may seem unfair. In order to understand the rationale behind this rule, one must take into account the fact that the financial obligations of men in Islam far exceed those of women (see the “Wife’s property” section).
A bridegroom must provide his bride with a marriage gift. This gift becomes her exclusive property and remains so even if she is later divorced. The bride is under no obligation to present any gifts to her groom. Moreover, the Muslim husband is charged with the maintenance of his wife and children. The wife, on the other hand, is not obliged to help him in this regard. Her property and earnings are for her use alone except what she may voluntarily offer her husband. Besides, one has to realize that Islam vehemently advocates family life. It strongly encourages youth to get married, discourages divorce, and does not regard celibacy as a virtue.
Therefore, in a truly Islamic society, family life is the norm and single life is the rare exception. That is, almost all marriage-aged women and men are married in an Islamic society. In light of these facts, one would appreciate that Muslim men, in general, have greater financial burdens than Muslim women and thus inheritance rules are meant to offset this imbalance so that the society lives free of all gender or class wars. After a simple comparison between the financial rights and duties of Muslim women, one British Muslim woman has concluded that Islam has treated women not only fairly but generously 45.
42. Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.
43. Ibid., p. 121.
44. Gage, op. cit., p. 142.
45. B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam (London: Islamic Foundation, 1978) p. 23.
Adapted from the book: "Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth & the Reality" by: "Sherif Muhammad Abdel Azeem"
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