In pre-Islamic Arabia, only males inherited. This was changed by the divine message carried by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). When the companion Aws Ibn Thabit passed away, he was survived by a wife, three daughters, and two nephews. Consistent with pre-Islamic custom, the surviving males, the nephews, proceeded to take the entire estate.
Aws Ibn Thabi’s wife complained to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that the daughters and her not receiving a share of the estate was not just. The Prophet (PBUH) said to give him some time to consider the issue. Shortly thereafter, Surat al-Nisa was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which required as a matter of divine directive that females inherit. With this revelation, the Qur’an changed the rules of inheritance to become anchored in gender equity.
While it is true that a daughter receives half the share of her brother, the economic structures of the pre-modern period and the Sharī‘a financial obligations of males toward females in Arabian society warranted this distribution. But females do not always inherit less than their male counterpart.
There are a few scenarios where a female inherits equal to that of a male
Where a decedent is survived by two daughters, a father and mother, the daughters together receive two-thirds of the estate and the parents together receive one-third.
There are scenarios where a female inherits more than the male beneficiaries
Furthermore, if a decedent leaves a husband, two daughters, and parents, the daughters inherit more than the male beneficiaries. In this case, the daughters are together entitled to two-thirds of the decedent’s estate, and individually they take more than the shares of the husband and father.
There are scenarios where a female inherits and the male beneficiaries do not
Moreover, in the case where a decedent leaves a paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather as beneficiaries, the paternal grandmother inherits and the maternal grandfather does not.
Where the decedent is survived by a husband, mother, father, daughter, and a daughter of a son, the daughter of a son would receive 1/6 of the estate, but if the survivor was a son of a son, there would be nothing left in the estate so the son of a son would receive zero.
As we can see, it is not entirely accurate to conclude that Islamic law of inheritance discriminates against females in all cases. In fact, in some cases Islamic law discriminates against males.
The development of Islamic law granted females tremendous financial legal rights. According to Islamic law, a female has independent legal status with the right to own, manage, and dispose of property. A wife’s property and earnings are the wife’s separate property.
Only males have an obligation to pay mahr. While a husband does not have a legal or equitable claim to his wife’s assets or the assets of other females relatives, females have a legal and equitable claim against the property of their male relatives. A wife, for example, has a claim for support from a husband’s property. Similarly, female relatives have a right to support from male relatives (nafaqat al aqareb). Sisters, aunts, and grandmothers all have a claim for support from their brothers, uncles, and other male relatives. In other words, male relatives were legally obligated to support their female relatives, whether she be a daughter, wife, mother, aunt, sister, or grandmother. Males, on the other hand, did not have any claim for support from female relatives.
In light of these extensive financial obligations to female relatives, Islamic law of inheritance, in a few limited circumstances, allocated double the share to male beneficiaries to assist them to meet their Sharī‘a financial obligations.
Today, many American Muslims argue that in the United States, Muslim females are working and earning income, sometimes more than their male counterpart. Living under American law, Muslim males do not have the same legal obligations to support their female relatives as they did under Sharī‘a. Additionally, the extended family is being replaced with the nuclear family, further eroding the extended male financial obligation to females in society.
Based on these tangible social and economic changes in Muslim American communities, many scholars have suggested that if you feel your female relatives will not be protected by their male relatives, it may be a good idea to gift property to the female relatives during your lifetime. It is also possible to discuss these financial obligations with your male children and recommend that they reduce their inheritance shares in favor of their sisters. By taking these simple steps, Muslim Americans preserve the moral spirit of the Qur’an and comply with their faith while living under different family structures in modernity.