Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Rights of inheritance: Harmonizing justice’s tune in Islam’s realm

The rights of inheritance in Muslim law are derived from Allah’s command as specified in the Holy Quran, which outlines the portions entitled to each heir. However, the Quran does not directly address every circumstance regarding inheritance rights. Therefore, Islamic jurists have developed specific rules based on interpretations of the Quran, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), consensus (Ijma), and analogy (Qiyas). Despite these guidelines, there are instances where our social order fails to adequately protect inheritance rights, especially in special cases. There stands a need to safeguard the rights of inheritance in exceptional situations to ensure compliance with Allah’s command and provide for future events.

Inheritance is the entry of living persons into possession of a dead person’s property. It exists wherever the institution of private property is recognised as the basis of the social and economic system. The actual forms of inheritance and the laws governing them, however, differ according to the ideals of different societies.

The law of inheritance in Islam is based upon five main considerations:

  1. To break up the concentration of wealth in individuals and spread it out in society.
  2. To respect the property right of ownership of an individual earned through honest means.
  3. To hammer in the consciousness of man the fact that man is not the absolute master of wealth he produces but he is its trustee and is not, therefore, authorised to pass it on to others as he likes.
  4. To consolidate the family system which is the social unit of an Islamic society.
  5. To give incentives to work and encourage economic activity as sanctioned by Islam.

In both ancient and modern societies, the laws of inheritance were plagued by numerous injustices. Women were often completely excluded from inheriting property, and being treated as possessions rather than rightful heirs. Additionally, in tribal societies, the weak, sick, and minor children were often denied any share in inheritance, with power and might determine entitlement. Primogeniture further exacerbated inequality by granting the eldest son the lion’s share of the father’s property. However, Islam brought about significant reforms in inheritance laws, delineating clear shares for each inheritor and limiting the property owner’s arbitrary disposal of assets. 

Crucially, Islam elevated the status of women, making them co-sharers in inheritance alongside men, thereby restoring their dignity and safeguarding their economic rights. Islamic inheritance laws also aimed at equitable distribution of wealth, breaking up concentrated wealth in society and providing a democratic basis for property division by rejecting primogeniture. The principles guiding the distribution of the deceased’s estate in Islam prioritize meeting obligations such as funeral expenses, clearing debts, and fulfilling bequests within one-third of the total assets, with exceptions barring inheritance for fugitive slaves, murderers, non-Muslims, and those residing in hostile territories.

In Islamic society, the allocation of inheritance shares between men and women is grounded in the Quranic verses that acknowledge their respective roles and statuses. The Quran explicitly grants women the right to inherit from their deceased relatives, outlining specific shares for wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in various scenarios. Moreover, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad emphasize the importance of ensuring that both male and female heirs receive their rightful shares. Islam, as a comprehensive way of life, ensures that women have a social presence by providing them with economic stability through inheritance and property rights. However, in practical terms, societal customs often diverge from religious teachings, particularly in South Asian countries, where cultural practices sometimes supersede religious principles. Despite Islam’s clear stance on women’s inheritance rights, cultural reluctance prevails in granting women their due shares. This discrepancy not only has economic implications but also reflects deeply entrenched gender dynamics within society. 

The 1937 Muslim Personal Law (Sharia) Application Act was enacted to enable Indian Muslims to govern their personal and familial matters by Islamic principles. It covers various areas such as marriage, divorce, financial support, and inheritance for all Indian Muslims. This legislation allows Muslims to follow their laws regarding inheritance and succession, with courts required to apply relevant Islamic law in settling related conflicts.

Safiya, a resident of Alappuzha in Kerala, is determined to challenge the constraints of Islamic law despite no longer identifying with the religion. Seeking relief from the Supreme Court, she aims to be recognized as a non-believer, a crucial step towards ensuring her daughter inherits her entire estate. Under Sharia law, only half of her assets would go to her daughter, with the remainder allocated to her brother. Safiya’s case adds fuel to the ongoing debate surrounding the discriminatory aspects of Muslim Personal Law, particularly regarding women’s inheritance rights. She contends that non-believers should not be subjected to the personal laws of their birth religion and asserts that only through such recognition can she access the secular Indian Succession Act of 1925. As stated in The Print.

“I left Islam because the religion’s rules and conventions are against women. And yet, even after making such a decision, Islam is becoming a hindrance to me inheriting and giving away my property. There needs to be a solution to this.” Safiya’s assertion that she abandoned Islam due to its perceived discrimination against women, yet encounters obstacles within Islamic inheritance laws, reveals a lack of understanding and refusal to acknowledge that Islamic principles are not inherently biased against women. But..

According to the rule set by the Muslim Law Board, in the event of a father’s death without a written or oral will and any witnesses, the property is distributed among his children in a prescribed formula. This formula typically allocates one-third of the property to the daughter, a certain percentage to the mother, and the remaining percentage to the sons. However, if the father is alive and decides to make a gift leaving 100% of his inheritance to his daughter, Sharia law permits this without any complication. Essentially, in cases where a Muslim passes away without leaving a will, Sharia law governs the distribution of the estate.

Safiya’s decision to address these issues highlights the intricate dynamics between personal convictions, societal customs, and legal structures. However, she needs to recognize that her actions may inadvertently compound the challenges faced by Muslims in India, who already endure persistent discrimination and dehumanization. While Safiya’s intentions may stem from a desire for justice and equality, it’s crucial to weigh the potential repercussions of her advocacy on marginalized communities, particularly those vulnerable to prejudice and marginalization.

Islam’s core principles rejection by Safiya and her criticism of the Quranic concept that “one man is equal to two women” reflects disconnection from reality. She argues that this principle underpins the perceived injustice within Sharia law’s rules of succession. In Islamic teachings, equality does not mean identical treatment, but rather equitable consideration based on these distinct roles. Furthermore, Allah SWT is believed to uphold fairness and justice without gender discrimination.

In furtherance, failure to respect women’s rights of inheritance in Islam carries severe consequences. According to Islamic teachings, upon a Muslim’s death, certain obligations must be fulfilled from their estate. Those who violate the laws of inheritance are deemed transgressors of Islamic Sharia, seen as seizing others’ property and rights unjustly. Allah, as mentioned in the Quran, warns of humiliating punishment for those who disobey His commands and transgress His limits.

Additionally, traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad emphasize the gravity of unlawfully depriving heirs of their shares in inheritance. Such actions are condemned as acts of injustice and disobedience to Allah’s will. The Prophet also stresses the importance of fearing Allah and ensuring justice in distributing inheritance among children. Furthermore, it is emphasized that a believer’s soul cannot enter Paradise until all debts are settled, emphasizing the seriousness of financial obligations. These teachings underscore the significance of upholding women’s rights of inheritance in Islam and the severe repercussions of failing to do so.

In Islam, the nullification or discrimination of women’s rights is not intrinsic; instead, societal norms and lawmakers often perpetuate inequality by integrating cultural biases and prejudices. The severity of consequences for violating women’s inheritance rights, as highlighted in Islamic teachings, raises the question: will adherence to these principles foster a more equitable society, or will cultural influences persist, overshadowing religious mandates?

Nashra Naim is a student of Law at Aligarh Muslim University, interested in politics, law, literature and religion.

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