Islamic Studies Inheritance
David Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0166


There is arguably no field of Islamic law that reflects the situation in the Hijaz during the lifetime of Muhammad as well as the law of inheritance, which is treated at length and in exquisite detail in the Qurʾan. Shortly after the hijra to Medina in 622, six verses regulating different aspects of testamentary succession were reportedly revealed to Muhammad: Q. 2:180–182, 2:240, and 5:105–106. These verses instruct a person contemplating death to leave a bequest (wasiyya) for parents and close relatives; warn believers not to alter a last will and testament; encourage the reconciliation of parties who disagree about the provisions of a will; permit a testator to stipulate that his widow is entitled to one year’s maintenance; and establish that a last will and testament should be drawn up in the presence of two witnesses. Circa 3/625, the Prophet received a second set of revelations dealing with inheritance: Q. 4:8, 4:11–12 and 4:176. These verses establish that both men and women are entitled to inherit and award specific fractional shares of the estate (fara+id) to daughter(s), parent(s), sibling(s), husbands, and wives. The relationship between these two sets of instructions—the former dealing with bequests and the latter with compulsory shares—was reportedly clarified by Muhammad who, in 8/630, declared that “a bequest may not exceed one-third of the estate”; and, in 10/632, explained that no person who receives a fractional share of the estate, as specified in the Qurʾan, is entitled to receive a bequest (“no bequest to an heir”). Additional statements attributed to the Prophet gave further shape to the new system of inheritance: Muslims and non-Muslims do not inherit from one another; a murderer does not inherit from his victim; a slave does not inherit from its master; an illegitimate child has no claim on the estate of its father; and clientage creates mutual rights of inheritance between patron and client. Over the course of the first centuries AH, Muslim scholars created the ʿilm al- faraʾid, or “science of the shares,” a law of great precision and complexity.

General Overviews

The general principles of Sunni inheritance law may be summarized as follows: The estate of the deceased is comprised of all property owned by him/her, minus funeral expenses, debts, and bequests (which may not exceed one-third). There are two classes of heirs, “sharers” (ahl al-faraʾid) and agnates (ʿasaba). Sharers are those persons for whom the Qurʾan specifies a fractional share of the estate (one or more daughters, a father, mother, or spouse—and, in the absence of children, one or more siblings). Agnates are persons related to the deceased exclusively through male links, arranged in a series of hierarchical classes, with a member of a higher class totally excluding any and all members of a lower class from entering the inheritance. Within each class, a person nearer in degree of relationship to the deceased excludes all others in a more remote degree, e.g., a son excludes a grandson. Following the payment of first debts and then bequests, the division of an estate proceeds in two stages: Qualifying sharers take their Qurʾanic entitlements; then the closest surviving agnate inherits whatever remains. For example, if a man dies leaving a wife, son, and two brothers, the wife inherits one-eighth of the estate as a sharer, and the son inherits the remaining seven-eighths of the estate as the closest surviving agnate, totally excluding the brothers from the inheritance. If, in addition to a wife, son, and two brothers, the deceased also leaves a daughter, the son transforms his sister into a residuary heir (ʿasaba bi-ghayriha): He inherits seven-twelfths of the estate and she inherits seven-twenty-fourths, after the wife takes her one-eighth. In theory, a person contemplating death is powerless to affect the relative entitlement of the heirs, for he or she may not stipulate that all or part of the estate will devolve upon one or more testamentary heirs.

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