Who is going to pay the bill for the "promise in overdraft?"

According to the Qur'an, Allah gives the following rules in regard to dividing of the inheritance:

Allah charges you, concerning your children:
to the male the like of the portion of two females,
and if they be women above two, then for them two-thirds of what he leaves,
but if she be one then to her a half;

and to his parents to each one of the two the sixth of what he leaves, if he has children;
but if he has no children, and his heirs are his parents,
a third to his mother,
or if he has brothers, to his mother a sixth,
after any bequest he may bequeath, or any debt.

Your fathers or your sons -
you know not which out of them is nearer in profit to you.
So Allah apportions; surely Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.

And for you a half of what your wives leave, if they have no children;
but if they have children, then for you of what they leave a fourth,
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt.

And for them a fourth of what you leave, if you have no children;
but if you have children, then for them of what you leave an eighth.
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt.

If a man or woman have no heir direct [i.e. children or parents],
but have a brother or a sister, to each of the two a sixth;
but if they are more numerous than that, they share equally a third,
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt not prejudicial;
a charge from Allah. Allah is All-knowing, All-clement.

They will ask thee for a pronouncement.
Say: 'Allah pronounces to you concerning the indirect heirs.
If a man perishes having no children,
but he has a sister, she shall receive a half of what he leaves,
and he is her heir if she has no children.
If there be two sisters,
they shall receive two-thirds of what he leaves;
if there be brothers and sisters,
the male shall receive the portion of two females.
Allah makes clear to you, lest you go astray;
Allah has knowledge of everything.

This whole text looks rather difficult to me, but that is a common feature of nearly all legal texts. I chose the translation by Arberry because Yusuf Ali was even more difficult to follow. When things are complex it is always good to start with easy examples. Here that means, just a few people to distribute the inheritance among.

There are numerous simple cases which are not clear how to deal with them at all, since they are not covered under the instructions given. For example, if I have only one daughter, verse 4:11 says that she gets half [seemingly no matter who else might inherit]. The verse also states the general rule that a son inherits double of what a daughter inherits. Does that mean an only son would get all? Even if there are still parents which should also get a share? Also, it is regulated that one daughter would get half, and more than two daughters will [equally] share in 2/3. How much would two daughters get among them? The average between 1/2 and 2/3? [There is actually controversy, and in Sunni law, the vast consensus is to understand "more than two" to mean "two or more" even though that is not what the Arabic says. Therefore two daughters would get 2/3 of the estate. Only "Ibn Abbas, the companion of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), is of the view that two daughters have to get one half share, equal to one daughter's share." (Kavakci, "Islamic Inheritance Law", p. 22)] But since these cases are just not directly dealt with in the Qur'an, let us not speculate about it and only look at the cases for which we are explicitely given instructions and see whether these are consistent.

The problem becomes clearer when we add a brother. In the Qur'an, siblings are only mentioned as heirs when no children exist. In this case Sunni and Shia have gone different ways what to do with the surplus. Shias will give all to the daughter (see #2740), Sunnis will give the rest to the nearest male relative, in this case the brother. Both are true to the Qur'an. The Qur'an does not say what to do in this and many other cases. The instructions are incomplete.

Other examples of the Shia / Sunni difference:

If a man leaves a wife and the two parents. The Shia will give the wife 1/4 and then distribute the remainder as 1/3 for the mother and 2/3 for the father, i.e. they will receive 1/4 and 1/2 of the original estate (see #2741). Sunnis will give the wife 1/4, the mother 1/3 and the father as the nearest male relative the rest, i.e. 5/12. This is not a contradiction to the Qur'an, since no verse is directly contradicted in either method, but it shows that the Qur'an is far from clear in its instructions.

A widower leaves his father and one daughter. According to the Qur'an, the father receives 1/6, the daughter receives 1/2. The remaining 1/3 is given to the daughter by the Shia (see #2743), while it is received by the father as the "universal heir" in the Sunni jurisprudence. For the Sunni law see Dr. Kavakci, "Islamic Inheritance Law", p. 16.

The Shia will give a wife 1/8, the only daughter 7/8, and the sister nothing, while in Sunni law the wife will 1/8, the daughter 1/2, and the sister as universal heir will receive 3/8 (the baqi) (see Dr. Kavakci, page 52).

  • Suppose my wife has no relatives at all [e.g. being a war orphan] and she dies before we are blessed with any children. According to verse 12, I get half of her property. Who gets the other half of her property? Only half of the inheritance is regulated according to the Qur'an.

    The same situation with switched roles, my wife would get a quarter, but who gets the other 3/4 of my property?

    Note: See the link to the actual Islamic law (Shia version) at the end of the document. If there is only one heir, then this heir gets everything. But this is NOT consistent with what the Qur'an actually says. What is the point of the Qur'an giving specific rules if they are not obeyed (because they are just not workable)? Some Sunni schools would put the surplus into the state treasury, if there is no male relative to take the rest.

    One step more difficult. Suppose we do have children.

  • I die and leave my wife and one daughter but I have no other relatives, which means that my daughter gets 1/2 = 4/8 [verse 11] and my wife gets 1/8 [verse 12] leaving again 3/8 unaccounted for.

    In all these [and several more such] cases the question is: Who gets the rest? I agree this can be taken care of by donating it to charities or the local Masjid. But the problem is the Qur'an does not tell us what to do with it. Can the rest also be distributed among the wife and children? But that procedure would make their shares different from what has been specified in the Qur'an! What is the point of specifying clear shares and then abandoning the instructions? Anyway, as long as the shares add up to less than one, things can be settled still "relatively easily." People get at least the share they are supposed to get [according to the Qur'an]. More problematic is the following certainly not uncommon situation:

  • If I (as the male head of the family) die and leave behind (in the order given in the verses above):

        3 daughters,     both parents,      my wife,     then they will receive
        2/3 (2/9 each)   1/3 (1/6 each)     1/8          according to 
        verse 11         verse 11           verse 12     which adds up to
        2/3          +   1/3            +   1/8     =    1 + 1/8

    Where is the extra 1/8 going to come from? Is the local Muslim community [the "fund for balancing out the inheritance shares that don't add up"] going to pay it? After all, if they would be getting the left-overs from the cases when the sum is less than one in the examples above, that would only be fair.

    Shia solve this problem by paying the spouses first, i.e. the wife receives 1/8 and then the other shares are taken from the remainder (which adds up correctly), see #2778 in this Shia legal code. The Sunni schools decrease all shares proportionally (Awliyyah). Both have found ways to work around the problem, but in both "solutions", some or all heirs do not receive the shares specified by the Qur'an.

    Other examples where shares add up to more than one ("solved" by proportional redistribution), as found in "Islamic Inheritance Law" by Dr. Yusuf Ziya Kavakci, page 54-56 and "The Reliance of the Traveller" by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, section L8.2:

            Husband,     two sisters          will receive
             1/2         2/3 (1/3 each)       according to 
            verse 12       verse 176          which adds up to
             1/2      +  2/3           =      7/6 = 1 + 1/6
          Husband,      sister,     mother 
           1/2    +     1/2     +   1/3   = 8/6 = 4/3 = 1 + 1/3

    Problems of this sort can be found many. Another one would be: Mother (1/6), brother & sister (2/3 distributed 2:1 to brother:sister) and 1/4 for the wife is more than one.

  • One son and one daughter. 4:11 says that one daughter will get half and a son will get double a daughter's share, which would be everything. 150% of the available property is distributed and we haven't even looked at the parents and spouse yet.

    Well, even though it doesn't say so, let us assume that 4:11 doesn't only speak about 2/3 for more than two daughters but the 2/3 share holds every time when there are two or more children as many Muslims interpret it. But then the last mentioned case above would still be the same problem for any number of children since the children get 2/3, the parents get 1/3 and then there is nothing left for the wife which is supposed to get 1/8.

  • When a man dies and leaves behind a mother, wife and one sister only, then according to 4:11 the mother gets 1/3 (because he has neither children nor a brother), the wife gets 1/4 according to 4:12 (because they have no children) and the sister gets 1/2 according to 4:176 (because he has no children). Not only do we have again distributed more than there exists [1/12 in overdraft], we also have the very strange result that the direct heirs [people of direct relationship = spouse, children, parents] get each less than the indirect heir which is his sister. It becomes even worse if he has more than one sister since they then get 2/3 instead of 1/2 and we get even more into overdraft.

    Anybody who has ever dealt with dividing out an inheritance will know how easily that can get nasty and how this can poison family relationships if people think they have been cheated. Promising certain people a definite share but not being able to pay them this share because more was promised than is available is the surest recipe for disaster.

    And there seems to be an awareness of this in the Qur'an since it does repeatedly in further verses stress the necessity of being just. And in these there verses we have been looking at, we have the explicit statement at the end of 4:176 that "Allah makes clear to you, lest you go astray" as well as in 4:11-12 it says that "So Allah apportions" and "so Allah charges you" and (because?) He is the "All-wise". I am not sure there are many commands on the Qur'an which are explicitely given to make things clear and which are so completely unclear and contradictory and impossible to fulfill. Do we really want to charge God that he didn't know what he was saying and that He is the author of confusion and contradiction? Or would it be more consistent with the confidence in God's wisdom to assume that this is NOT from God?

  • According to 4:12 and 4:176 the siblings of the person who died only then share in the inheritance if there are no direct heirs (i.e. parents or children according to Muslim understanding - see Yusuf Ali's translation and footnote), but in 4:11, the portion of the mother depends on the existence of brothers, which makes only sense if these brothers get the part that is taken from the mother. If they do not get it, and we suppose the shares added up to one without the existance of brothers, then who gets this sixth that was taken away from the mother by the pure existance of these brothers? It either does not add up with or without the existence of this brother if he does not get this sixth of the mother.

  • Last problem for now: 4:12 says that in case there are no direct heirs [parents or children] then "brother or a sister, to each of the two a sixth" while 4:176 says in the same situation that "they shall receive two-thirds of what he leaves" [double of what 4:12 says].

    Now this has not been overlooked by the commentators and they try to get around this with some acrobatics, here Razi's comments on this issue:

    "that brother or a sister, to each of the two a sixth; in 4:12 'here the brother or a sister means a brother or a sister from the mother, for Sa'ad ibn Abi Waqqas used to read, '...brother or a sister from the mother'. They have judged this way because at the end of the Sura Allah ta'ala said, 'They will ask thee for a pronouncement.
    Say: 'Allah pronounces to you concerning the indirect heirs. 4:176' thus He established that the two sisters receive two-thirds, for the brothers all the money, but here [4:12] established that the brothers and sisters will have the third, which means that the brothers and sisters here [4:12] is not the same as in 4:176. The bothers and sisters here [4:12] those from the mother only, but there 4:176 the brothers and sisters from the father and mother or from the father."

    This is a very handy way of getting around the problem. But also notice they appeal to another reading of the Qur'an to explain the contradiction. Indeed if this reading exist there will be no problem (for this specific contradiction - we had many more above though), but this will raise another problem: The present Qur'an is not all of the Qur'an, or more clearly, the Qur'an is corrupted because parts have been lost.

    But if indeed verse 12 speaks about half-siblings through the mother only, and verse 176 about full siblings or half-siblings through the father only, then this creates another overdraft problem similar to the one found in "Islamic Inheritance Law" by Dr. Kavakci, page 55:

       Wife,  Mother,  2 full sisters,  3 half-sisters from Mother
       1/4    1/3        2/3              1/3 together
       v.12   v.11        v.176            v.12
    adding up to   (3 + 4 + 8 + 4) / 12 = 17/12

    Thus, making a difference between the siblings in verse 12 and 176 does not really solve the problems.

    "Faraid" is the calculation of inheritance. Given the prime importance of this topic, it is an even worse problem to find contradictions on this issue in the Qur'an.

    I know Muslims have found ways to solve their actual inheritance problems in real life. But if we take the information from the Qur'an only, then it does just not work out. To the very least, the instructions on inheritance do contradict the Sura 41:2-3 where we read: "A revelation from the Most Gracious, Most Merciful; a Book, whereof the verses are explained in detail; a Qur'an in Arabic, for people who understand." Even though it goes on in the next verses to talk about "people who do not understand and who turn away", and I agree that deeper insights into the Word of God are only given to those willing to listen with an open heart, the rules of simple arithmetic are not depending on spiritual disposition.

    Even if one would not put standards of perfection on these rules as it is fitting for revelation from God, but only think it to be from Muhammad, it is strange that this successful business man, in charge of whole caravans for a number of years, was not able to correctly add up a few fractions.

    Furthermore it seems that I can bequeath whatever I have to whomever I will, since bequests [and debts] are to be taken care off before the rest is distributed to the nearer or wider family. That this can lead to rather gross injustices (e.g. not leaving any support to your elderly parents) does not need to be explained in great detail. This only may lead to injustice (not contradiction - which is the issue we are concerned with here) but doesn't change any of the mathematical problems above since these bequests might only change the amount of what is left to divide, but has no effect on the (relative) shares. The Muslim law is that one can only bequeath up to 1/3 to heirs not part of the legal heirs [but this is not mentioned in the Qur'an and another quite important issue which is not part of "what was made clear"].

    There are some other passages talking about justice in dividing up inheritance or the amount you bequeath to somebody in relationship to other people / kin you are obligated to, but since they do not mention numbers for the shares, they do not throw any more light on the situation. If you want to check them out: 2:180-182, 2:233, 2:240, 4:33. Only 2:240 actually says something specific about amounts. But there it is an absolute amount and not a relative amount of shares as in 4:11-12,176. But comparing 4:12 where a widow usually [since usually there will be children] gets 1/8 this commanded of "one year's maintenance for her" will nearly always be higher or lower than the 1/8 share depending on the size of the property left behind by the deceased. It would be an incredible accident if that would hit 1/8 exactly. So, in the reality of practical life this is yet another contradiction in the Qur'an. [According to Yusuf Ali's footnote on 2:240, many commentators for this reason consider 2:240 abrogated by 4:12. But that is a cheap way to resolve contradictions. These are both in the Qur'an and 4:82 does not say that there are no discrepancies in the unabrogated part, but extends this claim over the complete Qur'an.]

    Muslim responses by Randy Desmond, Misha'al Al-Kadhi and Khalid, The Learner nothing for the wife by an anonymous Muslim, and yet another "solution" by Shabir Ally.

    My response: All those above Muslim reactions either follow some school of Muslim jurisprudence and explain what should done in the problem cases, or they propose own methods which have nothing to do with Islamic reality. But they only explain what is to be done when the Qur'an does not distribute all the estate or more than is available. However, in doing so they import data from the outside (hadith, personal opinions, ...) and the issue of our discussion is whether the Qur'an is sufficient and consistent in itself. The conclusion is that the Qur'an is not logically consistent. In particular, the rule that one party (usually the spouse) is given their share first and then the remainder is distributed according to the given shares, is not found in the Qur'an but imported from the outside. And it is NOT the way the four schools of fiqh are doing it. Furthermore, it does not solve all the problems either. It is not possible to obey the laws as given. None of of the responders solves the problem that shares adding up to more than the available estate is a logical internal contradiction in the Qur'an. None of the proposed solution methods of real life can be derived from the text of the Qur'an. The Qur'an contradiction remains. Human rules are necessary to overrule the word that is claimed and believed to be divine.

    Added comment: "The Learner" was seemingly very much bothered with my continuing non-response to his writings on this issue and wrote yet another note on the inheritance issue. I have to say, that in my opinion everything necessary is presented. If he wants to know what are those hadith mentioned in my private email reply to him (never intended for publication) then I am sure he has access to more Islamic literature on inheritance laws than I do, and I have already listed the titles which I used. This topic is not promising many new insights and I have no desire to spend more of my time on it unless substantial new data is brought to my attention. He considers the issues solved and stated why, I consider it still a contradiction and gave my reasons why. We will just have to agree to disagree and leave it at that. The reader is invited to make up his own mind about the arguments presented by both sides.

    A further contradiction in the inheritance laws is the above not mentioned verse of Sura 4:7

    determining that men and women should each get an equal share (the parallel construction makes that obvious) clearly contradicting the instruction in 4:11, saying

    That is was a contradiction was recognized by all commentators and the general "solution" is that verse 7 is abrogated (mansukh) and verse 11 is the one abrogating (nasikh) it. Would it not be contradictory there would not have been the necessity to created the category of abrogated verses.

    Jalalu 'd-Din in his Itqan gives a list of 20 verses which are acknowledged by all commentators to be abrogated and also gives the respective abrogating verses. The above pair of 4:7 & 4:11 is pair No. 20 in this list.

    Islamic Inheritance Law [Shia source]: Rules Regarding Will (Wasiyyat) and the same. Check out how this fits or doesn't fit the Qur'an as the verses describe it above. And why the injustice in #2783 & #2784? It seems again that the women draw the short straw. #2789: How on earth do you divide a sword in equally in two halves? Isn't half a sword pretty worthless and two half swords just as worthless? And the same division procedure for a Qur'an? Isn't that a rather irreverent thing to do? Info: #2715 and #2719 give the rule that at most 1/3 can be given as a bequest to a person which is usually not an heir.

    Note: Most of my problem cases from above is still not solved in these elaborate rules under preservation of the shares given in the Qur'an.

    Al-Fara'id On-line (A web site dedicated to the calculation of inheritance) Go there and put in the examples I gave and observe how the people in the end do not get the share that is indicated in the Qur'an, how the shares add up to more than one and how they account for it by adjustments. Since this web site is ever so often not reachable, I saved the above and more examples in an extra file at this site.

    Further Islamic web sites dealing with inheritance:

  • A few points regarding inheritance
  • Introduction to Fara`idh (Inheritance)

    There is another aspect in the Qur'anic instructions on inheritance which is not a logical contradiction but which seems to contradict justice.

    Usually Muslims argue that the shares of a male are double than that of a female not because a male is worth more, but because the male has the duty to support his family while the female can spend it all on herself without the need to share. This sounds good initially but let us look at some examples again.

    Imagine the situation that a man dies and leaves no direct heirs but only a brother and a sister. His sister might be a widow with children, without support from others, but she has to feed her children. The brother might be a rich business man and bachalor who has nobody to take care of but himself. Nevertheless, the brother will get 2/3 and the sister will get 1/3 of the estate.

    If "the duty to support the family" is the true reason, then shares would be distributed according to actual need and duty. But this is not talked about in these verses at all nor is this embodied in the actual practice of Islamic law. The male does get double the female no matter what their respective financial situation is and how many people depend on them. He might voluntarily give money to the needy relative. But the inheritance law does not say so, and he does not have to.

    If the reason really is "the man has to support the family" then a widow should get as much as a married man since she now has to support her family. A male batchalor should get as much as a single female who is without children since he has nobody to support but himself just like her.

    But the whole theory of "responsibility of support" breaks down in the case of the death of your spouse. Imagine a man and a woman where both are about 45 years old, who have married relatively late, e.g. at about the age of 30 and who have a number of children, some of them still young. Suppose also that both have worked or for some other reason have similar estates they leave behind when dying.

    If the woman dies, the man gets 1/4 of the inheritance. If the man dies the woman gets 1/8 of the inheritance. But in both cases the surviving partner will have to feed and educate the children and even though the husband has good chances to marry again, a 45 year old widow has far fewer chances to find another husband.

    Why would the woman receive only half the amount of inheritance the man would get but actually in the average situation the woman would be in greater need to have the money to be able to feed her children?

    I don't think this is splitting hairs. I am sure this is not an artificial and uncommon situation. And it seems very unjust. And it does look like the men are worth more than the women. It is their "maleness" that defines the size of their shares to be double than the womens' shares, not the actual situation of need to support a family.

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