Islam imposes an obligation upon Muslims to write a will to ensure wealth is distributed in accordance with Islamic principles. The foundation for the inheritance scheme is set forth in several verses in the Quran. Although there are multiple schools of Sunni jurisprudence, they have mostly reached consensus as to how to interpret those specific verses pertaining to inheritance.
A common thread concerning the Islamic inheritance laws is that the rules are not easy to decipher and apply. Even in Muslim majority countries, Islamic courts struggle to decipher the rules and apply them to a given fact pattern.
In the United States, Muslim Americans face an additional hurdle because they must find someone knowledgeable of the Islamic inheritance laws, which includes the Quranic verses, the Sunnah (way and teachings) of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and other fiqh rulings pertaining to the topic. Failure to draft a custom Islamic estate plan will result in the State applying its own default rules of inheritance, which conflict with the Islamic inheritance laws.
Furthermore, a person who tries to apply these rules themselves—or relies on an Islamic Will template—will not know if they have followed all the proper procedures for executing an estate plan according to Islamic and secular law. Only by working with an Islamic law expert and an estate planning lawyer licensed in your state can you rest assured. Unfortunately, many families realize that the estate plan done by the (now) deceased family member was not drafted or executed properly and therefore cannot be enforced in the court. By that point, it is too late.
In this guide, we help break down some of the rules pertaining to the Islamic inheritance laws and some of the special exceptions and rules set forth by the Sunnah. This discussion is not an exhaustive guide to the Islamic inheritance laws and therefore should not be relied upon exclusively. It is strongly recommended you consult with a person knowledgeable about the Islamic laws of inheritance and an attorney licensed in your state.
The Laws of Inheritance According to the Quran
The laws of inheritance as laid out by the Quran establish the foundation for an equitable disbursement of assets. These laws are primarily in Surah Nisa’a, chapter 4 of the Quran.
There are also a few inheritance-related verses in Surah Al Mai’dah (chapter 5), which address the need and qualifications of the witnesses for the will. Other verses pertain to the inheritance of minors. But in this Guide, we will focus on the Verses of Surah Nisa’a.
Most inheritance laws in the Quran come from Surah Nisa’a (chapter 4). The verses describe the inheritance rights of the descendants (children) and ascendants (parents).
In verse 11 of Surah Nisa’a, Allah says:
Allah decrees a will for your children; the male gets twice the share of the female. If the heirs are women, more than two, they receive two thirds of the estate. If only one daughter is left, she gets one half. The parents of the deceased are each entitled to one sixth if he has left offspring. If he left no children and his parents are the only heirs, his mother gets one third. If he has siblings then his mother gets one sixth after the fulfillment of any will the deceased has left and after the payment of all debts. Your parents or your children – you know not which of them are nearest to you in benefit. [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.
The following inheritance rules can be derived from verse 11:
- Sons receive twice the inheritance share of daughters.
- If the sole children are two daughters, they can inherit two-thirds of the estate.
- If there is only one daughter, she receives half the inheritance.
- If parents are alive, they each have an entitlement to one-sixth of the inheritance if there are children.
- If there are no children and the parents are sole heirs, the mother receives one-third and the father takes the remainder.
- If there are no children, but the deceased has siblings, then the mother received one-sixth.
- All of this is contingent upon what remains after payment of funeral costs and debts.
Note the ending to the verse. Allah is telling us these shares are mandatory and that we do not know who will be more in need of this wealth upon our passing. But Allah knows what we do not know and has established these rules for the benefit of the entire family.
In verse 12 of Surah Nisa’a, Allah says:
And for you is half of what your wives leave if they have no child. But if they have a child, for you is one fourth of what they leave, after any bequest they [may have] made or debt. And for the wives is one fourth if you leave no child. But if you leave a child, then for them is an eighth of what you leave, after any bequest you [may have] made or debt. And if a man or woman leaves neither ascendants nor descendants but has a brother or a sister, then for each one of them is a sixth. But if they are more than two, they share a third, after any bequest which was made or debt, as long as there is no detriment [caused]. [This is] an ordinance from Allah, and Allah is Knowing and Forbearing.
The following rules can be derived from verse 12:
- Widowers receive 1/2 of the property if there are no children.
- Widowers receive 1/4 of the property if there are children.
- Widows receive 1/4 of the property if there are no children.
- Widows receive 1/8 of the property if there are children.
- If there are no ascendants (parents) or descendants (children), the siblings stand to inherit 1/6 of the property
- If there are two or more siblings, they share a third if there are no parents or children.
In verse 176 of Surah Nisa’a, Allah says:
They request from you a [legal] ruling. Say, “Allah gives you a ruling concerning one having neither descendants nor ascendants [as heirs].” If a man dies, leaving no child but [only] a sister, she will have half of what he left. And he inherits from her if she [dies and] has no child. But if there are two sisters[or more], they will have two-thirds of what he left. If there are both brothers and sisters, the male will have the share of two females. Allah makes clear to you [His law], lest you go astray. And Allah is Knowing of all things.
The following rules can be derived from verse 176:
- If a person passes away without ascendants or descendants (defined as a “kalalah.”), and only has one sister, the sister will inherit half of what is left.
- If a widow passes away without any children, leaving only one brother, the brother inherits the entire estate
- If a person passes away leaving only two sisters, the sisters will have 2/3 of the estate
- If there are both male and female siblings, the males will take double the shares of the female.
These verses establish the basis of the Islamic inheritance laws.
Hadith Establishing Parameters of Who Can Inherit
One famous hadith pertaining to inheritance is in Al-Bukhari.
It states: “There shall be no will (wasiyyah) in favor of a wa’rith (a legal heir).” This hadith is where scholars draw the foundation used to prohibit making a discretionary wasiyyah in favor of someone who is already receiving a mandatory share. In other words, one cannot use the wasiyyah to supplement the shares to fixed heirs such as daughters and spouses.
This stipulation creates a foundation of fairness. It limits what someone can inherit and eliminates the ability to discretionarily awarding more to the “favorite” child. Disinheriting a mandatory heir is also impermissible.
There are, however, two hadith that indicate certain persons can be disinherited by operation of Islamic law. First, where a potential heir leaves the fold of Islam, they are no longer entitled to a fixed share (though a person may designate a share for them in the wasiyyah, if desired), and second, where the potential heir murdered the deceased. The hadith from which these two rules derive are as follows:
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was reported to have said: “A Muslim cannot be the heir of a disbeliever, nor can a disbeliever be the heir of a Muslim.” (Sahih al Bukhari). This view is an accepted limitation for who can be an heir.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also stated that, “one who kills a man cannot inherit from him.” (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah), Jurists agree that unjustifiable or intentional homicide bars one from inheriting from the victim.
Obligation and Benefit of Creating a Will
A famous hadith in Sahih Al Bukhari indicates that a believer “should not let two nights pass without writing a will about it.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, thus stressed the importance of having a will.
Creating an Islamic will also allow the testator to depart with justice and possibly rectify past mistakes. Another hadith of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, states that:
A man may do good deeds for seventy years but if he acts unjustly when he leaves his last testament, the wickedness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the fire. If (on the other hand), a man acts wickedly for seventy years but is just in his last will, the goodness of his deed will be sealed upon him, and he will enter the garden.
Order of Payments After Death
Upon a person’s death, their estate must be distributed as follows:
- Paying funeral expenses
- Paying debts
- Distributing the discretionary Wasiyyah (up to one-third of one’s wealth)
- Distributing the remaining estate to heirs according to Sharia (known as the Mirath)
The first two requirements vary by jurisdiction and individual circumstances. Most of the attention to inheritance in the Quran focuses therefore on the Wasiyyah and the Mirath.
Contact Islamic Wills USA Today
Islamic inheritance laws can be complicated and unwieldy, when applied to a given fact pattern. Additionally, you may not know if you have applied all of the necessary rules. Contact us today to discuss your Islamic will or estate plan.