The Islamic Rules of Inheritance in the Quran


Few people in the West can be unaware that the present period in our history is characterised by unprecedented access to Islamic ideas and attitudes. Such a state of affairs should be regarded not necessarily with trepidation, but as an opportunity to address such new concepts with of one of the West’s greatest assets: the spirit of analytical enquiry. This article discusses Islam but, in contrast to many books and articles covering this topical and controversial subject, it considers not whether Islam is good or bad, but whether Islam is true or false.

Muslims believe that, around the year 610 in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad ibn Abdullah began to receive messages from the Biblical God and continued to receive these messages until his death in 632. Subsequently, according to Islam, the messages were compiled into a book known as the Quran, which thereby became a book of guidance, setting out the behaviour that God expected from humankind. Because Muslims regard the Quran as the word of an almighty, all-knowing God, they believe that it cannot and does not contain errors or imperfections. One proven error and, in principle, the Quran is shown to have a fallible human author and Islam is shown to be false.

The following presents a detailed description of one of the most straightforward and unambiguous imperfections in the Quran, involving that most exact of sciences, mathematics, in that most important of subjects, money. The topic is rather untypical of the book’s usual subject matter and concerns the division of a deceased’s wealth after death. You would expect that an almighty God would make a competent job of setting out the rules. However, what you will find is that the rules are a muddle. Incompleteness could perhaps be forgiven on the basis that some of the details had been lost, but there is no excuse for incoherence, inconsistency and incomprehensibility. Although a detailed treatment of the subject may be, in all honesty, rather dull, the reader who perseveres will be repaid with persuasive evidence that the world’s second largest religion had its origin not in divine revelation as claimed, but in the imagination of a 7th century Arabian merchant.

The source

A fundamental difficulty with a critique of any part of the Quran is that it is intrinsically an Arabic text and cannot be translated without alteration. Putting aside the question of why God should transmit His final message to mankind in a language that only a small fraction of humankind understands, it leaves us with the problem that any translation can be criticised as inaccurate, if its contents prove to be embarrassing. The only solution is to compare various translations, adding to the complexity of the problem but avoiding the fatal error of misinterpretation and often highlighting the confused nature of the original text.

The translation used in the quoted sections below is predominantly that of Arthur Arberry (1905-1969), a former Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. The version is entitled “The Quran Interpreted” (Ref. [1] below). According to [2]:

The translation is without prejudice and is probably the best around. The Arberry version has earned the admiration of intellectuals worldwide, and having been reprinted several times, remains the reference of choice for most academics. It seems destined to maintain that position for the foreseeable future.

Arberry’s version is compared with a number of others in what follows.

Which parts of the Quran deal with inheritance? In order to avoid accusations of misrepresentation, I have used the words of Ibn Kathir (1301-1373), author of one of the most respected tafsirs, or interpretations of the Quran [3]. He says, referring to Sura (Chapter) 4, Verse 11: “This [verse], the following [Verse 12], and the last honourable verse in this Sura [i.e. Verse 176] contain the knowledge of Al-Fara’id, inheritance. The knowledge of Al-Fara’id is derived from these three verses and from the Hadiths on this subject which explain them”.

It should be mentioned that the Quran’s rules have subsequently been refashioned into a workable (though not necessarily equitable) system for the distribution of a deceased’s legacy. This task evidently began in the early days of Islam, since the Hadiths, mentioned above, are a collection of anecdotes of the words and actions of Muhammad and his companions, eventually collected together some 200 years after Muhammad’s death. None of this subsequent rationalisation is of any relevance; only the coherence of the Quran’s rules is of interest, so the Hadiths will be ignored and only the three Verses; 11, 12 and 176 of Sura 4 will be discussed. Muslims would be unlikely to argue with the proposition that God should be able to specify rules competently without the need for a helping hand from humans.

The rules

First: Verse 11; this reads:

…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 and your sons – you know not which out of them is nearer in profit to you.

Near the start of Verse 11, Arberry’s version says “..if there be women [i.e. daughters] above two,….,but if she be one”, thus omitting the case of two daughters. Whose error is this? Rodwell [4], Pickthall [5], Sarwar [6] and Shakir [5] concur with this translation. However, Yusufali [5] and Al-Hilali & Khan [7] refer to “…two or more..”, thereby (temporarily) rescuing the verse. To add further confusion, Ibn Kathir, who follows the latter opinion, comments “We should mention here that some people said the verse only means two daughters, and that ‘more’ is redundant, which is not true”, where the “some people” were undoubtedly informed Muslims. Already, the confusion is such that the same phrase has been taken by various scholars to mean (in standard mathematical notation), >2, =2 or ≥2. The conclusion is clear: the error is in the original text.

Later in the verse, after the phrase “if he has brothers”, Yusufali and Al-Hilali & Khan add “(or sisters)”, clearly an inclusion not in the Arabic. Rodwell, Pickthall, Sarwar and Shakir stick to the all-male version, though Sarwar assumes that “brothers” specifically refers to the plural, i.e. to “more than one .. brother” rather than an implied “brother or brothers”.

But that is not all. There is a further uncertainty about whether the verse applies to men and women, or just to men. Arberry and Rodwell use ‘he’ throughout whereas Yusufali and Al-Hilali & Khan are equally consistent in using ‘the inheritance’ in place of ‘what he leaves’ and Sarwar similarly refers to ‘the legacy’ thereby making the verse applicable to both sexes. Pickthall and Shakir start off in a gender-neutral style, but then refer to ‘he’. As a final complication, where all the other translators refer to ‘children’ (…if he has children; but if he has no children… ), Pickthall says ‘if he have a son; and if he have no son’.

The choice of which of the versions to adopt here needs to be made carefully. They seem to group into Yusufali and Al-Hilali & Khan on one side and everyone else on the other, with Sarwar at times going off on his own. It is evident that Yusufali and Al-Hilali & Khan, on a number of occasions, add words or phrases to assist with the generality and comprehensibility and it is for this reason that there is an obvious suspicion that they are giving ‘God’ a helping hand. Furthermore, it is conceivable that Arberry et al did not review all the implications of the rules, but merely translated what was there. Therefore, on the basis of this argument, it is assumed that the translation of the latter group (which includes Arberry) is the more accurate one.

Verse 12, which has been separated here into two parts, specifies:

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 you may bequeath, or any debt.

If a man or a woman have no heir direct, 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 he may bequeath, or any debt not prejudicial.

Though not exactly transparent, the verse is rendered similarly by the various translators. As an aside, it is instructive to consider the extraordinary difficulties which even the early Muslims faced with the Arabic version of the second part of the verse. According to Ibn Kathir, the opening phrase reads “If a man or a woman was left in Kalalah” where “Kalalah is a derivative of Iklil; the crown that surrounds the head” [3] This phrase is essentially meaningless as it stands and a suitable interpretation, that of “a man who has neither ascendants nor descendants” or, as Arberry expresses it, a man or a woman having “no heir direct” was only arrived at by (essentially) informed guesswork. However, even this leaves it unclear as to the status of a spouse.

Now, compare the second part of Verse 12 with Verse 176, reputedly the last part of the Quran ever to be revealed:

…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.

Now, compare the beginning of Verse 176 with the beginning of the second part of Verse 12. They appear to cover the same example of a man with no parents, children or spouse but with surviving brother(s) and/or sister(s). However, the rules in the two cases are quite different. A way out of this discrepancy, though it has no support in the Quran, is to assume that Verse 12 refers to the siblings having only the same mother as the deceased, i.e. half siblings. Verse 176 is then taken to refer to full siblings or to half siblings having only the same father as the deceased.

Yet further problems arise when one tries to work out the numbers. In many instances, the fractions do not add to 1, meaning that there is money left over (whose fate the Quran does not specify) or, worse, that there is a shortfall. For example: a woman with two living parents dies, leaving a husband and two daughters According to first part of Verse 12, the husband gets ¼ of his late wife’s estate (but if they have children, then for you of what they leave a fourth). The daughters, according to Verse 11 (and assuming that the verse applies to both sexes) get 1/3 each (..then for them two-thirds of what (he) leaves) and, by Verse 11 again, the parents get 1/6 each (..and to (his) parents to each one of the two the sixth of what (he) leaves, if he has children), making a total of (1/4 + 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/6 + 1/6) = 1¼, or 25% more than the amount available. Of course, various ways out of these problems have been formulated, but only by adding further rules not in the Quran. The Quranic rules alone are, as the above discussion shows, badly flawed.

For those readers whose interest in Islamic inheritance law has, against all the odds, been awakened by the above description, an account of the (Sunni) rules as applied in practice is given in ([8], Section L). Note, however, that because of the difficulties discussed above, Shiite rules are somewhat different. A more detailed discussion is given in [9].

The conclusion

As above, we are forced to ask: if the author was an almighty God, could He not have produced a clear, complete and consistent statement of His requirements? It is evident from (e.g.) [3] that a considerable amount of thought was brought to bear on turning the confused rules in the Quran into a workable system. That this rationalisation has been achieved is a tribute to human ingenuity; that it has taken place without an admission that the original rules were badly flawed is a greater tribute to the human ability of self deception. The chaotic prescription in the Quran is so obvious a mark of human authorship, and careless human authorship at that, that one is forced to profess astonishment that this remains unrecognised by the entire Muslim world.


Quran translations are widely available on the internet. The addresses given below were active when I was writing the article, but others can easily found if the cited ones cease to work. The Tafsir Ibn Kathir may be a little more elusive. As far as I am aware, [8] is available only in book form.

1. Arberry, A (Translator). The Koran Interpreted. Touchstone Books. 1996.

2. Khaleel Mohammed. Assessing English Translations of the Quran, The Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume XII, Number 2.

3. Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Miracle Quran

4. Rodwell, J.M. (Translator). The Koran. Phoenix Press. 1994 Also: Rodwell Index

5. USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of Southern California.

6. The Holy Quran. Translated by Muhammad Sarwar

7. Muhsin Khan and Muhammad Al-Hilali. Complete Interpretation of the Meaning of the Noble Quran in the English Language.

8. Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994)

9. Answering Islam.

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