Publication Year



David S. Powers, Ph.D. 1979

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.

Series Title
Oxford Bibliographies: Islamic Studies
Oxford University Press