The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East

By Timur Kuran | Go to book overview

5
Drawbacks of the
Islamic Inheritance System

Of all the economic rules in the Quran, the most detailed are those on inheritance. Restricting the individual’s testamentary privileges to one-third of his or her estate, the Quran reserves the unbequeathed portion to children, spouses, parents, and siblings of both sexes, according to rules dependent on the exact composition of the legally recognized heirs.1 The rules were understood to provide shares also to more distant relatives under certain circumstances. For certain special cases, the applicable rule differs across the two major denominations and principal schools of law. Only under the Shii interpretation may the testator make bequests to a relative already entitled to part of the estate as a “Quranic heir.”2

The degree to which the Islamic inheritance system departed from the norms of pre-Islamic Arabia is a matter of controversy.3 Whatever the extent of historical continuity, its testamentary restrictions clearly subordinated personal preferences to the extended family’s need for financial security and predictability. They also strengthened the inheritance rights of females. Although a female heir’s entitlement normally amounts to only half that of a male in the same class of inheritors,4 in seventh-century Arabia this right enhanced the economic security and social status of women.

The assignment of inheritance shares to a wide class of family members reduced wealth dispersion. Also, at least Sunni variants of the law dampened intra-family tensions by preventing wills from favoring certain heirs. More significant for our purposes is

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