One of the ways I approach the world is that of constant improvement, every single time, on every single issue. I look at historical figures as models to use in the thinking about the need for progress. On every issue! Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I wanted to write something in commemoration of the event, in celebration of Islamic Law of Inheritance, and in request for further growth in our application of Islamic practice and principles regarding gender equality when it comes to inheritance.
When the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) came to Arabia in the 7th Century, the region was truly a medieval hell hole for many of its inhabitants where the survival of the fittest was the law of the land. Men who disliked a girl child being born could throw her away to die. Women had zero rights. In War, the victor owed no obligation to the vanquished. If you were strong or your clan was strong, and you were male, you hit a jackpot. So when we look at Islamic scripture, especially Hadiths, it is important to look at it from the standpoint of the environment in which it was developed. Looking at it that way showcases it’s revolutionary principles and in turn motivate us to continue in upping the ante in revolutionary Islam in our time.
Before Islam, in Arabia, women had no rights to the properties of either their husbands or their children or their fathers or any family member for that matter. They were totally shut out of Inheritance if there was a strong or greedy male figure in the family. Like Sa`d al-Rabi, any greedy uncle could easily confiscate the property of a deceased man and leave his widow and children to suffer. And given that men held most of the economic power at the time, this was a totally unacceptable and inhumane practice. But I’m sure many of us today in 2018 can still remember stories in our neighborhoods in Ghana where a man dies and his widow is hounded out of his house by family members and his children are left penniless. I have witnessed this first-hand in Tamale and I’m sure a lot of you have as well. We have therefore, if still not, operated on barbaric principles of survival of the fittest when it comes to inheritance as relates to children and wives in the not so distant past.
In Ghana, it is not surprising to see children of a rich man devolve into starvation simply because his family and siblings capture his properties and dispossesses his wife and children. It is often seen as the right thing to do since wives are often not seen as members of the family but as outsiders. To that end, even monies spent on a wife when the husband is alive is often seen as wasted money. This often leads to competition between the wife and family members (often times especially with the man’s mother) for his resources during his lifetime and after his death. So a clear delineation of the amounts of properties allocated to whatever family member is often a revolutionary step in the right direction as it ensures a level of security for the wife and children even in today’s environment. So in this environment of greedy uncles similar to 7th century Arabia, Islamic law of Inheritance comes in handy and guarantees women of something after the death of their spouse, and children after the death of their father. In Sa`d al-Rabi’s case, his spouse and children would not have received anything without the intervention of the Prophet. That is indeed revolutionary and it is one of the reasons why I admire the Prophet so much.
To many women in medieval-like societies, Islam’s injunctions on inheritance is a boon. Before it, they got nothing, after it, they got half of what their brothers did, and wives got at least a quarter: so from zero to something substantial is of paramount importance here. But we have to ask ourselves a question here, is that revolutionary in the time we live today? Why was it revolutionary then but not today?
In the 7th Century and in our not so distant past in Ghana, sons shouldered the responsibility of taking care of the parent and continuing the family. So it is not surprising that they’d need a bigger share of his inheritance compared to their sisters. In my family for instance, it is usually the case that my mothers will end up living in the house of my brothers or the eldest will take the place of the father and look after the household as head of the family. In such a scenario, it is reasonable that the one shouldering most of the responsibility at least get twice as much as others. But is it so today? I doubt it.
When I look at my grandfather for instance, among his children, Aunty Rabi and Aunt Fuseina are his main pillars even though he has male children. They are both educated and married but when he needed a new zoŋ (Dagbanli hall), it was aunty Rabi who built it for him. This is just one of the many ways she’s assumed more responsibility than was usually the case for women in the family ages ago. So it seems me that it is no longer revolutionary to say that simply because she is a woman, she gets half of what uncle Abdallah gets because he’s a man. She helps pay light and water bills in the house, helps with the school fees of the kids and other things much more than my uncles. She is no longer the same daughter we always had in our family. She’s a different class of daughter today.
Many of the inheritance laws were written for a time when opportunities for personal growth and development for women were severely limited. And to that end, women’s contributions to the family was seen as nonexistent or limited. But with women securing education and economic capital today, they are just as useful in contributing to the family as men. So using a 7th century rule on inheritance appears out of step with the times.
This is where a number of my values intertwine. In Aunt Rabi’s case, I’ll much rather her children carry on the name of the family than any other uncle because she’s very educated and is raising well groomed and educated children who will be better placed to bring pride to the family. As an admirer of the Ashanti matrilineal system, I’d rather her children were the children of our family than anyone else’s. So to me, I believe that we should be flexible in terms of who we think are the continuation of our bloodlines partly because women represent the most genuine and secure continuation of our blood. The children of your son might actually not be his given the amount of infidelity we have in society. I’ll be more flexible with this than our traditional Dagomba patrilineal ideas of who makes for a continuation of the family line. Because we don’t think of the children of our daughters as much family as those of our sons, that’s why many people find it hard to give our daughters equal inheritance. I believe that needs to change. We can be more flexible on this. And here comes another Islamic law of Inheritance that we can revolutionize for our times: the Wassiyyah and Hibah.
I’ll group these two together as a WILL. Generally, the law requires the Wassiyyah to be no more than what has been prescribed by inheritance law. I’ll say it is not revolutionary today because there’s virtually no difference between boys and girls today. So I’ll work on the Hibah to make up for the revolutionary shortfalls of the Wassiyyah. So the Hibah is usually gifts given when the person is alive and the Wassiyyah qualifies more as a will. So there’s room to maneuver here. In my case, I will make sure to gift my daughters enough gifts before I write my Wassiyyah so that even though in it they are still getting half of what their brothers are getting, the Hibah will make up for the difference.
I could just come out and outright say people should ignore the injunctions on Wassiyyah and give girls equally as boys but I’ll be accused of Bid’A. And our people are quite afraid of getting these charges labeled on them so we have to find other ways of working around this for a lot of people. So the Hibah comes in handy for those who are afraid of breaking the rules. This is the same for wives as well. I do not think it is fair that if my wife dies, I get to own half of her property but she can only own a quarter of mine in the reverse. So I’ll use the Hibah to make up for the difference here as well.
So what I will advise any fair minded Muslim on this issue is to write a will (Wassiyyah) detailing how his properties should be shared and accompany it with the Hibah (gifts) before he dies and make sure it is fully transfered into your daughters hands lest some greedy uncle will invoke some scripture to take your children’s inheritance. We all know that the laws of Inheritance written in our constitution means jack to family members and without something tangible left behind, they’ll be hounded out of your properties after you die. I believe girls and women are equal to men in their worth. So if you believe the same, you should work to, for all intents and purposes, make it a practical reality in your division of Inheritance before you die. Do not leave it to chance. Let us continue with the revolutionary courage displayed by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and make Islamic law of Inheritance revolutionary for our times. Salaam🙏🏽
In the Spirit of International Women’s Day 2018 and for my Pepper Sisters. Revolutionary Regards and happy International Women’s Day tomorrow!