The pre-Islamic Arabs attached less importance to the person of a woman than that of a man. Thus, if the culprit was a man and the victim a woman, retaliation could not take place. The Qur’an abolished this inequality, and crimes against the woman were placed on the same level as those against the man, whether they concerned person or property or honor.
One may even say that in certain cases the rights of women are held to be more important. For instance, the Qur’an (24:4-5) decrees that if a man accuses a woman of immorality and does not produce proof, he is exposed not only to the penalty prescribed for a false accusation but to be declared for perpetuity as unworthy of giving an evidence before a tribunal (this in addition to the Divine punishment in the Hereafter, which however may be effaced in case of repentance). There is almost a consensus of opinion that repentance erases sin in the eschatological sense, yet the ineligibility to giving evidence remains constant in spite of the recognized repentance. The Qur’an seems to require the purging of society from the evil of inconsiderate talks, particularly in matters where injury is easy to inflict and difficult to remedy.
The perfect and complete individuality of the person of the woman is manifest in a most striking manner in the matter of property. According to Islamic law, the woman possesses the most absolute right over her property. If she has attained majority, she may dispose it of according to her will without reference to anybody else, whether it be her father, brother, husband or son, or any other person. There is no difference in this matter between a man and a woman. The property of a woman cannot be touched even if her husband or father or any other relative has liabilities exceeding his assets. Similarly, these relatives are not held responsible if she contracts debts. A woman has the same rights as a man for acquiring property. She may inherit it, receive it in gift or donation, earn it by her own work and toil; and all this remains hers and hers alone. She is the absolute mistress of her property to enjoy it or to give it to whomsoever she likes as a gift or to dispose it of, by sale or any other legal means, at her will. All these rights are inherent in a woman; there is no question of obtaining them through special contracts, with the husband for instance, or by an award depending on somebody else.
The right to inheritance requires some explanation. A pre-Islamic Arab woman had no right to inherit from anybody, either her father or even her husband. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not pay attention to this question during the first 15 years of his mission.
The chroniclers mention that in the year 3 Hijra, a rich Ansarite, Aus Ibn Thabit died, leaving a widow and four daughters of tender age. According to the customs prevalent then, only male adults, capable of taking up arms in a war, had the right to inheritance; and even a minor son had no right to the property of his deceased father. So, the cousins of Aus took possession of all that he had left, and the family overnight became completely destitute and deprived of the means of livelihood. At that moment a passage of the Qur’an was revealed, promulgating the law of inheritance which is ever since practiced by Muslims, and even by some other communities, such as the Christians of the Levant. According to this law (4:7-12; 4:176), different female relatives have obtained the right to inheritance: wife, daughter, mother, and sister in particular.
With regard to inheritance, Islam makes no difference between movable and immovable property; everything must be divided among the rightful heirs. In order to avoid evil caprices, Islam has also prohibited the bequest of property by testament to strangers and the deprivation of near relatives. In fact the latter do not require to be mentioned in a will; they inherit automatically.
A will cannot even diminish or increase the rights of individual relatives to inheritance, the rights being fixed and determined by the law itself. The will is valid solely in favor of “strangers,” i.e. those who have no right to inherit directly the property of the deceased. Islam has fixed the maximum, which one can bequeath by will, and that is one-third of the whole property, the two-thirds going to near relatives. A will for more than one-third is valid only if the heirs unanimously accept it at the moment of the distribution of the heirloom.
The law of inheritance is complicated enough, for the shares of different heirs vary according to individual circumstances; the daughter alone or in the presence of a son, the mother alone or in the presence of the father, with children or without them, the sister alone or in the presence of the brother, father or children of the deceased, inherit in different proportions according to individual cases. It is not our intention to describe it here in all the details. The shares of female heirs may however be mentioned briefly.
The wife gets one-eighth if the deceased leaves also a child; otherwise she gets a fourth. The daughter when alone gets a half, several daughters get two-thirds which they divide among themselves in equal portions — all this when there is no son. in the presence of a son, the daughter gets half of her brother. The mother, when alone, gets a third, in the presence of the father, child, or brothers and sisters of the deceased she gets one-sixth. The sister does not inherit if the deceased leaves a son: but when alone, she gets a half; two or more sisters get two-thirds which they divide among themselves equally. In the presence of a daughter, the sister gets one-sixth; in the presence of a brother, she gets half of what he gets. There are also differences between the shares of full sisters, consanguine sisters, and uterine sisters.