Dowry gifts to brides and their inheritance

Q181 :In our part of the world, the agricultural land, which is left behind by the deceased, is distributed to his heirs automatically in the revenue records, but division of residential property and other movables is left to the heirs themselves. On the other hand, whether a prospective bridegroom makes a demand or not, it has become customary to pay one's daughter or sister a dowry, which is normally more than one can afford easily. The girl is told that she will not claim anything out of the residential property or movables on the death of her father, as she has already been given a dowry beyond her fair share of the estate. Most, if not all, girls consent to this. Even the girls' parents-in-law do not urge her to claim a share of her father's inheritance. How far does this practice fit with Islamic teachings?

A181 : There are two important points which need to be clarified with regard to this question: the first concerns the gift made by a father to his daughter at the time when she gets married and the second is her share of her father's inheritance and what happens to it. Two other points are perhaps secondary to this particular question, although they are major ones in their own right. These concern the linkage between dowry and inheritance, and the right of in-laws to a married woman's property. I will attempt to discuss the first two points and refer to the others briefly. If a father decides to give one of his children a gift, he may do so. Once the son or daughter who has been given such a gift takes possession of it, it becomes his or hers, which means that it is no longer the property of the parent making the gift. However, a father, or indeed a parent, is required by Islam to maintain justice between his children. I have often quoted the Hadith of An-Nu'man ibn Bashir whose father came to the Prophet with him and said: "I would like you, Messenger of Allah, to witness the fact that I have given a slave as a gift to this child of mine." The Prophet asked him whether he has made a similar gift to every one of his children. When the father answered in the negative, the Prophet told him to seek some other witness for this transaction. He also said: "I do not witness injustice." The fact that the Prophet called this type of action an injustice makes it forbidden, for all injustice is forbidden in Islam, even when it is a parent's injustice to his own children. Scholars, however, have pointed out that if there is a special case with regard to a particular child, then a gift to that child may be in order. They maintain in this connection the case of a child who is blind or has some other sort of handicap or a chronic illness which makes his situation rather difficult, he or she may be given a gift to ensure a more comfortable life for him or her. In the case of a parent making gifts to his children, many scholars, including the imams Abu Hanifah, Malik and El-Shaf'ie prefer that all children, male or female, be given exactly the same. This is also reported to be the opinion of Ibn Abbas, the Prophet's cousin and companion who was one of the best learned scholars. However, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal prefers that such gifts be made in accordance with the children's share of inheritance. That means that a son is given twice as much as a daughter. [When the aim is to avoid cracks amongst heirs in claims for inheritance, the opinions of Abu-Nu'man ibn Bashir and the opinion of Ibn Abbas may be preferred.] It is customary in many societies that parents give their children gifts when they get married. That applies to both sons and daughters. It is very often the case that a son may not have enough money to cover the expenses of his marriage. His parents often help him with much of what he needs. Similarly, when their daughter is about to be married, parents are ready with their help or their gifts. Such gifts must be looked upon as normal gifts. While parents need not give every one of their children a gift similar to that of the first one to get married, at the time of that marriage, they should be clear in their minds that they will do the same toward their other children when they marry. As for inheritance, this becomes due when a person dies. Every one has heirs, according to his own situation and those of his immediate relatives who survive him. First degree heirs are the deceased's parents, children and spouse. Others may also be entitled to certain shares, according to particular circumstances. Heirs inherit by right. Their shares are apportioned by Allah. Perhaps it is useful to remember at this point that, from the Islamic point of view, we do not own our money or property. Whatever we possess belongs to Allah; we are only put in charge of it. That charge reverts to Allah on our death. He distributes it to our heirs the way He likes. He has only allowed us discretion to leave by will an amount of our property not exceeding one third of its total. We may leave that to the poor or to relatives who are not among our heirs. It is not permissible to leave by will anything to any of our natural heirs. Suppose that a father has made certain gifts to some of his children, he cannot make a will in favor of the others in order to give them similar gifts. The reason is what I have just explained, that a person no longer owns anything of his property when he dies. He has no say over its distribution. The heirs have a title to their shares, as apportioned to them by Allah. When a man dies, his estate is not divided among his heirs if his widow is pregnant until she has delivered. This is due to the fact that what she delivers is bound to affect the shares of some, if not all of the other heirs. She may give birth to a son, a daughter, twins or triplets. In each case, the division of the estate will differ. What worries me in the system you have outlined is the link which is made between the gifts given to a girl at her marriage and her share of the inheritance. That link is unacceptable. Let us not forget that if the man's other children will not get similar gifts to what his daughter gets at the time of her marriage, the action itself is described by the Prophet as injustice. Inheritance is something that Allah has decreed. How can the two be linked? You have not explained what happens if a man has three daughters and one or two sons, or more children than that. Suppose that only two of the daughters get married during the lifetime of their father, will the third daughter have a share of the inheritance? You say that the authorities automatically divide the land he leaves behind among his heirs. Do they do that in accordance with the shares of inheritance assigned by Allah? Do they give one eighth of the land to the widow? Are the people in charge of the revenue records competent enough to determine who are the deceased's heirs and what share each of them receives? Will that girl, who has not been married, receive any share of it? You may say that her brothers will see to her marriage and provide a similar gift for her? What if she does not get married at all? It seems to me that the system, as it is, is simply designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of male children. Women are deprived of their rightful shares of inheritance. It is needless to say that this cannot be accepted by Islam at all. May I also say briefly that the dowry system, which means that a bride receives from her father or her brothers gifts, in gold or real property or cash in an amount acceptable to her husband and his family, is different from the dower which Islam makes a condition of marriage. This dower is paid by the husband to his wife at the time when the marriage contract is made. It becomes her own money and she is fully entitled to dispense with it the way she likes. You say that in return for her dowry, which often places much hardship on her father and his family, her parents-in-law do not bring any pressure to bear on her to claim a share of inheritance in her deceased father's estate. May I ask, what has her parents-in law got to do with her inheritance? Inheritance is one legitimate way of ownership. When a woman inherits something it becomes her own property. In Islam, a woman is fully entitled to manage, administer, invest or dispense with her property the way she likes, without any interference from her father or husband. She is fully qualified to make any transactions she wants. If she inherits something it does not become the property of her husband or his family. It remains her [property].

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )