Challenging Issues


 The Islamic system of property distribution after death is based on rulings ordained by God in the Quran. It abolished the former custom in which the entire estate was taken by the oldest male heir and established the right of children, parents and spouses to inherit a specific share without leaving the matter to human judgement and emotion. When Islam established inheritance for the woman, it was the first time in history that women were able to enjoy this right. The Quran stipulates that a woman automatically inherits from her father, husband, son and her childless brother.

This system of inheritance is perfectly balanced and is based on the closeness of relationship, also taking into account the responsibilities imposed upon various members of a family in different situations. In the absence of close relatives a share is apportioned to more distant ones.

When the male is given a larger share, there is a logical reason behind it, which is that in Islam economic responsibility is always upon the man while the woman has no financial obligations, even if she should be wealthy or have her own income. Generally, the woman is in charge of running the household and taking care of those within it, so she is justly freed from financial responsibilities. When unmarried, it is the legal obligation of her father, brother or guardian to provide her food, clothing, medication, housing and other needs. After marriage it becomes the duty of her husband or adult son. Islam holds men responsible by law for fulfilling all the needs of their families. So the difference in shares does not in any way mean that one sex is preferred over the other. Rather, it represents a just balance consistent with the needs and responsibilities of family members.

When a son and a daughter inherit from either of their parents, the son’s share will be depleted by giving an obligatory dowry to his wife upon marriage and maintaining his family, including his sister until she marries. While the daughter has no required expenses, she still receives a share of the inheritance which is her own property to save, invest or use as she pleases. When she marries, she will also receive a dowry from her husband and be maintained by him, having no financial responsibilities whatsoever. Thus, one might conclude that Islam has favored women over men!

Although, in most cases the male inherits a share that is twice that of a female, it is not always so. There are certain circumstances when they inherit equal shares, and in a few instances a female can inherit a larger share than that of the male. In addition, a Muslim can will up to one third of his property by bequest to anyone who would not inherit from him by law. The bequest may be a means of assistance to other relatives and people who are in need, whether men or women. One may also allocate this portion or part of it to charities and good works of his choice.


What is meant by testimony is: giving information by which something is known to be true and correct. With regard to the witness of two women being equal to the testimony of one man, it is not always the case; and the Quranic verse that specifies this is related only to financial dealings, where two men are preferred and the alternative is one man and two women. Financial transactions constitute the sole case in which two female witnesses are required in place of one male witness. It is in view of the fact that financial responsibility is usually shouldered by men so they are expected to be better versed in financial transactions than women. It also takes into account the generally more emotional nature of women, as well as the roles of men and women in society as envisaged by Islam.

This does not reflect inferiority on the woman’s part. Some women surpass many men in various aspects, including religious commitment, reasoning and memory. They may be able to give proper testimony better than that of a man regarding the issues about which they have knowledge and insight. They can even become references regarding those matters, as did some women at the time of the Prophet. A judge may accept the testimony of any person of exceptional qualifications.

Two female witnesses are not always considered equal to one male witness. There are other verses in the Qur›an which speak about witnesses without specifying male or female. In those cases, a female witness is equivalent to a male witness. It is well known that Aishah, the Prophet’s wife, related no less than 2,220 narrations which are considered authentic only on her solitary evidence. Other women have also been recognized as reliable narrators of prophetic traditions. This is sufficient proof that the witness of one women can be accepted.

In fact, female witnesses are preferred in certain cases. There are incidents which require only female witnesses and the testimony of a male is not accepted. Issues pertaining to women alone, such as childbirth or menstruation as related to divorce disputes and private matters where no men were present, obviously necessitate the witness of a woman.


In general, Western studies on Muslim women in Muslim societies have shown a tendency to assume that non-Western cultures ought to function according to Western norms. They tend to highlight certain practices in Muslim societies, examining them according to their own Western values. It is claimed that Muslim women are oppressed, suppressed, ill-treated, and subordinated, but also that these abuses are natural results of basic principles of Islam. In other words, Western studies on Muslim women, constricted within their own paradigm, tend to confuse Islam at the practical level with Islam at the ideal level.

The practice of polygamy in Islam continues to be a controversial subject concerning women. Misconceptions about this traditional Islamic institution are widespread. When the question of Islam and marriage is approached, the first image conjured up in the mind is that Islam is a religion which encourages the sexual indulgence of the males in the society and the subjugation of the females. Moreover, it is claimed that Islam has introduced the practice of polygamy – and is therefore thought of as confined to Muslims only.

Polygamy (more precisely, polygyny or marriage to more than one woman) was not introduced by Islam. The truth is that it predated Islam and practices in many cultures and faiths. For example, the Old Testament mentions numerous prophets as having more than one wife, including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. He first married Sara who later gave birth to Isaac, the progenitor of the Israelites. Then he married Haggar who also bore him a son, Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arabs. According to the teaching of the Talmud: ‘A man may marry many wives, for Rabba saith it is lawful to do so, if he can provide for them. Nevertheless, the wise men have given good advice, that a man should not marry more than four wives.’[1] Saint Augustine did not categorically condemn it nor did Luther, who approved the bigamous marriages of Philip of Hesse. It was permitted and practiced in Egypt, Persia and China. Till today, polygamy is practiced in Africa by people of different faiths.

Men married without restriction in Arabia before Islam. Islam actually restricted this practice according to strict conditions and limiting the number of wives to four. The Quran does allow for more than one wife, but also lays conditions for such marriage: a man has to be fair in his treatment of each wife.

The verse in the Quran permitting polygamy was revealed in the context of war and caring for orphans. At the time, the practice provided assistance to widows with children who otherwise would have been left to themselves, which would have been next to impossible in that social order.

Today, only a small minority of Muslims in societies where it is culturally acceptable practices polygamy.

According to Islamic teachings, a wife who does not accept a polygamous marriage can write this stipulation in the marriage contract and seek divorce if her husband marries another woman.

If Muslims live in a country where polygamy is illegal, then they must abide by the laws of that country.

Honor Killings

Honor crimes or killings are generally defined as acts of violence, including murder, committed by a member or members of a family and inspired by a belief that the victim has behaved in a manner that has brought dishonor to the family or their tribe. Women are targets of honor killings for refusing an arranged marriage, seeking divorce, or allegedly committing fornication or behaving in a manner that ‘dishonors’ the family.

Honor killings mostly target women, but in some South Asian societies, it can also affect men who marry or have relationships outside of their tribe or village or outside of their race or nationality.

Islam unequivocally condemns honor killings and those who commit such acts in the name of Islam dishonor themselves and Islam and must be dealt with by the law.

These unfortunate practices are representative of cultural norms and practices, not Islam. While, such practices have been associated with Islam, they are also practiced in other cultures, like India, for instance, against brides with insufficient dowries or who marry outside of their tribe or village.

  The Quran (24:4) disapproves people for even accusing a chaste woman of indiscretion without bringing forth four witnesses. If the requirement is not fulfilled, persons making such accusations are themselves subject to punishment.


[1] Thomas Patrick Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, W.H. Allen and Co, London, 1935, p. 462

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