Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
It is prescribed for you, when death approaches one of you and if he has some good to leave, to make a will in favour of his parents and relatives, correctly and fairly: a duty for all those who are God-revering (Chapter 2: Verse 180)
The previous verses dealt with the issue of murder; In this verse, God moves onto the issue of natural death. Allah wants to address matters related to maintaining economic balance in the society just as, in previous verses, He addressed matters related to maintaining justice and peace.
Allah does not forcibly make a way into the affairs of people, rather He only invites people to have faith in Him. Only when you accept Allah as your Lord and legislator does He approach you with legislation and religious duty. As for the disbeliever, God leaves him or her to do as they wish in this world. He repeatedly warned the disbelievers and decreed for them one thing: punishment in hellfire in the hereafter.
We believe in our Lord, love Him, and we have faith in all of His attributes of majesty and perfection. All the obligations that come through our faith are an honour which God has blessed us with. We see God’s teachings and legislation as an act of love; and we see submission to the will of God as a way of reciprocating this love. Had the disbelievers understood all the benefits of heavenly teachings and the love God sends us, they would have rushed towards faith.
You show your love for Allah through faith and through implementing His teachings, and Allah shows His love for you through His guidance and protection. In fact, God’s teachings are a much higher act of love than your faith in God. Why, you may ask? We answer that your faith does not benefit God in any way, but God’s teachings benefit you in this world and the next. These teachings and obligations are a true honour and should not be considered a burden or a way for God to control your affairs. When you realize this fact, you understand why God started the verse with “prescribed for you” not “prescribed against you.” Allah legislates with your best interest at heart.
The verse continues: “when death approaches one of you and if he has some good to leave, to make a will in favour of his parents and relatives, correctly and fairly: a duty for all those who are God-revering” Here we find two conditions: the first condition is as death approaches. Death is inevitable, thus, Allah used the conjunction “when” rather than “if”. It is a matter of time till each one of us dies. The second condition is in regards to wealth. Here, God used the conjunction “if” which is uncertain, because a person may have plenty of wealth for his or her heirs, or may have nothing to leave behind.
Note that Allah did not specify the amount of wealth that necessitates a will, nor did He assign a number or value. The phrase “some good” was used because wealth and value vary from people to people and time to time. A few decades ago, if a person left behind $100 it would have been considered a small fortune. But nowadays even a $1000 is not a big amount.
It is an obligation upon each one of us before death to look at our wealth and see what good we can leave behind. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had warned us against waiting until the final days or even months of life to make a will, or notify our family members of our debts. This is because a person often forgets these matters at the time of illness or death. These decisions are best made during the time of good health and wellbeing.
So, who should we leave our wealth to? God answers “to make a will in favour of his parents and relatives.” Allah is aware that people tend to think about their children first and forget about their parents. We think about our parents as not having as much time left in this world, and not having as much financial need as our children. This is exactly why God instructs us not to forget our parents, and to assign a share of our wealth to them and to our close relatives. In this way, everyone: our parents, relative, and children are protected and taken care of.
This ruling –and this verse- were revealed before the detailed legislation of inheritance was put in place. Prior to the legislation of inheritance, and prior to this verse, people would often leave all they owned to their children. Allah wanted to slowly change this practice, so He prescribed a share of the wealth to parents and near relatives. Later on, God legislated the laws of inheritance and appointed a specific share for the parents, children and siblings; He left the share of the relatives open for each person to decide.
If the parents are disbelievers, they have no share in the inheritance. Yet even in this situation, Allah reminds us of the parents’ immense favours. He says:
We have commanded people to be good to their parents: their mothers carried them, with strain upon strain, and it takes two years to wean them. Give thanks to Me and to your parents- all will return to Me. If they strive to make you associate with Me anything about which you have no knowledge, then do not obey them. Yet keep their company in this life according to what is right, and follow the path of those who turn to Me. You will all return to Me in the end, and I will tell you everything that you have done. (31:14-15)
A child is not obliged to obey his or her disbelieving parents in matters of faith; But Allah commands that the parents be treated well, and extended help and kindness. Similarly, while disbelieving parents are not assigned any share of wealth in the Islamic legislation of inheritance, a Muslim child can include them in the will and give them a share of his or her wealth. How can that be, you may ask? We answer that Allah had specified how 2/3rds of a person’s wealth be distributed, and left a 1/3rd up to the person to do as he or she wishes. This 1/3rd can be given to anyone, or any group of people, who are not included in the specified 2/3rds. The prophet, peace be upon him, said: “it is not permissible to assign an additional share for a legal Heir”
So poor relatives -who are not legal heirs- can be given up to a 1/3rd of a person’s wealth if he or she wishes. This is the foundation of social unity and a realization of the responsibility each one of us has towards those who are less fortunate. Allah wants families to take care of each other so there is no one in need. Saad ibn Abi Waqqas (may God be pleased with him) said: “the Prophet (peace be upon him) came to visit me in Mecca and said: ‘May God have mercy on the son of Afr?.’ I said: ‘O Messenger of God, should I make a will for all my wealth?’ He said ‘no’, so I said: ‘how about half of my wealth?’ He said ‘no’, so I asked: ‘then a third?’ The prophet answered: ‘a third is fine, and a third is a plenty: it is better that you leave your heirs wealthy, than to leave them in need relaying on other people.’
If God has blessed you with wealth, then try not of limit your will only to your legal heirs. Why? Because if you limit your wealth to your heirs while leaving out near relatives who are in need, you may create resentment and malice in their hearts towards you and your heirs. But, if your poor relatives have a share –however small- in your wealth, they would love and pray for God to bless you with more and more.