SC to Examine Equal Inheritance Rights for Muslim Women

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The case would determine the alignment of Muslim women’s succession rights with constitutional mandates of equality and non-discrimination

Mohammad Alamullah | Clarion India

NEW DELHI – The Supreme Court has taken up a pivotal case that could redefine inheritance rights for Muslim women, addressing the intersection of religious personal laws and constitutional guarantees of equality. A division bench of Justices C.T. Ravikumar and Rajesh Bindal is set to determine whether Muslim women have the right to equal succession in light of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, which mandate equality and prohibit discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.

The case originates from a civil suit wherein the respondents claimed their late father Hazi, who has four sons, left properties in his will for three and left the fourth one out.

The trial court upheld the will, but the lower appellate court modified the decision, ruling that Hazi could only bequeath one-third of his estate, with the remaining two-thirds to be equally divided among all legal heirs. However, the high court later restored the trial court’s order, prompting the current appeal to the Supreme Court.

During the hearing, it was argued that under Mohammedan Law, a testator could only bequeath one-third of his estate to a third party, with the remaining two-thirds distributed among legal heirs. However, this limitation of one-third can be waived if the legal heirs give their consent.

The petitioners cited the Karnataka High Court’s decision in Narunnisa v. Shek Abdul Hamid (AIR 1987 KANT 222), which affirmed that if a Muslim father leaves a will giving three-fourths of his property to his son and one-fourth to his daughter without her consent, she could claim one-third of the inheritance, not just 50 per cent.

The Supreme Court has framed several critical questions for consideration:

* Do Muslim women have the right to claim equality in succession under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution in light of Article 44, which calls for a uniform civil code?

* Can a testator, governed by Mohammedan Law, bequeath his entire estate according to his wish?

* Can a testator will one-third of his estate to any legal heir without the consent of other heirs under Mohammedan Law?

To ensure a thorough examination of these issues, the court has appointed Senior Advocate V. Giri as Amicus Curiae. Advocate-on-Record Amit Krishnan has been assigned to assist him.

The case has prompted a range of responses from Islamic scholars and community leaders.

Maulana Dr. Razi Islam Nadwi, secretary of the Delhi-based Shariah Council of India, questioned the premise of equality in inheritance within Islamic law. “In Islam, the financial responsibility is primarily on men, not women. Men are expected to support their parents, wives, and children, while women do not have this obligation. Demanding equal inheritance disregards these fundamental responsibilities,” he stated.

Dr. Ashraful Kausar, an Islamic scholar with a PhD from Jamia Millia Islamia, argued that the perceived inequality in inheritance is a misunderstanding. “The share of men and women in inheritance is not always divided equally. This is a complex issue which has often been misunderstood. The differences are based on the financial responsibilities prescribed by Shariah,” he explained.

Similarly, Dr. Salahuddin Sultan, scholar, writer and a teacher at the Jamia Isalmia, America, noted: “There are situations where women receive an equal or greater share than men. The instances where women’s share is half that of men are limited and context-specific. The perception of inequality stems from a lack of understanding of the responsibilities and duties assigned to men and women in Islamic law.”

Dr. Sultan is the author of a well-known book on Islamic inheritance law and women in the Arabic language.

The Supreme Court’s decision on this case, expected on July 25, could have far-reaching implications for the interpretation of inheritance laws in India.

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