Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:33

Overview (Verse 33)

Inheritance for Relatives Only
The sūrah then regulates those covenants of loyalty that existed before the provisions contained within the system of inheritance were revealed to limit the right of inheritance to close relatives only. Pledges of loyalty used to give shares of inheritance to others as well.
To everyone have We appointed heirs to property left by parents and relatives. As for those with whom you have made covenants give them their share. God is indeed witness to all things. (Verse 33)
Having stated that both men and women have the benefit of what they earn, and having already outlined the shares of inheritance of both males and females, the sūrah now mentions that God has appointed to everyone heirs from among his kinsfolk who will inherit what has come into his possession of the property of his parents and relatives. Through the inheritance system, then, money circulates from one generation to another. Heirs inherit their shares and add to them what they earn before they themselves leave that to their own close relatives. Thus, wealth is not monopolised by a single generation, family or individual. It is continuously circulated and inherited by one generation after another with different shares being given to different heirs, according to the situation.
This is followed by a reference to covenants which Islam initially approved of. These covenants or pledges of loyalty sometimes allowed wealth to be inherited by non-relatives. There were several types of such covenants in the early period of Islam. There was firstly the covenant of loyalty that came with freeing a slave. When a slave is freed, he becomes a member of his master’s household, as it were. If he commits a crime which requires the payment of blood money, his former master pays this on his behalf, in the same way as he does when such a crime is committed by one of his close relatives. He also inherits him when he dies, leaving no immediate relatives behind.
The second type of covenant was one of pure loyalty. This allowed a non-Arab who had no heirs of his own to make a covenant with an Arab. It accorded him the status of a member of the Arab’s household, whereby the latter would be willing to pay penalties on his behalf such as blood money, and who would inherit him upon his death.
The third type was that which the Prophet established between the Muhājirīn (his Companions who emigrated with him to Madinah) and the Anşār (his Companions from among the inhabitants of Madinah). This allowed an Anşārī to be inherited by one of the Muhājirīn alongside the Anşārī’s own relatives, as if he was one of them, or to their exclusion, if they were unbelievers.
The fourth type of covenant was a straightforward pledge of loyalty stipulating that each of the two parties could inherit the other.
Islam abolished all these covenants, especially the third and fourth types. It stipulated that inheritance is the right of relatives only. It did not, however, abolish those covenants that were already in force. It continued to observe them but it made it clear that no new ones might be made. God states: “As for those with whom you have made covenants give them their share.” (Verse 33) He emphasises this by reminding us that He Himself is a witness to the covenant and to how it is observed: “God is indeed witness to all things.” (Verse 33) The Prophet (peace be upon him) says: “No alliance may be made in Islam. Any covenant of alliance made prior to Islam has only been given added force under Islam.” (Related by Aĥmad and Muslim.)
As it began to liquidate these covenants, Islam followed its normal method concerning financial affairs. Its solutions had no retroactive effect. Usury, for example, was abolished from the very moment its prohibition was revealed. What had been gained in the past was left alone. Although usury contracts were not made lawful, Islam did not order the recipients of usury to return what they had gained. In this instant, past covenants were observed, provided that they led to no new contract. One reason for this is that Islam did not wish to disrupt any practical situations that resulted from such covenants, as these may affect family and social relations. Hence, existing covenants were observed but no new ones were made.
This attitude reveals how Islam wants things to be easy. Moreover, the Islamic method in dealing with social affairs is profound, comprehensive, wise and far reaching. As it announced its abrogations and endorsements, Islam was moulding the Muslim society, purifying it of all traces of ignorance.