Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah – the Heir?

Leaving a legacy of troublesome theology

Jochen Katz

Al-Wârith (the Inheritor) is one of Allah’s 99 Names (cf. 1, 2), and this Muslim belief is based on a number of passages in the Qur’an which we will look at shortly.

The claim that “Allah is the heir / inheritor” prompts some obvious questions:

When does Allah inherit? What does Allah inherit? From whom does Allah inherit? When Allah inherits, is he then the sole heir or a co-heir? In other words, does he inherit everything alone, or does he inherit only a certain share, other shares going to other heirs?1 Why would Allah even be interested in inheriting anything from his creatures at all – as if he has any needs?

And, how can al-Warith be part of Allah’s eternal attributes when it is dependent on creation? After all, Allah needs to first create the “who” and the “what” before he can inherit anything from anybody.

The concept of Allah being an heir is somewhat mysterious, to say the least. It is certainly not obvious what it is supposed to mean, and therefore it is a topic worth examining.

The basic meaning of the words heir, inheritor, to inherit, etc. is that when one person dies, his possessions are rightfully transferred to another person or several other persons – usually relatives (spouse, children, parents, siblings), but the testator may include other persons in his will and bequeath some part of his possession to a person that would not automatically inherit anything from him. In any case, the important point is that an heir receives something that did not belong to him before. He becomes the rightful owner of something that he did not own until that time. This is the original and most fundamental meaning.

The verb “to inherit” can also be used in a metaphorical way, e.g., the younger son may say that he “inherited” his shoes or his shirt from his older brother in the sense that they were passed on to him after they had become too small for the first one – and certainly without implying that the older brother died. Similarly, younger siblings often “inherit” school books or toys from their older siblings who simply have “outgrown” them. Also, I could say that I “inherited” the flu from my colleague at work because the virus that causes the sickness was “passed on” from him to me and now I am sick. Children inherit genetic traits from their parents and this is associated with the beginning of life, not the end, but it also is something that is “passed on”.

Moreover, a person may be called “the heir” because he is the official or designated heir long before the testator dies. My wife and my children can be considered my heirs,2 but they do not inherit until the time I die. So, a person can be called an heir (e.g., the heir to a large estate, or an heir to the crown) for many years before he actually inherits. A king will prepare his son (his heir) to become a worthy successor in the task and responsibility of leading the country. He is the heir, but he only inherits and “takes over” when his father dies or when he voluntarily bestows the title and possessions on him at an earlier time. Thus, the process of inheriting can and does occasionally take place before the original owner dies, but it always is a “transfer of ownership” and means that the one who receives the ownership did not have it before.

This is very different from the concept of “paying back a debt” which means that I have been given something as a loan, whether money or tools or land or cattle or a house or anything else, so that I may use it responsibly; but it is not mine. The ownership remains with the one who entrusted it to me.

The Qur’an recognizes this fundamental difference and repeats it several times when dealing with the issue of inheritance in Sura 4:11-12:

Allah charges you, concerning your children:
to the male the like of the portion of two females,
and if they be women above two, then for them two-thirds of what he leaves,
but if she be one then to her a half;

and to his parents to each one of the two the sixth of what he leaves, if he has children;
but if he has no children, and his heirs are his parents,
a third to his mother,
or if he has brothers, to his mother a sixth,
after any bequest he may bequeath, or any debt.

Your fathers or your sons -
you know not which out of them is nearer in profit to you.
So Allah apportions; surely Allah is All-knowing, All-wise.

And for you a half of what your wives leave, if they have no children;
but if they have children, then for you of what they leave a fourth,
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt.

And for them a fourth of what you leave, if you have no children;
but if you have children, then for them of what you leave an eighth.
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt.

If a man or woman have no heir direct [i.e. children or parents],
but have a brother or a sister, to each of the two a sixth;
but if they are more numerous than that, they share equally a third,
after any bequest they may bequeath, or any debt not prejudicial;
a charge from Allah. Allah is All-knowing, All-clement.

Whatever does not belong to the deceased, because it is a debt owed to somebody else, has to be given back first. It is not part of the inheritance. The heirs will not become the owners, but have to return to the owner what belongs to him. Likewise, the creditor receives back what belongs to him, he does not inherit it simply because the debtor died. The ownership remained with the same person both when he loaned out his property and when he received it back. But inheriting means a change of ownership, receiving something that did not belong to me before. Even in the possible metaphorical uses of the verb it still means that something is “passed on”, and the recipient did not have it before.

That is the fundamental meaning, and this fundamental meaning causes some difficult theological problems for Muslims when Allah repeatedly claims in the Qur’an that he is “the heir”.

The problem arises, because one can either be the owner or the heir, but not both at the same time. The owner (who loaned something out) receives back what already belongs to him. The heir receives something that did so far not belong to him. That is a rather fundamental difference.

On the one hand, the Qur’an stresses over and over again in many passages that,

… to Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. (Cf. 2:116, 255, 284; 3:109, 129; 4:126, 131, 132, 170, 171; 6:12; 10:55, 66; 14:2; 22:64; 53:31; etc.)

yet, there are at least seven passages in the Qur’an3 that speak of Allah being an heir or inheritor, or where he is said to inherit something.

And most surely We bring to life and cause to die and We are the heirs. (S. 15:23 Shakir)

It is We who will inherit the earth and all who are on it: they will all be returned to Us. (S. 19:40 Abdel Haleem)

Hast thou seen him who disbelieveth in Our revelations and saith: Assuredly I shall be given wealth and children? Hath he perused the Unseen, or hath he made a pact with the Beneficent? Nay, but We shall record that which he saith and prolong for him a span of torment. And We shall inherit from him that whereof he spake, and he will come unto Us, alone (without his wealth and children). (S. 19:77-80 Pickthall)

And Zachariah -- when he called unto his Lord, ‘O my Lord, leave me not solitary; though Thou art the best of inheritors.’ (S. 21:89 Arberry)

And how many a community have We destroyed that was thankless for its means of livelihood! And yonder are their dwellings, which have not been inhabited after them save a little. And We, even We, were the inheritors. (S. 28:58 Pickthall)

And what aileth you that ye spend not in the way of Allah when unto Allah belongeth the inheritance of the heavens and the earth? Those who spent and fought before the victory are not upon a level (with the rest of you). Such are greater in rank than those who spent and fought afterwards. Unto each hath Allah promised good. And Allah is informed of what ye do. (S. 57:10 Pickthall)

But as for those who are niggardly with the bounty Allah has given them, let them not suppose it is better for them; nay, it is worse for them; that they were niggardly with they shall have hung about their necks on the Resurrection Day; and to Allah belongs the inheritance of the heavens and earth; and Allah is aware of the things you do. (S. 3:180 Arberry)

How are we supposed to understand these verses and the general concept that Allah is the heir? Does this make sense at least metaphorically even if not literally? However, in several of these passages the claim of Allah being the heir is directly or indirectly connected with death, be it the death of an individual or the destruction of a community,4 which suggests a literal rather than a metaphorical understanding.

Apart from the general questions arising from all these texts in regard to this concept,5 there are additional issues and problems with the individual passages or tensions between these passages, or contradictions between some of the above passages with other passages in the Qur’an. We will look at them in turn.

It is We who will inherit the earth and all who are on it: they will all be returned to Us. (S. 19:40 Abdel Haleem)

The obvious questions arising particularly from S. 19:40 are: If Allah will inherit the earth at some time in the future, whom does it belong to now? And assuming it belonged to Allah originally, because he is the Creator, how did he lose ownership of it? Was it taken from him as booty in some kind of war? Did he sell it legally, but is nevertheless going to “inherit it back” upon the death of the current owner? What did the author of the Qur’an mean by using this expression? Did he not realize that this term creates a wrong image and transports a meaning that is not appropriate to claim about God?

Interestingly, the author mixes images even within this one verse. In the first part of Q. 19:40 he claims, “It is We who will inherit the earth and all who are on it” (i.e., he is the heir, not the owner), but in the second part he claims, “they will all be returned to Us” (as if he is the owner, and not an heir). The formulation is incoherent.

Although the vast majority of the translators render Q. 19:40 very similarly to the above quoted version, some translators seem to have been greatly bothered by the concept and/or the incoherent formulation between the first and the second part of the verse and thus tried to improve on the original text by rendering this verse in other ways:

Behold, We alone shall remain after the earth and all who live on it have passed away, and [when] unto Us all will have been brought back. (Muhammad Asad)

Verily, It is We Who will take back the earth, and all living things upon it: And they will all be returned to Us. (Syed Vickar Ahamed)

Ultimately, all things will perish and it is We, Who will inherit the earth and all that is on it, and to Us shall they return. (Farooq Malik)

The problems with Asad’s interpretation have been discussed in great detail in my article on Q. 21:89, “Allah – the best of the inheritors?” Here again, Asad pretends that “inherit” simply means God’s eternal existence but it does not make much sense. In both Asad’s and Malik’s translation everything first “perishes” or “passes away” and then it is inherited or brought back to Allah. What is there to inherit or return after it has already perished? Ahamed seeks to resolve the tension between inheriting and returning by simply mistranslating the first verb as “will take back” instead of “will inherit”. Clearly, these three translators were bothered by the formulation in the Arabic original so much that they felt the need to twist its meaning.

The second general statement on the issue is:

And most surely We bring to life and cause to die and We are the heirs. (S. 15:23 Shakir)

As God is the Lord of life and death, he is the one who has given everyone life and is the one who determines when anyone of us will die, this statement seems to say that upon death God will be the heir of everyone. There are three parts to this sentence and they are equally connected by the same conjunction “and”. It is a sequence of events, coming one after the other.

But it is obviously not true in the way it is stated. Just a few examples should suffice to make that clear. The Qur’an proclaims that “Solomon was David's heir.” (Q. 27:16). Thus, according to the theological understanding of the Qur’an, Allah gave life to David, Allah caused David to die, but Solomon was David’s heir, not Allah. Then the Qur’an claims that Zechariah prayed for a son to be his heir (cf. Q. 19:6), and Allah answered his prayer and despite their advanced age his wife miraculously conceived and gave birth to John – [re]named Yahya in the Qur’an. Thus, Zechariah’s heir was John. Moreover, on a community level, Allah made the people of Israel inherit the Egyptians (Q. 33:27). Finally, I need to point to the inheritance legislation in the Qur’an, found in Q. 4:11-12 and 4:176. The author of the Qur’an clearly stipulates who will inherit how much from whom, but Allah is not mentioned among those who inherit. He is not assigned any share of the inheritance, let alone being “the heir”, in the sense of being the only heir.

Q. 15:23 is a wrong statement because it is formulated as a logical sequence. It does not say that “everything in general” will “ultimately” return to Allah, it specifically connects Allah’s attribute of being the heir with each individual, i.e., with each individual’s birth, each individual’s death, and thus being each individual’s heir, unless one wants to admit that the formulation of this verse is incoherent because it contains a logical break.

Even assuming that everybody’s possessions will eventually go to Allah as the final inheritor of everything, it is still wrong to call Allah everyone’s heir for the simple reason that being “the heir of” is an immediate relationship that is not passed on through the line of inheritance. I am not the heir of my great-grandfather. I am only the heir of my father, who in turn was the heir of his father, etc. Being “the heir of” does not refer to everyone in the line of inheritance but only to the last one before me.

In particular, this does not work because many possessions are perishable. The wealth or possessions of one person my increase or decrease or be lost completely as it is passed from generation to generation. Suppose person A is inherited by B is inherited by C and D. Now, A is wealthy because he has a large field of high-yield date palms which he leaves to his son, B. But B is not interested in being a farmer. He sells the land with the date palms and buys a ship because he wants to be a merchant trading in foreign countries. He is very successful and at the end of his life does not only have a ship, but also much gold and much merchandise. He leaves the ship and merchandise to his first son, C, and the gold to his second son, D, to build his own business. However, the ship of C sinks in a storm, much of the merchandise can’t be sold and spoils. At the end of his life, he is basically destitute. Son D doesn’t fare much better. There is a war and his people lose the war and his gold is taken away by the victor as part of the booty. Even the plot of date palms (that doesn’t belong to the family anymore because it was sold by B long ago) was destroyed by a fire. Whatever A or B had is now gone. It is not there anymore. The children of C and D have to start from scratch. They may or may not be able to acquire wealth, but if they do that wealth will be entirely independent from person A. How can Allah be the heir of A after all of it has perished along the line of inheritance? Connecting this scenario with Q. 15:23, there is not much to object to in the first part of the verse: God gave life to A, God caused A to die, but in what way is God the heir of A? He was not the immediate heir, and he cannot even be the ‘ultimate heir’, because the whole inheritance has perished long before the line of inheritance reached Allah. How then should we make sense of this verse?

Another noteworthy and problematic element in Q. 15:23 is that Allah calls himself not only “the heir” but “the heirs” in the plural. That will be the topic of a future article.

Finally, there is a morally questionable aspect in this one and two other verses.

And most surely We bring to life and cause to die and We are the heirs. (S. 15:23 Shakir)

Hast thou seen him who disbelieveth in Our revelations and saith: Assuredly I shall be given wealth and children? Hath he perused the Unseen, or hath he made a pact with the Beneficent? Nay, but We shall record that which he saith and prolong for him a span of torment. And We shall inherit from him that whereof he spake, and he will come unto Us, alone (without his wealth and children). (S. 19:77-80 Pickthall)

And how many a community have We destroyed that was thankless for its means of livelihood! And yonder are their dwellings, which have not been inhabited after them save a little. And We, even We, were the inheritors. (S. 28:58 Pickthall)

These verses state that Allah destroys communities (Q. 28:58) and causes the death of individuals (Q. 15:23), even using prolonged torture (Q. 19:79), and then ‘inherits’ from them. The suspicion could arise that he kills in order to inherit the victim. That certainly sounds perverse, and most sound legal systems have laws against that, e.g. the Slayer rule, stipulating that whoever kills a person from whom he stands to inherit will then lose his inheritance. Moreover, all good political systems separate the three branches of power – legislative, executive and judiciary – in order to minimize corruption and injustice. And a judge can never rule in a case in which he is a contending party. But here Allah is everything: the one who terminates a life, the judge and the beneficiary who inherits; the one who takes away the life and the one who benefits from it. Although one cannot transfer every principle from human society to God, it still leaves a bad taste. It is morally reprehensible.

It is the claim to be “the heir” that causes the problem, particularly that he is inheriting from his creatures. The situation could be remedied by dropping that claim and instead have one of the following scenarios. Either God says: I am the owner, I have entrusted to you your life and your possessions, but because you have abused them in many ways, I am going to take it back. An owner can demand back what belongs to him, certainly when trust has been abused and the debtor has not kept to the agreement of use.

Or: God is the lawmaker, he is the ruler, and he may well say to people: You have been disobedient and evil, you have transgressed the laws, and therefore you will be punished and your possessions will be given to people who are better than you, or they will be used to compensate the victims that you defrauded and mistreated. That would be just.

But to confiscate their belongings for his own use (making himself the heir), that is questionable and does not look like divine justice and impartiality. Killing people in order to take their possessions is what robbers do, but God is far above what some associate with him!6

Q. 21:89 is discussed in great detail in the article, “Allah – the Best of the Inheritors?” The many problems arising from that verse do not have to be repeated here, but the reader should consult this companion article to get the full picture.

Q. 57:10 and 3:180 both contain the phrase, “for Allah is the inheritance of the heavens and the earth”. Looking at that phrase one might wonder how these verses square with some other verses.

First, the Qur’an claims that there are not only seven heavens but also seven earths (Q. 65:12). Taking the formulation in Q. 57:10 and 3:180 literally, the question arises: If Allah inherits “the heavens” (assuming the plural means all seven of them) but speaks of “the earth” in the singular, obviously referring to the one earth on which we are living, who is going to inherit the other six earths?

Second, and more importantly, “heaven(s) and earth” is an expression that is often used to simply mean “everything”. Allah inherits everything, perhaps not immediately, but ultimately. However, in the Qur’an there are promises of inheritance that appear to be in conflict with that:

We shall strip away all rancour from their hearts, and rivers shall flow beneath them, and they shall say: ´All praise be to Allah Who has guided us on to this. Had it not been for Allah Who granted us guidance, we would not be on the Right Path. Surely the Messengers of our Lord did indeed come down with truth.´ Then a voice will cry out to them: ‘This is the Paradise which you are made to inherit as a reward for your deeds.’ (S. 7:43 Maududi)

And make me one of the inheritors of the Paradise of Delight; (S. 26:85 Al-Hilali & Khan)

This is the Paradise which you have been made to inherit because of your deeds which you used to do (in the life of the world). (S. 43:72 Al-Hilali & Khan)

The verses Q. 57:10 and 3:180 on the one hand and Q. 7:43, 26:85 and 43:72 on the other seem to create a conflicting twofold claim to the inheritance of Paradise. Is Allah the inheritor or are the believers the inheritors? Or does this imply that the believers’ stay in Paradise is not eternal but limited? Believers will have Paradise as an inheritance for a certain time, and after that they also will cease to exist (dying a second time?) and Paradise will ultimately be Allah’s alone?7

Or, perhaps, Allah and the believers are joint heirs, shareholders or associates in the ownership of Paradise?

Of all the questions listed above, the one I have the largest problem with is that Allah in the Qur’an seems so eager for the death of certain people so that he can inherit from them. That seems so utterly inappropriate for the true God. These passages make Allah appear needy and greedy. It nearly looks as if he is gloating over their death and destruction and it is some kind of triumph and satisfaction for him to inherit from them. This kind of Allah looks more than just a bit too human to me.

Nevertheless, all this said, let us give the author of the Qur’an the benefit of the doubt.

What did the author of the Qur’an want to say?

If he intended to say, “Allah is the owner, and although he entrusts many things to us for a time, eventually everything will return to him,” he could have said this clearly without confusion. He could simply have used the word “owner” instead of “heir”, and “take back” instead of “inherit”. But he did not. So maybe that is not what he meant.

If he intended to say, that he alone is the eternal one, and everything else will pass away, he could have just said it that way. But he did not. So maybe he meant something else.

The terminology of “heir”, “inheritance”, “will inherit”, etc. that is used in the Qur’an for Allah, seems to have many implications that are not befitting to God, particularly in the formulation and context in which they are used, and they certainly constitute a bad choice of words if the author actually meant any of the above. And yet, these are interpretations that are found in various English translations of these passages.

Will Muslims be able to find a coherent solution to these questions? Are they able to explain these verses in an intellectually satisfactory manner? An honest and satisfactory interpretation means taking the formulation and choice of words seriously, not simply replacing them with something else.8 This cannot simply be “put aside” as of little significance, since we are not dealing with merely a strange formulation in one peripheral verse. On the contrary, in the Qur’an we find a repeated if not systematic use of the concept that Allah inherits and is the heir. This demands a coherent, sound and satisfying interpretation.

Will Muslims be able to give a good explanation why these terms are the right and perfect choice of words after all?

Seeing the above discussed questions and the confusion caused by these passages, they are also in conflict with the pronouncements in the following verses:

… And We have sent down on thee the Book making clear everything, and as a guidance and a mercy, and as good tidings to those who surrender. S. 16:89 Arberry

A Book whereof the Verses are explained in detail; A Qur'an in Arabic for people who know S. 41:3 Al-Hilali & Khan

The normal standard meaning of the words heir, inheritor, to inherit, and inheritance in the passages Q. 3:180; 15:23; 19:40, 80; 21:89; 28:58; 57:10 clearly does not make sense and creates logical and theological problems, but another meaning is not provided in the Qur’an, thus falsifying also the claim that the Qur’an makes everything clear and explains everything in detail. That Allah is “the heir” is only claimed but not explained in the Qur’an and the translators and commentators are left to struggle with the statements and try to guess their possibly metaphorical meaning as the literal meaning raises more questions than it solves.

Excursus: I cannot help but wonder whether Muhammad overheard Christians uses the title “the heir” for Christ, because this is a title of divine authority in the context of biblical theology. But biblical theology is very different from quranic theology. The understanding of the nature of God in the Bible differs vastly from the nature of God as depicted in the Quran. Did Muhammad simply usurp and plagiarize that title without understanding the context and in that way create plenty of theological problems for Islam?9 We may not be able to answer this question ever, but it is a valid question. Given all the problems created by this terminology, why was it included into the Qur’an? What could have been the source and motivation for doing so?

Should Muslims refuse their inheritance?

If you want to be a Muslim, if you want to believe in the Qur’an as the final and authentic word of God and be or become part of the Muslim community, then you also become “an heir” (metaphorically) because you inherit also these logical and theological problems inherent in the Qur’an. You should put these questions before your imams. Inquire if they can provide you with satisfactory answers. If they cannot, you may want to rethink if you really want this inheritance that comes not only with the problems raised in this article but many other issues as well (cf. this section). You may find that some of these issues are valid and quite important questions so that they become your questions.

And if you do not get good answers to your questions, you will have to make a decision. If you come to the conclusion that the Qur’an may not be the word of God after all, do you then really want to be an heir to Muhammad’s theological incompetence? You cannot “pick and choose” only those elements that you like in Islam. You may see benefits, but you also inherit its baggage. It is a package deal. And if that package becomes too heavy, here is Jesus’ offer as recorded in the Gospel:

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

Further reading

As mentioned above, there is a companion article, Allah – the Best of the Inheritors?, which should be read alongside with this one.

Other articles that look at the issue of Allah being an heir from different angles are: The Issue of Inheritance and Allah's Aseity, Allah as the Inheritor of Creation, Does Allah Inherit or Doesn’t He?, Muslim Dawagandist Sami Zaatari Conclusively Proves that Allah is not God!


[First published: 23 February 2013]
[Last updated: 1 March 2013]


1 What exactly is the procedure of transferring the ownership of an inheritance to Allah? On the human level, it is illegal, but is Allah in this case both the official administering the transfer as well as the recipient?

2 I am using the terms as they are commonly used, not exact legal definitions which may even differ from country to country. Strictly speaking, in most cases, people only become heirs upon the death of the decedent, see these articles: 1, 2. But Muslims can hardly fault me for that loose terminology, since Allah is also called the heir in the Qur’an before he inherits since several of those passages clearly refer to a future event.

3 Translations of the Qur’an in this article are usually taken from this comparative translation site.

4 The connection with death and/or judgment is explicit in Q. 28:58; 19:77-80; 15:23; 3:180. It is implicit in Q. 21:89 as Zechariah fears to be left without an heir and therefore prays for a son. Only Q. 19:40 is a general statement that does not necessarily speak about death.

5 When is Allah inheriting? What is Allah inheriting? From whom is Allah inheriting? Why is he called an heir as if he is not the owner? Etc.

6 Could these verses even give the impression that Allah is a powerful and greedy tyrant who tortures and kills people and confiscates their property? Is the word ‘inherit’ in these verses merely a euphemism for confiscation? And why does this remind me of Muhammad and the way he dealt with Kinana al-Rabi? Did Muhammad create Allah in his own image?

7 To even consider suggesting it the other way around, i.e., first Allah inherits it for a time (from whom?) and later the believers inherit it from him, sounds like blasphemy.

8 Even a metaphorical use and understanding needs to be connected to the original meaning. One cannot simply assign an arbitrary meaning to the word.

9 It would not have been the first time, see the articles in the section on the Sources of the Qur’an.

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