Inheritance in Islam

Annelies Glander, Inheritance in Islam: Women's Inheritance in San'a (Republic of Yemen): Law, Religion, andReality, 1998. European University Studies, Series XXVII, Asianand African Studies, 69. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. 141 pp.,bibliography.

Reviewed by Daniel MartinVarisco

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

Contributions to the study of Islamic law in Yemen have been limited,with the notable exception of Messick's seminal The CalligraphicState. Thus, a text dealing with Yemeni inheritance law,especially in relation to women, would seem well worthwhile. AnneliesGlander, a linguist who has visited Yemen, provides a thumbnailsketch of the subject, but seems not to know any of the work ofMessick, nor the analyses of Yemeni customary law by Maktari orDresch. This is a kind of Cliff's Notes outline of legal terminologyand a few basic legal sources, including translations of relevantgovernmental laws. The reader can find useful information, much ofwhich is not readily available in English, but very little analysis.The strength of the work is its straightforward documentation and assuch this is a work that could be consulted by anyone trying tounderstand the legal issues in Islamic inheritance. The inclusion ofan index or alphabetical glossary would facilitate the reader, but itis after all a rather short study.

As the Table of Contents shows, the focus ofthe book is on the legal aspects of inheritance in Yemen, the focusbeing on women's inheritance. About two-thirds deals with the textualinformation and almost a third is devoted to results of interviewsshe conducted, primarily with women. The book's conclusion is a shortsummary of what Glander sees as the comparison of normative legalproscriptions with actual practice. Among these, she found that thewomen stressed the importance of getting guidance from the Quran,that there were definite ideas on what was "good" Muslim practice,the importance of having all the heirs present when decisions aboutinheritance are being made, the "overriding importance of keeping thefamily property together," and an "apparent reluctance" of women toinsist on immediate payment of shares.

First, it is necessary to comment on theauthor's style. The English is rather terse, at times written in thestyle of an undergraduate term paper. For example, in her section on"And why choose Sana'a?" (pp. 20-22) we find a list of short capsulestatements about books and articles; these are presented in asomewhat stilted format of "Fatima Mernissi compiled..." "Gabrielevom Bruck furnished..." etc. with no apparent narrative flow. It alsoreads too much like a development report with sections andsubsections that at times barely include any useful points. An editorwould certainly have helped here; it is not a text that a major presswould have published in such unfinished form. It is hard tounderstand why some of the less insightful interview data areprovided. A questionnaire was given to the Mufti in Sanaa, althoughGlander was unable to meet him, in part because he was ill. She didreceive a faxed response with excessively short comments. Forexample, her question (p. 77) as to how the qudâ' areappointed and what rules apply receives only "By the ministry ofjustice (prime minister)." How this helps explain the process isbeyond me, let alone the role played by the Prime Minister in theMinistry of Justice. Why are these embarrassingly cursive responses(clearly the Mufti was not interested) on a fax presented verbatim asa formal part of the documentation?

Second, the author is trying to provide botha predominantly linguistic presentation of the legal principles and asociological study of inheritance by women. The latter part sufferson several accounts. Although Glander has read some relevantethnography on Yemen, she tends to view Yemeni society only in termsof the case materials she has come across. Thus, Meissner's"conventional ranking" is virtually all she provides for a sectionentitled "Social structure" with no mention of where Meissner did hisfieldwork or how this particular model functions in Yemen as a whole.Previous anthropological research is poorly integrated into theauthor's own interviews with bank officials and women. The majorinterview data draw on five women (see below for part of theinterview with "Muna"). These are in fact informative biographicalportraits, although it is not clear (since the Arabic is not providedin any way) how true the translation provided is to the original.Glander notes that the interviews were "recorded" (I assume thismeans on tape), but does not indicate whether these are verbatimtranscripts (which they certainly do not come across as intranslation) or simply tidbits she found useful. I am not saying thatthese portraits are not useful; the problem is they are notcontextualized (for an example of suchcontextualization, see the article by Martha Mundy in ArabianStudies, 1976). Recording a conversation with one and translatingit do not make "sociology" or ethnography. The author's defense (p.129) against the idea of not being statistically representative isthat she was only interested in interviewing women with something toinherit. But this misses the point. It is not just a problem ofsampling (in this case with an odd lack of male informants), but alsothe role of interviews in the process of analysis. Her summarybecomes little more than a series of anecdotal comments, even if theymay be "true."

Criticism aside, I like this book. Glanderuses her competency in Arabic to provide the non-Arabic or strugglingArabic reader with helpful translations of relevant excerpts onYemeni inheritance. The author is right to chide those who see inYemen what they want to see, especially the journalistic tendency toexoticize women. Her comments about the gushingly self-servingtabloid style of Swiss journalist Laurence Deonna are right on mark,when Glander remarks (p.22): "Had she [Deonna] stayed longershe might perhaps have found certain aspects not so very hilarious."Rather than stereotyping Yemeni women as chattel, Glander notes thatsexism is as readily found in places like England as a country likeYemen, where the women (as Garrison Keilor might be pleased to note)are strong. There is also a naive honesty that makes the role of theauthor more sympathetic, whatever the shortcoming of her text as atext. Discussing her difficulty in Yemen as a Western femaleresearcher, she notes how it helped that she had ten years experiencein the Arab World and was a married woman with children andgrandchildren. We can certainly all review the sentiment in herartful (although dreadfully archaic King James English) rendering ofthe "Ten Commandments of Field Research" excerpted below.

To conclude, this book's amateurishpresentation does not rule out its usefulness. I can think of no morefitting comment than that of Glander herself (p. 16): "A number ofbooks published by authors claiming to have insight and postulatingto be reliable sources have rendered the Arab world most questionableservices; they have rather contributed towards widening the gap inmutual understanding, very often distorting situations by omittingcomplementary explications, and biassing the readers by satisfyingtheir expectations of the extraordinary or downright incredible."Fortunately, Glander's study of women's inheritance in Yemen is notsuch a book.

Table ofContents

1. Conceptual Parameters

1.1 A note on the state of research

1.2 Methodology of the study

1.3 The Ten Commandments of Field Research

1.4 Possibilities of approach

1.5 Position of researcher

1.6 The Arab female researcher

1.7 The Western female researcher

1.8 Choice of country

1.9 And why choose Sana'a

1.10 A note on transliteration

2. Introduction

2.1 Purpose of this study

2.2 The method adopted to meet this purpose

2.3 A presentation of Part One

2.4 Islamic law

2.5 Inheritance laws in Islam

2.6 Theory and practice

2.7 Women's rights in the context of "Women in Islam"

2.8 Economic background and social patterns

2.9 Pre-Islamic doctrines

2.10 Women's inheritance -- a fascinating topic

3. Part One

3.1 Section A -- The legal system

3.1.1 The sources of law

3.1.2 The judicial system Legal education Legal terminology Historical background of inheritance rules Historical documents Koran Sharia Kitâb al-ahkâm fî-bayân al-halâl wa-l-harâm A handbook of inheritance used in San'a Hujb table Three examples A generation model Yemen legal gazettes A detailed questionnaire discussed with imams A questionnaire submitted to the Mufti

3.2 Section B -- Selected aspects of the legal system

3.2.1 A note on the female share

3.2.2 A note on mahr (dower, bridal money)

3.2.3 A note on munâsikha (postponement of the division of inheritance)

3.2.4 A note on orphans, handicapped children and elopers

3.3 A final summarising note

4. Part Two

4.1 Jurisprudence and sociology

4.2 Social structure

4.3 Marriage arrangements

4.4 Kinship terminology

4.5 Evidence for economic independence of women

4.6 Women's bank accounts -- a contradiction in terms?

4.7 Interview environment

4.8 The interviews

4.9 A note on respective literature

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

EXCERPT [pp. 13-15]

1.3 The Ten Commandments of FieldResearch

The Guidelines followed in field research bythe author of the text are given in the form of the Ten Commandmentsof Field Research, the first four of which are a slightly rephrasedversion of Freya Stark's "Decalogue for Travel", quoted uponsuccessful testing and in tribute to her, and supplemented by sixmore voiced on the basis of experience gained in the1990s:


  • Thou shalt be capable of acceptingvalues and of judging by standards other than thy own and thy mind beleisurely and uncensorious.
  • Thou shalt be aware that rapidjudgment of the other's character and sincerity are (sic) aprerequisite for any sound investigation. Thou must proffer a readyquickness in repartee or thy opposite will rusefully give wronganswers.
  • Thou must love nature and this mustinclude human nature; thou must have a tolerable constitution and thecapacity to eat and sleep at any moment.
  • Thou must bring with thee a fairknowledge of local history, economic conditions, political aspectsand of the language.
  • Thou mayest go native but thou shaltnot get carried away. Thou shalt adapt to the local surroundings butremain thyself. If thou integratest into thy field of research tosuch an extent that thou becomest a stranger in thy own world thouhast gone too far.
  • Thou must bear in mind that thou arta guest. Thou must not interfere with circumstances, neither pity norenvy thy hosts. Thy order is to collect facts, and if thou artexplicitly asked for thy opinion try to find comparable aspects inthy home country which thou canst offer.
  • Thou shalt never refuse an informant-- less so if he or she be introduced by one thou hast chosenthyself, no matter how negligible the outcome may be. A turned-downinformant causeth unnecessary problems.
  • Thou shalt not invent or misrepresentdetails about thyself. Thou must not introduce a chance visitingfriend or lover as thy husband or beloved brother. And thou mustnever make advances to a native out of curiosity or on the pretest ofobtaining genuine information more directly. an informant cajoled onfalse promises and turned down may become a dangerousenemy.
  • Thou shalt be frank and modest. Thoushalt tell thy informant that thou art not familiar with their codeof conduct but ready to learn. Ask them to help thee behaveinoffensively and according to their expectations. And beg them,instead of giving a fake answer, to candidly tell thee if a questionthou raisest inconveniences them.
  • Thou shalt not expect the people backhome to understand or believe thee. If thou art not prepared to beconsidered an outsider and suspected of highly unbecoming aspirationsthou art well-advised to stay at home with the crowd and uphold thepopular mind.

EXCERPT [pp. 121-123]

4.8.5 Muna: illiterate wife of aland owner, a rich heiress, "controls" family property inoffensively,example of a part-munâsikha

Muna proved the most difficult person tofind access to. She has a reputation of being withdrawn and is saidto try and avoid meeting foreigners. It took several conversationswith her husband before an interview could be arranged.

Muna is the illiterate wife of awell-established land owner, the son of a renowned Qadi. Bothfamilies own an impressive number of houses in Sana'a, including veryvaluable ones in the old city, and large plots of land outside San'a.She was married the "old way" as both she and her husband tellindependently. The marriage was arranged between the two fathers whohad also negotiated the transfer of land to take effect upon thedeath of Muna's father. The daughter had only seen her future husbandthrough slits in curtains, and the man had only seen his future wifefrom a window while she had busied herself in the courtyard. Hermahr consisted of gold, dresses and cosmetics, all given toher at the time of marriage. She moved into her husband's house whichbelongs to him. When traffic in old Sana'a started to become "anuisance" and tourists came in ever greater numbers, the husbanddecided to move to a quieter, healthier place and refurbished a housein Ar-Rawda, an ever more popular residential area between Sana'a andthe Airport. It is an old house surrounded by vineyards, but equippedwith the necessary conveniences to facilitate Muna's householdduties. Her husband does all the shopping for the meals she prepares.Muna purchases what she wants for herself and the children. Althoughshe shares an account with her husband at the bank, she asks herhusband for any money she needs to do her shopping, and if she doesnot spend all of it keeps the rest and saves it in a cupboard.Whenever she needs to make a purchase, she asks for money again, andnever touches what she has been saving.

"And how and why do you not run an accountof your own?"

"When my father died, I inherited land andhouses. The houses are let, and the land is used for agriculturalpurposes. All this brings money which is paid into the account undermy name. My husband arranges and manages all this and he tells meabout all the movements effected. As a matter of fact he alsodiscusses with me all he does with his own plots of land, heconverses with me and never takes a step without asking me what Ithink of it. You see, I am a very practical person, and I am sure myhusband is pleased with this. When I got married people commented onthe fact that I had been lucky to marry 'up the ladder'; my fatherhad only been a merchant, but my husband's father was a Qadi.However, my father had been a very acute merchant and I learned a lotfrom him while still at home. I was not sent to school since this wasnot considered necessary, but I am not stupid. If anything happenedto the men in our family I would know what to do and when to go tocourt. But as long as this is not necessary I prefer to stay at home.I know my husband likes to meet foreigners in Sana'a, partly becausehe rents our houses to them, partly because he likes to see their wayof life. I do not like to meet them. There is nothing I could learnfrom them. I would not want to see my children imitate them. when myhusband told me about you and insisted I should meet you I told himstraight away that he could tell you what you want to know. But hekept telling me you do not want the information from him but from mepersonally. so I agreed to his inviting you for lunch. I neverexpected you not to stay in the mafraj with him after I hadbrought in the food and was surprises when you got up and followed meinto the kitchen. When you said you would not eat with my husband ifI did not share the meal, and took bread out of the oven yourself andtalked to the children, I was at a loss what to do. When you told meabout your grandchildren I felt I should be kind to you. It made mehappy to see you enjoy my meal and eat it properly. When you insistedon helping me do the washing up and swept the floor I thought I mustshow you he other side of my life, the afternoon. This is why Idressed as I would have done for my Yemeni lady friends and am nowsitting in the women's mafraj with you. I told my husband to pick youup by sunset and drive you home, as is becoming for a good woman."...

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