Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah – the Best of the Inheritors?

Jochen Katz

When comparing stories of the Bible with their counterparts in the Qur’an, one can quite often discover significant differences that have weighty implications.

In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, there is the report of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. It starts this way:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. (Luke 1:5-16 NIV)

When we compare the above text with the version(s) of this story that is/are found in the Qur’an, we observe that the Bible only states that Zechariah had prayed to God for a son, but the actual words of this prayer are not reported. The angel only comes and brings Zechariah the good news that his prayer has been heard.

The author of the Qur’an, on the other hand, apparently found this unsatisfactory and provided his audience even with different versions of this prayer:

Then Zachariah prayed unto his Lord and said: My Lord! Bestow upon me of Thy bounty goodly offspring. Lo! Thou art the Hearer of Prayer. (S. 3:38 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)

So, which one is the prayer that Zechariah actually, or rather supposedly, prayed?  It looks like the author of the Qur’an made them up “on the spot” and the second time around simply forgot that he already had a different version of this prayer in another chapter. That is quite telling and rather damaging to the authority of the Qur’an as an allegedly authentic divine revelation, but it is not the main topic for this article.

Though rather short, and perhaps more a summary than the actual prayer, the version in Sura 3:38 is possible and Zechariah may well have prayed a prayer that was similar to the one formulated in that verse, even though it is fictitious.

However, the prayer that Muhammad put into Zechariah’s mouth in Sura 21:89 is strange and makes little sense.1

It sounds like Zechariah is saying: If I will not have a son, then Allah will inherit me. But that is hardly possible. It does not even matter whether we apply Jewish or Islamic inheritance laws. If he does not have children, then his possessions in this world will go to his wife and/or his siblings, or even more distant relatives.2 The earth will receive his body and his soul/spirit will either return to God, or wait for God’s final judgment somewhere, but the point is that the latter will happen independently from the question whether Zechariah has a son at the time of his death or not. So, in what sense is the question of having a son related to the concept of “Allah being an inheritor”? This is entirely unclear.

Inheritance laws are an important topic in the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence.3 The Qur’an defines clearly4 who will get which share of the inheritance. But Allah does not get a share from the inheritance. All of it goes to human relatives. If Allah is not even one of the inheritors, how can he then be the best of the inheritors?5

Now, seeking an heir is certainly not the only reason for wanting a child. Children are a joy to their parents. They enrich your life. You love them and they love you. And, eventually, they will look after you and care for you when you are becoming too old and frail to look after yourself. So, they can be comforters and providers in our old age. Zechariah would be missing out on that if he had no children.

Therefore, it would have been meaningful if the Qur’an had put into Zechariah’s mouth a prayer going something like this:

‘O my Lord, leave me not solitary; yet, you are the best of comforters.’


‘O my Lord, leave me not alone; but even if I will not have a son, I know that you are the best of providers.’

In other words, even though he prays for a son, which is a natural desire of any man, he also expresses his faith that the Lord will comfort him and provide for him even if he will not be granted a son.6

But in what way is Allah inheriting from Zechariah? And how would that be changed or impacted by whether or not Zechariah will have a son? In other words, what is the connection between his request for a son, and the belief that “Allah is the best of inheritors”? Even more: Maybe this connection is so difficult to understand because there is a fundamental problem with the belief that Allah is an heir at all?

Most translators render this verse similar to the version that is quoted above, since that is the plain meaning of the words, even though the statement is not really meaningful when it is put under close scrutiny. Several other translators, however, recognized that something is wrong here and so they tried to be creative in their translations, coming up with the following suggestions to “improve” or “repair” the strange formulation of the Qur’an.7

(Remember) Zachariah when he called to his Lord: "Do not leave me alone (and childless), for you are the best of givers." (Ahmed Ali)

Two observations need to be made in regard to this “improvement”. First, “inheritor” is replaced by “giver”. I agree, that would make a lot more sense. Allah is not the one who receives (in this case, an inheritance) but he is the one who gives and provides. Zechariah is requesting something, so that would be “matched” more suitably by Allah giving. Second, the standard translation “though” is replaced by a “for”. Instead of stating a possible objection against his request Zechariah rather gives a reason why Allah by his nature should be inclined to grant it. Ahmed Ali’s version makes more sense than the original, but it has one major problem: it is not a faithful translation of the Arabic text.

As Zakariyya, (Zechariah) as he called out to his Lord, "Lord! Leave me not out single, (i.e., without offspring) and You are The Most Charitable of inheritors!" (Muhammad Mahmoud Ghali)

M. M. Ghali also thought that Allah should rather be giving than receiving – at least in this context. But he was not as bold as Ahmed Ali who removed “inheritor” altogether. Instead he qualified the term and inserted his expectation by adding the expression “most charitable”. So, when Allah receives an inheritance, then he is most charitable and shares what he received with others. Still, what is the connection with Zechariah’s request for a son? Does Allah first have to inherit that son from somebody else before he can then pass him on to Zechariah?

If that sounds blasphemous, it does so because it is. This is a good example of “making something worse by trying to improve it”.

(Mention also) Zachariah. Once he called out to his Lord, saying: "My Lord! Do not let me leave the world without an heir, for You are the Best of the inheritors." (Ali Ünal)

Ünal also felt that the “though” doesn’t quite fit here. A reason for granting the request is more appropriate than an objection against it, but he does not make any attempt to deal with the problem inherent in the term “inheritor”.8

AND [thus did We deliver] Zachariah when he cried out unto his Sustainer: “O my Sustainer! Leave me not childless! But [even if Thou grant me no bodily heir, I know that] Thou wilt remain when all else has ceased to be!” (Muhammad Asad)

And (We showed Our favours to) Zachariah. Behold! he called out to his Lord and prayed to Him, `My Lord, do not leave me solitary, alone (and heirless), You are Best of those who remain after (-You alone are the Everlasting God).' (Amatul Rahman Omar)

M. Asad and A. R. Omar are taking off in an entirely different direction. A person can only be an heir/inheritor when he is alive. Dead people do not inherit. So, an heir is one who is “remaining” when somebody else died. This one aspect is then extrapolated to infinity as if “inheritor” speaks of Allah’s eternal existence. That is quite a stretch, to say the least. There are many other conditions to become an heir. E.g., a person is an heir when he is related to the deceased by blood or marriage. What does that imply for Allah?9

This is another case of making things worse by trying to improve them. The expression says that Allah is the best of the inheritors, which means he is one of many, although he is “the best” in some sense in comparison to the group in view. How A. R. Omar can then conclude that this means or implies “You alone are …” is a mystery. Asad also simply drops the “group aspect” in the expression and speaks of Allah remaining when “all else has ceased to be”. If the formulation had been, “you are the only inheritor”, maybe one could make such an argument, but to turn a statement of “one among a group” into a claim about an exclusive attribute of God is bold and has little to do with faithful translation.

Is Allah “the best” of the inheritors merely because he manages to remain alive the longest and thus the whole inheritance falls to him for that reason? No moral greatness here, merely longevity?10

Even more, what exactly is left for Allah to inherit when “all else has ceased to be”? If there is nothing left, there is nothing to inherit, and thus, it is meaningless to call Allah an inheritor.11 So, Muhammad Asad’s “improvement” is even more illogical than the Quranic original. And the same holds for the next variant:

And Zachariah called unto his Lord, O My Sustainer! Leave me not childless! However, I do realize that You will remain when all else has ceased to be! You are the Ultimate of the inheritors. (3:33), (19:5-7). (Shabbir Ahmed)

No, Zechariah has a current need. He wants a son and heir in this life. Why would he be concerned about the question of who will eventually get his possessions in hundreds or thousands of years, after humanity as such will already have ceased to exist on this planet?12 The interpretation by Asad, Ahmed and some others does not make any sense at all. It is utterly artificial and contrived and an obvious attempt to detract from the problem in this statement. It fails to explain anything.

Finally, pondering this interpretation some more, it seems that it is even worse than merely being illogical; it is an insult to God. This issue will be discussed in Appendix 1.

Let me return to my original statement that S. 21:89 “sounds like Zechariah is saying: If I will not have a son, then Allah will inherit me.” The next Muslim translation brings that out clearly. It is, after all, the most natural interpretation of the actual words.

As for Zechariah, he cried to his Lord saying: “My Lord, do not leave me alone (without any child and inheritor) even though (it is a pleasure to have you as inheritor; after all,) you are the best inheritor. (Bijan Moeinian)

Moeinian added an emotional touch by inserting the parenthetical remark “it is a pleasure to have you as inheritor; after all”, but even attaching a “pleasurable feeling” to it does not turn a meaningless statement into a meaningful one. It still does not explain how Allah would inherit Zechariah, in what way is it justified to call Allah an inheritor at all, and what is the connection of this “divine attribute” to the question whether Zechariah will have a son or not.

Clearly, the translators are struggling mightily to make sense of this statement – but have failed so far. It still doesn’t make sense.

Apart from the specific location of it in S. 21:89, and the questions arising from that, what could have been the reason for the author of the Qur’an to come up with this expression, “the best of the inheritors”, at all?13 Perhaps the logic went like this: Being an inheritor is good. Everything that is good must also hold true for Allah, even in the superlative; therefore Allah must be not only an heir but the best of the inheritors.

However, this reasoning overlooks one significant aspect: Being an inheritor is good because we are needy and dependent people: We are in need of food, clothing, shelter, etc. in order to live a good and comfortable life. Therefore, receiving an inheritance helps us to provide for our needs. Since Allah is the Almighty and owns everything, since he has no needs and is not dependent on anyone, there is for Allah no value in receiving an inheritance. Why would he be interested to become an heir to anyone? How would Allah’s lot be improved by receiving Ali’s fields, Omar’s house, Faruq’s car or cattle, or Uthman’s money?

Why would “the heir” or “the best of the inheritors” be a desirable title for Allah at all?

There is one more aspect that we need to examine.

Not only common believers but even prophets and apostles occasionally make inappropriate statements about God and need to be corrected and should then repent. Since the title “the best of the inheritors” is found in a statement by Zechariah and is not presented as the direct speech of Allah, we have to ask: Could it be that the Qur’an only reported this without endorsing it?

This objection does not work because the claim that Allah is an heir and inherits is repeated several times in the Qur’an in different contexts, and most of them are presented as the direct revelation from Allah, not only quoted as a (possibly misguided) opinion of human beings who may have erred.

There are several other passages which speak of Allah being an heir (noun) or inheriting (verb).

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, cf. 57:10)

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)

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. 19:79-80 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)

Thus, the answer to the question raised above is: No, the Qur’an puts this statement into Zechariah’s mouth because it is a genuine part of Quranic theology. It is consistent with the rest of the message of the Quran.14

For whatever reason, the author of the Quran felt the urge to include this element of his theology also into the prayer of Zechariah even though it does not fit there at all.

The problem is, however, more fundamental than merely importing the concept of Allah being an heir into the wrong context. That is the topic of the companion article, Allah – the Heir?

One final question: Leaving all the logical and theological problems aside, let us assume there is a simple-minded but rich Muslim who wants to take seriously that “Allah is the best of the inheritors” and therefore desires to bequeath some of his wealth to Allah. How would he even do it?

Many Muslims would probably suggest that he should bequeath it to the mosque, but isn’t it blasphemous to equate the mosque with Allah? And how can this poor rich Muslim be sure that the money will reach Allah, and Allah is not defrauded of his inheritance, particularly given this recent news report: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf Accused of Embezzling Millions from Mosque Fund! After all, this Muslim wanted to give it to Allah and not to corrupt mosque officials.


Appendix 1 – Is it best to be the last?

There is another aspect in the translations of Asad and Ahmed that is worth discussing.

AND [thus did We deliver] Zachariah when he cried out unto his Sustainer: “O my Sustainer! Leave me not childless! But [even if Thou grant me no bodily heir, I know that] Thou wilt remain when all else has ceased to be!” (Muhammad Asad)

And Zachariah called unto his Lord, O My Sustainer! Leave me not childless! However, I do realize that You will remain when all else has ceased to be! You are the Ultimate of the inheritors. (3:33), (19:5-7). (Shabbir Ahmed)

Apart from the observation that Shabbir Ahmed’s translation (published in 2003) is clearly dependent on Muhammad Asad’s translation (first published in 1980), it is interesting to see that Ahmed mixes Asad’s interpretation of the last phrase of S. 21:89 with a second translation of the same expression that keeps the term “inheritor” and thus creates even more problems.15 A problem that is already lurking implicitly in Asad’s paraphrase becomes now explicit in Ahmed’s rendering.

Allah is the final or ultimate inheritor because there is nobody else around anymore. Everyone else has “ceased to be” and so the complete inheritance of Zechariah, and of everyone else for that matter, falls to Allah by default.

Pondering this interpretation some more, it seems that it is even worse than being merely illogical; it is an insult to God. The name “the best of the inheritors” is clearly intended to be a title of honor. But what is the implication of the above understanding of it?

Basically, there are two kinds of heirs which I want to call “heirs of law” and “heirs of love”. This is prominently emphasized in the core text in which the Qur’an deals with inheritance shares. Sura 4:11-12 contains one recurring phrase that is repeated four times: “after any bequest he/they may bequeath” (the full text is displayed here).

The Qur’an defines the shares for the sons and the daughters, the parents and the wives of the deceased in various constellations. Those are the legally necessary heirs, the “heirs of law” as I called them above. One cannot change their ‘divinely appointed’ shares. Whether these people treated the deceased with friendliness and respect or mistreated him with hostility and contempt, these are the shares for the legal heirs.

And then there are heirs who may not be part of the immediate or even wider family but to whom a bequest is made in the last will or testament of the deceased. They are friends whom the deceased was grateful to. They are honoured in his will. And here is the important point: These bequests take priority over the standard inheritance distribution. Bequests are to be handed over first, and then the legal heirs receive their shares from what is left over.

Among the legal heirs are the children, parents and the spouse(s) of the deceased. Only if there does not exist an heir in the direct line (children and parents) then more distant relatives (brothers, sisters, uncles, etc.) will inherit.

Here is the principle: The one who receives a bequest has a position of honor and receives first. He is an “heir of love”. And also among the relatives, the heirs of law, those relatives who are the closest inherit first. In other words, those coming later, i.e. those who inherit only if no closer heir is alive are more distant to the deceased.

After understanding this principle, we look again at the interpretation proposed by Asad and Ahmed. Their translations basically turn Allah into the most distant heir, the one who inherits only because all other potential heirs do no longer exist. Instead of being the most dear, Allah is demoted to be the most distant.

The expression “the best of the inheritors” is clearly intended to be an honorable title, an expression of value and high esteem, but the interpretation given by Asad and Ahmed makes Allah stand last in the line of potential heirs.

Does that sound appropriate? Does that sound like it is a correct understanding?

Isn’t this rather an insult to God to assign him the last place in the line of inheritance? This means that he is not an heir of love, who receives first what was bequeathed to him out of the free will of the testator. And even among the “heirs of law” he is of the lowest rank and only receives because nobody else is left.

Although it is hard to make sense of the concept that Allah is an heir or the heir or the best of the heirs,16 and the widely differing translations of S. 21:89 testify to the struggle of the translators with this issue, the title “the best of the inheritors” was clearly intended to honor Allah,17 but the interpretation of this expression that is promoted by Asad and Ahmed is actually demoting and insulting him.


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


1 Note that Sura 21 is considered to be an (early) Meccan sura while Sura 3 is a Medinan sura. Perhaps the author of the Qur’an realized the somewhat unfortunate formulation of this prayer in the intervening years and abrogated Zechariah’s prayer in S. 21:89 and replaced it with a better one in S. 3:38 (cf. S. 2:106)? But is it really possible to abrogate and replace history?  Given the fact that the volume of text in Medinan suras is larger than the text of Meccan suras, it is interesting to note and perhaps quite significant that five of the seven passages that speak about Allah as inheriting are Meccan and only two Medinan, and these two are very similar. Why did this concept “fade out” in the Medinan period? Perhaps Muhammad recognized at some time that this is a problematic theological concept and tried not to repeat it any more?

2 Remember that Zechariah and his wife were already quite old. He may have lived longer than all of his siblings, but certainly outlived his parents. In that case, his possessions would be inherited by the descendents of his siblings or (the descendents of) his cousins as his closest relatives surviving him.

3 The calculation of shares of inheritance is called Faraid. “A hadîth, conveyed by Ibn Mâja and Dâra Qutnî … in the epitome of Tadhkirat-al Qurtubî, declares, ‘Try to learn the knowledge of farâid! Teach this knowledge to the youth! The knowledge of farâid is half of (all) religious knowledge. It will be this knowledge that my Umma will forget first.’” (Source)

4 And for some cases not quite so clearly, cf. the article, It just doesn’t add up.

5 There is a variant to this question. Is the intent of the statement in the Qur’an specific or general? Specific: Is Allah “the best of the inheritors” among those who will inherit from Zechariah? Or is it general, i.e., Is Allah “the best of the inheritors” when looking at the entirety of all those millions of people everywhere who are inheriting something from somebody? Still, even if looking at all inheritors throughout history, Allah can only be the best of them when he is one of them, which leads us back to the specific: Whom does Allah inherit from and what is he inheriting? The general makes sense only when there is at least one specific instance.

6 Interestingly, I later found out that the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs attempts to explain the phrase in a way similar to my above suggestion for more meaningful formulation. It states: “(though Thou art the best of inheritors) though You are the best of helpers.” (Source) But the Arabic original is different from the formulation in S. 3:150, “Nay! Allah is your Patron and He is the best of the helpers.” (Shakir).  If the author of Qur’an used different expressions, he probably did so for a reason and one should not just replace one with the other.

7 All translations of the Qur’an are taken from this comparative translation site (*).

8 And Ünal makes another arbitrary and unjustified change. The Arabic and all other about 40 translations state that Zechariah requests that Allah may not leave him (Zechariah) alone. Ünal changes this into a request that Allah should not let it happen that Zechariah leaves the world alone. That is a quite significant difference and a completely unjustified change of meaning. But it supports my claim that the translators are struggling hard to make sense of something that is a problematic statement in the original.

9 In fact, there is an Islamic argument that only one who is born can inherit and only one who dies can leave an inheritance. This issue is discussed in an article by Sam Shamoun.

10 See also the discussion in Appendix 1.

11 Instead of being the “best of the inheritors”, he rather becomes the most pitiful of inheritors. First he has to wait an eternity for his turn, and then he gets … nothing. He is the poor heir who is sent home empty-handed.

12 This is not a sermon preached to his people about the eternal nature of God, but Zechariah is privately petitioning God to provide for his personal need.

13 This is a valid question, although the answer can only be speculative.

14 Perhaps one could say, the Qur’an is consistently incoherent on this issue.

15 Asad translates or rather mistranslates the name “the best of the inheritors” as “Thou wilt remain when all else has ceased to be” but Ahmed renders it twice when he first takes over Asad’s choice “You will remain when all else has ceased to be” and then adds “You are the Ultimate of the inheritors”.

16 See the companion article, Allah – the Heir?

17 Ibn Kathir states in his commentary: “(though You are the Best of the inheritors.) This is a supplication and form of praise befitting the topic.” (Source) Though I disagree whether it really is befitting, I do agree that it was intended as a form of praise.

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