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Muslim Estate Distribution is Bias for Men. Here’s Why

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

In the default estate distribution under Muslim law, the son gets a larger share of the estate compared to the daughter because he is expected to take care of his female sibling, according to Abdul Rahman, managing director at Singapore-based Abdul Rahman Law Corp. Immortalize spoke to Rahman on the rationale of this rule in modern day context and what Muslims can do to fulfil their religious obligation of preparing for death.

Name: Abdul Rahman

Company: Abdul Rahman Law Corp.

Estate Planning Specialization: Muslim Law

Base Country: Singapore

Service Style: Patient, compassionate, professional

Something interesting: Love to build things, love cars

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Q: Why did you decide to start your own practice as opposed to joining a big law firm?

Rahman: I’m the kind of person who can’t work well for others. I started my own business when I was 18 years old. I used to sell car parts for pocket money. Halfway through university, I started selling IT products for pocket money. I guess being my own boss has always been part and parcel of who I am.

Q: Have you worked in other law firms?

Rahman: As part of getting called to the bar to become a lawyer, I would need to do a training contract. During then, I did work in a law firm and later on, in another law firm as an independent associate.

While I was an independent associate, I basically had no fixed salary. Whatever I could hunt and eat was what I would have. It was the best feeling and experience that one could get at running a practice.

Q: What was your specialization at those law firms?

Rahman: The most immediate, low hanging fruit were community matters with people around me such as friends, family and my community. Things like estate planning and Muslim wills, it’s a need of the community, an underserved segment and naturally, I did those.

Q: What is the key specialization of your law firm?

Rahman: We are a broad-based litigation firm and that includes family litigation like the dispute of assets in an estate.

On the non-contentious aspect of things, we do corporate work and estate planning. There is an overlap among these two. In terms of estate planning, we go from drafting a simple will to more complex stuff like drawing a family charter to protect and insulate assets.

Q: What’s a typical client for you?

Rahman: The typical client for me will be couples who have children and extended families and in the segment of the market where they have financial security and may have multiple assets. They want to insulate and protect their wealth to make sure it stays within the family. Some of them also want that any payout to their children will be structured and protected so that their wealth is used well.

Most of my clients are in the middle to upper middle-class income group and about 20 percent of my clients are ultra-high net worth individuals.

Q: There are different school of thoughts for Muslims. Do you cover all of them? What’s the key difference between them?

Rahman: Yes, I cover all schools. The different jurisprudence aspect within different schools of thoughts have different understandings as to how the estate should be distributed. We have the Sunnis and the Shias.

Within the Sunnis, there are 4 different types of understanding in terms of the regulations of estate planning. Islam is a simple religion but when it comes to the nitty gritty details, there are multiple viewpoints. The multiple viewpoints are often seen as a blessing because it gives people different opportunities to apply the faith in different ways.

Q: What are the common Muslim-specific estate planning issues that your clients go to you for?

Rahman: If you look at the Muslim faith, it tells you to plan and prepare in advance so that you avoid difficulty after death. This is part of that responsibility of making sure that whatever needs to be done is actually done.

For Muslims in Singapore, we have the Administration of Muslim Law Act. Under the act, it is compulsory for Muslims here to adhere to the tenets of Muslim law. The understanding of what Muslim law is has always been in question because the statue is silent on the definition of Muslim law.

Within the ambit of Muslim law, there is a default position which we call the Faraid distribution. The next question will be is there any other forms of distribution that we can use apart from that. This is where the target focus area is for my clients because they want to fully explore what flexibility they have under the current regime and truthfully, not many people are acquainted or comfortable with doing it.

Q: Is there any trends that you think may cause more Muslims to consider estate planning?

Rahman: There were changes on the Islamic position on joint tenancy, CPF (Central Provident Fund or Singapore’s pension fund) and insurance nominations and setting up of trusts, especially for special needs children. Many are still grappling with these changes and people still don’t understand how they can utilize these exemptions or exceptions to their benefit when it comes to estate planning.

Q: There are many online wills out there but nothing catered for Muslims until recently. What’s your view on Syariah digital will?

Rahman: I’m all for tech. I believe that tech is something that we cannot shy away from, but I’m also a people person. I always prefer meeting people, going through and understanding their problems. You can have the best computer in the world, the best user experience, the best of everything, but at the end of the day, in my experience, clients still wants to see a person whom they can talk to, can hear their voices and then put pen to paper.

Q: Do you see it as disrupting your business?

Rahman: Not really. If anything, it will add to business. These are different market niches. For people who like and want to adopt tech, they will do a digital will. But there will be a whole other market segment that doesn’t want tech and they still like the process of seeing someone.

Q: Any comments on why people should see a lawyer instead of doing their own will?

Rahman: Many people will be troubled by the fact that there is a default position. They will think that the default position is the automatic position that you need to assume.

But in reality, the laws are extremely flexible and they are flexible enough for you to take active steps in doing estate planning. So, if you don't take the time to actually learn and understand it from a lawyer, you are setting yourself up for disputes and failure.

Traditional Approach vs Modern Context

For example, sometimes we have a lot of problems with the traditional approach towards distribution where if you have sons, the sons get two shares and the daughter gets one share. Many people don’t take the time to understand why that’s the case.

In reality, the sons get two shares because one share is for them to spend on themselves but the other share is for them to spend on their female siblings. It’s part of the perspective within the religion that the brothers remain responsible for their sisters.

But taken into modern context, given the lack of responsibility over siblings, do you still want to continue with that kind of distributions or do you want to do other kinds of distributions? Do you want to do equal distribution or is it the situation where some of your children support you more than others? This is the kind of reason why you would look for a lawyer.

Q: Anything interesting about you?

Rahman: I always joke that if I didn’t become a lawyer, I will probably be doing construction work. I like to build things. I am a simple man. I like building things with my hands. I also like very fast car.

Q: Do you have a collection of cars?

Rahman: No, but I am known to change my car every six months.

Q: You like cars and you like to build things. Does that mean you have a lot of clients who are business owners because you can associate more with them?

Rahman: Actually no. We market ourselves as for the “common man”. We help the common man more than anyone else. Dealing with people who are in need and underserved has always been where we are. It’s not just about marketing to sell them things but also giving back.

We do CSR (corporate social responsibility) work extensively. We engage the community like taking people from old folks home for dinner and spending time with orphans. During festive seasons, we always bring people out to get free grocery, free food, free everything. That is the hallmark of our firm.

Q: How much of this CSR work is marketing? What’s in it for you to do such things?

Rahman: The agenda, truthfully, is to give back. Whether anything comes out of it is another thing.

Q: Is there a particular group of people that you target for CSR?

Rahman: Old folks and orphans.

Q: Why?

Rahman: When I was in university, during fasting month, one of my friends organized a break fast session at an old folks home. I was there taking photos and then suddenly, one of my friend sat beside this old lady and she couldn’t stop hugging him.

We were like “Why she is hugging him?” and she said “I’m sorry that I’m hugging you. It’s just that I miss my son so much and he doesn’t visit at all”. That left a lasting impression on me. That incident made me feel that old folks are sometimes forgotten.

People don’t really want to visit them. If you talk about orphans, and we support orphans as well, everyone wants to go and support them. Everybody wants to support the orphanage. But less people think about the old folks, what are they doing, whether they have enough money, whether they have pocket money and because of that, they are our key target.

Q: Is there any personal circumstances that made old folks resonate more with you?

Rahman: I wouldn’t want to be in the situation. It makes me feel crappy to think that you worked your whole life, you save enough money, you feed your kids and at the end of the day, you just end up in the old folks home. Nobody wants to visit you. Nobody wants to see you.

Q: Do you do estate planning for them?

Rahman: We do extensive free estate planning for people with cancer and people who are dying. The number of times I’ve gone to a hospital, me and my staff always joke that sometimes, we feel like the angels of death. We come, sign a will and then the next day the family says the person is gone.

This interview has been edited for length.


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