Marion Holmes KatzSep 1, 2023
Wives and Work
Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity
Columbia University Press 2022
In this interview, I speak with Marion Holmes Katz about her latest book Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity (Columbia UP, 2022). This fascinating book explores the question of wives’ domestic responsibilities from a Sunni Islamic legal perspective, covering scholarship from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. The book addresses questions such as, does the wife have the obligation to provide housework? What counts as housework? And if it is true that the wife is not obligated to perform any household labor, as many western Muslims believe, how did the Muslim tradition reconcile this ruling with the anecdote involving Fatima’s request to the Prophet Muhammad for help with household work because she is overworked? And how did Muslim scholars reconcile this idea with what they understood to be morally, culturally, or religiously correct behavior from a woman? If the wife does choose to perform housework, is she entitled to compensation from her husband?
For most Muslim scholars historically, answers to these questions involved distinguishing between ethical ideals and legal claims. Katz shows, for instance, that the discourse on women’s household labor evolves with time, context, geographical location, such that, for example, in the formative period, it was widely accepted that wives are not obligated to perform any household chores, but by the time we get to the 14th century, this doctrine is challenged. Overall, then, not only do scholarly views expectedly disagree with each other, but also, scholars are less interested in providing a set of generic rules about wifely duties and more in encouraging the fulfillment of duties as they’re understood in one’s own social location.
In our conversation today, we discuss the book’s main contributions and its origins; a hadith report describing an incident about Fatima’s request to Muhammad for domestic help; what exactly domestic service means and who is required or obligated to provide it—and what that obligation means; what exactly is so ethical about household work, since this discourse is rooted in ethics for Muslim scholars; and how male scholars have historically treated domestic service. We end with some thoughts on discussions about Islamic law and domestic service from a class perspective; for example, where do poor men and poor wives fit into this discussion? What are their rights?