Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics before Modernity, written by Marion Holmes Katz

In: Journal of Islamic Ethics
Celene Ibrahim Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University Cambridge, MA USA

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Review of Marion Holmes Katz, Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics before Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, pp. viii + 309.

In Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics before Modernity, Marion Holmes Katz deftly traces Sunnī ethical and legal discourse on domestic labor from the second/eighth to eighth/fourteenth centuries and beyond. Katz’s erudite analysis reveals how evolving social mores, notions about social prominence and status, ideas about women’s availability for sex and nursing, and ethical concepts related to labor all impacted medieval jurists’ legal opinions (fiqh). The book’s well-considered structure allows the author to achieve several goals: She tracks differences of opinion within and across canonical schools of Sunnī legal thought (madhāhib); she demonstrates how legal theorists drew upon regional trends in intellectual history and made links to other bodies of Islamic knowledge production; and she guides readers through centuries of evolving morals related to gender, marriage, and labor.

By pointing out commonalities and ruptures in substantive legal reasoning within and across major Sunnī schools of thought, Katz outlines how deliberations over the nature of the marital relationship evolved over the early Islamic centuries. Practical concerns addressed in Katz’s survey of the relevant legal texts include: Under what circumstances is a husband fiscally – and not just morally – indebted to his spouse who performs domestic labor on his behalf? Is it plausible that the value of domestic service rendered can be cast in market terms? Which, if any, household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, nursing, and so forth, constitute remunerative forms of labor? Under what circumstances can a wife decline to perform household tasks and instead require her husband to arrange for the necessary provisions and services? In the case of a husband who benefits commercially from his wife’s domestic labor – who is entitled to the profits? A meta-level question also arises: If a wife is indeed not obligated by the marriage contract to perform domestic labor (as was the conclusion of notable early scholars), is a husband morally obligated to inform his wife of this lack of obligation, or is it permissible for him to continue allowing her to complete household tasks under the misguided impression that it is her Islamic duty to do so?

Throughout the book, Katz explores the practical implications of jurists’ opinions while artfully nestling her findings within broader scholarly conversations in several intersecting fields. In the book’s introduction, for instance, Katz succinctly highlights how western scholars of religion have – sometimes unskillfully – understood the unique features of the fiqh genre. Katz reasons that “the relationship between fiqh and various ethical discourses was an open and negotiable work in progress” (27), a conclusion supported by the work of other esteemed scholars of the Islamic legal tradition, including Baber Johansen and Wael Hallaq, as the author highlights. In conversation with other contemporary scholars of gender in Islamic legal and ethical discourses, including Kecia Ali, Zahra Ayubi, Karen Bauer, Azizah al-Hibri, Ingrid Mattson, and Asifa Quraishi, Katz demonstrates the irreducible relationship of cultural ideas about gender to socioethical knowledge production. Katz also offers poignant personal and probing historical reflections that highlight the ongoing relevance of public debates over unpaid (female) domestic labor. She considers generational ideals associated with feminine domesticity, forms of social conditioning that effectively gender housework, gendered expectations embedded in notions of “service,” and asymmetrical ideas about domestic life made explicit in modern western legal codes and policies. Indeed, as much as the book elucidates medieval Muslim legal reasoning, the study also serves as a mirror for contemporary societies that continue to wrestle with questions of fairness and justice regarding domestic labor and gendered social mores.

In the first chapter, “Domestic Labor in the Literature of Zhud (Renunciation) and in Early Mālikī Texts,” Katz considers sources from the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries, including the Mudawwana of Saḥnūn (d. 240/854) and al-Wāḍiḥa of Ibn Ḥabīb (d. 238/852). She presents texts that show pious well-to-do men occasionally engaging in mundane tasks as a gesture of humility, ostensibly modeled on the conduct attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad. Voluntary domestic labor could provide an opportunity for genuine service or virtue signaling; Katz concludes that “there is little in such reports to suggest that even the most austere pious figures of the early Islamic period genuinely relinquished the labor of servants or wives” (43). In some cases, Katz also finds accounts of wives who engage in toilsome household tasks to spare husbands the “moral odium of acquiring a servant” (45). Leading Mālikī fiqh texts of the period are emphatic in articulating that it is a husband’s duty to provide maintenance (nafaqa) even for the servant of his wife (46–47). Here, Katz concurs with Karen Bauer in situating this discourse in an age of Muslim prosperity; simultaneously, these same fiqh texts reason that husbands without financial means may not be able to provide this ideal level of maintenance, which could even become grounds for marital separation (48). The same legal corpus draws a pronounced divide between rightful expectations of free persons versus enslaved persons who were, in any case, expected to perform manual labor along gendered lines. The chapter also includes a discussion of early fiqh debates related to the domestic labor of the woman who has the status umm al-walad on account of having born her enslaver a child (50–52).

In the second chapter, “Falsafa and Fiqh in the Writings of al-Māwardī,” Katz turns to a Shāfiʿī author and considers his fifth/eleventh-century context, including the Greek-inflected philosophical discourses prevalent in elite Baghdādī intellectual circles. Such discourses commonly depict the noble wife as adept in the management (tadbīr/tudabbir) of the husband’s estate, as a director of household affairs with a partnership role (sharīk/mushtarak) “in preserving its [the household’s] material prosperity” (87). In the third chapter, “Legal and Ethical Obligation in the Mabsūṭ of al-Sarakshī,” Katz demonstrates how another fifth/eleventh-century figure, this time of Ḥanafī origin, also draws implicitly upon Islamic philosophical ethics, with the Sufi-inflected regional flavor of greater Khurasan, to revive ideals of modest service (khidma) – albeit along gendered lines.

In the final chapter, “Marriage Reimagined: The Work of Ibn Qudāma and Ibn Taymīya,” Katz surveys the contrasting opinions of two influential Damascene Ḥanbalīs of the postclassical period, seventh-eighth/thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. She shows how Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223) affirms earlier school doctrine that a wife is not contractually obligated to perform housework, but that Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) breaks with this precedent when he conceives of a wife’s obligation to perform housework as befitting her de facto subordinate status in the marriage, regardless of her social standing.

In a provocative concluding chapter, Katz traces the arc of the debate into the modern period, where processes of western colonization have undoubtedly impacted how domestic labor is perceived. Katz shows how a new notion becomes salient in men’s writings on women’s labor, namely that women have been predisposed to perform such household tasks by an essential feminine nature (fiṭra). Katz observes: “The gendering of the concept of fiṭra appears to be a modern phenomenon reflecting a newly biologized and essentialized understanding of the gender binary” (203). This understanding builds upon a shift that had already taken place in the late premodern period, including in the writing of Ibn Taymiyya, who disassociated consideration of social status from the calculus on wifely responsibility and supplanted it with the notion of spousal hierarchy to generate a wifely obligation to provide domestic labor. The writings of even more modern figures take this notion of innate suitability one step further by nestling it – somewhat coercively – in a project of moral self-cultivation. Katz summarized the logic of this discursive framing: “Although feminine fiṭra is envisioned as being divinely implanted and innate, it must also be cultivated through a personal commitment to prescribed gender roles” (211). Thus, if a wife finds something inherently unbalanced in having to shoulder a heavy share of housework, it is her unrealized feminine fiṭra that needs reform – not the social system; the issue at hand is her accepting the calling for which she was divinely created. This paradigm “envisions housework as an integral part of a program to realize a woman’s innate femininity” and is described by Katz as “a significant departure from the patterns set prior to the late nineteenth century” (212).

Katz is to be commended for advancing scholarly understanding of this complex body of substantive Islamic law related to marriage and gendered personhood. Through the book’s findings, we can again appreciate the discursive nature, plurality, and ethos of marriage as an integral social, legal, and religious institution. In closely examining the work of influential premodern legal theorists, Katz sheds further light on the fine lines often drawn by legal scholars between ethical duties and religious obligations. As such, the book is essential reading for scholars of gender in premodern Muslim societies and offers valuable excerpts for undergraduate syllabi on Islamic law, ethics, and social history. Given the contentious nature of the subject matter, and the mirror it holds to our contemporary realities, allowing extra time for class discussion could prove generative. The entire work makes for excellent reading for graduate-level syllabi. Here too, due to the breadth, depth, and richly intersecting bodies of literature that Katz explores, the text will likely invite conversations that extend beyond the time typically allotted for one class session.

Katz’s work of premodern intellectual history is rendered even more salient in that the Muslim theorists covered here retain broad contemporary influence; their texts and ideas are taught in many Muslim circles of higher learning as normative references for righteous conduct and serve as authoritative legal precedent in some contexts. The essential questions posed by the book are not only academic in nature but are also richly applicable in the context of Muslim premarital counseling: What tasks should a spouse perform out of her (or his) magnanimous character, and what tasks are legally binding upon her (or him)? What recourse does a contemporary spouse have if a partner is recalcitrant concerning their binding domestic obligations? Such fundamental themes would make for lively and beneficial conversations among prospective spouses. Given the potential practical implications of the book’s findings, the text could be of value to those providing social services, counseling, or religiously based guidance to Muslim families.

When the vast discursive horizon is considered in the detail offered by Katz, what becomes certain is that premodern Muslim recognitions of the potential monetary value of wives’ routine domestic labor cannot hold as a “genuine precolonial precedent to challenge modern, Western-derived ideals of feminine domesticity” (3) without the apologist adding an asterisk to offer nuance. So long as gender and wifely social status remain prominent factors in fashioning the fiqh calculus of marital responsibilities, an apologist would have to stretch for an ethical framing that could keep the discourse from being perceived as sexist and classist-leaning according to contemporary feminist sensibilities.

Given that the book does the legwork of wading with painstaking detail through a conceptual system that is at once “multifaceted” and “fragmented” (13), the challenge now remains for constructivist legal scholars and ethicists to reason alongside this complicated heritage. How might a contemporary normative Muslim scholar reason through the historically asymmetrical marital rights and obligations assigned disparately to wives and husbands in premodern fiqh discourses? Which aspects of the marriage relationship are to be regulated by contractual obligation versus remain solely within the domain of personal piety – means to attain marital harmony but not enforceable duties? For couples living in societies where reciprocity between spouses regarding domestic labor is evolving into a new customary norm, can fiqh discourses evolve accordingly? Moreover, in a new era when Muslim women scholars are adding their textual contributions more explicitly to the moral, ethical, and religious project, in what ways will women’s own legal writings shift the discourse?

In the final calculus, what domestic tasks constitute legally enforceable duties versus morally advisable wifely service? Like many matters of fiqh, the precise answer hinges significantly on the proclivities of the respondent. The fact that premodern jurists shaped fiqh to fit the contours of their evolving social worlds suggests that contemporary Muslims can be expected to do the same.

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