Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity

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Author: Katz Marion Holmes

Number Of Pages: 320

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It is widely held today that classical Islamic law frees wives from any obligation to do housework. Wives’ purported exemption from domestic labor became a talking point among Muslims responding to Orientalist stereotypes of the “oppressed Muslim woman” by the late nineteenth century, and it has been a prominent motif in writings by Muslim feminists in the United States since the 1980s.

In Wives and Work, Marion Holmes Katz offers a new account of debates on wives’ domestic labor that recasts the historical relationship between Islamic law and ethics. She reconstructs a complex discussion among Sunni legal scholars of the ninth to fourteenth centuries CE and examines its wide-ranging implications. As early as the ninth century, the prevalent doctrine that wives had no legal duty to do housework stood in conflict with what most scholars understood to be morally and religiously right. Scholars’ efforts to resolve this tension ranged widely, from drawing a clear distinction between legal claims and ethical ideals to seeking a synthesis of the two. Katz positions legal discussion within a larger landscape of Islamic normative discourse, emphasizing how legal models diverge from, but can sometimes be informed by, philosophical ethics. Through the lens of wives’ domestic labor, this book sheds new light on notions of family, labor, and gendered personhood as well as the interplay between legal and ethical doctrines in Islamic thought.


Written by one of the best Islamic studies scholars working today, this is a clear, well-organized, amply documented, and nuanced account of how Muslim jurists dealt with the question of wives’ domestic responsibilities, illustrating brilliantly that jurisprudence was only one among many authoritative ‘religious’ discourses. — Kecia Ali, author of Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam

This groundbreaking book makes a significant contribution to the already-rich field of medieval Islamic ethics and law; moreover, Katz’s nuanced approach to the many valences of domestic labor has important implications for our understanding of medieval Islamic piety, particularly how pious norms are shaped by class, gender, and social status. — Karen Bauer, author of Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses

Why should a wife do housework for free? In this illuminating book, Marion Katz analyzes in depth medieval Muslim intellectuals’ nuanced answers to this fundamental question. She demonstrates how they distinguished ethical duties from legal obligations and ultimately reimagined the meaning of marriage and the value of service. An exciting contribution to scholarship on Islamic law and gendered labor. — Leor Halevi, author of Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865–1935

About the Author

Marion Holmes Katz is a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. Her books include The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam (2007), Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice (2013), and Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice (Columbia, 2014).

Release Date: 14-10-2022

Package Dimensions: 20x228x510

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