Marion Holmes Katz, Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Marion Holmes Katz (MHK): Like any research project, this book emerged from a convergence of personal experience and academic engagement. On the one hand, it springs from a long-term fascination with the ways in which work—particularly everyday, mundane work—forms us as gendered and statused beings. From playing with a toy sink, stove, carpet sweeper, and ironing board as a little girl to negotiating household tasks with my spouse and experiencing the gendered nature of “service” burdens as an academic, I have found everyday chores to be a fascinating prism for many of the issues that are most compelling to me. On the other hand, the ambiguous status of wives’ domestic labor in the premodern Islamic tradition—with most jurists denying any obligation for wives to provide domestic labor but abundant evidence suggesting that it was considered religiously virtuous for them to do so—offered a useful entry point for some of the questions I wanted to ask about the historical relationship between fiqh (the discipline of Islamic law) and the various forms of Islamic ethics.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MHK: The book engages with three different conversations. One was what can broadly be termed American feminist and gender-focused scholarship on Islamic law. As early as the 1980s, figures such as the Lebanese American lawyer and scholar Aziza Al-Hibri emphasized wives’ exemption from domestic labor as a positive and recuperable element of the classical Islamic law of marriage. More recently, Kecia Ali has argued that progressive Muslims should approach such arguments with caution. Focusing on sources from the formative period of Islamic law, she shows that jurists envisioned the marriage contract as involving a sale-like exchange of the husband’s material contributions for the wife’s sexual availability. This model does exclude housework from the wife’s contractual obligations but is difficult to appropriate for a gender-egalitarian project. My book builds on this scholarship but also shows the diversity of Muslim jurists’ argumentation around wives’ domestic labor, which (particularly for periods later than Ali’s source base) explores lines of argumentation that this model might lead us to anticipate.

The second conversation the book engages is the “ethical turn” in Islamic studies, which has attracted growing attention to the relationship between Islamic law and broader Islamic visions of the good. Within my own scholarly lifetime, the accepted wisdom in the field has shifted from a long-established reluctance to acknowledge Islamic law as an ethical discourse to a widespread identification between fiqh and ethics, at least with regard to the premodern period. In particular, Talal Asad has shaped the conversation by urging us to be attentive to the ways in which Islamic law (or, as he puts it, “law-and-morality”) functions as a vehicle for the cultivation of a virtuous self. However, much of the recent discussion has centered on the genealogies of the relevant Western categories rather than on the concepts at work within premodern Islamic sources. Building on the work of Baber Johansen, who since the 1980s has examined the terminology and assumptions that Hanafi jurists brought to bear on cases where what is technically legal appears to diverge from what is morally good, I seek to tell a richer story about the relationship between the discipline of fiqh and the multiple Islamic ethical discourses with which it was always implicitly or explicitly in dialogue. Rather than seeing individual divergences between fiqh and ethics (in its various forms) as anomalies, I argue that fiqh texts and ethical works are often doing different work and answering different questions.

The final (and far more muted) conversation I wanted to join is about the nature of furu’ texts (compilations of concrete legal rules) and the uses to which they can be put. The book’s source base consists primarily of comprehensive manuals of Islamic law (furu’ al-fiqh) that set forth the legal doctrines of a given school of Islamic law across the entire range of subject matter covered by the Sharia. Despite their voluminous size and recognized importance, until recently they have often been approached more as reference works than as authored texts whose structure and objectives should be placed at the center of one’s inquiry. In the last couple of decades, scholars including Mairaj Syed, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Kecia Ali, Hina Azam, Behnam Sadeghi, and Nurit Tsafrir have offered deep thematic readings of material from furu’ works. In my own study, I similarly try to go beyond extracting individual rules regarding wives’ domestic labor to exploring how they fit into the larger thematic configurations and legal logics of the individual works in question.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

MHK: This project builds on a long-standing interest in issues of Islamic law and gender, but steps back to ask broader questions. In researching my previous book, which addressed fiqh debates over women’s mosque attendance, I found it difficult to draw connections with the jurists’ broader legal projects. Aside from a directly analogous issue like women’s grave visitation, there were few evident terminological or structural links to other legal issues; the argumentation about women’s mosque attendance was often quite tightly focused on issues such as potential sexual disorder (fitna) resulting from public mixing between the sexes. The legal analysis of wives’ domestic labor, in contrast, is deeply embedded in the jurists’ broader lines of reasoning about (among other things) hierarchy within the household and the labor appropriate to people of different social ranks. This made it a useful prism for questions I had not been able to address in the previous project.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MHK: The core audience would be scholars and students with an interest in the history of Islamic law. For them, I hope it will contribute to the ongoing discussions of the relationship between the Islamic legal project and other forms of Islamic normativity that has been stimulated by scholars such as Talal Asad and the late Shahab Ahmed. I also hope that it may be of interest to some people who are engaged in constructive projects (particularly efforts to reimagine the marriage contract) for which premodern Islamic law can be a resource. Conversations about the structure of the Muslim marriage contract and wives’ entitlement to marital property on the basis of their domestic labor are very much ongoing. Although it is a fairly specialized book, I also made a concerted effort to write it accessibly; I hope it may appeal to some laypeople with an interest in evolving religious models of marriage and the many meanings that have been invested in everyday chores. At the most basic level, I will be happy if the book helps nudge people away from saying things like “In Islam, marriage is a contract” and towards formulations like “In Islam, some aspects of marriage are regulated by a contract.”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MHK: I have just embarked on a new project on the ubiquitous but under-studied concept of religious merit (thawab), focusing on debates over the validity and limits of transactions in which merit is transferred like a material asset. By following these conversations into the nineteenth century, I want to engage with the arguments of anthropologists such as Samuli Schielke, Amira Mittermaier, and Nada Moumtaz regarding the evolving role of “calculative logics” in Islamic piety and the emergence of distinct spheres of “religion” and “the economy” in modernity. 

J: Why should modernists (or the wider public) read books about premodern topics? 

MHK: The stories that we tell about premodern contexts are always also about modernity, and the stories we tell about modernity always contain within them stories (accurate or inaccurate) about what came before. Claims about the impact of modernity are often premised on tacit assumptions about a premodern status quo imagined as largely monolithic and stable prior to the advent of colonialism. The content of this supposed premodern synthesis is then often projected in contrast with modern developments rather than reconstructed on the basis of premodern evidence. As scholars such as Ata Anzali and Rushain Abbasi have demonstrated, it is not sufficient to understand that a concept like “religion” or “mysticism” is distinctively modern and Western. Even when our primary objective is to understand modern or Western categories, our understanding will be infinitely enriched by attention to the alternative conceptual configurations accessible through study of the past. In the case of my book, for instance, delving into the multiple frameworks in which wives’ domestic labor has been religiously celebrated over the centuries significantly modulates the common claim that “domesticity” was a European import that transformed Muslim discussions of marriage only from the late nineteenth century.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 12-17)

It is a central argument of this book that fiqh can best be understood as a single normative Islamic discourse (albeit a very authoritative one) that was always, implicitly or explicitly, in dialogue with other frameworks for the religious guidance of believers. To return to the example of Abū’l-Layth al-Samarqandī, he addresses the norms of marital life not only in his legal works but in his moral-didactic work Tanbīh al-ghāfilīn (“Rousing the Heedless”). In that context, he recounts the story of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb cited above. In Abū’l-Layth’s version, ʿUmar declares that he tolerates his wife’s insolence “because of all of the things I owe to her. The first is that she is a curtain between me and Hellfire; by her my heart is quieted from [longing for] what is forbidden. The second is that she is a treasurer for me; when I leave my home, she guards it for me. The third is that she is a laundress for me; she washes my clothes. The fourth is that she is a wet-nurse for my child. The fifth is that she is a baker and a cook for me.” In this version of the anecdote, it is the fact that the wife’s domestic tasks could be performed for the market (by a laundress, a wet-nurse, or a baker) that underlines her husband’s moral indebtedness to her. Unlike in the legal opinions attributed to Abū’l-Layth, however, what is at stake here is not the wife’s ability to refrain from working or to demand wages for doing so but the spouses’ mutual kindness. According to Abū’l-Layth’s legal doctrine, ʿUmar’s wife presumably could decline to wash, bake or cook for her husband and be awarded domestic help by a judge; by any reasonable standard she is noble (sharīfa). However, what is at stake in the context of this ethical work is not the spouses’ enforceable legal claims but the ideal conduct that ensures their marital harmony.


While it focuses primarily on the fiqh discussion of wives’ domestic labor, this study places that discussion within the context of the various ideas about social convention and moral rightness that animated the jurists’ analysis of the marital relationship. It thus deals with multiple, largely autonomous and yet often complementary forms of Islamic normativity. Accordingly, each chapter begins with an account of one of the normative discourses that paralleled and supplemented fiqh. Rather than seeing the diversity of these frameworks as evidence of incoherence, we will see how individual authors could skillfully wield multiple discourses to navigate various concerns about work, gender, and the Islamically good life. The result was not necessarily a seamless whole or an unproblematic synthesis, but a complex negotiation that could strategically highlight different discourses in different contexts.

Recent work has emphasized the extent to which the moral worlds inhabited by modern Muslims are multiple and fractured, rather than monolithic or homogeneous. This is only an instantiation of what Robert Hefner has termed “the larger ethical plurality that characterizes all human societies”; the need to make this case about Islam in particular reflects the unusually totalistic way in which this tradition has often been approached in the western academy. In a study of the everyday practices of young Muslim men in an Egyptian village, the anthropologist Samuli Schielke emphasizes that for his informants “morality is not a coherent system, but an incoherent and unsystematic conglomerate of different moral registers that exist in parallel and often contradict each other.” His analysis identifies six distinct “moral registers” that may guide their behavioral choices and value judgments: religion; social justice; community and family obligations; good character; romance and love; and self-realization. These registers may stand in tension with each other; for instance, the “ascetic” pious values of chastity and gender segregation may conflict with the ideal of “male virtues based on virility and sexuality.” In a similar vein, Lara Deeb and Mona Harb argue in an ethnographic study of leisure spaces in Beirut that their informants operate under “multiple moral rubrics” that “reflect different sets of ideals and values.” They identify three such rubrics (social, political-sectarian, and religious), while acknowledging that “these categories are constructed and overlap.”

Schielke, Deeb and Harb approach “religion” as a single category sharing a larger moral field with competing values that are implicitly outside of religion. In each case, the “religion” category is implicitly identified primarily with the Sharia. This study, in contrast, approaches fiqh as only one of multiple frameworks within a larger religious field. Because it focuses on normative texts produced by long-deceased authors, this study does not address the issue of “moral subjectivity” foregrounded by Schielke. Rather, it examines how Muslim scholars placed the issue of domestic labor at the intersection of multiple schemas of value comparable to Schielke’s “moral registers” or Deeb and Harb’s “moral rubrics.” Thus, it posits that improvisational maneuvering among concurrent and potentially conflicting normative frameworks is characteristic not only of the everyday practice of ordinary individuals, but of the scholarly projects of some of the great authorities of the Islamic tradition.

In taking this approach, I follow the lead of the late Shahab Ahmed in rejecting the tendency to define Sharia in the sense of “Islamic law” as the single standard of Islamic normativity. In bringing the fiqh discussion of domestic labor into dialog with other Islamic discourses, I follow his insight that “[t]o privilege the law and legal discourse as somehow being the arbiter and determiner of the theoretical object ‘Islam’ is to endorse just one authority claim among many within the human and historical phenomenon of Islam…” However, rather than focusing on what Ahmed labels “the Sufi-philosophical (or philosophical-Sufi) amalgam,” in which an epistemological hierarchy privileging non-discursive forms of knowing synthesizes the various forms of Islamic authority, this study foregrounds the continuing multiplicity and autonomy of the discourses that could be brought to bear on a given issue of importance to Muslims.

Our exploration of ethical pluralism focuses specifically on the ways in which different ethical frameworks complement or inform legal analyses of the marital relationship. Its specific emphasis on law and on marriage creates resonances with other contexts, including that of the modern United States. Writing about the legal interactions of a group of largely female working-class Americans, Sally Engle Merry argues that “the lower courts contain three analytically distinguishable discourses, only one of which is that of law. One is based primarily on categories and remedies of law, one on the categories and remedies of morality, and one on the categories and remedies of the helping professions. The same discourses exist outside the courts as well.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, because it lies at the intersection of so many moral, social, and material concerns, marriage seems to be particularly subject to this kind of multiple framing. In her influential study Talk of Love, the sociologist Ann Swidler examines how her middle-class white informants draw eclectically on multiple distinct and partially contradictory frameworks in their analysis of marital love, including invocations of “utilitarian individualism and its theory of contract, fundamentalist Christianity and its theory of obedience of divine authority, and the therapeutic ethic with its theory of the authentic, expressive self.” For modern Americans as well as premodern Muslim jurists, there are diverse concurrent models of the marital relationship that may be elicited by different contexts in which they are situationally useful.

As Zahra Ayubi has recently discussed, “Islamic ethics” is a broad concept that can evoke a number of different forms of “Muslim morals and values”; in the context of pre-modern intellectual history, scholars have located it in multiple scholarly disciplines including “kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence), tasawwuf (mysticism or Sufism), and akhlaq (philosophical ethics).” As Ayubi also notes, Muslim scholars themselves saw these discourses as independent, if complementary; her sources “viewed akhlaq as disciplinarily distinct from the legal rules found in the fiqh genre and the spiritual relationship with the Divine found in Sufism.” For our purposes, the discussion of wives’ domestic labor is embedded in at least four distinguishable (if often overlapping) discourses, which can be somewhat schematically labelled as fiqhzuhd (with later incorporation of the relevant motifs into Sufism), akhlāq, and murūʾa (“manliness” or honor).