Middle Eastern Studies Professor Discusses Law, Ethics and Islamic Studies
Issue   |   Wed, 04/19/2017 - 11:49

Marion Holmes Katz, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, spoke about the complicated relationship between law, ethics and Islamic studies on Wednesday, April 12.

Katz focused on the complexities between moral and enforceable law and specifically how they fit into the study of Islam and Islamic law. She spoke about domestic work and the questions posed by modern and ancient thinkers on the moral and legal obligations of women when it comes to fulfilling typical domestic duties.

“Historically, the vast majority of Muslim jurists have denied the fact that wives have any obligation to do housework for their husbands,” Katz said. “However, my research suggests that most Muslim scholars simultaneously assume both that the majority of wives did in fact take care of housework, and that for a wife to refuse this would be unfair and unkind … Thus, the issue of wives’ domestic labor elicited an unusual amount, over the history of this debate, of explicit reflection on the relationship between the legal implications of the marriage contract and the social mores and ethical expectations surrounding the marital relationship.”

Katz first began her research more than a decade ago after finding herself asking many of the same questions that 10th century scholars did regarding wives’ domestic labor. After getting married, Katz said she began thinking about these questions while negotiating the division of housework.

“Our division is very fair, but it did mean that I was asking these questions because they were relevant to my life and thinking about why do we do what we do?” she said. “I was impressed by the degree to which some of these discussions really spoke to my own concerns and it’s not because I would want to take a millennium old text and apply it to my life, but just because they were asking questions that I also wanted to ask.”

In a separate interview, Katz explained another example of this complicated relationship between moral and enforceable law. “If women do this, will society be better or worse?” she asked. “That kind of logic ended up leading to very restrictive ideas. In fact, the more legal argumentation in some cases, not all, resulted in people having to say [that] even if this isn’t the best thing to do according to our social conventions, a woman has a right to do it.”

Associate Professor and Chair of Religion Tariq Jaffer uses Katz’s work on Islamic prayer in his course, “Discovering Islam,” and invited her to speak with the class.

“Today the students read from her book on prayer, which was the first major monograph on prayer in Islamic studies,” Jaffer said. “It’s a nice survey and it raises really interesting questions about cultivation of the self and the way prayer leads to ethical transformation.”

Ross Hirzel ’20 felt that Katz’s lecture could help break some American stereotypes of Islam.

“It was an unexpected angle from which to come at the different legal schools, because it’s the kind of thing that would probably change some people’s conceptions of the way Muslim households work given how many people in the U.S. have conceptions of Islam as crazy conservative,” Hirzel said.

Throughout her research, Katz was intrigued by the relevance of some of her ancient sources to life today.

“I was surprised by how much some of the premodern people, whose opinions are reflected in my sources, really were able to ask questions that spoke to me,” Katz said. “To think that it would be possible for a 10th century husband to ask whether he’s exploiting his wife if she cooks dinner and the fact that he even is really struggling with the question of whether his relationship with his wife is fair is, to me, actually striking. I wouldn’t have assumed that people, so long before feminism, would have stepped back and said, ‘Is this right?’ in quite the way that some of the sources seem to be.”

The talk, hosted by the Department of Religion, was the fourth annual Willis D. Wood Lecture.