Law, Narrative, and the Case of Fāṭima’s Chores

Wives’ exemption from domestic labor is among the recuperable elements of classical fiqh most widely cited in modern literature on gender and Islamic law.  Indeed, as I’ve found while researching the topic, it has featured in responses to orientalist stereotypes of Islamic law’s supposed oppression of women since at least the late nineteenth century. In contemporary terms, it has potential both as a condition in individual marriage contracts and as grounds for a more equitable distribution of a couple’s assets after death or divorce (since a wife could, in principle, demand back pay for work she was not contractually obliged to provide).

My current book project examines the theme of domestic labor in premodern Islamic legal texts. One of the biggest take-aways from this research has been that domestic labor carried a multitude of meanings for premodern Muslims, just as it does for modern Americans. As is the case today, cooking and cleaning for someone could carry resonances of personal love and care, of social subordination, or of pious humility. Often these values are most vividly reflected in narrative form. Such narratives have a complex relationship to the rules of fiqh, which is simultaneously very “legal” (both in the sense that its rules are often judicially enforceable, and that its logic is often drawn from the sphere of commercial contracts) and potentially laden with religious values and ideals. In this post, I’d like to look briefly at some of the narratives that have contributed to the legal discussion of wives’ domestic duties, particularly in the early Islamic period.

As Kecia Ali’s work has demonstrated, the doctrine that wives have no obligation to do housework is largely a logical inference from a model of the marriage contract that became established in the formative period of Islamic law.[1] As Shafiʿī scholars in particular would emphasize, a wife had no duty to provide housework because what she had contracted to provide to her husband was sex. The doctrine was also a logical extension of the husband’s duty to provide his wife with food, clothing, and shelter; as Ḥanafīs in particular pointed out, unprocessed grain was not really “food,” so the husband had to pay someone to grind flour and bake bread if the wife declined to do so. Such reasoning led to a broad consensus among early jurists that at least some wives could demand that their husbands provide them with domestic help. As Ibn al-Mundhir (d. 318/930) pointed out, however, the idea that a wife might be entitled to household help funded by her husband was a juristic doctrine that had no basis in hadith.[2]

As early as the early third century AH/ninth century CE, however, some scholars became interested in aligning legal doctrine on this point directly with the Prophet’s sunna. While the conversation on this subject ultimately involved reports about several exemplary early Muslim women, the person most often cited as a model for wives’ household obligations was the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭima. Fāṭima, who survived her father only by a matter of months, did not live to experience the prosperity and ease of the post-conquest period; anecdotes suggest that she experienced a married life of considerable want and toil, including heavy household labor like drawing water and grinding grain. Her example was cited by hadith-oriented scholars including Ibn Abī Shayba (d. 235/849), Ibn (d. 238/852), Abū Thawr (d. 240/854), and Abū Isḥāq al-Jūzajānī (d. ca. 259/873) to argue that wives were, in fact, obligated to engage in housework.

However, the use of hadith in legal argumentation was complicated not only by the issue of textual authenticity, but by the difficulty of translating historical narratives into legal rules. The early hadith scholars mentioned above seem to have addressed this issue by invoking a precedent with explicitly legal content. Thus, Ibn Abī Shayba cited a hadith stating that the Prophet “ruled” (qaḍā) that Fāṭima was responsible for the work in the house, while her husband ʿAlī was made responsible for the work outside of the home.[3] Ibn Ḥabīb cited a parallel report using the verb “judged” (ḥakama).[4] In both cases, the implication was that the Prophet had reached a legal verdict about the allocation of labor between his daughter and son-in-law – although neither version of this text offered  a narrative setting to suggest when or why this might have occurred. (Ibn Abī Shayba underlined the point by putting this report in the section of his compilation on “The Prophet’s Legal Verdicts,” Aqiyat Rasūl Allāh.)

Later scholars sometimes found the idea of a legal dispute between Ali and Fāṭima improbable or even offensive. Even more damningly, the chain of transmission supporting the report could not meet the standards of authenticity that were then crystallizing. It is thus no surprise that subsequent hadith scholars sought firmer grounds for the arguments in favor of wives’ obligation to do housework. Ibn Abī Shayba’s younger contemporary and student al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) presented a different proof-text for his chapter on “A Woman’s Work in Her Husband’s House.”[5] This is an anecdote in which Fāṭima, having heard that the Prophet has come into possession of some enslaved war captives, goes to him to complain that her hands are blistered from grinding grain. It is implied (other versions of the story make this implicit) that she is asking to be granted a servant; instead, however, the Prophet gifts her and ʿAlī with an invocation to perform each night before bed, which he declares is “better for you than a servant.”

This was a much better proof-text, both because it had a high-quality isnād and because the story’s ubiquity in early sources suggests a widespread belief that an incident of this kind had occurred. Different versions of the anecdote varied in their emphasis and detail (for instance, was Fāṭima really unwilling to do the housework, or simply reluctant to expose herself to the public eye by gathering firewood?). However, the shift to this better-authenticated report opened a whole new area of debate. As a narrative rather than a verdict, it told people what had happened, but not what it meant for later Muslims. Was the Prophet asserting his daughter’s obligation to do housework, or simply refusing her to give a share of some war booty? Was he instructing her in her legal duties, or simply guiding her towards an ideal behavior appropriate to her elevated spiritual rank? The historian, Qur’anic exegete and hadith scholar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 311/923) argued that the report demonstrated that women who were physically able were legally obligated to provide housework, as long as this was compatible with their social rank. After all, he reasoned, when Fāṭima complained of her drudgery the Prophet did not order ʿAlī to provide her with a servant.[6] Scholars who supported the more mainstream legal doctrine that elite wives were entitled to a servant, in contrast, tended to hold that Fāṭima (who was certainly elite, if also poor) was merely being encouraged in voluntary kindness to her husband.

While it is instructive to trace how scholars selected hadith texts and mined them as legal sources, it is equally revealing to consider the paths they chose not to pursue. A particularly rich set of options was available to scholars of the early period, when precedents were sought from the early Muslim community at large (rather than from a narrowly-conceived Prophetic sunna) and possible proof-texts had not yet been sifted according to the still-nascent standards of hadith criticism.

As we have seen, Ibn Abī Shayba transmitted a hadith that – despite its weak authentication – played a central role in the argumentation in favor of a wife’s obligation to do housework. However, this was not the only report that he transmitted about the division of labor in ʿAlī and Fāṭima’s household. In another chapter of his Muṣannaf, he presented a report in which ʿAlī says to his mother, Fāṭima bint Asad, “Take care of the outside work — drawing water and doing errands — for Fāṭima, the daughter of the Messenger of God, and she will take care of the  work inside of the house – kneading dough, baking bread, and grinding grain – for you.”[7]  Instead of the first report’s gendered spatial complementarity between husband and wife, this scenario implies a spatial complementarity between women of different age cohorts. It is the mother-in-law who, as a mature matron, can appropriately venture outside of the house and the young bride who must busy herself indoors. This emphasis on differentiated stages of the female life cycle parallels early Muslim jurists’ assumptions about other public activities, such as mosque attendance. This report has a chain of transmission comparable to that of Ibn Abī Shayba’s other report, which (as we have seen) was widely used by early scholars despite its weakness. Its absence from their discussion of marital duties thus probably reflects their evolving vision of gender roles.

A very different report about Fāṭima’s domestic help seems to be recorded only in works of a later period (although, of course, this does not necessarily imply a later historical origin). Transmitted through the first six imams of the Twelver line, it recounts that the Prophet did give Fāṭima a servant – and taught her a prayer as well.[8] In fact, Fāṭima’s maidservant (known as Fiḍḍa the Nubian) is the subject of a body of pious lore, especially but not exclusively in Shīʿī sources, including reports that for a period of time she communicated only through quotations from the Qur’an. There are at least two shrines in her honor, a maqām (memorial site) in Karbala and a grave in Damascus. Interestingly, Fiḍḍa’s role is not to exempt Fāṭima from domestic chores; instead, the report just mentioned (like other anecdotes) suggests that they divided the housework between them. The stories about Fiḍḍa (like many reports of pious service among Muslim renunciants and Sufis) emphasize the blessings of humble personal devotion to holy persons, rather than issues of gender or social status.

Narrative reports offered a multi-dimensional view of the lives of exemplary early Muslims, offering glimpses of their ideal pious behavior and even of their interpersonal conflicts.  Such stories were both a source of inspiration and guidance in their own right and a potential source of legal norms.  On the issue of domestic labor, anecdotes about Fāṭima’s marital life offered a vivid counterpoint to jurists’ transactional model of marriage.  While some scholars used them to argue for wives’ legal obligation to do housework, others saw them as evidence for ideal spousal roles that were distinct from the legal requirements of the marriage contract.



[1] See especially Kecia Ali, “Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence,” in Omid Safi, ed., Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), pp. 163-189.

[2] Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm Ibn al-Mundhir, al-Ishrāf ʿalā madhāhib al-ʿulamāʾ, ed. Abū Ḥammād Ṣaghīr Aḥmad al-Anṣārī (Raʾs al-Khayma, UAE: Maktabat Makka al-Thaqāfīya, 1426/2005), 5:157-158.

[3] Ibn Abī Shayba, al-Muṣannaf fī al-aḥādīth wa al-āthār, ed. Saʿīd Muḥammad al-Laḥḥām (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1428-9/2008), 7:8 and 8:157.

[4] Quoted from Ibn Ḥabīb’s largely lost work al-Wāḍiḥa in Muḥammad ibn Faraj al-Qurṭubī, Aqḍiyat Rasūl Allāh (Aleppo: Dār al-Waʿy, 1396), p. 73.

[5] Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, 2000), 3:1123 (Kitāb al-Nafaqa), 1286.

[6] Quoted in ʿAlī ibn Khalaf Ibn Baṭṭāl, Sharḥ Ibn Baṭṭāl, Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿAṭā (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīya, 2003), 7:433-434.

[7] Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, 8:156.

[8] See Ibn Bashkuwāl, Kitāb al-Mustaghīthīn bi Allāh taʿālā ʿinda al-muhimmāt wa al-ḥājāt, ed. Manuela Marín (Madrid: al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li al-Abḥāth al-ʿIlmīya, Maʿhad al-Taʿāwun maʿa al-ʿĀlam al-ʿArabī, 1991), pp. 147-149.

Leave a Reply