Enjoying the Law: Legal Riddling at the Mamlūk Court

By Christian Mauder

This is part three in a series of four posts on legal culture at the late Mamlūk court.

As the rulers of a vast realm in which Islam was the dominant religion, many members of the military elite of the Mamlūk Sultanate (1250–1517) seem to have considered knowledge about Islamic legal norms a valuable asset. This applied especially to legal topics that were of direct relevance to the military elite’s daily lives, such as personal religious obligations, proper military conduct, and all matters related to governance and statecraft. However, as I show in my recently published monograph In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501–1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), accounts of the learned gatherings (majālis) convened by the penultimate Mamlūk ruler al-Ghawrī demonstrate that the military elite’s legal interests were by no means limited to practical questions. Some of these men also invested time, effort, and economic capital in practices that foregrounded the aesthetic and intellectual pleasures that the study of the law could hold, regardless of whether the issues examined had a direct bearing on their daily lives. Such practices not only provided additional opportunities to learn about the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence, but also had an impact on the scholarly legal literature of the day. Perhaps most importantly, they require modern researchers to rethink notions of “useful” and “useless” legal knowledge in Mamlūk times.

The genre of legal riddles (alghāz fiqhiyya) stood at the center of activities in al-Ghawrī’s majālis that foregrounded the aesthetic and amusing dimensions of Islamic legal scholarship. This genre of legal writing has only very recently begun to receive scholarly attention, thanks primarily to the important work of Matthew L. Keegan and Elias G. Saba.[1] The groundbreaking publications of these authors notwithstanding, the specific functions of the genre and its social context remain imperfectly understood.

Keegan likens legal riddles to “legal opinion[s] (fatwā) in reverse.”[2] The first part of a legal riddle is usually a legal ruling that seems difficult to understand, absurd, or even clearly wrong. It can be phrased as a question, prompting the reader or listener to come up with a scenario in which the apparently false ruling applies. The second part of the riddle typically provides such a scenario as the solution of the riddle. In written collections, a third part is often added that points the reader to the legal literature on which the solution is based.[3]

This basic structure of legal riddles is also clearly apparent in those passages of accounts of al-Ghawrī’s majālis that describe practices of legal riddling. The third part, however, is not always included there, as in the following example:

Question: “A man breaks his fast during Ramadan, being of sound [health] and in a permanent location [i.e., not travelling]. He is not obliged to do penance. How [can] this be?”

Answer: His Excellency, our lord the sultan [i.e., al-Ghawrī] said: “This man alone saw the new moon and the judge rejected his testimony. He fasted for a certain number of days and then broke his fast. No atonement is necessary for him.”[4]

The topics of the riddles posed in al-Ghawrī’s majālis are highly diverse and include ritual purity, prayer, alms and taxation, fasting, inheritance, marriage and family relations, oaths, legal and illegal sexual acts, theft, slaves and their manumission, and female slaves having children with their master. The riddles thus deal with many, if not indeed most of the traditional areas of substantive law, with only the field of economic transactions being markedly underrepresented. Sources on al-Ghawrī’s gatherings provide no explanation as to why the attendees engaged in legal riddling, but several reasons seem plausible. As Keegan and Saba have argued, riddles could be used to demonstrate legal erudition, facilitate legal learning, provide aesthetic entertainment and intellectual enjoyment, and also influence processes of legal change.[5] In the case of al-Ghawrī’s majālis, the first function seems to have been especially important, as posing and solving legal riddles provided the sultan in particular, but also other high-ranking attendees such as the sultan’s client and Ḥanafī chief-judge ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn al-Shiḥna (d. 1515), with opportunities to showcase their legal acumen and erudition. It is certainly not by coincidence that the sultan and other high-profile majālis attendees are credited with the solutions to most of the riddles in the accounts of these events.

There is reason to assume that the majālis participants did not think of the riddles they posed and solved ad hoc, but rather relied on written collections. Thus, a unique passage in the accounts of Sultan al-Ghawrī’s majālis states:

Second question: Shaykh Tanum read from the book of riddles (kitāb al-alghāz): “What is a scenario in which a congregation performs a ritual prayer of four rakʿas, then a misdeed (ithm) befalls the imām and subsequently, the prayer of the congregation is invalidated?”

Answer: It is said in the book: “[This is the case] if it becomes clear to the imām in his heart that he is in a state of major ritual impurity during the prayer.”[6]

While this passage makes it clear that the majālis attendees relied, at least sometimes, on a written source when engaging in legal riddling, it unfortunately provides no further information about the title, author, or content of the “book of riddles” it refers to. In the late middle period, written collections of legal riddles existed as independent works in the scholarly literature of the Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, and Ḥanafī schools.[7] Within the last-mentioned school, al-Tahdhīb li-dhihn al-labīb (The refinement for the mind of the intelligent one) by ʿAlī b. ʿAlī Ibn Abī l-ʿIzz (d. 1390) seems to have been particularly highly regarded among Mamlūk audiences. A copy of the work is known to have belonged to al-Ghawrī’s library.[8] However, it seems that the work used as a source of riddles in al-Ghawrī’s majālis was not al-Tahdhīb li-dhihn al-labīb, but rather a version of al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya fī alghāz al-ḥanafiyya by ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn al-Shiḥna, the above-mentioned Ḥanafī chief-judge who participated regularly in al-Ghawrī’s majālis and owed his position in large part to his close connection to his sultanic patron.

Two arguments speak in favor of a version of Ibn al-Shiḥna’s book being relied on during the sultan’s majālis. First, the title of the book, which can be translated as “al-Ashraf’s treasures in Ḥanafī riddles,” points to a close link between the writing of the work and Sultan al-Ghawrī, whose throne name was al-Malik al-Ashraf. It seems more than likely that Ibn al-Shiḥna wrote the work for his patron to secure the latter’s ongoing favor, and it seems also probable that Ibn al-Shiḥna composed this specific type of work because he was aware of al-Ghawrī’s interest in riddling. Second and more importantly, in at least nineteen cases, questions included in the accounts of al-Ghawrī’s majālis also feature in a similar or almost identical form in al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya. Thus, the first riddle quoted above from an account of al-Ghawrī’s majālis appears in Ibn al-Shiḥna’s work in almost exactly the same wording:

Question: If it is said: “Which man breaks his fast on purpose during Ramadan, being in a permanent location [i.e., not travelling] and of sound [health], and he is not obliged to do penance?”

Answer: “This man alone saw the new moon and the judge rejected his testimony. He then fasted for a certain number of days and broke the fast. No atonement is incumbent on him.”[9]

The apparently close connection between Ibn al-Shiḥna’s book and what we know about al-Ghawrī’s majālis supports Saba’s suggestion that written collections of legal riddles functioned as “blueprints” for majālis discussions.[10] However, in the case of al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya, the situation might be more complicated than it appears at first sight: The riddle that the accounts of al-Ghawrī’s majālis credit explicitly to a “book of riddles” is not included in the work, and the same applies to many other riddles, which could not be traced back to al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya, al-Tahdhīb li-dhihn al-labīb, nor to any other known collection of riddles. Moreover, in those cases where the majālis accounts and al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya include the same riddles, the phrasing is often so different that it rules out a literal quotation.

Several explanations of this situation seem possible: al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya might have been only one of several collections used in al-Ghawrī’s circle. Or perhaps the work was unfinished when it was used in the sultan’s presence, or for some other reason it was altered later. It also seems possible that al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya was not the foundation of the majālis debates on legal riddles, but rather was based on them, with Ibn al-Shiḥna including in his work a kind of “best of” selection of the riddles presented in his patron’s circle. Theoretically, the majālis participants and Ibn al-Shiḥna could also have relied independently from each other on a now lost collection of legal riddles. This last possibility, however, seems highly unlikely, given Ibn al-Shiḥna’s personal participation in the majālis and the fact that he only mentions Ibn Abī l-ʿIzz’s al-Tahdhīb li-dhihn al-labīb as a source in the introduction of his book.[11]

While the precise details of the relationship between Ibn al-Shiḥna’s al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya and al-Ghawrī’s majālis are thus difficult to ascertain, it seems clear that the text is connected to the majālis as historical events, be it as a basis for discussions in the sultan’s circle or as a reflection of them. This in turn suggests a close link between elite practices of legal riddling and the scholarly literature of the Ḥanafī school represented here by its chief-judge Ibn al-Shiḥna. The existence of such a link reminds us that the contexts of the production and use of Mamlūk legal literature were not limited to the qāḍī’s court and the madrasa. Rather, this literature was also shaped by the social rules and expectations of other contexts such as the sultan’s court, where wittiness and the intellectual delight that a well-conceived legal brainteaser could engender were obviously held in high regard. However, the aesthetic dimension of works of legal riddles should not mislead us to conclude that the type of knowledge that this literature included was any less “useful” or “relevant” than that contained within in works of more traditional genres of legal literature. In the highly politicized social space of the late Mamlūk court, presenting a work of legal riddles to a sultan was a highly useful strategy for even a high-ranking judge such as Ibn al-Shiḥna, whose status and position depended both on the sultan’s goodwill and on his own demonstrated legal mastery. To Ibn al-Shiḥna, the legal knowledge contained in his al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya was thus of pivotal importance in securing his social position.

For Sultan al-Ghawrī, the genre of legal riddles was likewise a highly useful one, as posing and solving this kind of brainteaser allowed him to demonstrate his virtues as a wise and pious ruler who not only cared deeply about God’s law, but was also intellectually equal, if not indeed superior to the most highly learned participants in his majālis, whom he outperformed in solving legal riddles according to the accounts of these events. The practice of legal riddling thus played an important role in al-Ghawrī’s strategy to legitimate himself by means of his scholarly intellectual merits as a perfect Muslim philosopher-king and as the head of the Muslim community, as will be explored in more detail in the fourth post of this series.


[1] Matthew L.  Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law: Islamic Legal Riddles,” Islamic Law and Society 26 (2019): 214–239; Elias G. Saba, Harmonizing Similarities: A History of Distinctions Literature in Islamic Law (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2019).

[2] Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law,” 215.

[3] Ibid. 215–16.

[4] Anonymous, al-Kawkab al-durrī fī masāʾil al-Ghawrī, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 1377, 220.

[5] Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law,” 216–17, 219–25, 238–39; Saba, Harmonizing Similarities, 14, 132–36, 139–41.

[6] Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad al-Sharīf al-Ḥusaynī, Nafāʾis majālis al-sulṭāniyya fī ḥaqāʾiq asrār al-Qurʾāniyya, MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 2680, 60.

[7] Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law,” 225–27; Saba, Harmonizing Similarities, 119.

[8] MS Istanbul, Topkapı Sarayı Kütüphanesi, Ahmet III 871.

[9] ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn al-Shiḥna, al-Dhakhāʾir al-asharifyya fī alghāz al-ḥannafiyya (Cairo: Maktaba al-Azhariyya lil-Turāth, 2014), 65.

[10] Saba, Harmonizing Similarities, 136–37.

[11] Ibn al-Shiḥna, al-Dhakhāʾir al-asharifyya, 3–4.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Christian Mauder, Enjoying the Law: Legal Riddling at the Mamlūk Court, Islamic Law Blog (Oct. 21, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/10/21/christian-mauder-guest-editor-2-2/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Christian Mauder, “Enjoying the Law: Legal Riddling at the Mamlūk Court,” Islamic Law Blog, October 21, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/10/21/christian-mauder-guest-editor-2-2/)

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