Why Study Islamic Legal Riddles?

By Matthew L. Keegan

When I first came across a chapter on legal riddles in the Kitāb al-Ashbāh wa’l-Naẓāʾir of Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1563) in graduate school, I was immediately fascinated. I had never heard of the genre and could find little about it. The riddles themselves had a playful literariness to them, which appealed to me because I was interested in the intersections of Islamic studies and the belles-lettristic tradition in Arabic called adab. Scholars have often seen adab as a secular discourse, overlooking, for example, the Islamic reception of texts like the Maqāmāt. Likewise, the study of Islamic law has tended to overlook the apparently playful deployments of Islamic law. As I argued in an article published in 2019 entitled “Levity Makes the Law,” legal riddles draw upon a tradition of philological and literary riddling found in adab texts.[1] To understand this form of crosspollination, we can begin by looking first at the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī (d. 516/1122), in which the trickster character plays a muftī and rattles off a series of fatwās, each of which is incorrect. The trickster is asked: “What do you say regarding one who prays with his pubic region exposed?” The muftī replies: “His prayer is valid.” An authorial commentary then explains that the word “pubic region (ʿāna)” can also mean “wild asses.”[2] The fatwā is technically correct if we accept that the muftī is responding to the secondary meaning of the word ʿāna. To solve to these philological riddles requires a mastery of the lexical tradition. One must know the rare, secondary meanings of a word to recognize the double entendre.

An illustration from a copy of al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt made in 619/1222. It has been altered by later readers, but it depicts the maqāma in which Abū Zayd plays a muftī. Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS Arabe 6094, folio 106 verso; Creative Commons License 2023.

A similar tradition of riddling subsequently emerged in Islamic law. To solve these legal riddles, however, one needed to know the rare exceptions and unusual rulings in the works of positive law (furūʿ) within a particular school. For example, the Mālikī scholar Ibn Farḥūn (d. 799/1397) composed a book of legal riddles entitled Durrat al-ghawwāṣ fī muḥāḍarat al-khawāṣṣ (The Pearl Diver’s Prize on the Discourse among Elites). For example, Ibn Farḥūn says:

If you said: Is it permissible for a man who is healthy of body to pray the obligatory prayers by making a gesture [to replace] the actions of kneeling and prostration, while he remains seated?

I would say: Yes. If he is at sea and fears seasickness if he stands and prostrates. Ibn Abī Zayd said this in al-Nawādir.[3]

In normal circumstances, someone who is healthy is not excused from the physical actions of prayer. To solve the riddle, one must provide the exceptional scenario that makes this legal ruling correct, namely being a discombobulated landlubber at sea. The legal riddle thus functions as a fatwā in reverse. It presents an already-formulated legal ruling that is counterintuitive and asks after the scenario that makes this ruling correct. Solving the philological riddles in al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt require knowledge of the unusual meanings of words. By contrast, the legal riddle requires one to be acquainted with not only the basics of the law but also the exceptions and intricacies — the blind alleys and by-ways of the law.

Although Ibn Farḥūn was a man of Medina, his riddle book is likely a product of his journeys to Cairo, where he might have encountered his Shāfiʿī contemporary al-Isnawī (d. 772/1370) or his students. Al-Isnawī was a Cairene scholar who had written a book of legal riddles himself, a book that was not exactly without precedent — al-Isnawī cites some earlier texts that served as models, some of which he identifies as “riddles” while others belong to related genres like legal loopholes (ḥiyal) and legal distinctions (furūq). Sorting out the origins of this kind of furūʿ-based riddling is a complicated story that is provisionally explored in my 2019 article but remains to be fully told. Nevertheless, it seems likely that inter-school inspiration — and, one surmises, competition — led to Ibn Farḥūn’s decision to compose a book of legal riddles. As Ibn Farḥūn states in his introduction: “I have not encountered among the Mālikī works of this genre (taʾālīf min hādhā al-nawʿ) that can be imitated and followed.”[4] The later biographer Aḥmad Bābā al-Tinbuktī endorses the view that this sort of composition is without precedent in the Mālikī school.[5]

Ibn Farḥūn’s book of legal riddles does not feature prominently in histories of Islamic law or in general accounts of how Islamic law operates at a theoretical or a practical level. Indeed, the book is not mentioned in the recent Encyclopaedia of Islam THREE entry on Ibn Farḥūn, even though the text of Durrat al-Ghawwāṣ was published in 1979, edited by the Tunisian scholars Muḥammad Abū al-Ajfān (d. 2006) and ʿUthmān Baṭṭīkh (d. 2022).[6] This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that riddles are not considered to be properly part of Islamic law. They are, perhaps, too playful and literary to be part of a legal tradition. They certainly do not belong to the esteemed genres of Islamic law, such as legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh), positive law (furūʿ al-fiqh), or fatwā collections. So why study legal riddles?

Well, for one thing, legal riddles were a way for scholars to derive new legal rulings. Although many riddles simply reformulate earlier opinions as riddles, Ibn Farḥūn also invented new legal rulings, which he states explicitly he “had not seen transmitted,” but are rather based on “the principles of the school ().”[7] In other words, riddling was a way of thinking through those blind alleys and by-ways of the school, whether those had been discovered already through the work of previous legal scholars or not.

The majority of his riddles, however, were reformulations of earlier opinions that could be found in the Mālikī books of positive law. In the example quoted above, Ibn Farḥūn cites the Nawādir of Ibn Abī Zayd al-Qayrawānī (d. 386/996) as his source for the legal riddle, and that ruling is indeed found the Nawādir, although it is phrased somewhat differently. It is simply stated as a ruling among other rulings about when it is acceptable to adjust one’s posture in prayer: “The one who is seasick on a ship may pray seated.”[8] In other words, Ibn Farḥūn is rephrasing and reformulating the tradition of positive law in the form of a riddle. He is shaping the Mālikī tradition as he finds it in the Nawādir of an earlier Mālikī scholar to produce a new way of discussing, playing with, and thinking about the law. That does not make these riddles meaningless formal experiments. Indeed, as Elias G. Saba has shown, the development of new genres can be a driver of legal change and legal meaning in Islamic law in his monograph Harmonizing Similarities. Although the rules of particular genres may be unwritten and the boundaries of a genre difficult to define, Saba argues that the notion of literary genre as a “game” can illuminate “the different features or characteristics,” which act as “limits within which genres can play.”[9] The study of Islamic legal riddles adds to our understanding of the wide array of Islamic legal genres and their functions.

Furthermore, legal riddles offer us a way of thinking about Islamic law otherwise. To riddle with the law was not a matter of applying the law to a real, social situation. It was instead a way of bringing together the unusual and unlikely rulings of the school because, as Ibn Farḥūn puts it, “one of the best ways to rest the soul is a competitive discourse with students based on riddles about the legal rulings of the school.” At the same time, riddles “sharpen the mind and open the soul and because they distinguish degrees of excellence between colleagues.”[10] These were legal entertainments that nevertheless served a social function, not in the regulation of society but in education and in the competition over intellectual prestige. This notion is reinforced in the legal riddle collection of the Ḥanafī scholar ʿAbd al-Barr Ibn Shiḥna (d. 921/1515), which he introduces by arguing that the riddles are “aimed at sharpening minds and offering pleasing diversion so that the lazy student will not grow bored.”[11] These legal riddles could also be part of the erudite entertainment of a Sultan’s court. As Christian Mauder shows in his monograph In the Sultan’s Salon, many of these same riddles appeared in the courtly salons (majālis) of the penultimate Mamluk Sultan Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (d. 922/1516).[12]

To study the legal riddle is thus a way of extend our understanding of Islamic law beyond the question of normativity. For Ibn Farḥūn, the law could be both a normative discourse and a site of enjoyment, education, intellectual competition, and legal research to discover new rulings that had not yet been developed within the legal school. Riddling was a way for Ibn Farḥūn to establish within his own Mālikī legal school the genre of riddling he saw in the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanafī legal schools. In the next essay, we will explore a different approach to the competition between legal schools.


[1] Matthew L. Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law: Islamic Legal Riddles,” Islamic Law and Society 27 (2020): 214-39.

[2] al-Ḥarīrī, Maqāmāt Abī Zayd al-Sarūjī, ed. Michael Cooperson (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 167.

[3] Ibn Farḥūn, Durrat al-Ghawwāṣ fī Muḥāḍarat al-Khawāṣṣ, eds. Muḥammad Abū al-Ajfān and ʿUthmān Baṭṭīkh (Tūnis: al-Maktaba al-ʿAtīqa, 1979), 103.

[4] Ibid., 65.

[5] Aḥmad Bābā al-Tinbuktī, Nayl al-ibtihāj bi-ṭabrīz al-dībāj (Ṭarāblus: Kulliyyat al-Daʿwa al-Islāmiyya, 1989), 34.

[6] Mohammad Fadel, “Ibn Farḥūn,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, Three, eds. Kate Fleet et al. (Brill), https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-3/*-COM_30773.

[7] Ibn Farḥūn, Durrat al-Ghawwāṣ, 130. Keegan, “Levity Makes the Law,” 3. Ibn Farḥūn’s gesture to principles here seems vague, but the term qawāʿīd here may also refer more specifically to the genre of legal writing known as legal maxims or legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya), which were “succinct statements of interpretive principles” that could help scholars engage with novel cases. See Intisar Rabb, “Legal Canons—In the Classroom and in the Courtroom or Comparative Perspective on the Origins of Islamic Legal Canons, 1265-1519,” Villanova Law Review 66, no. 5 (2021): 845.

[8] Ibn Abī Zayd al-Qayrawānī, al-Nawādir wa’l-ziyādāt ʿalā mā fī al-mudawwana min ghayrihā min al-ummahāt, ed. Muḥammad Ḥajjī (Beirut: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1999), 1:252.

[9] Elias G. Saba, Harmonizing Similarities: A History of Distinctions Literature in Islamic Law (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019): 10.

[10] Ibn Farḥūn, Durrat al-Ghawwāṣ, 63.

[11] Ibn Shiḥna, al-Dhakhāʾir al-ashrafiyya fī alghāz al-ḥanafiyya (Cairo: Būlāq, 1889), 3. Christian Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon: Learning, Religion, and Rulership at the Mamluk Court of Qāniṣawh al-Ghawrī (r. 1501-1516) (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 442.

[12] Mauder, In the Sultan’s Salon, 443-44.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Matthew L. Keegan, Why Study Islamic Legal Riddles?, Islamic Law Blog (May 4, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/05/04/why-study-islamic-legal-riddles/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Matthew L. Keegan, “Why Study Islamic Legal Riddles?,” Islamic Law Blog, May 4, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/05/04/why-study-islamic-legal-riddles/)

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