Riddles, Influence, and Borrowing from Rival Legal Schools

By Matthew L. Keegan

How did scholars from different Sunnī legal schools respond to and interact with the scholarship of other schools? The answer to this question, of course, depends upon the particular historical context, the institutional strength of one school or another, the social context of education, and other factors. In some places and times, there was intense competition and polemic. In others, we find extensive interactions of borrowing, teaching, and influence across schools. Indeed, converting from one school to another was not altogether uncommon, which suggests the porousness of these boundaries.

When it comes to intellectual influence and cross-pollination, we find that the flowering of new forms of legal writing in one legal school lead scholars from other schools to adopt and adapt those genres. In Mariam Sheibani’s recent article on Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 684/1285), she shows that this Mālikī scholar obscured the influence of his teacher, the Shāfiʿī jurist Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262), while “Mālikizing” borrowed material to champion Mālikī doctrines and sources in place of Shāfiʿī ones.[1] Sheibani reconstructs “how al-Qarāfī incorporates Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s maxims and adapts them to conform with the expectations of his Maliki audience.”[2] Qarāfī conceals the Shāfiʿī origins of his material, and he “does not cite Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām in order not to appear derivative or unoriginal vis-a-vis the Shafiʿis, whose dominance in 7th/13th-century Cairo was attained at the expense of the waning prestige of Malikism.”[3] Likewise, in my previous essay in this series, we saw how Ibn Farḥūn borrowed a genre of legal writing, namely riddles, most likely from the Shāfiʿī school. Like Qarāfī, Ibn Farḥūn conceals his sources of inspiration but claims that his work is unprecedented within the Mālikī school, as was mentioned in the previous essay, implying that it was not entirely sui generis.

Not all scholars sought to hide the influence of other legal schools. Abū Bakr al-Jurāʿī (d. 883/1478) wrote, to my knowledge, the first Ḥanbalī collection of legal riddles. He chose to foreground the influence of al-Isnawī’s (d. 772/1370) Shāfiʿī riddles, even incorporating the riddles he found there into his own work. Al-Jurāʿī composed a book called Ḥilyat al-Ṭirāz fī ḥall masāʾil al-alghāz (The Embellishment of the Brocade that Solves the Riddling Questions). As al-Sakhāwī notes in his biographical dictionary of notable figures from the 9th/15th century, al-Jurāʿī “benefited from the book of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Isnawī al-Shāfiʿī” in writing his book of riddles.[4] Indeed, the title of al-Jurāʿī’s book evokes that of al-Isnawī’s. The authors and interrelated titles can be seen below:


Ṭirāz al-maḥāfil fī alghāz al-masāʾil

(The Brocade of the Assemblies regarding Riddles on Legal Questions)


Ḥilyat al-Ṭirāz fī ḥall masāʾil al-Alghāz

(The Embellishment of the Brocade that Solves the Riddling Legal Questions)

Al-Jurāʿī portrays his book as the “embellishment (ḥilya)” on al-Isnawī’s “brocade (ṭirāz).” What this means in practical terms is that al-Jurāʿī’s book of Ḥanbalī riddles, to some extent, incorporates and comments upon a Shāfiʿī work. For example, al-Jurāʿī quotes an entire riddle from al-Isnawī’s collection of riddles, alerting his reader to the fact that it comes from al-Isnawī. The riddle asks about a case in which one may touch one’s genitals (farjihi al-aṣlī) without violating one’s ritual purity. The solution, also directly quoted from al-Isnawī, stating that it is the case of women, for whom there is only a specific portion of the genitalia that break ritual purity. However, as al-Jurāʿī points out, there is no Ḥanbalī opinion on this case.[5] Why include the Shāfiʿī riddle? It seems that he uses the Shāfiʿī riddles to explore the blind alleys of his own legal school. Throughout his text, he provides both al-Isnawī’s Shāfiʿī solution and a Ḥanbalī solution derived from his own school’s rich tradition of legal rulings.

The purpose of al-Jurāʿī’s riddles is not simply to reformulate his own school’s rulings as riddles. He is engaged in a work of comparative legal thinking in which the divergences and gaps between legal schools is productive of legal thinking. He draws not only on the Shāfiʿī riddles of al-Isnawī but also on Ḥanafī riddles. One of the riddles is attributed to “a certain Ḥanafī,” and in the solution he points out that “what the Ḥanafīs say is close to our legal school,” before providing a properly cited Ḥanbalī solution.[6] What is implied here is that mastering one’s own legal school was not enough, at least for Ḥanbalīs, who remained in the minority when compared to the other more institutionally powerful schools.

At the same time, al-Jurāʿī does draw heavily on the Ḥanbalī legal tradition, often referring to multiple authorities within the Ḥanbalī school and highlighting the diversity of opinions within the school. He identifies these authorities in shorthand, often referring to a scholar whom he simply calls “The Author of the [Book of] Positive Law (ṣāḥib al-furūʿ).” In these cases, he is referring to Shams al-Dīn Ibn Mufliḥ (d. 763/1362), who composed the Kitāb al-Furūʿ, an extensive work of positive law. Ibn Mufliḥ had studied with Shāfiʿīs and Ḥanbalīs. Ibn Mufliḥ discusses both the range of Ḥanbalī opinions on a particular topic and, on occasion, the opinions of Mālikīs, Shāfiʿīs, and Ḥanafīs.[7] This Kitāb al-Furūʿ does not belong to the genre of Islamic legal writing devoted to comparing the opinions of different legal schools and scholars, namely ikhtilāf, so why does the author occasionally seek to contrast one legal school with another?

One possible reason for including material from rival schools might be to ward off zealous factionalism (ʿaṣabiyya) through the recognition of legal diversity. In Ibn Mufliḥ’s Kitāb al-Furūʿ, during a discussion of prayer, he quotes a lengthy passage from a lost treatise of Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201), in which the latter insists that members of different legal schools should accept differences in ritual practice: “If a Ḥanbalī prays in a Shāfiʿī mosque and does not recite out loud, the Shāfiʿīs are angry, and if a Shāfiʿī prays in a Ḥanbalī mosque, then the Ḥanbalīs are angry, but this is a matter of considered judgment (masʾala ijtihādiyya), and zealous factionalism (ʿaṣabiyya) is simply capriciousness, which is a hindrance to knowledge.”[8] These instances of “tolerance” and “interaction” were not the only forms of intersection between the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools. Some Shāfiʿī legal scholars in the 6th/12th century came to be identified as Ḥanbalī in theological principles (uṣūl), presumably because they rejected the approach of the Ashʿarī school, even as they came to be closely associated with the Shāfiʿī legal school.[9]

By foregrounding the influence of al-Isnawī’s riddles and by drawing on the richly comparative Kitāb al-Furūʿ of Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Jurāʿī produced a book of legal riddles that required or inculcated intricate knowledge of two different legal schools. It is true that some authors seem to have deliberately obscured the fact that they were borrowing genres and ideas from rival legal schools. Others, however, seem to have delighted in being derivative. In other words, rather than letting the immensity of the tradition weigh the author or the reader down with anxiety, these authors seem to expect readers who revel in the complexity and interconnectedness of a vast legal and literary tradition.


[1] Mariam Sheibani, “Innovation, Influence, and Borrowing in Mamluk-Era Legal Maxim Collections: The Case of Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and al-Qarāfī,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 140, no. 4 (2020): 928.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ li-ahl al-qarn al-tāsiʿ (Beirut: Dār al-Jīl, n.d.), 11:32.

[5] al-Jurāʿī, Ḥilyat al-Ṭirāz fī ḥall masāʾil al-alghāz, ed. Musāʿid b. Qāsim al-Fāliḥ (Riyadh: Dār al-ʿĀṣima, 1993-94), 42-43.

[6] Ibid., 58-59.

[7] Ibn Mufliḥ, Kitāb al-Furūʿ, ed. ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbd al-Muḥsin al-Turkī (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 2003), 3:7-34.

[8] Ibid., 3:22.

[9] Andrew G. McLaren, “Ibn Ḥanbal’s Refutation of the Jahmiyya: A Textual History,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 140, no. 4 (2020): 912.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Matthew L. Keegan, Riddles, Influence, and Borrowing from Rival Legal Schools, Islamic Law Blog (May 11, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/05/11/riddles-influence-and-borrowing-from-rival-legal-schools/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Matthew L. Keegan, “Riddles, Influence, and Borrowing from Rival Legal Schools,” Islamic Law Blog, May 11, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/05/11/riddles-influence-and-borrowing-from-rival-legal-schools/)

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