Moral Registers in Islamic Law, Adab, and Ethics

By Matthew L. Keegan

Islamic law is one among several Islamic discourses and normative discourses that intermingled with Islamic epistemes and ecumenes in the pre-modern world. In Marion Holmes Katz’s recent monograph, readers encounter a sophisticated reading of the intersecting and divergent approaches of law, asceticism, and Islamic philosophical ethics. As she demonstrates in one of her chapters, an author such as Māwardī (d. 450/1058) evaluated marriage in strikingly different ways, depending on whether he was writing within the framework of fiqh or the framework of philosophical ethics. For Māwardī the jurist, the marriage relationship involved an exchange of a husband’s material support in return for sexual enjoyment (istimtāʿ). Thus, the wife alienates the “usufruct (manfaʿa)” or her sexual capacity but not that of her labor, since she is not required to do housework.[1] By contrast, Māwardī the ethicist, shaped by the tradition of Islamic philosophy, considers marriage for the purpose of sexual enjoyment (istimtāʿ) to be “the most blameworthy” of any cause to seek a spouse.[2] Rather than seeing these apparent contradictions as a flaw, Katz argues “that it helps us to understand the distinctive work that fiqh is doing” alongside the multiple Islamic frameworks of normativity that she contends were “largely autonomous and yet often complementary.”[3] This is not, as some might perceive, a way of extricating law from moral concerns but rather a way of appreciating that fiqh does not exhaust the ethical and normative thinking of Muslim scholars. It allows us to move beyond formulations like “in Islam, marriage is a contract” towards more productive articulations, such as “in Islam, a contract regulates certain aspects of the marital relationship.”[4]

Katz’s book challenges us to think more carefully about how different “moral registers” are constructed and negotiated across textual genres and fields of discourse. As someone who works at the intersections of Arabic literature and Islamic law, which have two rather distinct disciplinary formations in today’s academy, this intervention is particularly generative. It offers a way to think about how adab norms existed alongside and along with the norms and discourses of fiqh. As Katz points out, one of the fuzzier moral registers revolves around murūʾa, which refers to something like manly virtue. It seems to me that adab, including the playful and apparently frivolous realms of storytelling, jokes, and even obscene poetry, may inform concepts of manliness and perhaps even manly virtue. Furthermore, as with the first essay in this series, paying attention to the way jesting is evaluated in different fields of discourse can help shed light on the cross-pollinations and divergences between Islamic law and adab.

The complex moral lives of obscene poets and collectors of erotic anecdotes suggest that different moral registers could coexist and be mediated temporally and contextually. Ibn al-Ḥajjāj (d. 391/1001), the most famous obscene poet in the Arabic tradition whose poetry has been studied by Sinan Antoon, was also the market inspector (muḥtasib) in Baghdad for three years.[5] The muḥtasib was also ironically expected to regulate public morality, and a later manual for market inspectors advises teachers that youths should be prevented from reading Ibn al-Ḥajjāj. But how might have Ibn al-Ḥajjāj himself understood the relationship between his life as a poet and his work as a market inspector? A lesser-known figure with a similarly complex relationship to moral registers is Aḥmad b. Yūsuf al-Tīfāshī (d. d. 651/1253). He was a jurist from the town of Tiffech in present-day Algeria who studied law in Cairo and Damascus before returning to his hometown to serve as a judge. He also composed a book of erotic anecdotes entitled Nuzhat al-albāb fī-mā lā yūjad fī kitāb (The Delight of Hearts regarding What is Not Found in Books). This book’s authorial introduction provides an Islamic justification for its contents, quoting reports about the Prophet, the Companions, and other prominent figures indulging in jest and even some spicy language. Tīfāshī argues that God made humans prone to weariness and thus made it licit to spice things up in speech and language.[6] He explains that this kind of jesting might not be good at all times, but when mediated and dispersed temporally, it might well be eminently desirable some of the time. He also insists that the book is only intended for elites and that God made circulating these amusing anecdotes to be among the good deeds (ḥasanāt) for the elites but among the evil deeds (sayyiʾāt) for the non-elites. The moral registers are mediated temporally and situationally, depending on whether one is surrounded by elites or by non-elites. Although we do not have, to my knowledge, any evidence of Tīfāshī’s study or practice of fiqh, we might surmise that he was aware of the fact that Islamic legal discourses were particularly concerned with the public morality of judges and witnesses, as we will see shortly.

Title piece of a copy of Tīfāshī’s Nuzhat al-albāb fī-mā lā yūjad fī kitāb made in 973/1565-1566. Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 5934. Creative Commons License 2023

Adab and the Islamic legal tradition sometimes shared a common reservoir of dicta on the question of amusement. As part of his introduction, Tīfāshī cites a saying of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in which he compares the soul to metal. Just as metal rusts, so too does the soul, and it therefore needs diverting amusements to polish away the rust. It turns out that this same saying is quoted in Ibn Farḥūn’s legal riddles book, which I discussed in a  , pointing to the fact that Ibn Farḥūn is engaged in a kind of legal discourse designed to be amusing and diverting.[7] The prolific Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī likewise quoted this same piece of advice in the introduction to his book of humorous anecdotes about foolish and negligent people (Kitāb al-Ḥamqā wa’l-mughaffilīn).[8]  In other words, across several genres the importance of diversion, laughter, and amusement is justified as a good and ethical thing in Islamic terms. Of course, what one considered to be appropriate in jest and what one considered inappropriate might differ from one person to another.

But the evaluation of laughter and amusement as an ethical activity might also differ from one work to another by the same author, depending on the discursive context. Ibn Mufliḥ’s (d. 763/1362) Kitāb al-Furūʿ contains a list of those who do not possess the criteria for probity (ʿadāla) required for acting as official witnesses at court. Among them is “the recounter of funny stories (muḍḥikāt) and the like.” (He also excludes those who engage in humorous slapping (ṣafʿ), singers, dancers, conjurors, players of chess and of backgammon.) However, in his al-Ādāb al-sharʿīa, the very same Ibn Mufliḥ recounts some amusing stories about foolish people and quotes several reports about the desirability of jesting (mizāḥ) within certain bounds, as well as a series of condemnations.[9] This latter work contains a mixture of legal material, ethical exhortations, and medical information, drawing on the Qur’ān, Sunna, and the works of figures such as Aristotle. It is therefore, perhaps, unsurprising that we find Ibn Mufliḥ offering a more heterogenous evaluation of the relationship between jesting and virtue. Once again, the discourse of fiqh does not exhaust the Islamic ethical explorations of Muslim scholars.

Even within a single work, we sometimes find authors expressing the notion that human beings need rest and amusement, even while specifically condemn these kinds of activity elsewhere. I am referring to Ibn al-Jawzī’s (d. 597/1201) Ṣayd al-khāṭir, which contains a series of short discussions and exhortations on various topics and which was one of Ibn Mufliḥ’s sources across his oeuvre. In one of these short essays, Ibn al-Jawzī laments that many people in his circles have become accustomed to socializing and constant visiting (al-ziyāra) that they call “service (khidma).” He calls this kind of sociality “a waste of time (taḍyīʿ al-zamān).”[10] In a different section, Ibn al-Jawzī offers a less severe evaluation of rest, encouraging his reader to show kindness to his own soul (al-talaṭṭuf) because “the one who wishes to traverse two stages of a journey in a single stage ought to stop, and he should traverse the path in the easiest possible way, such that if the riding camels are tired, the camel-driver gets up and sings to them.”[11] He then cites the example of the Prophet who would “show kindness to his soul, jest, and mingle with women (kāna yaṭalaṭṭaf bi-nafsihi wa-yumāziḥ wa-yukhāliṭ al-nisāʾ).”[12] This section follows another more severe essay, and Ibn al-Jawzī explains at the end of the second short essay that the reader ought to know that the two essays were written for different conditions. The first is addressed to matters of obedience (ʿazīma), whereas the more indulgent essay is an instance of dispensation (rukhṣa).[13] The shifting moral registers expressed here depend on context and careful attention to the needs of the soul, which might rust or grow weary.

The notion of competing and complicatedly coexisting moral registers helps us move beyond both notions of “ambiguity” and concepts of the Islamic that portray Islamic law as the prescriptive, normative discourse, and adab as the explorative discourse.[14] Premodern ethical subjectivities were complex, and the legal discourses of fiqh did not exhaust the ethical imagination of jurists and moralists like Ibn Mufliḥ, Ibn al-Jawzī, and others. These scholars drew on notions of comportment that could vary depending on time, place, and social context. The dictum that seems to have reigned, then, is the one we find in Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/868) and the Maqāmāt: For every situation there is an apt way of speaking (li-kull maqām maqāl).


[1] Marion Holmes Katz, Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022), 91.

[2] Ibid., 112.

[3] Ibid., 27 and 14.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Sinan Antoon, The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Ḥajjāj and Sukhf (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 9.

[6] al-Tīfāshī, Nuzhat al-albāb fī-mā lā yūjad fī kitāb, ed. Jamāl Jumʿa (London: Riyāḍ al-Rayyis, 1992), 43.

[7] Ibn Farḥūn, Durrat al-ghawwāṣ fī muḥāḍarat al-khawāṣṣ, eds., Muḥammad Abū al-Ajfān and ʿUthmān Baṭīkh (Cairo: Dār al-Turāth, 1979), 62.

[8] Ibn al-Jawzī, Kitāb al-Ḥamqā (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, n.d.), 23.

[9] Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Ādāb al-sharʿīa, eds., Shuʿayb al-Arnaʾūṭ and ʿUmar al-Qayyām (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1999), 2:204-217.

[10] Ibn al-Jawzī, Ṣayd al-khāṭir, ed. ʿĀmir b. ʿAlī Yāsīn (Riyadh: Dār Ibn Khuzayma, 1997), 385.

[11] Ibid., 402-03.

[12] Ibid., 403.

[13] Ibid., 405.

[14] Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 454 and 518.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Matthew L. Keegan, Moral Registers in Islamic Law, Adab, and Ethics, Islamic Law Blog (May 18, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Matthew L. Keegan, “Moral Registers in Islamic Law, Adab, and Ethics,” Islamic Law Blog, May 18, 2023,

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