Skullduggery, Literature, and the Legal Imagination

By Matthew L. Keegan

How do we imagine the law? What shapes our sense of how the legal system operates? In a culture saturated with television narratives, one clear avenue for shaping the imagined law is the various franchises and spin-offs of television shows like Law & Order and CSI, which give viewers a heavily fictionalized depictions of the law that reflect clear ideological positions regarding policing, justice, and courts.[1] As Steven Wilf argues in his monograph on law in the American colonies and early republic, law “is as much about storytelling as it is about constitutionalism, statutes, and sociohistorical understandings of compliance with legal norms.”[2] Of course, adab is not directly comparable to mass media or to the imaginings of law in the 18th century, but the depictions of court cases and legal knowledge in adab can and should inform our understanding of Islamic law and legal procedure, as Intisar Rabb, Bilal Orfali, and Maurice Pomerantz have argued in two recent essays.

Rabb and Orfali demonstrate through analysis of three stories from al-Tanūkhī’s al-Faraj baʿd al-Shidda that we can learn something about Islamic judicial procedure. Two of the stories emphasize the importance of judges using their perspicacity by depicting them uncovering hidden aspects of the case before them that turn out to be crucial for bringing the matter to a just conclusion. These stories offer models of Islamic judicial procedure and exhort judges to use their acumen.[3] In an article jointly authored by Orfali and Pomerantz, we see a fictional judge in a little-studied maqāma of al-Hamadhānī being duped by the trickster and his accomplices who bring their marital disputes before the narrator-judge. They use kināya (euphemism) to accuse one another of various wrongs, particularly of a sexual nature, which is presumably why Muḥammad ʿAbduh’s bowdlerized edition of al-Hamadhānī’s maqāmas excludes this maqāma. When the judge realizes he has been deceived and has given of his own money to settle an invented dispute, he bids them to depart but takes no vengeance. The story is fictional and entertaining, but it also emphasizes “the power of language to create reality as well as reflect it.”[4]

Stories about the law and the legal imaginaries that they create are not, perhaps, part of the discursive formation of fiqh, and my previous essay indeed suggested that different discursive traditions engage with questions of ethics and proper comportment in distinct ways. However, it may be useful to think of narratives about the law on the one hand and the fiqh tradition on the other as two kinds of legal imaginaries that reflect and shape the real world of law in different ways. Tanūkhī’s stories about the law are based on his experience as a practicing judge and on the anecdotes circulating among his fellow scholars, thus both reflecting judicial practices and shaping how judges imagined the potential hidden shenanigans behind the testimony of each party in a legal dispute.

Legal shenanigans like the ones depicted in Hamadhānī’s aforementioned maqāma and Tanūkhī’s anecdotes are part of a long and rich tradition of stories about the law that goes back at least to Kalīla wa-Dimna. When Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ translated and adapted these stories from Middle Persian, he added a trial scene to the first and longest story in the cycle, in which the wily jackal Dimna becomes an advisor to the lion king and convinces him to kill his dear friend the bull. During the trial, Dimna uses his rhetorical skills to derail the proceedings and bend the outcome to his advantage, only to be undone by a procedurally problematic intervention by the king’s mother. The courtroom drama here foregrounds not the idealized procedures of the court but the realpolitik rough and tumble of courtroom politicking. It also leaves the reader to ponder whether the procedural correctness ought to be upheld even if it means that criminals and bad faith actors will go unpunished. In other words, should the forces and apparatus of justice unilaterally disarm in the face of skullduggery, or should they resort to skullduggery of their own? These are questions of law and justice that take into account the potential for extrajudicial mischief. It should be noted that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ was also, as Joseph Lowry puts it, “the earliest Muslim thinker from whom we have a coherent statement of the central theological problem of Islamic law,” namely how to confront the epistemological questions of indeterminacy and interpretive authority when it comes to a tradition centered around divine revelation.[5] Although his conceptualization of the law was not particularly influential, his “imagining of the law as a space structured by concerns about interpretation and authority” continued to resonate for centuries to come as a defining characteristic of Islamic legal theory.[6]

Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s imagined courtroom scene in Kalīla wa-Dimna was perhaps even more influential. We can see similar stratagems and shenanigans in a court scene written by the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, the more or less anonymous group of thinkers who completed the composition of a series of epistles sometime in the 4th/10th century.[7] Their epistle on animals imagines an extended court case between animals and humans held before the king of the jinn to decide on whether animal’s enslavement to humans is just. The case goes back and forth, with each side putting together arguments drawing on evidence from scripture, from observations of human vices, and from rational argumentation. During a break in the trial, the humans are depicted discussing amongst themselves how to navigate the legal proceeding to their advantage through a combination of deceit and legal skullduggery. One of the humans suggests that they claim to have covenants, documents, and contracts attesting to their rights over the animals but that they were lost in Noah’s flood. And then, he suggests, if they are asked to swear, they will cite the legal maxim or canon (qāʿida) that oaths are required of the one who denies the claim in the suit, whereas they are petitioners (al-yamīn ʿalā man ankara wa-naḥnu muddaʿūn).[8] Although the legal affiliation of this character in the story is unclear, there is irony in this argument because the burden of proof for the petitioner is actually higher.[9] The other parties in this story also devise extra-judicial means of resolving the dispute. An advisor to the king of the jinn suggests that the jinn help the animals flee in the middle of the night, but another advisor points out that the humans will blame the jinn, become filled with rage, and hunt them.[10] The legal imaginary in these texts is of trials as vehicles for political maneuvering, and indeed, both trials are presided over by a king rather than a judge. These kings are easily swayed by rhetoric and have their eyes on matters other than justice, like how their ruling in the case will affect their reputations and their safety.

The legal imaginary in the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī (d. 516/1122) is, like the maqāma discussed by Rabb and Orfali, largely concerned with the perspicacity of judges. The trickster’s ability to bamboozle judges in some maqāmas and the ability of judges to see through his ruses draws our attention to the uncertainties of legal proceedings. In maqāma no. 10, the trickster Abū Zayd brings his son before a judge and claims that he is not, in fact, his son but a murderer. The trickster then uses his eloquence to praise the youth’s beauty while he accuses him of murder. The judge, whom we are told has a preference for male youths (yughallib ḥubb al-banīn ʿalā al-banāt), becomes infatuated and decides to pay a dear sum to the trickster so that he will let the boy go. The trickster and his son sneak off while the judge is busy collecting the second half of the payment. In other maqāmas, we similarly see that both physical beauty and rhetorical brilliance can interfere with clear thinking. As I have argued in a recently-published article, “[i]n the interpretive economy of [al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt], being wary of language’s ability to dazzle and mislead is just as necessary as guarding oneself against the ways in which physical desire can distort the mind.”[11] In another maqāma (no. 8), the judge is extremely perceptive and thus able to discover what the trickster’s rhetorical performance is designed to hide.[12]

The legal imaginary we find across these texts is thus often concerned with questions of interpretation. How are we to interpret speeches, texts, and human bodies? Because interpretation can be so easily derailed and matters can be convincingly presented as other than they actually are, seeing beyond the surface and noticing when procedure is being manipulated are key components of perspicacity. For litigants, however, the legal imaginary is fraught with uncertainty and the possibility that the judge will be foolish or greedy or swayed by his fear of one party or the other. It seems a fruitful avenue of research to read these stories about the law in maqāmas, anecdote collections, and biographical encyclopedias together with the normative sources on legal procedure and the comportment of judges (adab al-qāḍī). This is particularly the case with al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt, a text that was, for hundreds of years, one of the central texts of an Islamic education from West Africa to Indonesia. Scholars from across the Islamic world engaged in glossing, teaching, and commenting on the text. Whereas modern categories and assumptions about literary secularity have led recent readers to see the Maqāmāt as problematic to pious readers, the actual reception of the text tells a very different story.[13]


[1] Kathleen M. Donovan and Charles F. Klahm IV, “The Role of Entertainment Media in Perceptions of Police Use of Force,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 42, no. 12 (2015): 1261-81.

[2] Steven Wilf, Law’s Imagined Republic: Popular Politics and Criminal Justice in Revolutionary America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 5.

[3] Intisar Rabb and Bilal Orfali, “Islamic Law in Literature: The Pull of Procedure in Tanūkhī’s al-Faraj baʿad l-shidda,” in Tradition and Reception in Arabic Literature: Essays Dedicated to Andras Hamori, eds. Margaret Larkin and Jocelyn Sharlet (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019), 203.

[4] Bilal Orfali and Maurice Pomerantz, “What the Qāḍī Should Not Hear: Women, Eloquence, and the Poetics of Kināya in the Maqāma Šāmiyya of al-Hamaḏānī,” Al-Abhath, 59 (2021): 25.

[5] Joseph Lowry, “The First Islamic Legal Theory: Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ on Interpretation, Authority, and the Structure of the Law,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 128 (2008): 26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Godefroid de Callataÿ, “Brethren of Purity,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three, eds. Kate Fleet et al. (Brill, n.d.).

[8] Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, al-Ḥayawān wa’l-insān (Cairo: Dār al-Taraqqī, 1900), 33.

[9] Wael B. Hallaq, Sharīʿa: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 345.

[10] Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, al-Ḥayawān, 22-24. Johann Christoph Bürgel, drawing on these same texts, argues that “language itself, and in particular sacred language, is thus put on trial… [as] a warning not to trust pious vocabulary too readily, but to examine the speaker first.” Johann Cristoph Bürgel, “Language on Trial, Religion at Stake? Trial Scenes in some Classical Arabic Texts and the Hermeneutical Problems Involved,” in Myths, Historical Archetypes, and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature: Towards a New Hermeneutic Approach, eds. Angelika Neuwirth et al. (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1999), 201.

[11] Matthew L. Keegan, “Digressions in the Islamic Archive: Al-Ḥarīrī Maqāmāt and the Forgotten Commentary of al-Panǧdīhī (d. 584/1188),” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 10 (2021): 98.

[12] al-Ḥarīrī, Maqāmāt Abī Zayd al-Sarūjī, ed. Michael Cooperson (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 37-40.

[13] Keegan, “Digressions in the Islamic Archive.”

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Matthew L. Keegan, Skullduggery, Literature, and the Legal Imagination, Islamic Law Blog (May 25, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Matthew L. Keegan, “Skullduggery, Literature, and the Legal Imagination,” Islamic Law Blog, May 25, 2023,

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