Detective Stories and Crime Reports

By Mohammed Allehbi

Between the eighth and twelfth centuries, military and administrative elites oversaw a complex criminal justice system in the great cities of the Islamic Near East and Mediterranean. They investigated, pursued, arrested, tried, and punished criminals or other challengers to government authorities. Despite the significant role these criminal magistrates and police forces played in Islamic legal history, their voices are silent. The criminal administration of these regions and time periods left us no archival records, nor did its enforcers leave any other documentation. Despite these setbacks, we have abundant alternative materials that can help us understand their important place in cultural history, notably literary narrative sources.

In the intellectual and political capitals of the medieval Islamic world, such as Baghdad and Fusṭāṭ, jurists, judges, government secretaries, viziers, and other members of the scholarly and administrative elite wrote chronicles and literary anthologies filled with detailed accounts of crime and punishment. These narratives represent the majority of textual data on classical Islamic criminal justice and policing. Such texts can be analyzed both for reconstructing historical-legal realities, as well as for arriving at a greater understanding of the diverse views of Muslim authors on Islamic criminal justice. Yet, these literary sources vary based on genre and authorial intentions – as exemplified by the works of al-Tanūkhī (d. 384/994) and al-Musabbiḥī (d. 420/1029).

The tenth-century Baghdadi historian, judge, official, and litterateur ʿAlī al-Tanūkhī wrote two multi-volume compilations of stories, Nishwār al-muḥāḍara (The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge) and Faraj baʿd al-shidda (Deliverance Follows Adversity). Julia Bray astutely observes that al-Tanūkhī’s objective in telling these stories was not “to impart facts as such, exotic or otherwise, or cultural judgements, but to teach people how to read stories properly so as to understand the kind of truth they convey.”[1] Her conclusion extends to his accounts of Islamic criminal justice, which I refer to as “Baghdad detective fiction,” where law enforcers discover clues that immediately lead them to the perpetrator. These hints and clues included but were not limited to a victim’s dog being used, a note on a body, some hay on the corpse of a victim, and even the skeleton of a fish hanging over a door.[2] Despite these embellishments, what the authors were trying to convey with these stories was the need for criminal law enforcement to accurately and thoroughly investigate crimes. This reading is supported by a narrative from al-Tanūkhī.

The story begins with a man relating that he will never attend a funeral ever again, and subsequently relates the origins of his refusal. He was walking in fourth/tenth century Baghdad, sometime during the night, and saw three pallbearers carrying a funerary litter. He decided to help them, but they remained noncommittal and rude. As they got closer to the graveyard, the number of pallbearers began to dwindle, and the tension ramped up. As the setting of the story transitions to the graveyard, the genre of the tale becomes clear: a crime drama. Al-Tanūkhī narrates:

When we placed the litter in the mosque for the funeral, the last bearer fled. I said, ‘What is wrong with these accursed ones? I will get my spiritual reward.’ I took out from my sleeve two dirhams and yelled, ‘O grave digger. Where is the grave for this litter?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Dig. Take from me two dirhams and dig the grave.’ But when he took the dead man to be buried, he leapt back and struck me, leaving my turban wrapped around my neck. The grave digger yelled, ‘O people. A murder!’ The people gathered and asked him. He said, ‘This man came with a man for me to bury, whose head had been cut off . . . I was dragged to the ṣāḥib al-shurṭa (Chief Criminal Magistrate), who was informed of the matter. I was stripped to be whipped, and I was silent and pale. The ṣāḥib al-shurṭa had a scribe. When he saw my confusion, he said to his master, ‘Let me have a look so that I can uncover the matter of this man. For I believe that he is a victim.’ So the ṣāḥib al-shurṭa let me be.[3]

Despite this dramatic literary scene, there are historical legal realities being conveyed within the embellished narrative. The man was found with a murdered body, establishing him as a suspect caught in incriminating circumstances. He is dragged to the court of the ṣāḥib al-shurṭa (Chief Criminal Magistrate). As the suspect was found at the scene of the crime, al-Tanūkhī suggests that naturally, the Chief Criminal Magistrate would use coercive interrogations. However, the scribe who serves as al-Tanūkhī’s detective character is intelligent enough to recognize the innocence of the man. Thus, coercion is shelved until a proper investigation could be concluded. Al-Tanūkhī continues:

The scribe asked me, and I told him my account without exaggerating or leaving out anything. The corpse was unearthed, and it was examined. There was some writing found, belonging to such and such mosque, in such and such a district. The shurṭa scribe took men with him and left. He entered the mosque in disguise, and finding a tailor he asked him about a funerary bier, as if he wanted to carry a deceased relation of his on it. The tailor said, ‘The mosque has a funerary bier, but it has already been taken in the early morning for pallbearing, and it has not been returned.’ The scribe asked: ‘Who took it?’ The tailor said, ‘The people of that house,’ gesturing towards it. The scribe then raided it with some policemen, and they found the men within. He brought them to the criminal magistrate court, and he informed its chief about the matter. So the people of the house were brought, and they were coerced. They confessed that they had felt passion for a beardless boy. So they killed him and cut off his head. . . . And two of the pallbearers were from this group, and their heads were cut off.[4]

I classify this tale as one based on hyperrealism. It is wholly fictional, but rooted in a literary reality that was not outside the historical norm, nor dissimilar to modern-day detective stories. Al-Tanūkhī is attempting to relay to readers the correct way to investigate a crime when the suspect is not known. Coercion could only be used on individuals with a dubious social background or a criminal past, but in other cases, criminal magistrates and law enforcers ideally had to gather proof by collecting clues and interviewing witnesses before they could prosecute anyone. We can find more realistic descriptions about the investigative process in criminal cases mentioned in the chronicle of the eleventh-century Fatimid historian al-Musabbiḥī (d. 420/1029).

Similar to al-Tanūkhī, al-Musabbiḥī was a historian, writer, and administrative official, but he was far more interested in recounting what he saw as historical facts about contemporary criminal cases, which he was informed about. Yaacov Lev categorizes his narratives about crime and punishment as a “criminal chronicle” which provides considerable realistic details without literary exaggerations or archetypes.[5] In the extant parts of his chronicle Akhbār Miṣr (History of Egypt) covering the years 414-415/1023- 1025, al-Musabbiḥī describes crimes in Fusṭāṭ handled by the shurṭa in astonishing detail, with a great number of robberies and murders taking place in houses throughout various urban quarters and even in bathhouses. Unlike al-Tanūkhī, al-Musabbiḥī carefully mentions the date and places in which these crimes occurred, most notably in his account of a cold case. He relates:

On Saturday, two nights remaining of Dhū al-Qa ʿdah [January 30, 1025], a dead man was found lying in the peripheries of the desert near the town of al-Maghar. He was identified as Darī, the textile merchant. His turban was taken from his head, and his garments were stolen. It was reported that “knife blows were found all over him. And that he had with him dinars and dirhams in a handkerchief that was stolen as well.” He was carried on a funerary bier to the shurṭa of lower Egypt.[6]

Unlike al-Tanūkhī’s tale, which has twists and turns, al-Musabbiḥī’s report ends abruptly, and he moves on to another event. The fact that a criminal narrative in his chronicle ends with a cold case rather than a murder being solved shows the authenticity of al-Musabbiḥī as a writer. His reports were more rooted in the messy and unpredictable realities of criminal justice than al-Tanūkhī’s literary embellished ones. Lev speculates that al-Musabbiḥī may have relied on a criminal administrative logbook or oral information. Whatever the source was, the credibility of his accounts is still noteworthy.[7] The murdered corpse, like others, was taken to the shurṭa. Given that the body was found in the far-off desert, there is little hope for the mystery to be solved, much less by the investigative limitations of premodern law enforcement. In this period, as well as today, crimes in the real world frequently remain unsolved.

Al-Tanūkhī and al-Musabbiḥī related stories of crime and punishment from myriad tales and events that covered a spectrum of human experiences, ranging from the street level to palace intrigues. Nevertheless, they give insight into the criminal judicial process and the societal views surrounding them. Whether they are literary embellished narratives or matter of fact crime-reports, these texts offer a window into the world of Islamic criminal justice.


[1] Julia Bray, “Reading ‘the exotic’ and organising the production of knowledge: al-Tankh on Indians and their elephants,” Asiatische Studien – Études Asiatiques 71, no.3 (2017): 833.

[2] Ibn al-Jawzī, Kitāb al-Adhkīyāʼ (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 1996), 90–92; Al-Muḥassin b. ʻAlī Tanūkhī, Nishwār al-muḥāḍarah wa-akhbār al-mudhākarah, ed. ʿAbbūd Shāljī, 8 vols. (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1971), 1:340.

[3] Al-Muḥassin b. ʻAlī Tanūkhī, Nishwār, 5:149.

[4] Ibid., 149–50.

[5] Yaacov Lev, “Criminal Justice and the Police,” in The Administration of Justice in Medieval Egypt: From the 7th to the 12th Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 161–83.

[6] Al-Musabbiḥī, Akhbār Miṣr fī Sanatayn (414-415 H.), ed. Wilyam J. Mīlward (Cairo: al-Hayʼah al-Miṣrīyah al-ʻĀmmah lil-Kitāb, 1980), 233.

[7] Lev, “Criminal Justice and the Police,” 178.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Mohammed Allehbi, Detective Stories and Crime Reports, Islamic Law Blog (July 11, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Mohammed Allehbi, “Detective Stories and Crime Reports,” Islamic Law Blog, July 11, 2023,

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