Playing with Islamic Law in the Undergraduate Classroom

By Elizabeth Urban

For my final essay, I want to move away from research and into pedagogy. I teach a 4/4 load at a regional university. Most of my students are undergraduates, and I have yet to encounter a student planning on pursuing a career in Arabic or Islamic studies. Therefore, I think a lot about how to present medieval Islamic history in a way that is fun and authentic for my students, in a way that challenges their unfounded stereotypes about Islamic societies, teaches them some basics of historical research and primary source analysis, and also leaves a lasting impression in their minds. I present here a new strategy I am trying out in my two Medieval Middle East survey sections, a strategy that asks students to apply medieval Islamic legal texts in creative ways. This project is a work in progress, and I look forward to hearing my readers’ thoughts and suggestions.

In both sections of my survey-level Medieval Middle East course this semester I am working with some student assistants to create an interactive role playing game, “The Golden Age of Baghdad,” based loosely on the Reacting to the Past historical game series. Each student (27 in each section) will be tasked to research and represent a historical figure from 8th–9th century Abbasid Iraq, and they will then play a game wherein they compete for a limited amount of patronage funds. Some students will play the patrons—the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, the queen al-Zubayda, the queen-mother al-Khayzurān, the vizier Jaʿfar al-Barmakī, and the princes Muḥammad (the future al-Amīn) and ʿAbdallāh (the future al-Maʾmūn). Others will play scientists, scholars, and poets who must impress these patrons; examples include the poet Abū Nuwās, the mathematician al-Khwārazmī, the essayist al-Jāḥiz, and the courtesan ʿArīb. Throughout this scenario, I hope that students come to see the Medieval Islamic world as rich and cosmopolitan, flourishing with culture, and filled with people of myriad identities and personalities. This scenario is not meant to be strictly historically accurate, but rather to allow students to engage actively with Abbasid-era historical texts and events.

When it comes to Islamic Law, I am offering my students a few options of legal scholars to represent, including Abū Yūsuf (d. 192/798), ʿAlī al-Riḍā (d. 203/818), al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820), and Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241/855). I chose these particular scholars because they are prominent intellectual figures, they have various primary sources in English translations the students can access, and they represent a diversity of different schools of thought. It is also fun to assign “game actions” to various characters, in order to get the students invested in the stakes of the historical scenario; for instance, the student who plays Ibn Ḥanbal can earn rather than lose points by getting “sent to prison” during the scenario.

The main graded portion of the scenario is a public speech, wherein each character presents themselves and their intellectual/cultural projects as the worthiest of funding. They must base these speeches on a combination of primary source analysis and secondary source research. I provide them with short primary source excerpts in English translation, and I also teach them some basic research methods for locating secondary sources on their assigned characters. For this first time running the scenario, my graduate student assistant and I have collected the following reading assignments for these different legal thinkers:

  1. Abū Yūsuf:
    • Selection from Taxation in Islam: Abū Yūsuf’s Kitāb al-Kharāj, ed. and trans. A. Ben Shemesh (Leiden: Brill, 1969).
    • “On Piety,” an online selection from Al-Tanūkhī, Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, D.S. Margoliouth (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1922), available at Fordham University Medieval Sourcebook.
  1. ʿAlī al-Riḍā:
    • “The Profession of Unity,” and “The Veil,” selections from A Shiʿite Anthology, selected and with a forward by ʿAllāmah Ṭabāṭabāʾī, ed. and trans. William Chittick, under the direction and with an introduction by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Albany: SUNY, 1981).
    • Selection from Ibn Bābawayh, Imām al-Riḍā’s Esoteric Traditions: An Exposition of Selected Traditions from ʿUyūn Akhbār al-Riḍā, trans. Mansoor Limba (n.p., 2022).
  1. Al-Shāfiʿī:
    • “Chapter on Legal Interpretation,” selection from The Epistle on Legal Theory: A Translation of al-Shāfiʿī’s Risālah, Joseph E. Lowry (New York: NYU Press, 2015).
    • Online selection from al-Shāfiʿī’s Dīwān, a poem On the Martyrdom of al-Husayn b. Ali (d. 680), trans. Mohammed Ballan [At Ballandalus].
  1. Ibn Ḥanbal:
    • Online selection from the Musnad of Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, located at
    • Selections from Ibn al-Jawzī, The Life of Ibn Ḥanbal, Michael Cooperson (New York: NYU Press, 2016).

My hope for the students who are assigned to research and represent these scholars is that they will come to appreciate their complexity and humanity. I hope they will learn a little about different schools of Islamic law, yes, but I also hope they will see how jurists navigated a culturally rich world and participated in a vibrant community of learning. I also hope that, years from now, when most of the names and dates they learned in college have flown from their minds, they will remember some of the main takeaways of this historical scenario.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Urban, Playing with Islamic Law in the Undergraduate Classroom, Islamic Law Blog (Nov. 30, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Urban, “Playing with Islamic Law in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Islamic Law Blog, November 30, 2023,

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