Itching for an Answer

The following are two fatwas- legal opinions issued by a mufti, a Muslim jurist qualified in both knowledge and application of Islamic law- from a multi-volume collection of fatwas of Maghrebi, Andalusian, and Ifraqian origin. The collection was compiled in the fifteenth century, but the fatwas apparently range in dates. Unfortunately, the editorial apparatus gives little indication of exact date or place of origin; only in certain cases does internal evidence provide clues to those sorts of things. However, these fatwas are filled with interesting insights into both the process of Islamic law in the Muslim Far West and into the concerns and exigences of these communities (for instance, in these, dermatological problems…). I hope to translate and share several more sets of fatwas from this collection in the coming weeks and provide a taste of both of these aspects, and hopefully shed some light on the how and why of medieval Islamic legal reasoning and concerns.

So here is the first fatwa I’ve selected, followed by my commentary. I should warn you, however, the subject matter is a little, well, icky:

[Scratching Scabbies in the Mosque]

Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb asked about a man who had many scabies on him (bihi jarab kathīr), so that when he went to the mosque for ritual prayer he itches them so that the skin peelings (qushūr) of the scabbies fall off in the mosque, and he is not able to desist from that. Is it permissible for him to enter the mosque or not?

He answered: I did not find any text about this! (lam ajadu fīhā nassan) But if he prays outside the mosque with their prayers if he is capable, it is a precautionary for him.


This first fatwa is quite short, and the mufti does not provide us with a great deal of transparency in his legal reasoning for his opinion. But it raises a couple of important issues in medieval Islamic law: first, questions of ritual purity and bodily propriety. As we will see from the second fatwa, the fact that our unfortunate scabies sufferer is not only scratching vigorously but transgressing the ritual space of the masjid with his skin peelings is a problem- or at least our mufti thinks it is a problem, with the condition that he has found nothing written about it. That is, and this is the second important issue raised here, he can find no legal precedent that addresses this problem. While he doesn’t tell us as much here, the succinct opinion he gives is built on analogy with other rulings concerning bodily propriety and the transgression of ritual space with bodily fluids and other forms of ritual impurity. This process of analogy from previously established cases to a new one is one of the central elements of Islamic law, and part of the flexibility and multi-valency of the legal process.

[More on Scratching]

Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-‘Abdūsī asked about a man with an itch during ritual prayer, so that he scratched a lot on account of that, but did not interfere with either the words or external actions of the ritual prayer. So should he start the ritual prayer over or not?

He answered: As for itching during ritual prayer, if on account of necessity it occurs to him in that he is incapable of desisting, and if the pain would distract him if he did not itch, then [scratching] is permissible to him and he does not impair his ritual prayer, unless he greatly prolongs [the scratching] or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is praying- then his ritual prayer would be voided. But if necessity does not compel him, but rather he scratches purely out of pleasure, that is disagreeable. And in the Traditions six [things] are from Satan, that is, on account of him, and scratching is mentioned [among them]. So then, if he prolongs greatly or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is prayer, he ought to start over, and if not, then no.

I said: The master, God’s mercy be upon him, did not discourse about what fell from the skin peelings of the scabbies due to this scratching since he wasn’t asked about that. But the answer for Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb has preceded it earlier in this volume.


Here we see, not concerns with ritual purity as such, but with the intention and action of ritual prayer. The question is: does this man’s persistent scratching invalidate his prayers? The scratching would invalidate his prayers, our mufti says and the questioner implies, if it was so intense that he could no longer pay attention to what he was saying and thus would be unable to register the significance of the words. In other words, the validity of ritual prayer is contingent on one’s active cognition of it. Mere repetition without registering is not enough; mumbling through the words while being overwhelmed by a wave of itching would necessitate stopping and resuming later- presumably once one’s itch had subsided… However, in the interest of what a Christian canonist might refer to as economy, some distraction, if it cannot be avoided, is permissible, provided one can still keep his mind (mostly) on prayer.

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