Judgeship in ‘Umayyad Spain

The following are two short anecdotes about a judge in Cordoba, Spain during the rule of the ‘Umayyad amir Abdallah ibn Muhammad (r. 888-912). Both stories come from the Quḍāt Qurṭubah of Khushani, a member of the ‘ulama in tenth century Spain; the Quḍāt Qurṭubah is a history of the judges (quḍāt) of that city. In the first story, the traits of a good judge are exemplified: a quiet, humble sort of ascetic piety, in this manifested by the judge’s doing labor that would not be expected of someone of his apparently high social state. The reader can draw further conclusions about this story’s significance, and the significance of its memory by later generations of Cordobans. As for the second story, it illustrates a couple of tensions often present in early Islamic societies: one, the interplay between the judge- who may or not be a learned member of the ‘ulama– and the scholars and jurists of the community. Second, it reveals the tension between “commanding the good and forbidding the wrong,” and the principle of respecting privacy (as we would put it- though the concept in the shari’a is more complex), a central tenet of medieval Islamic jurisprudence and ethics.

Khalid ibn Sa’id said: Muhammad ibn Hashim al-Zahid related to me, saying: A sound woman from the people of the veiling related to me that one day she went to the house [of Muhammad ibn Salma], before noon, and knocked on his door. He came out to her—she did not know him before that—and on his hands were the traces of bread dough, as if he had been kneading dough. So she said to him: ‘I want to talk with the judge, as I need him for something.’ So he said to her: ‘Go on to the congregational mosque, and he’ll meet you in an hour.’

She said: ‘So I went to the congregational mosque, made my prostrations, then sat down, looking for the judge. It was not long before that man who had come out to me with dough on his hands came, and began his prostrations. So I asked about him, and someone said to me: “He’s the judge!” So when he had finished his prostrations, I came before him and talked to him about my need, and he ruled on it for me.

Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: one day I was walking with Muhammad ibn Salma, when he was judge. We met someone carrying a sack on his head, in which something was obscured, and in his hand was a drum. The judge ordered him to break the drum, and he knew without a doubt that the sack was full of drums, so he said: ‘Put down the sack and show what is in it!’

So Ahmad ibn ‘Ubada said: I said to him: it is not incumbent upon you to force the disclosure of the goods of the people and their hidden things—rather, it is your duty to change that which is already manifest.’ So he [the judge] desisted from his command to disclose the contents of the sack. Then we went on, and ran into Muhammad ibn ‘Umar ibn Laba, and [the judge] asked him about the incident, and ibn Laba replied with words similar to mine.

Then the judge inclined towards me and said: We have benefited from your companionship today, my shepherd!’

Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥārith Khushanī, Quḍāt Qurṭubah, (Maktabah al-Andalusīyah 4. al-Qāhirah: Dār al-Kutub al-Islāmīyah, 1982), 197.

Death in the Mihrab

As I’ve written before, medieval fatwas often contain quite surprising material, dealing as they do with all the contingencies- possible and otherwise- of medieval life. Below is my translation of a short question and answer dealing with what I don’t imagine was an every-day occurrence, or at least something one would hope wasn’t a normal occurrence… The selection is from a compilation of fatwas isssued by muftis in al-Andalus, and hence reflects the prevailing Maliki school of jurisprudence. Though note that in this case our mufti does not support his opinion with citations or scripture: rather, he is working from a probably shared assumption that even if the imam drops over dead, the canonical prayer must go on…


Mahmud ibn Umar ibn Libaba asked about a man who was a prayer-leader (imam) of the people, was praying with the people the second raka’a, then suddenly died in the mihrab– what is to be done with him? And how are they to finish their canonical prayers?

Answer: If there is a section of the mihrab fenced-off in some way from the people, place him in this section. Otherwise, let the people in the first row remove him to the people of the second row, and the people of the second to the third, passing him along backwards via the people of each row. [In this way] they will not turn their faces from the qibla.

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.