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.

The excerpt below is taken from the Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah, compiled by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shahrazuri (1181-1245/577-643), a jurist and scholar of the Shafi’i ‘school’ (madhhab) who, while originally from what is now northern Iraq, spent most of his life in Damascus. Many of Shahrazur’s works deal with the theory and practice of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; among these is his tabaqat dealing with jurists of the Shafi’i school.

A tabaqat, which literally means ‘layers’, is a sort of biographical dictionary, usually focusing on a particular group of people, and arranged by generations. The genre was hardly limited to religious figures: there are tabaqat for poets and singers, as well as tabaqat concerning scholars and Sufis. However, across the genre there are certain generally consistent features. The entries tend to be short, and much of the information formalized. In a tabaqat dealing with scholars and other religious figures, such as this one compiled by al-Shahrazuri, there is usually an emphasis upon the other scholars and masters the person under consideration studies under, or received hadith from, or was licensed to copy a book, and so on. Other matters appear as well, including short antecdotes that emphasize some aspect of the person’s piety or scholarliness.

As al-Shahrazuri says in the introduction to his work, the purpose of these brief biographies is to ‘connect’ the reader with a whole community of scholars in the past, and to give examples for emulation. The following antecdote is an instance of this purpose of tabaqat; it also reveals a very small glimpse into one scholar’s life and thought. Two major themes of medieval Islamic scholarly life appear here: the centrality of travel in the pursuit of knowledge (travel which can be quite difficult, and often involves long distances), and the importance of dreams, both for the dreamer and for those who encounter them through narration or text.


[Muhammad ibn Ahmad Abu Zayd al-Marawzi] said: When I had resolved to return to Khurasan from Mekka, my heart was stiffened by the prospect, and I said: ‘When it happens- the distance is so long, I cannot bear the hardship- I am so advanced in years!’ Then I saw in my sleep as if the Messenger of God, peace and prayer be upon him, was sitting in the Sacred Mosque, with a young man (shab) at his right hand. So I said: ‘O Messenger of God! I have resolved to return to Khurusan, but the distance is so long!’ Then the Messenger of God, peace and prayers be upon him, turned to the young man, and said, ‘O spirit of God! Accompany him to his homeland.’

Abu Zayd said: So I saw that he was Gabriel, upon whom be peace, so I proceeded on to Merv, and I did not feel anything of the hardship of the journey.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah