Translations from Arabic and bibliographical research by Shahrouz Khanjar; introductory notes by Katherine Lemons and Setrag Manoukian.
Several texts prompted the forum on the religion of the old women of Nishapur. To give readers the ability to read and interpret these texts directly, we include them here in English along with links to the original Arabic texts where relevant. Each text is prefaced by a brief introduction to the thinker. We first present two accounts written by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) recounting the deathbed declaration of al-Juwayni’s (d. 1085) embrace of “the dīn of the old women.” We then quote a passage from al-Ghazali’s (d. 1111) Iḥyā’ ʿulūm al-dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), in which he prescribes the religion of the old women to people who lack scholarly abilities. The last section below includes two passages written by the anthropologist Talal Asad.
These passages do not mark the origins of the expression nor are they the most significant comments about the old women. For this reason, some forum contributors refer to other sources and other accounts of old women, drawing attention to their many appearances across multiple texts. The expression’s various sources contribute to the multiplicity of this trope. Readers will notice that even in the texts reproduced here the referent shifts: al-Juwayni reportedly referred to the “beliefs of the old women of Nishapur” while al-Ghazali cites “the religion of old women,” and Talal Asad mentions the “unthinking religiosity of everyday people.” Each of these formulations has its own emphasis and defines the expression differently. The old women seem to open, rather than foreclose, interpretation.
Readers are encouraged to move between these original passages, the etymology of the Arabic root ʿa, j, z, and the interpretations in the featured essays, developing their own ways of thinking with the old women. Readers’ interpretations, like the essays collected here, should be seen as the next installment in a long and varied set of comments on the expression.
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Abu’l-Maʿali ʿAbd al-Malik al-Juwayni (1028-85), also known as Imam al-Haramain (Imam of the Two Shrines) was a Shafiʿite scholar renowned for his theological and juridical works. He was born in a village near the Iranian city of Nishapur. After a period of exile in Baghdad, Mecca, and Medina, al-Juwayni was called back to Nishapur by the famous Saljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092) to direct the Nizamiya school (madrasa). Al-Ghazali (see below) was among his disciples. According to Heck, at a time of radically divergent positions among different schools of Muslim thought, Juwayni was most concerned with grounding theological knowledge in certainty. While positing the primacy of revelation, al-Juwayni developed a systematic approach to theology and law favoring rational argumentation and extending the role of analogy (qiyās) in jurisprudence.
Several later scholars report that, in an apparent rejection of his own positions, al-Juwayni on his deathbed declared his allegiance to the “beliefs of his mother” or to “the religion of the old women of Nishapur.” Below are two accounts of this anecdote both of which were written about two hundred years after the death of al-Juwayni by the scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Overall they are very similar, though they differ in their wording and details. We present them both to show the subtle variations; whereas the first refers to al-Juwayni’s mother, the second cites the chain of transmission through which the anecdote is relayed. Ibn Taymiyya condemned theological elaboration and analogical reasoning, favouring instead a literal reading of the Qur’an and other traditions. Al-Juwayni’s reported deathbed declaration as cited by Ibn Taymiyya in both accounts certainly serves the purpose of the latter’s own argumentation, drawing a parallel between the religion of the old women and his literalist approach opposed to philosophy and theology. However, the deathbed anecdote also appears in the work of other scholars (see bibliography below and essays in this forum), suggesting a more complex history of reporting and intertextuality. The anecdote’s many appearances suggest that it is both resilient and generative.
And this Imam of the Two Shrines [al-Juwayni] renounced the sect to which he had adhered, and the words he had said, and adopted Salafism. And he said, “O my companions, do not engage in kalām (theology), for if I had known where theology leads me, I would never have engaged in it.” And he said at the time of his death, “I sank into the vast ocean, and gained all that was known to Muslims, and entered the realm from which I was forbidden. And now, if the grace of God does not save me, woe to Ibn al-Juwayni! Indeed, I die following my mother’s beliefs”, or he said: “following the beliefs of the old women of Nishapur”. And Shahristani says: “He informed that he had found nothing but confusion and regret among theologians and philosophers.”Ibn Taymiyya 1995. Majmūʿ al-Fatāwī. Edited by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad Ibn Qāsim. XXXVII vols. Medina: Majmaʿ al-Malik Fahd. Vol. 4, p. 73). See also here.
This account, with some minor differences in wording, can also be found in the following sources:
Al-Dhahabī, Shams al-Dīn. 2006. Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ. Edited by
Muḥammad Ayman Al-Shubrāwī. XVIII vols. Cairo: Dār al-Ḥadīth.
Vol 14, p. 19.
Ibn Kathīr, Ismāʿīl ibn ʿUmar. 2004. Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʾ al-Shāfiʿīyyīn. Edited
by Anwar Al-Bāz. II vols. Alexandria: Dār al-Wafāʾ. Vol 1, p. 468.
Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn. 1983. Daqāʾiq al-Tafsīr. Edited by Muḥammad
al-Sayyid al-Julaynid. VI vols. Damascus: Muʾassasat ʿUlūm
al-Qurʾān. Vol 2, p. 169.
—. 2005. Bayān Talbīs al-Jahmiyya. X vols. Medina: Majmaʿ al-Malik Fahd.
Vol 1, p. 407-8.
Abu ʿAbd Allah al-Hasan b. al-ʿAbbas al-Rustami narrates that Imam Abu al-Fath Muhammad b. ʿAli al-Tabari al-Faqih narrates: “We went to Imam Abu al-Maʿali al-Juwayni to visit him during the illness that led to his death. He sat down and said to us: ‘Witness that I turn away from every word that I said against al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ (the righteous predecessors) – peace upon them. Indeed, I die adhering to the same belief that the old women of Nishapur follow when they die.’ ”Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn. 1999. Al-Tisʿīniyya. Edited by Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhim Al-ʿAjlān. III vols. Riyadh: Maktabat al-Maʿārif. Vol. 3, p. 924-5.
This second account of al-Juwayni’s deathbed anecdote is also found in the following sources:
Al-Dhahabī, Shams al-Dīn. 1993. Tārīkh al-Islām wa-Wafayāt al-Mashāhīr
wa-al-Aʿlām. Edited by ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Salām Tadmurī. LII vols.
Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb. Vol. 32, p. 235-6.
Al-Dhahabī, Shams al-Dīn. 1995. Al-ʿUluw li-al-ʿAlī al-Ghaffār. Edited by Abū
Muḥammad Ashraf Ibn ʿAbd al-Maqṣūd. Riyadh: Maktabat
Aḍwāʾ al-Salaf, p. 258.
Ibn Taymiyya, Taqī al-Dīn. 1983. Daqāʾiq al-Tafsīr. Edited by Muḥammad
al-Sayyid al-Julaynid. VI vols. Damascus: Muʾassasat ʿUlūm
al-Qurʾān. Vol. 2, p. 169.
Al-Subkī, Tāj al-Dīn. 1964-1976. Ṭabaqāt al-Shāfiʿiyya al-Kubra. Edited by
Maḥmūd Muḥammad Al-Ṭanāḥī and ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Muḥammad
Al-Ḥulw. X vols. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat ʿĪsā al-Ḥalabī al-Bābī. Vol. 5, p. 191.
Abu Hamid Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Tusi al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is recognized as one of the most important theologians, jurists, and mystical scholars of Islam. Born in Tus, he moved to the nearby city of Nishapur where he studied with al-Juwayni (see above) and later moved to Baghdad to teach at the Nizamiya school there. Following existential and theoretical self-questioning, al-Ghazali quit teaching in 1095 for a period of retreat and Sufi practice. In 1106, he accepted an invitation to return to teaching in Nishapur where he remained until his death. Deeply influenced by philosophy, al-Ghazali was nevertheless radically critical of it. Especially in the latter part of his life, he wrote many works predicated on a Sufi-inflected understanding of Islam, privileging knowledge via “the heart” to theoretical speculation, though expressed via systematic exposition and conceptual work. The integration of these different elements into his thought is still debated among contemporary scholars.
The passage below comes from al-Ghazali’s Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (The Revival of Religious Sciences), a masterful multivolume summa of Islamic thought and practice, written during his years of retreat. It is taken from a section focusing on ethical exercise (riyāḍāt al-nafs) included in the third part of the Iḥyāʾ, which addresses “what leads to damnation.” This passage discusses the dangers of speculation and advises pious individuals on what they should do when assailed by doubts about their faith. Al-Ghazali offers a typology of actions based on the individuals’ capacities and knowledge, underlying the need for the constant training of the soul via rational means and the role of learned guides in the process. The old women (and the desert people) seem a limit case in this typology. We thank Talal Asad for providing the reference to the passage.
At the bottom of the passage, we include a footnote on the passage from ʻAbd al-Rahim ibn al-Husayn Iraqi (1325-1404) one of the classical commentators of the Iḥyāʾ, who doubts al-Ghazali’s assertion that the expression “the religion of the old women” is a saying of the Prophet (hadith). As common in these cases, the editor cites a hadith on the women as reported by a compiler and details its chain of transmission but questions its authenticity. We include the footnote as an example of the textual history and debate around the expression “the old women.” We omit references to the sources cited by the editor; interested specialists can find them by clicking on the hyperlink with the Arabic text.
And in this position, thoughts come to him [the worshiper] and open the door of ideas for him. It is possible that something from Satan’s temptations will come upon him, either a blasphemy or a vicious innovation (bid‘a). Whenever he abhors these temptations and takes immediate action to get rid of them from his heart, he will not be harmed. And these are of two types:
The first type is such that the devotee knows that God is pure from them and that the devil has planted these thoughts in his heart and put them in his mind. Therefore, he should not have any fear, take refuge in the remembrance of God, supplicate, recite him sincerely, so that God may remove that plague from him. As God Almighty has said: “When the devil tempts you, seek refuge in God, for he is the Hearer, the Seer”. And Almighty God said: “When a satanic thought starts to bother the pious ones, they do but remember (Allah’s guidance), and then they gain insight”. This means that if you have difficulty in your work, and you suffer from temptation, ask God for relief from it, because He has heard your prayer, and He knows what has happened to you. Undoubtedly, when a temptation from the devil reaches the believers, they return to God, so in that case, they see their footsteps when they make a move, and they stop opposing God.
The second type is such that the worshiper has doubts. Therefore, he has to present it in detail to the old guide (shaykh); he must reveal everything he has in his heart to the old guide, any weakness, cheerfulness, interest in something, or sincerity in the will, and he should hide it from others and not inform anyone about it. The old guide should look at his case and reflect on his intelligence and insight. If he knows that when he leaves him, and instructs him to think for himself, he can awaken to the righteousness of God, he [the guide] must entrust him [the worshiper] to his own heart, and command him to accompany his heart so that something of light may be cast on his heart to discover the truth for him. And if he [the guide] realizes that he is one of those people who are unable to do so, he should bring him back to the correct belief by something that his heart can carry, such as a piece of advice or a reasoning that is consistent with his understanding. And the old guide must act wisely, and show him compassion, for these are the places of perdition and hazard along the way.
And it has frequently happened that a follower engages in austerity, then a corrupt fantasy overwhelms him, one that he cannot figure out, so the way is cut off for him! He falls in idleness, and he renounces his religious duties, and that is the great destruction. And whoever withdraws from the material world, and casts out worldly attachments from his heart, he will be caught in such thoughts. Because he is on the ship of danger. If he remains unharmed, he will become one of the kings of religion, and if he errs, he will perish. And for this reason, the Prophet said: “the religion of old women is highly recommended to you” [see note at the bottom of passage]. And that is enough for the principle of faith, and for the appearance of belief it suffices to imitate and engage in virtuous deeds, as the risk of disorientation is high. Accordingly, it is obligatory on the old guide to know the condition of the follower through perspicacity; if he is not alert and intelligent, and no apparent beliefs manifests in his behavior, he should not advise him to isolate himself for thinking and mentioning God’s name (dhikr), but he should instruct him to learn the superficiality of knowledge, and to constantly worship in private (wird), or to appoint him to serve those who, in their seclusion, have given up the world to obtain exulted ideas, so that the blessing (baraka) of their existence may reach him. Similar to one who is unable to attend to jihād on the battlefield, so he must give water to the warriors, and take care of their horses, so that he may rise among them on the Day of Judgment, and their blessings may encompass him; although he does not reach their rank.
[ʻAbd al-Rahim ibn al-Husayn Iraqi’s note, edited for typos] Ibn Tahir wrote in the book Tadhkira that the hadith “the religion of the old women is for you” (‘alaykum bi-dīn al-ʿajāʾiz) has become common among the public, but I did not find a reference for it that is based on a true or false narration, until I saw a hadith quoted by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Salmani, who quotes it from Ibn ‘Amr, that the Prophet said: “When (the time before) the Apocalypse comes, and the worldly desires (al-ahwā’) cause discord among you, then the religiosity of the desert people and the [religion] of the women is highly recommended to you”. Ibn al-Salmani has a manuscript from his father who got it from Ibn ‘Amr who is accused of forging it. Finished. And this statement is narrated in this very form by Ibn Habban in al-Ḍu‘afā’(the Unreliable Ones) in the chapter on the biography of ibn al-Salmani. And God is All-Knowing.Al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid. 2012. Iḥyāʾ ‘ulūm al-dīn, V. 3, p. 120, Cairo: Sharikat al-Quds. Another edition of the work and this passage is available here.
Talal Asad is a professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York whose research on secularism, liberalism, and Islam has profoundly shaped scholarly understandings of the contemporary world and the place of religion in it. While much of his writing has addressed power and knowledge in modernity, he is also widely known for his argument that Islam is a discursive tradition. Here we reproduce two passages in which Asad reflects on the place of ordinary knowledge in the Islamic tradition. The first is a quotation from the 2015 essay with which our inquiry into the old women began. Asad refers here only indirectly to old women, instead introducing the category of “ordinary people.” The second quotation is an excerpt from an interview in which he discusses the old women and their meanings directly.
For ibn Taymiyya, as for Ghazali, so Shaykh Usama reminded me, the unthinking religiosity of ordinary people was more important for the tradition than the formal reasoning of philosophers and theologians precisely because it was embodied in everyday life.Asad, Talal. 2015. “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today.” Critical Inquiry 42 (1): 166–214. p. 174.
The act of recognizing a rule, judging how it can be applied in a particular context, and then applying it, reflects a different temporality from one where one acts according to a capability that is dependent on a collective form of life that sustains a transcendent vision. This, I think, is what Ghazali meant when he reputedly said: Oh! If only I had the implicit faith of the old women of Nishapur! Meaning: To live without having to go through the process of verification and application of moral rules, to live at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity.Iqbal, Basit Kareem. 2017. “Thinking About Method: A Conversation with Talal Asad.” Qui Parle 26 (1): 195–218. p. 208.
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