The etymological and semantic features of the root ʿa, j, z provided below are intended to complement the forum on the religion of the old women of Nishapur. These resources guide readers in understanding the terms ʿajūz (old woman) and ʿajāʾiz (old women) and the layers of meaning the terms acquire in Islamic theological and mystical writings. Here, different terms derived from the root are illustrated as well as related terms from the Qurʾān and the hadith collections preserving the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and doings. These derivations yield additional meanings tied to the key term defining the “old women” and their condition.

Women, old age, and incapacity

Based on major medieval dictionaries such as Lisān al-ʿArab and al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ as well as the modern one, al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ, a person is said to showʿajz when s/he is weak (physically or socially or emotionally or mentally) or unable to perform a certain act or acts. Therefore, a certain incapacity is conveyed in connection to old age. A dialectic is also drawn between human incapacity and the recognition of a divine capacity, reflected in the derivation of the word muʿjiza (miracle). An act that ordinary humans are incapable (ʿājizūn) of performing is a miracle, thus the reference to the Qurʾān’s miraculous language and content as an iʿjāz.

Based on the same sources, the Arabic verb ʿajazat refers to a woman who has become old. The adjective ʿajūz (old)in the singularis used forboth woman and man. Old womenare described asʿajāʾiz, using the plural feminine form of the root. Whereas ʿajāʾiz is used only for old women, another plural ʿujuz applies to both old men and old women. Therefore, the ʿajāʾiz of Nishapur is a phrase that refers specifically to women.

Stumps, roots, and end of a life

Significant connotations of the root ʿa, j, z are also conveyed through the term ʿajuz (pl. aʿjāz), which refers to the last part or rear of objects, events, phenomena, and beings. ʿAjuz thus denotes the latter part of one’s life, the rear, the last section of a poetry line, the hind part, the buttocks, the tailpiece, and the end of an object. At the same time, this noun is used to refer to the stump of a tree, hence aʿjāz al-nakhl (the roots of palm trees). Based on the temporality conveyed by some of these usages of ʿajuz, the connection to the old woman as ʿajūz is noteworthy. Aside from experiencing an age-related form of incapacity, as mentioned above, the old woman is also going through the final part of her life, and is therefore close to death. Folding roots and stumps into these references counterweighs incapacity—namely, embeddedness, based in strong roots and foundations.

The “old woman” in the Qurʾān

If we turn to the Qurʾān, we find that the singular term ʿajūz is usually used in reference to an old woman, while the term shaykh is used to refer to an old man. A woman can also be called ʿajūza, but it is not as widely used to refer to an old woman as the term ʿajūz. The wife of Lot was described in the Qurʾānic Verse 171 of The Poets (Sūrat al-Shuʿarāʾ) as ʿajūz, an old woman, belonging to the people of the ancient past; she was said to have been punished by God for her unbelief. Thus, she was not saved from perdition. The reference to “an old woman” appears as such:

◯ ١٦٧- قَالُوا لَئِن لَمْ تَنتَهِ يَا لُوطُ لَتَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْمُخْرَجِينَ

167. They said: “If thou desist not, O Lūṭ! thou wilt assuredly Be cast out!”

◯ ١٦٨- قَالَ إِنِّي لِعَمَلِكُم مِّنَ الْقَالِينَ

168. He said: “I do detest Your doings.”

◯ ١٦٩- رَبِّ نَجِّنِي وَأَهْلِي مِمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ

169. “O my Lord! deliver me And my family from Such things as they do!”

◯ ١٧٠- فَنَجَّيْنَاهُ وَأَهْلَهُ أَجْمَعِينَ

170. So We delivered him And his family,—all

◯ ١٧١- إِلَّا عَجُوزًا فِي الْغَابِرِينَ

171. Except an old woman Who lingered behind.

Turning to Verses 69 to 72 in the Qurʾānic chapter on Hūd (Sūrat Hūd), the wife of Abraham is referred to here as “an old woman.” She expresses wondrous happiness at being told by the messengers of God that she would give birth to two children, Isaac and Jacob, miraculously since she and her husband were both old:

◯ ٦٩- وَلَقَدْ جَاءَتْ رُسُلُنَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ بِالْبُشْرَىٰ قَالُوا سَلَامًا ۖ قَالَ سَلَامٌ ۖ فَمَا لَبِثَ أَن جَاءَ بِعِجْلٍ حَنِيذٍ

69. There came Our Messengers To Abraham with glad tidings. They said, “Peace!” He answered, “Peace!” and hastened To entertain them With a roasted calf.

◯ ٧٠- فَلَمَّا رَأَىٰ أَيْدِيَهُمْ لَا تَصِلُ إِلَيْهِ نَكِرَهُمْ وَأَوْجَسَ مِنْهُمْ خِيفَةً ۚ قَالُوا لَا تَخَفْ إِنَّا أُرْسِلْنَا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِ لُوطٍ

70. But when he saw Their hands went not Towards the (meal), he felt Some mistrust of them, And conceived a fear of them. They said: “Fear not: We have been sent Against the people of Lūṭ.”

 ◯ ٧١- وَامْرَأَتُهُ قَائِمَةٌ فَضَحِكَتْ فَبَشَّرْنَاهَا بِإِسْحَاقَ وَمِن وَرَاءِ إِسْحَاقَ يَعْقُوبَ

71. And his wife was standing (There), and she laughed: But We gave her Glad tidings of Isaac, And after him, of Jacob.

 ◯ ٧٢- قَالَتْ يَا وَيْلَتَىٰ أَأَلِدُ وَأَنَا عَجُوزٌ وَهَـٰذَا بَعْلِي شَيْخًا ۖ إِنَّ هَـٰذَا لَشَيْءٌ عَجِيبٌ

72. She said: “Alas for me! Shall I bear a child, Seeing I am an old woman, And my husband here Is an old man? That would indeed Be a wonderful thing! ”

The “old woman” in the hadith

A Sunni hadith report captures a conversation between the Prophet and an old woman about entry into “the Garden of Paradise.” The report, found in al-Tirmidhī’s hadith collection, Book 35, Hadith 6, reads:

An old woman came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, beseech Allah to let me enter the Garden of Paradise!’ He replied: ‘O Mother of So-and-so, no old woman will enter the Garden of Paradise!’ She turned away weeping, so he said: ‘Tell her that she will not enter it as an old woman, for Allah says: ‘We have created them a new creation, and made them virgins, loving, equal in age'” [based on the Qurʾān, The Inevitable Event (Sūrat al-Wāqiʿa)].

The woman, not realizing that the Prophet was humoring her, thought it impossible for old women to enter heaven and thus started to cry. But the Prophet had someone evoke verses from The Inevitable Event (Sūrat al-Wāqiʿa) in the Qurʾān to explain to her that all women who enter paradise enjoy eternal youthfulness. Not only are youthful women contrasted to old women in these verses but so too are virgins to non-virgins:

 ◯ ٣١- وَمَاءٍ مَّسْكُوبٍ

31. By water flowing constantly,

 ◯ ٣٢- وَفَاكِهَةٍ كَثِيرَةٍ

32. And fruit in abundance.

 ◯ ٣٣- لَّا مَقْطُوعَةٍ وَلَا مَمْنُوعَةٍ

33. Whose season is not limited, Nor (supply) forbidden,

 ◯ ٣٤- وَفُرُشٍ مَّرْفُوعَةٍ

34. And on Thrones (of Dignity), Raised high.

 ◯ ٣٥- إِنَّا أَنشَأْنَاهُنَّ إِنشَاءً

35. We have created (their Companions) Of special creation.

 ◯ ٣٦- فَجَعَلْنَاهُنَّ أَبْكَارًا

36. And made them Virgin-pure (and undefiled),—

 ◯ ٣٧- عُرُبًا أَتْرَابًا

37. Beloved (by nature), Equal in age,—

 ◯ ٣٨- لِّأَصْحَابِ الْيَمِينِ

38. For the companions Of the Right Hand.

In the mystical tradition, old female saints are at times depicted as ageless or retaining youthful beauty. The renowned Sufi philosopher and poet Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638 AH/1240 CE), for example, noted the youthfulness of an old woman he met in Seville. She was a mystical wayfarer, ninety-five years of age, known as Fāṭima, daughter of Ibn al-Muthannā of Cordoba. He writes in al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya: “I was too shy to look into her face despite her old age, for the glow in her cheeks and her exquisite features and beauty made one think that she was fourteen-years old.”

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The introduction to the forum on the religion of the old women of Nishapur is available here. All contributions to the forum, including the texts that prompted the forum, are accessible here.