Imām al-Ḥaramayn, Abū al-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī (d. 478 AH/1085 CE), lovingly invoked the old women of his home city of Nishapur on his deathbed as symbols of a true and certain faith that he felt eluded him despite all his years of pursuing religious knowledge. Later retellings of al-Juwaynī’s final moment displaced these words from their original context and transformed them through an extended narrative process into a polemical trope to denounce those who pursue theological speculation (kalām). Theologians, mystics, legalists, and reformists of the Islamic tradition have made use of al-Juwaynī’s deathbed anecdote to cast their rivals as misguided individuals coveting an uncertain and futile knowledge to the detriment of their faith.
Here I isolate three narrative layers in the deathbed anecdote: the hagiographical, the tropological, and the polemical. Each of these layers constitutes a narrative turn that takes up a life of its own in ensuing Islamic literature. Hans Kellner describes the narrative process as a “progressively inflated use of tropes.” He argues that evolving narratives take phrases, substitute them, generalize them, and turn them into symbols or archetypes. Eventually, these symbols disintegrate, signaling the end of a narrative cycle that often spawns a new one. A critical reading of the reception and appropriation of al-Juwaynī’s final words reveals a similar narrative process that moves through the realms of biography, trope, and polemic. I reflect on narrative construction within each narrative layer and how authors transform lived experience into literary and polemical tropes by invoking stories that are displaced, adjusted, and rehoused in new contexts.
The hagiographical layer
The jurisconsult Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Rustamī, who gave certification to Karīma, narrates: Imām Abū al-Fatḥ Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Faqih, narrated to us: We entered upon Imām Abū al-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī to visit him while he was ill on his deathbed. He sat up and said to us: Be my witnesses, I revoke every word I have ever said that goes against the salaf al-ṣāliḥ (the pious predecessors). I hereby die upon what the old women of Nishapur die upon. I said: This is what some of leaders meant when they said: “I advise you to follow the religion of old women,” meaning that they are believers in God, possessing innate faith (fiṭra) in Islam. They are not learned in the science of kalām.
The three narrative layers identified above exist alongside each other here. The hagiographical layer occupies the whole of the first paragraph, presenting al-Juwaynī as a pious example and invoking the old women of his hometown in a contextually specific way. Nishapur was home to a number of famous female scholars of hadith and other Islamic sciences. It is likely that al-Juwaynī was aware of these circles of elite, educated women in Nishapur. While it may be difficult to verify, it is plausible that al-Juwaynī had a specific group in mind when invoking the trope “the old women of Nishapur.” As Dhahabī’s narrative evolves, the specificity of the hagiographical layer is diluted and becomes increasingly more difficult to trace any historically identifiable details about these women (see Shireen Hamza’s contribution to this forum).
The tropological layer
The second layer is discernible in the commentary included in the second paragraph of the excerpt above. It removes the deathbed anecdote from the realm of the personal wherein we might imagine al-Juwaynī was alluding to specific groups of women in Nishapur. This second layer is a tropologicalone that conflates the old women of Nishapur with broader archetypes of old women as possessors of a simple and pure faith (fiṭra). In the Iḥyā’ ʿulūm al-dīn, authored by al-Juwaynī’s renowned student Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazalī (d. 505 AH/1111 CE), the advice to follow the religion of old women is identified as a prophetic hadith (see Kausar Bukhari’s contribution to this forum). In this second layer, the localization of Nishapur is lost and with it some of the biographical grounding.
In other versions such as that attributed to Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728 AH/1328 CE), al-Juwaynī invokes his mother alongside or instead of the old women of Nishapur. This added detail of al-Juwaynī’s mother becomes a site for the construction of tropes of mothers as emblematic of unlearned embodied knowledge (see Rula Jurdi Abisaab’s contribution to this forum). In later tellings, we see the anecdote addended to tropes of other male and female non-elites including enslaved individuals and Bedouins. Eventually, the tropological layer of Dhahabī’s anecdote expands to house stories about a range of individuals that represent deviations from the elite male ideal along different axes of differentiation including gender, age, social status, and non-urban location.
The polemical layer
Finally, the third layer is discernible here only in the final sentence of al-Dhahabī’s account where he briefly notes that the innate faith (fiṭra) of the old women is characterized by a lack of knowledge of kalām—a branch of speculative theology that received much criticism in the medieval period. This final layer of the narrative becomes a dominant thread in polemical discoursesof the modern period and particularly in the commentarial tradition on al-ʿAqīda al-Ṭaḥāwiyya (The Creed of Imām Taḥāwī). The deathbed anecdote frequently appears as a gloss on the forty-third article of the ʿAqīda which warns against coveting knowledge that is beyond one’s capacity. The anecdote thus transforms into a cautionary tale for those seeking knowledge that might negatively impact their faith.
Later developments in the old women’s narrative
The contexts in which the deathbed anecdote is reproduced reveal further narrative turns away from hagiography and towards polemics (see Adam Bursi’s contribution to this forum). Later writings exclude al-Juwaynī from the narrative completely and retain only generalized allusions to the old women of Nishapur. Other stories juxtaposing the simple faith of non-elite individuals and/or women with the ambitious knowledge of elite men are superimposed on the anecdote. For example, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Rājiḥī, a modern Salafi scholar, adds to the deathbed anecdote a story that denounces the knowledge of the famous medieval philosopher Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606 AH/1209 CE):
It was said that al-Fakhr al-Rāzī entered a land and people gathered around him, walking behind him. There was not one person who heard of his arrival that did not come. A man met an old woman in that land who did not go with the others. He said to her, “The Pride (al-Fakhr) is in this land, why do you not go out (to see him)?” She said, “Who is this Pride?” He said, “He is the one who found a thousand proofs for the existence of God!” She said, “I seek refuge with God! By God, if not for the doubt that filled his heart, he would not need to seek for God a thousand proofs.” Then, he informed al-Fakhr al-Rāzī about what the woman said. He said, “O God, grant me faith like the faith of old women.”
In this version, the old woman is typified and delocalized as a woman that bests a famous scholar with her simple faith. Al-Rāzī’s concession of his knowledge to her faith echoes the advice of the prophetic hadith and thus represents a reversion to the prophetic example (sunna) for which the author advocates.
Other iterations of the deathbed anecdote place it alongside a hadith found in multiple collections in which an enslaved girl is asked by the Prophet Muḥammad, “Where is God?” She points up, saying, “In the sky.” He asks her, “Who am I?” She answers, “You are the Messenger of God.” He turns to her master and says, “Free her, for she is a true believer.” The uninitiated innocent in this version is represented along three axes of differentiation: her gender, her enslaved status, and her age. In some versions, she is differentiated across a fourth axis, being described as black. One could argue that the old women of Nishapur are similarly differentiated by gender, age, and non-elite status (when represented as uneducated, as Setrag Manoukian suggests in his contribution to this forum).
The images of al-Juwaynī and his mother, the old women of Nishapur, al-Rāzī and the old townswoman, and the Prophet and the enslaved girl are invoked as congruent archetypes of a simple faith juxtaposed to the knowledge of an elite, learned man. With each narrative turn, the old women of Nishapur are abstracted towards more generalized archetypes of the uneducated “other.” The process of narrativization can develop a hagiographical moment into delocalized tropes that function as polemical archetypes. While old women in medieval Nishapur, mothers of elite male scholars, and enslaved girls in seventh-century Arabia would have experienced different lives historically, they are inflated and conflated into the trope of the unlearned believer in the hands of elite male historians, theologians, and legalists.
The deathbed anecdote is thus displaced as the details of the narrative are manipulated to serve the polemical interests of each successive author. That the hadith recommending the religion of old women sometimes substitutes “desert people” or “Bedouins” for the old women reveals the extent to which the representative figure of fiṭra is narratively fluid, while the learned man—as protagonist, author, and intended reader—retains his gender and social status.
The end of the narrative cycle
After recounting his version of the deathbed anecdote, modern Saudi scholar Safar al-Ḥawālī concludes with the following polemical reflection:
It is true that the creed of the old women of Nishapur is good, and it is better than the creed of the people of kalām, the people of confusion and misguidance and doubt—may God protect us from that. However, is there not something that is better than the religion of old women or the creed of old women? Indeed, it is the creed of those firmly rooted in knowledge. Why should we not wish, then, that we may die upon the creed of those firmly rooted in knowledge? Those that say, “If I were to receive a sudden revelation, my certainty would not increase.”
Here, the old women of Nishapur are narratively disposable despite initial appearances of being admired for their strong, innate faith. After being substituted, generalized, and made into symbolic archetypes, the old women of Nishapur are dismantled and disintegrate as examples of true faith—thus ending the narrative cycle. The final sentence references a famous saying attributed to ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, cousin to Prophet Muḥammad, fourth Caliph, and first Imam. A new narrative cycle begins with ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib now representing the paragon of true and certain knowledge.
Analyzing the reception history of al-Juwaynī’s deathbed anecdote reveals the substitutions, generalizations, and symbolic conflations of groups of people that transform lived experience into polemical tropes based on the text into which these narratives are re-embedded and rehoused. Such analysis also demonstrates how gendered tropes emerge and are negotiated at various narrative turns. Al-Juwaynī himself becomes a trope through the reception history of his final words as later authors transform him into a symbolic representation of the repentant theologian. Modern versions of the deathbed anecdote do away with his name completely and attribute his final words to “some theologians” who regretted their religious doubts and arguments. The narrative is no longer al-Juwaynī’s but a symbolic repository of cultural tropes that rely on gender and class difference to argue for and against various forms of authoritative Islamic knowledge. The narrative takes on further levels of gendering as it is retold with various axes of differentiation.
We may never learn who al-Juwaynī admired so much so as to invoke them on his deathbed. However, through critically examining the narrative process the deathbed anecdote underwent, we can discern a range of narrative techniques authors employ to appropriate stories for their own prescriptive purposes.