As a hadith or as a trope, the expression “the religion of the old women” (dīn al-ʿajāʾiz) appears in many Islamic theological and mystical writings that address questions of knowledge, at times accompanied by a reference to the city of Nishapur—a renowned center of knowledge in the north-east of the Iranian plateau. Scholars have used the expression “dīn of the old women” to suggest a specific modality of inhabiting Islam. But what this modality is and how it ought to be evaluated is a matter of debate.
Across the world, in the past and the present, old women tend to be portrayed as adepts of folk religious traditions opposed to (male) religious specialists, either celebrating or diminishing their alternative roles. At other times, taken as representing a blanket religiosity, old women are hailed or stigmatized as signs of religion relegated to the margins of a secular world.
The old women of Nishapur challenge these widespread assumptions about the relation between gender and religion. Through their silence, they call on us to consider whether the gendering of religion is a question of patriarchy or is instead about a specific sensibility, whether it is a way of inhabiting religious practice or is an altogether distinct orientation to knowledge. The old women therefore push us to think about how to practice a religion. They invite us to consider the relationship between habit and self-awareness, and to search for language to talk about it.
The old women have kin in many religious traditions: vodou priestesses, witches, beguines, shamans, mothers. At once powerful and subjugated, they have their own rituals, hold moral or political authority, and often heal. While many of these women are old, age is rarely thematized in studies devoted to them. These women pose distinct questions to the traditions of which they are part, while also raising questions about these traditions. Attending to the age and loud silences of the old women of Nishapur will likely yield new insights into the gendered dynamics of different religious traditions.
This interdisciplinary forum came together in response to a seminar that the anthropologist Talal Asad gave at McGill University in 2016. In the seminar, which included faculty and graduate students from numerous departments in the social sciences and humanities, Asad mentioned the “faith of the old women of Nishapur,” which some of us found surprising and thought-provoking. Some time later, we decided to convene a series of interdisciplinary discussions about the old women of Nishapur. With the help of Shahrouz Khanjari and Talal Asad, we located what appear to be two of the earlier and foundational statements about them, both originating from Nishapur: the deathbed declaration of the jurist al-Juwayni and a passage by his pupil and outstanding theologian al-Ghazali. Beginning with these sources, but including other references to the “old women” found in theological and mystical works, five McGill scholars wrote position papers that we shared and edited over the course of two workshops and a roundtable at the 2021 Middle East Studies Association annual meeting. The present forum includes these five papers complemented by four more from scholars at other institutions.
Our aim is neither to find the origins or first appearances of the old women in the Islamic tradition nor to associate the expression “the old women of Nishapur” with a single figure. Formulated in a variety of ways in different sources, the phrase is a composite. It combines the term “old women” (ʿajāʾiz), a dense word in itself (see its etymology and Adam Bursi’s essay—in this forum—for early uses), with the complex, debated notion of dīn and the toponym Nishapur. We therefore pick up several of the multiple paths the expression and its variants have taken across a broad sweep of time and space. The different uses of dīn al-ʿajāʾiz defy the idea of tradition as a linear and coherent process of sedimentation. These uses instead show how tradition entails a proliferation of appearances with intersecting and divergent depictions and meanings.
We began our encounter with the old women by discussing the expression in three passages. The first text is a report written by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) of al-Juwayni’s (d. 1085) deathbed declaration to embrace “the dīn of the old women.” The second text is a passage from al-Ghazali’s (d. 1111) Iḥyā’ ʿulūm al-dīn (Revival of the religious sciences), in which he prescribes the religion of the old women to people who lack scholarly abilities. The final text is a passage from Talal Asad’s 2015 essay, in which the “unthinking faith of the old women” denotes an embodied relation to the Islamic tradition.
This forum is an intellectual dialogue. Each contributor developed an analysis of the above-mentioned texts and other appearances of the “old women.” Their essays cover historical, anthropological, literary, theological, and conceptual ground, while keeping methodological questions at the center. None of the contributors speak on behalf of the old women of Nishapur but each in their own way addresses the question: What do the old women do to our thinking? What kind of thinking do they make possible? Above all, the old women push each of the contributors to revisit anew categories of gender, knowledge, power, and religion, questioning the extent to which existing approaches are adequate to account for the old women’s modality of inhabiting Islam. The old women compel scholars to come to terms with the limits of categories and the generalizations they entail.
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Clearly gendered, the expression “the religion of the old women” nonetheless calls the category of gender into question. By making age relevant, the expression challenges any binary notion of gender, as Aziza Shanazarova shows historically and Judith Scheele ethnographically: old women are as different from young women as they are from men. By pairing a socio-biological stage of life with a religious modality, the expression invites divergent interpretations of the old women’s religiosity as a type of knowledge.
On one hand, the expression can be read to indicate, as Rula Abisaab discusses, a specifically feminine way of knowing related to notions of mothering and natural knowledge or, as Adam Bursi describes, varieties of ritual and healing practices performed by women or therapeutics ranging from midwifery to sexual counseling as reported by Shireen Hamza.
On the other hand, as Scheele shows, the women’s knowledge is neither intuitive nor unmediated but instead concerns mediation, hierarchy, and politics. Even as women might inhabit a knowledge or a world of their own, it is mostly men who control the dominant narratives about them, whether negative or positive. Sara Abdel-Latif and Kausar Bukhari argue that the category of the old women of Nishapur does not capture what the old women actually do and know but instead exhibits men’s ability to produce the categories that contain them. Abdel-Latif shows how theologians prescriptively deployed the trope, which acquired different and changing layers through time, while Bukhari dwells on how the scholars who introduced the expression framed discourses about women, dominating their representation.
Category-making is only one modality of power. Lemons reflects on the capacities that theologians attribute to the old women, while Shanazarova demonstrates the political power of an old Sufi woman and Hamza details the varied healing skills possessed by old women. These capacities, Manoukian proposes, are less the mark of a gendered division of knowledge than the outcome of an unconscious modality of acting. The essays collectively suggest that through ritual and healing practices—by acting as Sufi adepts, organizing lineages, mothering, flying, and disrupting scholarly categories from within—old women are far from powerless. Their indispensability may itself indicate their power.
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The old women offer new perspectives, proliferate meanings, and resist broad categories. Yet the continuities between their many appearances also suggest that beyond undoing existing categories, they offer a distinct way of knowing and of living. One place this becomes clear is in the various appearances of the religion of the old women in this forum. Contributors follow the religion of the old women through a broad array of sources and contexts. Beginning as they do with the women’s silences, the featured essays engage with the modalities through which religion is lived. But collectively, the contributors suggest that “the religion of the old women” does not point, finally, to a single way of inhabiting Islam. The old women gathered here practice, believe, and know in various ways. The source of the plurality of religious modalities lies in the specificity of the old women’s religion that poses problems to the category of religion itself. This is its modality. The old women’s religion does not pose problems theologically or philosophically but by other, more disparate means. Whether as ideal faith, a ploy of the theologians, or ritual pitted against belief, in response to the old women’s provocations, dīn/religion appears otherwise.
For scholars past and present, the old women’s religion presents a particular challenge because it makes visible the limits of scholarly knowledge even as, in perpetually instantiating an alternative, it provides a ballast. The approaches to and conclusions about old women collected here invite readers to think with the problems posed by old women.