Those familiar with the male dominated landscape of premodern Islamic scholarly texts might be surprised to stumble upon multiple passages recommending the adoption of the faith of old women. Prominent Sunni scholar Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) praises the faith of old women in his well-known book Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn. Similar praise of Nishapur’s old women has also been attributed to Dhia’ ul-Dīn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), theologian and teacher of Ghazālī, and appears in the works of  fourteenth-century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), as well as in texts by al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), al-Subkī (d. 1355) and Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373). It may seem that the two references, the one penned by Ghazālī and those attributed in later texts to Juwaynī, are subsumed within a single trope repeated in multiple textual sources. Here I assess and compare Ghazālī and Juwaynī’s reference to the faith of old women, showing how the two accounts notably conflict in their depiction of women’s religiosity. Despite this divergence, both define the boundaries of ideal masculinities. 

Dhia’ ul-Dīn al-Juwaynī was a prominent Sunni Shafi’i jurist and theologist who is reported in the texts of later scholars to have announced on his deathbed that he dies upon the faith of Nishapur’s old women. Juwaynī was born in 1028 in the same city as these women. Located in present day Iran, Nishapur was one of the world’s bustling metropolises in the eleventh century. Its patrician classes played an important role in synthesizing Sufi and legalistic, particularly Shafi’i, practices. Eleventh-century Nishapur was also a city in which women’s religious participation and public piety was welcomed in the broader process of standardizing Sunni Islam. Scholarly families were keen to educate their daughters in religious sciences. Women played an important role both in imparting wisdom of Sufi practices and in hadith transmission. Notable in terms of Sufi Shafi’i practice in Nishapur were renowned woman ascetics. Many such women have been memorialized in biographical compilations of this era, including in Abu Nu’aym al-Isfahani’s (d. 1038) Hilyat al awliya wa tabaqat al asfiya, Abu ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulami’s (d. 1027) Dhikr an niswa al mut’abidaat as sufiyyat, and later ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ali b. Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) Sifat al Safwa.

It was in this intellectual context, which included a rich and textually acknowledged tradition of women’s religiosity, that Juwaynī’s deathbed utterance is situated. He is reported to have said:

I sank into the vast ocean, and gained all that was known to the 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-Juwaynī! Indeed, I die following my mother’s beliefs. [or he said, “Following the beliefs of the old women of Nayšāpūr.”]

In another narration he says:

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 Nayšāpūr follow when they die.

This faith of the women appears to have been recognizable and tangible as a reference. The women to whom Juwaynī refers are both geographically specific (the women of Nishapur) and generationally specific (his mother’s faith). Women’s faith is directly compared to the pure Islam of the early predecessors, and for this reason, Ibn Taymiyyah is able to employ Juwaynī’s deathbed confession to bolster the position of austerely following the early generations. There is no disparaging or belittling of this faith of old women. Rather, their faith is exalted as faith’s soundest form. This assessment opposes Ghazālī’s reference to the old women’s faith, which he gives a lesser status.

Muḥammad Abu Hamid Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) is well-known for his many celebrated books, especially those that integrate Sufism with legal and theological intellectual tradition. It is in the most famous of these works, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, that a recommendation that others follow the faith of women is found. This recommendation was situated within a broader warning to the believer to leave aside forays into philosophical and spiritual inquiries that may cause doubt in one’s heart. Such a believer was advised to stick with the “faith of the women.” Ghazālī elaborates on this type of faith:

And whoever withdraws the material world, and casts out worldly attachments from his heart, he will be caught in such [corrupt] 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 religiosity of old women is highly recommended to you”. […] if he is not alert and intelligent, he should not […] isolate himself for thinking and mentioning God’s name (ḏikr), but he should […] learn the superficiality of knowledge, and to constantly worship in private (wird), or […] to serve those who, in their seclusion, have given up the world to obtain exulted ideas, so that the blessing (barka) of their existence may reach him. Similar to one who is unable to attend jihad 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.

The passage attributes a secondary status to the faith of women. It is recommended for those who are weak and unable to become “kings of religion.” Their faith is described as a superficial and imitative approach to knowledge, marked by service to those of a superior faith who are capable of obtaining exulted ideas. The purpose of engaging in this service is so that the blessing of those of higher rank can reach those of weaker disposition. Ghazālī clarifies this meaning. He points out that just as women were not required to participate in jihad but rather support the men, so should persons weak in intelligence care for the spiritually capable, understood to be male-gendered. That way he may benefit from their blessings and rise among them, “although he does not reach their rank.” This closing phrase makes plainly evident that Ghazālī’s advice is not literally positioning women’s faith as superior. Rather, their faith is sufficient and will be rewarded by benefitting those who hold the necessary intellect and alertness to stay firmly on the path of withdrawal. Ghazālī does not follow this recommendation himself, in contrast to Juwaynī.

While references to women’s faith attributed to both Juwaynī and his student Ghazālī seem to follow one another in a single pedagogical tradition, especially in light of Juwaynī’s role as teacher of Ghazālī, they in fact diverge significantly in intent and implied valence. Juwaynī’s deathbed regret extols the faith of Nishapur’s old women, including the faith of his mother, recommending it to all the men around him, and not just to those of weak mind, as the only useful faith. This view of the women’s faith coheres with the rich tradition of learning valorized by their scholarly families. In contrast, when Ghazālī recommends the faith of women, he attributes to it a subordinate status. He is not extolling this faith; rather, he is recommending it to those who are weak, presumably in the same way that women are weak. His reference is to the faith of old women generally and not circumscribed to a particular locality or generation. Ghazālī stresses that this practice gains benefits not on its own merits but by its proximity to another idealized faith—that of the learned men.

Male authors who reference the faith of old women have implied vastly different things about this faith. Faced with these contradicting implications for women’s faith practices contained within this single trope, it would be useful to reorient the focus on the male authors who employed the trope. In her book Gendered Morality, and in further detail in her article “De-Universalising Male Normativity,” Zahra Ayubi provides a framework for approaching and understanding the construction of ideal masculinities in the Islamic ethics traditions. She justifies her critical focus on masculinity by arguing that premodern Islamic ethics texts presume male readers and subjects. Therefore, a male normativity should be understood as a critical starting point when approaching these texts. If we accept her premise, we would then consider anew the recurring references to old women in the ethics tradition. When Ghazālī and Juwaynī (via Ibn Taymiyyah and others) are pointing towards the faith of old women, we should not assume that the references intend to accurately depict feminine religious practices. Rather, such references are better understood as rhetorical devices upon which idealized masculinities are being imagined and constructed.

When viewed in the context of the construction of idealized masculinities, the role of these statements in establishing limits and hierarchies of masculinities in homosocial environments becomes evident. The deathbed anecdote attributed to Juwaynī, while perhaps initially referencing a rich tradition of female piety in Nishapur, is later intended for male scholarly audiences. Nadia El Cheikh-Saliba has argued that idealized depictions of women have been used by male writers to posture themselves as upright and delineate borders of the righteous Muslim community. This view on the feminine being employed for masculine self-identification applies to the trope of the old women. When Ibn Taymiyyah and others mention the deathbed anecdote, they reinforce the status of one intellectual position over another. Particularly, the anecdote has been employed to denigrate the excesses of the theologians and philosophers as well as to reaffirm the less intellectualizing faith of Ibn Taymiyyah. Ghazālī’s mention of the faith of old women, while quite different than the deathbed anecdote, also defines masculinities.

The passage in which Ghazali references the faith of old women arguably constructs hierarchies of masculinities and then organizes ideal masculinities vis-à-vis lesser ones in homosocial settings. The subject of the advice is a man and men, and in this context, the reference to the faith of women is not about women but rather about how men of varying spiritual fortitudes should conduct themselves. That is, as a woman serves one who is spiritually superior (the man or her husband), the weak-minded man should take a lower place in the homosocial hierarchy of masculinity, whereby he adopts feminine associated behaviors such as service and imitation, in the presence of the idealized masculine model.

Viewed together, the scattered mentions of the “faith of old women” in the Islamic ethics tradition form a fluid trope. In this trope, the faith of Nishapur’s old women is at times interchangeable with the faith of a scholar’s mother or the faith of old women in general. A comparative analysis of these references suggests, however, different insinuations and understandings of the “faith of old women.” While some texts position their faith as positive and aspirational, others downgrade its position, prescribing it only for spiritually weak men. Arguably then, this trope does not reveal historical truths about the faith of old women. However, the trope is useful for interrogating and understanding how ideal masculinities are constructed and enforced through reference to the feminine in the Islamic ethics tradition.