The din of the old women of Nishapur, whether envied or disdained, appears to be the archetype of non- or anti-intellectual religiosity. Yet as they appear and reappear in scholarly texts, the old women’s certainty instantiates the end and presupposition of scholarly knowledge. The Islamic scholars who reference the old women desire truth and restlessly pursue it by producing proofs, philosophical treatises, and legal theories. They present the old women’s unfettered certainty, which appears antithetical to their own doubt-driven search for truth, by marking their age and gender. Yet the women’s certainty, I propose, constitutes a form of knowledge that is neither antithetical to that of scholars nor limited by the old women’s age, gender, or religion.
In this essay, I read the old women’s certainty, their mode of accessing truth, as a capability, following Talal Asad. I look at three aspects of the old women’s capability: time, indifference, and obstinacy. Each aspect is at once an indication and effect of their certainty. Together they suggest how attending to the old women opens another perspective on the basis and the limits of scholarly knowledge, both within and beyond the Islamic tradition.
The old women’s form of knowledge, the content of which theologians do not discuss in any detail, is grounded in a non-secular temporality. When Juwayni reportedly turned away from a lifetime of theology—reading and questioning, doubt and confusion—and toward the “din of the old women of Nishapur” on his deathbed, he turned away from relentless searching and toward immediate, abiding knowledge. The arduous journey of the scholar resolved into the beliefs of the mother.
Asad, who has recently brought the old women of Nishapur into discussions in the anthropology of Islam, characterizes their din (religiosity, faith) as a particular capability. Asad’s formulation is consonant with Juwayni’s reported envy of the old women and transforms Ghazali’s seemingly dismissive insinuation that their faith is proper to commoners (about which more is below) into a claim about what they are capable of. The faith proper to old women makes them capable of living “at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity.” They live in a temporality of simultaneity where the eternal is ever-present in everyday life. Such simultaneity enables ethical action (that is, action oriented toward the Hereafter) without the need to weigh, to calculate, or to reason. Ethical action, that is, whose telos is immanent to it. Perhaps this is what Setrag Manoukian suggests by “living thought” in his contribution to this forum. This temporality also enables everyday living that need not diverge from ethical certainty.
Certain forms of religiosity—such as imitative embodied ritual—take on another dimension when considered from the perspective of the old women’s simultaneous temporality. In Asad’s work, his own mother’s ritual practice evidences such capability. She prayed, read the Quran daily, and fasted. For her, Islam was “a way of being, an attitude, a range of sensibilities, and a physical condition.” Nonreflexive embodiment constituted a capability, not a limitation. The old women’s ability to live in the time of eternity gives them other (supernatural) powers: some women in Sufi traditions are capable of levitating or flying, so strong is their devotion.
Embodied ritual knowledge as a modality of living with eternity connects the old women of Nishapur to other traditions. Barbara Meyerhoff, for example, discusses “domestic religion,” which consists of rituals passed from mother to daughter and based on imitation rather than understanding. The embodied enactment of ritual is a special type of knowledge—an enactment of certainty, subject neither to doubt nor to scrutiny. Both the superhuman act of flight and the unwavering act of ritual render unthinkable the separation of everyday life from eternity and are manifestations of certainty.
The temporality of the old women’s knowledge emerges from a faith for which doubt is an irrelevant category. It also gives rise to indifference in the face of scholarly knowledge and to obstinacy in the face of temporal power. Thus, as Sara Abdel-Latif explains in her essay, the old woman was reportedly unimpressed by Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi’s one thousand proofs of God’s existence, inciting envy in the scholar. Asad’s mother was likewise disinterested in defending Islam or extolling its virtues and her “embodied religion did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods.”
Unexpectedly, given the disdainful register of his own discussion of the old women of Nishapur, al-Ghazali also notices their indifference. He suggests that the old women’s religion is a strategy for those who do not have the capacity to confront and withstand doubts introduced by Satan as they pursue truth through asceticism. This may be an elitist, patriarchal dismissal of the religiosity of (old) women and commoners. But it may also reflect Ghazali’s own ambivalence about theology, which he seems to have viewed as “inevitable but ineffective.” This ambivalence gives rise to a depiction of commoners’ beliefs as “a lofty mountain which is not shaken by any earthquake or thunder” as opposed to scholars’ beliefs, which are “a thread hanging loose in the wind which the breeze bends now in one direction now in another.” Here, the religion of the commoner, like that of the old women, hews to truth unmoved by vagaries of ratiocination. So while Ghazali suggests that scholarly paths to God are inappropriate for old women and commoners, certainty appears to be inaccessible to and inappropriate for scholars. Scholarship is, after all, propelled by doubt.
The old women’s religiosity may seem inappropriate to scholars (not only within but also beyond the Islamic tradition). That these women nonetheless punctuate earlier theology and philosophy as well as some contemporary texts suggests their relevance or even indispensability to thinking. They appear as exemplary figures in texts by Muslim reformers for whom women’s religion represented ignorance and superstition. One of the most influential of these reformers in India was Maulana Thanawi. Acutely concerned with women’s religious degradation, Thanawi wrote a book titled Bihishti Zewar (partially translated by Barbara Metcalf as Perfecting Women) to instruct women in the religious sciences. Women, equal in rational capacity to men, were nonetheless predisposed to fall into error and therefore in need of education. The faith of old women is antithetical to this approach. But nestled between rules of comportment and proper piety, in the chapter Thanawi devotes to biographies of women worthy of emulation, the old women appear—and they are obstinate.
In Hazrat Fatima Nishapuri’s biography, she is remembered by an elder for teaching the importance of continual meditation on God and for receiving revelations (kashf). Thanawi praises Fatima for meditating as a way to avoid falling into sin; about the revelations, he only remarks that receiving them is not a duty. The old woman’s appearance seems to defy Thanawi’s lessons in two ways: meditation is imitative ritual appropriate to the less capable (Thanawi followed Ghazali in his concern about appropriate religiosity); and revelation is beyond the reach of pedagogy and reason. Fatima of Nishapuri seems to talk back: included as worthy of emulation by the eminent scholar, her capabilities refuse his rationalizing approach to religion.
The biography of an unnamed old woman traveling with Hazrat Musa (Moses) out of Egypt at once reinforces and complicates the point. In the story, the Israelites lose their way, and an old woman tells Musa that on his deathbed Hazrat Yusuf (Joseph) had enjoined his brothers and nephews to bring his bones with them if they ever leave Egypt; failing to do so would cause them to get lost. Only the old woman knew where Hazrat Yusuf was buried, and she agreed to disclose the location of Yusuf’s grave on the condition that Musa promised that she would “die in faith” (iman par). Through Musa, God authorized the request; the old woman revealed the gravesite and the Israelites found their way. The moral of the story for Thanawi is that women should not “long for worldly things” but should focus on the hereafter by striving to “improve” their religious lives (din), presumably by following the recommendations of Bihishti Zewar.
This story, too, exceeds Thanawi’s lesson. The woman is not a stranger to doubt, or she would not need to ask for assurance that she would die in faith; yet by bargaining with Musa, she seeks and accepts assurance from God. She lives with the hereafter and it informs her decisions, even when everything in worldly life hangs in the balance. Her certainty, as we also see in other stories of old women, allows her to exhibit obstinacy in the face of temporal power.
The irony of these appearances is that the faith of these old women worthy of emulation at least partially eludes pedagogical efforts. So rather than only offering prescriptions for improvement, the biographies imply that Thanawi’s lessons offer a crutch for those unequal to certainty.
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The old women cannot be relegated to the past or overcome. Their relationship to scholarship is asymmetrical: the old women’s certainty propels scholarship but is indifferent to it. The old women’s knowledge “will always surpass the discourse” of the scholars. For scholars in general (and perhaps for anthropologists in particular), whether such knowledge elicits desire or disdain, it propels a reckoning. This, too, is among the capabilities of old women, whose particular temporality, indifference, and obstinacy animate but cannot be absorbed into scholarly knowledge.