The famous medieval hadith scholar and jurist Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241 AH/855 CE) had a dream in which he saw God and asked Him, “What is the best way to seek nearness to you?” He said, “O Ahmad, it is through [the recital of] my words,” so Ibn Hanbal asked, “With or without understanding them?” He answered, “Either way.” That nearness to God does not rest on an understanding of the meaning of God’s Word, the Qur’ān, raises many questions about the relationship between knowledge and faith. It was said after Ibn Ḥanbal that the best way for Muslims to worship God is by reciting the Qurʾān, which entails reading the verses correctly aloud. A number of scholars, however, argued that even recital necessitates some form of understanding and that Ibn Ḥanbal could not have been referring to a state of ignorance. Still, many scholars insisted on the pietistic value of recital and memorization without understanding, while others argued that “without understanding” means “effortlessly,” the way the Qurʾān’s meanings are revealed to Sufis and mystical wayfarers absent reason. Knowing without investigating was the interpretation thus given to Ibn Ḥanbal’s dream by the Shāfiʿī-Sufi scholar Muḥammad al-Manāwī (d. 1031 AH/1622 CE) in Fayḍ al-Qadīr.

Ibn Ḥanbal’s notion of “nearness without understanding” carries some of the same complexities and conundrums that the recommendation for adhering to the “faith of the old women of Nishapur” brings forth. According to Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿUmar al-Qurṭubī (d. 656 AH/1258 CE), Imam al-Juwaynī (d. 478 AH/1085 CE), a leading Shāfiʿī-Ashʿarī scholar, declared:

I read 50 thousand [works] in 50 thousand then left the people of Islam to their Islamic faith, and moved away from exoteric (ẓāhir) knowledge, and rode the tide. I engaged in all the fields prohibited by the people of Islam, to seek truth and avoid emulation. But now, I have put all this aside, enjoining truth through the faith of the elderly women (dīn al-ʿajāʾiz). Therefore, if truth does not find its way to me through His mercy, I die adhering to the faith of the old women.

Al-Juwaynī is also presented as having said on his deathbed, “I die adhering to the faith of my mother.”

There are complex and divergent meanings offered by the Islamic legal-doctrinal, eschatological, and literary traditions on “old women.” In this essay, however, I take up the notion that Islam is an inborn faith (dīn al-fiṭra). I discuss what this notion entails with respect to deathbed invocations of “the mother’s faith,” a cognate of “the old women’s faith,” which have circulated through the works of Ḥanbalī scholars since the twelfth century. On the face of it, these invocations appear to be a warning against cultivating theological-philosophical knowledge, declared to be a source of perdition for the believer. Thus, a return to the mother’s faith is said to have been evoked by yet another leading Shāfiʿī-Ashʿarī scholar by the name of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505 AH/1111 CE), conceding to the Ḥanbalīs that an intellectual and investigative engagement with the tradition disrupts the type of faith required for salvation.

It is unclear what the content of the faith of the old women/the mother is. This faith does not seem to exist on its own. It is not a normative or prescribed path for believers, and based on al-Juwaynī’s statement, it is an alternative to final truths; it only exists in opposition to an intellectualized sensibility, one that seems to facilitate skepticism and jeopardize one’s salvation. Still, other layers and features of these invocations deserve a closer look.

Mothers, Islam, and inborn faith

The expression “the faith of the old women of Nishapur” is evoked at times simultaneously with a mother’s faith, inborn faith, and the nomad’s faith. Some of the declarations attributed to famous theologians and scholars (especially by Ibn Taymiyya [d. 728 AH/1328 CE]) are: “I die adhering to my mother’s faith”; “I die adhering to my inborn faith”; and finally “I die adhering to the faith of the nomads (al-bādiya),” where “nomadic” is equivalent to an inborn capacity for belief in God. Each of these statements adds a layer of meaning and tension to the question of believing and knowing, and of embedded knowledge and cultivated knowledge, which lead me to explore the notion of a primary faith shaped by the mother-child relationship.

Every child comes into this world with a natural/inborn capacity (fiṭra). This capacity is not a tabula rasa, lacking preconceived ideas. Rather, it carries a certain awareness of God as creator, hence the hadith “Every child is born into a state of originary faith in God.” Another hadith explains that children possess a perfect state of faith, the way the beasts’ offspring are born with perfect limbs (if nature is to have its way). Also, a hadith narrated by Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124 AH/741-2 CE), an early compiler of the Prophet’s biography, notes that prayers must be delivered for the soul of every child who dies, even one who is born out of wedlock. Having entered this world alive, the child is Muslim irrespective of the faith of her/his parents. In this pure, primary state, knowledge is faith and faith is knowledge. The child’s relationship to his Muslim mother is seen to preserve and enrich this faith. A return to the mother’s faith reclaims a state of infancy, a primary faith.

Talal Asad’s reflections on “the old women of Nishapur” seem to have been evoked by his relationship to his mother. He noted that unlike his father, “an intellectual who…. had philosophical interest,” his mother’s faith was “embodied.” Given Asad’s rich discussions of embodiment as shaping a certain knowledge of the faith (and inseparable from it), his choice of the term “embodiment” seems curious. The connection between faith, mothers, and the inborn capacity to be a Muslim brings to mind a different sense of embodiment, one tied to the way the child’s body appears as an extension of the mother’s body, absorbing the expressions, rhythm, and texture of her faith. The mother’s faith is sensed, not explained, and emulated, not thought out. Her faith is felt. It is present and seems unshakable. To exert the effort to verify and defend one’s faith to others as the Truth seems irrelevant to this mode of belief. Thus, a luminous Muslim scholar who declares, “I die adhering to my mother’s faith,” is one lamenting the loss of this state of primary faith, enriched first and foremost through the mother. Death seems to loom large over these declarations. Seeking the mother’s faith acquires a salvific force.

The child, then, comes into this world with an inborn capability to believe, a pure natural faith in God, which is nurtured by the faith of the mother in a non-speculative manner. The content of this faith is not as important as the emotion it evokes—that is, nearness to God—so that the Qurʾān is not verses to ponder over but a sacred object that offers a feeling of embeddedness, hence Ibn Ḥanbal’s dream about “faith without understanding”. If one were to speak of a mode of knowledge created by nearness to the sacred and embeddedness, it may be captured, in my view, by “poetic knowledge” suggested by Setrag Manoukian based on Giambattista Vico’s writings, where one does not step out of things to understand them.

The references to the old women of Nishapur also raise important questions about the connections between women and modes of knowledge in the Sufi tradition. In the legal-hadith and mystical literature, a tension emerges between the devaluation of women’s intellect and piety, on the one hand, and the recognition of their unique spiritual capacities, on the other. Sufi texts have emphasized to some degree the female mystic’s experiential knowledge, telepathy, miracles, and range of prophetic powers. Even though several Sufi women led intellectual lives and obtained legal and theological expertise, the texts focus on their inimitable mastery of mystical states and access to the secrets of the heart. Their revelatory capacities are treated as inborn gifts expanded through spiritual exercises.

Zahra’ Langhi noted that femininity in the Sufi texts seems to evoke the “experiential” (simply “being”), which transcends the theoretical (that is, “thinking”). Yet, while “feminine intuition” can lead to transcendent truths as a key aim of the Sufi path, the faith of the mother/the old women points to no such truths or revelations, but only nearness to God. This agrees with al-Juwaynī’s important sentence, “If truth does not find its way to me through His mercy, I die adhering to the faith of the old women/my mother,” because their faith is an alternative to the pursuit of truth. In my conversations with Katherine Lemons about truth, I found her discussion of certainty illuminating, for “certainty appears to be inappropriate to scholars,” a certainty where the divine is not separate from everyday life, as she states. I see certainty, however, to be devoid of the pursuit of truth. The anxiety about truth coheres with scholarly ways of viewing the world and the metaphysical.

In retrospect, I have attempted to investigate deathbed declarations about a return to the faith of the old women of Nishapur through the relationship between the faith of the scholar and the faith of his mother, exploring a state in which knowledge is faith and faith is knowledge. I conclude by noting that striving toward the faith of the mother/the old women is a nostalgia for something that cannot be regained; a non-intellectualized sensibility, a faith without understanding, made urgent by the hope for salvation, which dominates all other pursuits at the moment of death.