The Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is one of the largest repositories of Muslim manuscripts produced in Central Asia. As I undertook exploratory archival research on gender history in early modern Islamic Central Asia in the institute’s collection, it became increasingly apparent that the female characters “visible” in the primary sources I consulted fall into the category of “old women” who seem to evade gender restrictions imposed upon young women. That’s not to say that young women are absent in the sources but that there is an apparent distinction between the depiction of sexually objectified women and non-sexualized old women in the Central Asian manuscript tradition.
One example is the sixteenth-century female Sufi master celebrated by the title Agha-yi Buzurg, who was active in Bukhara—the well-known center of Islamic education. Her title, which translates to “the Great Lady” or even “the Old Lady,” arouses further curiosity about her case. Information about Agha-yi Buzurg largely comes from the Mazhar al-ajaib, a devotional text composed by her male disciple Hafiz Basir, who devoted the text to his master’s teachings. Its recently published critical edition will make this remarkable source accessible to a broader audience. It portrays Agha-yi Buzurg as a Sufi master of an advanced age with a notable community of both male and female disciples, including the senior members of the ruling dynasty based in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
The Mazhar al-ajaib represents a window into the fascinating, little-known world of female religiosity and authority while balancing the perspectives of court histories and judicial literature on women. In the text, Agha-yi Buzurg appears to be at the center of communal leadership, jealousy, and competition for spiritual superiority, as well as mediation with the ruling court, financial management, dealings with powerful enemies, safeguarding of disciples, and circumvention of religious persecution in the early sixteenth century. Moreover, Agha-yi Buzurg’s wide network, which included public and religious authorities active in different regions of Mawarannahr and Khurasan, indicates that her community was not on the margins of the society; rather, it was at the heart of ongoing, major religio-political events in the aftermath of the decline of the Timurid dynasty, which united most of the Muslim world during its heyday.
One captivating story in the Mazhar al-ajaib describes Agha-yi Buzurg’s triumph over her rival, Mir-i Arab,1On Mir-i Arab, see Bakhtiiar Babadzhanov, “Mir-i Arab,” Kulˊtura kochevnikov na rubezhe vekov (XIX-XX, XX-XXI vv.): Problemy genezisa i transformatsii (Materialy mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii g. Almaty, 5-7 iiunia 1995 g.) (Almaty: Assotsiatsiia ‘Rafakh,’ Studiia ‘Parallel’,” Gosudarstvennyi muzei iskusstv im. A. Kasteeva, 1995), pp. 88-102; Florian Schwarz, ‘Unser Weg schließt tausend Wege ein:’ Derwische und Gesellschaft im islamischen Mittelasien im 16. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2000), pp. 119-121; and Alexandre Papas, “Islamic Brotherhoods in Sixteenth Century Central Asia: The Dervish, the Sultan, and the Sufi Mirror for Princes,” in N. Terpstra, A. Prosperi and S. Pastoria, eds., Faith’s Boundaries: Laity and Clergy in Early Modern Confraternities (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 213-216. the prominent public figure of sixteenth-century Bukhara whose impressive madrasa not only remains active in Uzbekistan today but also is a top tourist destination among international visitors in the region. (As a fine example of Islamic architecture, Mir-i Arab’s madrasa has recently been featured on a cover page of the newly publishedThe Religious Architecture of Islam.) The main reason for the animosity between the two was Agha-yi Buzurg’s role in the public humiliation of Mir-i Arab after the latter’s conspiracies against the former’s disciples were exposed. Although Mir-i Arab attempted to take revenge on Agha-yi Buzurg by destroying her tomb ten days after her death, he failed and instead ended up falling out with the royal court, ending his career and becoming exiled. “My master, the sovereign of sanctity, became triumphant, while Mir-i Arab lost,” remembered Agha-yi Buzurg’s disciple, reminding the readers of the Mazhar al-ajaib not to underestimate his master’s legacy. It is no wonder why people’s fascination with the figure of Agha-yi Buzurg persists for almost half a millennium, as evidenced by her functioning shrine complex in Bukhara that continues to attract local visitors seeking the saint’s blessing.
Agha-yi Buzurg was not related to the ruling court, as was commonly the case with other visible women in the sources (as Leslie Peirce, Guity Nashat and Lois Beck, Fatima Mernissi, Muzaffer Özgüleş, Bruno de Nicola, and Shahla Haeri have shown). Her career as a successful religious master thus challenges conventional ways of thinking about women’s position in premodern Muslim societies in light of strict gender restrictions imposed on women’s involvement in public and religious activities. Agha-yi Buzurg’s life provokes us to think outside the “gender box” in relation to the prescriptive gender norms of the early modern male-dominant Bukharan society. Therefore, viewing Agha-yi Buzurg through the trope of “old women”—which we occasionally encounter in Islamic theological and hagiographic literature within a discourse of a specific modality of approaching Islam—not only highlights her accomplishments within the socio-historical context when she was active but also initiates new ways of thinking about the category of “woman” in the study of Muslim societies. By underlining the importance of age in the construction of gender ideals, her life prompts us to incorporate into the category “woman” seemingly unusual examples of female authority and leadership. Without conceptualizing the intersection of gender and age with specific attention to female old age, we will have only a partial understanding of women and their position in the history of the Islamic world.
The representation of old women in the Central Asian manuscript tradition differs from that of women of childbearing age, who are often depicted as sexualized subjects constrained within the private domain. In contrast, old women are portrayed as more mobile and active in public spaces, and, in hagiographic accounts, we discover them in mosques, public lectures, cemeteries, shrines, and caravans. We also come across accounts that describe bodily contact, such as handshaking, embracing, and forehead kissing, between non-related males and old women as acceptable conduct. Moreover, the Mazhar al-ajaib reports a dramatic scene in which Agha-yi Buzurg displayed her bosom to suckle one of her female disciples as a public display of reconciliation in front of her followers, including male devotees. Such accounts expose a lacuna in scholarly conceptualizations of female old age within Muslim contexts in light of rigid gender prescriptions and segregation rules.
Overall, female old age is highly revered in Muslim tradition. The Quran celebrates old women by exempting them from restrictive conditions prescribed to women of childbearing age. For instance, according to the Sura al-Nur 60, postmenopausal women who can no longer bear children are allowed to uncover by casting off “their outer garments.” By revoking the requirement of veiling for old women, the Quran thus sanctions old women’s visibility in public. We find analogous treatment of old women in the prophetic traditions that permit old women to pray at mosques. Conversely, Fatima Mernissi notes that in Muslim contexts, a woman with “active female sexuality” is considered an embodiment of destruction and, therefore, she is considered to be fitna (temptation) that causes chaos and destruction to the social order. According to Mernissi, the social order can be secured by controlling female sexuality: “… The whole system is based on the assumptions that women are powerful and dangerous beings. All sexual institutions (polygamy, repudiation, sexual segregation, etc.) can be perceived as a strategy for containing their power.”
Historical texts suggest that old women’s bypassing of gendered boundaries is closely connected to the notion of sexuality within Muslim discourse. Women of childbearing age are expected to pray at home so that they do not distract men from their religious duties. Old women, however, do not threaten temptation, and thus, the visibility of old women comes at the price of their asexualization in a male-dominant society. In other words, women become visible when they are no longer sexually objectified and when they lose what (following Mernissi) would be their seductive sexuality. In other words, aging empowers old women. Without reflecting on the intersection of aging and gender, we cannot advance our conceptualization of the construction of gender relations within Muslim discourse. A close look at how gender is articulated in primary sources—especially little studied hagiographies such as the Mazhar al-ajaib, which balance the perspectives of court histories and judicial literature—enables a fuller understanding of the complexities of women’s history in Muslim societies.