With the trope of “the religion of old women” (dīn al-ʿajāʾiz), medieval Muslim writers mapped different, sometimes competing ideas about Islamic belief and practice onto elderly women’s minds and bodies. Many historians would likely agree: Statements and stories that invoke this trope—scattered throughout texts from a variety of genres, places, and time periods—provide only opaque access to the complex realities of “old women’s religion” in the medieval Islamic world. As Kausar Bukhari similarly notes in her contribution to this forum, rather than offer anthropological data about elderly women, these narratives are often the ideological constructions of elite male authors, writing for their own varied literary purposes. Yet, as Julia Bray writes, “No less important than the roles played by women in real life were the images of women that were developed in literature.” The old women envisioned in medieval texts thus provide insights into how writers conceptualized Islam as both a faith and a set of ritual practices. These texts further suggest that old women were envisioned within some theological arguments as avatars of ideal Islamic belief but were marginalized as faulty ritual models in discussions of bodily practice. Functioning as highly loaded cultural signifiers, old women were “good to think with” for medieval writers, both in praising and critiquing particular ways of believing in and practicing Islam.
One of the distinct literary usages of old women was as living emblems of true and pure Islamic faith. In the process of rejecting (or at least critiquing) the speculations of philosophers and theologians, many medieval Muslim writers used images of “old women” as archetypes of a religion devoid of metaphysical complications. In his voluminous hadith compilation Bihār al-Anwār, the Shīʿī scholar Muḥammad Bāqir al-Majlisī (d. 1110 AH/1699 CE) relates a report about a Muʿtazilī who was pontificating on the “intermediate state” between belief and unbelief, the existence of which was a central tenet of the Muʿtazilīs’ complex theology. In response, an old woman (ʿajūz) cited Qurʾān 64:2 (“It is He who created you, yet some of you disbelieve and some believe”) and herself pronounced, “God made none of His servants anything but a disbeliever or a believer.” Hearing this back and forth, the famous scholar Sufyān al-Thawrī (d. 161 AH/778 CE) happily exclaimed, “Take up for yourselves the religion of old women!” (ʿalaykum bi-dīn al-ʿajāʾiz). Such representations of “the religion of old women” serve, Livnat Holtzman writes, as “a celebration of the ethos of a naive faith, the faith of innocent uneducated laymen.” Indeed, Sufyān al-Thawrī is elsewhere quoted as saying, “Our religion is the religion of old women and children” (dīnunā dīn al-ʿajāʾiz wa-l-ṣibyān).
In spite of this purported simplicity and avoidance of theological distinctions, the model of “old women’s religion” was readily utilized in intra-Muslim debates regarding the definitions of correct Islamic belief. We saw this in al-Majlisī’s text in the unnamed old woman’s quick refutation of a Muʿtazilī. We see it also in biographical reports about the influential Shāfiʿī jurist al-Juwaynī (d. 478 AH/1085 CE), who is said to have repented on his deathbed from any previous affiliation with “the philosophers and theologians” and embraced his mother’s faith, “the religion of the old women of Nishapur.” Not long afterwards, the famed Sufi thinker al-Ghazālī (d. 555 AH/1111 CE) would call upon the image of the “religion of old women” in describing how novices must navigate the “ship of danger” that is mystical knowledge. Thus, in rather different contexts, the “religion of old women” was held up as a righteous exemplar to be emulated by faithful Muslims, in contradistinction to other competing conceptions of Islam.
Yet the idea of old women’s religion could be deployed to criticize just as easily as to celebrate. Instead of (or, perhaps, because of) their being typecast as piously simpleminded, old women were often represented as participating in practices that, in some Muslims’ eyes, bordered on paganism or sorcery. In a hadith recorded in several Sunnī collections, the Companion ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd (d. circa 32 AH/652-3 CE) comes home to find his wife Zaynab wearing an amuletic string to protect herself from illness. Ripping the string from his wife’s throat, Ibn Masʿūd yells, “My family does not need shirk! For I have heard the Messenger of God say, ‘Incantations, amulets, and charms are shirk!’” Having received this string from an old woman who regularly visited her to perform such apotropaic rituals, Zaynab protests at her husband’s harsh words and notes that she had seen the old woman’s methods work. Ibn Masʿūd condemns these actions as “the work of Satan” and commands Zaynab to heal and protect herself through a specific incantation ascribed to the Prophet Muḥammad.
The female figures in this hadith offer samples of the wider Near Eastern and Mediterranean associations of women—and often specifically elderly women—with “magical” practices that many authorities saw as transgressing the bounds of acceptable religion. Much like in other communities, Muslim authorities throughout the centuries debated the religious trustworthiness of certain “folk” medicinal and apotropaic techniques, such as making and wearing amulets. It is little surprise to find these practices frequently marginalized, as in the story of Zaynab and the unnamed old woman, as the gendered work of elderly women and their female clients. For example, the Ḥanbalī jurist Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751 AH/1350 CE) associates “the medicine of old women” with that of street-hustling quacks (al-ṭuruqiyya), both of which he distinguishes from the more legitimate methods of doctors and “Prophetic medicine” (al-ṭibb al-nabawī). Old women were frequently pictured as the purveyors of these rituals that hovered on the margins of acceptable Islam.
Old women’s activities were also occasionally brought up in discussions of rituals more emblematic of Islamic identity, such as the practices of the ḥajj. Issues regarding old women specifically emerge in several historical reports that describe early debates surrounding the Multazam, a spot on the Kaʿba’s front wall where pilgrims physically cleave to the building and offer intercessory prayers to God. From the pre-modern period up to today, the admissibility of this haptic ritual has been debated by jurists, who cite conflicting reports about whether or not the Prophet Muḥammad and other early Muslims themselves worshipped at the Kaʿba in this tactile manner. This early controversy is apparent in a report about the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān (r. 65–86 AH/685–705 CE). When a man saw ʿAbd al-Malik performing the Multazam ritual of clinging to the Kaʿba, he asked the caliph, “Oh Commander of the Believers, do you know who was the first to do that?” To ʿAbd al-Malik’s admission of ignorance, the man replied, “The old women of your people, the old women of Quraysh.” This pedigree was apparently not very agreeable to the caliph, as it is said that ʿAbd al-Malik afterwards refrained from performing the Multazam ritual any longer.
Though the implications of the “old women of Quraysh” are not explicitly spelled out in this report, their association with the Multazam appears quite negatively charged. Rather than a sign of respectable antiquity, linking the Multazam with old Qurashī women seems to have been a way of denigrating the Multazam as a ritual space clouded with dubious associations, much as we saw in the hadith about Zaynab’s talismanic string. Indeed, more than just associating the ritual with old women, associating the Multazam with the old, possibly pagan women of the Quraysh tribe is seemingly all the more condemnatory.
We see the polemical import of the “old women of Quraysh” also in their deployment in the arguments about the Multazam’s proper location on the Kaʿba. While the Multazam is commonly associated with the Kaʿba’s front wall, some traditions instead encourage clinging and praying at the building’s rear. While this distinction might seem esoteric, it provoked rather divisive rhetoric at times. When the political leader ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr (d. 73 AH/692 CE) found the revered scholar ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (d. circa 68 AH/687-8 CE) performing the ritual at the building’s front, Ibn al-Zubayr said, “This is not the Multazam! The Multazam is at the rear of the House.” Ibn ʿAbbās, in turn, responded, “That is the Multazam of the old women of Quraysh!” Since Ibn ʿAbbās elsewhere firmly situates the Multazam’s proper location at the front of the Kaʿba, his citation of the old women of Quraysh does not seem to have been meant as a compliment. Notably, performing the Multazam ritual at the Kaʿba’s rear is criticized in another report as “something that the people had introduced.” The “old women of Quraysh” thus seem to have rhetorically functioned as a vehicle for criticizing this bodily practice at the Kaʿba, similar to citing the questionable innovations of the common people. It may be no coincidence that “the people,” old women, and (perhaps implicitly) pagans are all invoked in the polemics surrounding this haptic ritual. Given the complicated valences of hapticity within Islam—including the occasional correlation of touch with idolatry—mentions of “old women” and “the people” touching the Kaʿba provided disreputable associations for worship at the Multazam. In these traditions, the “faith of innocent uneducated laymen” is a liability rather than an asset, potentially leading to inappropriate ritual practice.
These hadiths and metaphysical and philosophical discussions illustrate how elastic “the religion of old women” could be throughout different Islamic texts. Operating differently in various rhetorical environments, conceptions of old women implied either an aspirational or an uninspiring model of Islam. Within discussions of Islamic belief, elderly women provided a pleasant, folksy image for ventriloquizing abstract notions of “naive faith.” Yet when it came to putting such faith into practice, old women were often not so appealing as vehicles for Muslim thinkers’ ideas. An implied negative valence for old women was especially prevalent within discussions about ritual—both in the quotidian habits of healing and in the extraordinary ritual environment of the ḥajj. Beyond literary stereotypes about old women’s “faithfulness” or “superstitious” acts, old women’s unstable place in these texts may thus tie into broader themes about gender and especially the ways that jurists frequently represented their ideal Muslim practitioners as inhabiting male-gendered bodies. That the “religion of old women” is often cited positively in discussions of disembodied faith, while marginalized in analyses of bodily ritual, reflects a bifurcation of ideological “belief” and corporeal “practice”—and the role of gender in conceptualizing these issues—within different understandings of Islam.