Devoting their life to reflection, academics find it difficult to come to terms with the difference between living a life and thinking about it. Since they are particularly devoted to lives different from their own, anthropologists are even more susceptible to these fluctuations. For intellectuals, an unreflective and therefore “un-reflexive” life can be an object of concern or disdain but also of fascination and, at times, an impossible desire. There is nothing at once more daunting and inspiring than lives lived without reflexivity: practical, material, real lives.

When they mention the “religion of the old women of Nishapur” in relation to the Islamic tradition, eminent Muslim theologians al-Juwaynī and al-Ghazālī as well as contemporary anthropologist Talal Asad all suggest that the women’s modality of relating to Islam, and more generally to life, is opposite the ways of the scholar. The gendered character of this opposition is evident. However, this gendering is better approached by considering how, in addition to age, the “old women of Nishapur” are also defined by the distinction between learned and ignorant and ultimately by a juxtaposition between a life devoted to self-conscious thinking (that of the scholar) and a life devoted to unconscious acting (that of the old women). This antinomy offers a different approach to the gendering that the old women’s modality of existence entails.

Even if they are in conversation with each other, al-Juwaynī, al-Ghazālī, and Asad’s statements on the old women cannot be compared directly: al-Juwaynī’s statement is reported speech, al-Ghazālī’s is a passage discussing temptation from his major theological work, and Asad’s reflections come from a distant future with respect to the other two. But in their differences, they exemplify three ways in which scholars approach the lives of those they think are living unreflexively.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, al-Juwaynī, at the end of his life, mourned the futility of his endless quest for theological knowledge and invoked the way of the old women (and his own mother) as the best disposition towards Islam and life. For al-Juwaynī, the quest for knowledge is useless, yet this quest is nevertheless what makes him realize that the old women’s religion is the true path. Al-Juwaynī seems also to imply that once someone has embarked on the search for knowledge, they can no longer live as the old women do; only in death can one realize that from which one had relentlessly taken distance. The formula frames the modality of non-knowledge as an unreachable alterity that by its difference in kind from learned knowledge illuminates both the necessity and the futility of the latter. Though incommensurate, knowledge and non-knowledge are imbricated in each other because the path to salvation presupposes what needs to be abandoned in order to reach it. Incidentally, Ibn Taymiyya’s framing of the event, which deserves a separate analysis, elides this interconnection and, not unlike modern scientists, posits the two modalities as simply opposite, accruing the separation between theory and practice.

Al-Ghazālī instead sees the women’s form of religiosity as one of graded understanding, a way of life appropriate for those whose intellectual capacities cannot go beyond imitation, obedience, and the practice of good deeds. In al-Ghazālī’s ordered world, knowledge is a matter of degree. Each individual is allocated a place in relation to their disposition to address doubts and develop independent reasoning. Active inquiring is appropriate only for those who have enough strength to endure its challenges without falling into doubt. This is a paternalist view: the view that for example parents and teachers have of children, who they think cannot understand life self-consciously and therefore need guidance. More knowledge implies more responsibility, self-control, and intellectual maturity. The old women (age seems not to matter here) are granted salvation if they do not stray into doubt, but they cannot aspire to more. While limiting, this view is also oriented at establishing what is best for the subjects of knowledge, shielding them from dangers and self-destructive tendencies. This is also why the role of the guide or teacher is essential for al-Ghazālī.

Referencing al-Ghazālī, but implicitly also al-Juwaynī, Talal Asad in a 2015 article draws on the words of a contemporary Egyptian sheikh to suggest that the modality of the old women these Muslim theologians refer to can be seen as a form of “unthinking,” the outcome of a process of embodied socialization that internalizes a habit via imitation. Combining al-Juwaynī’s attention towards unknowing and al-Ghazālī’s concern for imitation, Asad sees the tradition of the old women as parallel to the discursive one of the scholars: neither different in kind nor in degree, discourse and embodiment are two parallel modalities for reaching the same goal. Perhaps this argument unwillingly echoes older debates about little and great traditions, when anthropologists and historians imported into the study of Islam a division of academic labor that contrasted practice-oriented, local “little traditions” of Islam typical of illiterate people with the great tradition of Islamic theology and sciences. This contrast was used to describe the complex relationship between actual practices and Islamic norms as well as geographical and historical variation. But Asad’s view foremost underlines the “unthought known” power of the body that guides the actions of the old women, even though he seems ultimately to suggest that such power depends more on the embodiment of a set of guiding ideas than on what a body can do.

In different ways, the notions of non-knowledge (al-Juwaynī), imitative and obedient knowledge (al-Ghazālī), and embodied knowledge (Asad) help in describing the women’s approach to religion. However, these descriptions also reveal the difficulties that each of these three thinkers, and scholars more generally, face when conceptualizing an unreflexive form of life. All three scholars offer relatively little explanation about the old women’s form of life, which appears more as a limit-case of their own scholarly reflexive lives than something of its own. Precisely because “unthought” or un-reflexive, the old women’s modality seems to remain unthinkable or ultimately indescribable for the reflective scholar.


Seen through the lens of gender, these scholars’ opinions on the knowledge of old women can be understood as either a limitation of the old women’s intellectual capacities, if one posits knowledge as a universal, or as an effort to underline (and perhaps celebrate) the old women’s specific modality of knowledge, if one posits that the old women have a way of knowing that is fundamentally different from that of the men scholars. But considering gender in isolation does not help to describe the “religion of the old women” nor to dislocate the antinomy between self-conscious thinking and unconscious acting. A different description is needed; not so much another account of the women’s modality per se but a description of the approach to knowledge that their silence makes possible to envisage. Letting the distinctions so far outlined recede to the background, here I offer a set of initial propositions, allowing a different perspective on knowledge to emerge.

a. No life is deprived of thought and no thought is deprived of life, especially if both are processes. One can envisage a modality of knowledge, in which thought cannot reflect on life, to the extent that speculation and action become indistinct from each other. This modality could be termed “living thought,” taking a formulation from Esposito but detouring it from his goal of defining a national philosophical tradition and instead drawing on this expression to underline the inseparability of life and thinking.

b. The modality of “living thought” devalues self-awareness as the driving principle of existence; self-reflection is partial and incomplete. Rather than the presupposition of knowledge, self-reflection is only one of its possible outcomes and not a necessary one.

c. The old women’s way of living could be described as a “sensing without realizing.” To describe it, in conversation with Rula Jurdi Abisaab’s discussion of “nearness without understanding,” I draw on what eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico termed poetic knowledge. Vico notes in the New Science § 405 that discursive metaphysics explains how by extending their minds to comprehend things, humans accomplish through understanding, while instead poetic metaphysics demonstrates how humans accomplish by non-understanding, making things out of themselves by transforming themselves into them. Poetic knowledge is not about separating oneself from the world to understand it; on the contrary, poetic knowledge consists of becoming one with the world by living through its transformations.

d. This modality of knowledge is useful to oneself and others, but unlike Muslim theologians’ concern with the soul (and today’s scientists concern with life), its usefulness cannot be related in advance to a set of identifiable variables (including gender). If these were known, they would only reduce the power of transformation they might have. In other words, living thought escapes theological and scientific biopolitical efforts.

e. At once transforming oneself and the world, “sensing without realizing” is an embodied modality. However, unlike what Asad envisages, this disposition cannot be equated with a volitional cultivation of desire nor with the unconscious embodiment of discursive directives, both of which are primarily oriented at the constitution of a good subject. Sensing without realizing does not work as an incremental line of understanding and virtue because senses and desires, while collective, cannot be programmatically “socialized.” Non-knowledge is precisely what escapes this ethical directionality. Since we are discussing Islam in English, it might be appropriate to also consider that the Latin etymology of the term “virtue” encapsulates the noun vir,“masculine man.” Virtue in the European conceptual vocabulary has a masculine declination.

f. From this perspective, the old women know better not only because they do not know (as al-Juwaynī might argue), they do not pose questions to themselves or others that they cannot sustain (as al-Ghazālī might put it), and they practice an embodied tradition (as Asad would put it) but mostly because who they are matters less than the transformations that they effect in their lives by living them.


The modality of the old women suggests an approach to the relationship between theory and practice differently than via opposition, therefore abandoning the modern idea that knowers are separate from the world they intend to know. Giving up claims that transcend the transformations taking place, this implies a consideration of genders as trajectories that are not independent of their habitats. Genders can be neither denied in a call for a universal neutral equality nor instituted as differences preceding the process of knowing. In this way, the religion of the old women also helps to reformulate what one means by science, anthropological or otherwise. What is at stake is not to understand the meaning of the expression “the religion of the old women of Nishapur.” Instead, the task is to listen to the transformations that engaging with the problem posed by the old women generates in our thinking.