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The Religion of the Old Women of Nishapur

RoundTable XIII-2, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
As a hadith or as a trope, the expression “the religion of the old women” (dīn al-ʿajāʾiz) appears in many Islamic theological and mystical writings that address questions of knowledge, at times accompanied by a reference to the city of Nishapur—a renowned center of knowledge in the north-east of the Iranian plateau. Scholars have used the expression “dīn of the old women” to suggest a specific modality of inhabiting Islam. But what this modality is and how it ought to be evaluated is a matter of debate. The old women of Nishapur challenge widespread assumptions about the relation between gender and religion. Through their silence, they call on us to consider whether the gendering of religion is a question of patriarchy or is instead about a specific sensibility, whether it is a way of inhabiting religious practice or is an altogether distinct orientation to knowledge. The old women therefore push us to think about how to practice a religion. They invite us to consider the relationship between habit and self-awareness, and to search for language to talk about it. Drawing on a selection of classical and contemporary texts that refer to the "old women" we invite participants to engage with the questions they pose from a variety of disciplines. You are all invited to think with the old women about gender, knowledge and Islam.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • At the roundtable, I would like to address the religion of old women of Nishapur inviting participants to reflect on the relationship between theory and practice. In dialogue with the proposed selection of texts and mindful of gender hierarchies, I would like to discuss how the old women's specific modality of knowledge can be envisaged as one of "living thought," a position that defies the relevance of self-awareness while opening up a different relationship to the world, one that could be called "sensing without realizing." My aim is to reflect on potential alternative vocabularies to think gender and knowledge in Islam, as a counterpoint to models that foreground the dichotomy between oppression and autonomous self-realization.
  • I would like to address the intersectionality of gender and female old age within the early modern Muslim discourse based on the case of the sixteenth century female Sufi master celebrated as the Great Lady (Aghā-yi Buzurg) in Islamic Central Asia. Societal expectations of a woman’s gender role changes as a woman goes through the rites of passage and ages which inadvertently modifies her status in the public sphere. The successful career of the Great Lady in the androcentric early modern Bukharan society demonstrates that strict gender regulatory norms imposed on a sexually objectified woman in Islamic societies do not apply to an old woman who does not pose the thread of sexual temptation in the eyes of the male-dominant society. Therefore, the successful career of the Great Lady serves as an example that highlights the importance of age in the social construction of gender within historical Muslim discourse. 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 Muslim world.
  • In scholarly texts, the old women of Nishapur live an unreflexive religiosity not only different from but opposed to the religiosity of the scholars who invoke them. Theirs is a practical religiosity apparently devoid of theory. Yet through the texts of these scholars, we see that the old women inhabit a particular relation to God and to the world that endows them with capabilities—to know truth without doubt, in some sources to fly, to provincialize argument and judgment. This paper argues that the gendered and embodied character of the old women’s capabilities offer new ways to consider the relation between body and knowledge, practice and theory. Such an inquiry has particular consequences for anthropology in general and the anthropology of Islam in particular. For anthropology—the discipline charged with translating “the Other” into academic knowledge—the old women are available to think with (that is, they are not “radical alterity”) even as their form of knowledge, their capabilities, are unknowable in argumentative language. Although their unreflexive religiosity is not itself an anthropological intervention, the old women’s religiosity pushes anthropologists to revisit the indispensable concept of practical theory in new ways.
  • Title: Faith or Knowledge: Mothers and the Old Women of Nishapur In this workshop, I explore the relationship between faith, knowledge, and salvation, through statements made by famous Shāfiʿī Ashʿarī jurists about the futility of scholarly "knowledge" and the unique value of the old women's 'rudimentary' faith, hence, the expression: “I die adhering to the religion of the old women of Nishapur”. I highlight the tensions between different types of knowledge as well as knowledge and faith, and their gendered features, reading "women" more closely as "mothers" whose mode of faith is key to salvation, hence their sons' declaration, "I die adhering to the religion of my mother". In attempting to understand what kind of "faith" and "knowledge" it is, I start with a dream of Ibn Ḥanbal. The dream suggests that a Muslim can be pious without understanding the scriptures, and that ideal worship rests on the proper recital of the Qurʾān with or without knowing the meaning of its verses. I delve into the conversations and contradictory interpretations of this dream before turning to explore the notion of Islam as an inborn faith "dīn al-fiṭra", hence, drawing connections between the pursuit of this state before dying, hence, “I die adhering to my inborn faith” (amūtu ʿalā dīn al-fiṭra), and the pursuit of a kindred mode and texture of faith attained through the mother. I explore the pre-speculative faith of the "mother" and “the elderly women of Nishapur” through an array of legal, Hadith, biographical, and Sufi sources, discussing gendered divisions of knowledge and tensions between inborn capabilities to believe, and intellectual approaches to the scriptures.