the old women of Nishapur

Talal Asad:

My point is simply that when a capability is acquired there is no longer a temporal interval between judging according to a universal rule and acting in a particular situation in the way Kant conceptualizes ethics—they are morally the same instant. Of course, the fact that a capability is embodied does not guarantee that you will act morally any more than acting according to conscience guarantees it. The act of recognizing a rule, judging how it can be applied in a particular context, and then applying it, reflects a different temporality from one where one acts according to a capability that is dependent on a collective form of life that sustains a transcendent vision. This, I think, is what Ghazali meant when he reputedly said: Oh! if only I had the implicit faith of the old women of Nishapur! Meaning: To live without having to go through the process of verification and application of moral rules, to live at once in the time of this world and the time of eternity. 

Picking up on this point, Katherine Lemons argues — in a post that’s part of a series on this trope — that the three key elements of the faith of the old women of Nishapur are: 

  • Time: “They live in a temporality of simultaneity where the eternal is ever-present in everyday life. Such simultaneity enables ethical action (that is, action oriented toward the Hereafter) without the need to weigh, to calculate, or to reason. Ethical action, that is, whose telos is immanent to it.” 
  • Indifference: “The temporality of the old women’s knowledge emerges from a faith for which doubt is an irrelevant category. It also gives rise to indifference in the face of scholarly knowledge…. Thus, [one] old woman was reportedly unimpressed by Fakhr al-Din Al-Razi’s one thousand proofs of God’s existence, inciting envy in the scholar. Asad’s mother was likewise [uninterested] in defending Islam or extolling its virtues and her ‘embodied religion did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods.’” 
  • Obstinacy: One old woman “lives with the hereafter and it informs her decisions, even when everything in worldly life hangs in the balance. Her certainty … allows her to exhibit obstinacy in the face of temporal power.” 

All this is reminiscent of what Rebecca West calls “idiocy” — something I have commended. It may also be related to another strategy I have commended, that of practicing silence, exile, and cunning. But I think I like these interlocking practices even more. I will have things to say about them in the future. I am always looking for resources to keep me committed to restoration and renewal while also protecting be from the always-present temptation of building fascist architecture of my own design