The Faith of the ‘Old Woman’ vs. the First Obligation is Nazar (reasoning)

Dr. Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour
Assistant Lecturer of Theology and Philosophy‎


This little article is largely triggered by a question that I got asked. The question goes: on what basis Muslims who are born in Muslim majority countries base their belief? In other words, does reasoning play role in the process of shaping their Islamness or it is the emotional attachment to Islam that does the job? Having received the question, I had two narratives in the back of my mind. The first is the narrative of al-Rāzī (d. 1210) and the old woman. It is narrated that Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, the renowned theologian and exegete, was walking among some huge crowds celebrating him while an old woman looked on perplexed. She asked, who is that? They told her: ‘This is Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, and he has 1000 proofs of God’s existence’. She asked again, laughingly, ‘But why would he need those, unless he had 1000 doubts?!’ The Imām was struck by her remark and used to pray thereafter: ‘O Allah, grant me faith like that of the old woman!’. The second narrative that my mind conjured up was the narrative of the early mutakallimūn’s (Muslim theologians) discussion on what the first obligation upon an accountable person is?  Indeed, it became the norm in the field of Muslim theology to begin their theological works by tackling this theological problem. As those discussions got deepened, they resulted in the introduction of this famous conclusion أول واجب هو النظر (the first obligation upon an accountable person is to have some sort of speculative reasoning about what he is about to believe in, in order to attain the ontological truths about it), which is largely the take of the ‘Ash’arīte school as well as the Māturīdite; the two most dominant school in the history of Islamic theology.

Indeed, the emphasis of the early ‘Ash’arites on reasoning as the first obligation, led many of their opponents to accuse them of denying the faith of the muqallidūn (imitators). That charge drove some later Ashʿarī theologians, such as Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Rāzī, to rethink that principle and they concluded by saying that an imitator is neither a committer of a sin nor an unbeliever. That is to say that ‘engaging in rational theology is commendable but not an individual duty incumbent on each and every legally responsible Muslim’.[1] In his renowned Muqaddimah,  Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) took it further to argue that speculative reasoning in and of itself is of little use to his day, as the older heresies and theological challenges are not there anymore.[2]

Yet, the discussion did not end there. The prominent later ‘Ash’arī theologian, Muhammad ibn Yūsuf al-Sanūsī (d. circa 1489), whose works are held in high regard by the ‘Ash’arites and which are study manuals for them till today, attempted to revive the culture of nazar (speculative reasoning) again. Drawing on the ignorance and evilness of the people of his time, Sanūsī believed that nazar should retake its primary place again in Islamic theology. Relying only on the Qur’an and Sunna implies circularity in argument, says Sanūsī, for the Qur’an and Sunna themselves encourage believers to engage in reflection and speculation. Not only this, he also replies to the faith of the ‘old woman’ argument by saying: ‘this might have made sense in an earlier time when the creed had only just begun to be corrupted by heresy (so that older people could be trusted to have the uncorrupted creed). In later times, such a commendation would be of little use for now there were old women among the heretics too. Rather, the situation was precisely the opposite: Where, Sanūsī asked, would old women and other commoners be had it not been for the efforts and guidance of the Sunni scholars who protected the faith from heresy and vulgar misunderstanding?’.[3]

Given the complexity of the discussion, a little article like this can only offer a few numbers of remarks. First, appealing to the opinion of Sanūsī today is extremely important to the Muslim youth, especially those born and raised in non-Muslim countries. The emergence of the Internet, by definition, meant that people would be able to communicate ideas way easier than the past. This easiness of communication does not come alone; it rather come with its challenges. That is to say that it largely means that every Muslim should take ownership of his own religious identity and that his or her reliance on the inherited beliefs will not help him much in preserving his religious identity, unless he aids it with personal understanding and independent reasoning in its generic sense. Thus, that sort of theological imitation that was tolerated in the premodern world cannot be tolerated anymore in such an increasingly globalized world. Second, the educators of the Muslim community need to understand the intellectual needs of the recent and coming generations and be responsive to them. Being responsive, to my understanding, implies opening a window for the commoners to have a taste of the diversity-nature of the Islamic tradition and letting them engage in its intellectual heritage as much as possible.[4]


[1] Khaled El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and Maghreb (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 180.

[2] Ibn Khaldūn Muqaddimah, ed. Abdullah al-Darwish, Vol. 2, 1st edn (Damascus: Dār al-Balkhī, 2004), p. 214

[3] Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History, p. 186.

[4] It should be noted that this is not asking the common Muslims to be philosophers or theologians, but rather urging them to practice theological reasoning at its basic level in a way that meets the standard of their age and make them able to know what and why they believe in certain beliefs.

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