Saba Mahmood

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Saba Mahmood, 1962 – 2018

On 10 March 2018, Pakistan’s topmost global scholar in the human sciences, Professor Saba Mahmood, who had struggled with pancreatic cancer over the past couple of years, passed away in California. Saba Mahmood was Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. As one of many testaments to the multi-regionality, globality, and critical transdisciplinarity of her thought and work, she was also affiliated with other key knowledge centers at Berkeley, including both the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Institute for South Asia Studies – where she played an essential role in instituting the ‘first-of-its-kind’ Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative. Her ability to characteristically bridge a regional divide that is well-entrenched in academia, through the dynamic Program in Critical Theory there, befitted her stature as one of the foremost critical thinkers of our time.

Her award-winning books – above all, the 2005 academic equivalent of a blockbuster, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, as well as her 2015 magnum opus, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, will continue to provoke and influence scholarship for years to come. These works enjoyed an extraordinary impact in the upper echelons of the metropolitan academy, in a space where it is most difficult to make an impact. Yet in terms of conceptual discourse and methodology, she was barely known in her native country of Pakistan, where the slightest tremor in the status quo is quickly challenged by the local illuminati. Indeed, some progressive Pakistani “intellectuals” targeted her with thoughtless ad hominem and faux nativist attacks – attacks to which she was indifferent, as behove her stature and seriousness as a scholar and thinker.

That is, Saba Mahmood, together with her great mentor, Talal Asad, and her husband Charles Hirschkind, led from the front in one of the most remarkable revolutions taking place in scholarship across the humanities and social sciences in our times. This was the unsettling – though in her case, and in accord with her sanguine rigour as a thinker, not quite the unravelling – of the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, and of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’.

These categories are so central to our mental, political and social landscapes that it is difficult to even begin to imagine what such a project might entail. Yet the categories are also strikingly recent, going back no more than a couple of centuries. With a deep awareness of the recent historicity of these categories, and seeking to escape their stranglehold on thought and analysis, Saba Mahmood took a practical and ethical turn in her ethnography of the lived practice of what has come to be called (in an explosive modern profusion of discourse) ‘Islam’ among ‘fundamentalist’ Egyptian women.

In the event, she painted a resonating picture of the piety of these women as a deeply ethical practice in its engagement with divinity. Apart from unsettling the distinction between the religious and the secular, Saba was also at the vanguard of a whole range of new ethnographies of ethical living in non-Western societies. These gave lie to the deeply saturated prejudice that free and noble ethical action is somehow modern/Western, compared with non-Western peoples who simply act out a cultural code that leads to moral action, if at all, then only by accident or coincidence. This is implied by distinctions in academia between traditional ‘shame cultures’ and modern ‘guilt cultures’, and between conformity and conscience.

In focusing in on the deeply invested ethical intentions and social action of these pious Islamic revivalist women, Saba took the rug out from under the feet of the modern colonial and imperial manipulation and patronization of non-Western women in general, and Muslim women in particular. She did this at a moment when this ‘old’ colonial trope was experiencing a fervent ‘revival’: that is, at the heart of empire in the moment of imperial rage that characterised the aftermath of 9/11 in the US. Her courage was borne out of a conviction that in turn developed from rigorous research and reflection, all of which were undertaken with the gravity and slow intensity that was Saba’s own.

In her new book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report – the reception of which will now, alas, be posthumous, Saba raised her gaze to the monumental structural level at which the modern categories, institutions and practices of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ penetrate our societies to literally make life hell for minorities. Not only is the distinction between the secular and the religious Christian in its origins, but it is also a governmental distinction of the modern secular state that at once systematically creates majorities and minorities framed by the distinction. The universal import and relevance of her analysis are evident.

Saba Mahmood was indeed a visionary theorist working at the ethical limits of global modernity. Her work was complex and radical, in the original sense of getting to the root of the entrenched and invested nature of the categories that she challenged.

In addition to her extraordinary stature and achievements, Professor Saba Mahmood was a genuine, warm and caring individual, and mentor and colleague to a remarkably large number of people across the globe. Her legacy in the academy is assured not only by the brilliance, depth, relevance, and courage of her work, but also by the work that is being produced by so many of the students she mentored. For us at Habib University, her death is a personal loss, given the commitment, friendship and generous support she gave us in establishing a partnership between this young Pakistani institution and one of the greatest universities in the world, UC Berkeley. How much deeper, alas, is the loss to her husband, Charles Hirschkind, and no doubt above all, to her young son Nameer Hirschkind.

Professor Saba Mahmood was born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962, making her only 56 and at the height of her formidable intellectual powers at the time of her passing.

Director of the Comparative Liberal Studies Program
Habib University, Karachi

A version of this article appeared in The News Pakistan, 18 March 2018. Reproduced with permission.

To cite this article:

NAQVI, NAUMAN. 2018 “Saba Mahmood, 1962-2018”. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2018. (available on-line: