Saba Mahmood: The Muslim Female Voice in Western Academia

Saba Mahmood: The Muslim Female Voice in Western Academia
  • 18

Mehrajud din Bhat

Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist who taught at the University of California, Berkeley and whose work raised certain challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56.A brilliant intellectual, academic activist and intellectually engaging female voice of the Muslim world—someone who positively and critically engaged with Eurocentric epistemological assumptions and engaged with certain daunting questions of our time. Professor Mahmood’s work focused, inadvertently with the relationship between religious and secular politics in postcolonial societies and focused primarily on the issues of sovereignty, subject formation, law, and gender.
Amid progressively shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, Mahmood — a native of Lahore, Pakistan born in 1962—brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. Her publications and presentations are credited with profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable and critical approach to religion in modernity. Mahmood held a Master’s degrees in Political Science, Architecture, and Urban Planning She received her PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1998. Prior to joining Berkeley in 2004, she taught at the University of Chicago. The gifted scholar received various awards and fellowships, including an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University, the Carnegie Corporation’s scholar of Islam award, the Frederick Burkhardt fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. Mahmood held visiting appointments at the American Academy in Berlin, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, and Leiden University. She taught at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, the Venice School of Human Rights, and Institute of Global Law and Policy.
Her remarkable academic contribution and interest in diverse fields, especially in feminist studies, anthropology and Eurocentric liberal secularism and its influence on Islamic worldview opened a new discourse in the western academia. Her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, received the 2005 Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association and was an honourable mention for the 2005 Albert Hourani Award from the Middle East Studies Association.
Not only is this book a sensitive ethnography of a critical but largely ignored dimension of the Islamic revival, it is also an unflinching critique of the secular-liberal assumptions by which some people hold such movements to account. The book addresses three central questions: How do movements of moral reform help us rethink the normative liberal account of politics? How does the adherence of women to the patriarchal norms at the core of such movements parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory about freedom, agency, authority, and the human subject? How does consideration of debates about embodied religious rituals among Islamists and their secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship between bodily form and political imaginaries?
Politics of Piety is essential reading for anyone interested in issues at the nexus of ethics and politics, embodiment and gender, liberalism and post-colonialism. A study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questioned the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged her Book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report received the 2016 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish.
Mahmood’s work equally constitutes an important intervention at a point in time when secular feminist discourses are increasingly instrumentalized across the political spectrum in anti-Muslim discourses in the ‘Western’ world and in Europe. In the 2006 debates on the Danish cartoons caricaturing Mohammad (SAAS), Mahmood said those who saw the images as merely offensive missed the nature of the injury itself. Within Islam, she argued, in her Is Critique Secular “the attack on the divine image is the same as the attack on the living and embodied self”.
Her most recent book, “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report”, was featured in a 2016 book forum on TIF. A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality. In her introduction to that discussion, she wrote: “My suggestion is not that religious conflict is solely a product of secularism or an inevitable one. But insomuch as secularism is one of the enabling conditions of religious conflict today, it behoves us to understand its paradoxical operations so as to mitigate its discriminatory effects.” The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains. Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
In the volume, “Is Critique Secular?”, she joined Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in re-thinking and re-engaging the questions posed by the events like Danish cartoon controversy, the conflict between blasphemy and free speech, and between secular and religious world views. Her remarkable contribution lies in inquiring into the evaluative frameworks at stake in understanding the conflicts between blasphemy and free speech, between religious taboos and freedoms of thought and expression, and between secular and religious worldviews. Mahmood persuasively explored that this narrative largely misses the point in almost every respect. It misunderstands Islam; it misunderstands the liberal political order; and it misunderstands the complex common genealogy of Christianity and secularism. Is the language of the law an adequate mechanism for the adjudication of such conflicts? What other modes of discourse are available for the navigation of such differences in multicultural and multi-religious societies? What is the role of critique in such an enterprise? These are few among the pressing questions addressed in this intellectually engaging work.
Her work has conveyed insightful implications for the philosophical and empirical study of sovereignty, subjectivity and feminist agency, and has led many scholars to reconsider dominant approaches to the law and the modern state, particularly with respect to how religious subjects and groups are governed and defined. Transcending the disciplinary precincts in the humanities and social sciences, her academic contribution has streamlined theoretical and ethnographic inquiry into religion and freedom in modernity, as well as the legacies of colonialism, capitalism, and secularism in contemporary conflicts in the Middle East. Mahmood was currently working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East.
Darren Arquero, a former student of Mahmood’s, said: “She was by far my most challenging professor at Berkeley, but also one of the most supportive scholars I encountered. I can’t describe how meaningful her work around religion, gender, and sexuality has been to my work and research. Outside of the classroom, she made herself available in discussing larger goals. The fact that she was able to see me as a holistic person was something I truly admire.”
Saba Mahmood’s scholarship has reasserted the position of women in academia and her intellectually engaging erudition has added a new dimension to diverse narrative in the intellectual discourse of our times. Her death has left a deep void and she will be remembered through her scholarship. Her engagement within academia is applauded and her commitment can be equally inferred from the statements of her contemporaries. As Wendy Brown, a campus professor of Political Science, who previously co-taught a course with Mahmood said “teaching with her was an extraordinary experience”. According to Brown, Mahmood possessed a certain willingness and curiosity toward new ideas that made the classroom a place of “live thinking.” According to Milad Odabaei, a campus anthropology doctoral candidate, Mahmood was known around the world for her contributions to anthropology, critical theory and feminist theory. Her works shaped scholarly debates on modern Islamic politics in addition to feminist theory and practice across the humanities and social sciences, Odabaei said “(She) left an incredible legacy, (and) shaped the life of many young academics profoundly,” Steele said. “I will never be able to teach without it. That legacy of care is going to live on.”

—The author is a doctoral Candidate at Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies and can be reached at: