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Saba Mahmood
In Memoriam

Saba Mahmood

Professor of Anthropology, Emerita

UC Berkeley
Saba Mahmood, professor of anthropology, emerita, at the University of California, Berkeley, passed away on March 10, 2018. The cause was pancreatic cancer. Professor Mahmood was a sociocultural anthropologist whose scholarship focused on modern Egypt, gender, and secularism. Born in Quetta, Pakistan on February 3, 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning. She graduated in 1985 with a B.A. in architecture (cum laude) from the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1987, Mahmood completed a masters in architecture, again cum laude, from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Mahmood then went on to earn an M.A. in political science (magna cum laude) from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1992 and an M.A. in anthropology, also magna cum laude, from Stanford University in 1994. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to UC Berkeley in 2004. At UC Berkeley, Professor Mahmood was a vital intellectual force in her department and in her work with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory, and the Institute for South Asia Studies. She was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Initiative, the first of its kind in the United States dedicated to the study of Pakistan’s history, politics, and culture.

Mahmood was the author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015), which received the 2016 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, and Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005), which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association. She coauthored the volume Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2013) and coedited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015). She also published widely in journals in the fields of anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical theory, feminist theory, and art criticism, and collaborated with scholars including Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and her husband Charles Hirschkind.

In her books, scholarly articles, and contributions to public discourse, Mahmood made field-defining interventions in feminist theory and in contemporary debates on Islam, secularism, and religion. Her work challenged prevailing understandings of contemporary Islamic ethical and religious experience, and of Islamic-majority states, as forms of incomplete modernity or archaic religiosity. Her first book, Politics of Piety, has been deemed ‘a modern classic,’ achieving ‘near canonical status’ for the way it realigned central debates on freedom, agency, and ethics in anthropological, political, and feminist theory. Mahmood argued that the pious Muslim women with whom she worked in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient to dominant norms. Upending views of subjective freedom and agency bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and at times controversial argument: to understand pious women within Islam, one had to conceive of a subject defined in relation to textual and imagistic representations of the divine. The book asked that we reorient our understandings of freedom and agency as concepts that take shape not only in opposition to formative norms, but in the cultivation of these embodied norms through ethical practice.

Mahmood’s second book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age, contested received assumptions about the difference between religion and the secular. Focusing on the status of Coptic Christians and Bahais within the Egyptian polity, Mahmood showed that secularism is not ‘neutral’ vis-à-vis religion, nor does it constitute the withdrawal of religion from the domain of the political. Instead, counter to much contemporary political thought, she showed how secularism is profoundly implicated in the constitution, organization, and regulation of religion and religious difference. One of her signature contributions was showing how, far from realizing ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state can in fact facilitate religious inequalities and interfaith violence.

Her publications and arguments have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of intellectuals as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical approach to religion in modernity. As a scholar and teacher, she exemplified strong moral and political principles as well as a commitment to generous and attentive pedagogy. She offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated new ways of understanding the subject of feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, the rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations. Against an increasingly biased scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, her work was distinguished by its nuance and erudition, offering a much-needed understanding of Islam in discussions of feminist theory, ethics, and secular politics.

At Berkeley, Mahmood’s intellectual contributions, commitment, and energy enlivened our classrooms, her department, and the campus. She was a catalyzing force in interdisciplinary forums and a respected voice in multiple areas of inquiry; her scope of influence was notable. As cochair of the Urdu Language Initiative, she was instrumental to the subsequent development of the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, of which she was cofounder. She was a key participant in the development of the graduate-level Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. She served on search committees for the Center for the Study of Religion, the Institute for South Asia Studies, and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, the Academic Senate’s Graduate Council (2015-16), and was a member of multiple fellowship committees across campus. As such, she helped shape the campus research landscape for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates alike. Mahmood made her mark in the UC system as well, cochairing an intensive teaching program — the Seminar in Critical Theory — at the UC Humanities Research Institute, and serving on the editorial board of the University of California Press from 2010 to 2012.  

In the Department of Anthropology, she was an exhilarating and challenging undergraduate teacher and a transformative graduate mentor. Graduate education was where she directed a great deal of her energy, ethical commitment, and service, both as director of graduate studies in the department, and as a life-changing mentor and teacher. Her Ph.D. students have themselves gone on to help shape new areas of inquiry. Mahmood taught lauded graduate seminars on “Anthropology, Law, and Difference”; on “Human Rights, Sovereignty, and Post-Colonialism”; and on “Secularism, Democracy, and Violence” (with Wendy Brown of the Department of Political Science). The last graduate seminar Mahmood offered, in fall 2017, was organized around the concept of hope. As one of her students noted, Mahmood sought to think about hope not as an attitude or an abstract concept, but rather, as something emergent, as something that could suffuse a form of living.

Mahmood’s work has been reprinted and translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish. Among her many honors and awards, Professor Mahmood held the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. She was the recipient of a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs as well as the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. She received the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and was named a member of the Andrew Carnegie Scholars' program as a young scholar. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013. Following her death, obituaries and tributes to Mahmood were published in The New York Times, The News on Sunday, Pakistan, The Wire, India, and many other forums beyond and within academia.

Saba Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor. Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she rejoiced in the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, and the delights of cooking and sharing excellent meals with friends and family. She joyously cultivated her relationships with family and friends, engaging at intellectual and intimate levels with equal intensity. She mentored her students with remarkable care and focus, demanding their best work, listening, responding with generosity, soliciting others to come alive in thought. In her final months, she affirmed the values of both reflection and love, leaving a vibrant legacy that will persist and flourish among all whose lives were touched by her life and work. She is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, her son, Nameer Hirschkind, and her brothers, Tariq and Khalid Mahmood.

Judith Butler
Cori Hayden