Wednesday, 28 March 2018

OBITUARY: Saba Mahmood — pioneering work in battle of ideas

March 17, 2018

SABA Mahmood, professor of anthropology at the University of California (UoC) at Berkeley, passed away on March 10, 2018. The cause was pancreatic cancer. 

Prof Mahmood specialised in sociocultural anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt. 

Born in Quetta in 1962, she came to the United States in 1981 to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. She received her PhD in anthropology from Stanford University in 1998 and taught at the University of Chicago before coming to UoC in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017. 

Prof Mahmood made path-breaking contributions to contemporary debates on secularism, opening up new ways of understanding religion in public life and contesting received assumptions about both religion and the secular. 

Against an increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, she brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. 

Her publications and presentations have reverberated throughout the humanities and social sciences, profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable and critical approach to religion in modernity. 

As a scholar and teacher, she embodied and followed strong moral and political principles, 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. 

Together with anthropologists Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind, Prof Mahmood showed secularism to be a complex political formation that produces differences among the religious traditions it seeks to regulate. In her words, “political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganise substantive features of religious life, stipulating what religion is or ought to be, assigning its proper content, and disseminating concomitant subjectivities, ethical frameworks, and quotidian practices”. 

Secularism never escapes its own religious histories, nor does it ever achieve autonomy from the religious formations it aims to regulate. In fact, the distinction between public and private life central to secular reason draws its bearings from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. This Christian religious framework, focused on belief, contrasts sharply with religions such as Islam which foreground strongly the role on embodied practices within religious life. As a result, she argued, secular epistemologies cannot grasp the way that Islam articulates religious values, misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices. 

Pious Muslim women
Within feminist theory, Mahmood challenged readers to understand that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in distinct hermeneutical approaches to reading the Quran in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as a form of ethical conduct. 

Challenging views of subjective freedom bequeathed by Western moral philosophy, she made a bold and challenging argument: to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive a subject defined in its relation to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine. 

Women who engaged in a religious practice of this sort, she argued, ought to be understood as engaging in ethical practices of self-cultivation. 

In her last work, she studied discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. Against the view that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularisation, she showed how religious differences, and conflict, have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power. Far from realising ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence. 

Prof Mahmood authored Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton University Press, 2015) 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 co-authored Is Critique Secular? (Fordham University Press, 2011) and co-edited Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago, 2015). Her work has been translated into Arabic, French, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Polish. 

Prof Mahmood was also the recipient of several honours and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. 

Prof Mahmood was a brilliant scholar, cherished colleague, and dedicated teacher and graduate mentor. Along with her ceaseless political passions and trenchant analyses, she keened to the beauty of the wilderness, the poetry of Ghalib, the delights of cooking and sharing excellent food. She cultivated with joyous attention her relationships with family and friends. 

She mentored her students with remarkable care and intensity, demanding their best work, listening, responding with a sharp generosity, coming alive in thought, and soliciting others to do the same. In her final months, she affirmed the values of thought and love, leaving now 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 Mahmood; and Khalid Mahmood, who lives and works in Pakistan. 

Judith Butler is a philosopher and gender theorist whose work has influenced political philosophy, ethics and the fields of third-wave feminist and literary theory. Since 1993, she has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is now professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Programme of Critical Theory.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2018