Saba Mahmood
Saba Mahmood

March 10 will mark the third death anniversary of one of the most prominent anthropologists and scholars of religion of her generation, Saba Mahmood, who was a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Saba had studied architecture and urban planning in the United States prior to starting her doctoral studies in anthropology at Stanford University. After receiving her PhD in 1998, she taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School before joining UC Berkeley, in 2003.

Saba grew up in Karachi and has friends and family in the city. Many of them, who may be reading this, knew Saba better than I did. My sharing some thoughts about a dear friend and a fellow scholar is a way to re-introduce her scholarship and its importance to a larger audience.

It was the summer of 1993 and I was in Cairo doing my own doctoral fieldwork. One day, I got a cryptic note from Joel Beinin, history professor at Stanford, that Saba was going to arrive from Morocco the next day. I was thrilled to hear that a friend of mine, of many years now, was coming to visit and embark on another scholarly journey (I myself had opted to study anthropology after completing my first degree in medicine).

She had sent me a paper a couple of years earlier, when she had started to transition into the social sciences from architecture, about how we who identified with the broader Left in Pakistan had not taken religion seriously in our engagement with the people we sought to “liberate”.

On the third anniversary of her death, anthropologist Kamran Asdar Ali recalls the work of Saba Mahmood, a provocative and original intellectual who challenged prevalent feminist theory and critiqued secular-liberal assumptions

She suggested that our engagement may have been in a manipulative sense or a symbolic gesture in order to bring people into our proverbial fold and to offer them a good dose of class-based politics, but we did not take their ideas seriously on their own terms.

It was evident then that she was slowly, but surely, becoming an anthropologist. The connections and friendships she forged during her Cairo visit led to her conducting doctoral field research a couple of years later.

Although her training was at Stanford, Saba was highly influenced by the work of the eminent anthropologist Talal Asad. She worked with Asad’s notion of critique that historicised the development of secularist thought in the West and in the Muslim world. Asad and his students (including Saba’s husband, the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind) have argued that secularism itself is embedded in its own European history as it seeks to draw a distinction between public and private life informed by a modern Christian emphasis on private worship.

Following this broader argument, Saba, in her path-breaking book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, presents an ethnography of a women’s piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. The book explores some of the conceptual challenges that a women’s Islamic movement, that was part of a larger Islamic revival in Egypt, posed to feminist theory, in particular, and to secular-liberal thought, in general.

One of her important methodological and theoretical insights in this text is to allow us to think in alternative ways about human agency, often invoked by feminist scholars in the context of studying women situated in religious traditions such as Islam.

Saba argues in her work that such scholars generally follow normative, liberal assumptions regarding human nature which are based on a belief that all humans have an innate desire for human freedom. Further, they locate this notion of agency within an autonomous political and moral subject that challenges social norms.

In contrast, Saba, in her book, rethinks this paradigm through the practices of the women she worked with in the urban mosque movement, which focused on the teaching and studying of Islamic scriptures, social practices and forms of bodily comportment considered essential to the cultivation of an ideal virtuous self. This movement, Saba suggests, instructs its followers not only in the proper performance of religious duties, but also how to organise their lives in accordance with notions of Islamic piety.

In a theoretically rigorous argument — and I cannot do justice to the complexity of her reasoning in the allotted space — she points out that we may want to recognise that the desire for individual freedom or subversions of norms is not a “natural” desire that motivates all human beings across different cultural and historical conditions.

Her ethnographic examples show that non-liberal women’s capacities of moral piety, ethical actions and the desire of submission are as discursively produced and are as “natural” as those that ensure feminist politics.

Rather, she says, we need to also be sensitive to those bodies, knowledges and subjectivities that do not follow the trajectories of liberal politics. Her book, hence, shows us how the women she worked with, from different socio-economic classes, cultivated ethical practices and created agentival capacities, not by resisting norms but by the the gesture of submission to certain forms of external authority (divine).

Her ethnographic examples show that non-liberal women’s capacities of moral piety, ethical actions and the desire of submission are as discursively produced and are as “natural” as those that ensure feminist politics.

Due to Saba’s conceptual challenges to prevalent feminist theory and her rigorous critique of secular-liberal assumptions, by which some scholars study Islamic revivalist movements, she was occasionally regarded as “not a feminist” by her critics.

In response, Saba would forcefully argue that she was not advocating an uncritical stance toward unjust practices or for accepting social injustice or indiscriminatingly embracing the pious lives of the women she worked with. Rather, she suggests that the prescriptive and analytical aspects of a feminist project need not be prematurely foreclosed as there may still be space to learn from non-liberal movements that she studied.

Saba Mahmood (in the left corner) with the writer (third from left) and other friends at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in 2016 | Courtesy the writer
Saba Mahmood (in the left corner) with the writer (third from left) and other friends at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in 2016 | Courtesy the writer

In her writings, like the good anthropologist that she was, Saba argued that first we need to understand the world we want to change; its meaning cannot be set a priori, but should emerge from the lives, networks and practices of people themselves. Our analysis needs to be situated within the particular worlds of people themselves, rather than us speaking from a position that predicts an already known egalitarian future (if that is what the desired goal is).

In this sense, Saba’s intervention was a humble gesture, but a serious one and one rooted in the anthropological history of deference to those worlds that are different for us, from what is considered “normative”. It was a gesture providing the same appreciation and understanding to even those lives we find objectionable; the need to take into consideration the desires, motivations and commitments of those people for whom these practices are important.

In a way, she wanted us to hold open the possibility to ask of politics a series of questions whose outcomes we assume to know (the teleological certainty that characterises some versions of progressive liberalism) before we even embark on an inquiry.

This commitment to rethink the political sphere, in order to excavate the exclusionary principles of the modern state, led Saba to author her award-winning book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015).

In it, she focuses on the minority question, by studying the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians, through the development of secular legal concepts in contemporary Egypt. She argues how modern secular governance and its regulation of religious life has paradoxically increased discrimination and violence against minorities such as the Coptic Christians.

The book provokes us to rethink whether the secular ideals of civic and political equality, minority rights, religious freedoms and the separation of private and public domain have exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities, in the Egyptian context.

Aware perhaps about her own failing health, Saba bravely explored the topic of death and its relationship to the history of humanism. In a short, but brilliant, article (published posthumously), she returns to the question of the relationship between ethics and politics.

Undoubtedly, Saba was a provocative intellectual who forced us to think outside the box and challenged our settled intellectual comfort zone. In my own engagement with her work, the issue is not about agreements, rather her work allows for participating in a process of intellectual exploration that may not provide settled answers.

Her final piece of published work is very much part of this scholarly journey.

Aware perhaps about her own failing health, Saba bravely explored the topic of death and its relationship to the history of humanism. In a short, but brilliant, article (published posthumously), she returns to the question of the relationship between ethics and politics. She argues that death in the modern humanist tradition “marks the end of meaning, one might say, indeed of representation itself” and is sought to be delayed.

Modern life, she suggests, indulges in the celebrations of youth and life, and death (along with ageing) is banished into marginal spaces of hospitals and senior centres.

Partially based on her reading of philosophical responses to the mass death and destruction during the two world wars, Saba reassesses death in regard to our attitude about our own and others’ demise.

She raises the issue that the death of the other — where the possibility remains that it can be done by oneself (like mass killings of world wars) — makes us sensitive to the ethical dimension of death; when the other dies, so do we. In resurrecting this humanistic impulse and the relational nature of self (in life and in death), she however, does warn us that, despite our ethics, the world watches as famine ravages Yemen and the killings in the Middle East and elsewhere continue uninterrupted.

Here, Saba forces us to consider how political considerations, not lack of empathy or humanist ethics, allow for mass catastrophic death to occur. Again, she raises the uncomfortable question that challenges our sense of politics and complacency, to think about how these deaths occur despite our humanist commitment to ethics and empathy.

Anthropological thought that questions established “truths” and foregrounds the concept of cultural relativism, makes those who work with universalistic paradigms on the Right or the Left somewhat uncomfortable. Within this context, the certainty of many in “progressive” circles in predicting futures may have been unsure of how to receive Saba’s work.

There is more, but I would leave people to their own intellectual conundrums, as did Saba — and she is the one who was internationally respected and received admiration from across the globe. Other than being the author of award-winning books and journal articles, she was the recipient of prestigious fellowships in Europe and the US and of an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Saba was sharp, provocative and uncompromising. In her larger work, she offered a deep analysis of colonial and capitalist power and was an anti-imperialist scholar who had complete solidarity to the Palestinian cause while forcefully raising her voice against US intervention in Iraq in the early 1990s and after 9/11. The young woman that I had known from the 1980s had, by the time we lost her, become one of the most well-respected anthropologists of her generation, who was forcing us to reconsider categories of thought, of established politics, and was reframing debates in the field of Middle East studies, feminism, religion and critical social thought.

In recent years, she had decided to finally return to Pakistan to conduct research on sectarian conflict and state-minority questions. More than anything else, she was a deep source of sustenance, support and courage to a new generation of scholars who were looking for paths beyond the older forms of analysis that remained inadequate in explaining the world they were encountering in the new millennia.

Her groundbreaking work and her name will survive many amongst us for its originality and the challenges she threw at us to rethink, reframe and reformulate our arguments. She was truly one of her kind and left us too soon.

Gaye dinon ka suraagh le kar Kidhar se aaya kidhar gaya woh

Ajeeb maanoos ajnabi tha Mujhay tau hairaan kar gaya woh

The writer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 7th, 2021

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