Saba Mahmood: A tribute

Saba Mahmood: A tribute

Today marks 40 days since Saba Mahmood’s passing. In my family culture and tradition, 40 days after death is an important marker of passage, of coping, of figuring out how you will move on… for both those who have passed and those who experienced the loss. To mark this moment, on behalf of Anthrodendum, I invited scholars representing diverse stages in their own careers, each of whom has a different relationship to Saba and her work. As a collection of notes, these comments bring together some of the many facets of Saba’s impact on the field, her students, colleagues, and those upon whose life she has left an indelible mark. We are still grieving, processing, missing, and trying to find the space to articulate what all of that means, together.

For those of you who do not know Saba or her work, my hope is that the diversity of notes will help you gain glimpses of her person as a scholar and teacher. Please know that you, as a reader of this blog, are also invited to join us in this gesture – if you would like to leave a note commemorating Saba Mahmood, please feel free to do so in the comments section. The final note in this tribute has been reprinted from the official Obituary from the University of California, Berkeley website. I’ve included it because it came from Saba’s home department, and because it has a link for those wishing to make gifts in her memory.

On this chaleeswan (40th day), within this community, may our words have the strength to be our sentiments as well as our tribute to a brilliant, courageous and generous scholar, whose love, strength, laughter and ethics continue to inform our fields of practice and our lives.

-Uzma Z. Rizvi


It is difficult, if not impossible, to write about the loss of a friend. And this small memorandum will not attempt to do so. Instead, all that seems available is to gesture to Saba’s life as an exemplum, one which asks to be contemplated. For that is what defined her as a friend and mentor—a life that cannot be compassed by a discourse or a moral teaching but was lived as a teaching.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Saba’s work was at its most incisive precisely where this difference came to the fore. Conceptual and ethnographic inquiries concerning virtue, ethics, or even piety were, at their heart, a question about life itself. What is it, not to possess a virtue, but to live it? This question was as decisive for Saba in the realm of politics as in religious life. Politics must be understood to be, at its center, the capacity of shared lives oriented around shared forms, traditions, and practices. Tellingly, the question of politics and the collapse of shared forms of life in the wake of catastrophe became Saba’s chief concern after the publication of her second book. In much the same way that she had previously sought lived rather than possessed forms of virtuous practice, here she pursued the figure of hope, not as an analytic construct or an attitude, but as emergent in a way of living.

This is best evinced in a memorable moment where, in a seminar meeting with her students, Saba refused to read Beckett’s famous “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” as meaning, “I can’t go on, but I must go on”. For her there could be no insertion of exigency or need. Instead, the quote, in its parataxis, points us toward something beyond the economy of agency. It is a calling. It is a trial.

Saba’s lived response to this trial, to a call that demanded so much without apology, is the recapitulation of her entire teaching to us as her students. It reached across the boundaries of profession and personal proclivity to affirm the essence of our shared life together as friends and colleagues within the discipline. If anthropology is to have an ethics it can be nothing other than welcoming that for which we can give no account; the stranger knocking at the door.

It is fitting that pursuing this form of hope, as a “going on”, is what we who remain here bear as our inheritance of Saba’s teaching. For we too, perhaps having come to a moment of being unable to go on, are nevertheless already pulled along by the traces of her life. These traces, as inscriptions that twist about a hidden core, are to be found in her writings and teachings, and even more so in those lives by whom she constituted her own. They do not impress upon us an exigency to “go on” but bespeak a calling already onward.

Aaron Eldridge
April 2018

When Saba passed away I was in Amman doing fieldwork. I stayed home that day, feeling far away, and watched an outpouring of messages begin to sweep across my social media feed and inbox. Knowing that so many people around the world were touched by her was no consolation, of course, but it was something to hold onto. There will be more formal tributes to the importance of her scholarship (which continues to shape my work) and other testimonies about the warmth and care she expressed (certainly to me and my family). But in my small contribution to this online memorial, I want to linger with something apart from both her published writings and my own grief. This is something that struck me about her from my first campus visit to Berkeley, and something I don’t want to escape notice: her work as a teacher, her passion for anthropology in the public university as a discipline of teaching. On that initial visit, addressing a cohort of prospective graduate students, I remember her pride in remarking that Berkeley was still a university accountable in some fashion to a broader public (for all that it too has defaulted to the corporate form). She valued this accountability. She did not see anthropology as a refuge somehow beyond the economic logics that otherwise govern our lives. But she insisted that it was a space which can still be transformative in encountering the world, and a discipline that can teach a deep humility. (She had no patience for arrogance, and had the courage to face it: a rare combination anywhere, let alone academia.) ‘Accountability’ does not determine the course of analysis or politics. It might teach you to distinguish your analysis from your politics. But it requires sustaining a commitment to thought that is situated in a given place, against a given history, conditions that cannot be brushed away but must be thought through—however fraught the situation or cosmopolitan the anthropologist. And that is the beginning, not the end, of analysis. Heteronomy of criticism (though she would not put it that way).

I found a video online of her remarks to an anthropology undergraduate research symposium. There she describes anthropology as a discipline that allows creativity but holds one to rigor, and does not allow easy alibis. This was how she taught, and her undergraduates loved her for it. A few years ago I TA’d a class for her on “the Anthropology of the Middle East and Islam,” with a syllabus organized around colonialism and its legacy through the Arab uprisings and their unmaking. Before class began, a dozen students would cluster near the front of the lecture hall to tell her a joke or talk politics. Her lectures on Said and Alloula, Pontecorvo and Antoon, made complicated material clear without being pedantic. Creativity and rigor—she made it look easy, and came by their affection easily. One of those undergraduates wrote to me last month. She said, “I know her students will continue to hold her memory close to our hearts and hear her championing us forward when we have the courage to confront injustice, inequity, and cruelty.”

A couple of years later, her cancer advancing, she led a seminar for her graduate students on the analytic relationship between concepts and practices. Our sites of reflection were moments of catastrophe and dissolution. What social acts are viable in the loss of world, in the absence of future? We read Anthony Marra’s Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I wrote to her how moving I found the novel. She replied, “I have never been so stunned by a piece of writing in quite the same way. It made me realize the paucity of social scientific/analytic writing and the immensity of the human relations we so inadequately gesture to.” In seminar she led us to how hope is constructed in time, through the very events that were meant to jettison that hope, through the fabric of the relationships that endure the disaster, without the lure of transcending the present, where ethics is a simple capacity and where what hope there is is found in different temporalities and different spaces: where ends become beginnings. She taught this in her last year; this is what I will remember.

Basit Iqbal
April 2018

Saba Mahmood’s contributions to my own thinking were mostly through her writing. I did not know her as well as I would have liked, but her impact on my thinking was substantial. Like a good feminist, she put the body at the center of her analyses. Like a good ethnographer, she listened to her female interlocutors in Cairo when they told her that the path to salvation in the afterlife and to comfort in this life was in bodily discipline. She beautifully conveyed why those women chose to comport themselves in styles that nonetheless participated in a patriarchal system, and how they found satisfaction in ways that exceeded a simple binary of domination or resistance. As a result, the pious Muslim women she knew cultivated habits that might have seemed alien to secular liberal feminists, yet on some level they also resonated with each other, as both were committed to using the body to realize particular personal and social commitments.

Mahmood conveyed these sophisticated theoretical and philosophical arguments through vivid writing that conveyed how hard it could be to enact these habits. Small details captured how Cairene Muslim women were not simply born feeling pious. Rather, they sought expertise and community in creating their new norms. Central to this experience was experience itself: sensory, vibrant, emotional. Aesthetic perfection was therefore never superficial. It was the singular portal through which to enact transformation. Her eye for the array of ways that discipline could be enjoyable, even beyond the visual, was a technique for connection and understanding, what many of us hope the best anthropological work achieves. I return to this insight repeatedly in my own commitment to sharing the ways pious Muslim women in urban Indonesia enact their worship through appearance, a strategy that can be easily misread as ephemeral by their fellow citizens precisely because it is about appearance. Saba’s sensitive scholarship never dropped a tone, always aware of how Cairene women’s lives might be perceived at various scales, personal, national and transnational.

An intellectual life is, at minimum, a life of the mind. By challenging persistent Islamophobic assumptions about political subjectivity and femininity, Saba’s work conveyed the workings of a brilliant mind, but it also conveyed her own appreciation for elegance and humor. I am sad to have lost a gracious mind so soon, but I am grateful that we can revisit her work to rediscover her ideas, and perhaps more importantly, her spirit.

Carla Jones
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of Colorado Boulder

Doing Politics with Saba Mahmood
Arsalan Khan
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
Union College

I remember meeting Saba Mahmood for the first time at a conference on Pakistan at UC Berkeley in 2015. We had met once before, but I was too young to remember. In the early 1980s, Saba had attended a few Urdu poetry sessions that my parents hosted in our home in Karachi. When I mentioned this to Saba and told her that my mother recalled her being a sharp and spirited young woman, she seemed pleased to be remembered so fondly. Saba graciously agreed to read an article that I was publishing on pietist Tablighis in Pakistan, and we met again in Karachi on Eid of that year and spent many hours discussing our work and the growing anthropological scholarship on Pakistan. Saba was hoping to start a new project on Shia theology and politics in Pakistan and was excited about this intellectual return to a place that was very close to her heart. This work is sorely needed. The academic study of Pakistan has been dominated by a security studies paradigm that focuses primarily on the threat that Pakistan poses to international stability and the policies needed to manage this threat. While Pakistan has produced noteworthy historians and social scientists, there remains an acute need for ethnographic analysis and grounded theory. Saba’s loss will be deeply felt not only by those to whom she generously extended her time and energy but everyone invested in developing a critical scholarship on Pakistan.

But, Saba’s work was also controversial in Pakistan. She was routinely criticized in the Pakistani press by a small coterie of secular scholars and activists who felt that she was romanticizing Islamic groups and movements and undermining secular politics. Critics often grumbled that it is hypocritical to criticize secularism from the security and protections afforded by  “secular society.” An academic variant of this position suggested that she was treating the Islamic pietists as the only authentic voice in the Muslim world and therefore making a secular subjectivity impossible to conceive for Muslims. Others went further suggesting that she was reproducing the values of Islamists who condemn secularism as a Western perversion.  Under a video paying tribute to her work on a friend’s Facebook wall, one young commentator declared, “Alas she didn’t stop at nuance, and delved right into apologia–disarming an entire generation of Muslim critical thinkers.” More accustomed to indifference than hostility, most anthropologists would be surprised by such a hyperbolic attribution of power to an anthropologist. This understanding of Saba’s work is demonstrably false, and I will point to how her work provides crucial lessons for progressive politics, but before turning to this, it is worth considering the political context of this backlash.

Founded on the basis of Muslim identity, Pakistani nationalism posits Islam as a touchstone for national culture. Pakistan’s first constitution declared, “Sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone and the authority which He has delegated to the state of Pakistan.” In the early decades after independence, Islamists had some success in their efforts to push for an Islamic state, but it was the military regime of Zia’ul-Haq (1977 – 1988) that deepened the link between Islam and state sovereignty. Zia’s Islamization had far reaching deleterious consequences for women and religious minorities (links).  The Pakistani military invokes Islam as a bulwark against the demand for recognition and autonomy coming from ethnic nationalist movements and therefore Islamization has been thoroughly entangled with state centralization. Moreover, Pakistan’s central role in the Afghan jihad created the conditions for the growth of militant sectarian Sunni groups that continue to plague Pakistan today. Islamists and powerful elements in the state routinely demonize “secularism” (ladiniyat) as a conspiracy against the nation. It is in this context that Saba’s work has become so politically charged. But, the conflation of Saba’s critique of secularism with that of Islamists only works by sidestepping how she theorizes the very concept of secularism.

The Politics of Piety is an ethnographic account of women’s participation in a Salafi piety movement based in mosques in the lower middle class neighborhoods of Cairo, spaces that are centers for Islamic Revivalist forces in many parts of the Muslim world.  These women are invested not in the vision of an Islamic state but in the cultivation of personal piety and interpersonal ethics.  Saba shows that liberal-secular conceptions of individual agency and autonomy fail to account for the moral framework of pietist women. From the vantage point of liberal-secular theory, these women are capitulating to the dictates of patriarchal society and therefore forsaking their own agency, but Saba shows the Salafi pietists believe that in enacting divinely sanctioned norms they are able to cultivate the pious virtues that inhere in those normative acts. Here we see anthropological relativism taken to the question of subjects and agency, but Saba’s work also shows how a particular conception of agency found in liberal-secularism is implicated in a project of regulating and remaking the world of pietist women. Saba’s focus may be the pietist Salafi women in Cairo, but the point holds up much more broadly for anyone who does not abide by the norms of liberal secularity.

Saba’s second book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report focuses on the relationship between political secularism and the modern state, and particularly around the question of minority and women’s rights. Secularism’s principle claim to moral authority and universal applicability is that separating religion from politics secures the freedom of women and religious minorities. Religious Difference argues, however, that secularism, rather than being neutral towards religion, is in fact in the business of managing and creating religious difference. Saba argues that secularists and Islamists share in the assumption that secularism removes religion from public life, but secularism, actually expands religious difference and reifies religious communities, “enabling [the] conditions of religious conflict today” (2016: 22). Religious Difference shows how Coptic Christians were historically minoritized and how in the process religious difference was expanded and politicized. Anyone familiar with the history of British colonialism in South Asia will recognize how the colonial management of religion engendered religious communities and ultimately created the conditions for divergent Hindu and Muslim nationalisms. But Saba argues that this is not specific to the history of colonialism or a unique feature of the postcolonial state. Rather, it is inherent in the nature of secular governmentality. Saba asks provocatively, “how can secularism be called upon to solve the majority-minority problem when it is partly responsible for its creation?” (2016: 87).[1]

Saba does not explicitly outline how a critical approach to secularism can contribute to progressive political causes, but I think there is much to gain from thinking through the implications of these arguments for progressive politics. People often read Saba’s work as an effort to humanize Islam in a post 9/11 world in which Muslims are being demonized, but the aim of this work is not to humanize but to relativize and to displace the firm certainty that only one form of life, that of liberal or left secularism, is the universally desirable form of life. This anthropological relativism has immense value for those seeking to build broad coalitions for equality and justice across ethnicity, religion and class. This requires working through rather than against kinship and community institutions and networks and accepting that some forms of hierarchy and dependence are not antithetical to a vision of the common good. This does not mean adopting the Salafi model of virtue-politics or their particular understanding of gender hierarchy, as Saba’s critics claim she advocates, but it does mean recognizing the limits of and transcending a liberal-secular framework that finds agency only in the perceived breaking of “traditional” norms and relations. The second lesson drawn from postcolonial theory is that the legislating of group rights and group equality by the state carries the dangerous potential to proliferate and essentialize forms of difference pitting religious or ethnic communities against each other. Progressive politics that relies too heavily on legal and state intervention will find itself undermining the basis for collective life that is needed to create progressive coalitions and movements. This does not mean abandoning statist politics altogether, but it does mean recognizing the dangers of secular governmentality.

Far from undermining progressive politics, this is scholarship that can imbue it with new vitality. Those who are invested in left political projects must move away from empty Enlightenment universals and work with and through cultural and social difference rather than against it. The aim should be to pull diverse forms of life together towards the common good. Anthropologists, on the other hand, remain too wedded to the figure of a detached observer to draw out the political implications of our observations. But, in a world of deepening economic crises, endless wars, the spread of authoritarian populism, and the existential threat of climate change, we cannot limit ourselves to just describing the world. We must learn also to act in it.  Saba’s work points to how anthropology can contribute to the realization of a more just and equitable world and for that we owe her a great debt.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2016. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] The point here is not to foreclose critical engagement with this scholarship but to engage with the effort to rethink dominant accounts of secularism. Two concerns that arise for me are whether Politics of Piety adequately addresses the world-making rather than just the self-making project of Salafi pietists and their own complicated relationship to religious difference and if Religious Difference accounts for the implications of different political stances relative to secular governmentality.

Dear all,

By now the news has spread quite widely that our esteemed and beloved colleague, Professor Mahmood, has passed away.

Collectively as a department, and as individuals, we are reeling. Saba was a bright light in our department, an intellectual force, a generous and demanding mentor, an inspiring teacher, and a strong voice in all parts of department matters. As was warmly remarked upon in a department gathering, Saba also possessed a singular, robust laugh that matched the energy and passion she brought to all things in her life. She was a caring friend to many of us across the campus. We hurt as well for our cherished colleague, Charles Hirschkind, and for his and Saba’s son, whose loss is profound.

The expressions of condolence and support that have come in from across the globe have been so appreciated and comforting; as a department, we thank you. We are working to set up a memorial site on which memories and comments can be shared, and we hope that many of you will choose to contribute to it.

Saba spoke of the time after her death as “when she was gone.” I contested her word choice with her at the time. Clearly Saba Mahmood has always been too firmly a force in the world to “be gone.” She endures in her many important contributions within and beyond anthropology. She endures in the lives and careers of her many undergraduate and graduate students. She endures in her and Charles’s extraordinary son, a warm and kind young man. And her raucous laugh echoes clearly in Kroeber Hall.

Thank you for your thoughts and memories,
Laurie A. Wilkie
Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology

For those wishing to make gifts in Saba’s memory, she expressed a desire for a fund in her name to support graduate study. Any gifts to the Anthropology department should clearly mark that they are made in memory of Saba Mahmood, and they will be used according to her stated desires. http://bit.ly/2F4QR2v

Uzma Z. Rizvi is an associate professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn NY, and a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), Sharjah, UAE. Her current work focuses on Ancient Pakistan and UAE, during the third millennium BCE. She utilizes poetics as a mode through which to push the limits of archaeological theory. Additionally, her research focuses on ancient subjectivity, intimate architecture; memory, war, and trauma in relationship to the urban fabric, critical heritage studies at the intersections of contemporary art and history, and finally, epistemological critiques of the discipline in the service of decolonization.
Previous posts can be accessed via https://savageminds.org/author/uzma/

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