This past weekend, on March 10, Pakistan’s topmost global scholar in the human sciences, Dr Saba Mahmood, passed away in California, having struggled with pancreatic cancer over the past couple of years. Dr Saba Mahmood was Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. As one of many testaments to the multi-regionality, globality and critical transdisciplinarity of her thought and work, she was also affiliated with other key knowledge centres at Berkeley, including both the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Institute for South Asia Studies. There, she played an essential role in instituting the first-of-its-kind Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, characteristically bridging a regional divide well-entrenched in academia, as well as with the dynamic Program in Critical Theory. This was befitting her stature as one of the foremost critical theoretical thinkers of our time.
Given that her award-winning books — above all, the 2005 academic equivalent of a blockbuster, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, as well as the 2015 magnum opus, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report — have enjoyed an extraordinary impact on the metropolitan academy, affecting the space where it’s hardest to make a mark: in conceptual discourse and methodology, it is telling that she is barely known in her home country. Here, the slightest tremor in the metropole is otherwise quickly picked up by the local illuminati; indeed, some progressive “intellectuals” targeted her with thoughtless ad hominem and faux nativist attacks — attacks which she was indifferent to in keeping with her stature and seriousness as a scholar and thinker.
For Saba Mahmood, together with her great mentor, Talal Asad, and her husband Charles Hirschkind, led from the front in one of the most remarkable revolutions taking place in scholarship across the humanities and social sciences in our times: the unsettling — though in her case, and in accord with her sanguine rigour as a thinker, not quite the unraveling — of the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’.
These are categories so central to our mental, political and social landscapes, that for the average literate person today, it is difficult to even begin to imagine what such a project might entail. Yet the categories are strikingly recent, going back no more than a couple of centuries at most. With a deep awareness of the recent historicity of these categories, and escaping their stranglehold on thought and analysis, Saba Mahmood took a practical and ethical turn in her ethnography of the lived practice of what has come to be called (in an explosive modern profusion of discourse) ‘Islam’ among ‘fundamentalist’ Egyptian women. In the event, she painted a resonating picture of the piety of these women as a deeply ethical practice in its engagement with divinity. Here, apart from unsettling the cognitively debilitating distinction between the religious and the secular, Saba was also at the vanguard of a whole range of new ethnographies of ethical living in non-Western societies, giving the lie to the deeply saturated prejudice that free and noble ethical action is somehow modern/Western, whereas non-Western peoples simply act out a cultural code that leads to moral action, if at all, only by accident or coincidence (this is implied by the widespread distinction in academia between traditional ‘shame cultures’ and modern ‘guilt cultures’, between conformity and conscience).
Finally, in focusing on the deeply invested ethical intentions and social action of these pious Islamic revivalist women, Saba took the rug out from under the feet of the widespread modern colonial and imperial manipulation and patronisation of non-Western women in general, and Muslim women in particular, and she did this at a moment when this ‘old’ colonial trope was experiencing a fervent ‘revival’ of its own: at the heart of empire in its moment of imperial rage, in the aftermath of 9/11 in the US. Courage made fearless by the cutting edge of a conviction born out of rigorous research and reflection, all undertaken with a gravity and slow intensity that was Saba’s own.
In her new book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report — the sure-to-be-long reception of which will now, alas, be posthumous — Saba has raised her gaze to the monumental structural level at which the modern categories, institutions and practices of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ penetrate our societies to literally make life hell for minorities everywhere. Not only is the distinction between the secular and the religious Christian in its origins, it turns out that it is in fact a governmental distinction of the modern secular state that at once systematically creates majorities and minorities framed by the distinction. The universality and universal import and relevance of the analysis should be evident.
Saba Mahmood was indeed a genuine theorist of the limit of our global modernity today. But given the visionary, complex and radical (in the original sense of getting to the root) nature of her work, and the entrenched and invested nature of the categories, it will demand great effort and self-critical thought to receive this marvellous oeuvre.
Despite her extraordinary stature and achievements, Professor Saba Mahmood was a genuinely warm and caring individual, mentor and colleague to a remarkably large number of people across the globe. Her legacy in the academy is assured not only by the brilliance, depth, relevance,and courage of her work, but also the work that is being, and will continue to be, produced by the many students who she mentored with an enabling touch that is widely avowed. Like so many across the globe, for us at Habib University, this is also a personal loss, given the committed friendship and generous support she gave us in establishing a partnership between this young Pakistani institution with one of the greatest universities in the world, UC Berkeley. How much deeper, alas, the loss of her husband, Charles Hirschkind, and no doubt above all, her young son Nameer Hirschkind.
Professor Saba Mahmood was born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962, making her only 56 and at the height of her formidable intellectual powers, at the time of her passing.