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A love letter to Saba

A student’s tribute to Saba Mahmood, a beloved teacher, guide, and friend

A love letter to Saba
Image courtesy of Boston University Productions.

Saba Mahmood, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, passed away due to cancer on March 10, 2018. Born in Quetta in 1962, Saba did her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Stanford, and taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School before joining the Anthropology faculty at UC Berkeley. Along with numerous articles and edited collections, she is the sole author of two acclaimed books: The Politics of Piety, and Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. She had begun work on a new research project, this time in Pakistan, which her illness prevented her from continuing. In addition to being an academic of towering stature, Saba was at heart a teacher, and beloved advisor and mentor to her students.

Even if a person’s temporal horizon is drastically shortened, hope isn’t evacuated. In fact, all of us inhabit a similar temporality – we just have the illusion of longevity”. As I said this, I looked up directly at Saba, and saw her gaze, piercing, fixed on me. She was smiling. She knew exactly what I was doing. Even as my thought was entirely spontaneous, it was rooted in the instinct to comfort her, to say: my futurity, and that of everyone else’s in the room, is as precarious as yours Saba, as radically uncertain.

But it wasn’t comfort Saba sought from us, her students; it was our understanding of her project, now our collective project: locating hope amid devastation. And in that moment, its frisson of complete connectedness, she and I understood each other perfectly.

Saba was dying, and the theme of the course she was teaching was hope. As we sat in the Kroeber Hall faculty lounge, I marvelled at her, every fibre in my body alert. I absorbed her presence, learned her face, voice, smile, eye roll, etching on to my mind that glorious image that will always define academic life for me: Saba, against the backdrop of the San Francisco bay, the sun on her face, an open book, utterly animated, absorbed, alive. What I wouldn’t give for a lifetime of such afternoons. But I have many, from my first class at Berkeley to the last, each a gift.

Saba brought me to Berkeley, and she is indelibly etched onto its every surface, syllable, seminar room. The very first class I took at Berkeley was with Saba, and I fell in love with her. She was stunning in her ability to contain students from several disciplines in one seminar, to allow their thought to traverse widely while insisting it remain anchored in the text. Saba took the text very seriously, which is why her graduate seminars allowed no room for the usual posturing. “Come on now — not Hegel here!” or “Zahra, can you please take us to the relevant part of the text?” I can hear her speak, remember where she sat, her uber stylish glasses, the silver bangle she always wore.

She was gentle with me, and let me learn to speak in a setting four years of lawyering had not made less intimidating. I thought her beautiful, authoritative, rigorous, so very generous in giving of herself. I learned that a graduate seminar, when led by a master teacher, could suspend time and the exigencies of living. And of dying, as I would learn four years later, in my last seminar, also with Saba. With months left to live, she chose to teach. In that precarious, defiant spring of 2017, we showed up each week, determined to stall time, to steal it, to tell death: “Wait a while, we are not yet done.”

When I met Saba for the first time after her diagnosis, I was terrified. She spoke briefly of her health. “But statistics are just that, statistics, and there are people who always defy them,” I ventured, desperate. She contained my fumbling, my fear, and with a kindness that continues to stun me, said: “You’re right. And you know something about this, given your research interests.” She asked me about a couple of academic books on cancer, and proceeded to dissect them — this was how I knew Saba: the master scholar, razor sharp. When her time was so precious, she insisted on supervising my exam statement, meticulously editing every sentence. This is Saba’s ethics of teaching, of labouring. It is also an ethics of living, and I marvel at it.

Our relationships with those we love don’t end with death. Saba spoke of the necessity of being brutally honest with ourselves – else what was the point of this beautiful life we had been given?

Can a woman from Pakistan tower over Western academia? I can now say: “Yes! Don’t you know Saba Mahmood?” Knowing this means the world to me, also a woman from Pakistan, unsure of her place in a largely Eurocentric academy. Saba’s academic stature is unquestioned, and countless conversations simply cannot be had without engaging her work. Her path breaking first book, The Politics of Piety, is rigorously and quietly radical. With unwavering poise — for Saba never flailed — she challenges the Western liberal secular monopoly over the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘agency’. With her claim that agency lies not just in defying norms, but also in inhabiting them — as in the case of her interlocutors, female members of the Egyptian pietist movement — Saba expands the very concept of freedom, wresting it from its Eurocentric moorings and applying it to actors commonly thought to embody its antithesis.

But unlike what careless readers of her work assert, Saba is far from an apologist for ‘conservative Muslim women’. Herself firmly rooted in the liberal secular paradigm, she engages in a radical self questioning, an act of deep humility; also, of vulnerability, for she opens herself to having her most cherished beliefs shaken. The anthropologist par excellence, sustaining as very few can her discipline’s demand for often wrenching introspection.

In the two years between her diagnosis and death, my relationship with her shifted to an entirely new plane, becoming infused with a raw urgency — to know this woman, to soak up her wisdom. What were her own practices of self-cultivation, having observed them in others for years as part of her work? As we walked in the Berkeley hills, along trails she knew intimately, we spoke often of fear. I was drowning in anxiety, for reasons of my own. She talked to me about motherhood, and the absolute importance of one’s psychic life. She showed me how to confront fear with stunning dignity, considered-ness, grace; how to face death, and wrest from it labour, love, life.

I didn’t know it then, but in those two years, I was both beginning to really discover Saba and to say goodbye. Our farewell, and the beginning of one of my life’s most beautiful relationships, cathected (a word I’ve only ever heard Saba use). The binary between joy and grief, life and death, blurred. But we are anthropologists, and this is elementary: the boundaries are always already blurred.

I met Saba for what we both knew would be the last time two days before I left for Pakistan for fieldwork. She steadied me, reminded me that our relationships with those we love don’t end with death. She spoke of the necessity of being brutally honest with ourselves – else what was the point of this beautiful life we had been given? I told her no meeting could bear the impossible burden of saying goodbye to someone you loved. “So don’t say it,” she said. And I didn’t, as I won’t. When it was time to go, she walked me to the door. We held each other. “I’ll miss you, Saba”. “I’ll miss you too”. “Not as much as I will”. “You don’t know that”.

On my last day in Berkeley, I attended the first session of ‘Postcolonial Theory’, the last course she would teach. And that is the image I left with: Saba, commanding a classroom, surrounded by a bevy of starstruck students, juxtaposing high theory with scheduling logistics — the business of teaching, and in our world, of life.

I know that Saba and I will continue to have countless conversations: in my head and on the page, those that she has written, and those that I will write. As I present my work, there she will be in the front row, attentive, her smile reassuring me like nothing else can. When white men — in their numerous, sneaky avatars — threaten to take over the conversation or the canon, and I begin to falter, to apologize for my various markings — be it my gender, race, or nationality — her hand will steady me. I will be brave because of her, with her. I remember, for instance, a panel she was on after the Paris attacks. While the other panelists spewed Eurocentric fluff, Saba delivered a stinging indictment of the global arms industry and America’s involvement in it, to deafening applause. That is who she was, and will be: the fearless person who said what others only wanted to, allowing them to heave a collective sigh of relief that it had been said by the master herself.

Ever since I started studying Anthropology, the relationship between reality and its representations has vexed me. Saba would often interrogate this fixation. In a naïve early paper, I suggested that surely death was an exception to theories claiming that everything is a matter of perspective — isn’t death, so stark and total, the end of life, whichever perspective you see it from? But everything I feel about Saba defies that. Without my realising it, she, masterful teacher, has shown me what she would always tell me: “Stop thinking of reality and its representations as separate.” I finally understand. In so many worlds, Saba will always live.

Right now, I am full of a howling pain, of having found, finally, a steadying hand, only to have it wrenched away before my steps had stopped faltering. I have lost my anchor. But I will not dwell in this terrifying space, where for a time any clear path has been muddied. Over everything, I am infinitely grateful to you, my beloved Saba: my teacher, confidant, fellow scholar, friend. The voice in my head, forever. To you, you giant, so full of fire and wisdom, you beautiful, incredible, powerful woman, this is my bow, my salute, my letter of solidarity, gratitude, joy, hope, and love.

Zahra Hayat

Zahra Hayat is a lawyer, and is currently doing her PhD in Anthropology at UC Berkeley.


  • Bear reading on his article opens two different windows in mind. On one hand, A brief introduction of star belongs us but shining in another horizon and we could not see her lightening just on account of lacking to provide her the height of sky she deserve. Same time, opens a new door to know her in more detail and depth by reading her and thinking on the path she was, the massage she gave, the courage she posses, the way she stood on her believes, the power she fought with illness, the skill she possessed as teacher and mentor, the smile she kept and many more and more.
    True, death apperantly apart us but our relationship don’t not end with those we Love.

  • Thank you for sharing her with us in this beautiful letter.

  • Beautifully written. This tribute really brought memories back to life. We all miss her so much.

  • A very thoughtful essay. Are there any memorial services being planned for her at Cal? Thanks.

  • Madeleine Dunphy

    Thank you so much for this beautiful love letter! Saba was an extraordinary force. I, too, dearly loved her.

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