Saba Mahmood, the Immanent Flame of Secularism and Feminist Theory, dies at 56

Written by Sushmita | Published on: March 14, 2018
In times of easy rhetoric and religious stereotyping, any scholar who leaves this world before time, creates a void that can’t be filled. March 10, 2018 became a sad occasion for the scholars of Anthropology, when Professor Saba Mahmood, a teacher of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley passed away at an early age of 56. Saba Mahmood died of pancreatic cancer. Scholars across the world expressed deep shock and grief on her death remembering her as not just a distinguished scholar, someone who did not indulge in the dichotomy of rights and wrongs, and helped in highlighting the complexity of political philosophy and various scholarly positions with their chosen underpinnings; but also as a compassionate human being and a teacher who was revered by her students.

Saba Mahmood

Academic Life
She specialized in Sociocultural Anthropology and was a scholar of modern Egypt. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1962 and went 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. After this she joined the University of California at Berkeley in 2004, where she offered her last seminar in fall 2017.  She was also affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley in the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studied. She was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Studied Initiative, a unique initiative in the United States.

Of everything, Mahmood is best known for her path breaking contributions to formulations on secularism and feminist theory. Mahmood brought careful and nuanced debates in the context of an increasingly shrill and dichotomous academic and political context, mostly dismissive of Muslim societies.
She offered keen analyses of colonial and capitalist power in her account of secularism’s modernity, and formulated ways of understanding feminism, relational subjectivity, religious freedom, religious injury, rights of religious minorities, and comparative legal analysis of religious and secular family law and sexual regulations.


Secularism, producing differences as opposed to regulating Religions
Saba, along with other anthropologists like Talal Asad and Charles Hirschkind showed secularism to be a complex political formation that, in the process of regulating religion, actually, tends to produce differences.

Bringing an understanding that secularism never escapes its own religious histories and also that many a times secularism in itself is influenced by the formations of religions that it seeks to regulate, she said, “Political secularism is the modern state’s sovereign power to reorganize 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.” 

Demarcating the distinctions between the essence of Christianity and Islam, she brought a nuanced understanding to the concept of secularism itself. She said that the concept of distinction between public and private that is central to secular reason, in fact draws its bearing from a modern Christian emphasis on private worship. She contrasted the framework of Christianity which focused on belief, vis a vis the framework of Islam which strongly emphasised on the role of embodied practices within religious life. Hence, she concluded that the supposedly secular epistemologies can’t grasp the articulation of Islamic religious values misconstruing both the Islamic subject and the public meanings of its religious practices.

The Feminist Subject in Islam
Saba Mahmood, also established a ground breaking credential for establishing the agency of the Muslim women, especially the so called pious and devout ones as not merely the objects of gaze of Western feminists and obedient subjects but mainly as subjects with their own thinking minds and agency. Mahmood gave the Western world a new way of seeing the Muslim feminist especially through her observations of Egyptian women, where they were getting educated in the mosques. Explaining this phenomenon, she said, “We have to take seriously the concept of a deep sense of love of God without living in a monastery or convent. But I think it’s difficult in our Western mind-set to imagine a religiously devout woman living in a modern and secular world. They are also getting practical advice to difficult social problems. For example, if you are on public transportation and you are sexually harassed, how do you handle that as a devout person? Often, one of the things women would bring up with other Dai’as is- what does it mean to have a sexual dream? How do I police my desires? What kinds of relationships can I have with my betrothed? Questions like, I found out my daughter has had extra-marital affairs, what do I do about it? Obviously I’m not going to turn her into the state, so what do I do? Women used to be able to write these questions in to a sheikh or call in. But now, women are raising these issues with other women and it’s a very different type of discussion, a much more frank discussion
Thus, she explained from her observations that how mosques were actually becoming spaces where women were coming up with their social problems. Hence, she opened up possibilities that demanded that in order to understand pious women within Islam one had to conceive of a subject defined in its relations to the textual and imagistic representations of the divine.

How Secular regimes helped in exacerbating Religious differences
In her last work, she brought in contrarian viewpoints to the understanding that tribal and religious differences are evidence of the incomplete process of secularization. Instead she showed that how religious differences and conflicts have been exacerbated under secular regimes of power. In the context of the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regimes, she argued that the discrimination and violence suffered by them have increased as the modern state more fully regulated and managed religious life, imposing its own rationales and debated about religion and its practice. She held an important argument that, “Far from realizing ideals of civic and political equality, the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and inter-faith violence.”



An Ocean of Academic work
Mahmood was the author of Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report and Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. The Feminist Subject won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association. She co-authored a 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.  She published numerous articles in the fields of anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical theory, feminist theory, and art criticism and served on several journal boards and read for many presses.  Professor Mahmood was the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Axel Springer Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, and fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. She was the recipient of a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs as well as the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. She also received the Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Andrew Carnegie Scholars' program as a young scholar. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013.

The Personal
Not only was she a brilliant scholar and a dedicated teacher, she loved wilderness and the poetry of Ghalib. She cooked wonderful food. She was a source of inspiration for many scholars who found face to face with Western notions of feminism and secularism. In their obituary, the Berkeley university site said, “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.”



Related Articles
-- How Saudi Wahhabism spread hatred of non-Muslims in Egypt
-- Muslims need to revive the moderate, inclusivist tradition of Indian Islam
--
Constitution, State and Holy Secularism