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On Saba Mahmood

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood, who died on March 10, 2018, of pancreatic cancer, aged 56, changed the course of scholarship in two main areas: feminist thinking and secularism.

Her first book, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2011), an ethnography of Muslim women in Cairo, was a path-breaking intervention into feminist theory. Mahmood’s most recent work, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015), argued that discrimination in Egypt is not a result of incomplete secularization processes, but is, rather, integral to secular regimes of power.

Three scholars who engaged with Mahmood’s work share their thoughts with Mada Masr on her scholarship and her passing.

Lara Deeb

When asked to comment on the influence of Saba Mahmood’s work, I immediately thought back to my first reading of Politics of Piety (2004). Saba had generously sent me the pre-publication proofs while I was revising my first book manuscript (such generosity, even to students and colleagues who she did not know personally, was typical of her). Focused as I was on my revision, I read it narrowly that first time, and was most excited about her argument linking embodied practice, specifically prayer, to the cultivation of virtuous dispositions. Despite significant differences of context and history, I recognized that cultivation of piety through prayer from my own interlocutors’ practices and understandings of their faith. It resonated.

I have since re-read and taught Politics of Piety many times and have come to think of its most important feature as its capacity to go beyond reminding us that not all women (nor all people, for that matter) desire the same thing. Mahmood did so by challenging the foundations that undergird that assumption in the first place, and by shaking the core of liberal feminism, a core that has a way of re-emerging in modified form, again and again in scholarship and public discourse alike. This was not a “liberation looks different to different people” argument; this was an argument that set liberation aside as a desire, historicized and contextualized it as a premise, and showed that there are alternative ways of being a person in the world, desires other than freedom, desires for which freedom is, in fact, irrelevant. It is also an argument that speaks to one of the core questions of anthropology: what does it mean to cultivate, in oneself, certain ways of being a person? And, crucially, how can this process be understood without carrying agency as a concept forward with all its liberal history, and in so doing, eliding radical differences in possible outcomes?

Mahmood’s argument created a wake so powerful that scholars writing about gender, feminism, piety, agency, religiosity, liberalism, or even Muslim-majority societies more generally simply had to engage with it. These engagements were often interpreted to mean having to take a position, for or against. On the one hand, this had the positive effect of making it more difficult for liberal feminist arguments to (re)assert themselves, unless they deliberately ignored her intervention. On the other hand, the bifurcation of the intellectual terrain into those who agreed and those who did not sometimes had the effect of losing the larger importance of Politics of Piety in the details. In my view, the power of Mahmood’s argument is in its assertion that notions of freedom, liberation and agency cannot be understood from within the liberal framework that gave rise to them in the first place, an assertion that challenges scholars to question our own grounding in specific epistemological commitments.

Saba carried that challenge into her later work, as well as into her deeply committed political engagements, which were therefore infused with integrity. Whether or not one agreed with her or knew her personally, whatever the fashion in which one engaged with her ideas, I suspect all of us can agree that Saba Mahmood was one of the most important theorists of our generation, a theorist whose work generated new possibilities for thinking about difference. As a scholar and colleague, she modeled a fierce intellectual engagement, combined with equally fierce generosity and care. It’s impossible to know the entirety of what our future conversations have lost with Saba’s passing, but I know I, and many others, feel the loss keenly.

Lara Deeb is chair of the Anthropology Department at Scripps College, Claremont. Her research interests include the politics of knowledge production, gender and sexuality, religion especially Islam, transnational feminism and the Middle East, especially Lebanon.

Maya Mikdashi

I started graduate school the year that Politics of Piety was published. I first read the book in a seminar on Middle East Anthropology, and of course, I didn’t understand it. I resisted the text, but after arguing about the book in class that first time, I went home and re-read it — discovering that I had been shaped by the very theories and practices of agency, freedom and feminism that Mahmood picked apart like a surgeon (or like the architect she was trained as). These theories, linkages and practices had been become so hegemonic that it took a book like Politics of Piety for many of us to see them.

I teach “The Subject of Freedom,” the first chapter of Politics of Piety, whenever I can. The best word I can use to describe reading the chapter is symphonic: the argument builds and swells, the motif returns and you are left with the feeling of experience, that impoverished word to describe what cuts across body and mind.

I had “met” Saba the year before Politics of Piety was published. I was applying to graduate school and I spoke to her on the phone about my options. I was not her student, her friend or tied to her in any formal way, yet Saba kept up with me throughout my graduate career. Over the years, she generously read grant applications and invited me to conferences and workshops. We did not always agree politically or intellectually, but I learned more from those moments of disagreement than I ever could through agreement.

Saba was very supportive of our work in founding and editing Jadaliyya, an ezine that seeks to reach beyond the realms of academia, and saw it as a natural extension of the kinds of knowledge production and circulation she was also invested in, not as time away from “serious” academic knowledge production. In this way, her greatest impact on me was the care she bestowed on younger scholars. The most undervalued, and perhaps most critical, form of academic labor, after all, is the practice of mentorship and solidarity, both inside and outside of institutions.

I mention that Saba was trained as an architect because the more I read her, the more I imagine her texts as crafted edifices, full of raw materials, metals, joints and perspective — utility and design. In a floor plan or design, everything must be perfectly precise, but it must also contain within it the possibility of radical revision if it is to be built and used. Books, like buildings, are primarily spaces to dwell in. Her most recent book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age (2015), sheltered me through an illness when I found great relief in my books. I sent Saba a photograph of the first two pages of my copy: almost every line was underlined and my ferocious margin scribbles surrounded the printed text with many, many stars and exclamation points — expressions of wonder. She, the person who was one of very few internationally recognized, non-white, capital letter Feminist Theorists, wrote back simply with a smiley face emoji and a few kind words.

To feel bereft is not the same as to be in mourning. At least, they are not synonyms. I didn’t understand why this loss, which many of us knew was coming, rendered me feeling disoriented. One friend responded that Saba and her work were warm and generous presences for our entire careers, and that we just expected decades of reading, debate and conversation to come. I came into a profession and a conversation in feminist scholarship at the moment of Saba’s most impactful intervention into debates about agency, secularism, freedom and resistance, meaning that I entered into a field in transformation. I had imagined reading her, hugging her at conferences and smiley emojis for years to come. And so I feel bereft, which, as the Oxford Dictionary reminds me, is to feel “Deprived of or lacking (something).”  Not in mourning exactly, but disoriented in the way that something, someone, who just appeared to always be there, in thought, on page, in person — is no longer physically there — a presence that, in absence, brings an edifice, a building, a text, a conversation into a new relation — one with an ending. Bereft.

Maya Mikdashi is assistant professor of women and gender studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University and a co-founding editor of the ezine Jadaliyya. Her research interests include minorities in the Middle East, comparative settler colonialism, feminist methodologies and social justice.

Samuli Schielke

Although academics constantly need to act if they are inventing something new and groundbreaking, really groundbreaking ideas are actually very rare. Saba Mahmood’s 2005 book Politics of Piety, which I bought at the American University in Cairo bookstore in 2006 was, for me, one of those rare moments of encountering a really revolutionary idea that made everything seem different. In her book on women who participated in prayers and study circles in mosques during the high tide of the Islamic revival in the 1990s, she convincingly questioned the idea that freedom is a general striving, and that agency (social scientific jargon for the ability to act and make a difference) needs to go against the grain of power and conservative authority. I actually bought the book twice, because somebody borrowed it and didn’t bring it back, so I went and bought the second edition, released in 2012.

Saba Mahmood had that special skill of taking ideas one step further and, by doing so, making the wider issue appear in a different light. If we don’t assume that agency means individual freedom, then suddenly all kinds of things that might have seemed like passive submission turn out to be the result of active, hard work by people who put a lot of reflection and energy into their submission to God and legitimate authority. Her work never failed to deliver this kind of provocative proposal to think about things differently. Just weeks ago, I was reading her latest (and now unfortunately last) book on sectarianism and secularism in Egypt, in which she argues that the oppressed position of Copts in Egypt is, partly, a consequence of the way in which the Egyptian nation state was built on a combination of Ottoman heritage and secular ideas of nationality and law. If you try to turn heterogenous communities into a unified nation, difference may become a more threatening problem than it was before. Secularism in such a state-centered sense is maybe not the best deal for those who are markedly different and fewer in numbers.

As much as I have been inspired by her work, I also disagree with many parts of it. I have found that her thinking inspires me to think even further, or against the grain of her argument. Paradoxically, I owe a big part of my own career to her indirectly, because my most successful publication contained a critique of her work. In Egypt and around the world, her writing has been received in very different ways, ranging from enthusiasm and inspiration, to critical appreciation and also rejection. And that is what makes intellectual greatness: the ability to come up with ideas that are not simply agreeable, but that inspire a wide range of people in agreement and disagreement alike.

Her impact goes far beyond the issue of scientific inquiry in the narrow sense. Her work has been especially inspiring and emancipating for young scholars who have found in it a way to combine their Muslim faith with rigorous critical inquiry in the mainstream social sciences. In places like Europe and North America, this is a big thing, a real accomplishment. She has inspired some of the best critiques of European new nationalism and the way fear of Islam features in it. On the other hand, some have found her work problematic, especially some secularists from Muslim-majority countries, because, while Mahmood critiques western, secular and liberal hegemony, they saw themselves struggling with a conservative, Islamic hegemony. Some Egyptian academics were particularly unhappy with her critique of the liberal hermeneutics of Egyptian Quranic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

I have also learned that she was a very inspiring supervisor and mentor. Unfortunately, I never met her in person, which was my own fault as I missed at least two occasions when I could have. Her death came as a shock to me and leaves me with different senses of sorrow: sadness for her husband, son, family, friends and colleagues who will have to go on without her, regret that I missed the chance to encounter and exchange ideas with her, rather than just read her work, and a sense of being deprived of the joyful expectation of her next work and the new inspirations and further thoughts it might bring me.

Samuli Schielke is a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. His research interests include Islam, festive culture, subjectivity and morality, and migration and aspiration in Egypt.

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Lara Deeb, Maya Mikdashi and Samuli Schielke