On the morning of March 11, 2018, I woke up to the incredibly sad news that Saba Mahmood had passed away. Professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, a scholar of modern Egypt, and the author of stunning books like “Politics of Piety” and more recently “Religious Difference in a Secular Age,” she shifted paradigms by reframing Eurocentric discourse that’s become pat and uninspired.
I didn’t know her personally. I am not an academic. But as a Pakistani American activist who strives to unpack Islamophobia and imperial feminism, I’ve come to rely heavily on her work on secularism, religiosity, feminism, and ethics.
Saba Mahmood’s seminal book, “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” was published in 2005. In her review of the book for Jadaliyya, Samah Selim writes:
The book is thus both an anthropology of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo in the mid-nineties and an elaborate philosophical critique of secular concepts of agency in a post-9/11 arena where “Islam” is increasingly manufactured by liberal western elites as the antithesis of “reason,” “enlightenment,” and human emancipation, and where “feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses.” The ethnography is framed by a major political statement about the role of academic research in the world at large, and the meaning of resistance to regimes of oppression.
Mahmood’s startling answer to the feminist dilemma raised by the mosque movement is to sever the idea of women’s agency from “resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalization of freedom as a social ideal,” or more broadly speaking, from “the goals of progressive politics.” (In other words, there is no inherent reason why women must resist their oppression, since agency can be fully articulated in an embodied ethical practice that transcends western liberal distinctions of public and private). She does this by proposing the practice of da’wa in women’s circles in Cairo as an example of “lifeworlds” that altogether escape the antinomies of liberal thought, including feminist ones.
Studying the mosque movement turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Mahmood herself. In her essay, “Feminist Theory, Agency, and the Liberatory Subject: Some Reflections on the Islamic Revival in Egypt,” she reflects:
But what I have come to ask of myself, and would like to ask the reader, as well, is: Do my political visions ever run up against the responsibility that I incur for the destruction of life forms so that “unenlightened” women may be taught to live more freely? Do I even fully comprehend the forms of life that I want so passionately to remake? Would an intimate knowledge of lifeworlds that are distinct from mine ever question my own certainty about what I prescribe as a superior way of life for others?
[…] As someone who has come to believe, along with a number of other feminists, that the political project of feminism is not predetermined but needs to be continually negotiated within specific contexts, I have come to confront a number of questions: What do we mean when we as feminists say that gender equality is the central principle of our analysis and politics? How does my being enmeshed within the thick texture of my informants’ lives affect my openness to this question? Are we willing to countenance the sometimes violent task of remaking sensibilities, life worlds, and attachments so that women like those I worked with may be taught to value the principle of freedom? Furthermore, does a commitment to the ideal of equality in our own lives endow us with the capacity to know that this ideal captures what is or should be fulfilling for everyone else? If it does not, as is surely the case, then I think we need to rethink, with far more humility than we are accustomed to, what feminist politics really means. (Here I want to be clear that my comments are not directed at “Western feminists” alone, but also address “Third World” feminists and all those who are located somewhere within this polarized terrain, since these questions implicate all of us given the liberatory impetus of the feminist tradition.)
“Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech” came out in 2009, in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons controversy. In conversation with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler, Mahmood suggested that “struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law.” She was “puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press” and wondered if this was because the “religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate.” After all, “the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation.”
Saba Mahmood’s “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” was published in 2015. Sophie Chamas reviewed the book for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs:
In Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, Mahmood argues that by solidifying religious divisions and emphasizing differences, modern secularism itself has heightened tensions in countries like Egypt. The modern state and the secular political rationality that animates it, she argues, has paradoxically made religion a more, rather than less, significant part of the lives and subjectivities of those who belong to both minority and majority communities.
In Mahmood’s view, while political secularism extricates religion from politics and relegates it to the private sphere, it positions religion as an essential aspect of individual and collective identity, thereby emphasizing rather than de-emphasizing religion, increasing rather than decreasing its importance. As it promises to free the state from religion and religion from the state, secularism, by defining and limiting religion’s appropriate place in society as private, personal belief, restricts and polices the practice of religion. Secularism thus reserves itself the right to adjudicate on what constitutes an integral aspect of a “belief system” and is therefore entitled to protection under the state’s commitment to religious freedom and equality.
[…] Religious Difference in a Secular Age persuasively highlights the ways in which the modern secular state cultivates religious difference, reinscribes religious inequality, and prioritizes majoritarian values and sensibilities over those of its minorities while claiming to be a neutral arbiter between communities. The author acknowledges that secularism is not something that can be done away with, any more than modernity can be. Though Mahmood declines or fails to envision an alternative, she argues that depriving secularism of its “innocence and neutrality” can help craft a different future.
As I mourn the loss of a major thinker, a rigorous scholar and public intellectual, a woman of color from the Global South who influenced the work of countless academics all over the world and provided Muslim activists like myself the language to challenge the “civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West,” I have delved deeply into her work and discovered more gems.
For example, before turning to anthropology, Saba Mahmood was an architect who worked in dense urban neighborhoods, designing housing for the poor and homeless. Also, when still a student at Stanford University, in a piece entitled “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism: Comments on Stuart Hall’s ‘Culture, Community, Nation’,” Mahmood questioned Hall, the legendary cultural theorist and academic, about “how is it that arguments made with a progressive agenda converge epistemologically and argumentatively with those of the political right, perhaps unintentionally, in their failure to decenter normative assumptions derived from the entelechy of Western European history about the political aspirations of ethnic, nationalist and/or politico-religious social movements?”
She was indomitable. She was only 56. Her work will continue to improve us.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
Mara Ahmed is an artist and filmmaker whose third documentary A Thin Wall, a film about the partition of India in 1947, was released in 2015. She is now working on a film about racism in America. She blogs at maraahmed.com and is based in Rochester, New York.