An anthropologist who brought challenging new perspectives to our understanding of secularism and Islam has died.
Saba Mahmood was born in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1962 and moved to the US in 1981 for a bachelor's degree in architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington (1985). She secured separate master’s in architecture (1987) and urban planning (1988) at the University of Michigan and worked as an architect and housing developer (1988-92). She then switched to political science and anthropology with further master’s degrees and subsequently a PhD at Stanford University (1998), which led to a position as an assistant professor in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (1999-2003).
In 2004, Professor Mahmood moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she would remain for the rest of her career, from 2015 as professor of anthropology. She had close links with Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Institute for South Asia Studies, where she played a major role in launching the country’s first Pakistan studies initiative.
An authority on modern Egypt, Professor Mahmood published widely on anthropology, history, religious studies, political science, critical and feminist theory. She also offered many valuable insights into the relationship between secularism and Islam at a time when much scholarly discussion of the Muslim world was simplistic if not actively hostile.
In her book Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005), for example, Professor Mahmood demonstrated how the pious Muslim women who she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but engaged in forms of ethical self-cultivation, even if these might be hard for Western moral philosophy to appreciate. Her works such as Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2015) argued that secularism can never escape its own religious histories, and particularly that the sharp division between public and private spheres reflects a Christian perspective that is out of tune with Islamic religious values. And, in her most recent work, on discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, she claimed that secular regimes of power have actually exacerbated religious conflict.
Laurie Wilkie, professor of anthropology at Berkeley, recalled Professor Mahmood as “a caring friend to many of us across the campus” who “possessed a singular, robust laugh that matched the energy and passion that she brought to all things in her life” and had left “many important contributions within and beyond anthropology”.
Professor Mahmood died of pancreatic cancer on 10 March and is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, associate professor of anthropology at Berkeley, and their son, Nameer Hirschkind.