Saba Mahmood – A Strong Voice in the Anthropology of Religion and Post-Colonialism

Saba Mahmood was a prominent scholar and professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focused on the intersections between religion, power, and politics in the Middle East and South Asia.

Mahmood’s contributions to the fields of anthropology of religion and post-colonialism have been significant, as she challenged conventional assumptions about these topics and opened up new avenues for inquiry.

In this article, we will explore Saba Mahmood’s life and her work in depth, highlighting her key contributions to these fields.

Early Years and Education

Saba Mahmood was born in Quetta, Pakistan in 1962. She grew up in a family of intellectuals, with her father being a professor of Urdu literature and her mother a social worker. Mahmood received her early education in Pakistan before moving to the United States to pursue higher studies.

Mahmood completed her undergraduate degree in political science from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in 1985. She then went on to earn a Master’s degree in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. In 1991, she received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University.

During her graduate studies, Mahmood became interested in the intersections between Islam, gender, and politics. Her research focused on the role of women’s Islamic piety movements in Egypt and how these movements challenged dominant understandings of secularism and feminism.

Mahmood’s doctoral dissertation formed the basis for her first book, “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” which was published by Princeton University Press in 2005. This book became a seminal work within anthropology of religion and post-colonialism for its innovative approach to studying religious practices as political acts that challenge dominant power structures.

Saba Mahmood and the Anthropology of Religion

The anthropology of religion is a subfield within anthropology that examines the role of religion in human societies. This field explores how religious beliefs, practices, and institutions shape people’s lives, social interactions, and cultural expressions. It also considers how these phenomena are influenced by historical, political, economic, and environmental factors.

Saba Mahmood made significant contributions to the anthropology of religion through her research on Islamic piety movements in Egypt. Her work challenged the dominant assumption that Islamic piety movements were inherently oppressive to women and incompatible with modernity. Instead, she argued that these movements provided new avenues for women to challenge patriarchal norms and assert their agency.

Mahmood also developed several key concepts within the anthropology of religion. One such concept is “piety,” which she defined as a mode of ethical self-cultivation that involves a deep commitment to God and an active engagement with religious practices. In her view, piety was not simply a matter of personal belief but rather a collective practice that could transform social relations.

Another important concept that Mahmood developed is “secularism.” She argued that secularism was not simply the absence of religion from public life but rather a specific form of power that privileged certain ways of being and knowing over others. She showed how secularism was used to marginalize religious actors, particularly Muslim women who wore headscarves or veils.

Saba Mahmood’s contributions to the anthropology of religion have been instrumental in challenging conventional assumptions about Islam and gender relations. Her work has opened up new avenues for inquiry into the complex intersections between religion, politics, and power in diverse contexts around the world.

Saba Mahmood and Post-Colonial Studies

Post-colonialism is an intellectual movement that emerged in the mid-20th century in response to the legacy of colonialism. It seeks to understand how the experiences of colonialism continue to shape contemporary societies, cultures, and politics. Post-colonial scholars examine how power relations between colonizers and colonized are perpetuated even after formal colonization has ended.

Saba Mahmood’s research on Islamic piety movements in Egypt has been influential within post-colonial studies for its examination of how religion can be a site of resistance against dominant power structures. Her work challenged the assumption that Islamic piety movements were merely reactionary responses to Westernization or modernity. Instead, she showed how these movements offered alternative visions of social and political order that were grounded in religious ethics.

Mahmood developed several key concepts within post-colonial studies. One such concept is “epistemic violence,” which refers to the ways in which dominant knowledge systems marginalize or erase alternative ways of knowing. She argued that secular liberalism was guilty of epistemic violence against Islam by dismissing it as inherently patriarchal or anti-modern.

Another important concept that Mahmood developed is “cultural translation.” She used this term to describe the process by which religious practices and beliefs are transformed as they move across cultural and linguistic boundaries. She showed how cultural translation can lead to misunderstandings or distortions of religious practices, particularly when they are viewed through a Western lens.

Saba Mahmood’s contributions to post-colonial studies have been valuable for their nuanced understanding of the complex ways in which religion intersects with power relations and cultural exchange. Her work highlights the importance of examining diverse perspectives and challenging dominant discourses in order to better understand our world.

Saba Mahmood and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a concept that was first introduced by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. It refers to the interconnectedness of social categories such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and others, and how they intersect to shape people’s experiences of oppression and privilege. Intersectionality recognizes that people experience multiple forms of oppression simultaneously and that these forms of oppression cannot be understood in isolation from one another.

Saba Mahmood’s work intersects with issues related to gender, race, class, and other social categories in several ways. Her research on Islamic piety movements in Egypt highlights the intersection between religion and gender. She showed how women who were members of these movements used religious practices as a means of challenging patriarchal norms within their communities.

Mahmood’s work also engages with issues related to post-colonialism and globalization. She examined how global discourses around secularism and liberalism are used to marginalize non-Western perspectives on religion and politics. Her analysis highlights the importance of understanding how power relations operate at multiple levels, from the local to the global.

Furthermore, Mahmood’s work on cultural translation sheds light on how different cultural contexts can impact religious practices. She argued that it is important to take into account the specific cultural meanings attached to religious practices when analyzing them. This approach challenges essentialist assumptions about religion and culture while also recognizing the complexity of lived experiences.

Saba Mahmood’s work demonstrates the importance of intersectionality for understanding complex social phenomena such as religion, gender, race, class, and globalization. Her contributions have helped expand our understanding of these issues by highlighting their interconnectedness and challenging dominant discourses that often perpetuate inequality.

Books and Ethnographies

In “Unveiling Traditions: The Women’s Movement in Egypt”, Mahmood argues that the women’s movement is not simply a struggle for equality with men, but a challenge to patriarchal power structures within Egyptian society. She claims that many of the goals and strategies of the women’s movement are actually quite conservative, and that the ultimate aim is not to achieve equality with men, but rather to uphold traditional values and maintain social stability.

Mahmood’s book, “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject” (2005), is based on her ethnographic work in Cairo, Egypt. The book explores how women participate in the Islamic revival movement in Egypt. Mahmood argues that the movement empowers women by giving them a sense of agency and purpose. She examines the Islamic revival movement in Egypt through the lens of feminist theory. She argues that the resurgence of Islamism is not simply a reaction against secularization and modernity, but a response to the failure of liberal feminist movements to bring about gender equality.

In the book “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” (2015), Mahmood examines how religious minorities navigate secular society. The book is based on her fieldwork with Coptic Christians in Egypt. She argues that the Coptic community has been able to maintain its identity and thrive in spite of discrimination and persecution. The book explores how religious minorities can live peacefully in a secular society. Mahmood explores the phenomenon of religious conversion in Egypt. She argues that the desire to convert to Islam is not simply a matter of individual belief, but is also shaped by social and political factors.

A Strong Legacy

Saba Mahmood’s contributions to post-colonial studies, intersectionality, and critical theory have been immense. Her innovative research on Islamic piety movements in Egypt challenged dominant narratives about religion, gender, and politics. Additionally, her work on cultural translation shed light on the complexities of how different cultural contexts can impact religious practices.

Mahmood’s legacy is a towering one that will continue to inspire scholars and activists for years to come. Her insights into the intersections of power relations between colonizers and colonized, as well as the ways in which social categories such as gender and race shape experiences of oppression and privilege, have profoundly influenced our understanding of these issues.

Moreover, Mahmood’s work has helped expand the scope of critical theory by highlighting the importance of diverse perspectives and challenging dominant discourses. Her contributions serve as a reminder that scholarship must be grounded in a commitment to justice and equity.

In short, Saba Mahmood’s legacy is one that celebrates her intellectual rigor, her commitment to social justice, and her visionary approach to scholarship.

Mahmood died in 2018 at the age of 57. She is survived by her husband, anthropologist Dimitris Papadimitriou, and her two sons.

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