Accepting the Distinguished Scholar Award on behalf of Saba Mahmood

The following is an edited version of the comments Noah Salomon delivered at the AAA Middle East Studies Section Meeting in November 2018, accepting its “Distinguished Scholar Award” on behalf of Saba Mahmood, who passed away on March 10, 2018.

It is hard for me to get my head around the tragedy of the fact that Saba Mahmood could not be here to accept this award she so richly deserves in person. In one sense, this award marks something we already know about Saba’s work—its path-breaking distinction in the anthropology of the Middle East. We know this merely from surveying the work that has come after it, which could disagree with but never ignore the interventions she made. In another sense, though, it marks something novel: for though Saba’s work set paradigms, really from its initial annunciation, she never sat on her laurels, her thought consistently moving and developing in new directions. She was a scholar who was a central figure in several fields: the anthropology of the Middle East, of Islam, of secularism, of gender studies, of the study of religion, for which you’d be hard pressed to find a program where her work is not required reading for students. Yet despite this, she was eternally evolving, in the novel questions she asked and, importantly, in the risks she was willing to take in asking them. This was so clear not only in her final book Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, but also to those students who were lucky enough to attend her final seminars, which sought creatively to explore, through literature, the prospects of hope in landscapes of radical loss, a space remarkably “where ends become beginnings,” as Basit Iqbal has put it movingly in his published reflections on one of these seminars.

It was this characteristic mix of humility in relation to what she held true, and daringness in relation to what she was willing to entertain, and what cost she was willing to pay to for doing so, that struck me about Saba from the very beginning of the time in which I was lucky enough to know her.
Saba’s writings have made an indelible impression on my own work, as they have on so many scholars of the Middle East both near and far. Yet, it was as a teacher that I first encountered her, so many years ago on the third floor of Swift Hall at the University of Chicago, in a class that absolutely changed my life. “The Intellectual Roots of the Contemporary Islamic Revival in the Middle East,” she called it, and I had taken it on whim, a first year graduate student in Islamic studies, only interested in the “intellectual roots” but willing, begrudgingly, to entertain the contemporary moment. What I found in that class opened my mind to a new way of thinking of the world, one in which we might not just study classical traditions as objects of historical inquiry, but might open ourselves up to what such traditions, and those who have found them meaningful, might say about conundrums that plague our present. Saba’s work from beginning to end was characterized by this feature. In this, she asked us, her readers and her students, to travel with her to “embark upon an inquiry in which we do not assume that the political positions we uphold will necessarily be vindicated, or provide the ground for our theoretical analysis, but instead hold open the possibility that we may come to ask of politics a whole series of questions that seemed settled when we first embarked on the inquiry” (Mahmood 2005, 39). It was this characteristic mix of humility in relation to what she held true, and daringness in relation to what she was willing to entertain, and what cost she was willing to pay to for doing so, that struck me about Saba from the very beginning of the time in which I was lucky enough to know her. Take a look at the very first essay she published, as a graduate student, a brilliant critique of Martin Marty and Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalisms project in the Middle East Report for an example of this.  

In some corners of the anthropology of the Middle East, Saba was sometimes accused of being more interested in the critical theory of the academy than in ethnography, but this was a criticism I could never understand. Perhaps the defining characteristic of her work is her engagement of the ideas of the interlocutors whom she encountered as theorists, expanding and making more capacious our political horizons and unsettling what we thought to be true. That is to say, for her there is no gap between ethnography and theory. And it is that commitment, that generative style of listening, that has made her fieldwork so very resonant for so many scholars across the academy.

[Saba’s] work has forced us to rethink [the Middle East] in so many ways. But her writings have been equally important for reminding us that the contemporary Middle East is a space imbued with logics that exceed it, particularly as it has been colonized, securitized, or otherwise made the object of our fantasies and escapades.
This stance is also what has made Saba’s work so deeply refreshing for those who have been marginalized in an academic conversation that relies on what I might call a parochial openness, insisting that inclusivity can only be premised on the sundering of ties to tradition and its limits, and thus alienating and excluding views that rely on anything other than secular-liberal foundations, denying them a seat at the table. Such innovation is highly significant within a field that, like so many, has in no way transcended a deeply unequal politics of knowledge. Students and scholars with other sorts of commitments immediately, and rightly, saw an ally in Saba, not in that she necessarily agreed with them, but in that the conversations she was willing to host might include a diversity of ideas in building a critical social science.

That Saba’s work is being recognized today by the Middle East Section of the AAA at the Annual Meeting is fitting, as her writings have forced us to rethink that region in so many ways. But her work is equally important for reminding us that the contemporary Middle East is a space imbued with logics that exceed it, particularly as it has been colonized, securitized, or otherwise made the object of our fantasies and escapades. It is this message that so deeply imbues Religious Difference in a Secular Age, but also several key articles that precede it. Saba reminded us that the study of the Middle East is always very much a study of western power, as well, and how it had come to structure the political imagination that unfolded there, but also how other, older legacies, to quote her from Religious Difference in a Secular Age “tweak [those shared secular concepts and institutions] in particular ways, giving them a specific shape and form” (2016, 208), creating a set of what she calls “overlapping histories.” In this sense, Saba insisted that the work of the scholar must push further, recognizing that the movements we study emerge only in a cauldron of forces tied to global capital, western power, and political secularism, and to provide them with critical interrogation. This insight too is evident from her earliest writings. Saba demanded that we read widely.

I accept this award on behalf of all of Saba’s students, both the ones who sat with her in the classroom and those who have read her work closely and have learned from it. The labor she undertook to produce work of such depth and precision, in each and every paragraph she wrote, is her remarkable achievement alone, but her legacy must also be ours. It is only in this way that her work can serve as it must, not only as a touchstone, but as a generative body to think with for many decades to come. Thank you.

Noah Salomon is an associate professor of religion and director of Middle East studies at Carleton College.

If you are interested in submitting news, please contact contributing editors, Nazlı Özkan ([email protected]) and Beth Derderian ([email protected]).

Cite as: Salomon, Noah. 2019. “Accepting the Distinguished Scholar Award on behalf of Saba Mahmood.” Anthropology News website, April 3, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1124

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