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.
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.
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.
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