Saba Mahmood (1962-2018) was a pioneering anthropologist of Islam and secularism, a feminist theorist of gender and religion, and a critic of liberal certainties. Her scholarly work marked a paradigm shift not only in anthropology, but also in religious studies, women’s and gender studies, and political theory. She engaged critically with secularism and secularity, which she understood less as theoretical problems in the history of religion than as practices informing the limits of modern liberal politics. What follows here tracks three domains in which her scholarly work intervened—ethics, politics, and hermeneutics.
Mahmood is best known for her pathbreaking 2005 book, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, an ethnography of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt in the late 1990s. The book intervenes in feminist theory by critiquing the assumption that agency can only occur in opposition to patriarchal norms. Through her ethnography, Mahmood demonstrates how norms facilitate, inflect, and inform the acting subject. She thus understands agency as the capacity to act, not just against norms, but also from within them. In so doing, she seeks “to develop an analytical language for thinking about modalities of agency that exceed liberatory projects (feminist, leftist, or liberal)” [2012: x]).
As a critical engagement with the post-9/11 discourse on gender and religion, Mahmood’s book equally reframes the anthropology of ethics by attending to the disciplines and practices integral to the pious self. In unpacking the moral lives of the women she studies, Mahmood’ rejects the Kantian vision of ethics as “an abstract system of regulatory norms.” Instead, she draws together an Aristotlean concept of virtue (integral to the Islamic tradition) and the later work of Michel Foucault in which ethical self-cultivation is “oriented towards the goal of living well” (2012b: 223). For the women Mahmood studies, what it means to live well is defined by a set of norms and practices that define a tradition, which constitutes the “scaffolding… through which the self is realized (2005: 148).” She writes:
The women I worked with did not regard trying to emulate authorized models of behavior [i.e. the behaviors outlined in the scriptural and interpretive traditions] as an external social imposition that constrained individual freedom. Rather, they treat socially authorized forms of performance as the potentialities –the ground if you will—through which the self is realized (2005: 31).
This relationship between authority and subject formation leads her to a set of critical questions about the nature of politics:
How do we conceive of individual freedom in a context where the distinction between the subject’s own desires and socially prescribed performances cannot easily be presumed, and where submission to certain forms of (external) authority is a condition for achieving the subject’s potentiality? In other words, how does one make the question of politics integral to the analysis of the architecture of the self? (2005:31).
Mahmood’s second book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age, uses the political conundrum faced by Egyptian Copts – “how to forge a political future that would level past historical inequalities without reifying their difference from the Muslim majority” (Mahmood 2016: 73) – to explore another key axis of her later work, namely, the problem minorities pose to secularism, and vice versa. Egyptian Copts’ untenable situation emerges, Mahmood writes, from “an irresolvable tension located at the heart of the concept of minority in liberal-democratic societies: on the one hand, a minority is supposed to be an equal partner with the majority in the building of the nation: on the other, its difference (religious, racial, ethnic) poses an incipient threat to the identity of the nation that is grounded in the religious linguistic, and cultural norms of the majority” (2016: 32).
This tension is also the engine that keeps secularism humming. As Mahmood writes, “Minorities often contest the discriminatory practices of secular law through the same legal instruments that enshrine majoritarian privilege. This constant back and forth – the possibility of prejudice and equality – is highly generative in that it keeps the promise of secular neutrality alive” (2016: 176). In other words, the aspiration for equality on the part of minorities (what Lauren Berlant  might call a kind of cruel optimism) is integral to how secularism and its concomitant organization of state sovereignty function: minorities call on the state for redress and, in so doing, enable the state to underscore its neutrality and re-entrench its sovereignty. This particular organization of secular sovereignty, Mahmood argues, has “become the ineluctable condition of our political imagination” (87) and underpins most minorities’ struggles for religious liberty and equality, struggles that position minorities in an always-dependent and therefore always-precarious relationship to the state.
Might there be a way to achieve religious equality (and other forms of equality) without engaging the state? At the end of her book, Mahmood distinguishes between religious equality “as a mandate of the modern state” and as an aspiration in everyday life for communities like the Copts and Bahais (211), and she closes Religious Difference by asking whether “the idea of interfaith equality might require not the bracketing of religious differences but their ethical thematization as a necessary risk when the conceptual and political resources of the state have proved inadequate to the challenge this ideal sets before us” (213). Mahmood does not elaborate on what she means by “ethical thematization,” but the distinction she posits between ethics and the juridico-political resources of the state might be productively read through an earlier distinction in the book between political secularism – pertaining “to the modern state’s relationship to, and regulation of religion” – and secularity – “the set of concepts, norms, sensibilities, and dispositions that characterize secular societies and subjectivities” (3).
This distinction between political secularism and secularity parallels a similar move by Talal Asad, who distinguishes between “democracy as a state system” and “democratic sensibility as an ethos (whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’)” (Asad 2012, 56, original emphasis). Asad contends that although democracy as a state system is “fundamentally exclusive”, a democratic ethos “tends toward greater inclusivity” and “involves the desire for mutual care, distress at the infliction of pain and indignity, [and] concern for truth more than for immutable subjective rights” (56, original emphasis). Was Mahmood, then, positing the possibility of secularity as an ethos, not simply distinct from secularism as a legal and political system of the state but also, at times, in productive tension with it? After all, the key question she asks but does not answer – “Can secularity – as a substrate of ethical sensibilities, attitudes, and dispositions – provide the resources for a critical practice that does not privilege the agency of the state? (Mahmood 2016, 212) – seems to suggest that secularity might provide a means toward the ethical thematization of religious difference, rather than its legal adjudication via the secular state.
And yet, the framing of any distinction between political secularism and secularity as a question is equally key to Mahmood’s critical project, one that offers not so much answers, as possibilities – and possibilities beyond our epistemological horizons – opened up by a critical understanding of secularism and secularity.
Against the backdrop of ethics and politics, hermeneutics has a more muted and yet persistent recurrence in a number of essays Mahmood published around her two books. Her commitment as a scholar is less a prescriptive vision of how the world should be (progressivist narratives) than an analytical engagement with how sensibilities are formed (hermeneutics). In Mahmood’s use of the term, hermeneutics is not a matter of reading in a strictly textual sense; rather, it has more to do with the sensibilities that inflect a critical attitude. In fact, one could say that the interpretative site in Mahmood’s work is less in the text (whether Azazeel or the Danish cartoons, for example) than the conditions of its reception, the terms of response, and competing frames of intelligibility. And one can see how Mahmood’s delicate engagement with the body (situations, sensibilities, and conditions) and mind (interpretation, response, and critique) has especially critical implications for the place of thinking, interpretation, and ultimately, hermeneutics.
What might a Mahmood-inspired reading practice look like? What implications does her hermeneutic analysis offer for literary and cultural study? For one, Mahmood’s work provides a critical shift from textual or representational analysis (of the sort pursued in the early work of Edward Said and Timothy Mitchell) to a consideration of ethical analysis (echoed in the work of Talal Asad). Like Asad, Mahmood pushes hermeneutics beyond a matter of textuality, interpretation, or representation in order to consider the practices and disciplines that make possible a certain relationship to texts and meaning. She draws in this move from Asad’s critique of Geertz on the anthropology of religion. Where Geertz addresses the role of symbols in the context of religion as a cultural system, Asad addresses embodied practices by which symbols become symbolic. With an implicit emphasis on “how social disciplines produce and authorise knowledges,” Asad questions the formation of categories and the contingency of semiotic models of interpretation (252). Even in the introduction to Formations of the Secular where he engages key terms of classical literary study (symbol, myth, allegory), he does so with a critical anthropological approach to the disciplines and practices through which certain thoughts are rendered possible.
Mahmood’s indebtedness to a theory of practice is clear, and her essay “Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire” and her reflections on Azazeel are two quite explicit examples of her engagement with reading, interpretation, and textual ideology. Her article “Religious Reason, Secular Affect” hits most directly on the entanglement of reading, interpretation, and ethics. This essay begins by drawing a distinction between “shrill polemics” and “more reflective voices (833)” to reframe the terms in which the Danish cartoon scandal has been understood. We encounter an anthropology predicated not on cultural distinctions between “here” and “there,” but analytic distinctions between shrill and reflective response, good and bad readings. On the one hand, Mahmood provincializes presumptions about the mimetic function of texts, and on the other, she considers alternate textual ideologies—in this case, anchored in her attention to schesis (which she read against mimesis). By taking seriously the role of the prophet Muhammad as an embodied model of virtue, she expands well beyond a conversation about good or bad depictions, free speech or blasphemy. Her abiding interest in the historical debates surrounding schesis lead her to examine the sensibilities that inform the experience of an aesthetic encounter. Defining what the cartoon, art, religion, or literature is thus becomes inseparable from how it comes to matter. And how it comes to matter turns critically on the sensibilities that undergird how it is read.
A scholar committed to history and anthropology, to the sites — geographical, temporal, and bodily — that make certain concepts thinkable, Mahmood was not someone with any investment in political theology. Rather than engage religion as a set of codified precepts, she tracked disciplines and practices that informed the embodiment of traditions, the cultivation of pious sensibilities, and the desire for certain futures. She was a thinker deeply committed to understanding the place of religion and secularism in modern politics, and her scholarly work inspired a critical questioning that hits at the very heart of what it means to act, to value, and to think in the world.
Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)
Mahmood’s defining book is an ethnography of a women’s mosque movement in Egypt that not only challenged key principles in feminist thought, but also offered a novel framework through which to understand the ethics and politics of pious subjectivity.
Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015)
Mahmood’s second book examines the history and contemporary status of religious minorities in the modern Middle East, in so doing analyzing the place and politics of religious difference in the secularism/secularity nexus.
“Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide? Critical Inquiry, 35(4) 2009.
One of many articles Mahmood published on secularism and secularity, her intervention on the Danish cartoon controversy is a critical analysis of aesthetic sensibilities and the discourse of moral injury.
Talal Asad. Formations of the Secular (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003)
—-. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz,” Man 18: 2, 1983, pp 237-259.
—-. “Thinking About Religious Belief and Politics.” In Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert Orsi, 36–57 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Saba Mahmood. “Azazeel and the Politics of Historical Fiction in Egypt,” Comparative Literature, 65:3, 2013, pp 265-284.
—-. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide? Critical Inquiry 35:4, 2009b.
—-.“Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture, 18:2, 2006, pp 323-347.
—-. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16:2, 2001, pp 202-236.
—-. Politics of Piety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)
—-. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015)
—-. “Preface to the 2012 Edition,” in Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, second edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
—-. “Ethics and Piety,” in A Companion to Moral Anthropology, ed. Didier Fassin (Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2012b).