UC Berkeley anthropology professor Saba Mahmood dies at 56, remembered for contributions to social sciences

mahmood_miladodabaei_courtesy
Milad Odabaei/Courtesy

Saba Mahmood, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology, died Saturday at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer.

Mahmood was born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1962. In 1981, she immigrated to the United States to study architecture and urban planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. Next, she continued her education at Stanford University, where she received a doctorate in anthropology in 1998. In 2004, Mahmood arrived at UC Berkeley.

“Teaching with her was an extraordinary experience,” said Wendy Brown, a campus professor of political science who previously co-taught a course with Mahmood.

According to Brown, Mahmood possessed a certain willingness and curiosity toward new ideas that made the classroom a place of “live thinking.”

Mahmood was an influential member in not only UC Berkeley’s anthropology department, but also the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies.

According to Milad Odabaei, a campus anthropology doctoral candidate, Mahmood was known around the world for her contributions to anthropology, critical theory and feminist theory. Her works shaped scholarly debates on modern Islamic politics in addition to feminist theory and practice across the humanities and social sciences, Odabaei said.

Mahmood questioned assumptions about religion and politics in Western feminism. Her works also presented a new understanding of secularism that deviated from preconceived notions of secularism as being separation of church and state, Odabaei said.

“She taught me a way to question the world,” said Candace Lukasik, a campus graduate student of anthropology and one of Mahmood’s advisees. “When I read something … I think ‘What would Saba say about this?’ ”

Mahmood authored “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” and “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” which received the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association.

“Her first book, for a lot of people, was like a bomb,” said Ian Steele, a campus anthropology graduate student and another of Mahmood’s advisees. “It was clear that it was something people would be reading for a very long time.”

Reading critical theory that respected religion and religious actors was like “a breath of fresh air,” according to Mariem Masmoudi, a program associate in constitution building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Mahmood was also a vibrant figure outside of academics. Mahmood had a passion for foodshe was reputed to be a fantastic cook in addition to being passionate about nature, poetry, politics and family.

Lukasik recalled the care and concern Mahmood showed toward everyone around her. Steele said Mahmood loved to give little gifts and was a good listener.

“(She) left an incredible legacy, (and) shaped the life of many young academics profoundly,” Steele said. “I will never be able to teach without it. That legacy of care is going to live on.”

Contact Andreana Chou at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AndreanaChou.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Milad Odabaei is a postdoctoral candidate. In fact, Odabaei is a doctoral candidate.