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

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.

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

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  • SMH


    I remember professor Saba Mahmoud’s contribution to censoring strong critical questions & thus against open intellectual inquiry at a university — a supposed institution of higher learning.

    That so, above, where she wouldn’t permit a particular question — [about the ideology of Zionism and a Jewish-supremacist state, Israel, being ideologically racist, where 20% of the population is Palestinian inside Israel itself, and probably still over 50% Palestinian all together including the Occupied Territories, and poor recruited exploited Southeast Asian immigrant workers] — from the audience by one of the few black people there — [black people knowing what racism is] — to John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt, during Q&A, after their UC Berkeley Law School, Booth Auditorium, talk on the Israel lobby, back in the fall of 2007.

    Professor Saba Mahmoud was, for the Zionists, duly policing — censoring — questions from the audience that might be too morally or intellectually critical of Israel/Zionism. Even at many of the U.S.’s “institution of higher learning”, some questions are inherently too morally &/or intellectually critical to be tolerated — especially if those questions expose .hypocrisy in the ideology or practice under question.

    Now I don’t know if Walt & Mearsheimer would have openly agreed that an ethnic-supremacist — even a Jewish-supremacist — state is inherently racist, although their book, “The Israel Lobby” was indeed meant to question an Israelocentric U.S. foreign policy, but sometimes it’s more important that a critical question itself be asked, even if the morally true answer is understandably evaded — especially given the stranglehold that Zionism and the Israel lobby have on establishment U.S. society and that Zionism poisons everything that lets it institutionally come into contact with it.