I never managed to meet Saba Mahmood in person, and the fault is mine. Was I anxious about meeting the person whose work had inspired me so much in a somewhat paradoxical way? Or was it just the social awkwardness characteristic of some male academics? In any case, I missed a chance that is now no longer mine to have. This is a humbling reminder that our knowledge of important ideas is partial if it comes only from texts. As much as we may try, we cannot have the kind of dialogue with texts that we can have with their authors.
However, I do belong to those lucky enough to have come of age academically in a moment when her work transformed the kinds of questions that anthropologists of my generation were likely to ask about Islam, subjectivity, gender, will, freedom, secularisms, and states. Because I did not know her as a teacher, supervisor, or discussant, Saba Mahmood's publications were and remain my exclusive point of access to her work. With those publications, I have developed a close relationship over the years, constantly seeking their inspiration, and engaging with them in a one-sided conversation. For as much as I have been inspired by her work, I have also found in her thinking an invitation to think even further, often against the grain of her arguments. Such inspiration combined with questioning can be easily misunderstood as rejection and refusal, and this misunderstanding is aggravated by the spirit of academic careers, which need to be crafted either in alliance with or in contrast to people who are more competent and more knowledgeable than oneself. This has resulted at times in an unfortunate polarization of academic debates, as if one needed to either be for or against her groundbreaking insights, a misleading polarization of which my work has been part as well. And yet what makes intellectual greatness is not the ability to come up with ideas that are simply agreeable, but rather the capacity to inspire a wide range of people in different ways, to elicit varying degrees of agreement and disagreement. There can be no question about it: Saba Mahmood had that kind of greatness.
Although academics constantly need to act if they were inventing something new and groundbreaking, actual groundbreaking ideas are rare. Reading Mahmood's 2005 book Politics of Piety, which I bought at the bookstore of the American University in Cairo in 2006, was for me one of those precious moments when a revolutionary idea makes everything seem different. I actually bought the book twice, because someone borrowed my copy and didn't return it, and so I went and bought the second edition, which had just been released. I do not have access to my notes in the margins of my first copy, which some aspiring scholar now has in her possession. But I remember the eye-opening effect of her engagement with freedom, will, habitus, ethics, and the many other themes that the book takes up. I started reading the book while doing preliminary fieldwork for my postdoctoral project, and it became a constant companion in that research.
Politics of Piety gives an account of the women who participated in prayers and study circles in mosques during the high tide of the Islamic Revival in the 1990s. In the book, Mahmood questions the idea that freedom is a general striving. She also questions the idea that “agency” (in the sense of the ability to act and make a difference) needs to go against the grain of power and conservative authority. Mahmood had that special ability to take ideas one step further and by doing so to make the whole issue appear in a different light. If we don't assume that agency means individual freedom, then suddenly all kinds of things that might have looked like passive submission turn out to be the result of active, hard work on the part of people who devote serious reflection to the question of how to submit well to God and to legitimate authority.
I conducted my research among other kinds of people, not so energetically committed as the women in the mosques Mahmood wrote about. I was interested in understanding the effect of the Islamic Revival on people who were not very active in such movements, but also not opposed to them: people who were influenced by the Islamic Revival but were not part of its committed vanguard and also were not secularists who would question the revivalist movement. While Mahmood saw a competition between pious and secular regimes of subjectivity, I saw an uneasy coexistence of many different ways to try to live a good life as well as an incontestable societal consensus according to which one should be more God-fearing. In hindsight, it is unfortunate that I framed so much of my argument as against hers, because in doing so I failed to acknowledge the enormous debt I owed, and still owe, to her thinking. Had I not read Politics of Piety, I probably would have never asked the questions I asked.
And that, I now think, was the genius of her book: it made it impossible for me to think of any form of striving and cultivation—be it revivalist, conservative, secularist, nationalist, a combination of all of these, or something else—as natural. Each of the many possible ways of being human and trying to be better at it has a history, a social context, a way to present itself as normal and good. Reading Politics of Piety made freedom look different: far from being a taken-for-granted progressive future, it became a historically grounded promise with a specific shape and scope. Likewise the appealing yet misleading structure-agency binary was replaced with a question about what human beings in a specific time and place can possibly imagine, hope, and try to do. Mahmood's solution was to juxtapose different normalized ways of being and striving, in order to show that none of them could be taken for granted as natural.
The target of this critical exercise of hers, which she repeated brilliantly in her other works, was something that she identified with liberalism and secularism, in combination. As someone who had grown up with a socialist variety of secularism, and who knew from experience that secularism could also be non-liberal and liberalism pious, I was less convinced about this part of her thinking. Here I found her writing too binary, too prone to juxtaposing seemingly incommensurable traditions. But in hindsight, juxtaposition was key to her critical genius: it was precisely by contrasting different regimes of power or traditions of ethics that she could show time and again that claims to universality were in fact grounded in historical processes that were far from universal.
Some ten years later, not long before her death, I was reading Mahmood's newest (and, as it turned out, unfortunately her last) book on sectarianism and secularism in Egypt. Here she argues that the oppressed position of Copts in Egypt is also the consequence of the way in which the Egyptian nation-state was built on a combination of Ottoman heritage and secular ideas of nationality and law. If you try to turn heterogeneous communities of people into a unified nation, difference may become a more threatening problem than it was before. Secularism in such a state-centered sense is maybe not the best deal for those who are markedly different and fewer in numbers.
My reading of Politics of Piety had been enthusiastic at first and only over time turned toward a more critical appreciation. With Religious Difference in a Secular Age , the reverse happened. I was skeptical of the book before reading it, because I had over the years often thought and argued that Mahmood's critical analysis of secularism, as valuable and important as it was, was also rather too detached from the various ways in which humans and societies might be called secular or not. I felt that theorization about “the secular” had contributed to a mystification of secularism as much as to its critical understanding. A particular gap that I thought I had identified concerned the absence of God in accounts of secularism. Historically, secularization and secularity have often historically not meant the disappearance of God-oriented faith (although that has happened, too, for example in the former East Germany and parts of the former Czechoslovakia). More often, secularization has meant a relative empowerment of humans vis-à-vis the Creator in matters such as law, morals, and politics. And yet, reading the last chapter of Religious Difference in a Secular Age, I learned that Mahmood had again been a step ahead of others. In the final chapter of the book, she takes up the relationship of power between humans and God, grounding secularity in the different hierarchies that that relationship can take. Are humans to live by the commandments of God, or does humanity in a secular sense seize power and become the creator of God instead of being His creation?
With this move, Mahmood overcomes much of the mystification and vagueness that had characterized earlier thinking about secularism and secularity. We can thus proceed to think about secular and other ways of being in the world in terms of relationships that involve humans as well as God—and probably also a few other nonhuman entities. I do think that more work is needed: the question is not simply whether either a secular humanity or God is in charge. Rather, there seem to be many different configurations of human-God relations. But although I have been once again inspired to think against the grain of her thinking against the grain, right now it is important to express my gratitude to Mahmood for helping so many people to think about these questions in these ways. Since I cannot return that gift in this world, I try to pass it on with due credit to her work, one of my main sources of inspiration.