This is an excerpt from an essay that appeared on Public Books, August 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. A link to the full essay can be found below.

Saba Mahmood was so articulate that it would be presumptuous to speak for her, and her arguments so sharp that it is challenging to speak about her. She would want us to speak to her. Although that conversation has been prematurely interrupted, like any strong thinker she's still speaking to me, and I am still responding.

Mahmood refused to be corralled by academic boundaries (along the way to the anthropology doctorate from Stanford, she picked up an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington and two masters at the University of Michigan, in architecture and urban planning). Ranging far beyond the academy, she thought nothing of, say, talking to Anglican clergy about interfaith dialogue, as well as to more radical activists, from Berkeley to South Asia. Explicitly addressing her writing to “progressive feminists like myself,” she was consistently engaged in challenges to Western power and its ideological workings.1 But her work was also animated by a fundamentally anthropological ethic. Raising questions about the ethnocentric sources of even self-declared post- or anti-colonial political thought and emancipatory projects, this ethic has implications that reach well beyond any particular discipline.

It is an ethic of self-displacement or self-parochialization; that is, of taking on another's perspective, not just to understand them, but also in the service of a political, cultural, or moral critique of one's own society, even of one's own values. For, among other goals, this ethic engages with alternative visions of political life, social well-being, and human flourishing—without necessarily advocating them—as affording positions from which to see things in a new light. At its strongest, the anthropological ethic is an argument for the possibility of radical differences among the worlds that people might inhabit.

Mahmood's practice both sheds light on the limits of prevailing forms of progressivist critical theory and suggests how to rethink them. Her work ranges well beyond her particular discipline of anthropology. But as a limit case, anthropology can offer an especially revealing site from which to reflect on the Euro-American underpinnings of critical thought with which many academics are most comfortable and the paradoxes to which this thought can lead.


Work Cited

Mahmood, Saba.
Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject
Princeton University Press
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).