Saba Mahmood, scholar of modern Egypt, 1962-2018

UC Berkeley anthropology professor Saba Mahmood, a scholar of modern Egypt, died on March 10 of pancreatic cancer.

A sociocultural anthropologist, Mahmood joined the Berkeley faculty in 2004. She was affiliated with the campus’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Program in Critical Theory and the Institute for South Asia Studies, where she was instrumental in creating the Berkeley Pakistan Studies Initiative, the first of its kind in the United States.

Amid increasingly shrill scholarship denouncing Muslim societies, Mahmood — a native of Pakistan — brought a nuanced and educated understanding of Islam into discussions of feminist theory, ethics and politics. Her publications and presentations are credited with profoundly shaping the scholarship of a new generation of scholars as they develop a thoughtful, knowledgeable and critical approach to religion in modernity. 

Mahmood said that the pious Muslim women she studied in Cairo were not mindlessly obedient subjects, but were active in distinct approaches to reading the Quran in schools of their own, cultivating religious practice as ethical practices of self-cultivation. 

In the 2006 debates on the Danish cartoons caricaturing Mohammed, Mahmood said those who saw the images as merely offensive missed the nature of the injury itself. Within Islam, she argued, the attack on the divine image is the same as the attack on the living and embodied self.

Most recently, Mahmood studied the discrimination against Coptic Orthodox Christians in contemporary Egypt’s secular regime. She found that the secular state facilitated religious inequalities and interfaith violence. 

Over the course of her career, she received numerous fellowships, including from the American Academy in Berlin, the Henry Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies (Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship) and the Carnegie Scholars’ program. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 2013.

Mahmood is survived by her husband, Charles Hirschkind, an associate professor of anthropology at Berkeley, and their son, Nameer Hirschkind.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, April 30, from 4:30-7 p.m., at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way in Berkeley. Directions are available online.

Read the Department of Anthropology's obituary for professor Mahmood here.