Saba Mahmood and the Politics of Untranslatability

By: Milad Odabaei

July 17, 2018

Saba Mahmood's Legacy

In the preface to Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood notes that she came to inherit the questions in her study of the Islamic revival in Egypt from the predicaments of religion and politics in Pakistan, the country of her birth. Saba recounts an experience of bewilderment familiar to leftist and liberal activists who came of age in the Islamic world after the high point of nationalist discourse in the early twentieth century. These activists, including those in the country of my birth, Iran, were bewildered by the rise of Islamic popular movements of revolution and reform. Saba notes how, in the trajectory of the same history and tradition, some activists drew on Islam to enact unprecedented projects of social and political transformation, whereas others were unable to make sense of their situation. Saba took the rise of this historical schism and set out to address the politics of untranslatability that perpetuate it.

What I want to highlight here is neither the specific inquiry of Politics of Piety nor how it engages the rise of Islamic politics. Instead, I want to draw attention to how Saba, who had come to find a new home in the United States, turned to anthropology and critical theory to explore a shared historical predicament, and how, in the process of her inquiries, she invested a new life in these disciplines. Saba turned to anthropology at the time of a reflexive turn when the political preconditions and epistemological perspectivism of the discipline were being hotly debated. This was also a time when post-colonial historians were questioning the limitations of liberal and Marxist historiographies of the non-West and considering the question of historical difference in their inquiries; a time, too, when a new generation of feminist scholars were addressing the limitations of feminist analysis in apprehending sexual/gendered differences and of feminism’s attachments to the liberal state.

When I think of Saba’s turn to the American academy in this context, I think of her as grabbing hold of the discipline of anthropology and of these critical trends to forge a discourse for her historical question. Saba was not naïve about the capacities of anthropology and critical theory to enter quandaries of histories and traditions of differing provenance. Her work espouses an awareness both of constitutive epistemological limitations and imaginative failures that reflect the European genealogy and ideological backdrop of these traditions of inquiry. And yet, in a trajectory that traversed multiple languages, histories, and traditions of thought, she came to the American academy to tarry with untranslatability.

In Saba’s work, the predicament of a life that bears witness to different histories and traditions than those that background anthropology and critical theory finds its articulation through them. In translating her question into anthropology, Saba created an opening wherein modern Islamic politics could be engaged anew. At the same time, this translation exposed anthropology and social theory to differences beyond diversity, and in so doing, renewed them. Today, anthropologists and critical theorists ask new questions about religion and politics. They are further attuned to the registers of untranslatability in their inquiries, and in turn, are confronted with the intellectual and political openings ahead. The capacity to make one’s work speak to the predicaments that one inherits, I think, is one reason Saba’s work has had such a widespread influence. We might differ with her particular theoretical and political interpretations, and debate, for example, her take on Islamic politics in Egypt, in Pakistan, or in Iran. But already we do so by entering a discussion she helped to forge, and by introducing differences into this discourse in ways she has shown us.

As scholars, we address our publics amidst enduring geopolitical asymmetries and ideological schisms. Those who study Islam and the Middle East, for example, conduct research and teach against the backdrop of Euro-American strategic interests in the region. Saba’s work is exemplary of a critical engagement with this political situation, and she courageously questioned the forms of reasoning that naturalize geopolitical interests and the devaluation of futures across the Middle East. As we find ourselves in a moment of heightened nationalism and xenophobia, this register of Saba’s work stands out. Saba’s work offers an imaginative exploration of difference that sheds light on the limited ways that we have come to perceive and make sense of our present. Her work thus shifts the historical and political questions that we ask and reveals the possibilities for futures unexplored. It is with these futures in mind that I recognize the resonance of Saba’s questions and thinking, which remain here with us now and moving forward. It is incumbent on us to continue to activate them in our lives and in our work.

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