Saba Mahmood
Associate Professor, Graduate Faculty Advisor, Sociocultural Anthropology


Saba Mahmood's research interests lie in exploring historically specific articulations of secular modernity in postcolonial societies, with particular attention to issues of subject formation, religiosity, embodiment, and gender. Currently she is examining secular-liberal interpretations of Islam in the context of the Middle East and South Asia.


My research interests lie in exploring historically specific articulations of secular modernity in postcolonial societies, with particular attention to issues of subject formation, religiosity, embodiment, and gender. In my book, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005), I addressed some of these issues through an ethnography of a women_s piety movement that is part of the larger Islamist movement in Egypt. My analysis of the Islamist movement in this book is guided by three central questions: In what ways do these movements help us rethink the normative liberal account of politics? How do the politics of gender in these movements parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory? How does a consideration of the debates about embodied practice among Islamists and their secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship between the specificity of bodily form and the process of subject formation?

My second project focuses on politics of religious liberty, particularly in relationship to religious minorities living in the Middle East. The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful co-existence of religiously diverse populations. Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to freedom of conscience is seen as a key mechanism for ensuring that religious minorities are able to practice their traditions freely. My project rethinks this narrative by focusing on three broad questions: How has the inequality of first and third world sovereignty affected the exercise of religious liberty differently for religious minorities living across this divide? How has the right to religious liberty become central to contemporary geopolitics, transforming the relations between Muslims and Christians living in the Middle East? What normative conceptions of freedom, religion, community, and the individual are encoded in the right to religious freedom as it has come to be litigated in recent jurisprudence of courts in Europe and the Middle East?

I am a co-PI on a three-year project entitled "Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices" funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. The aim of this project is to chart how the right to religious freedom is being transformed through legal and political contestations in the United States, the Middle East, South Asia, and the European Union. For further information on this project, see http://iiss.berkeley.edu/politics-of-religious-freedom/

Also see: http://vcresearch.berkeley.edu/news/anthropologist-awarded-grant-study-p...


117 Kroeber

Office Hours: Thursday 1-3

Representative Publications: 

  • Is Critique Secular?  Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (edited with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Judith Butler).  University of California Press, 2009.
  • “Is Critique Secular?” and “Secular Imperatives?” Public Culture, 20(3): 447-452; 461-465, 2008.
  • “Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War of Terror, in Women Studies on the Edge, ed., Joan W. Scott, Duke University Press, 2008.  Reprinted (shorter version) in Gender Spaces: Religion, Culture, Politics, ed., Hannah Herzog and Anne Braude, Palgrave McMillan, 2009.
  • "Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation," Public Culture, 18(2): 323-247, 2006.
  • Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • ** Winner of the 2005 Victoria Schuck Award, American Political Science Association.  Honorable Mention, 2005 Albert Hourani Book Award, Middle East Studies Association. Translated into French, Politique de la Piété: Le féminisme à l'épreuve du Renouveau islamique, La Décorverte, 2009.
  • “Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt,” Social Research, 70(3):1501-1530, 2003.
  • “Questioning Liberalism, Too: A Response to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,’” Boston Review: A Political and Literary ForumApril/May 2003. Reprinted as "Is Liberalism Islam's Only Answer?" in Islam and the Challenge to Democracy, J. Cohen and D. Chasman, eds. Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • "Anthropology and the Study of Women in Islamic Cultures." Disciplinary entry on anthropology, in The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, 307-14, 2003. Brill.
  • “Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency” (with Charles Hirschkind), Anthropological Quarterly, 75(2):339-354, 2002.
  • “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology, 6(2):202-236, 2001. This essay won the Cultural Horizon Prize from the Society for Cultural Anthropology in 2002.
  • “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of
    Salat,” American Ethnologist, 28(4):827-853, 2001.
  • “Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism: Comments on Stuart Hall’s ‘Culture, Community, Nation,’” Cultural Studies, 10(1) 1-11, 1996.


Anthropology of subject formation, liberalism, and secular modernity; feminist and post-structuralist theory; religion and politics; Islam and the Middle East.
Ph.D., Stanford University, 1998