The UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Comparative Literature, Aijaz Ahmad, died at his home in Irvine on March 9, 2022. He was an internationally renowned literary theorist and critic at the forefront of Marxist cultural thought. Ahmad joined UCI’s Department of Comparative Literature in 2016 with a position in Critical World Theory and Comparative Literature, having held several positions as Visiting Professor Emeritus in Critical Theory, first in the spring of 2011. For more Over three decades, Ahmad is the author of seven of the most influential monographs, as well as hundreds of scholarly essays and journalistic articles, focusing on literature and culture, internationalism, imperialism and post-colonialism.
His book In theory: classes, nations, literatures (Verso, 1992) completely reshaped the intellectual terrain of critical theory and postcolonial studies. Over the next few years, he engaged leading voices in critical theory, including Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou and Gayatri Spivak, revisiting debates about theory and politics from the perspective of neoliberal economics. which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
In his most recent work, he established a new paradigm in critical theory by exploring the role of political theory in the post-communist era of the 1990s. Lineages of the Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia (Verso, 2000) established him not only as one of South Asia’s most influential critical theorists, but also as one of the most powerful voices in theoretical debates on global nuclear policy. Finally, with On communalism and globalization (Three Essays Collectives, 2007), which analyzes neo-imperialism and the growing influence of fascism in Third World societies, Ahmad has become one of the most difficult voices in debates about the global neo-imperial turn.
Along the same lines, many of Ahmad’s essays have stimulated new ideas in various fields. They have been translated into many languages and reprinted in new editions and contexts. “Postcolonial Theory and ‘Post’ Conditions” – a topic on which Professor Ahmad has held several graduate seminars at UCI – critically analyzes major philosophical, political and epistemological trends in the diverse global cultures of ‘today. “Islam, Islamisms and the West” offered new insights into how the crisis in the Islamic world today relates to the crises of global capitalism.
In addition to his career in literary studies, critical and literary theory, and world Marxism, Ahmad has also established himself as a distinguished poet and novelist in his native Urdu with several collections of poetry and a novel. His essays on the history of Urdu as a literary language as well as on the multilingual and multivocal character of Indian literature testify to his commitment to giving a voice to literary works beyond the monolingual hegemony of English. Ahmad was also highly regarded as a translator. Urdu translations of poems have appeared in The Hudson Review and in Poetry, and he has also collaborated on translations with distinguished poets, including Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, WS Mervin and William Stafford.
He held academic positions internationally before accepting his permanent position with the UCI in 2016. Previously, he taught at York University (Toronto), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), Jamia Millia University (India), School of African and Oriental Studies (London) and University of São Paulo (Brazil). He has given series of lectures at Oxford, Cambridge, universities in South Asia and Europe as well as the Distinguished Wellek Lectures in Critical Theory at the UCI.
A charismatic teacher, Ahmad inspired students with his intellectual rigor and passion, pushing them to excel in their work. His main concern was to learn to think and read critically, a skill he considered essential to understanding the global entanglements of today’s world.
His role as a public intellectual and militant scholar of the political left was as important to him as his academic career. Ahmad was a well-known public intellectual: he made regular television appearances in India, was a prominent voice on the online news portal Newsclick, and wrote frequently for journals such as Frontline (India) and Monthly Review ( United States). As he traveled between continents and taught in India, North America, Brazil and Europe, his career did not follow the linear trajectory of conventional academic appointments. After holding a tenured position at Rutgers University from 1975 to 1992, he resigned to accept a research fellowship at the Indian Council for Social Research, resuming his career as one of India’s foremost public intellectuals. He became Frontline’s senior editorial consultant and held a series of highly prestigious distinguished visiting professorships, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Professorship at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Professorship at Jamia Millia and the Asian College of Journalism.
Having worked on subjects like imperialism, nationalism, world literature, translation studies, and literary production and interpretation, Ahmad had recently turned his attention to the pressing topics of religion and culture in the climate challenging international of the 21st century. In 2020, LeftWord released Nothing human is foreign to me – edited by Vijay Prashad, with interviews conducted by Sudhanva Deshpande, Mala Hashmi and Vijay Prashad – about Ahmad’s life and work. It was to be followed by the publication of Ahmad’s final draft, consisting of introductions to the political writings of Marx.
As Vijay Prashad wrote, “Aijaz gave us confidence when the eclipse of hope seemed almost complete.” He will be remembered by generations of scholars around the world.
With the contribution of Gabriele Schwab, UCI Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature and Anthropology