Aijaz Ahmad

Written by Gabriele Schwab, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Anthropology, on Behalf of the Department of Comparative Literature

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our esteemed colleague and friend Aijaz Ahmad, internationally prominent literary and critical theorist, and one of the world’s foremost Marxist thinkers of our time. He died at his home in Irvine on March 9th, 2022, where he was able to take leave of his children and a few close friends including Ph.D. students.

Aijaz joined the Department of Comparative Literature at UCI in 2016 for a position in Global Critical Theory and Comparative Literature, after having previously held various appointments as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Critical Theory, first in Spring 2011. Aijaz Ahmad was one of the leading critical theorists and literary scholars worldwide. Having been at the forefront of Marxist theory with a focus on literature and culture, internationalism, imperialism, and post/colonialism for over three decades, Ahmad authored seven pathbreaking and highly influential monographs as well as hundreds of academic essays and journalistic pieces. Forcefully engaging a subliminal Eurocentric bias in the work of Edward Said’s concept of orientalism and Fredric Jameson’s interpretation of Third World literature, Ahmad’s In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London:  Verso, 1992), for example, completely reshaped the intellectual conversation in critical theory and postcolonial studies. In subsequent years, he engaged leading voices in critical theory, including Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and Gayatri Spivak, revisiting debates about theory and politics from the perspective of the neoliberal turn that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. In Ahmad’s more recent work, his critical interventions again set a new paradigm in critical theory by exploring the new role of political theory in the post-communist era in the 1990s. Lineages of the Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia (2000) established him not only as one of the most prominent critical theorists of South Asia, but also as one of the most powerful voices in theoretical debates about global nuclear politics. Finally, with On Communalism and Globalization, which analyzes neo-imperialism and the increasing influence of fascism in third world societies, Ahmad became one of the most challenging voices in debates about what we could call, using his term, the global neo-imperial turn. In a similar vein, many of Ahmad’s essays stimulated new thought in various fields, were translated into many languages, and reprinted in new editions and contexts. “Postcolonial theory and the ‘Post’ Conditions” – a topic on which Professor Ahmad held highly successful graduate seminars at UCI – critically analyzes the main philosophical, political, and epistemological trends in today’s diverse global cultures. “Islam, Islamisms and the West” opened a new horizon on the intertwinement of the crisis in global capitalism and the crisis in today’s Islamic world.

In addition to Aijaz Ahmad’s distinguished career in literary studies, critical and literary theory, and global Marxism, he also established himself as a distinguished poet and novelist in his native Urdu with several books of poetry and a novel. His essays on the history of Urdu as a literary language as well as on the multi-lingual and multi-vocal character of Indian literature are a testimony of his commitment to lend a voice to literary works beyond the monolingual hegemony of English. His capacity to span different cultures and historical epochs is unparalleled in critical theory and literary studies. The same is true for his capacity to make his work speak across the boundaries of departments and schools. He not only established his unique distinction in the fields of critical theory, discourse analysis and literary studies; he also earned distinction as a philosopher, a social scientist, and a political theorist and activist. Finally, he also had a distinguished career as a translator. Translations of Urdu Poems, including a substantial introduction, have appeared in The Hudson Review and in Poetry, and he has also collaborated on translations with distinguished poets, including Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, W. S. Mervin, and William Stafford.

Aijaz Ahmad held academic positions internationally before accepting his tenured position at UCI in 2016. Previously, he taught at York University (Toronto), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), Jamia Millia University (India), the School of African and Oriental Studies (London), and the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil). He delivered distinguished lecture series at Oxford, Cambridge, and universities in South Asia and Europe as well as the Distinguished Wellek Lectures in Critical Theory at UC Irvine.  Perhaps most importantly, Aijaz Ahmad was also a prominent and highly visible public intellectual who had regular TV appearances in India, was a leading voice on the web-based news portal Newsclick and wrote frequently for leading journals such as Frontline (India) and Monthly Review (US). His role as a public intellectual and scholar activist on the Left was always as important for him as his academic career. Given that he has moved between continents and taught in India, the US, Brazil and Europe, his career did not follow the linear trajectory of conventional academic appointments. After holding a tenured appointment in the US at Rutgers University from 1975 to 1992, he resigned to accept a Senior Fellowship from the Indian Council for Social Research, which allowed him to resume his career as one of India’s foremost public intellectuals. He became senior editorial consultant of Frontline and held a series of highly prestigious Distinguished Visiting Professorships such as the Rajiv Gandhi Chair at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia Millia, and the Asian College of Journalism before accepting his tenured appointment at UCI.

An outstanding and charismatic teacher, Aijaz Ahmad inspired students with his intellectual rigor and passion, pushing them to excel in their work. His foremost concern was to teach how to think and read critically, a skill he deemed indispensable to understand the global entanglements of today’s world in a holistic fashion. His role as a teacher extended far beyond the classroom, including the large and diverse audiences he reached as a public intellectual and writer. At UCI he brought an invaluable wealth of learning and insight to studies of comparative literature and critical theory. Having worked with questions of imperialism, nationalism, world literature, translation studies and literary production and interpretation, he recently turned his attention to pressing topics of religion and culture in the fraught international climate of the 21st century. In 2020, LeftWord published a seminal book, edited by Vijay Prashad, with interviews conducted by Sudhanva Deshpande, Mala Hashmi and Vijay Prashad about Aijaz Ahmad’s life and work. It was to be followed by the publication of Ahmad’s final project, consisting of introductions to Marx’s political writings, which was sadly cut off by his death.

Aijaz will be remembered by generations of scholars from all over the world. As Vijay Prashad wrote, “Aijaz gave us confidence when the eclipse of hope seemed almost complete.” His writings and teachings will leave a permanent trace. Perennial migrant who could never truly call a place his home, he placed his roots in the rhizomatic network of left thought and politics. Deprived of citizenship in India where he was born, he became a citizen of the world of poetry and politics. When we hired him at UCI with the help of Dean Georges Van den Abbeele, during the time I was chair in Comparative Literature, I always thought of Aijaz as a double refugee. He was a political refugee because, according to Indian law, someone who was born in India but then became a Pakistani citizen could not regain Indian citizenship. But he was also a climate refugee because the air pollution in Delhi had permanently damaged his lungs and he needed to move to a different climate. Irvine became a strange sanctuary that ended the cycle of migrations and exiles that marked his life and scholarship. He always told me that being able to move to California gave him the gift of a few more years of lifetime.

Let me end with a few words about Aijaz as the person I knew. Apart from his unfailing commitment as a Marxist scholar and left activist, his deep passion was for the world of literature, poetry, art, and music. He was a literary writer and poet in his native Urdu, but he was also a photographer with the unfailing gaze of an artist who carefully edited his photographs until they became transformed into works of art. Finally, those close to him experienced his rare gift of friendship. In times of joy as well as times of need, he was unfailingly there. He was a great host, chef cook, and connoisseur of good wines. His sense of humor and his joy of life were contagious. Most of all, he deeply engaged the work of colleagues and students with a rare mixture of generosity and rigor, enriching our intellectual life together in innumerable ways. As we mourn him, his absence will fill our world. 

Comparative Literature