Biographical Sketch of Nikki Keddie (1930–)
Nikki Keddie, Professor Emerita of the History of the Middle East at the University of California at Los Angeles, is one of the most prominent social scientists and historians of her generation. Keddie, born in Brooklyn in 1930, graduated in history and literature from Radcliff College, received a Master’s degree from Stanford, and in 1955 earned her doctorate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. After a brief stint as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona she taught at Scripps College for four years. It was thanks to the discernment and foresight of Gustave von Grunebaum, who had become director of the newly created Near Eastern Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, that Keddie was hired by UCLA in 1961. She taught there until 1993, when she took phased retirement. In the intervening years, she was a visiting professor at the University of Rochester, in 1970, and in Paris, in 1976-78. She also received fellowships from the American Association of University Women, the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1993 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2001 she was awarded the MESA mentoring prize in recognition of her mentorship of especially graduate students, many of whom have gone on to establish academic careers for themselves. Three years later, she received the prestigious Balzan Prize, allowing her to support a number of doctoral students beyond retirement.
As a female pioneer in what was then a male-dominated field, Professor Keddie encountered a great deal of sexism and even sexual harassment in the 1950s and 1960s. Her leftist politics also created problems for her in the hostile environment of the period’s lingering McCarthyism, to the point where she drew the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was denied a passport until 1958. This background and experience made for a life-long engagement with questions of social justice and her advocacy of the voices of underrepresented groups in society. Hence Keddie’s interest in what later became known as the Third World and its history. Her groundbreaking work on women in Middle Eastern societies is rooted in these antecedents as well.
Before she settled on the Islamic world and in particular Iran, Professor Keddie’s scholarly focus was Italian and Chinese history. In her own words, she was attracted to Iran because of its long history and rich civilization. Her interest in intellectual history is reflected in her pioneering articles on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09 and the question of Islamic modernism it posed. This strand of her work culminated in her biography of the famous nineteenth-century intellectual and political activist, Jamal al-Din “al-Afghani,” which has become a classic. But her Marxist-inflected conception of history naturally made her pay attention to theory and class as well, causing her to balance an attention to culture with a focus on socioeconomic and material history. She thus wrote about environmental factors and issues of technology as vital forces in the formation of human society long before these themes came to be widely addressed in Middle Eastern studies.
The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 prompted Professor Keddie to expand her abiding interest in revolution as a form of radical political and social change. The outcome was her book, Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran (1981), a number of perceptive articles on comparative revolutions and the “resurgence” of Islam, and five edited books that addressed the historical context and manifestation of Iran’s revolutionary tendencies.
Women’s history is where Professor Keddie blazed a trail and perhaps left her most lasting mark. Her Women of the Muslim World, coedited with Lois Beck (1978), laid the foundation for the critical study of issues of gender and sexuality in Middle Eastern societies. In 1991 she coedited, with Beth Baron, another collaborative volume, Women in Middle Eastern History. Multiple articles on questions such as female labor, tribal women, and women and religion, followed, inspiring a whole generation of scholars to examine Middle Eastern history and society from the perspective of gender.
Professor Keddie has always worked on a wide canvas in her scholarship, keeping an eye on the “big” questions, and reminding us of the complexity of societies and the changes they undergo. Her scholarly output reaches beyond the Middle East subfield to promote comparative and theoretical studies of a general nature. This as well as her passion for public debate are reflected in the multidisciplinary journal Contention, which she founded and edited for about a decade in the 1990s. At the same time, Keddie has always been mindful of the genealogy of the field, the importance of the predecessors to whom we are all indebted, and she never felt tempted by trendy and fashionable themes and topics. The same holds for her style of writing and presentation, which is accessible and jargon-free.
Professor Keddie’s inspired mentoring and her pioneering scholarship on Iran and gender in the Middle East paved the way for a new generation of scholars to help create the field of social history in Modern Iran and the Middle East.
- Rudi Matthee, University of Delaware, January 2018