A Kaleidoscope of Islam

Mariam Abou Zahab

Part of the Comparative Politics and International Studies Series Christophe Jaffrelot (ed.) Series

A remarkable collection of writings on Pakistan and Islam by the late Mariam Abou Zahab, a brilliant activist scholar whose astonishing life story almost defies description.

Bibliographic Details
Pakistan Paperback
March 2020£20
Available as an eBook
Request Press Review Copy
Request Inspection Copy

This collection of essays brings together two sets of articles and book chapters by Mariam Abou Zahab, the extraordinary late scholar of Islam in South Asia. The first part of the volume examines Shia–Sunni relations in Pakistan, while the second concerns violent Islamism in the country, covering both the Talibanisation of the Pashtun belt and the jihadi dimension of South Asian Salafism.

Throughout these texts, Abou Zahab explores the many reasons why Pakistan has been the crucible of political Islam. She offers a historical view of this development, factoring in the impact of colonialism and conflict, including the Soviet–Afghan War and the post-9/11 Western military operations in Afghanistan. While making clear the major importance of these external influences, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to the US, she also places Pakistan’s political Islam in the context of local cultures, mobilising her anthropological erudition without ever indulging in culturalism. Finally, she emphasises the sociological determinants of sectarianism, Talibanism and jihadism, as well as the political economy of these ideologies.

Abou Zahab’s knowledge is exhaustive, but in these papers she offers an elegant synthesis in which each word matters. This volume is indispensable for understanding the present dynamics of Pakistan.


Mariam Abou Zahab (1952–2017) first travelled to South Asia and Afghanistan in 1973, and was an eyewitness among the anti-Soviet mujahideen. Fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Pashto, she was a specialist of South Asian Islam, particularly Shiism. Her expertise extended to the Pashtun belt and South Waziristan.


‘[This book] gives those seeking a deeper understanding of Pakistan a valuable resource.’ Survival

‘This book flows from real knowledge. Blessed with considerable linguistic skills, the insights of political science, sociology and Islamic studies, plus the understanding of a believing Muslim, Abou Zahab offers unrivalled insights into social and religious change in Pakistan.’ Francis Robinson, Professor of the History of South Asia, Royal Holloway, University of London

‘Mariam Abou Zahab’s work is an event itself, presenting Pakistan beyond the binaries of conservative and liberal, Sunni and Shia, modernist and Sufi. Her truly kaleidoscopic analysis shows the many colours of Islam in Pakistan, interrogating our understanding of Islamism and sectarianism.’ — Sajjad Rizvi, Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

‘The depth and breadth of Mariam Abou Zahab’s knowledge and understanding about Pakistan is truly stunning. This dedicated, gifted social scientist deftly answers why things have happened and how they are interconnected with questions of identity and meaning.’ — Anita M. Weiss, Professor of International Studies, University of Oregon; author of Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices

‘By far the most sophisticated and well-informed scholar of sectarian and militant Islam in Pakistan, Mariam Abou Zahab was also a remarkable personality. This collection brings together her work on Pakistan for the first time, which still remains as relevant as it was when first written and indeed unsurpassed by new scholarship. Its publication represents an event of the first order for the study of Pakistan.’ — Faisal Devji, Professor of Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre, University of Oxford