22 Nov 2020


Mariam Abou Zahab on one of her visits to Pakistan in the 1990s | Herald file photo
Mariam Abou Zahab on one of her visits to Pakistan in the 1990s | Herald file photo

Mariam Abou Zahab, the late author of Pakistan: A Kaleidoscope of Islam, was a remarkable Frenchwoman who devoted her life to research on South Asian Islam, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Born Marie-Pierre Walquemann in 1952 in a small town in northern France, she first came into contact with Pakistanis in Kent in the United Kingdom, in 1968 as an exchange student. Having attained political awareness during the 1968 protest movements, Zahab always sided with the oppressed during her life; she supported the Bengalis during the army crackdown in East Pakistan in 1971, and later became an ardent advocate of the Palestinian cause.

She graduated from the prestigious Institute of Political Studies in Paris in 1972, dedicating her thesis to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and also studied Urdu, Hindi and Arabic at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations (Inalco). In 1973, she went to Lucknow — to which she remained attached throughout her life — to further refine her Urdu.

Mesmerised by Lucknow’s rich Shia culture and attracted to the mystical and scholastic aspects of Shia Islam, she formally converted from Catholicism to Shia Islam at the Grand Mosque of Paris in 1975, adopting Mariam as her Muslim name. She moved to Damascus a year later, after marrying Nazem Abou Zahab, a secular Sunni Muslim from a Syrian middle-class family.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Zahab’s political activism was mostly directed towards Palestinians, whom she first met on a trip to Beirut in 1975. More than just an armchair activist, she even trained with Palestinian fighters in Lebanon, which landed her in trouble with French authorities in Paris. She separated from her husband in 1983 and started taking more interest in the study of religion. Her linguistic abilities were impressive: already fluent in Arabic and Urdu/Hindi, she added Pashto, Persian and Punjabi to her repertoire. Her command over Urdu can be gauged from her translation into French of Itr-i-Kafoor [The Essence of Camphor], a collection of short stories by Lucknow-based writer Naiyer Masud.

In 1982, Zahab volunteered for the French NGO, Afrane, and moved to Afghanistan as an aid worker during the heydays of the Afghan jihad. It was then that she developed her expertise on Pakhtun society, and her despatches to Afrane headquarters perceptively focused on the socio-economic aspect of the conflict. Laurent Gayer, a well known French writer on Pakistan, recalls that she was affectionately addressed as ‘Mariam Jan’ or Sheenogai (Pashto for ‘green-eyed beauty’), and joked about the number of marriage proposals she received from Pakhtun commanders.

She was equally fascinated by Pakistan because of her interest in Shia Islam, Islamism and Pakhtuns. Her insightful research articles on Pakistan were published in several books during the last 15 years of her life. Christophe Jaffrelot, a prominent French author on South Asia, collaborated with her in putting together 10 of her finest essays in Pakistan: A Kaleidoscope of Islam. As Zahab passed away before writing the introduction to the book, Jaffrelot has penned a percipient introduction. Gayer contributes a very interesting preface, narrating details of her eventful life with verve and style.

This anthology of discerning and detailed essays shows that Zahab’s knowledge about Islam and Islamism in Pakistan is encyclopaedic. Her analysis is kaleidoscopic, shedding light on the many colours of Islam in Pakistan: Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahl-i-Hadith and Shia. She had earlier established her reputation as a foremost expert on the network of Islamist political groups operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir in her only book, co-written with the highly regarded French scholar Olivier Roy, titled Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection. Published in 2002, it is considered a reference book on jihadi groups in the region.

Pakistan, in Zahab’s view, continues to suffer because of its failure to resolve its main contradiction: a modern secular state built on religious sentiment. Fragmented and unable to forge a nation-state, Pakistan has a weak Pakistani identity, its people taking refuge in substitute identities based on ethnicity, caste, language or sect. The political vacuum created during Gen Ziaul Haq’s era was filled by the inexorable rise of ethnic and sectarian organisations. Ethnicity as a substitute identity was violently suppressed in the ’70s, while religious identity was officially promoted by the state in the ’80s.

The essays deal with sectarianism, Talibanisation and the proliferation of jihadi outfits. According to Zahab, sectarianism in Pakistan is primarily a Shia-Deobandi issue, rather than a Shia-Sunni conflict. In the ’80s, Pakistan — under state aegis — transitioned from a religiously conservative country to a radicalised one, as Deobandi groups (hitherto sectarian, but politically non-assertive) underwent political radicalisation.

At the same time, Shias, who formed an estimated 20 percent of Pakistan’s population, felt emboldened after the Iranian revolution and asserted themselves. In response, Sunni sectarian organisations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) were set up in 1985, with official support from Zia’s government and funding from the Saudis and Iraq while Washington — because of its anti-Iran policy — looked the other way.

Zahab’s analytical approach as a social scientist can be described as socio-economic and socio-psychological. While analysing the growth of sectarianism, Talibanisation and Salafism in Pakistan, she primarily attributes it to three factors: state policy, foreign involvement (Saudi versus Iran proxy war or presence of transnational organisations such as the Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits) and the local social dynamics. Focusing on this trifecta, she considers state policy and international involvement as enabling factors, and accords the highest importance to the local social dynamics that, she believes, are the clinching factor.

Her main thesis is that whether it be sectarianism or jihadism, local factors are always more important than global factors. A number of analysts will disagree with her thesis or find it problematic, as it downplays the role of state agencies or foreign powers in the growth of the twin menace of sectarianism and radical Islamism. One can disagree with the author’s thesis or point out its limitations, but it is important to understand how she arrived at these conclusions.

Zahab is credited with being the first social scientist to study, in detail, the rise of the SSP in central Punjab and the emergence of the Pakhtun middle-class in Karachi because of displacement from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the adjoining areas of Khyber Pakhthunkhwa. Fluent in Punjabi and Pashto, she conducted extensive fieldwork in central Punjab, Fata and Karachi, interviewing both militant leaders and internally displaced people.

Once Fata became a no-go area, she interviewed the Fata diaspora in the United Arab Emirates to further refine her research. As part of her fieldwork, she once spent a whole day with Maulana Azam Tariq of the SSP, later describing it as the most challenging day of her life, as he knew about her religious beliefs. However, to her credit, she never allowed her religious beliefs to influence her research — as is shown in her famous study of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Jhang.

In a celebrated essay on the Jhang conflict, she attributes the problem to the social faultline dividing Shia landlords and the Sunni urban middle-class (mostly Mohajirs/migrants from East Punjab) who had begun to assert themselves and harboured resentment against the Shia landlords’ socio-economic and political domination. This Sunni middle-class found ready allies in the ideologically motivated students of local madressahs and this alliance triggered the conflict.

Zahab finds a highly combustible social mix in Jhang: feudal versus the middle-class, Shias versus Sunnis, local Shias versus Mohajir Shias, local Sunnis versus Mohajir Sunnis, Syeds versus non-Syeds, the Sheikh biradari [community] versus other biradaris. She also studies the nexus between criminality and militancy in Jhang as well as in Fata.

Her analysis of the conflict in Jhang is incisive and accurate, but the “Jhang Paradigm” — as she calls it — cannot be applied to many other towns of Punjab or cities of Pakistan to explain the rise of sectarian conflict; therein lies the limitation of her powerful thesis. Her chapters on Fata, Talibanisation and the power-play of jihadi organisations are also worth reading for their valuable and original insights into the local dynamics, although one can qualify or question some of her sweeping conclusions, based mostly on socio-cultural or socio-economic factors.

Zahab served as qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s interpreter in Paris and, a gifted teacher, she would keep her students at Inalco spellbound for hours, whether explaining the finer points of qawwali traditions or Moharram rituals at a female religious seminary in Pakki Shah Mardan near Mianwali — to which she was so attached that she visited it annually during Moharram, until poor health prevented her from travelling. She then insisted on receiving videos of Moharram ceremonies from Pakki Shah Mardan, which she showed to her students in Paris.

As her health deteriorated from cancer, Zahab travelled to the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq, to choreograph her own funeral and flashed her famous smile when she remarked to her friends: “I hope Shia militias will turn up to escort my dead body to my final resting place.” Her desire was fulfilled when an Iraqi Shia militia transported her body from Al Najaf airport to the graveyard in 2017.

Zahab taught Pashto literature, Pakistan’s history, South Asian Sufism and diasporic communities at Inalco and trained a generation of scholars on Pakistan. She set up a foundation that funded promising scholars researching Pakistan and Afghanistan and also made donations to social welfare projects in the two countries — the Acid Survivors Foundation being the recipient in Pakistan. Her friend Laurent Gayer is spot on when he writes that it takes more than death to disarm fighters of this calibre.g

The reviewer is an independent researcher and consultant based in Islamabad. He tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached at

Pakistan: A Kaleidoscope
of Islam
By Mariam Abou Zahab
Hurst and Co., UK
ISBN: 978-1787383227

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 22nd, 2020