Mariam Abou Zahab in southern Afghanistan during the mid-1980s
Mariam Abou Zahab in southern Afghanistan during the mid-1980s

“I am feeling so weak and dizzy … in spite of all this I keep hope! I do not want to die yet, too young and too many books to read. If you want me to give a read to part of your book I would be very honored.” This message from Mariam Abou Zahab on August 20, 2017 had given me hope. She was a fighter anyway, who had made unconventional choices in life and selected difficult areas for her research. So, how would cancer matter? My mind was convinced that Mariam would be able to fight it out in her own discreet way.

Her message also humbled me by its tone — a scholar, who understood the subject of Islam and its various facets so well, had offered to guide me through my writing. She was indeed a tree with a large shade. Perhaps, no one understood and explained the politics of Deobandi radicalism in Jhang better than Mariam Abou Zahab.

Her initial research and writing on the growth of Sipha-Sahaba-Pakistan (SSP) remains a bible for people working on the subject. Not only had she studied the organisation, she also understood the social and economic drivers behind the movement. Her conclusion that many in Pakistan’s corridors of power and research miss is that the movement and organisation was not rooted in the rich landlord versus poor peasants divide, but the friction between the emerging urban middle class and the traditional landed elite. She was a keen observer who researched Islam and radicalism not as an outsider ready to jump to conclusions but as an insider.

Abou Zahab was a believing Muslim to her dying day. The fact that despite being a Shia she could engage with Deobandi militants and scholars speaks volumes about her unassuming personality, patience and friendliness that made people open up to her. In her last years, she was working among the Pakhtuns in Karachi.

Not just Mariam Abou Zahab herself but also her friends wanted her to have a long life so they could learn and draw deep pleasure from her work. I remember my visit to Paris a few years ago during which she took me to the café at the Grand Mosque in the city’s fifth district. She would come and sit there often talking to people or simply watching things go by. We had sat there that afternoon sipping her favourite mint tea discussing issues of radicalism and the state of Muslims in France. There was so much that I, like many others in our field, learnt from her work.

Thus, the email I received on October 21, 2017 that said “I have fought for four years and this is the end” had me gasping for breath. It is not every day that such people can be found that have such a deep desire for knowledge and can rise above their self to give others a sense of achievement and belonging.

Mariam Abou Zahab certainly gave me the sense of community that a researcher and academic needs to anchor his/her work. After that message, I tried to make the journey to see her for the last time but couldn’t make it in time. She died the day I was traveling to Paris to see her. To console those of us who will only gradually learn to bear the loss, I hope she has left behind enough students who will carry on her scholarly journey.


The writer is a security analyst who has written extensively on issues concerning religious militancy and religious extremism in Pakistan. She has also authored a book, 'Military Inc' on the Pakistan army.