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Zaman's book might seem to have little to offer those interested in current Middle East issues. His focus is almost entirely on Pakistan and to a lesser extent India. And despite the title, he writes at length about the period of British rule, not more recent times, and deals primarily with one subgroup of ulema. But the great merit of The Ulama in Contemporary Islam is that Zaman happens to focus on the Deobandi, a group which in many ways inspired the Taliban and who run what are usually considered the most extreme, politicized, anti-Western schools (madrasas).

Zaman explores several paradoxes about the Deobandi. For one, their leaders insist simultaneously that the state must implement Islam in all it does while resisting state attempts to regulate its schools by claiming that education is a realm that the state should leave to religious bodies to carry out on their own. Then there are the reforms the British and Pakistani authorities have pressed on the madrasas (most especially in 1962), which have reduced the teaching of logic and philosophy on the theory that the schools should concentrate on religious subjects like Qur'an, hadith (sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad), and early Islamic history. Another paradox is that the Deobandi insist that the state adopt Shari‘a (Islamic law) as a set of codified and discrete laws drawn up with their guidance—when the Shari‘a is an ongoing discursive process that rejects state interference. The pattern is clear: the Deobandi adopt elements of Western practice, even where it conflicts with Islamic practice, if it magnifies their authority.

Disappointingly, Zaman provides little information about Deobandi influence on Islamists outside of South Asia, much less on Islamist terrorists. The international comparative perspective is of interest mostly for its discussion of Sayyid Abu'l-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi (d. 1999), the most important Indian Muslim scholar of his generation whose criticism of Arab nationalism as anti-Islamic accorded well with the message of Islamist extremists.