Maryam Jameelah is renowned as well as revered in conservative and radical Muslim circles. A fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, she hates Israel, rejects secularism and modernism and believes that western civilization and Islamic civilization are implacably irreconcilable.
A prolific author, she has written provocatively titled books such as Western Materialism Menaces Muslims and Islam Versus the West.
Long a resident of Lahore, Pakistan, she is the second wife of Muhammad Yusuf Khan, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the progenitor of jihadi organizations. She regards practices like polygamy, veiling and gender segregation as ordained by the Qur’an. By all accounts, she spends her days thinking and writing, an intellectual who defends and promotes traditional Islamic values and culture.
“This lady is a true Muslim who came to Pakistan to join a true Islamic society,” observed her mentor and adopted father, Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, a founder and key figure in Jamaat-e-Islami, an organization dedicated to advancing the cause of an Islamic rebirth and the establishment of a pan-Islamic state.
Jameelah, however, was originally not a Muslim, her birth name having been Margaret (Peggy) Marcus. A secular American Jew from Mamaroneck, N.Y., she was born in 1934, converted to Islam before the age of 30 and settled in Pakistan to “escape the awful destiny that awaited me if I remained in America.”
The astonishing odyssey of her transition from Judaism to Islam is the subject of Deborah Baker’s uncommonly fascinating book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Graywolf Press).
Baker, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction, pieced together her story after discovering a trove of her letters in the New York Public Library. She began writing them to her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus, from Lahore in 1962. The correspondence ended in 1996 when Herbert, 101, died in a Florida nursing home.
According to Baker, Marcus was a bright, nervous, high-strung child from an assimilated family.
“I was nine years old before I learned anything about Judaism, but once I began reading about the tragic history of the Jews, I was unable to stop,” she writes in a letter. “My parents always tried to pretend we were no different from the Christians, but the Christians didn’t see it that way. For a time, I’d rather have been born an Orthodox Jew. They, at least, never apologized for being Jews.”
A person of faith, she explored Reform and Orthodox Judaism before attending meetings of the Ethical Culture Society, but found them unsatisfactory.
The prospect of a new Jewish state in the Middle East excited her. She was convinced that, with Israel’s creation, Jews and Arabs would usher in a golden age of amity and co-operation.
But due to the Palestinian refugee problem, she soured on Zionism.
“What possible justification can there be to deprive an entire people of their homeland and rights as human beings?” she wrote. In a reference to the Holocaust, she added, “Hadn’t the Jews just suffered such a crime based on equally specious propaganda?”
To Marcus, Jews had no historical connection to Israel. “And what was Palestine to them? Moses received his revelation in Egypt.”
Having concluded that Israel’s creation was an “injustice, plain and simple,” she compared the Israelis to Nazis, disassociated herself from Judaism and wrote an unpublished novel about Palestinian refugees.
Spending more of her time in the New York Public Library, she discovered the works of Mohammad Asad, the Jewish convert to Islam who settled in Pakistan. She was particularly impressed with his book The Road to Mecca and was certain that Islam is a vehicle for social justice, equality and communal harmony.
She made these discoveries while struggling to maintain her emotional equilibrium. As a university student, Marcus had psychiatric problems and suffered a nervous breakdown. Dropping out of New York University before graduation, she was hospitalized for schizophrenia.
Marcus initiated a correspondence with Mawdudi in 1960, sending him a letter outlining the challenges Islam faced and clippings of her articles about that religion. “Margaret’s remedies for the political challenges facing the Muslim world were uncannily similar to those proposed by Mawdudi’s writings and speeches,” observes Baker.
Highly impressed by her ideas and intellect, Mawdudi invited her to spend the Ramadan holiday with him and his family in Pakistan. He added, “When I was reading your articles, I felt as if I were reading my own mind.”
With his encouragement, she converted to Islam, taking her vows at the Islamic Mission of America in Brooklyn and changing her name on May 24, 1961. She proceeded to immigrate to Pakistan as Mawdudi’s guest. Upon her arrival, she wrote her parents, “I wanted to reassure you that for the first time in my life I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can call home.”
Prior to her departure, Herbert and Myra Marcus had joined the Unitarian Church.
Though Mawdudi admired her as a gifted thinker and writer and related to her as a daughter, he developed doubts about her sanity. Ultimately, he committed her to an asylum in Lahore.
She, in turn, recoiled from his cold, authoritarian personality. Baker claims the suffering she endured during this period strengthened rather than weakened her beliefs.
Marcus had five children with Khan, one of whom died in infancy. She was not a conventional mother. As a result of a nervous condition, she did not nurse her children. And because she never learned to cook, the other women in Khan’s household had to do the cooking. A recluse who never left the house except to keep doctor’s appointments, she was interested only in writing books.
With Mawdudi’s death, Marcus, hoping to be his ideological heir, churned out a series of pamphlets glorifying famed Muslim freedom fighters. Baker suggests that these pamphlets, published after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, condoned violence. Marcus insists that she wrote “only on a philosophical plane,” and that Islam must be compassionate and merciful
Marcus’ two sons, members of Jamaat- e-Islami’s student wing, must have been influenced by her writings, having joined the ranks of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan. One wonders how many other young Muslim men imbued with Islamic fervour have fallen under her spell.