By Neha Tara Mehta
IT’S a riveting story of love and Islam set in New York and Lahore. But it’s not a work of fiction.
Photo: Maryam Jameelah
Margaret Marcus, a Jewish American girl, came of age in the New York suburb of Larchmont in the 1950s, studied at New York University, and sailed away to Lahore as Maryam Jameelah at age 28, after years of corresponding with the Jama’at- i- Islami founder ( and the ideological forbear of Pakistan), Maulana Abul A’la Maududi.
Her story is the subject of a fascinating new book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism ( Penguin), by Deborah Baker, a Pulitzer- shortlisted author and wife of author Amitav Ghosh.
Jameelah, who’s 77 and continues to live in Pakistan, was first drawn to Islam through Arabic music on the radio, she said in an interview to the San Francisco- based journal, The Islam Bulletin. Her fascination became intense when as a 20- year- old student at New York University, she took ‘ Judaism in Islam’ as an elective.
Her professor, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Katsh, spared no efforts to convince his students— all Jews — that Islam was derived from Judaism.
“Although his real aim was to prove the superiority of Judaism over Islam, he convinced me of the opposite,” she said.
Jameelah took to writing on Islam, and on the advice of a jailed Muslim leader, sent Maududi some of her articles. An impressed Maududi wrote back saying: “ When I was reading your articles I felt I were reading my own mind.” The Maulana invited her to spend Ramadan with his family in Pakistan. “ Mawdudi opened a door. He showed me how I might escape the awful destiny that awaited me in America,” she wrote to her parents.
Jameelah, who went on to marry and have children in Pakistan, attacked western materialism in her substantial volume of work. Pointing to Jameelah’s book, Western Civilisation Condemned By Itself , Baker says a pirated chapter from Catcher In The Rye was used to illustrate adolescent misery and selections from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land , were used to evoke the toll of “ godless living”. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam says: “ Jameelah’s significance [ lies] in the manner with which she articulates an internally consistent paradigm for [ Islamic] revivalism’s rejection of the West.”
Excerpts of letters by Maryam Jameelah, the Islamic ideologue and protégée of Muslim revivalist thinker and Jamaat- i- Islami founder, Maulana (Syed Abul Ala) Maududi
A JEWISH WOMAN & THE MAULANA
An American writer pieces together the fascinating life of a New Yorker who converted to Islam and went to Lahore to join Pakistan’s foremost revivalist ideologue in the 1960s.
IN 2007, Deborah Baker discovered a collection of letters by Maryam Jameelah, the Islamic ideologue and protégée of Muslim revivalist thinker and Jamaat- i- Islami founder, Maulana (Syed Abul Ala) Maududi, in an archive in the New York Public Library.
The letters were to her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus, secular Jews and Zionists, still living in the apartment in Westchester County where Maryam Jameelah (then Margaret Marcus) had been raised. Exclusive extracts:
ONCE SHE arrived in Lahore, Margaret Marcus’s letters to her parents reported Maulana Maududi’s teachings to her parents without gloss, as if his authority on Islam had supplanted her own.
Like the sub- continent he came from, the Maulana’s world was divided into two camps: observant Muslims, and everyone else. The former represents the epitome of good, Peggy wrote gravely from her rope bed in Icchra [the Maulana’s neighbourhood in Lahore], and the latter the apogee of evil, Herbert and Myra Marcus presumably included. She seemed to relish the prospect of being at the centre of the Maulana’s struggle to establish an Islamic state, confident that her own role in the looming contest would be significant.
Indeed, within a month of her arrival in Lahore, the fortunes of the Mawlana’s political party, the Jamaat- e- Islami, seemed to shift.
In the late afternoon of July 16, 1962, the Maududi household was startled to learn that General Ayub Khan had signed legislation that lifted the ban on political parties.
Maududi immediately drew up a list of charges and demands addressed to Ayub Khan’s government. In between her accounts of Haider Farooq’s new family of kittens, the doings of the Sufi neighbours she’d seen from the upstairs bathroom window, and the servant boy’s attack of malaria, Margaret wrote to her parents of the air of anticipation in the back of the house, where Maududi was holding an emergency meeting with his party workers.
What part would Maryam Jameelah be given to play in the political drama the Maulana mapped out that afternoon? Maududi had already made space for her in his party as he had in his family. Before she arrived, he had published translated extracts of her letters to him in his party publication, introducing them as an “eye-opener for Muslim youth”. Clearly her arrival had been greatly anticipated and, given the success of her first book, Islam Versus The West , and the visibility of her writings in the popular press, she had proven something of a sensation.
But beyond her serving as an example to his nine sons and daughters, had Maududi envisioned her as his helpmeet, a translator to help his writings reach a broader audience? Or something else? Perhaps he calculated that an American might not suffer the same kind of surveillance and political restraints that he was subject to. Perhaps he hoped Maryam Jameelah might act as his proxy. What exactly were his thoughts when he heard the constant tapping of the Smith Corona typewriter just beyond his study door? Did he read Margaret’s letters before he posted them? If the Maulana’s Jamaat entourage considered her at all, were they inclined to view Maryam Jameelah not as a propaganda tool but as an interloper, even an American spy? Pakistan had long been a willing US partner in the new Great Game of the Cold War. There was no shortage of CIA agents about.
The Maulana had already spent several years in jail. He was not well. They needed to look out for him. Or so I speculated.
Despite her volubility, Margaret’s letters from the Maulana’s house conveyed little on these matters. … And the Begum? What were her thoughts regarding the arrival of a young woman in her already crowded household? As part of the requirements of purdah, the women of the Maududi household were allowed to use only the front lawn and front portion of the house. The back garden and the Maulana’s study, with the pile of books and papers spilling over his desk, constituted the inviolate men’s realm.
Begum Maududi never acknowledged her husband’s associates or ventured into his study, Peggy boasted to her parents; she didn’t even know Mian Tufail Muhammad.
Margaret did. She was proud of her space in the narrow corridor opposite the Maulana’s library, intimating to Herbert and Myra that she was privy to the men’s world as well as that world of beautifully appointed teas and suckling babies. Herbert Marcus had always held that women in Muslim societies were treated no better than slaves, but here she was, their dear Peggy, not simply respected but lionised. … Yet before I could begin to fathom the political and family dynamics of the Maududi household, Margaret Marcus’s letters to her parents were suddenly all about a man named Hakim Rai Niamat Ali Khan and his wife, Khurshid Bibi. The return address was no longer the Maulana’s house in Lahore but a place called Pattoki [ a rural market town near Lahore]. AMONTH into her stay, Peggy explained, she had received a kind letter from these friends of Maududi. Khan and his wife had invited her for a visit. After three days her childless hosts, whom she soon referred to familiarly as Baijan and Appa, asked her to stay on permanently as their daughter. Margaret gladly accepted, returning only briefly to Lahore to collect her clothes and books.
The lifting of the ban on the Jamaat had occasioned her move, she explained in her second letter from Pattoki, responding to Herbert and Myra’s concerns and questions about these developments. The Maulana had been overwhelmed by work, leaving him no time for his wife and family, much less for her. This had created a certain amount of tension in the house, which had its effect on everybody. In fact, it was the Maulana who initiated the new arrangement.
SO, WITH barely a backward glance, Peggy introduced a whole new cast of characters. Liberated from those Westernised and urbane Lahoris, and the close quarters of the Maududi household, she was in the thick of this new life in no time at all. Though Maududi remained her guardian and she continued to correspond with him, her letters to her parents now filled up with the minutiae of life in a small town an hour south of Lahore. For eight months the letters from Pattoki poured out in a bubbling current.
I let myself be carried along by these new developments, losing myself in Margaret’s slipstream account of a busy household in a small town in the Punjab half a century ago. Then, in the second to last of those twenty- four letters, I was furiously trying to back away from the precipice in front of me. After an unexplained five- month lapse in correspondence, Peggy wrote from yet another address. The building on Jail Road in Lahore was known locally as paagal khanah . Just under a year after her arrival in Pakistan, Maryam Jameelah had been committed to the madhouse.
Postscript: Maryam Jameelah, 77, now lives quietly in Lahore, the second wife of Muhammad Yusuf Khan, the publisher of her books and with whom she had five children. One child died in infancy of malnutrition, two daughters live in Pakistan and two sons fought as mujahedin in Afghanistan before settling in the United States.
Maududi ran extracts of Marcus’s letters to him in his party publication as an ‘eye- opener for Muslim youth’
Source: Mail Today