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Maryam Jameelah

A Voice of Conservative Islam

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

In recent years, it has become more common to hear Muslim women's voices in the public arena. However, if we look at twentieth-century Islam, Muslim discourse has been overwhelmingly dominated by male voices, from the Islamic modernism of Muhammad Abduh and his Salafiyya movement in the early twentieth century to the writings and activism of contemporary Islamic activists and movements; from the writings and speeches of the ulama to those of the many educated Muslim professionals who have increasingly employed Islamic rhetoric and symbolism to critique their societies and to plan a more indigenously rooted future. Maryam Jameelah is among the very few women who have crossed the gender gap. For several decades she has been a prolific voice in defense of traditional Islam. Her many books and articles have been translated into Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Bahasa Indonesia. At first glance, Maryam Jameelah would appear to be the most unlikely of Islamic voices, a New York–born American Jew.

Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus on May 23, 1934, in New Rochelle, New York. Her great-grandparents emigrated to America from Germany in the nineteenth century. She grew up in Westchester, New York. Her parents were nominal, nonobservant Jews who in later life broke their formal ties with Judaism and joined the Ethical Culture Society and finally a Unitarian church.

Margaret, or as she was called, Peggy, was an unusual child in many ways, one whose personality and intellectual/religious orientation often ran counter to her culture's norms and expectations. Margaret was psychologically and socially ill at ease and at odds with many aspects of her culture. Although regarded as a bright and talented child, from an early age she experienced difficulty fitting in socially: at school, at summer camps, and in other social settings. Although she had friends in her early school years and at summer camp, she never seemed to fit in or to sustain any of her early friendships. Her teachers often took exception to her personality and interests. When she expressed an interest in returning to a camp where she had been particularly happy, the director rejected her application, noting her “eccentric habits” and need for an excessive amount of supervision.1 Maryam Jameelah, “This Stranger, My Child,” in Memoirs of Childhood (1945–1962): The Story of One Western Convert's Quest for the Truth (Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan, 1982), p. 7. As a result, Margaret felt alienated from society and often experienced social rejection. In a letter written to Margaret years later, her mother described her daughter as attractive and exceptionally bright but also “very nervous, sensitive, high-strung and demanding.”2 Ibid., p. 5. These characteristics and problems would continue to playa pivotal role in Margaret's life, her personal, intellectual, and religious development.

From her earliest school years, Margaret Marcus seemed fascinated with the “Orient” and was increasingly critical of Western culture. Her paintings, reading in history and politics, and taste in music were more global than Western: China, the Middle East, South Asia. Jewish in background, she nevertheless developed a particular interest and affinity for Arabs and Muslims, from their politics to their culture. Her early enjoyment of opera and Western classical music gave way in her teenage years to a fascination with Arabic music, Arab and Muslim history, and politics. Raised in a society, culture, and family that generally supported the establishment of Israel and often denigrated Arabs and Islam, she nevertheless was shocked by Zionism and was very sympathetic to the plight of the Arabs and Palestinians. At twelve, she began to write her first novel, a story about Ahmad Khalil, a young displaced Palestinian boy. When she encountered condemnation of the Arabs for atrocities against Israelis in Hebron, she countered with reports of the massacre of Arabs at Deir Yasein. As a twelve-year-old, she wrote: “But the trouble is, most of the books I read in the public library about the Arabs and Islam are written by Zionists and Christian missionaries are prejudiced against them in the same way.”3 Ibid., p. 40.

Margaret's sensitivity and nervousness proved a stumbling block throughout her early life. Despite her high school principal's characterization of Margaret as an above average student and a “good citizen,” she continued to have problems adjusting. When she first arrived at the University of Rochester, she wrote to her parents: “The girls in my dormitory are the finest, nicest, friendliest, and most wholesome people one could ever want to meet. There is the warm glow of friendship beginning to bloom which is the most happy event I have ever experienced.” Yet, before classes even began, she was sent to the infirmary and informed that she could not begin classes unless her parents agreed to place her under intensive psychiatric treatment. She was subsequently forced to withdraw from the university before she even began classes.

Margaret entered New York University in 1953. It was during this period of her life that her search for her identity and religious quest would come to a head. Her identity crisis manifested itself in many ways. As a first-year student, her studies were accompanied by a brief attempt to reclaim her Jewish heritage and embrace orthodox Judaism. She also joined a Zionist youth organization—only to conclude: “What had I in common with them? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Margaret then had a brief fling with the Bahai movement. In the end it was a Bahai leader's sympathy for Zionism and charge, “You are among those renegades who hate your own people more than the goyim [gentiles],” that caused her to leave. His denunciation triggered a final break with her Jewish identity and her observation in a letter to her sister: “No people I have ever encountered are more intolerant, bigoted and narrow-minded than the disagreeable Jews I have had the misfortune to meet and that is why I find it impossible to identify myself as one of them.”4 Ibid., p. 87.

In the summer of 1953, Margaret suffered a nervous breakdown. It was very difficult time in her life:

Although I had just entered my nineteenth year, it seemed to me as if my life had already come to an end. I was discouraged, exhausted, depressed, and in despair at having met with nothing but one rebuff after another whenever I tried to find my place in society. I was simply adrift at sea, not knowing what to do next or where to go? Neither reformed Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Ethical Culture or Bahai consoled me in my plight.5 Ibid., p. 91.

It was at this juncture that she turned again to Islam, immersing herself in reading and studying the Quran. Ironically, two Jewish intellectuals had a profound effect on Margaret's turn to Islam in 1955; Muhammad Asad, an Austrian convert to Islam, and Professor Abraham Katsh, a rabbi who taught at New York University. Asad (Leopold Weiss) was a respected Muslim intellectual and adviser to Muslim governments. Margaret discovered the story of his conversion, The Road to Mecca, which proved a great source of inspiration and resolve to become a Muslim. Ironically, Abraham Katsh's course on Judaism in Islam, which explored Jewish influence on the Quran and the development of early Islam, did not persuade her of the validity of the course's theme but instead had the opposite effect: “Although Professor Katsh has tried to prove to his students why Judaism is superior to Islam, paradoxically, he has converted me to the opposite position.” She would conclude: “And here am I still a Jew—or at least everybody considers me as such—but I am no longer a Jew in my heart.”6 Ibid., p. 108. Her resolve to become a Muslim would not be fulfilled until 1961. Margaret's health grew worse; she became more withdrawn and was finally institutionalized for schizophrenia from 1957 to 1959.

After her release, Margaret became very involved with the Islamic Mission and associations in New York and corresponded with Muslim leaders abroad, in particular Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, leader of Pakistan's Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society). Her decision to formally embrace Islam and her correspondence with Mawdudi mark a turning point that would determine the singular direction of her life and work.

On May 24, 1961, Margaret Marcus became a Muslim, with her recitation of the confession of faith, taking the name Maryam Jameelah. She regarded her conversion as less a rejection of Judaism than a turn to Islam, where she found the fulfillment of Abraham's mission and message. Reflecting on her conversion, she saw herself as leaving modern Judaism, whose modern secularism and materialism had eclipsed its religious aspects, for Islam's more revolutionary, universal message: “I did not embrace Islam out of any hatred for my ancestral heritage or my people. It was not a desire so much to reject as to fulfil. To me, it meant a transition from a moribund and parochial to a dynamic and revolutionary faith content with nothing less than universal supremacy”7 Maryam Jameelah, Islam in Theory and Practice (Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan, 1976), p. 11. During the next year, events in her life seemed to coalesce and lead to a resolution of her sense of alienation and anxiety over her future. Maryam Jameelah's conversion and continued inability to obtain a job and to fit into American society, as well as the impending retirement of her father and therefore loss of financial support, moved her in 1962 to finally accept the invitation of Mawlana Mawdudi to emigrate to Pakistan: “I did not have the courage to break my ties with my past life but now that my situation here has become intolerable and I have found that I will never be able to function in this society, I am now convinced that my only salvation is to go and live in a Muslim country”8 Ibid., p. 193. In this decision she was supported by her many Muslim friends in New York as well as prominent Muslim leaders internationally, such as Mawdudi, with whom she had corresponded from 1960 to 1962, and Dr. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of Hassan al-Banna, founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Thus began the second stage of her life in Pakistan.

Both her conversion and decision to emigrate to Pakistan entailed sacrifice. Though somewhat reluctant to do so, when Mawlana Mawdudi told her that drawing was un-Islamic, she abandoned her art work and turned solely to literature, in particular writing, to promote as well as defend Islam.

Notes:

1. Maryam Jameelah, “This Stranger, My Child,” in Memoirs of Childhood (1945–1962): The Story of One Western Convert's Quest for the Truth (Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan, 1982), p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. Ibid., p. 40.

4. Ibid., p. 87.

5. Ibid., p. 91.

6. Ibid., p. 108.

7. Maryam Jameelah, Islam in Theory and Practice (Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan, 1976), p. 11.

8. Ibid., p. 193.

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