How does a middle-class Jewish girl from Westchester County, New York, end up as a propagandist for the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan? What mysterious alchemy transforms the awkward and troubled Margaret Marcus into the ideologue known to legions of Islamist faithful as Maryam Jameelah, author of countless tracts berating the West and extolling armed jehad? How much can a single life reveal about a battle of ideas couched by many in grand civilisational terms?
These are some of the questions Deborah Baker sets out to answer in this slim and beguiling book. In the shadow of the US raid on Abbottabad, and with India’s troubled western neighbour careening from one crisis to the next, her timing could scarcely be better.
At the heart of The Convert lie two compelling characters culled from the pages of recent history. By far the lesser known is Maryam Jameelah, a somewhat obscure author and pamphleteer whose papers Baker stumbled upon by accident in the New York Public Library. Born in 1934 to comfortable secular Jews in a New York suburb, Jameelah is drawn to Islam in her teens, converts in her twenties, and soon finds herself on a steamer on her way to take up residence in Lahore as the adopted daughter of Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79).
Jameelah’s relationship with Maududi does not unfurl as either of them intended, but over time the American convert acquires a reputation of her own as both symbol and champion of the Jamaat’s Manichaean world-view. A smattering of her titles, published in Lahore, speak for themselves: Western Materialism Menaces Muslims, the two-volume Western Civilization Condemned by Itself, and the best-selling Islam versus the West, translated into a dozen languages. In her very first letter to her ideological mentor, Jameelah promises to devote her entire life to “the struggle against materialistic-philosophic-secularism and nationalism”. By the time Baker encounters her in person some five decades later, Jameelah can honestly claim to have fulfilled that pledge.
That said, Jameelah would be of little interest to most if not for her brief cameo in the life of one of the subcontinent’s most influential thinkers. The average Indian of the IPL generation has barely heard of Maududi; many more are familiar with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami terrorist offshoot SIMI, or the Students Islamic Movement of India. And yet, depending on the direction subcontinental Islam takes, historians may ultimately judge the Aurangabad native’s influence greater than Jinnah’s and rivalling Gandhi’s. Among Islamists who believe every aspect of the state and society ought to be governed by the medieval laws laid out in the Sharia, Maududi’s only peers in the 20th century are: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
In Baker’s unfussy prose, refracted through Jameelah’s sympathetic if not entirely reliable eye, emerges Maududi’s rarely evoked family life. There’s an indelible image of the 59-year-old maulana taking his spoilt six-year-old daughter on his lap and feeding her “like a baby bird”. One wonders how Maududi felt about a grown-up daughter who adored Margaret Mead while looking down on Ghalib and Iqbal. And who wouldn’t feel a twinge of fellow feeling for a man whose head fills with visions of his wife’s cooking when confronted with a plate of camel’s eyeballs and testicles in King Saud’s desert tent? Then there’s Maududi’s curious relationship with the headstrong Jameelah, unspooled by Baker almost like a murder mystery.
To Baker’s credit, she doesn’t allow her even-handed treatment of the man to obfuscate his message. Maududi regarded Islam as a revolutionary ideology akin to Marxism. In his vision of God’s earthly kingdom, non-Muslims and women could not hold public office. Indeed, the good maulana traced the collapse of every great civilisation to the moral decay caused by granting women “undue freedoms”. Painting was the first step along the road to idolatry.
Maududi recommended death for apostasy, and unceasing jehad against infidels “who are preventing the truth of God from prevailing”. At times, today’s Pakistan—with its blasphemy laws, riots against religious minorities and public prayers for Osama bin Laden—can symbolise the dark fruition of Maududi’s holy vision. If you’re looking for an unusually angled view on how it got here, you could do worse than delve into the strange life of Maryam Jameelah.
In his review of Deborah Baker’s The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Books, June 13), Sadanand Dhume has maligned a truth-seeker (Maryam Jameelah) and her mentor (Maulana Maududi). While Maududi himself was not an advocate of the so-called jehadi Islam and Maryam presented only a moderate, scientific and authentic version of it, Dhume has attributed to her the evil of extremism. Just because they were rational critics of Western materialism, they can’t be put in the same dock as Osama!
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
This book may be a good reference to historians and nothin more.With countless books one need to be selective in identifying books for general reading.This review is a waste of spece and time.
Nasar appears upset because his fellow Islamic fundamentalists have been challenged.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT