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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.