Remembering Maryam Jameelah
To many in the West, Maryam Jameelah (formerly Margaret Marcus) who passed away on the last day of October 2012 remains an enigma. For having been raised in an all-American Jewish family of the 1940-50s, she defied her background, her environment and her upbringing – all to embrace another civilization, culture and religion as her own: the world of Islam. To Muslims, however, her legacy of tenacious intellectual and personal resistance, her pithy and prolific writings on the Islamic world-view as against the Western one, and her uncompromising stance against the slowly, but surely, advancing trajectory of atheistic materialism – all will be treasured for the valuable contributions they represent, writes BIJU ABDUL QADIR who interviewed her directly in 2005 on behalf of YOUNG MUSLIM DIGEST.
“We said our Maghrib prayers in the drawing room where we were waiting adjacent to Maryam Apa’s room. Folding up the prayer mat, my heart thumping wildly, I couldn’t keep from looking at the dear old profile etched across the open window, at the head of silvery-white hair draped in a white dupatta,’ lowered on the prayer mat in Sajdah. I felt the unspeakable blessedness of the moment filling up my veins. Some things just cannot be expressed…” ~ From one observer’s (Maryam Sakeenah’s) account of her personal meeting with Maryam Jameelah in the latter’s last years
To have decades of tumultuous events, of twists and turns, of highs and lows, pass us by on the sinusoidal wave of Islamic revival – even as one is growing up – is disappointment enough in retrospect. What then is to be made of the unspeakably poignant moments in adulthood when one confronts the Loss of Permanence in our universe of values, being and moral guidance for a life that is, at once, both material and spiritual? For such, no less, has been the profound loss in the passing of our intellectuals and our revivalists(Mujaddids), indeed, the vanguard of an authentic, mature, Islamic response to the steady onset of a cultural invasion that, for all practical purposes, has almost completely robbed this Ummah of its soul. In this burdened firmament of luminaries that has provided the saving grace, the leading light, for the Muslim community in the twentieth century after the disappearance of Christ, the name of Maryam Jameelah will stand out resplendent, a star, in the early morning darkness of a new dawn of Islam in our times.
As is now known, Maryam Jameelah, formerly Margaret Marcus, passed away into the stage past her earthly sojourn of 78 years on 31st October 2012. Muslims privileged to have known her and her contributions, will mourn her passing with the ‘To God we belong and to Him is our return’ refrain on their lips, their hearts. Her life, first lived out as a typical American teenager of Jewish parentage, then through the hallways of a troubled adolescence and youth that saw her through brief periods at institutions for mental health, her discovery of Islam and her migration to Pakistan to settle down to the life of an Asian wife and mother and last, but not the least, her prolific writings on Islam through numerous books and booklets – all cannot fail in casting a spell of awe and admiration in even her most vociferous critics who can always disagree with her, but whom they cannot ignore.
A fourth generation American with German-Jewish roots, Maryam Jameelah was born as Margaret Marcus in 1934 CE in New York at the height of the Great Depression. Brought up in Westchester, a prosperous suburb of that city, hers was an entirely secular American education at the local public schools. An above-average student at school, she soon developed into a passionate intellectual and insatiable bibliophile, whom it was difficult to spot without a book in her hand. Even at school, her readings went far beyond the needs of the prescribed curriculum. With adolescence, however, she stayed away from all frivolities, which she held in contempt, her main interests now centering on religion, philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology and biology. Indeed, the school and local public libraries and later, the New York public library, became, as it were, her ‘second home.’
Graduating from secondary school in 1952, she joined New York University where she studied a general liberal arts program. It was while she was a student at the university, that she became severely ill in 1953. Her condition deteriorated steadily forcing her to discontinue college two years later without obtaining her diploma. Confined to private and public hospitals for two years (1957-59), she lived through – and survived – a period of great trauma and stress. Only after she was finally discharged from hospital did she discover her talent for writing.
Like the other famous Western Jewish convert to Islam, Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), Maryam Jameelah first became interested in Islam through a fascination with everything Arab. Reading all the books about Arabs she could find in her early youth, she also fell in love with the recordings of Umm Kulthum.
Most of these books that she followed in her youth were, however, written by Orientalists or missionaries and, even at that early stage of her life, presented to her a very negative view which she felt was unjustified. It was only years later that she came to know of the Qur’an through the English translation done by the British convert, Marmaduke Pickthall, which, in turn, inspired in her the desire to convert to Islam. Along with Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad’s two books – his autobiographical The Road to Makkah and Islam at the Crossroads also proved instrumental in generating her interest in Islam.
The Road to Makkah inspired her ‘desire to live in a Muslim country’ and Islam at the Crossroads ‘determined her entire literary career.’ Her vast readings in Islam helped her to develop an intimate bond with Islam. She became a vocal spokesperson for the faith, defending Muslim beliefs against Western criticism and championing such causes as that of the Palestinians. Of course, her views created much tension in her personal life, but she continued to pursue her cause. Through her regular correspondence with prominent Muslims of the time, and her close friendship with some Muslims in New York, she eventually embraced Islam in 1961, at the Islamic Mission in Brooklyn, New York.
Jameelah became acquainted with the writings of Sayyid Abul A`la Mawdudi, and there commenced a regular exchange of letters between the two which lasted two years. In the spring of 1962, Mawdudi invited Maryam Jameelah to leave America for Pakistan. Having accepted this offer, she found herself, a year later, not only in Lahore, but also happily married to Mohammed Yusuf Khan, a member of the Jama`at-e-Islami.
Like most revivalist thinkers of the past century, Maryam Jameelah’s hatred of atheism and materialism – whether of the past or the present – is particularly severe. In her search for transcendental truths, she sees Islam as the most comprehensive and satisfying explanation of the highest Reality. From this premise, her exposition of the real danger that confronts Muslim culture and civilization today is, at once, precise and incisive. In her Westernization and Human Welfare, she wrote:
“All over the world today, contemporary white imperialism in its economic and cultural forms, dangles the Golden Prize before the non-white, non-Europeans, the teeming masses of the ‘poor’ in the ‘underdeveloped’ ‘Third World.’ The Golden Prize is nothing less than total annihilation into the mainstream of Western culture with its irresistible advantages of entertainments, mobility and unlimited opportunities for status-seeking. This Golden Prize the white man dangles before the non-European, has produced in every indigenous society, an elite of native collaborators who for the sake of quick profits ignore the long-range welfare of their people.”
She also wrote:
“Western civilization is not the first materialistic culture in history. In its secularization, it is not at all unique although because of the weapons of science and technology, it maybe the most powerful and widespread. The record of history shows that human civilizations have revolved in a cylindrical pattern between sensuousness and idealism and whenever an extreme is reached by either, there always comes a sharp reaction pulling in the opposite direction. In their revolt against their elders, modern youth is also revolting against excessive materialism, excessive preoccupation with technology and its applications. In America, young people by the hundreds are fleeing from their comfortable urban homes to establish ‘communes’ in the rural countryside where work and craftsmanship are all done by hand. They are revolting above all else against the ‘artificiality’ of modern life and seeking an unspoiled environment closer to nature. These rebellious youth are seeking transcendental truth although they unfortunately do not know where to find it.”
However, her first disillusionment with the revivalists coincided, fortunately or otherwise, with her being impressed greatly – at least initially – with the works of Fritjhof Schuon. For, to her then, the writings of his school were alone in emphasizing the necessity of beauty and Islamic art, in strongly condemning industrialism and modern science and in upholding traditional orthodox Islamic civilization in every aspect of a Muslim’s life. Schuon’s writings would remain her most treasured books for quite a while. Her later disenchantment with Schuon notwithstanding, other contemporary writers of the same genre like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Martin Lings continued to fascinate her for, in her own words,
“…more profound criticism of Western philosophy, science and technology is not found among any of the revivalist writers. Martin Lings’ Seerah is, by far, the best in English – based entirely on the Qur’an and Hadith.”
The 20th century French philosopher, Rene Guenon, however, occupies a special place in Maryam Jameelah’s education. In her view, few modern writers attacked modern civilization and all that it represents as vigorously and successfully as did Rene Guenon. His proofs for the cyclic, his proofs against progress, the decisive and irrefutable nature of his all-out attack on evolutionism and progressionism – all render the other figures of Islamic revivalism mere pygmies in comparison to him. Indeed, to quote Maryam Jameelah from her special interview granted to the Young Muslim Digest, in 2005:
“No sensitive, intelligent mind can study Rene Guenon’s Crisis of the Modern World and Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times without being changed forever.”
She found it hard to stomach the WTC attacks of 11 September 2001, and the subsequent American ‘War on Terror’ policy program. Critical of the whole policy and its associated propaganda, she believed that USA under President Bush had engaged in an all-out war on Islam: the same colonialism and imperialism as the British and French employed a century ago.
Deborah Parker who wrote a recent – but, for all her academic labour, ultimately a faulty – biography of Maryam Jameelah entitled The Convert nevertheless commented in an obituary on the occasion of the latter’s passing that:
“Maryam was ever aware that life was a journey. She had once scolded her parents for being focused on the scenery, anticipating with pleasure their next cocktail hour or hand of bridge. They had scarcely considered where life might be taking them. She told them she was different. She needed to get to the absolute heart of things and it was this restless desire that drew me to her, though our differences were numerous and profound. To get to this place, she constantly reminded herself that she might die at any moment and would have to answer for the life she had lived. To achieve something enduring with the gifts God had provided her was her dream. Only then could she be sure that she had not squandered her life, dishonored her limited time on earth by meaningless pursuits or sinful behavior. She planned to give a good account of herself. I think she will.”
Until her death on 31 October 2012, Maryam Jameelah resided at Sant Nagar in Lahore, Pakistan, and continued to write on Islamic thought, culture and civilization. Some of her major published works include the following:
- – Modern Technology and the Dehumanization of Man,
- – Westernization and Human Welfare,
- – Western Imperialism Menaces Muslims,
- – Why I Embraced Islam,
- – Islam Face to Face with the Current Crisis,
- – Islam and Modern Man,
- – Islam and Our Social Habits,
- – Islamic Culture in Theory and Practice,
- – Islam and the Muslim Woman Today,
- – Islam Versus the West,
- – Correspondence Between Mawlana Mawdudi and Maryam Jameelah,
- – Two Mujahideen of the Recent Past and their Struggle for Freedom Against Foreign Rule,
- – Is Western Civilization Universal?
- – Sheikh Hassan al-Banna and the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon,
- – The Generation Gap: Its Causes and Consequences,
- – Westernization Versus Muslims, and
- – Islam versus the Ahl al-Kitab: Past and Present.