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By Syed Nazakat

I was 16 when I first read Margaret Marcus’s story. Her story was often used in madrasas to eulogise Islam and denounce the western way of life. She began to write at a time when few in the Islamic world criticised the west.

Deborah Baker, the author of Pulitzer-nominated biography of poet Laura Riding and the history of the Beats inIndia, has reconstructed Marcus’s story. The Jewish girl fromNew Yorkleft her family, faith and country in 1962 to embrace Islam and a life in exile inPakistan. She became known to the world as Maryam Jameelah.

The book is based on Maryam’s letters written over 30 years to her parents. The earlier missives are riveting; the chore of learning Urdu, the exotic food, the heat and interactions with Lahori ladies who had expected a blond memsahib.

Soon, the letters take an odd detour; their return address is a remote village, then a pagal khana (mental asylum) outsideLahore. As Baker assembles the pieces of a perplexing life, she finds herself captive to the questions raised by Maryam’s journey. Most importantly, how did someone’s personal decision create a living legend? The book is a gripping account of a life lived between two different and battling cultures.

After she came toPakistanunder the protection of Maulana Abul A’ala Maududi, a theologian who founded Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party), Maryam never returned to theUS. She wrote blistering critiques of western materialism and secularism. She is now a widow and a grandmother and an Islamic pamphleteer and ideologue.

Born inAurangabad, Maududi’s life is equally complex. From a small-town journalist who did not complete theological training, he became one of the most influential ideologues of Islam in the 20th century. FromEgyptandSaudi ArabiatoIran, Muslim revivalist movements have borrowed his ideas.

Maryam seemed to relish being at the centre of Maududi’s struggle to establish an Islamic state inPakistan. Within a month of her arrival, the fortunes of the Jamaat-e-Islami seemed to shift as General Ayub Khan lifted the ban on political parties.

One would have liked to read more about Maryam’s present take on her decision, Maududi, Islam and the west. That is the missing chapter in the book. Nevertheless, it describes how a marginal case can illuminate much-disputed subjects, in this case the so-called clash between Islamic and western thought. For many, the book can be exasperating. The narrative slips and slides and denies straightforward answers. For those who want to appreciate the underlying tension, struggle and romance between Islam and the west, it is a treasure.

THE WEEK, July 31, 2011

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