Deborah Baker’s latest biography ‘The Convert - A Tale of Exile and Extremism’ chronicles the astounding story of Maryam Jameelah - a ‘prominent female voice for conservative Islam’ [Wikipedia] and a well-published author - her conversion to Islam, her sudden move to Pakistan and her life and work there.
The ‘tale’, spanning a period from Jameelah’s childhood in the ‘50s to her ‘hijrah’ or ‘escape’ to Pakistan in 1962, and thereafter her life and work till even as far as 2009, is ‘astounding’ in its very essence. Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus in a Jewish family in post-WWII New York and ‘The Convert’ traces the story of how she gradually came to reject America [and all that the West symbolised] and embraced Islam as her chosen way of life. It is even more fascinating as we see Jameelah’s story intertwined with that of her mentor and guardian in Pakistan, Maulana Abul A’la Al Maududi. [Maududi was the founder of the Islamic evangelist group and political party Jamaat-E-Islami, but is more famously known as the intellectual founding father of militant Islam.] It is on Maududsi’s invitation that Jameelah eventually moves to Pakistan and renounces her life in the America she grew up in.
Not knowing anything about either Baker or Maryam Jameelah, and only very little of Maulana Maududi except his renown as an Islamic scholar, I approached the book with no preconceived notions at all. My first impression was based on the cover of course. A fully-veiled Muslim woman, the by-line to the title ‘A Tale of Exile and Extremism’, and a typically dramatic blurb by Fatima Bhutto on the face of the book did not recommend themselves to me and already I was rolling my eyes. Happily, judging the book by its well-marketed cover proved to be premature. Because Baker’s careful biography turns out to be a very interesting, balanced read on a decidedly difficult and intriguing subject spanning many years.
‘The Convert’ was an easy read, start to finish; pacy in portions and lagging sometimes. It is told to us through a series of letters/correspondence between Jameelah, her family and Maulana Maududi, interspersed with Baker’s thoughts at the time of reading and her narration. The correspondence is not always arranged chronologically. My reactions to Maryam Jameelah’s story, with a female Muslim point of view at my core, were as follows.
First and foremost, I do not ‘get’ Maryam Jameelah. In that, despite a detailed observation of her childhood and thoughts growing up [through her correspondence], it is still pretty unbelievable to understand how she [or anyone] could suddenly opt for a complete change of life, religion, culture, geography and situation – with the mere support of an as yet unknown but generous stranger halfway across the world [Maulana Maududi]. It boggles the mind and is unsettling till the very end. This and various other clues and ‘reveals’ throughout the book [tantrums, nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, stints at various mental institutions], point to a Maryam Jameelah who is not entirely the most reliable narrator of events.
From the beginning we see a maladjusted, intellectually precocious, socially misfit Margaret with contrarian views and a fixed opinion on everything. There are periods of prolific writing and correspondence, and then periods of total silence. We are also told that there is much that Maryam Jameelah does not reveal about herself, and that a significant portion of her correspondence is written much later than the dates shown in them. Which means Maryam wrote the letters retrospectively. Why? We find out towards the end of the book that Maryam continued to show behavioral problems in Pakistan. There are so many oddities like this which leave one with a feeling of skepticism about Maryam Jameelah. She comes across as very eccentric, particularly in the all-too-brief meeting Baker has with her in Pakistan. Baker tells us in her ‘Note on Methodology’ at the end of the book that Maryam’s letters do not appear as she wrote them in the original and are mostly edited, rewritten and condensed by the author. There is no reason to believe the real meaning of the letters was changed, but this fact casts a slight shadow over the reading. Just a bit. Was it the author’s intention to cast a doubt over Maryam’s credibility at the end of the day? Because it certainly comes across as such, though Baker never at any point makes a statement one way or the other. Being the subject of the book, I was expecting complete clarity and a better understanding and appraisal of Maryam’s personality and thought process. Unfortunately I am left disappointed.
As to her writing and work as a scholar, there can be no doubt that Maryam Jameelah was lucid, trenchant and very on the ball in this regard. She was scathing in her criticism of the West and all that it signified. She believed that ‘Western civilsation and Islamic civilsation were implacably opposed’. This coming from an American Jew who had completely rejected her life there was a major attraction in the Islamic world, and the Jamaat naturally encouraged and patronised her. Maryam’s writings have ‘bristling and grandiose titles’ and open denunciations of the West, which appealed to many Muslims. As they still do. Together with Maududi, Maryam rendered the gap between a superior and just Islam and the unjust, overbearing, morally deficient western world as unbridgeable. This goes down very well with a huge population particularly in developing and poor Muslim countries. Again, I cannot understand where the ferocity of her convictions and her distaste for the West spring from, and this is another aspect that makes Maryam’s story so unique.
In her personal capacity, Maryam believed in a very severe form of Islamic living. To her it was an ‘all or nothing’ practical life choice. I may not agree to such a rigorous interpretation [full purdah, complete segregation, women not leaving the house], but I can neither begrudge her those choices nor stand in superior judgment on her. If that is the choice she made for herself, I can disagree on an ideological and intellectual level, but that’s about it. This part of Maryam’s life – her purdah, her being a second wife - is what will irk most people, women especially. I don’t see why.
The book is as much a story about Maulana Maududi as it is of Maryam Jameelah. At the same time as Maryam was discovering herself and Islam, on the other side of the World in Pakistan, Maulana Abul A’ala Al Maududi was already at the helm of a powerful political-Islamic organization called the Jamaat-E-Islami, which aimed at the establishment of an Islamic state as the ideal.
For me, I got a clearer picture of Maududi’s mind and the Jamaat-E-Islami’s history than Jameelah herself through the reading of this book. There were many interesting things I picked up, like excerpts of his writing, and personal details of his home and family which we find out through Maryam’s correspondence with him. Instead of a raving, blood-thirsty fanatic, we see a very reserved, serious, no-nonsense, scholarly, and powerful man, completely dedicated to his cause and beliefs. That he was very set in his convictions, that he thought an Islamic state was the best form of governance for leading a true Muslim life and propagated it is indisputable. I am not familiar with any of his treatises on ‘jihad’ and hence unqualified to comment on whether or not he is truly the ‘father of militant Islam’ and the cause of its more virulent strain that we see rampant today.
As a female Muslim reader, there was certainly a lot of food for thought in this book. Because it is presented matter-of-factly and without condescension or that patronizing tone I have come to expect in the context of ‘women in Islam’ and ‘Islamic extremism’, I found it an enjoyable read. It is interesting to note Jameelah’s and Maulana Maududi’s school of thinking. I have the slightest misgiving about the title of the book, ‘A Tale of Exile and Extremism,’ which gives quite a different idea of what to expect in the book and what I find there.
On the whole, Baker’s narration of Jameelah’s life, her relationship with Maududi, her life in Pakistan and her views on Islam are objective and non-judgmental. However, and to me this is the greatest failing of the book, Jameelah comes across as quite unconvincing and non-credible as a person. At the end of reading a biography on her, I wish it wasn’t so.