“You have to read these”, my friend compelled me, giving me a couple of yellowed, printed-long-ago sort of books. That gave me my first glimpse into the fascinating life and inspiring works of Maryam Jameelah.
Born as Margaret Marcus into an American Jewish family who cared little for religion and were active believers in the American Way, it was curious how that little girl refused to fit into that life and culture and came to realize it wasn’t the glittering American Dream, after all. She sought answers and found herself interested in the exotic and oriental. Young Maggie Marcus’s fascination with oriental cultures led her to meet many New York Arabs and Muslims, from where she was introduced to Islam.
At a relatively young age, Maryam began to study and to read up on Islam and Muslim culture. She found in Islam what the society around her lacked and never could give her. She found herself heartily in agreement. From then on, there was no going back. After her reversion to Islam in 1961, it became clear to her that New York couldn’t be her home any more. The odds were too many.
Soon after, Maryam began regularly corresponding with Muslim leaders and scholars throughout the world including Maulana Maudoodi, in whose ideas she found a close kinship. At his invitation, Maryam shortly moved to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. Here, she lives with her husband, four children and the extended family members, spending her days reading and writing regularly for the Muslim World Book Review on a wide range of issues and subjects related to Islam and the West, and the resurgence of Islam.
Maulana Maudoodi had once called Maryam Jameelah ‘a tropical sapling planted in the Arctic.’ Reading through the details in the biographies my friend had lent me, there was so much that truly moved one. What inspired me was how a young mind, with no Islamic influence around, grew to develop such a seasoned vision of Islam, such courage to enable her to resist all the tempting glamour of developed society. Her search was honest and it rested only after having achieved that which alone fulfilled. Masha Allah!
After her arrival in Pakistan, Maryam had to grapple with a totally different lifestyle and cultural milieu. She reminisces of the linguistic barrier, the climate she was totally unsuited to, the large family structure and the hygiene conditions. It could hardly be called ‘home’ for a young New Yorker. However, this cultural ‘leap’ Maryam Jameelah had undertaken was in fact also a ‘leap of faith’, making her amazingly resilient.
Some of the most beautiful passages in Maryam Jameelah’s biography which taught me much were about how the young New York girl seeks and appreciates the beauty in the simple ways of Muslim culture. For her, eating out of a common earthenware dish is beautiful for the warm sharing it involes; walking barefoot on a dirt floor and making ablution out of a clay pot are the simple, natural pleasures of life, the rare delights of the unsophisticated simplicity_ uncorrupted by materialism and artifice_ that is essential to Islam. She warms up to the largesse, generosity, hospitality of values engendered by Islam.
The flies, the heat, the dirt, the discomfort and inconveniences fail to bring low the indomitable spirit. Surely, the eyes beholding so much beauty in something a ‘Westernised’ mind would sneer at must be beautiful_ ‘wearing in the eyes the dust of Madina’, as Iqbal would have said.
Getting a fuller view of Maryam Jameelah, I ended up reading several of her works on Islam and the West, which were certainly deeply insightful, incisively critical_ the product of an analytical mind and a passionate heart. It was around then that my friend called up, and in high pitched tones of excitement, told me of a rare discovery: she had actually traced Maryam Jameelah to her home! She had simply followed the publishers’ address given at the back of one of her books_ printed back in the 70s, and praying ardently that they hadn’t shifted since then, actually sought out the place!
Next Saturday evening we were both threading our way through the streets of Sant Nagar_ not to forget stopping at the florist’s on the way to get a bouquet of ‘Nargis’_ decidedly ‘Nargis’_ we had to be as ‘oriental’ as would suit the occasion.On the way, observing the narrow, bumpy and dusty streets and the barefooted children playing around, I thought I could feel that beauty Maryam had sought in there too. This was so removed from the urbanized quarters_ an island within a monstrosity of ‘development.’ The car halted before an old house much like the ones around. We brightened up when a bright, cheerful and warm face appeared_ Moon Apa’s, who had facilitated the visit. She made us feel welcomed- rather, at home. I think I understood how Maryam Jameelah had so effortlessly managed to say ‘I belong.’
To my left, I saw a huge courtyard which immediately aroused the feeling of ‘dejavu’_ it clicked… I remembered a page from Maryam Jameelah’s biography… suddenly, the room filled up with gaily dressed women from the 70s laying out traditional sweetmeat dishes to welcome their guest from New York who had chosen to live among her companions in faith…
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’ (scarf), lowered on the prayer mat in sajdah. I felt the unspeakable blessdness of the moment filling up my veins. Some things just cannot be expressed…
Most of what we heard Maryam Apa say, we had already read in her books. But to see it come alive in the full-throated voice which had in it the energy and vitality of her rich heart; to see that ‘undying flame’ of the unbeaten spirit in the fine old eyes, and the deep-seated gratitude and thankfulness for the life she has lived was an experience unsurpassable. She brightened up sharing memories of the past, shyly smiling like a little girl, her beady eyes twinkling even though she was frail and volatile with age, exhausted and not very mobile any more.
Since she settled in Lahore, Maryam Jameelah has been a prolific writer. Her work reflects a deep, incisive and analytical understanding of Western culture and civilization. Being an ‘insider’, and not having lived in a colonial or postcolonial set up, she digs deep into the very foundations of American society and with a rare, refreshing vision and raw honesty, exposes it down to its bare bones. She feels intensely its spiritual bankruptcy and the toll materialism has taken on the life of the average American, reducing life to a struggle for material prosperity and comfort, no more.
However, the deeper questions remain unanswered, unresolved, and the inner self unsatiated:
It is this dissatisfaction and disappointment with the deceptive sheen of the Western humanistic tradition and all it could ever offer that makes Maryam Jameelah embark on a search for meaningful life true to the purpose we are sent with, in tune with the ebb and flow of nature, imbued with simplicity and spirituality. She finds this fulfilment in Islam and Muslim culture, and this is where the seeker in her finds the anchor to hold on to. They say, ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’. The vision that rejected the emptiness of the culture of materialism and narcissism finds out the beauty of the ‘Muslim’ Way of Life:It is this distressing evolutionary process that has today made America a slave of machines. The supremacy of the USA is accepted all over the world and its hand is seen in everything that happens anywhere. No country, Muslim or non-Mulsim, is altogether free from its control and domination. Today America has enslaved the world with its way of life but it has itself become the slave of machines. It is a prisoner of its lifestyle, of material progress, factories, laboratories and of fancy goods and gadgets. Man here has got so completely cast in the technological mould of life that his ideas and emotions have also become mechanical. The properties of rock and iron have entered into his soul. He has become narrow and selfish, cold and unfeeling. There is no warmth in his heart; no moisture in his eyes. This is the reality I have sadly observed during my stay in America.(As quoted by Maryam Jameelah in ‘The Resurgence of Islam and Liberation from our Colonial Yoke).
The remedy for the problems of the modern world is the adoption of absolute transcendental values. The fallacy that everything must change with changing times makes life devoid of meaning and purpose since there is nothing of permanent worth. It is responsible for our ‘throw-away’ culture which considers everything disposable. The relativity of values is responsible for the unprecedented epidemic of vulgarity and obscenity in the mass media, of arts and entertainments, the generation gap, widespread alcohol and drug addiction and suicide as a leading cause of death. If everything must change with the changing times, human dignity and the nobility of character are almost impossible to achieve since these are based upon permanence and stability in the moral order.
Her belief in Islam as the panacea and the absolute Good is powerful and authentic:Modern man desperately needs a Supreme Authority for reference to distinguish between what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. This does not mean totalitarian dictatorship but the Rule of Law in the highest sense. Only the Divine Law of the Shariah is impartial and just; where ruler and ruled, rich and poor, young and old, celebrities and ordinary anonymous folk are equally subjected to its jurisdiction… the authority of the Shariah proceeds from Almighty Allah. Thus it is feared, esteemed, loved and obeyed simultaneously. It combines the internal sanctions of fear of Allah and His retribution in the Hereafter with severe but just punishments for violation of that law on which the health of the individual and society depend.
Again, being originally an outsider, she does not take the ways of Islam dully as a habit but delights in its refreshing distinction from the materialism and artifice she has known and come to detest. Observing the contrast directly, closely and first hand, Maryam Jameelah’s later works show a seasoned understanding of the inner dynamics that make post-Enlightenment secular-liberal Western society what it is and the influences_ direct and indirect_ it exercises on what it calls the ‘developing’ predominantly Muslim world. She studies and presents an analysis of Western philosophy and traces its evolution till the point where a secular, capitalist-materialist social structure was realized. She analyzes the motives and methods of Western imperialism, colonial rule and the state of perpetual neo-colonialism the Muslim world labours under. She is bitterly critical of modernist Muslims who believe that in the Westernization and ‘modernization’ of Islam lies its hope for survival and progress:The call of Islam to modern man is the call to stability and inward peace. A society based on the precepts of fear and reverence for the Divine Law will not be troubled with crime, violence and lawlessness.…Individually, Islam would bring a direction, meaning and purpose to life which materialistic cultures cannot provide; an inward serenity and peace even in the midst of external frustrations and adversity… the ugliness of our environment would be supplanted by beauty…” (Islam and Modern Man)
The earliest modernizers in the Muslim world were dismayed by the contrast between the material backwardness of the Muslims and the dazzling energy and concrete accomplishments of Europe. They thought that if only the Muslims could imbibe modern knowledge through modern education, their people would become just as strong, progressive and prosperous.
Some, like Jamaluddin Afghani and Shaikh Muhammad Abduh sincerely believed that this was the proper road to Islamic revival in its call to modern man. The leaders of the Muslim countries accepted this advice without question. More than a century has passed since then but although all Muslim countries have adopted the Western s7stem as their own, they remain poor, weak, backward…
Yet the Orientalists and the modernizers insist that the Muslims are weak because they are not Westernized thoroughly enough and prescribe another dose of the same harmful diet. Those who merely imitate and not create, those who are always passive receptors instead of active givers are defeated in the inevitable course of events because their initial position is one of failure. The call of Islam to modern man can succeed only if it proceeds from a position of strength, independence and self-confidence.
Why is Westernization so attractive to the Muslims as it is for everyone else? It is irresistible because it is easy. Contemporary civilization is based upon self-indulgence while that of Islam requires sacrifice, altruism, discipline, self-control and endurance which are difficult. But self-indulgence leads to decadence and decline while the opposite qualities, which Islam demands, lead to superior strength, unity and virtue. If practiced in its right spirit, Islam leads to social integration. Self-indulgent materialism leads to social disintegration an ultimately collective suicide…The times in which Maryam Jameelah’s writing is placed, the 1960s to 80s were when the groundwork for contemporary politics was being laid taking shape. Her analysis and observations therefore, help one understand the roots and implications of contemporary socio-political issues. Her work bears striking relevance to current-day dilemmas and issues_ certainly the vision of an eye gifted with foresight.
Although placed in times when the Muslim world was ravaged by modernist post-Kemalist reform movements like President Nasser’s in Egypt, Maryam Jameelah’s work is set apart, shunning all such influences, safely cocooned in her firm fidelity to the fundamental sources of Islam and her sensitive appreciation of Islamic tradition. She passionately defends this ignored treasure, showing it to the world in its unclouded, natural splendour. She believes in the eternal dynamism of Islamic tradition, its eternal relevance as a means to establish a viable egalitarian, peaceful, just and welfare-oriented society in the present day, modelled on the insights provided by the first Muslim community in Madina. She pleads her case convincingly and passionately:
“It is often asserted by orientalists that the values and ideals of traditional Islamic civilization have no relevance, even for Muslims today because, like all non-European cultures, it was the product of an antiquated tradition of the pre-scientific age. They assert that only secularity is relevant to modernity, to change, to continual technological innovations, and their social consequences. Since the genuine Muslim is a traditional man, he can therefore have nothing of relevance to contribute to the daily life of the modern man. But despite the drastic environmental transformation brought about by modern technology, the basic human drives and needs remain unchanged. Therefore modern man is just as thirsty for the spiritual sustenance which alone gives life its meaning, direction and purpose as was his ancestors, even if he is not consciously aware of it.
It is the purpose of those who call modern man to Islam to awaken him to the urgent intensity of these needs, not only for the individual but for the whole of human society. Unfortunately, there remains another great obstacle in the path of a modern appreciation of Islam. Islamic civilization was not only remote from modernity in the technological sense; it seems even more remote from the modern mind in its moral ideals, which cannot be appreciated by the secular man or even regarded by him as desirable. The spiritual ideals of Islam can be understood only by truly God-fearing people, who yearn for God’s mercy and salvation in the Hereafter.
Those who wish to call modern man to Islam must make him understand and appreciate such virtue which is utterly foreign and incomprehensible to the materialist. By an effective presentation of the profound richness of Islamic culture as an historical acuality in the life of the Muslims until the recent past, he must make the modern man appalled by the spiritual poverty in which he must live and long for a better life not limited to this world.” (Islam and Modern Man)In the context of the contemporary dilemmas of achieving ‘liberation’, ‘pluralism’, ‘enlightened moderation’ outside of Islam and remoulding Muslim societies to toe the Western line and achieve the Western ideal of Secular-liberalism, Maryam Jameelah’s works have perhaps a relevance more than ever before.
While Muslims debate which ‘brand’ of Islam be adopted to appease the imperious demands of Western imperialism; while we concoct the smothering labels of ‘extremist’, ‘secular’, ‘modernist’, ,moderate’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and seek an identity alien to our real, true essence, we need to rediscover the beauty and quiet superiority of the pristine ‘Muslim’ way as lived by the Prophet (S) of Islam and the earliest generation; we need to make that legacy speak to us again of our problems and dilemmas and provide a way forward.
Maryam Jameelah, in throwing overboard the naive presumptions she was socialized into, prejudices she inherited and wholeheartedly choosing to live by the way of Islam with pride and passion, has a lot to teach us as we still grope in the darkness for an identity.
Maryam Sakeenah in Defiance Here and Here