Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Extreme Reaction

The story of how an American Jew became a Muslim in Pakistan and her involvement with Islamist fundamentalism.

The Convert
Deborah Baker


Pages: 256

Rs 450

Subscriber Only Stories
Tamil Nadu opposes NEET, its students perform better: share in 95 percent...Premium
Real-time weather alerts, tests & tips: Kashmir gets an app for applesPremium
Inside Track: Ghar Wapasi?Premium
Tavleen Singh writes: All fanatics are dangerousPremium

If you like thrillers,Deborah Baker’s “tale of exile and extremism” is a true story with a new twist at every turn of the page. If you haven’t read a good biography lately,then too here’s your opportunity. And this is just for starters,since The Convert is ample nutrition for our minds,morals and politics.

There are two main characters in Baker’s book. One of them is Margaret Marcus,daughter of a non-practising Jewish family from New York. She grows up hating the Western civilisation (Plato onwards),converts to Islam at age 27 and is Jameelah Maryam thereafter. The other is Maulana Abul Ala Maududi who invites his adopted daughter to come live in Pakistan as part of his family. Never heard of Maryam or Maududi? No fears,Baker had never heard of them either until almost accidentally she ran into Maryam’s papers in an archive. We better get to know them now.

The master storyteller that she is,Baker gets you engrossed as she “inhabits the life of her subject” with extraordinary empathy and understanding. As you accompany the highly talented,complex,volatile and often ferocious Marcus-Maryam from one nervous breakdown to another,from the Hudson River State Hospital,New York,to the Pagalkhana on Jail Road,Lahore,you struggle to make some sense of her personal life. For now,however,let’s stick to Jameelah Maryam,a highly respected name within certain quarters in the Muslim world and her adoptive father,Abul Ala Maududi.

Baker,a non-Muslim Westerner,gets her Islam right: “Whatever the school or tradition (in Islam),the spirit of critical inquiry was evident from the beginning.” In other words,beyond a few basics,there was ample space for doubt,debate and dissent within Islam. This flexibility,intra-faith pluralism,was fine with the ulema through the centuries. But not so for the “scientific” minded Maulana Maududi,founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Maududi needs the certainty of a “Scientific Islam” just as for Karl Marx it had to be “Scientific Socialism”. Brushing tradition aside,Maududi embarks upon an independent intellectual and theological journey and ends up with two pronouncements. “Now that I have access to the roots of knowledge and the world of reality,Kant,Nietzsche,Hegel,Marx and other secular thinkers begin to look like pygmies,” he says. As for the “self-deceived” Muslims,including numerous ulema who slapped fatwa after fatwa on him,Baker quotes Maududi as saying: “The rightful place to accommodate them and their likes is an asylum.”

What was Maududi’s “Scientific Islam”? “A revolutionary ideology and programme which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.” In short,a Global Islamic State (Caliphate) where Shariah law is rammed down everyone’s throat.

That’s Maududi,1939 onwards. In 1951,Syed Qutb of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood learns of Maududi’s worldview and loves it. Meanwhile,in distant US,Margaret Marcus arrives at similar conclusions even before she had heard of either. In the late 1950s,she opens up correspondence with Syed Qutb who puts her on to Maududi and that’s how Marcus-turned-Maryam touches base with the maulana. Maududi has other correspondents too: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,for example,who was the first to translate Maududi’s writings into Persian. Baker cannot help but note this theological bonhomie between an American Jew,an Iranian Shia cleric,an Egyptian (Arab) man of letters and an Indian with Sufi ancestry. To complete the story,in 1963,Maududi was showered with many honours by the Wahhabi king,Saud bin Abdul Aziz.


Maududi died in 1979,a few months after the Islamic Revolution in Iran but a few months before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was Afghanistan that turned into the crucible for the global jihad that Maududi,Qutb and Maryam had long fantasised about. Baker is not blind to the role of her own country,the US,in this jihad against the “evil Empire”. With Maududi no longer around,it was Maryam who donned the mantle of goading young Muslims towards violent jihad,“the highest form of worship”.

Don’t we know where this jihad has taken the world,the chosen land of both Maududi and Maryam especially so? Baker meets Maryam in Pakistan in 2007 to find her disclaiming any link between the ideology she had championed and the violence that threatens us all now: “I never preached violence…. They (jihadis) quote Maududi and Qutb,not me.”

Had Qutb and Maududi been alive,what would they tell us today,“We never preached violence”?


Baker is not the first one to take us down the terror trail. Post 9/11,a number of Muslim scholars and theologians have been there,to unravel how Islam was transformed from a code of moral and ethical living into a mindless,merciless “theology of power”. But most are in the nature of dense scholarly tracts. It is to Baker’s credit that she so skilfully conveys the same grim message in the format of a gripping tale.

First published on: 28-05-2011 at 01:28:38 am
Next Story

SP-rank officers hit again as Himachal HC turns down seniority petition

Latest Comment
Post Comment
Read Comments