Archive for March, 2012

O Maryam, we never knew ye…

You never do know what you might find on the internet. And web-strolling around the other day, I encountered a book-review in the New York Times of a biography of–of all people–Maryam Jameelah.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, by Deborah Baker (Greywolf Press, 2011).

While the cover is rather off-putting if not offensive (enough of the veil/unveil objectification of Muslim women already), the contents seem to  be well worth the read. Hopefully, I will get a chance to lay my hands on this book soon.

When I first started reading about Islam in the early ’80’s, Maryam Jameelah’s books and pamphlets were among the first things I read. There wasn’t much available to read about Islam in the area where I was living at the time. I had access to a small university library, which had a very limited selection of books on Islam–less than half a shelf, as I recall. I have no idea why they had stuff by Maryam Jameelah; I suppose that someone from the local Muslim Students’ Association might have donated it.

As someone who was interested in religion in general and strongly drawn to Islam in particular, I found Maryam Jameelah’s books and pamphlets both off-putting and fascinating. On one hand, she never missed a chance to denounce all aspects of “the West”–popular culture, politics, religions, social customs, liberation movement such as feminism–in the most strident and one-sided terms.  There was no sense of fairness or compassion in what she had to say. Her writing used far too many exclamation marks. The overall effect was as though she was shouting at her readers on every page. Even reading a short pamphlet of hers was draining. And she was so insistent that there was one correct way (a highly conservative, limiting way) to see the world as a Muslim, and to live in the world as a Muslim woman. If this was what Islam was all about, it evidently wasn’t for me.

And yet…  she seemed so very, very sure that what she believed was right. And that all right-thinking people must agree with her.

I read more about Islam that was significantly less “extreme” in its tone, and converted. It was a gradual process, and Maryam Jameelah’s ideas played no part in the final decision.

But looking back, I can see that Maryam Jameelah’s persona did haunt my life as a convert. This was the early ’80’s, when there weren’t that many North American converts who were publicly visible, especially not in the area that I was living. Conversion to Islam–when it occurred at all–seemed to be a black male thing that happened in American inner cities. So, what did it mean for a small-town white female who had recently migrated to the big city to convert to Islam? How were people like me supposed to live our new faith?

While nobody seemed to know the answer to that in a positive way, there were a lot of ideas about what people like me weren’t supposed to do or be. And the model of Maryam Jameelah floated unacknowledged in the background of these discussions and debates. Read the rest of this entry »

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