Maryam Jameelah, 1934-....

Alternative names
Birth 1934-05-23
Death 2012-10-31
English, Arabic

Biographical notes:

Maryam Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus in 1934, is an American convert from Judaism to Islam and the author of many works on Islamic history and culture.

Jameelah was born and raised in Westchester County, New York and converted to Islam prior to her emigration to Pakistan in 1962, where she subsequently married Mohammad Yusuf Khan.

From the description of Maryam Jameelah papers, 1945-2005. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122576001

Maryam Jameelah (b.1934) was born Margaret Marcus, the younger of two daughters of German-Jewish parents, in New Rochelle, New York. She grew up in Larchmont, New York. She attended public schools, joined the Girl Scouts, studied music, art, modern and social dancing, and attended summer camp each summer between 1940-1947. She was sent to religious instruction at a liberal Reform synagogue and at the Westchester Ethical Culture Society in New Rochelle between 1943-1949.

She became interested in the Arab world in the late 1940s during the creation of the state of Israel. While those around her celebrated the founding of a Jewish nation after the horrors of World War II, her sympathies were decidedly for the Palestinians, who by this same action were displaced from their own homes. She began to study Arab history, poetry, and writings. This sympathy would have profound ramifications throughout the rest of her life.

While Marcus appears to have led an average suburban childhood, a letter from her mother recalls that she didn't enjoy playing in group games, that she never felt accepted by peers, was often the object of teasing and ridicule at school, and that she was very sensitive to noise. Marcus proved to be a superior student, and artistically talented, but she was also described as "sensitive", "high-strung," and as having "eccentric habits" by both school officials and summer camp administrators. As a teen Marcus had no interest in the things most teenage girls do - fashion, make-up, dating, and the social scene of peers. She had few friends through high school.

School officials suggested she be sent to the local Child Guidance Clinic, and in 1947 Marcus began the first prolonged experience of weekly therapy sessions which continued until 1950. Marcus was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Psychiatric problems and therapy sessions continued to be a part of her life, on and off, for many years, including two years of institutionalization in New York and later, for several months in Pakistan.

Marcus graduated from high school in June of 1952 and though she was accepted to the University of Rochester for the Fall of 1952, she returned home shortly after the first semester began, due to "nervous breakdown." In the spring of 1953 she began attending New York University, where she studied from 1953 to 1956, being forced to leave before obtaining her college degree, again attributed to "nervous breakdown".

Despite this, her parents insisted she occupy her time constructively and develop some skills to help support herself as an adult. She studied drawing at the Art Students League in NYC the fall of 1952, and attended the Berlitz School of Languages to study advanced French conversation after her expulsion from NYU. She volunteered as a clerical worker and took touch-typing classes in White Plains upon returning home from two years of hospitalization in 1959.

In March, 1953 Marcus wrote to her sister Betty describing herself as "a total misfit," saying, "I know and care nothing about business or anything commercial, couldn't tolerate a single day of the monotonous routine of office or factory. So now I find myself absolutely unemployable?I can't find any respectable place anywhere." At the age of nineteen she felt that life was over, she was discouraged, exhausted, depressed, and despairing.

Her failure to fit in and her desire to find respectability pushed her to search for her Jewish roots in order to find a frame of reference and identity for adult life. During the winter of 1952-53 she made a concerted effort to embrace Orthodox Judaism, visiting meetings at the local YWHA, the Orthodox Synagogue in Mamaroneck, and even by attending a meeting of a Zionist youth group, the Mizrachi Hatzair. But in all these experiences she found what she considered disagreeable, unlikable people, who often rejected her outright due to her liberal, non-kosher background. At the single Mizrachi Hatzair meeting she attended she was horrified by the pro-Israeli propaganda film and what she felt was the total misrepresentation of the Arab. She never returned.

She was drawn to the Bahai art and cultural center because they claimed to promote international understanding. She joined in their pen-friend program and corresponded with many young people around the world. But her search for friends her own age locally was not helped by her involvement in the center; mostly she found "old eccentrics" in this organization.

During her teens her support of the Arab culture led her to write a novel titled Ahmad Khalil: the Story of a Palestinian Refugee and his Family, in which she hoped to reveal the true hardships and cruelty with which the Palestinians were forced to live. She created a series of pencil sketches and colored drawings to illustrate the book. In summer of 1954, she was invited to display several of these works in an exhibit at the Bahai center's Caravan of East and West Art Gallery, which she was very proud to do.

During the exhibit she fell into a conversation about some of her drawings with a Jewish visitor. When he found out she was a Jew who sympathized with the Arabs, he "denounced her as a traitor to her race even more than the 'goyim' (gentiles). This rejection, coupled with her earlier experiences, caused her to write to her sister, "No people I have ever encountered are more intolerant, bigoted and narrow-minded than the disagreeable Jews I have had the misfortune to meet and that is why I find it impossible to identify myself as one of them."

During the fall 1954 semester at NYU, Marcus sat for a class titled, "Judaism in Islam," taught by a Jewish professor whose goal was to demonstrate the Jewish influence on Islam. Throughout this time, in fact from 1952, Marcus had been reading and studying the Islamic holy text, the Quran. She credits this class with convincing her of the superiority of Islam to Judaism. She states, "Judaism retains its tribal nationalistic character. Because Judaism is still in essence a tribe, it is a closed society?the Holy Prophet?directed his message to the whole human race? therefore Islam is a truly universal, cosmopolitan faith?He [Allah] would never restrict His Truth to a single people. Truth by its nature must be universal!"

Marcus had found her path. She met other Muslims at the campus of New York University and began to spend time in the Arabic neighborhoods of New York, attending mosque and learning the five daily prayers that are part of Islamic practice. On May 24, 1961 she formally professed her desire to live as a Muslim before the community of the Islamic Mission of America, in Brooklyn, New York, and her name was changed to Maryam Jameelah. She began writing articles on Islamic culture and life, publishing her first book, Islam versus the West, in Lahore, Pakistan in January of 1962.

She emigrated to Lahore, Pakistan in May, 1962 after much thought on her part and the encouragement of Pakistani mentor Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi, an Islamic scholar and writer with whom she had been corresponding with between 1960 and 1962. Maudoodi invited her to live with his family if she wished to emigrate. Considering her ongoing conflicts with her family, her lack of comfort with American culture, and her need to find a way to support herself as her parents planned retirement and informed her they would no longer be able to support her, this invitation solidified her decision. She would emigrate to a Muslim culture - Pakistan. About one year after arriving in her new country, Jameelah suffered another "nervous breakdown" and spent a few months in a Lahore, Pakistan mental hospital.

Jameelah married fifteen months after emigrating, becoming the second wife of Mohammed Yusuf Khan, a local political figure and leader in the Jama'at-e-Islami, a local political organization, in Lahore, Pakistan. She bore five children between 1964 and 1972, three girls, the first dying in infancy, and two boys. She has continued writing and is the author of more than thirty books on Islamic history and culture. Jameelah still lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

From the guide to the Maryam Jameelah papers, 1945-2005, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)


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