Maryam Jameelah, the American-Jewish convert to Islam and prolific writer on the religion and its community spoke recently with Biju Abdul Qadir of Young Muslim Digest. Covering a wide range of issues from her conversion to Islam, her leaving her American homeland for life in an Asian country, to her interest in the works of other European converts to Islam, the US War on Terror, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this interview reveals interesting aspects of the thinking of this Muslim intellectual who despite her 71 years still remains active and alive to the developments in the MuslimUmmah.
YMD: We have always known about your conversion through contacts with Mawlana Mawdudi, but nothing about how in the first instance you got interested in Islam. Would you like to throw some light on your initial days of interest in Islam?
MJ: Like Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss), I first became interested in Islam by a fascination with everything Arab. I read all the books about Arabs I could find and loved to listen to recordings by Umm Kalsoum. Then, as now, most of these books were by Orientalists or missionaries and presented a very negative view which I knew was unjustified. Only years later, I acquired knowledge about Qur’an Majeed through Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation which inspired me with the desire to convert to Islam.
YMD: You have settled in Pakistan since 1962. How different has been the experience in this shift of cultures, indeed, of ideologies, as in your case? Of course, your expectations of Muslim culture would have been quite high, and there must have been some disappointments especially in the beginning. Was it a lack of alternatives or, satisfaction with what you found in Pakistan or merely familial bindings that led you to remain in Pakistan, perhaps never traveling out once?
MJ: I settled in Pakistan at the invitation of Maulana Maudoodi with whom I had been corresponding for two years. He not only gave me emotional support as a new convert but also a permanent home in Pakistan, and helped me find a good husband. I have been on such good terms with his family. I never wanted to go anywhere else, convinced there was nothing for me in America. My first impression of Pakistan was that it was a very good Muslim country. Disillusions with its numerous shortcomings only came later.
YMD: Have you performed Hajj and what has been your impression. Do you travel for‘Umrah and if you do, do you find changes in Arab adherence to Islam in the two holyHarams?
MJ: I talk with everyone I know who has returned from Hajj and read everything about it that I can. I deeply regret that the expansion of the Haram and the Masjid-an-Nabi could only be accomplished by the massive destruction of nearly all the Ottoman structures of the Holy Cities including numerous historic places associated with the Holy Prophet. Everything has been modernized/ westernized including much inappropriate technology. However, the comforts and physical accommodations have been vastly improved. Despite all this, returnees who have returned to tell me their experiences insist that the Hajj was the greatest spiritual experience of their lives.
YMD: You have known the late Mawlana Mawdudi well in your close association with him. How relevant are his ideas for the future of the Muslim community today? How do you view the policies and practices of the Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan today? How has its policies changed since the time that it was first launched in 1941?
MJ: At the beginning in 1941 Maulana Maudoodi was concerned with cultural matters in Islam’s relation with the West. Now everything is politics. Placing politics at the centre of the Islamic mission is contrary to the traditions of Islam. However, Jamat-e-Islami deserves all the credit for restraining the worst excesses of secular military dictatorships.
YMD: It has been said that the logic of your discursive approach has recently led you away from current forms of Islamic revivalism and even from the Jamat-e-Islami itself. It has also been said that increasingly aware of revivalism’s own borrowing from the West, you have distanced yourself from the revivalist exegesis and have even criticized your mentor, Mawlana Mawdudi, for his assimilation of modern concepts into Jamat-e-Islami’s ideology. How much do you agree with this?
MJ: I became disillusioned about the Maulana’s disdain for the necessity for beauty in the lives of his followers, of traditional Islamic philosophy and Islamic art and his whole-hearted acceptance of industrialism, technology and evolutionism. But now I am less critical. Maulana Maudoodi, Sheikh Hasan al Banna and Syed Qutb devoted their entire lives to the Islamic cause and sacrificed all their time, energy and resources and even their lives towards that end. They strictly abided by Shariatall their lives and inspired many others to do so.
YMD: You once said that you were totally in disagreement with what Allama Iqbal wrote in his ‘Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam.’ Can you please explain the basis of this disagreement?
MJ: In his ‘Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam’ Allama Iqbal attempted a most unconvincing reconciliation with certain 19th century western philosophies. The entire book is based on evolutionism and progressionism. It will remain one of the most well known classics of Islamic modernism.
YMD: You have known the late Muhammad Asad through his writings and perhaps also in his capacities in the foreign ministry of Pakistan. Were his works like ‘The Road to Makkah’ and ‘Islam at the Crossroads’ instrumental in your own conversion to Islam? Did you ever perceive a certain evolution in his thought: an evolution to which you couldn’t reconcile yourself in later years? If so, can you please explain where you differed from his viewpoints? What is your opinion about his Commentary (on the Qur’an)? Would you recommend its inclusion in Islamic studies, either private or institutionalized?
MJ: Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Road to Mecca’ inspired my desire to live in a Muslim country and ‘Islam at the crossroads’ determined my entire literary career. However, his ‘Message of the Qur’an’ is almost entirely based on ‘The Manar’ by Shaikh Muhammad Abduh. It is filled with modernism and naturalism. Muhammad Asad was a great admirer of Shaikh Muhammad Abduh and was much influenced by him.
YMD: Alija Ali Izzetbegovich, the former President of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been one of the most unsung Muslim intellectuals in modern European history. What has been your own assessment of his life and works? How would you rate his work, ‘Islam between East and West’?
MJ: Having only read a brief biography and obituaries and not ‘Islam between East and West,’ (I may say that) Alija Ali Izzetbegovich is renowned as the most distinguished Bosnian Muslim statesman.
YMD: Writing in as far back as 1969, you had stated that the Muslim Ulema (with honourable exceptions) ‘had become like the Pharisees against whom Jesus Christ devoted his entire mission. In their extremes of verbal hair splitting, some of our Ulema have outdone the Talmud and put the Rabbis to shame.’ How much has the situation progressed for the better today, some thirty-five years later?
MJ: Although certain Ulema have shortcomings the righteous amongst them uphold the Shariat, combat bid’ah or innovations and can be regarded as the indispensable pillar of traditional Islamic civilization.
YMD: Do you see a marked difference in approach on the part of the Orientalists in view of the spread of Islamic knowledge, and in view of questions of their intellectual integrity raised now and then, especially by Norman Daniel?
MJ: Even the most ‘sympathetic’ Orientalists think Islam should change in conformity to the demands of modern life; some of them even propose that Qur’an and Hadith be subjected to ‘Higher Criticism’ like Biblical studies, (and that) a search (be made) among modernists for one who could play the part of a Muslim Martin Luther and ‘updating’ Islam like Vatican II.
YMD: Some years back when Frithjof Schuon was criticized in the Impact for his Sufi practices, you had reacted strongly. Do you agree with the ideas presented by him, and the practices he tried to promote?
MJ: I was utterly shocked by the article in Impact condemning Frithjof Schuon and considered it (and still do) the worst character assassination. When dissatisfied with revivalist books, I was at first greatly impressed with Schuon’s writings. The writings of his school were alone in emphasizing the necessity of beauty and Islamic art, strongly condemned industrialism and modern science and upheld traditional orthodox Islamic civilization in every aspect of a Muslim’s life. Schuon’s writings remained my favourite books until I met with his divorced third wife. We became best friends and she related all her experiences in her 30-year life with Schuon. So Impact’s article turned out to be true after all. My new found friend disclosed even more shocking facts about Schuon which utterly disqualified him as a spiritual guide. She disclosed that Schuon lived with three women without proper Nikah. He loved nudity and was accused in court of sexual child abuse. He hugged dozens of beautiful, bare-breasted young girls clad in only a transparent loin-cloth. He painted fifty pictures of his youngest wife in the nude. As entertainment, he and his followers danced native Indian dances. Outside Schuon’s house was a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary. Worst of all, he forbade his followers to befriend other Muslims. I still have all Schuon’s books; they still attract me but I cannot look at them without a profound sense of shame.
YMD: What, in general, is your assessment of the neo-apologists and propagators of Sufi ideas such as Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Martin Lings, or others of this class? Do you think that, in effect, they offer pantheism rather than impress about Islam’s unique ideas and strict tawhid perspectives?
MJ: Like Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Martin Lings are my favourite writers. More profound criticism of Western philosophy, science and technology is not found among any of the revivalist writers. Martin Lings Seerat is by far the best in English – based entirely on Qur’an and Hadith.
YMD: How do you rate Rene Guenon’s writings? Do you think his obsession with the cyclic explanation, did away with whatever good criticism he made against the Western culture, and contributed nothing, despite his long stay in Egypt, to the projection of Islam as primarily rational?
MJ: No modern writer attacked modern civilization and all it stands for more than Rene Guenon. Next to him the revivalist figures appear childish. His all-out attack on evolutionism and progressionism is decisive and irrefutable. He proved the cyclic and disproved progress. No sensitive, intelligent mind can study Rene Geunon’s ‘Crisis of the Modern World’ and ‘Reign of Quantity and Signs of the Times’ without being changed forever.
YMD: How would you explain the exclusion of many powerful Muslim personalities of not only our own times, but even of the first half of the last century from the ‘Encyclopedia of Islam’ produced at Braille, when you find entries on other less influential men of the past?
MJ: The ‘Encyclopaedia of Islam’ is entirely an Orientalist work. The exclusion of these powerful Muslim personalities of the past and present serves their own nefarious purposes of keeping serious scholars ignorant about them.
YMD: In your opinion, how effective is the present educational system in the Muslim world? Will a piecemeal attempt at making conventional western-style education conform to Islamic requirements suffice in effecting a lasting transformation amongst the Muslim youth today? Or will a wholesale shift in paradigm be necessary before a new edifice of education is built on premises that are strictly in keeping with the founding principles of the Islamic worldview?
MJ: The present educational system in Muslim countries results in imitation of Westerners. It destroys faith in Islam and the Islamic way of life. Maulana Maudoodi was most concerned about this when in 1939 he wrote Talimat and Tanqihat. Despite all their defects, I am most opposed to the secularization or closing down of the Deeni Madaris – all that is left of traditional Islamic education for the young today.
YMD: While the Jews have always disowned the ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ever since it was first discovered in the early years of the twentieth century, there is a widespread belief that the ‘Protocols’ form the blueprint for Jewish world domination. What is your own view on the ‘Protocols’ and the Zionist movement in general?
MJ: Nobody knows if the ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ is authentic or not (?). If so, it was probably written by Theodore Herzl at the first Zionist Convention in Basle, Switzerland in 1897. Literary similarities between the ‘Protocols’ and ‘The Jewish State’ (1896) are striking. Racial anti-semitism produced by the ‘Protocols’ which fail to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism is a Western import into the Muslim world previously unknown. Orthodox Judaism and Zionism conflict and are irreconcilable.
YMD: The WTC attacks of September 11, 2001, have had a profound impact on the prospects for Islamic revival in the 21st century. How historic do you think is this development? What has been your assessment of global developments with regard to Islam and the Muslim world in the four years since the event? Do you perceive an attempt at neo-colonization of the energy-rich Muslim lands by the Western Powers led by the US as sufficient justification for those Muslims who have picked up the gauntlet and have responded in kind to the oppression that has become the staple fare of innocent Muslims in several parts of the globe?
MJ: The USA under President Bush is engaged in an all-out war on Islam: the same colonialism and imperialism as the British and French a century ago. But insurgency and suicide bombers are no effective response. Shocking disregard for human life, especially women, children and the elderly – all innocent non-combatants cannot qualify the struggle as Jihad. Jihad must be waged according to Shariat.
YMD: Your views on the future of the Muslim people and the prospects for the Islamic faith in the 21st century? Do you see a vision of hope which bases itself on the inherent strengths – howsoever negligible – of the Muslim Ummah today, as against one which has for its premises the myriad weaknesses of the community?
MJ: As despair and hopelessness are forbidden in Islam, I view the future with great caution. The destruction of most of the outward signs of traditional environment and atmosphere in Islam, particularly architecture and Islamic dress for males as well as females is a catastrophic loss.Taqwa will remain in the next century although it will grow less and less and harder and harder to find. Many signs of the Last Days predicted by Hadith are now present. When asked what to do at the approach of the Last Days, the Holy Prophet replied: ‘Separate yourself from the evil ones, concentrate on your own affairs and cling to the roots of the tree (of Islam) until death overtakes you in that state…’