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Islam in Perspective

‘I overcame my inner turmoil to embrace Islam’

Maryam Jemeelah, a New York-based Jewish woman who reverted to Islam at the age of 27, passed away recently in Lahore. She was 78. Below is the third part of her interview which she had given to Islamic Bulletin, a few years back:
Zenita and I would eat our meals in Syrian restaurants where I acquired a keen taste for this tasty cooking. When we had money to spend, we would order Couscous, roast lamb with rice or a whole soup plate of delicious little meatballs swimming in gravy scooped up with loaves of unleavened Arabic bread. And when we had little to spend, we would eat lentils and rice, Arabic style, or the Egyptian national dish of black broad beans with plenty of garlic and onions called “Ful.”
While Professor Katsh was lecturing thus, I was comparing in my mind what I had read in the Old Testament and the Talmud with what was taught in the Qur’an and Hadith and finding Judaism so defective, I was converted to Islam.
My increasing sympathy for Islam and Islamic ideals enraged the other Jews I knew, who regarded me as having betrayed them in the worst possible way. They used to tell me that such a reputation could only result from shame of my ancestral heritage and an intense hatred for my people. They warned me that even if I tried to become a Muslim, I would never be accepted. These fears proved totally unfounded as I have never been stigmatized by any Muslim because of my Jewish origin. As soon as I became a Muslim myself, I was welcomed most enthusiastically by all the Muslims as one of them.
I did not embrace Islam out of hatred for my ancestral heritage or my people. It was not a desire so much to reject as to fulfill. To me, it meant a transition from parochial to a dynamic and revolutionary faith.
Although I wanted to become a Muslim as far back as 1954, my family managed to argue me out of it. I was warned that Islam would complicate my life because it is not, like Judaism and Christianity, part of the American scene. I was told that Islam would alienate me from my family and isolate me from the community. At that time my faith was not sufficiently strong to withstand these pressures. Partly as the result of this inner turmoil, I became so ill that I had to discontinue college long before it was time for me to graduate. For the next two years I remained at home under private medical care, steadily growing worse. In desperation from 1957- 1959 my parents confined me both to private and public hospitals where I vowed that if ever I recovered sufficiently to be discharged, I would embrace Islam.
After I was allowed to return home, I investigated all the opportunities for meeting Muslims in New York City. It was my good fortune to meet some of the finest men and women anyone could ever hope to meet. I also began to write articles for Muslim magazines.
When I embraced Islam, my parents, relatives and their friends regarded me almost as a fanatic, because I could think and talk of nothing else. To them, religion is a purely private concern, which at the most perhaps could be cultivated like an amateur hobby among other hobbies. But as soon as I read the Holy Qur’an, I knew that Islam was no hobby but life itself!
One evening I was feeling particularly exhausted and sleepless, the mother came into my room and said she was about to go to the Larchmont Public Library and asked me if there was any book that I wanted? I asked her to look and see if the library had a copy of an English translation of the Holy Qur’an. Just think, years of passionate interest in the Arabs and reading every book in the library about them I could lay my hands on but until now, I never thought to see what was in the Holy Qur’an! Mother returned with a copy for me. So eager, I literally grabbed it from her hands and read it the whole night. There I also found all the familiar Bible stories of my childhood.
In my eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and one year of college, I learned about English grammar and composition, French, Spanish, Latin and Greek in current use, Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, European and American history, elementary science, Biology, music and art, but I had never learned anything about God! Can you imagine I was so ignorant of God that I wrote to my pen-friend, a Pakistani lawyer, and confessed to him the reason why I was an atheist was because I couldn’t believe that God was really an old man with a long white beard who sat up on His throne in Heaven. When he asked me where I had learned this outrageous thing, I told him of the reproductions from the Sistine Chapel I had seen in “Life” Magazine of Michelangelo’s “Creation” and “Original Sin.” I described all the representations of God as an old man with a long white beard and the numerous crucifixions of Christ I had seen with Paula at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But in the Holy Qur’an, I read: “Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, The Self-subsisting, Supporter of all. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is thee can intercede in His presence except as He permiteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).” (Qur’an, 2:255)
“But the Unbelievers, their deeds are like a mirage in sandy deserts, which the man parched with thirst mistakes for water; until when he comes up to it, he finds Allah there, and Allah will pay him his account: and Allah is swift in taking account. Or (the unbelievers’ state) is like the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billow topped by billow, topped by (dark) clouds: depth of darkness, one above another: if a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! for any to whom Allah giveth not light, there is no light!”(Qur’an, 24: 39-40)
My first thought when reading the Holy Qur’an — this is the only true religion — absolutely sincere, honest, not allowing cheap compromises or hypocrisy.
In 1959, I spent much of my leisure time reading books about Islam in the New York Public Library. It was there I discovered four bulky volumes of an English translation of Mishkat ul-Masabih. It was then that I learned that a proper and detailed understanding of the Holy Qur’an is not possible without some knowledge of the relevant Hadith. For how can the Holy text correctly be interpreted except by the Prophet to whom it was revealed?

To be continued next week
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