Jewish Maryam Embraces Islam

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I was Margaret (Peggy) Marcus. As a small child, I possessed a keen interest in
music and was particularly fond of the classical operas and symphonies
considered high culture in the West.
Music was my favorite subject in school in which I always earned the highest
grades. By sheer chance, I happened to hear Arabic music over the radio which so
much pleased me, that I was determined to hear more.
I would not leave my parents in peace until my father finally took me to the Syrian
section in New York City where I bought a stack of Arabic recordings. My parents,
relatives and neighbors thought Arabic and its music dreadfully weird and so
distressing to their ears that whenever I put on my recordings, they demanded
that I close all the doors and windows in my room lest they be disturbed!
After I embraced Islam in 1961, I used to sit enthralled by the hour at the mosque
inNew York, listening to tape-recordings of tilawat chanted by the celebrated
Egyptian qari, Abdul Basit.
But on Jumuah salah (Friday Prayers), the Imam did not play the tapes. We had a
special guest that day. A short, very thin and poorly-dressed black youth, who
introduced himself to us as a student from Zanzibar, recited Surat Ar-Rahman.
I traced the beginning of my interest in Islam to the age of ten. While attending a
reformed Jewish Sunday school, I became fascinated with the historical
relationship between the Jews and the Arabs.
From my Jewish textbooks, I learned that Abraham was the father of the Arabs as
well as the Jews. I read how centuries later when, in medieval Europe, Christian
persecution made their lives intolerable, the Jews were welcomed in Muslim
Spain; and that it was the magnanimity of this same Arabic Islamic civilization
which stimulated Hebrew culture to reach its highest peak of achievement.
Totally unaware of the true nature of Zionism, I naively thought that the Jews
were returning to Palestine to strengthen their close ties of kinship in religion and
culture with their Semitic cousins. Together, I believed that the Jews and the
Arabs would cooperate to attain another Golden Age of culture in the Middle East.
Despite my fascination with the study of Jewish history, I was extremely unhappy
With Gals at the Sunday school. At this time I identified myself strongly with the Jewish
people in Europe, then suffering a horrible fate under the Nazis and I was shocked
that none of my fellow classmates nor their parents took their religion seriously.
During the services at the synagogue, the children used to read comic strips
hidden in their prayer books and laugh to scorn at the rituals. The children were
so noisy and disorderly that the teachers could not discipline them and found it
very difficult to conduct the classes.
At home, the atmosphere for religious observance was scarcely more congenial.
My elder sister detested the Sunday school so much that my mother literally had
to drag her out of bed in the mornings and it never went without the struggle of
tears and hot words.
Finally, my parents were exhausted and let her quit. On the Jewish High Holy
Days, instead of attending synagogue and fasting on Yom Kippur, my sister and I
were taken out of school to attend family picnics and parties in fine restaurants.
When my sister and I convinced our parents how miserable we both were at the
Sunday school they joined an agnostic, humanist organization known as the
Ethical Culture Movement.
The Ethical Culture Movement was founded late in the 19th century by Felix
Alder. While studying for rabbinate, Felix Alder grew convinced that devotion to
ethical values; as relative and man-made, regarding any supernaturalism or
theology as irrelevant, constituted the only religion fit for the modern world.
I attended the Ethical Culture Sunday School each week from the age of eleven
until I graduated at fifteen. Here, I grew into complete accord with the ideas of the
movement and regarded all traditional, organized religions with scorn.
When I was eighteen years old I became a member of the local Zionist youth
movement known as the Mizrachi Hatzair. But, when I found out what the nature
of Zionism was, which made the hostility between Jews and Arabs irreconcilable,
I left several months later in disgust.
When I was twenty and a student at New York University, one of my elective
courses was entitled Judaism in Islam. My professor, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Katsh,
the head of the department of Hebrew Studies there, spared no efforts to convince
his students — all Jews, many of whom aspired to become rabbis — that Islam
was derived from Judaism.
Our textbook, written by him, took each verse from the Quran, painstakingly
tracing it to its allegedly Jewish source. Although his real aim was to prove to his
students the superiority of Judaism over Islam, he convinced me diametrically of
the opposite.
I soon discovered that Zionism was merely a combination of the racist, tribalistic
aspects of Judaism. Modern secular nationalistic Zionism was further discredited
in my eyes when I learned that few, if any, of the leaders of Zionism were
observant Jews and that perhaps nowhere is Orthodox, traditional Judaism
regarded with such intense contempt as in Israel.
When I found nearly all important Jewish leaders in America supporters for
Zionism, who felt not the slightest twinge of conscience because of the terrible
injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian Arabs, I could no longer consider myself a
Jew at heart.
One morning in November 1954, Professor Katsh, during his lecture, argued with
irrefutable logic that the monotheism taught by Moses (peace be upon him) and
the Divine Laws reveled to him were indispensable as the basis for all higher
ethical values.
If morals were purely man-made, as the ethical culture and other agnostic and
atheistic philosophies taught, then they could be changed at will, according to
mere whim, convenience or circumstance.
The result would be utter chaos leading to individual and collective ruin. Belief in
the Hereafter, as the Rabbis in the Talmud taught, argued Professor Katsh, was
not mere wishful thinking but a moral necessity.
Only those, he said, who firmly believed that each of us will be summoned by God
on Judgment Day to render a complete account of our life on earth and rewarded
or punished accordingly, will possess the self-discipline to sacrifice transitory
pleasure and endure hardships and sacrifice to attain lasting good.
It was in Professor Katsh’s class that I met Zenita, the most unusual and
fascinating girl I have ever met. The first time I entered Professor Katsh’s class, as
I looked around the room for an empty desk in which to sit, I spied two empty
seats, on the arm of one, three big beautifully bound volumes of Yusuf Ali’s
English translation and commentary of the Holy Quran.
I sat down right there, burning with curiosity to find out to whom these volumes
belonged. Just before Rabbi Katsh’s lecture was to begin, a tall, very slim girl with
pale complexion framed by thick auburn hair, sat next to me. Her appearance was
so distinctive, I thought she must be a foreign student from Turkey, Syria or some
other Near Eastern country.
Most of the other students were young men wearing the black cap of Orthodox
Jewry, who wanted to become rabbis. The two of us, were the only girls in the
As we were leaving the library late that afternoon, she introduced herself to me.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, her parents had migrated to America from
Russia only a few years prior to the October Revolution in 1917 to escape
I noted that my new friend spoke English with the precise care of a foreigner. She
confirmed these speculations, telling me that since her family and their friends
speak only Yiddish among themselves, she did not learn any English until after
attending public school.
She told me that her name was Zenita Liebermann but recently, in an attempt to
Americanize themselves, her parents had changed their name from “Liebermann”
to “Lane.”
Besides being thoroughly instructed in Hebrew by her father while growing up
and also in school, she said she was now spending all her spare time studying
However, with no previous warning, Zenita dropped out of class and although I
continued to attend all of his lectures to the conclusion of the course, Zenita never
Months passed and I had almost forgotten about Zenita, when suddenly she called
and begged me to meet her at the Metropolitan Museum and go with her to look
at the special exhibition of exquisite Arabic calligraphy and ancient illuminated
manuscripts of the Quran.
During our tour of the museum, Zenita told me how she had embraced Islam with
two of her Palestinian friends as witnesses.
I inquired, “Why did you decide to become a Muslim?” She then told me that she
had left Professor Katsh’s class when she fell ill with a severe kidney infection. Her
condition was so critical, she told me, her mother and father had not expected her
to survive.
“One afternoon while burning with fever, I reached for my Quran on the table
beside my bed and began to read and while I recited the verses, it touched me so
deeply that I began to weep and then I knew I would recover. As soon as I was
strong enough to leave my bed, I summoned two of my Muslim friends and took
the oath of the “Shahadah” or Confession of Faith.”
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 Quran and
Hadith and finding Judaism so defective, I 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
Quran, I knew that Islam was no hobby but life itself!
One evening I was feeling particularly exhausted and sleepless. 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
Quran. 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 Quran!
Mother returned with a copy for me. I was 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 Quran, I read:
(Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, The Self-subsisting, Eternal. 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).) (Al-Baqarah
(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
it to be nothing: But 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
hands, he can hardly see it! For any to whom Allah giveth not light, there is no
light!) (An-Nur 24: 39-40)
My first thought when reading the Quran — 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 Quran
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?
Once I had studied the Mishkat, I began to accept the Quran as Divine revelation.
What persuaded me that the Quran must be from God and not composed by
Muhammad (peace be upon him) was its satisfying and convincing answers to all
the most important questions of life which I could not find elsewhere.
As a child, I was so mortally afraid of death, particularly the thought of my own
death, that after nightmares about it, sometimes I would awaken my parents
crying in the middle of the night.
When I asked them why I had to die and what would happen to me after death, all
they could say was that I had to accept the inevitable; but that was a long way off
and because medical science was constantly advancing, perhaps I would live to be
a hundred years old!
My parents, family, and all our friends rejected as superstition any thought of the
Hereafter, regarding Judgment Day, reward inParadise or punishment in Hell as
outmoded concepts of by-gone ages.
In vain, I searched all the chapters of the Old Testament for any clear and
unambiguous concept of the Hereafter. The prophets, patriarchs and sages of the
Bible all receive their rewards or punishments in this world.
Typical is the story of Job (Ayub). God destroyed all his loved-ones, his
possessions, and afflicted him with a loathsome disease in order to test his faith.
Job plaintively laments to God why He should make a righteous man suffer. At
the end of the story, God restores all his earthly losses but nothing is even
mentioned about any possible consequences in the Hereafter.
Although I did find the Hereafter mentioned in the New Testament, but compared
with that of the Quran, it is vague and ambiguous. I found no answer to the
question of death in Orthodox Judaism, for the Talmud preaches that even the
worst life is better than death.
My parents’ philosophy was that one must avoid contemplating the thought of
death and just enjoy as best as one can, the pleasures life has to offer at the
According to them, the purpose of life is enjoyment and pleasure achieved
through self-expression of one’s talents, the love of family, the congenial company
of friends combined with the comfortable living and indulgence in the variety of
amusements that affluent America makes available in such abundance.
They deliberately cultivated this superficial approach to life as if it were the
guarantee for their continued happiness and good fortune.
Through bitter experience, I discovered that self-indulgence leads only to misery;
and that nothing great or even worthwhile is ever accomplished without struggle
through adversity and self-sacrifice.
From my earliest childhood, I have always wanted to accomplish important and
significant things. Above all else, before my death I wanted the assurance that I
had not wasted life in sinful deeds or worthless pursuits.
All my life, I have been intensely serious-minded. I have always detested the
frivolity which is the dominant characteristic of contemporary culture.
My father once disturbed me with his unsettling conviction that there is nothing
of permanent value and because of everything in this modern age, we should
accept the present trends inevitable and adjust ourselves to them.
I, however, was thirsty to attain something that would endure forever. It was from
the Quran where I learned that this aspiration was possible. No good deed for the
sake of seeking the pleasure of God is ever wasted or lost. Even if the person
concerned never achieves any worldly recognition, his reward is certain in the
Conversely, the Quran tells us that those who are guided by no moral
considerations other than expediency or social conformity and crave the freedom
to do as they please, no matter how much worldly success and prosperity they
attain or how keenly they are able to relish the short span of their earthly life; will
be doomed as the losers on Judgment Day.
Islam teaches us that in order to devote our exclusive attention to fulfilling our
duties to God and to our fellow-beings, we must abandon all vain and useless
activities which distract us from this end. These teachings of the Quran, made
even more explicit by Hadith, were thoroughly compatible with my temperament.
As the years passed, the realization gradually dawned upon me that it was not the
Arabs who made Islam great but rather Islam had made the Arabs great. Were it
not for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the Arabs would be an
obscure people today. And were it not for the Quran, the Arabic language would
be equally insignificant, if not extinct.
The kinship between Judaism and Islam is even stronger than Islam and
Christianity. Both Judaism and Islam share in common the same
uncompromising monotheism, the crucial importance of strict obedience to
Divine Law as proof of our submission to and love of the Creator, the rejection of
the priesthood, celibacy and monasticism and the striking similarity of the
Hebrew and Arabic language.
In Judaism, religion is so confused with nationalism, one can scarcely distinguish
between the two. The name “Judaism” is derived from Judah — a tribe. A Jew is a
member of the tribe ofJudah.
Even the name of this religion connotes no universal spiritual message. A Jew is
not a Jew by virtue of his belief in the unity of God, but merely because he
happened to be born of Jewish parentage. Should he become an outspoken
atheist, he is no less “Jewish” in the eyes of his fellow Jews.
Such a thorough corruption with nationalism has spiritually impoverished this
religion in all its aspects. God is not the God of all mankind but the God of Israel.
The scriptures are not God’s revelation to the entire human race but primarily a
Jewish history book.
David and Solomon (peace be upon them) are not full-fledged prophets of God
but merely Jewish kings.
With the single exception of Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), the
holidays and festivals celebrated by Jews, such as Hanukkah, Purim and Pesach,
are of far greater national than religious significance.
There is one particular incident which really stands out in my mind when I had
the opportunity to discuss Islam with a Jewish gentleman. Dr. Shoreibah, of the
Islamic Center in New York, introduced me to a very special guest.
After one Jumuah salah, I went into his office to ask him some questions about
Islam, but before I could even greet him with “Assalamu Alaikum”; I was
completely astonished and surprised to see seated before him an ultra-orthodox
Chassidic Jew, complete with earlocks, broad-brimmed black hat, long black
silken caftan and a full flowing beard.
Under his arm was a copy of the Yiddish newspaper, “The Daily Forward”. He told
us that his name was Samuel Kostelwitz and that he worked in New York City as a
diamond cutter.
Most of his family, he said, lived in the Chassidic community of Williamsburg in
Brooklyn, but he also had many relatives and friends in Israel.
Born in a small Romanian town, he had fled from the Nazi terror with his parents
to America, just prior to the outbreak of the second world-war.
I asked him what had brought him to the mosque? He told us that he had been
stricken with intolerable grief ever since his mother died 5 years ago. He had tried
to find solace and consolation for his grief in the synagogue but could not when he
discovered that many of the Jews, even in the ultra-orthodox community of
Williamsburg, were shameless hypocrites.
His recent trip to Israel had left him more bitterly disillusioned than ever. He was
shocked by the irreligiousness he found in Israel and he told us that nearly all the
young sabras or native-born Israelis are militant atheists.
When he saw large herds of swine on one of the kibbutzim (collective farms) he
visited, he could only exclaim in horror: “Pigs in a Jewish state! I never thought
that was possible until I came here!
“Then, when I witnessed the brutal treatment meted out to innocent Arabs in
Israel, I knew then that there is no difference between the Israelis and the Nazis.
Never, never in the name of God, could I justify such terrible crimes!”
Then he turned to Dr. Shoreibah and told him that he wanted to become a Muslim
but before he took the irrevocable steps to formal conversion, he needed to have
more knowledge about Islam.
He said that he had purchased from Orientalia Bookshop, some books on Arabic
grammar and was trying to teach himself Arabic. He apologized to us for his
broken English: Yiddish was his native tongue and Hebrew, his second language.
Among themselves, his family and friends spoke only Yiddish. Since his reading
knowledge of English was extremely poor, he had no access to good Islamic
However, with the aid of an English dictionary, he painfully read “Introduction to
Islam” by Muhammad Hamidullah of Paris and praised this as the best book he
had ever read.
In the presence of Dr. Shoreibah, I spent another hour with Mr. Kostelwitz,
comparing the Bible stories of the patriarchs and prophets with their counterparts
in the Quran.
I pointed out the inconsistencies and interpolations of the Bible, illustrating my
point with Noah’s alleged drunkenness, accusing David of adultery and Solomon
of idolatry (Allah forbid) and how the Quran raises all these patriarchs to the
status of genuine prophets of God and absolves them from all these crimes.
I also pointed out why it was Ismail and not Isaac who God commanded Abraham
to offer as sacrifice. In the Bible, God tells Abraham: “Take thine son, thine only
son whom thou lovest and offer him up to Me as burnt offering.”
Now, Ismail was born 13 years before Isaac but the Jewish biblical commentators
explain that away by belittling Ismail’s mother, Hagar, as only a concubine and
not Abraham’s real wife so they say Isaac was the only legitimate son. Islamic
traditions, however, raise Hagar to the status of a full-fledged wife equal in every
respect to Sarah.
Mr. Kostelwitz expressed his deepest gratitude to me for spending so much time,
explaining those truths to him. To express this gratitude, he insisted on inviting
Dr. Shoreibah and me to lunch at the Kosher Jewish delicatessen where he always
goes to eat his lunch.
Mr. Kostelwitz told us that he wished more than anything else to embrace Islam,
but he feared he could not withstand the persecution he would have to face from
his family and friends.
I told him to pray to God for help and strength and he promised that he would.
When he left us, I felt privileged to have spoken with such a gentle and kind
In Islam, my quest for absolute values was satisfied. In Islam, I found all that was
true, good and beautiful and that which gives meaning and direction to human life
(and death); while in other religions, the Truth is deformed, distorted, restricted
and fragmentary.
If any one chooses to ask me how I came to know this, I can only reply my
personal life experience was sufficient to convince me. My adherence to the
Islamic faith is thus a calm, cool but very intense conviction.
I have, I believe, always been a Muslim at heart by temperament, even before I
knew there was such a thing as Islam. My conversion was mainly a formality,
involving no radical change in my heart at all but rather only making official what
I had been thinking and yearning for many years.

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