From opposite sides of the world and wildly divergent cultures, two people somehow find each other, bedevil each other and ultimately support each other’s influential, seminal ideas on Islamic extremism — cementing, as one scholar writes, the global cultural divide between Islam and the West.

“The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism” By Deborah Baker. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis MN, May 2011. 256 pages. $23.


From opposite sides of the world and wildly divergent cultures, two people somehow find each other, bedevil each other and ultimately support each other’s influential, seminal ideas on Islamic extremism — cementing, as one scholar writes, the global cultural divide between Islam and the West.


These two characters — at odds in “The Convert,” a true biography by Deborah Baker — are Margaret Marcus, a twentysomething young woman with a history of mental instability from Larchmont, N.Y., and Abul Ala Mawdudi, a mature Islamic scholar from Lahore, Pakistan. 


The author, Deborah Baker, had no idea what she was getting into when she discovered some of the books and papers belonging to Margaret in the New York Public Library’s archives. What must have begun as the seductive mystery of a young woman who repudiates Western culture in the early 1960s soon takes a dark twist, then another, then another.


“The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism” tracks the life of Margaret Marcus, who seemed almost genetically predisposed to her Arabic sympathies. She loved everything she discovered about Arabic culture and Islam. Even as a girl, she was a tireless investigator, rooting out the music, food and literature she would later embrace on indigenous soil.


Her Jewish parents, who wanted nothing more than to work and travel, despaired. Who was this trenchant, rage-prone critic of all things Western who made meals miserable? Why did Margaret become Maryam Jameelah and convert to Islam? Is it any wonder that this uncompromising critic found herself carted off to first one mental hospital then another in the late 1950s and early 1960s? Baker wonders, was Peggy, as she sometimes thought of her, simply crazy or was she a precursor to the infamous 1960s era so populated with outspoken misfits? Most important of all, how did this woman, plagued by many demons, come to be the one who solidly defined, for a broad and receptive audience, the seemingly irreconcilable divide between radical extreme Islam and Western culture?


Once the stack of Maryam’s letters to her family had incited Baker’s curiosity, Baker tirelessly followed the story’s mysterious threads. Maryam leaves America in her late 20s to become the adopted daughter of the Islamic scholar Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, in Lahore, Pakistan. Her thinking and writing, so aligned with Mawdudi, along with her plight — her parents no longer will support the Muslim convert — compel Mawdudi to invite her to be his adopted daughter.


Maryam’s letters, along with her many published articles and essays, tell the story of an uncompromising thinker whose arguments are, for some of us, quite rationale and true. She makes good points.


But … Baker discovers layer upon layer of Maryam. She finds those who treated her, lived with her, rejected her. And there’s Maryam herself, who comes to life at the end of “The Convert.”


Baker is a remarkable writer. “The Convert,” despite the implications of the subject matter, finds the irony, the humor and the greatly perplexing disunity in the struggles of the key players. Baker also finds a way to present this story so that it is a readable, page-turning parallel to her own journey of amazing discovery. The book is valuable for its historical insights, its timeliness, its portraits of human beings torn by passion and intellect, and for its model of splendid writing and reporting.


Rae Francoeur can be reached at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.