The Road To Mecca
When Muhammad Asad travelled to New York in 1952 as an envoy for Pakistan to the United Nations, he had been away from the West for 25 years. The import of this is only realized when we learn that Asad was born Leopold Weiss, a central European Jew, who converted to Islam at the age of 26 and effectively turned his back on Western culture.
The Road To Mecca is now surprisingly little-known, but remains one of the twentieth century's great accounts of spiritual transformation. In no way a full story of Asad's life, it covers only the years he spent in Arabia as a young man, and specifically a 23-day journey to Mecca in the summer of 1932. Much more than a travelogue or memoir, along the way Asad recounts the story of his initial attraction to Islam and his final marriage to the faith. The beauty of his writing means that few readers will come away from this book without a changed perception of the religion, and this was his purpose in writing it.
Asad was a precociously gifted young correspondent for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, and made hundreds of trips within Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. His adventures are alone enough reason to get the book, but in this commentary we focus more on the author's rationale for his conversion and the thoughts that led to his Muslim beliefs.
Born Leopold Weiss in 1900, the second of three children, Asad's father was a barrister and the family comfortably off. Though his parents were not strict Jews, he was tutored in Hebrew and the Bible, and at an early age took issue with the idea of Jews being a chosen people - as it seemed to exclude all others. At the University of Vienna he studied the history of art and philosophy, and enjoyed mixing with Vienna's intellectual elite. Psychoanalysis was all the rage, but he saw it as 'spiritual nihilism', and felt there was an emptiness in the European soul.
In 1920, without saying goodbye to his father Asad traveled to Berlin where, after a period as a penniless bohemian, he managed to get work as a journalist. However, the work was not interesting enough, and when he received an invitation from an uncle living in Jerusalem to come and join him, he leapt at the chance. At this time he admits to having had the usual 'orientalist' stereotypes: vague ideas of the romance of the Arabian Nights and the exoticism of Islamic culture, and the typical European's view that Islam was of only marginal interest compared to Christianity and Judaism.
Despite his being a Jew, in Palestine Asad did not care for the Zionist cause, believing that an influx of Europeans into a land that had not been theirs for two thousand years was an artificial solution and destined to cause problems. He noticed that the European Jews saw the local Arabs like colonial powers saw Africans - as a backward people of little consequence - and he crossed swords with Israel founding father Chaim Weizmann on the issue. The Zionists in turn could not understand this Jewish man's sympathy for, and interest in, the Arabs.
Conversion and immersion
As the weeks grew into months, Asad began to see European culture in some perspective, particularly its emotional insecurity and moral ambiguity. In contrast, he noticed the sense of brotherhood and unity of thought and action that Muslims seemed to enjoy. He realized that Europe too had once enjoyed this spiritual wholeness, expressed, for instance, in the music of Bach, the art of Rembrandt and the Gothic cathedrals, but it had given way to a materialism that had fragmented its collective psyche.
Amid these thoughts, Asad was determined to stay in the Muslim world, and fortunately his appointment as a correspondent allowed him to travel the breadth of the Middle East. In the years to follow he provided hundreds of penetrating analyses of the people and issues of the region. The author officially became a Muslim in 1926, and for six years was based in the court of Ibn Saud, father of modern Saudi Arabia. Normally, a Westerner would have been viewed with suspicion, but Asad's commitment to Islam was total, and the connection to Ibn Saud enabled him to visit places that would ordinarily be off limits. His immersion his Muslim life was complete when he remarried an Arab woman in Medina, and had a son.
The promise of Islam
Asad's intention in writing an autobiography was not to chronicle his adventures in the exotic East for Westerners, but to dispel some of these erroneous views. He realized he was in a unique position of having fully known both cultural hemispheres, noting: "I was a Muslim - but I was also of Western origin: and thus I could speak the intellectual languages of both Islam and the West." He is careful to point out that it was not the Muslim peoples that made him convert to Islam, but rather his love of Islam that endeared him to stay living in Muslim countries.
What was it exactly that he fell for in this faith? Compared to Judaism and Christianity, he adored Islam's pared-down love of the Absolute, and the simplicity and beauty of the Koran, which did not require official interpreters of its wisdom. Compared to the individualism that Western faiths seemed to inspire, he reveled in the sense of community that Islam bestowed on its believers. Because Islam had no notion of 'original sin', everyone was assumed to be a person of God until proven otherwise; this outlook was expressed in courtly and reverential forms of Muslim greeting, which emphasized 'thou' rather than 'you'.
Corruption of the faith
The author was not blind, however, to the intellectual and material decay in many Muslim societies that had led them to become scientific and economic backwaters. According to Asad, when deep Islamic faith and day to day accordance with Muhammad's teachings waned, so did the creative impulse and ingenuity that had made Islamic civilization great. In total contradistinction to the Western view that adherence to Islam was responsible for the decline, Asad notes, "It was not the Muslims that had made Islam great: it was Islam that had made the Muslims great." There was nothing in Islam that created an obstacle to scientific advance and prosperity; rather, it was a failure to live up to the promise of the faith that had led to decline.
The Road To Mecca sits easily among the world's best travel and adventure writing, providing unforgettable descriptions of black, starry nights in the desert, oases, bustling bazaars, Mecca and Medina, the idiosyncrasies of pampered kings and the customs of the Bedouin. It provides unique insights into the history of the house of Saud and the politics of colonialism and Arab self-determination, as you would expect from a newspaper correspondent. But the book becomes a work of literature in its description of a person's slow realization that their heart belongs to a religion they were not brought up with, and the passion for the new faith that that conversion brings. If you have never really understood Islam and the faith that it inspires, this book will be a great teacher.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)