Title: The Road
Simon and Schuster Inc., 1954
edition of ‘The Road to Mecca’ came out twenty years after ‘Islam at the Cross
Roads’. Within these twenty years a major historical force was changing the
world for the Muslims. One by one, the lands of Islam were set free from the
tyranny of the colonial masters and there was new hope in the air. There were
talks of rebuilding nations and of reconstructing paths to glory that had been
the legacy of Muslims for centuries. Many were trying to reconstruct religious
thoughts to revive the spirit of Islam and Muhammad Asad was but one of them.
Back in 1934, he had already presented the essence of his thoughts in ‘Islam at
the Cross Roads’ which he complemented with ‘The Road to Mecca’ in 1954. ‘The
Road to Mecca’ traces the evolution of Asad’s ideas and puts them against the
backdrop of the events that shaped his life. As the title suggests it is about a
journey both physical and intellectual towards Mecca.
Though the main
plot is simple enough i.e. the description of a desert journey, but within this
journey the reader is transported across both space and time. At the wells of
the oases from the sand dunes of the desert the author has a stream of
consciousness which takes the reader either to the past or compels him to
appreciate a striking and novel connection. The entire book is structured in
this manner and the reader has to keep on hopping between the past and the
present and from one place to another.
There are many
facets of the book that would appeal to a variety of readers. The flow of the
author’s profound thoughts is interspersed with description of breath taking
adventures, perceptive assessment of important figures, some history and of
course a personal autobiography. With so much at hand, our focus will lie
exclusively with Asad’s intellectual pursuits that ultimately brought him into
the folds of Islam. About the book he himself writes:
The story I
am going to tell in this book is not the autobiography of a man conspicuous for
his role in public affairs; it is not a narrative of adventure ----. My story is
simply the story of a European’s discovery of Islam and of his integration
within the Muslim community.
Some of the
content is borrowed from ‘Islam at the Cross Roads’ and the keen reader would in
fact notice passages straight out from the former book. The unidirectional
materialistic view of the West, the problem of duality and original sin, the
issue of ‘Taqlid’ (Blind following) have all been explored before. However there
are new pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book and it would certainly be
a fruitful exercise to review them along with tracing the author’s intellectual
evolution towards Islam.
of any intellectual journey starts with doubt or dissatisfaction with the
existing paradigms leading one to explore the possible alternatives. However, in
matters of faith, this journey is more involved as it not only includes mental
but emotional disturbance as well. For Asad, the precursors of disturbance were
the spiritual foundations of his society and the way it was structured. He
seemed to be flowing in a formless flood, and the spiritual restlessness of
youth could nowhere find a foothold. In the absence of any reliable standards of
morality, nobody could give us young people satisfactory answers to the many
questions that perplexed us.
I saw how
confused and unhappy our life had become; how little there was of real communion
between man and man despite all the strident, almost hysterical insistence on
‘community’ and ‘nation’.
It is important
to note that as a consequence of the initial disturbance not all begin to
explore the alternatives. As Asad writes:
individual, this ethical liability could lead either to complete moral chaos and
cynicism or, alternatively, to a search for a creative, personal approach to
what might constitute the good life.
experienced doubt, Asad explored Art, Psychoanalysis and Lao-tse; however, he
was not quite satisfied with either of the approaches. He criticizes each
framework of thought and in a nutshell writes:
alone, intellectual realization alone could obviously not produce a change in
the spiritual attitude of the European society; a new faith of the heart was
needed, a new burning surrender to values which tolerated no ifs and buts.
It is said that
if man takes one step towards God, He takes ten and if man walks towards Him, He
runs towards man. Perhaps it was on exhausting all alternatives that Asad had
that wonderful dream interpreted to be a divine call to Islam and perhaps it was
a manifestation of divine grace that he was drawn to the Middle East. It was in
this new land that he discovered the inner security he had yearned for so long.
security could be observed in the way they behaved toward one another: in the
warm dignity with which they met or parted; in the manner in which two men would
walk together, holding each other by the hand like children --simply because
they felt friendly towards each other. Those traders in the little shops seemed
to have no grasping fear and no envy in them: -- the competitor, would step in
to inquire after the customer’s wants and sell him the required goods -- not his
own goods, but those of his absent neighbor.‘
It must be
noted that it was no sermon or philosophic treatise that captured Asad’s
attention but simply the Islamic brotherhood described above and it was from
here that through thought upon thought and reflection upon reflection he came to
study the world of Islam. So much was the yearning that he went on to study
Arabic and did not even hesitate to live like an Arab in Medina to experience
Islam in its pristine form. In his quest, he realized important truths of life.
time I learned something more about the teachings of Islam, I seemed to discover
something that I had always known without knowing it.
And I knew
that all the answers are but waiting for us while we, poor fools, ask questions
and wait for the secrets of God to open themselves up to us: when they, all the
while, are waiting for us to open ourselves up to them.
stages of doubt and exploration comes an interim period where the mind stews on
the new thoughts and eventually comes the stage of illumination followed by
utmost submission. The whole process of realization takes time and demands
humility, sincerity and devotion from the explorer for there are many who are
aware of Islamic teachings yet, owing to their attitude, are unable to
appreciate and accept them. As Asad himself says:
It is not a
question of understanding. It is rather a question of being convinced.
discovery of Islam, it cannot be said that the twenty two-year-old mind was
impressionable enough to be swayed by an exotic ideology. On closer scrutiny,
one may note the maturity of thought in his journalistic writings and besides
one knows that a fashionable trend wanes with the same swiftness that it waxes.
It is the opinion of this critic that the visit to Arabia and eventual
acceptance of Islam cannot be explained away as a product of chance. Asad’s
dream and then the visit are indicative of the grand divine master plan. The
events that took place in his life, the people he met and the conversations he
encountered were never the resultant of random forces; much the same way that
Shaykh Sa‘dī’s thoughts and the appearance of the lame man was not a mere
Not only did
Asad embrace Islam but became one of its distinguished ambassadors through ‘The
Road to Mecca’. In this book, he presents his most profound and novel thoughts
in quite an appealing manner. Quite perceptive and involved is his exposition of
the process of prophetic revelations. The interpretation of ‘Dajjāl’ is as novel
as the use of subconscious theory to explain the Shiite rift from mainstream
Islam. Interesting to note is his idea on man’s inherent knowledge of the
divine. He writes:
It was not
the philosophers and prophets who taught us to believe in life after death; all
they did was to give form and spiritual content to an instinctive perception as
old as man himself.
presents an effective explanation of various Islamic issues, argues against
Zionism and mounts a strong defense on the authenticity of the Holy Prophet (sws).
In all that he presents, one only learns something new each time one opens the
book. A keen eye would find many answers and as an instance one may note the
importance of Arabia for the origin of monotheism. He writes:
Arabian music speaks a desire to carry, each time, a single emotional experience
to the utmost end of its reach. -- Only on the basis of this inborn drive, so
peculiar to the people of the desert, could grow the monotheism of the early
Hebrews and its triumphant fulfillment, the faith of Muhammad (sws).
sweeps out of the heart of man all the lovely fantasies that could be used as a
masquerade for wishful thinking, and thus makes him free to surrender himself to
an Absolute that has no image.
Much more may
be highlighted and deserves to be appreciated but the reader must be allowed to
relish the experience himself. However it would be worthwhile to emphasize some
of his penetrating observations.
Pearls of wisdom
The history of
Islam is cursed by the inability of rulers to provide the institutional set up
for research and by the dogmatic insistence of scholars tending to obstruct free
thought. It was as a consequence of both that an intellectual slumber plagued
the Muslim world making it vulnerable to colonial exploits. Thus generation
after generation, both leaders and scholars lost the creative originality and
paid more heed to custom than reason, despite the fact that they were well known
for their sincerity, generosity and truthfulness. Asad captures this problem
through Ibn Sa‘ūd and the Grand
Sannūsī respectively as follows:
gifts of money which Ibn Sa‘ūd distributes among the tribal chieftains and their
followers have made them so dependent on his largesse that they are beginning to
lose all incentive to improve their living conditions by their own endeavors --,
content to remain ignorant and indolent.’
quixotic sense of chivalry toward the Caliph of Islam finally outweighed the
dictates of reason and induced him to make the wrong decision.
‘The Road to
Mecca’ is the story of a man who embraced Islam and became one of its greatest
exponents. This review attempted to explain Asad’s momentous decision along with
highlighting some of his profound thoughts. However for this critic much still
remains a mystery for if it is the preserved inner purity that leads one to the
truth then in every manner Asad had tarnished it in his pre-Islamic days. The
reader would note Asad’s mention of fleeting loves, champagnes and several other
things of his past life, which was certainly not ideal. There can then be no set
criteria for reversion to Islam with the exception of earnest yearning as a key
precondition. This earnest yearning to discover the inner self is then also the
central message of the book. Every Muslim today needs to embark on a lifelong
journey, treading on the Road to Mecca, starting from a simple question as Asad
had once asked. Thus through thought upon thought and reflection upon reflection
one would travel from one plane of existence to a higher one. As Asad writes:
stands motionless in a pool it grows stale and muddy, but when it moves and
flows it becomes clear: so, too, man in his wanderings.