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Book Review: The Road To Mecca (Muhammad Asad)

This is a fascinating book—half travelogue and half conversion memoir.  Muhammad Asad was born a Jew, Leopold Weiss, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (in what is now Ukraine, the city of Lvov). He was prominent both in interactions with the West in the 20th Century, for example as Pakistani ambassador to the UN, and in theological work, including translation and exegesis of the Q’uran. Asad is regarded, and should be even more regarded in these days of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as a voice for a revitalized, mainstream (he would accurately reject the term “moderate”) Islam. But long before that, he was just a Westerner adrift and looking for spiritual answers.

Asad found those answers in Arabia. In many ways, The Road To Mecca is of the same genre as other travel books of Western men fascinated by Arabia in the first third of the 20th Century, such as Lawrence of Arabia, or lesser known figures such as Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands). A certain type of Western man (a woman could not have had the opportunity) fell in love with the people and landscape of pre-petroleum Arabia, believing that the people had unique virtues (though they admitted the people were not composed only of virtues) and the land brought out the best in men. Some of this smacks of naïve love of the idealized noble savage, of course, and you see the same thing more commonly with Westerners and East Asian cultures like Tibet (hello, Richard Gere!). Conversion to Islam was not the norm, though, for Westerners entranced by Arabia and the Arabs. But Asad was simultaneously on a spiritual quest, and, like others before and since, after rejecting much else found what he was looking for in Islam.

Asad’s memoir is told in the form of flashbacks during a desert trip in 1927 with a traveling companion, ultimately to Mecca (not for his first time)—at the time he lived in Medina, so he had made the hajj pilgrimage several times already. In his book, he alternates descriptions of Arabian geography (as well as Syria, Iraq and Iran, and a little of the Maghreb), with descriptions of key Arabs and their personal and political doings (he knew Ibn Saud well, along with a host of lesser players, although not, apparently, the Hashemite kings of the Hejaz, deposed by Ibn Saud but later kings of Jordan to this day, and, briefly, Iraq). And all along in his book Asad is narrating his own life, and his own religious development, with apparently great honesty and clarity.

Asad rejected Judaism and became agnostic early, although he came from a rabbinical family. His main objection to Judaism is that he could not believe in a God that was focused nearly to exclusion on one people—he repeatedly and accurately contrasts Islam’s ability to embrace all kinds of people and form a new community from them with the exclusive aspects of Judaism. But Asad does not fall into the kind of crude anti-Judaic attitudes so common among modern Muslims, even though such an attitude is well supported in the Q’uran and the Sunnah, and is the historical norm in Islam. (Q’uranic verses such as 2:62, frequently quoted to make Islam seem universalist, “Surely those who believe, those of Jewry, the Christians and the Sabaeans . . . . whoever has faith in Allah and the Last Day, and works righteousness, their wage awaits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be upon them, and neither shall they sorrow” are not to the contrary—their exclusive interpretation in Islam has always been that those verses only apply to Jews before Jesus, and then to Christians before Muhammad, and have zero application today, after Muhammad. See The Reliance of the Traveler, the main Shafi’i “catechism,” at w4.4) He was, however, very opposed to Zionism and the founding of Israel, and friendly with Jews such as Jacob de Haan, a Dutch Jew assassinate by the Haganah in 1924 for favoring negotiations with Arab leaders.

Asad also seems to have considered Christianity, or so he asserts. If I had an objection to this book (although to object to someone else’s reasons for his personal conversion is obviously pretty silly), it is that he does not seem to understand Christianity at all, in that he ascribes to Christianity critical doctrines not actually found there, and ascribes his rejection of Christianity to his aversion to those (bogus) doctrines. The core “doctrine,” to which he returns repeatedly, is that Christianity (supposedly) believes matter and the body evil, and the spirit good. He contrasts this to Islam’s holistic approach, in which nothing Allah has made can be bad, and each human’s physical body and spirit are both key concerns of Islam.

But of course this is a false view of Christianity. More precisely, it is a heretical view. It is the view of the early Gnostics, the Manichees, and the Albigensians, all rejected by mainstream Christianity. They posited dualism—that, as Asad says, the body is bad and the spirit good. But mainstream Christianity holds the opposite—like Islam, it holds that all what God has created is good, though of course Islam and Christianity both hold it can be mis-used. Asad appears to have missed the key doctrine of Christianity of the resurrection of the body, found in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. There is a difference between Christianity and Islam, in that Islam does not recognize original sin and Christianity does have non-heretical strains that emphasize spiritual precedence, such as the eremitic monks, but it is just not correct to posit the dualism that Asad appears to be believe to be central to Christianity.

Asad also falls into silly historical errors, such as supposing Islam’s view of the West is dictated by the Crusades, and that the Crusades were the formative moment of Western civilization, whereas in reality the Crusades were forgotten by Muslims (who won, after all) until their memory was resurrected for political purposes in the 19th Century, and were and are of minor importance in the West as well, except as a modern day tool for ignorant Americans to traduce Christianity and the West. He (in passing) also follows the common Muslim habit of erroneously ascribing important scientific inventions to Muslims, from algebra and trigonometry to “Arabic numerals” and the compass, in the usual effort to compensate for Muslim lack of scientific contributions in modern times (or, really, since the 11th Century, and even then mostly by non-Muslims under Muslim domination, and nearly all second-order scientific contributions). But these flaws are understandable and not at all germane to Asad’s basic narrative.

He also points out what are today interesting historical nuggets, such as that until the 19th Century Wahhabi “revival,” the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula were seen as the laxest Muslims at all, and are now the most religious (not always to everyone’s benefit, then or now—Asad, while recognizing certain virtues, notes that it made them “proud, haughty men who regard themselves as the only true representatives of Islam and all other Muslim peoples as heretics”). Finally, he inadvertently confirms a variety of Western views of Islamic cultures as retrograde in certain areas as entirely correct, as when he notes how a family desperately tried and succeeded in hoodwinking him into marrying an 11-year old virgin. (He divorced her when he discovered her age on their wedding night, and did not consummate the marriage.) “[Her mother] was stupefied [by his demand to immediately divorce the girl]. She had never heard of a man who refused so choice a morsel—an eleven-year-old virgin—and must have thought that there was something radically wrong with me.”

Presumably this doesn’t really matter for Asad’s personal conversion. He was attracted to the community of believers in Islam; the fact that Islam provides answers to nearly every question in life, particularly those not directly related to spiritual matters, but to all matters of life (in this Islam is not dissimilar to such Christian groups as Opus Dei or Third Order Franciscans, though the comparison probably shouldn’t be stretched); the harmony of Muslim belief; and the peace Islam brought to the people he knew. He says himself that what he had was “a longing to find my own restful place in the world,” and he found it in Islam. One thing to keep in mind, of course, was that the 1920s were a time when many in the West, after the First World War, despaired of any future for the west. As Asad says: “A world in upheaval and convulsion: that was our Western world.” Islam offered a world united in itself, without any upheaval and convulsion, if properly ordered according to its own principles.

Asad is broad-minded, tolerant, and fascinating. Those are not characteristics in good odor among many strains of modern Islam, which tends in many cases to be anything but modern. His translation/exegesis of the Q’uran, The Message of the Koran, is banned in Saudi Arabia for supposed Mu’tazili tendencies (perceived as undermining the alleged divine nature of the Q’uran) and a willingness to strongly endorse ijtihad, or continued analysis and reasoning, in exegesis of the Q’uran. But whatever your theological predilection, these characteristics are what make Asad’s memoir very much worth reading.

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Published in Biography & Autobiography Book Reviews Charles Ethnography & Race Islam & The Islamic World The Orient

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