The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad
By Maira Shahzad
The Road to Mecca is a memoir by Muslim Scholar, Muhammad Asad, previously known as Leopold Weiss. The book is narrated retrospectively and it spans almost thirty-two years, including the time before he embraced Islam (at age 26).
The book can be read using different lenses, depending on the reader. It can be read as a spiritual treatise, where Asad involves the reader in his thoughts, and takes them along on his journey of discovery and creating his own freedom. Muhammad Asad’s journey is told in the form of flashbacks and through vignettes that intricately describe the geographical, religious, and political landscape of Arabia at the time. Asad captures and reflects on the often overlooked mundane, ordinary happenings of daily life. To complement this, he recalls the conversations he had with more well-known figures of the Arabian land. There is sincerity in the retrospective deliberation of his encounters which invites the reader to unconsciously form a comparison with the Islamic space as we know it in this time and age.
The travel memoir understands Islam by setting its focus on the sort of communities that are formed. This was one of the things that Asad hoped to achieve through this journey; a sense of belonging and a desire to find a peaceful spiritual space in this world. For Asad, Islam represented unity, stability, and resting space. Through this narrative, Asad also advocates a return to ordering daily activities and life according to Islamic principles. It asks for a return to appreciating what forms the essence of the religion.
This book also forms a part of the literature that has shaped the course of a contemporary understanding of Islam. In addition to being an author and a journalist, he was also an activist and a diplomat. He has also produced a translation of the Quran. The book ends with a description of his pilgrimage and yet the reader still does not conclusively have an answer to why Asad chose Islam. The closest idea to understanding this lies in the way Asad reflects on his spiritual journey. He believed that nothing seemed to lack from his understanding of what Islam offered. It also offered him “balance and composure” which he felt was lacking in his previously held ideas.
Perhaps one of the most significant deliberations in the book lies within the realm of politics and identity. Asad reflects on the disillusion with Arabia’s ruler at the time – Ibn Saud. This contrasted with the promise he found within Islam and the smaller tribes and communities that practised it. This resonates with what many Muslims feel, currently there is no single state or society that embodies Islam perfectly. Asad also reflects on King Faisal as the ruler of Arabia and the changing political and religious landscape of not just Arabia but also the West. He speaks of all the promises that were left unfulfilled for the Muslims. The overarching theme of this narrative is loss and belonging. The opposition to Asad’s ideas was a loss for many, including people who would benefit from reflecting on Islam, its contemporary practice, and the communities it form. The theme of belonging in the book is captured by Asad as he asks himself why despite living among people of similar practices and beliefs he has been unable to anchor his roots in a specific community. This book will also interest those who are interested in the works of poet Muhammad Iqbal, as Asad shared several ideas with him.