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Book Review

Journey into a new heartland

Eddin Khoo

Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca, Islamic Book Trust, 3 Lorong 1A/71-G, 46000 Petaling Jaya (reprint), 1996, 380 pages, Price: RM25.00

From the outset of his seminal The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad sets plainly his purpose. He 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 ... it is not even the story of a deliberate search for faith ... My story is simply the story of a European's discovery of Islam and of his integration within the Muslim community ..."

As modest as Asad's initial intentions may have been, history resolved otherwise. Trusting him with the role of "scribe", Asad's narrative was forced, by historical circumstance, to transcend the autobiographical "I" and reach deep into the momentous transformations that were affecting the Muslim world and shaping its modern history.

It was as the Middle Eastern correspondent for a German language newspaper that Muhammad Asad ventured to Arabia in the early 20s. Politically, it was an age dominated by turbulence and much political confusion. The First World War had wrought unimaginable destruction upon Europe, determining new political boundaries and affiliations.

The Muslim world, on the other hand, faced the profound problem of leadership. The First World War had brought about the defeat of Turkey, who, aligning with Germany, had formed the Axis forces of the War. The destruction of Tukey witnessed the rise of an indigenous force intent on inducing change and thrusting that nation into the "modern world". This movement was led by Mustafa Kemal Atartuk.

The rise of Atartuk witnessed vast changes in Turkey, ones that would resonate throughout the Muslim world. The most profound of these was the dismantling of the Caliphate - the symbol of the unity of the Muslim world.

Arabian resentment towards the caliphate in Turkey has been long standing. By the turn of the century there had been uprisings and protests against the perceived corruption and avarice of the Caliphate. Saudi Arabia, struck by the austere waves of Wahabism, had long demonstrated a long desire to wrest control of the Islamic ummah. The most prominent figure in this movement was Ibn Saud. During the "Great War", Saud had led Arabian forces against Turkish ranks, forging a tenuous relationship with the British - the consequences of which would be felt in Saudi Arabia years later testing the political skills of the venerated Saud.

Muhammad Asad's Road to Mecca began at the birth of the nation of Saudi Arabia. His early years there were dominated by extensive travels to the remotest regions of the Arabian desert, intense study of the Arabic language and a gradual but profound attraction to the Islamic faith. By 1926, he had become a Muslim, both, in his own words, "intellectually and spiritually".

In the years that he spent in Saudi Arabia, he gained the confidence and friendship of King Ibn Saud himself and his heir Prince Faisal. After that time. Asad left for India where he met the legendary poet-philosopher and spiritual father of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal. It was a fateful meeting and one that convinced Asad that he should forsake his plans to travel to Eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia, and concentrate instead on realising the vision of that "first Islamic state".

The years that followed witnessed Asad's "intellectual harnessing", where he devoted much time to study, writing, lecturing and gaining a reputation for being a fine interpreter of Islamic law.

When the state of Pakistan was founded in 1947, he was invited to serve as its first director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, which was entrusted with the duty of elaborating the ideology and shape of the Islamic concept of statehood and the community. After two years, he was transferred to the Pakistani Foreign Service where, in due course, he found himself in Pakistan's Mission to the United Nations at New York. It was during his time here that Asad resolved to work on The Road to Mecca. Perceiving himself to be in a position of reconciliation between the "Occidental and Oriental" minds, he sought to tell his story.

"My way to Islam had been in many respects unique: I had not become a Muslim because I had lived for a long time among Muslims - on the contrary, I decided to live among them because I had embraced Islam. Might I not, by communicating my very personal experiences to Western readers, contribute more to a mutual understanding between the Islamic and Western worlds than I could by continuing in a diplomatic position which might be filled equally well by other countrymen of mine?"

The result of this contemplation is the highly charged, brilliantly written The Road to Mecca. Confined to his years in the Arab lands of the Middle East and the Maghreb, it is a delicately written narrative that rationally combines personal anecdote with anthropological insight, adventurism with philosophical pondering.

Most importantly, it provides a first-hand look at the shaping of Islamic thought on nationhood on the darker aspects of the real politics and of the ideals that underlie the concept of the Islamic state. At times profound, it also combines light-heartedness, demonstrating a figure at one with the milieu in which he chose to settle himself.

Indeed, The Road to Mecca combines the fine lines of a writer with the weight and authority of the philosopher. And in his empathy and ability to embrace the peoples and traditions of this "wild land", Muhammad Asad succeeds - where others have failed - in providing an authentic and original experience of the lands of the Arabian desert and an intimate look at the adventure and beauty of a spiritual journey.

Courtesy: The Star, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.​

Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 5

Rabi' al-Awwal 27, 14181997-05-01

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