Revisiting Muhammad Asad's Memoir – The Road To Mecca

The Arabia I saw was not the Arabia that Muhammad Asad had seen. But just beneath the veneer of modernity, I could pick up the culture that Asad had described in his memoir nearly a century ago

Revisiting Muhammad Asad's Memoir – The Road To Mecca

In 1992, when Asad passed away, all I knew about him was that he had authored, "The Road to Mecca."  His death triggered a desire in me to read this memoir.

His masterly portrayal of the Bedouin tribesmen who inhabited the sands of Arabia brought them to life just like T. E. Lawrence in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." But Asad's narration went deeper, since it was also a spiritual journey.    

I felt a tug inside of me. I just had to get on the road to Makkah. I knew much would have changed in Arabia since the discovery of oil and gas in the desert kingdom. High-rise buildings had replaced tents, cars had replaced camels, and shopping malls had replaced bazaars. But the Ka'aba was still there. I just had to see it.

By coincidence, in 1993, a visitor arrived from Arabia. He invited me to visit Dhahran on business. The trip was two weeks long and I availed myself of the weekend to visit the Ka'aba.

Yes, the Arabia I saw was not the Arabia that Asad had seen. But just beneath the veneer of modernity, I could pick up the culture that Asad had described.

Before visiting Makkah, I visited Medina. When I heard the call for the morning prayer coming from the Holy Prophet's (PBUH) Mosque, tears streamed down my eyes. Later, when I went to Makkah and saw the Ka'aba with my own eyes, I was rendered speechless and immediately prostrated myself in front of the black cube.

He could no longer relate to them. They seemed to be living in a world of make-believe. His contact with the Arabs forever changed his outlook on life

Asad was born Leopold Weiss in Austria. While growing up, he had studied the history of art and listened to learned discussions of psychoanalysis in Viennese cafes. He spoke Hebrew fluently and had a working knowledge of Aramaic. He also knew the texts and commentaries of the Talmud by heart. The turning point in his life came when a German newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung, hired him and sent him to Jerusalem.

The memoir describes his life before he left Arabia for India. During that period, he travelled across "almost all the countries between the Libyan Desert and the snow-covered peaks of the Pamirs, between the Bosporus and the Arabian Sea." In the late summer of 1932, he traveled from the interior of Arabia to Mecca and, he says, it was during those twenty-three days that "the pattern of my life became apparent to myself."

He laments that the Arabia he describes in the book no longer exists. "Its solitude and integrity have crumbled under a strong gush of oil and the gold that the oil has brought." He feels the pain of losing something precious and recalls fondly "that long, long desert trek, when we rode, rode, two men on two dromedaries, through swimming light."

In Palestine in 1922, he observed "the equivocal role of the British administration with regard to the conflict between the Arabs and the Zionists." After wandering all over Palestine in 1923, he arrived in Egypt and saw once again the imperialist demeanour of the British toward the Arabs. But in this case, bombs were being thrown at places frequented by British soldiers and being answered by repressive measures such as martial law, political arrests, deportations of leaders, and prohibitions of newspapers.

In 1926, while riding a train from Trieste to Vienna, he found himself looking at the familiar European scenery "with the eyes of a stranger. The people seemed so ugly, their movements angular and clumsy." He could no longer relate to them. They seemed to be living in a world of make-believe. His contact with the Arabs forever changed his outlook on life.

On returning home, he happened to glance at the Quran, which was lying on his desk. He opened it, and his eyes landed on this verse.

You are obsessed by greed for more and more,
Until you go down to your graves.
Nay, but you will come to know! Nay, but you will come to know!

The verse rendered him speechless. The Quran was shaking in his hands as he handed it over to his wife: "Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?" This was their epiphany. He had concluded, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book.

They went to a mosque in Berlin and converted to Islam. A few years later, he and his wife boarded a steamer in Egypt, which was going to head down the Red Sea to Jeddah.

The steamer was packed with pilgrims. The waves were pounding the hull of the ship, the planks were creaking, and the engines were throbbing, but it was the cry of "Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk" coming from the throats of hundreds on the ship that dominated all other sounds.

When the ship crossed the latitude of Rabigh, the male pilgrims donned the ihram, the pilgrim's garment. He knew he had left the West to live among the Arabs, but he did not yet know that "without any warning, my old world was coming to an end." For years, he had travelled widely through foreign lands but always returned to his native land. But this time, it was going to be very different.  

From Jeddah they traveled to Medina and prayed at the Holy Mosque. From there they headed to Makkah late one night, following the eastern route which the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had followed on his last pilgrimage to Makkah.

He writes, "We ride, and every step of the dromedaries brings us nearer to the end of our road. We ride for days through the sunlit steppe; we sleep at night under the stars and awake in the coolness of dawn; and slowly, I approach the end of my road."

It is these passages that make his memoir read like an epic poem in the Homeric tradition. Its eloquent narration sets it apart from the many books that have been written about spiritual awakening. 

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui