Road to Makkah, written by Muhammad Asad, is more than an autobiography. Among all the other autobiographies, this one was deeper & so well described that it made the readers feel like they were in the book. The book is not all about a person’s travelling, but it also gives the reader a clear picture of the cultures of the Middle East. Apart from being a travel story, it is a “story of story”, as the author himself has described. The more I try to make sense of my path so far as a Muslim, the more the experiences seem to expand themselves in front of me & escape words. I cannot pinpoint what I’m living, seeing, or realising in language. I can only approximate &, at times, try to make sense of it through the writings of others. & this one was one of them.

Undoubtedly, it is a wonderful story of acceptance of Islam & the subsequent description & explanation of many points of the religion. The conversion of Muhammad Asad from Judaism to Islam was the phenomenon that led me to read this book. It’s a blend of spirituality & sensuousness in terms of the description of colours & shades of the Middle East. The writer’s experience is the perfect testimony of modern reason finding its way into Islam while reconstructing the message & significance of Islam for contemporary Muslims. It helps us understand the relevance of the Quranic message for Modernity.

The idea of Islam being a consummation of all primordial divine truth (& therefore not a “late” religion, but ONE religion) is the concept that has spoken to me most as of late. In this light, the particular message of this book is one of return through “new” beginnings. Or, it is a reversion to the primordial Religion – through submission (Islam) to the ultimate. The “Labbeyk” at the end of the book completes the whole picture of the writer’s journey.

The book has been made more beautiful by the description of the Middle East. The prose and metaphors described are exceptional. The writer describes a restlessness in this book that I’ve felt since my teens and that compelled him as a European to travel to the Arab world and ultimately embrace Islam. It was a cultural shift, an acceptance of a new way of life exemplified through physical emigration.

This resonated profoundly when I first looked at this book. Asad’s conception of this restlessness is not a need for adventure per se but more of a desire to get to the root of things and, therefore, the need to experience. It’s also not a sensual addiction; it’s just a drive to get to the authentic. I’m there, and looking back, I’ve always been there. Islam, to me, offers an opportunity for full immersion into not only a faith (and “faith” has meant “dualism” in my past, but a complete life. Asad describes it best on p. 374: “Longing need no longer remain small and hidden; it has found its awakening, a blinding sunrise of fulfilment. Throughout the years I have spent in the Middle East–as a sympathetic outsider from 1922 to 1926 and then as a Muslim sharing the aims & hopes of the Islamic community ever since–I have witnessed the steady encroachment of Muslim cultural life & political independence + European public opinion that labels any resistance to this incursion as xenophobia.”

Books are given the best ratings not just because of the story but also because of the language used. The writer here uses rich and refined language, which takes the book to the next level. Sometimes, in the book, we find ourselves roaming with a journalist describing the facts; sometimes, we find ourselves with a nature poet writing poetry in prose. Muhammad Asad narrates his story through weaving in and out of past and present events related to his journey to the Arab and Persian worlds. Immersed in this back-and-forth narrative are his spiritual progression and viewpoints on Islam derived from his esoteric experience of the divine as related to his outer experience of “brotherhood”, In this way, Asad’s style is a beautiful metaphor for Islam as a faith and how The Qur’an is written. What we know as existence or creation intersects at all points of the physical, spiritual and mental. And with this life-altering paradigm of unity in all areas, we can see where the many strains of reality constantly cross one another and are inseparable parts of a totality in Islam.

The part which I found most interesting was the Sanusi movement. Having never read of Libya/Egypt’s history or the spiritual decay that led to the ultimate sociopolitical decline of that region was eye-opening. Asad has done a terrific job explaining why one’s inner dimensions are linked to one’s physical outer reality, & if both aren’t in harmony, then utter chaos is inevitable. The people who wanted to revive the golden era of Islam with the onset of the Sanusi movement would today be looked at as militant Islamists or jihadis with a negative connotation. But they were far from it, & you’ll begin to see why after reading it. He carefully peels off the intricate nuances behind the purpose & idea of jihad from an Islamic viewpoint.

As someone who has lived a couple of years in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East depicted here is a long-forgotten dream & very different from the present day. However, this book justifies how Asad describes the Bedouins and their nomadic lifestyle. It makes you fall in love with the desert & want to go on a caravan through paths unknown.

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