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Road to Mecca
Book Review
Junaid bin Jahangir


Title: The Road to Mecca

Author: Muhammad Asad

Pages: 400

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1954


The first edition of ‘The Road to Mecca’ came out twenty years after ‘Islam at the Cross Roads’. Within these twenty years a major historical force was changing the world for the Muslims. One by one, the lands of Islam were set free from the tyranny of the colonial masters and there was new hope in the air. There were talks of rebuilding nations and of reconstructing paths to glory that had been the legacy of Muslims for centuries. Many were trying to reconstruct religious thoughts to revive the spirit of Islam and Muhammad Asad was but one of them. Back in 1934, he had already presented the essence of his thoughts in ‘Islam at the Cross Roads’ which he complemented with ‘The Road to Mecca’ in 1954. ‘The Road to Mecca’ traces the evolution of Asad’s ideas and puts them against the backdrop of the events that shaped his life. As the title suggests it is about a journey both physical and intellectual towards Mecca.

Content and Style

Though the main plot is simple enough i.e. the description of a desert journey, but within this journey the reader is transported across both space and time. At the wells of the oases from the sand dunes of the desert the author has a stream of consciousness which takes the reader either to the past or compels him to appreciate a striking and novel connection. The entire book is structured in this manner and the reader has to keep on hopping between the past and the present and from one place to another.

There are many facets of the book that would appeal to a variety of readers. The flow of the author’s profound thoughts is interspersed with description of breath taking adventures, perceptive assessment of important figures, some history and of course a personal autobiography. With so much at hand, our focus will lie exclusively with Asad’s intellectual pursuits that ultimately brought him into the folds of Islam. About the book he himself 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 ----. My story is simply the story of a European’s discovery of Islam and of his integration within the Muslim community.1

Some of the content is borrowed from ‘Islam at the Cross Roads’ and the keen reader would in fact notice passages straight out from the former book. The unidirectional materialistic view of the West, the problem of duality and original sin, the issue of ‘Taqlid’ (Blind following) have all been explored before. However there are new pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book and it would certainly be a fruitful exercise to review them along with tracing the author’s intellectual evolution towards Islam.

Evolution of thought

The beginning of any intellectual journey starts with doubt or dissatisfaction with the existing paradigms leading one to explore the possible alternatives. However, in matters of faith, this journey is more involved as it not only includes mental but emotional disturbance as well. For Asad, the precursors of disturbance were the spiritual foundations of his society and the way it was structured. He writes:

Everything seemed to be flowing in a formless flood, and the spiritual restlessness of youth could nowhere find a foothold. In the absence of any reliable standards of morality, nobody could give us young people satisfactory answers to the many questions that perplexed us2.

I saw how confused and unhappy our life had become; how little there was of real communion between man and man despite all the strident, almost hysterical insistence on ‘community’ and ‘nation’.3

It is important to note that as a consequence of the initial disturbance not all begin to explore the alternatives. As Asad writes:

In the individual, this ethical liability could lead either to complete moral chaos and cynicism or, alternatively, to a search for a creative, personal approach to what might constitute the good life4.

Having experienced doubt, Asad explored Art, Psychoanalysis and Lao-tse; however, he  was not quite satisfied with either of the approaches. He criticizes each framework of thought and in a nutshell writes:

Preaching alone, intellectual realization alone could obviously not produce a change in the spiritual attitude of the European society; a new faith of the heart was needed, a new burning surrender to values which tolerated no ifs and buts.5

It is said that if man takes one step towards God, He takes ten and if man walks towards Him, He runs towards man. Perhaps it was on exhausting all alternatives that Asad had that wonderful dream interpreted to be a divine call to Islam and perhaps it was a manifestation of divine grace that he was drawn to the Middle East. It was in this new land that he discovered the inner security he had yearned for so long. He writes:

Their inner security could be observed in the way they behaved toward one another: in the warm dignity with which they met or parted; in the manner in which two men would walk together, holding each other by the hand like children --simply because they felt friendly towards each other. Those traders in the little shops  seemed to have no grasping fear and no envy in them: -- the competitor, would step in to inquire after the customer’s wants and sell him the required goods -- not his own goods, but those of his absent neighbor.‘6

It must be noted that it was no sermon or philosophic treatise that captured Asad’s attention but simply the Islamic brotherhood described above and it was from here that through thought upon thought and reflection upon reflection he came to study the world of Islam. So much was the yearning that he went on to study Arabic and did not even hesitate to live like an Arab in Medina to experience Islam in its pristine form. In his quest, he realized important truths of life. He writes:

And every time I learned something more about the teachings of Islam, I seemed to discover something that I had always known without knowing it.7

And I knew that all the answers are but waiting for us while we, poor fools, ask questions and wait for the secrets of God to open themselves up to us: when they, all the while, are waiting for us to open ourselves up to them.8

After the stages of doubt and exploration comes an interim period where the mind stews on the new thoughts and eventually comes the stage of illumination followed by utmost submission. The whole process of realization takes time and demands humility, sincerity and devotion from the explorer for there are many who are aware of Islamic teachings yet, owing to their attitude, are unable to appreciate and accept them. As Asad himself says:

It is not a question of understanding. It is rather a question of being convinced.9

On Asad’s discovery of Islam, it cannot be said that the twenty two-year-old mind was impressionable enough to be swayed by an exotic ideology. On closer scrutiny, one may note the maturity of thought in his journalistic writings and besides one knows that a fashionable trend wanes with the same swiftness that it waxes. It is the opinion of this critic that the visit to Arabia and eventual acceptance of Islam cannot be explained away as a product of chance. Asad’s dream and then the visit are indicative of the grand divine master plan. The events that took place in his life, the people he met and the conversations he encountered were never the resultant of random forces; much the same way that Shaykh Sa‘dī’s thoughts and the appearance of the lame man was not a mere coincidence10.

Ambassador of Islam

Not only did Asad embrace Islam but became one of its distinguished ambassadors through ‘The Road to Mecca’. In this book, he presents his most profound and novel thoughts in quite an appealing manner. Quite perceptive and involved is his exposition of the process of prophetic revelations. The interpretation of ‘Dajjāl’ is as novel as the use of subconscious theory to explain the Shiite rift from mainstream Islam. Interesting to note is his idea on man’s inherent knowledge of the divine. He writes:

It was not the philosophers and prophets who taught us to believe in life after death; all they did was to give form and spiritual content to an instinctive perception as old as man himself.11

He also presents an effective explanation of various Islamic issues, argues against Zionism and mounts a strong defense on the authenticity of the Holy Prophet (sws). In all that he presents, one only learns something new each time one opens the book. A keen eye would find many answers and as an instance one may note the importance of Arabia for the origin of monotheism. He writes:

Through Arabian music speaks a desire to carry, each time, a single emotional experience to the utmost end of its reach. -- Only on the basis of this inborn drive, so peculiar to the people of the desert, could grow the monotheism of the early Hebrews and its triumphant fulfillment, the faith of Muhammad (sws).12

The desert sweeps out of the heart of man all the lovely fantasies that could be used as a masquerade for wishful thinking, and thus makes him free to surrender himself to an Absolute that has no image.13

Much more may be highlighted and deserves to be appreciated but the reader must be allowed to relish the experience himself. However it would be worthwhile to emphasize some of his penetrating observations.

Pearls of wisdom

The history of Islam is cursed by the inability of rulers to provide the institutional set up for research and by the dogmatic insistence of scholars tending to obstruct free thought. It was as a consequence of both that an intellectual slumber plagued the Muslim world making it vulnerable to colonial exploits. Thus generation after generation, both leaders and scholars lost the creative originality and paid more heed to custom than reason, despite the fact that they were well known for their sincerity, generosity and truthfulness. Asad captures this problem through Ibn Sa‘ūd14 and the Grand Sannūsī15 respectively as follows:

The regular gifts of money which Ibn Sa‘ūd distributes among the tribal chieftains and their followers have made them so dependent on his largesse that they are beginning to lose all incentive to improve their living conditions by their own endeavors --, content to remain ignorant and indolent.’16

But his quixotic sense of chivalry toward the Caliph of Islam finally outweighed the dictates of reason and induced him to make the wrong decision.17


‘The Road to Mecca’ is the story of a man who embraced Islam and became one of its greatest exponents. This review attempted to explain Asad’s momentous decision along with highlighting some of his profound thoughts. However for this critic much still remains a mystery for if it is the preserved inner purity that leads one to the truth then in every manner Asad had tarnished it in his pre-Islamic days. The reader would note Asad’s mention of fleeting loves, champagnes and several other things of his past life, which was certainly not ideal. There can then be no set criteria for reversion to Islam with the exception of earnest yearning as a key precondition. This earnest yearning to discover the inner self is then also the central message of the book. Every Muslim today needs to embark on a lifelong journey, treading on the Road to Mecca, starting from a simple question as Asad had once asked. Thus through thought upon thought and reflection upon reflection one would travel from one plane of existence to a higher one. As Asad writes:

If water stands motionless in a pool it grows stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows it becomes clear: so, too, man in his wanderings.18




1. Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca, Simon and Schuster Inc., 1952, p. 3

2. Ibid., p. 62

3. Ibid., p. 77

4. Ibid., p. 63

5. Ibid., p. 78

6. Ibid., p. 135

7. Ibid., p. 199

8. Ibid., p. 232

9. Ibid., p. 318

10. Allusion to the popular incident in which Shaykh Sa‘dī complains to God for not having slippers for pilgrimage whereupon he sees a lame man.

11. Ibid., p. 50

12. Ibid., p. 144

13. Ibid., p. 155

14. King ‘Abdu’l Azīz Ibn Sa‘ud of Saudi Arabia

15. Sayyid Ahmad of the Sannūsī Dynasty

16. Ibid., p. 23

17. Ibid., p. 338

18. Ibid., p. 52

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