In The Road to Makkah, the reader is initially confronted with a protagonist who is on a journey through the deserts of Saudi Arabia. However, as one continues to read the book, the reader is aware that there are actually two parallel journeys going on: the journey through the deserts of Saudi Arabia, and also the journey through the life of Muhammad Asad on his way to Islam. At first I found the book rather hard to follow because of the constant cutting from desert scenes to the description of the life he left behind in Europe, but once I got past this initial hurdle, the two plots no longer posed a problem to my understanding of Muhammad Asad’s life.
Following the author’s journey from Europe to the Middle East, and his longer life journey to Islam, I was struck by the conviction with which the author believed in the message of Islam and the way that he immersed himself in the culture. This I feel is truly admirable seeing as prior to converting to Islam, Muhammad Asad did not have a very high opinion of religion. As he writes early on in the book, his family was not particularly religious, and like most of the youth of Europe at that time, he was fairly nonchalant about religion. Although his grandfather was a rabbi, Muhammad Asad did not really practice Judaism. That is why I am particularly amazed by just how quickly he adopts Islam, especially in light of his upbringing and negative societal views about Islam. I am also impressed by the manner in which the author immersed himself in the culture of the people.
I have often wondered how non-Muslims view the way that Muslims practice their religion, and was interested in Muhammad Asad’s interpretation. At first glance, it must seem rather odd the way that Muslims pray to God. After all, how could repeated prostrations bring an individual closer to God, but as the hajji in the novel says, God created the soul and body together, so it would only make sense that both would be incorporated in prayer. After the hajji’s explanation, the reason for the manner in which Muslims pray became quite clear to Muhammad Asad, and opened the first door to Islam for Muhammad Asad. I found that throughout the book there were many explanations of the laws of Islam, which provided the reader with a great deal of insight into the inner workings of the religion, just not the superficial practices.
After having read Road to Makkah, I feel that I better understand the notion of fatalism, and the role that it plays in Islam. Often Western scholars say that the reason the Arab world does not develop is because the members of society are fatalistic, meaning that they believe that whatever happens to them in their life is because of God’s will. However, as Muhammad Asad asserts in his book, the Qur’an does not in fact promote fatalism. If anything, it encourages man to take hold of his destiny to some extent, such as by trying to find cures for diseases. What interested me more was how he related fatalism back to the Europeans, the very people who claimed that it was the Muslim world that was fatalistic. After all, it was Christian Europe at that time that regarded the plague as a scourge from God.
I think that the author’s impression of Islam is a little romanticized, as is his impression of Arab life. It is true that the Arabs are known for their hospitality, but it seemed rather incredulous that the King of Saudi Arabia would in effect adopt a new convert to Islam in the manner that Abd al-Aziz adopted Muhammad Asad.
Often the image of Muslims portrayed in the media of the West is one of ridiculing them. Reporters often just see Muslims as fundamentalists who blindly follow the Qur’an, but in fact the group referred to as the “fundamentalists” is just a minority of Muslims. I was struck by how much of an open mind Muhammad Asad kept about Islam. In fact, I was surprised that he took the side of the Arab Muslims rather than the Zionists when it came to establishing a state for the Jews. I feel that the conflict that arises between the West and Islam is tidily summed up by the argument that Muhammad Asad makes when he writes:
“If Muslims keep their heads cool and accept progress as a means and not as an end in itself, they may not only retain their own inner freedom but also, perhaps, pass on the Western man the last secret of live’s sweetness…” (349)
However, having said that he can see things from the point of view of Muslims is not to say that he exclusively sees through this pair of glasses. There were instances when Muhammad Asad looked at Islam from the point of view of a Westerner, for example when he mocks his friend for believing in Jinns. Although he appears to be completely arabianized, he still cannot perceive something that he cannot see.
I think that for me, Muhammad Asad presented an impression of converts, which is somewhat different from what I thought a recent convert to Islam would be. From my experience, I have found converts to be people who are very passionate about Islam, but often to an extent bordering on fundamentalism. I would not call these people fundamentalist, but I find them not to be understanding of Muslims who do not practice with as much enthusiasm and vehemence as they do. In some instances they do not understand why people are not as passionate as them, and try and force them to be religious by ramming it down their throats.
However, after reading Road to Makkah I have a considerably different picture of converts to Islam. I am not saying that Muhammad Asad is not passionate, because the book it quite clearly demonstrates his devotion to Islam. Unlike my experience with other converts though, he seems a lot more levelheaded and not as pushy. I genuinely got the feeling from reading the book that Muhammad Asad is not as judgmental as the people that I have come into contact with. He is very accepting of the little Arab idiosyncrasies, showing that his open-minded attitude to things foreign to him.
In conclusion, I think that The Road to Makkah is a wonderful book about the journey that one man goes through on his way across the deserts of
Saudi Arabia, and the path that he takes to reach his ultimate conversion to Islam. The author presents a very balanced view of Muslims and their beliefs, rather than perpetuating the myths that are often portrayed in traditional western texts about the Arab world and Islam. At the same time as being accurate the author effectively informs the reader about Islam and Arabian culture. Therefore, this book provided a lot of insight for me, and I suggest it to anyone who is interested in this topic.