Lessons on the Pitfalls of Modernity in ‘The Road to Mecca’

Muhammad Asad’s autobiographical account The Road to Mecca (1954) is a fine work that moves between various genres, including historical narration, adventure tale and conversion story, presenting numerous entertaining anecdotes. More intriguing, however, is the unique and fascinatingly nuanced insight that Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), gives into a soulless and lost Europe of the early twentieth century juxtaposed by his discovery of a strikingly different world. This was a world which had preserved a connection to the Divine throughout a multitude of spheres in human life, predominantly infused by Islam, i.e. the lands which are now widely known as the MENA region.

Asad’s criticism of modernity may not read with the sophistication of our contemporary academics. Still, it is his very ability to condense his highly perceptive findings in personal, simple, and beautiful terms that makes his work an adequate station to return to for reorientation amidst the spiritual challenges of our postmodern era. Not only does he describe the unhealthy splitting of the soul and the body in the Western man, but he also exemplifies in his writing how beneficial it is for the heart to be involved in any creative process. It must be for this reason that so many people throughout time have chosen Islam as their path after having delved into Asad’s personal story of discovery.

The ‘Lost Europe’ of the Early 20th Century

Muhammad Asad, born in 1900, spent his formative years in Austria-Hungary as the son of a privileged Jewish family.1 The beginning of his quest searching for the meaning of his life began shortly after World War I when old Europe had collapsed under the tyranny of technically evolved mass violence. Asad, who was in his late teens at the time, characterized the post-war era as void of ethical codes, certainty and meaning. Nothing much was left that would indicate to a new generation where the future was headed and what its place in it should be. Traditions of century-old cultural and moral guidelines had been hollowed out and overthrown, leaving the young generation of the 1920s feeling lost and confused. Yet, rather than attempting to rebuild the previous concepts of values or develop their own, a new trend emerged propagating human “progress” above everything else. Soon, the initial confusion turned into active opposition against anything that resembled unquestioned and restrictive societal standards, resulting in the new norm: to question everything.

This period of upheaval marks the beginning of a time in which society did not have much to agree upon other than a new philosophy of “anything goes.” Amidst the chaos and cynicism, Asad searched for anything indicative of how to distinguish good from evil and began his study at the University of Vienna in 1918. Science said: Knowledge attained through ever-evolving research is everything. Political powers said: What needs improving are the external social, economic and hence, material conditions. Religious followers said: God is not what the church told us He was, and we must leave this outdated idea behind. So Asad abandoned those fields. He reckoned that the only way to find meaning and order was to search for their sources in other disciplines. However, art history said: We only want to know “how,” we don’t ask “why.” Psychology declared the nihilism of the soul since it traced all mysteries of the human self back to a series of neurogenetic responses. Philosophy said: There is no good or bad, to begin with.

This trend of favoring uncertainty over rigid standards, for most people, came with a sense of freedom. A vague energy of hope floated in the air, bringing life into most cultural fields and leading to wild experiments amidst a “liberation” of the body and sexual relations. Having grown disappointed with his own attempts to adapt to this lifestyle, Asad perceived therein no more than an endless interplay between constant short-lived outward distraction and concluded that in the long run one’s inner world was suffering significant discomfort. Chasing material well-being, technological improvements and outward success seemed useless to him as a means to tackle the roots of the “Western suffering,”2 which Asad later diagnosed as resulting from the separation of body and mind, or “the corroding lack of inner integration.”3 

Inherent and Inherited Animosities

Sensing that this new utilitarianism left people more lonely and disconnected rather than fulfilled, Asad continued his search elsewhere. Still in his late teens, he came across some advice in an ancient, non-Western guide, when he stumbled upon some of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s aphorisms. Yet, he soon realized it took more than wise words to bring about real change in an individual’s, let alone society’s life. True courage, he came to understand, was to question the ethical roots of one’s own adopted framework. But even he did not accomplish imagining what alternative modalities of life outside of the cultural realm of Europe would look like. Asad was only able to broaden his horizon once he ventured into the unfamiliar lands of “Arabia” a few years later. 

In this vein, Asad emphatically criticized the superiority complex of the West. No matter what foreign influence he stumbled upon, the European would soon end up re-integrating any such element back into his “well-defined orbit of associations.”4 The resulting “laziness of the heart”5 made him miss out on the opportunity to be enriched by “the creative value of the unfamiliar,”6 wasting the potential to rediscover his own lost reality; a reality that lies beyond the material realm and can only be accessed if one possesses the courage to face the “danger” of the unknown.

When it came to Islam, this Eurocentrism also crept into the understanding of Europe’s formation history. When Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, was in the process of forming a new civilization and had not yet settled on a framework for a unified culture or identity, it was Christianity that came in handy for the reigning powers. And so for the populace to gain pride in Christian identity, the basis became hate for the “other,” who defied everything one believed in and existed as a threat. Asad poignantly describes the false justification of this chosen enemy (the Muslims) and the fight against them (the Crusades) as follows:

[T]he Prophet of the Muslims had, of necessity, to be stamped as the Anti-Christ and his religion depicted in the most lurid terms as a fount of immorality and perversion. It was at the time of the Crusades that the ludicrous notion that Islam was a religion of crude sensualism and brutal violence, of an observance of ritual instead of a purification of the heart, entered the Western mind and remained there…7

And despite Christianity no longer playing a defining role in Europe’s identity, this anti-Islam/Muslim sentiment remained, having been successfully established in the Western mind and even now has never truly reversed. This is also one of the reasons why The Road to Mecca is an important source for many who have been taught otherwise in school, the media and throughout their lives.

What Was Preserved of Islam

Asad was a restless soul. Unlike his peers, he did not content himself with the status quo and instead, gave in to his yearning for meaning and belonging by way of traveling outside of European borders, a rarity in his time. In 1920, he had begun seeking a career in journalism in Berlin with rather minor success. Following a personal invitation in 1922, he visited Egypt and Palestine where he finally felt he was on the right track. It was an encounter with a bedouin man on a train, who in an absolutely selfless and natural gesture shared his bread with him, that awoke, for the first time, something in Asad, a recognition of the true meaning of freedom and what it really meant to be human. Many other such encounters and observations would follow:

When I now think of this little occurrence, it seems to me that all my later love for the Arab character must have been influenced by it. For in [that] gesture … I must already have felt the breath and the step of a humanity free of burden.8

I had come face to face with a life-sense that was entirely new to me. A warm, human breath seemed to flow out of these people’s blood into their thoughts and gestures, with none of those painful cleavages of the spirit, those phantoms of fear, greed and inhibition that made European life so ugly and of so little promise. In the Arabs I began to find something I had always unwittingly been looking for: an emotional lightness of approach to all questions of life – a supreme common sense of feeling, if one might call it so. 9

Despite his later discovery of the ways in which Islam had deteriorated at the hands of the ones who represented it, it was individual encounters like these that would intrigue Asad into wanting to understand where these gestures of a “free humanity” originated from. Inevitably, this led him to the discovery of the teachings and essence of Islam, that deconstructed entirely the European biases he had previously been exposed to.

Thanks to his first-hand observations and the discovery of his journalistic talents, Asad earned a professional opportunity to return to Egypt in 1924 and began visiting other countries in the region. What stood out to him the most during his travels — in contrast to his own origins — was a brotherhood of people across borders who, via the religion, were unified under the definitions of right and wrong, whereby race and financial means as nominal factors of belonging receded into the background. Thus, even absolute strangers could establish an immediate connection to each other and tend to each other’s needs. According to Asad’s observations in Syria, daily chores and religious obligations were not separated from each other but integral to one another. The individuals he met did not worship at the expense of work, rather, work was part and parcel of worship, as were the other fields of human life. Especially in Palestine, Asad was impressed by how the Arabs who witnessed the first Zionists establishing illegitimate communities, still felt secure in their own souls despite such adverse circumstances. Egyptians easily burst into laughter despite their economic suffering, leading him to conculde that all these people, it seemed to him, possessed an emotional security independent of outward circumstances. All in all, what he discovered, and what appeared strikingly new to him as a European, was that the souls of the Muslims were not divorced from their bodies, allowing them to easily access the abundant energy springing forth therefrom, a wholeness of being. 

The Quest’s End

Following his transformative travels, Asad’s short return to Europe before leaving for good in 1927, was painful and irritating. He was convinced that Westerners were entirely deluded. Only an outsider could see that their being was split into two, that their gestures were clumsy and detached from their inner world, and that despite the improvement of their economic well-being, misery and emptiness continued to linger in their hearts. The achievement-based ideology of Europeans had become irrelevant and despicable to him.

His only goal now was to achieve a harmonious balance between the material and the spiritual. No longer a passive onlooker, Asad had started actively studying Arabic and Islam during his second trip to Cairo and grew bewildered by the immense beauty in the message of the Qur’an and the love Muslims held for Muhammad, God’s final Messenger ﷺ. The emphasis on knowledge and rationality in the religion was highly praised by Asad. Nevertheless, he did not feel entirely convinced, and spent many more years exploring the various ways in which Islam culturally and socially found expression during his travels through Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

One of Asad’s last hindrance before fully embracing Islam was his holding onto the belief of the human mind’s superiority, resulting in the distrust that the Qur’an was of true divine origin. An acquaintance in the Islamic world put it for him quite convincingly: If everyone were to follow their own inner voice there would be nothing but discord in society, and chaos — the very thing Asad sought to escape, and the very thing postmodern societies still suffer from 100 years later — and all the more so. 

On the subway back in Berlin, Asad closely observed the faces of people whose economic situation had drastically improved over the relatively short span of time that had passed after the devastating destruction of World War I. Yet, he saw nothing but discontentment in their expressions. How could this be? Upon returning home he saw that he had left the Qur’an open and read the verses,

You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves […]. (Surah 102, 1-2)10

This was the moment when he, with his entire being, felt truly convinced that the Qur’an must be “a God-inspired book”11 as he realized that it warns even against modern-day ailments, and because it had truly spoken to him. His search had finally come to an end. After accepting Islam in Berlin in 1927, Asad found it an immaculate instruction for the human being to fulfill its soul’s potential without having to shun the body and its senses allowing one to truly live life to the fullest. As such, he claimed, Islam aims not only to transform the individual but also to transform societies based on a common ideology rather than race or geography. For Asad, becoming Muslim meant the irreversible crossing of a bridge. That is to say, he had reached a point of no return at which he knew he had to leave behind anything that contradicted Islam. Together with his German wife, an artist who accepted Islam shortly after him, he left for Mecca in order to perform his first hajj ritual. Sadly, Elsa would die only a few days later, and Asad’s many desert adventures would continue throughout the years to come, before he went on to become a central figure in contributing to Islamic policies in Pakistan during its formative years in the 1940s.

Reconciling Adverse World Views

Notwithstanding these ideals and all the inspiration he had received from his travels across Muslim lands, Asad was well aware of the defects that had crept into the outward manifestation of the creed. It did not escape him that even at his time, Muslims were no longer successful because they failed to apply these noble virtues in their lives.

They know … that they have fallen short of what was expected of them, and that in the flight of centuries their hearts have grown small: and yet, the promise of fulfillment has not been taken from them … from us …12

And indeed, all is not lost. Asad’s suggestions for a way out of the malaise that Muslims have created as they have become caught up by the influences of modernity and its materialist temptations are relatively simple. Yes, learn from the West — but do not blindly copy it. Take only that which is of spiritual advantage to you. Stay away from adapting to Western culture itself, especially from the false dogma of “progress.” If, however, Muslims use its means as a tool and not as a goal in and of itself, their freedom may be regained, and Islam can be made appealing even to those whose tradition it has been to reject it fiercely.13

The conclusions Asad drew from his observations of a world in upheaval (fitna) remain inspirational for Muslims and non-Muslims alike until this very day. Journeying through the manifold places and stages described in the book, one cannot help but be astounded by how, in principle, not much has changed since the radical uprooting of moral norms in the West during the late 1910s. The times may have changed as the ailments of modernity have both advanced further and spread out more widely throughout our globalized world, eradicating century-old cultural and moral modes of life day by day. Even so, Asad’s rationality-based approach in choosing Islam as the ultimate solution to regain the essence of a shared humanity appears as adequate as ever. The invitation to join him on “the road to Mecca” is still open for everyone who dares to face “the unknown” as it continues to slowly evaporate into the past — unless, as Asad suggested, we strive to revive it within ourselves.

Photo by Eddie & Carolina Stigson on Unsplash

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  1. For a comprehensive biography, refer to Kramer, Martin. “The Road from Mecca: Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss).” In The Jewish Discovery of Islam: Studies in Honor of Bernard Lewis, 225-247. Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 1999, retrievable here: https://martinkramer.org/reader/archives/the-road-from-mecca-muhammad-asad.[]
  2. Asad, Muhammad, The Road to Mecca (New Delhi, India: Islamic Book Service, 2004 [1954]), 100.[]
  3. Ibid.[]
  4. Ibid., 142.[]
  5. Ibid., 143.[]
  6. Ibid..[]
  7. Ibid., 7.[]
  8. Ibid., 83.[]
  9. Ibid., 99-100.[]
  10. Abbreviated, full citation includes Surah 102, 1-8.[]
  11. Ibid., 310.[]
  12. Ibid., 374.[]
  13. For further points of criticism regarding the West by Muhammad Asad, also refer to his earlier work “Islam at the Crossroads” (1934). As Murad Wilfried Hofmann points out in the introduction to the German edition of “The Road to Mecca” (2011), “[i]t contains a devastating, visionary cultural criticism of the Occident, its utilitarianism, consumerism, exploitation, and decadence” (p. 8).[]
Jasmin Weinert

Jasmin Weinert is a German convert to Islam and a graduate in Middle Eastern studies and social anthropology based in Cairo, Egypt where she now works as an English to German translator. She continues to study Arabic and Islam with a focus on tasawwuf.

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