The Road to Mecca

John Robert Colombo offers some comments on Muhammad Asad’s “The Road to Mecca”

The books that I review are generally newly published, current titles. Yet it is often forgotten that books constitute news, and the novelty of interesting books and their newsworthy value that have an attraction for me (and probably for the readers of these reviews). It is also true, as publishers and editors like to remind us, that a “new book” is one that is “new to the reader” and not necessarily one that has been newly published. It may well be a book published decades or centuries in the past that is worth a passing glance, if not a close reading.

“The past is prologue,” the Bard wrote, and the paragraph that you have just read is a prologue to the fact that I going to write about a book that was originally published almost sixty years ago, a book that has attained the status of a classic, though it is a classic title that may well be all but unknown to the majority of the readers of this column. I am referring to “The Road to Mecca” which is the memoirs of a correspondent and diplomat named Muhammad Asad.

Its popularity over the years is attested by details that appear on its copyright page. Originally published by Simon & Schuster in New York in 1954, a company known for the eclectic nature of its “list,” the memoir went through four editions; the fourth edition appeared in 1981 and was reprinted in 1985 and 1993, and possibly subsequently. The edition that I own is the last one, as I bought it as a new book more than one dozen years ago. It bears the imprint of Dar Al-Andalus, Gibraltar.

“The Road to Mecca” is a handsome, sturdy, hard-cover edition, with end-sheets, stitched pages, a dozen black-and-white photographs, and with a dark green dust-jacket. The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches and the pagination is xiv+375+ii, so it is quite long. The text includes a three-page glossary of Arabic and Persian Terms, an introductory chapter from the author himself, and twelve chapters (with such titles as “Beginning of the Road,” “Spirit and Flesh,” “Jihad,” “Persian Letter,” and “End of the Road”).

I am not offering the reader a review or a critique of Muhammad Asad’s book. That would take many words, many pages, and many screens. Whoever is interested in the contents of the volume should check the Wikipedia site for Muhammad Asad. Here and now I will allude to the book’s contents and offer some remarks about the author of these memoirs, with special reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss (1900-1992) in Lemberg, Galicia – now Liviv, Ukraine – into a family noted for its long line of rabbis. He was trained to read Hebrew and Aramaic, and he spoke German, Arabic, Urdu, English, and no doubt other European languages. He eschewed formal education but he was adept at observation and expression and so was hired as a “stringer” for “Frankfurter Zeitung,” then as now one of Europe’s major newspapers and one with a chain of affiliate papers.

For much of his life he was a bachelor and he was drawn to the Middle East so he specialized in political coverage of the events in that part of the world during the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, he was drawn by the Arab temperament and by the bedouins of the Maghreb, and he was attracted to Islam proper. In his memoirs he wrote, “Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking; and the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure.”

Leopold had always had difficulties with his father and while in Arab lands he converted to Islam, taking the name by which he is now known. He spent much time with Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and was something of his protege. In India he met Muhammad Iqbal, one of the intellectual founders of the state of Pakistan, and in later years he was designated one of Pakistan’s “first citizens.” In time this led to his appointment as that country’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

The Wikipedia entry on the stringer, traveller, correspondent, writer, diplomat, memoirist, etc., lists thirty-six of his publications in English, as well as other interesting information about him. But his current interest rests on his masterpiece “The Road to Mecca” and it is a masterful piece of writing. I found it difficult to skim the text of the book written by this Haji because it is composed with his conviction that the West with its values is the mortal and spiritual enemy of Islam with and values. Even back in 1954, the author was unaware of the irony that the Muslim countries were in such disarray, especially compared with the Christian countries of the West, but he does not hold Islam to account for this. Instead, he holds to account the followers of Islam who have failed to realize their potential as human beings, that is as a sensual, social, and spiritual people. To him the Muslims are the most rational of men, and so deep is his conviction and so vital is his sense of style that he argues this point with great conviction. The reader blinks, as if to question whether it could be true!

What I want to do is to focus on two observations that he makes, two ideas that he presents that were new to me, and discuss these to the exclusion of the rest of the text. Both ideas concern Iran. If Islam is the faith above all faiths that extols reason, what should a good Muslim make of Sufism? I have long wondered about the Sufis and their fables, parables, and poets. Some years ago I came to my own conclusion that “Sufism exists because Salafism exists” – it exists to serve as a counterpoison to the poison of fundamentalist literalism.

In other words, Sufism may act as a purgative, the way Zen dissolves the categories of Buddhism. The notion was noted by Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind” in 1953 when he introduced the term “kitman” to refer to the dissimulation permitted by Sufis in dealing with authoritarian people, public hypocrisy, a version of “the noble lie.”

That is not the view of Muhammud Asad who devotes only one paragraph to the subject in his memoirs but that paragraph is a perceptive one. His opinion is that Sufism is un-Islam and he identifies its tendencies with Persia or present-day Iran where the Sufis are part of the warp and woof of the Shiites. After observing the so-called whirling dervishes of Scutari, he felt “somehow bothered.” Here is what he wrote:

“The esoteric rites of this religious order – one of the many I had encountered in various Muslim countries – did not seem to fit into the picture of Islam that was slowly forming in my mind. I requested my Azhari friend to bring me some orientalist works on the subject; and, through them, my instinctive suspicion that esoterism of this kind had intruded into the Muslim orbit from non-Islamic sources was confirmed. The speculation of the _sufis_, as the Muslim mystics were called, betrayed Gnostic, Indian and occasionally even Christian influences which had brought in ascetic concepts and practices entirely alien to the message of the Arabian Prophet.”

He alludes to the mission of the Prophet. “In his message, _reason_ was stressed as the only real way to faith. While the validity of mystical experience was not necessarily precluded in this approach, Islam was primarily an intellectual and not an emotional proposition. Although, naturally enough, it produced a strong emotional attachment in its followers, Muhammad’s teaching did not accord to emotion as such any independent role in religious _perceptions_: for emotions, however profound, are far more liable to be swayed by subjective desires and fears than reason, with all its fallibility, could ever be.”

It is apparent that the years he spent close to Ibn Saud, in what became Saudi Arabia with its Sunni Islam, had left their mark on Muhammud Asad. So the Sufi, so honoured in the West, is an ambiguous figure, to say the least, in the Sunni Middle East. Rumi may be “the most read poet in the United States,” as one poll determined, but that does not measure his standing in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

The chapter titled “Persian Letter” is the one that dismisses Iran, one of the countries that the author says he knew best. He refers to “Riza Shah Pahlavi, who ascended the Peacock Throne in 1925 … the king who has given up all pretence of humility and now seeks to emulate Kemal Ataturk in building a vainglorious Western facade onto his ancient Eastern land.” He paints a gloomy picture of the first Iran town he visited, the town of Kirmanshah:

“A strange, faded, opaque atmosphere lay about it, muffled, subdued – not to say shabby. No doubt, in every Eastern city poverty lies close to the surface, much more visible than in any European city – but to that I was already accustomed. It was not just poverty in an economic sense which thrust itself upon me, for Kirmanshah was said to be a prosperous town. It was rather a kind of depression that lay over the people, something that was directly connected with them and seemed to have hardly anything to do with economic circumstances.”

The inhabitants of this town are painted in even darker colours: “All these people had large, black eyes under thick, black brows that often met over the bridge of the nose, weighted by heavy lids like veils. Most of the men were slim (I hardly remember having seen a fat man in Iran); they never laughed aloud, and in their silent smiles lurked a faint irony which seemed to conceal more than it revealed. No mobility of features, no gesticulations, only quiet, measured movements: as if they wore masks.” The author has nothing to say about Kirmanshah’s women, though he was later to marry at least three time (serially not simultaneously). Indeed, hearsay has it that Iranian women are among the most glamorous in the world; it is only the men who seem in this book to be lacking in stature and grace.

Paragraph after paragraph follows: “And then I knew what had moved me so strongly when I first beheld the melancholy eyes of the Iranians: the sign of a tragic destiny in them.” The author is a man of perceptions but also a man of concepts, and his conception of the cause of this melancholy is rivetting: behind it is “a never-healed schism in the world of Islam: the division of the Muslim community into Sunnites, who form the bulk of the Muslim peoples and stand firm on the principle of an _elective_ succession to the Caliphate, and the Shiites, who maintain that the Prophet designated Ali, his son-in-law, as his rightful heir and successor.”

“It was not their assumption of power but rather Ali’s and his followers’ unwillingness to accept wholeheartedly the results of those popular elections that led to the subsequent struggles for power, to Ali’s death, and to the transformation – under the fifth Caliph, Mu’awiyya – of the original, republican form of the Islamic State into a hereditary kingship, and, ultimately, to Husayn’s death at Karbala.”

Ali, Hsan, Husayn … Companions of the Prophet, heroes in Persia/Iran. “I began to wonder: Was it the innate melancholy of the Iranians and their sense of the dramatic that had caused them to embrace the _Shia_ doctrine? – or was it the tragic quality of the latter’s origin that had led to the intense Iranian melancholy?” He continues, “By degrees, over a number of months, a startling answer took shape in my mind.”

There is neither time nor space to follow the author’s argument, but in capsule form it runs like this: The conquest of Persia by Muslims was a catastrophic blow to the psyche of the Persian or Iranian people. The way to recover was for the Iranians to reform and reclaim Islam.

“The transition was too sharp and painful to allow the Iranians to subordinate their deeply rooted national consciousness to the supranational concept of Islam. In spite of their speedy and apparently voluntary acceptance of the new religion, they subconsciously equated the victory of the Islamic idea with Iran’s national defeat; and the feeling of having been defeated and irrevocably torn out of the context of their ancient cultural heritage – a feeling desperately intense for all its vagueness – was destined to corrode their national self-confidence for centuries to come. Unlike so many other nations to whom the acceptance of Islam gave almost immediately a most positive impulse to further cultural development, the Iranians’ first – and, in a way, most durable – reaction to it was one of deep humiliation and repressed resentment.”

“They began to regard the faith brought to them by their Arabian conquerors as something that was exclusively their own. They did it by subtly transforming the rational, unmystical God-consciousness of the Arabs into its very opposite: mystical fanaticism and sombre emotion. A faith which to the Arab was presence and reality and a source of composure and freedom, evolved, in the Iranian mind, into a dark longing for the supernatural and symbolic.”

He adds, “To such a tendency, an espousal of the _Shia_ doctrine offered a most welcome channel: for there could be no doubt that the Shiite veneration, almost deification, of Ali and his descendants concealed the germ of the idea of God’s incarnation and continual reincarnation – an idea entirely alien to Islam but very close to the Iranian heart.”

“If Ali was the rightful heir and successor of the Prophet, the three Caliphs who preceded him must obviously have been usurpers – and among them had been Umar, that same Umar who had conquered Iran! The national hatred of the conqueror of the Sasanian Empire could now be rationalized in terms of religion – the religion that had become Iran’s own: Umar had ‘deprived’ Ali and his sons Hasan and Husayn of their divinely ordained right of succession to the Caliphate of Islam and, thus, had opposed the will of God; consequently, in obedience to the will of God, Ali’s party was to be supported. Out of a national antagonism, a religious doctrine was born.”

“This, then, was the reason for the strange intensity with which the House of Ali was venerated in Iran. Its cult represented a symbolic act of Iranian revenge on Arabian Islam (which stood so uncompromisingly against the deification of any human personality including that of Muhammad). True, the _Shia_ doctrine had not originated in Iran; there were Shiite groups in other Muslim lands as well: but nowhere else had it achieved so complete a hold over the people’s emotions and imagination. When the Iranians vent to their mourning over the deaths of Ali, Hasan and Husayn, they wept not merely over the destruction of the House of Ali but also over themselves and the loss of their ancient glory.”

The condemnation of Iran is one theme among a great many themes to characterize these memoirs, for most of its pages are dedicated to finding excellence in the people of the “orthodox” countries who keep the faith alive. But for some reason or other – a reason that has more to do with human nature than specifically with the historic Shia-Shite schism and the present-day chasm – when I think of Ali, I think of that haunting line from Rudyard Kipling’s verse called “Vampire.” Kipling’s line could refer to Ali, for it goes like this:

“So some of him lived but most of him died – (Even as you and I).”

Written 5 July 2013. Posted 13 Aug. 2013

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