Muhammad Asad — A Big World Picture on The Road to Mecca


Regarding the small share that the critique of Orientalism and its place in the Occident owe to orientalist discourse, I’ve known for some time that the father of anthropologist, post-colonialism and religion-studies theorist Talal Asad was Muhammad Asad, and that Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss. A Germanophone Jew, Asad père was born in Lvov, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A dutiful, student, I sat down to read Muhammad Asad’s autobiographical reflections in The Road to Mecca. He found his way into the Arab Orient and converted to Islam in the 1920s. Steeped as he became in the Islamic philosophical tradition, the patterns of thought by which he came to this revelation represents, in addition, one more chapter in the long tradition of German-Jewish auto-Orientalism, aesthetics, and theopolitics.

No doubt, the reviewer writing then in The New York Times overstated the point when he opined, “Not since Freya Stark,” he wrote, “has anyone written so happily about Arabia as the Galician now known as Muhammad Asad.” At the same time, it’s certainly true that readers of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Leo Strauss will recognize immediately the rhetorical-religious topoi that move The Road to Mecca. Published in 1954, Asad looked back on his spiritual itinerary in the inter-war period as he moved out of confined, unhappy Central Europe into the more capacious space and undergirding patterns represented to him by Islam. Drawn by scale, the primary form of Asad’s thinking was spatial. Judaism was too confined and small a place, whereas in Islam Asad found the revelation of a big and, yes, felicitous world-picture. Undercutting the distinction between religion and politics, he wanted to bind them up together in a perfect, pristine form free from conflict and internal contradictions.

For Asad, the road to Mecca starts in the critique of western civilization. Nothing particularly special here, it’s a staple of German modernism, this caustic look upon the spiritual malaise and lack of inner integration and spiritual coherence defining the cynical creature comforts of bourgeois society. Like almost all German modernists, Asad resisted historicism and the myth of progress. As a theo-political thinker, he was to argue, as Strauss would argue, that Christianity was not “political.” Here he meant liberal Protestantism, which, in this view of it,  did not seek to “interfere” with ordinary life (140).

An aesthete, he hated the ugly angularity and the impiety of its “sound.” Indeed, it’s only after a subway ride in Berlin, surrounded by unhappy, hellish people (they read like figures in a painting by Georg Grosz) that Asad finally comes to understand and accept the full force of the Qu’ran as revelation. On his return home, he picks up the open copy of the Qu’ran at precisely the passage his situation required. The page was open at a passage putting greed under the judgment of God. “Not the mere human wisdom of a man of a distant past of a distant Arabia,” this was the truth of revelation that speaks to the unique torments of modern men and women (310). The voice that spoke to him through the text at that precise hour was God’s own voice.

I am speculating that the real center of Asad’s misfortune was Judaism, not Christianity. Again, spatial dynamics and cosmic orientation are key to understanding his overall spiritual and political conception. If in his estimation Christianity was not political, then Judaism was not international (303). That is the bone of his argument against modern Judaism, presented in the form of his own father as crimped, cramped, wooden, and dull. Particularistic and ritualistic, its deity tribal, Judaism lacked a world. Again aesthetic, the judgment here was that Judaism was out of tune with its surroundings. That’s at least how his father appears to him in The Road to Mecca, a text whose constant motive force is to not find himself a stranger in the wide world (374).

Out of the west, Asad’s road to Mecca was a Jewish journey in search of a world, a big harmonious world-pattern interconnecting everything, from the starry skies to the desert floor, religion and politics. Palestine was not the place for this. About Zionism, there is a long and very interesting vignette reflecting back on the early 1920s. He went there to visit family in Jerusalem. Looking for inner coherence in opposition to the Occident, regarding Zionism there was no way Asad could have seen it sympathetically. About this Asad was probably correct. Zionism was in no way a political form that one could have ever been called serene or free from conflict (72). Just like Judaism, Zionism lacked that organic feel that Asad found in Islam, starting with the fact that, in the 1920s, the country was an Arab country. “Strangers within the gates,” the Jews in Palestine were out of harmony with the “picture” that surrounded them. The “patterns” and aims were colonialist, too European and too artificial. As for the Balfour Declaration, its problem was the way it cut off Palestine from the larger promise given by the British to Sharif Hussein of Mecca. In a very interesting line casually tossed out, Asad conceded that he was uninterested in the Zionists, “who naturally had only their own problems in view” (92).

Islam offered the larger world-picture. Asad clearly had no sympathy for the problems of the Zionists nor, really, the trouble of the Jews. About the situation of the Jews in Central Europe between the world wars there is no word whatsoever. Their problems would have seemed small, twisted, and miserable. Here again, Asad’s orientation vis-à-vis space determined his conversion to Islam. Compared to Aleppo, Jerusalem was a “strange side-by-side of conflicting national currents, like a painful, complicated cramp” over which “brooded, like a crowd of poison, an almost mystical hatred over people and things.” With its own mix of Arabian and Levantine elements with “a hint of nearby Turkey,” Aleppo was serene and harmonious (199). So it must have seemed at the time, while Jerusalem would have been the very things from which Asad wanted to flee –tension, conflict, lack of internal coherence, and negative affect. In contrast, Islam opened out into the orbit of Being (37). In it was a freedom reflecting an absolute spiritual order at once metaphysical and political, reflecting timelessness and friendship and human generosity, a world rounded in on itself, but open to all sides. Not a religion, Islam was a way of life. It offered cosmic consciousness and direct perception of God. Asad loved its lands and its people, embracing the Qu’ran, its truth as God’s direct revelation, an antipode to the unhappiness of western civilization.

Saturated in spatial aesthesis, the moral fellow-feeling in The Road to Mecca is no less sublime. For Asad, the ideal Muslim order was modeled on values of human interdependence, the non-separation of religion and politics, voluntary social contracts conceived as the fusion of individual rights and social obligations. He finds aesthetic community, in Mecca around the Kaaba, around the perfect and “utter simplicity of a cube,” “this little structure [with] no compare on earth. Asad joins the extra-worldly “circular flow,” this “circular stream” of pilgrims in “orbit” around the center of the world in whose duration the minutes dissolve and time stands still (367-9). This human multitude is a martial one, described in a “vision,” “above the roaring abyss,” riders over the plain, hundreds of thousands of camels plodding along, rows of men in their ihram, like soldiers, a gathering of nations that resembles a “huge army camp” (362-6). “Wide is the world before us,” the clank of rifles, dust, sweat, and “the glad stillness within me” (374-5).

Both reformist and reactionary, The Road to Mecca remains deeply dissatisfying to the degree to which Asad turned out to be an apologetic theo-political thinker of the Islamic State idea. Even as he justified polygamy, for the role of women in Arab society he blamed custom, not Islam. The decline in Arab political, economic, and intellectual fortunes, he traced those back to the some putative fall from the pure, pristine form of Islam that he held up in the Quran. Asad insisted that one could develop science and technology today without western civilization, that these are somehow culturally neutral (348). The choice between Islam and the west was absolute, Islam constituting a supernatural answer to the unique torments of “modern man.” In the end, the reactionary bent to this modern anti-modernism belongs to a time and place in German cultural conservatism. It bears a strong family resemblance to nothing if not the philosophical jeremiads against modern western civilization and modern western consciousness in Strauss and Heidegger.

For all that, Asad’s politics are more complex than the one presented in the edition I read of The Road to Mecca. By way of an epilogue, I came to understand that complexity in a somewhat lengthy intellectual biography here written by Martin Kramer that details Asad’s relationship to Judaism and Jewishness and his influence upon and fallout from currents in modern political Islam. According to Kramer, Asad’s 1934 pamphlet (94 pages) Islam at the Crossroads influenced no less a figure than Sayyid Qutb. It appeared in Arabic in 1946 as al-Islam ‘ala muftariq al-turuq, and was published in numerous editions through the 1940s and 1950s. It stands out as a critique of western materialism and colonialism and orientalist scholarship in order to hold up a pristine Islamic political vision. The binary opposition between two distinct social forms, that would be the reactionary component to Asad’s thought, amply attested to in The Road to Mecca.

To see, though, that Asad’s actual political development was more complex than this simple picture you can read here a revised 1982 edition of Islam at the Crosroads which Kramer calls “chastened.” In this version, Asad complains about those first readers who drew on his pamphlet in ways “contrary” to what he himself had envisaged. His intent had been on “preserving those forms and values of our past which were still relevant to the reality of Islam as a culture-producing force… [as opposed to] a mere return to the social forms evident in the past centuries of Muslim decadence” (7-8). As Kramer notes, Asad more mature thought turns out to be that of a liberal democratic or constitutional republican embracing the Qu’ran and Sunnah, not the schools of fiqh, which he saw as subject to historical change. A younger associate of Muhammad Iqbal, Asad sought Islamic sources for elections, parliamentary democracy and political parties.

While the road to Mecca concludes in the autobiography the author’s search for a big world-picture, ironically it was the road out of Mecca and back to the West that Kramer comes to trace. In war-time London, Asad failed to secure safety for his father and stepmother out of Austria. In New York, he married for the third time, this time a Polish woman who converted to Islam. In New York he also resumed relations with Jewish family members, and it’s where, out of money, he wrote The Road to Mecca. Asad fell out favor, first with Ibn Saud, whom he had served quite closely for a time. (The fallout happened in the 1930s. In order to re-establish relations with the Saudi royal court and patronage for his translation of the Quran from the Saudi court earlier criticisms directed against ibn Saud were omitted in the book’s later editions). His fallout with the Pakistani government, Kramer surmises, had more to do with personal matters involving his third wife, but perhaps as well the authorities who were suspicions of  his critique of Arab ruling elites, and of what might have been seen as liberal or progressive ideas regarding religion and reason in his translation of and commentary to the Quran. According to Kramer, Asad’s political theology was ideal, reformist, and out of sorts with Arab and Islamic political realities as they developed in the postwar period.

One gets the sense from Kramer of Asad as a tragic hanger-on, an opportunist and an idealist unable ultimately to fit into the larger world around him. Kramer cites the Pakistani ideologue Maulana Maududi who in a 1961 letter written criticized Asad this way. “I have great respect for [Asad’s] exposition of Islamic ideas and especially his criticism of Western culture and its materialistic philosophies. I am sorry to say, however, that although in the early days of his conversion, he was a staunch, practicing Muslim, gradually he drifted close to the ways of the so-called ‘progressive’ Muslim just like the ‘reformed’ Jews.” Kramer concludes, “Few in the Muslim world took notice of Asad’s passing. He had argued for a rational Islam; he had sought to reconcile Islamic teachings and democracy; he had tried to make the Qur’an speak to modern minds. His project, in fact, encapsulated ideals that drove the reform of Judaism, which by his parents’ generation had largely served to ease Jews out of their faith altogether. Islam provided the last chance to achieve that ideal—the reform of a religion of law so that it could be made to live in a modern age, as a liberal force of continuing faith.

By the light of this remark, Asad remained a Muslim very much in the German-speaking Jewish mold of his upbringing. Reading Kramer’s article alongside The Road to Mecca would be to suggest that, in the end, Muhammad Asad remained liberal-all-too-liberal, Jewish-all-too-Jewish, German-all-too-German (Austrian, actually). As such, The Road to Mecca is another, albeit idiosyncratic chapter in Deutschjudischegeistesgeschichte. Asad, no less than Martin Buber, was a neo-romantic champion of renewal, revelation, and relationship, like Franz Rosenzweig a lyrical theorist of community, and like so many German Jews of a spiritual bent whose visionary view of the world  were tripped up by history.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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