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The Road to Mecca
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132 of 134 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2001
After reading this magnificent book, I am still puzzled as to why such a remarkable personality like Mohammad Asad still remains obscure to both the Western world, and most importantly, the Muslim world. A person who has seen and experienced all of the main events of the 20th century at first hand, and has lived to describe it lucidly truly deserves to be on the map of personalities of the last century. His contribution to 20th century socities of the Middle-East is immense. A first class traveller, a journalist, a writer, a philosopher, an adventurer, a statesman, a diplomat, a scholar, and most of all a believer in the faith of Islam through experience, at least should be considered on par with lawrence of Arabia, if not above, for the sole reason that he was involved in the shaping of more than one country, not just Arabia.
Let me get to the book. This book is actually four journeys fitted into one. It is a geographical, historical, linguistic, and spiritual journey all in one.
- Geographical: for it a first class travelogue of the Middle-East region during the twenties, before the current borders ever existed or were drawn. He provides a very graphic description of places, lands, moods, cities, and people that he has come across, that virtually transports you to those times. He is not the romantic orientalist, nor is he the underminning military observer, but somehow a mixture of both with a flair of adventure. He traveled during a period of time when it was still possible to join caravans, hire horses and guides, and buy camels when embarking on a journey, which makes it all the more exciting to read.In short, even if you are not interested in the main story of the book ( his finding of the faith of islam ), to read the actual adventures he experienced, for the armchair traveler, this book is a must !
- Historical: for he has witnessed all the events that have shaped the Middle-East of today. The fall of the Othoman Empire, World War I, World War II, the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Zionism and the creation of the Israel, the ascending to the throne of the Shah of Iran, the creation of Pakistan, colonialism and the different resistances against it. He had been directly involved with events of early Saudi Aabia, and was one of the people who elucidated the idea of creating a Muslim nation in the Indian sub-continent with the man responsible for the idea, the poet Muhammad Iqbal. The personalities he has come face to face with testify to his involvement in those events of the first half of the 20th century. Listing them chronologically, Mdme. Maksim Gorky, Chaim Weizmann, King Ibn Saud, Prince Faisal (later King), The Shah of Iran, King Amanullah of Afghanistan, The Grand Sanoussi, Umar Al-Mukhtar, Muhammad Iqbal, to name some of them. He describes historical events that give important insight into the history of the region. For instance, the Bedouin revolt of 1929 against King Ibn Saud, the events that led to the ascension to the throne by the Shah of Iran, the Sanoussi resistance against Italian colonialism in Libya, etc. His accounts helped explain several aspects of ME history that I believe a lot of people from my generation (late twenties) are plainly not aware of.
-Linguistic: for his English prose is remarkably lucid. It is amazing that he can write such beautiful English, considerning that it is not his mother tongue, nor it is his second language, but something like his fourth or fifth, after Hebrew, Polish, German and French. His description of moods, feelings, physical aspects of a place, times of day, spiritual feelings are so vivid that you actually feel them, not just imagine them. His book is truly to learn from, the vocabulary, the prose, the lucidity, all witness to a great work of literature.
- Spiritual: Well, I leave this up to you. But in short, this journey is the main raison d'etre of this book. He describes his search for a spiritual ideology that would fill the vacancy left by the downfall of all spiritual engagements in Europe at that time. He describes the whole process gradually and in a very rational manner, but at the same time in doing so, he shows-maybe indirectly- his scholastic abilities in reasoning and his raional thinking on why he was convinced with Islam.
All in all this book I believe should be compulsory reading for all history classes in countries of the Middle-East. History text book writers could use a few tips from Muhammad Asad's book.
Before I end, I would like to say that this book has virtually changed my outlook on a lot of things, and has opened a whole new world for me. Read it and I hope you would go through the same experience....
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106 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2002
I consider myself an admirer of Islam, if not a believer, and I was interested in reading this book from the time I first heard of it. A well-reasoned apologia of the faith by a respected Western convert, I felt, could only be a useful and enlightening book. I was not prepared for the reality.
On beginning the book I was initially disappointed by two things. First of all, Mr. Assad was a journalist. Secondly, the book was first published some 50 years ago - and the events described in it happened 20 years earlier than that. I have no objection to reading old books - far from it! - and I have in general no objection to reading books by journalists, but I tend to avoid old books by journalists. The journalist, by definition, you might say, is absorbed in the ephemera of current events; when he refers to the past, it is usually only to make a point about the present. And what may be a cogent observation about current events tends to pall quickly with time. At best, most old books by journalists are old news; at worst, downright laughable. Anybody who has tried to read an erstwhile best seller by Lowell Thomas or John Gunther will know what I mean. In addition, I feared that a book on religion by a journalist could only be superficial, so I resigned myself to making the best of what I feared was to be a bad situation; after all, I had already bought the book.
It was true that the book seemed steeped in the current events of 1930: the French and British "mandates" in the Middle East, the Saudi struggles against the Beni Hashim and their English friends for control of the Arabian peninsula, the Sanusi battling Fascist Italy in Libya, Shah Reza Khan building a new Iran. Most of these events are ancient history to Western readers, if indeed they ever heard of them at all. But much to my surprise, the book was a startlingly good read, and it held my interest. Indeed, Mr. Assad's opening story of being lost in the desert is one of the finest pieces in its genre that I have ever read, and stands up favorably against anything written by Thesiger or TE Lawrence.
I was actually halfway through the book before I finally realized that all of my preconceptions had been wrong. The book is a finely wrought description of an inner journey to his own center, along with two outer journeys - Mr. Assad's trip to Mecca to perform the Hajj which forms the outward frame of the book, and the larger journey of his own life, starting with his childhood in a Jewish family in Lvov through his presence and participation in many of the major events of the era, and how these affected his outlook.
One of my earlier observations was true; if you're looking for well-reasoned arguments about Islam as a world religion, you will not find them. Instead, there are anecdotal references regarding the effect that the community of believers had on him, and in fact it is probably not overstating it to say that it was the experience of living with Muslims in a Muslim community, and coming to appreciate the world outlook of that community, that influenced him the most and led him to accept Islam.
And it is precisely this understanding and interpretation of Islam in terms of the community of believers that makes this an important book - maybe more important than it was when it was originally written. It is true that the era of Western presence as a governing power in the Middle East is long over. But the point is that for well over a century, the West cared not at all about local interests in the Middle East. Not only did we arrogate to ourselves the right to rule these areas, but wittingly or not we did, and still do, tear apart the fabric of these societies by our presence and values - and the Islamic people of the Middle East resent this tremendously. I know of no other book that manages to bring a sense of this so forcefully.
Mr. Assad brings up the issue of Zionism in the book, and mentions that he had made the acquaintance of Chaim Weizmann, with whom he did not see eye to eye. Within a few brief paragraphs Assad manages to describe completely and succinctly what is largely still the Arab argument against the existence of Israel, and it would benefit Westerners to become familiar with this argument if they want some understanding of the Arab position beyond the two-dimensional stereotypes found in the more sensational press currently available.
Not everything about the book made me happy; I was quite dismayed at Mr. Assad's rather summary dismissal of Shiite Islam as basically an Iranian character flaw, and even more dismayed at his caricature of Iran as a nation of opium addicts. In this case I can only assume that he was reflecting the Wahabi prejudices of his bedouin friends.
But these are only scattered clouds in a sunny sky. The value of the book lies in the opportunity it gives us to realize that the Middle East has a long-standing grievance against the West, whether it be England, France, Italy, America or Israel. From the Arab point of view we all look the same, and it is not nearly as easy to determine who the aggresor is than we would like to think.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2004
Books about Islam and Arabia abound. Not surprisingly, most have a Western bias if for no other reason than they view events through Western eyes. Professor Edward Said once advised that to gain an understanding of Islam and Arabia one should read more than Bernard Lewis. He suggested two books: Classical Arab Islam (by Tarif Khalidi) and The Road to Mecca. Perusing the latter, one understands his point.

Muhammad Asad was a Polish-Austrian Jew born to an orthodox rabbi in Lwow (then a part of Austro-Hungary) in the summer of 1900 whose spiritual journey led him eventually to leave Judaism and embrace Islam. Though published in 1957, Asad is recounting events from the 1920s and early 1930s. The central thread is a haj to Mecca in 1932 via camel from the northern reaches of Saudi Arabia. He uses flashbacks to give the history of his travels and conversion.
His conversion started in adolescence. "Under the influence of an agnostic environment, I drifted...into a matter-of-fact rejection of all institutional religion." (61) Seeking adventure he joined the Austrian army toward the end of 1914. He was only 14, but tall. This made it easier to convincingly lie about his age. His father tracked him down, though, so his enlistment didn't last more than a few weeks. Four years later he was drafted into the army, "but by then was searching for other avenues to self-fulfillment." His draft enlistment was only a little longer than his previous one for soon Austria-Hungary was out of the war.
After attending a university for a time, he gave up his studies to pursue journalism. It wasn't the profession that drew him, per se, but rather wanderlust leavened with spiritual restlessness. This led him to the Middle East in 1922 where his growing rejection of Western materialistic egocentrism found root in Islamic values that revolve around the brotherhood of man and individual self-discipline.
Throughout his journey of conversion, as he drifted farther and farther from his familial and cultural roots, he was befriended by an interesting variety of Arabs. This included religious leaders and even the royal Saud family. He took an Arab wife (who bore him a son), lost her to illness, and later married a German woman (and another son) who shared his spiritual longing. His journeys, which have the flavor of Bedouin wanderings, took him throughout the Arab world, through circuits of Afghanistan and Iran that could be a geographic primer for contemporary military operations there, and even a foray into Libya in 1932 to gain intelligence for Crown Prince Saud concerning local resistance to Italian occupation.
The book is well written with a sophisticated style. Asad was in love with Arabia and Islam, and it shows in his descriptions of the land, his awakening, and all things Arab in a glowing, propagandistic prose.
He starts the book with a description of the West's cultural bias towards Islam, the beginnings of which he attributes to our Greco-Roman heritage. "Ever since Greek and Roman times, European thinkers and historians have been prone to contemplate the history of the world from the standpoint and in terms of European history and Western cultural experiences alone. Non-Western civilizations enter the picture only in so far as their existence, or particular movements within them, have or had a direct influence on the destinies of Western man; and thus, in Western eyes, the history of the world and its various cultures amounts in the last resort to little more than an expanded history of the West." (5) These insensitivities are also "rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades." (7) "When, in his famous speech at Clermont, in November, 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted the Christians to make war upon the 'wicked race' that held the Holy Land, he enunciated - probably without knowing it himself - the charter of Western civilization." (9). Probably, indeed.
This book is part religion, part philosophy, and part cultural exploration. He contrasts Christianity, with its gradual withering of a strong spiritual hold on Western civilization, with Islam and its pervasiveness with Arabian spirituality and life. He recognizes that Arab culture is not as robust as it was centuries ago (e.g., 317), but he offers little explanation. (Ironically, he says, "It was not Muslims that had made Islam great; it was Islam that had made the Muslims great." (207)) He also describes the stubbornness of Arabs along with their history of a willingness to resist political repression regardless of the odds. He made particular mention of the people of Baghdad: "...a great strength was apparent in these men: the strength of hatred - hatred of the foreign power that denied them their freedom. The people of Baghdad had always been obsessed by longing for freedom as by a demon." (222-223) I'm not sure what that says about Saddam Hussein's hold on them, but it may be apropos of our post-Saddam occupation of Iraq.
Beyond being an interesting read, the relevance of this book is the insight it provides into Arab sensibilities today. It shows a history of resistance to outside influences and an underlying sense of outrage at dar al-Harb for its lack of spiritual perfection.
Asad was a man before his time. His views - this book - provide the underpinnings of today's ideology of Islamism. "Never before, I reflected, have the worlds of Islam and the West come so close to one another as today. This closeness is a struggle, visible and invisible. Under the impact of Western cultural influences, the souls of many Muslim men and women are slowly shriveling." (371) He professed a balance with the West, but the seeds of conflict are clear.
Professor Said was correct. This book is definitely worth reading.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2003
As a practicing western muslim, I often approach the popular literature regarding Islam with trepidation, and the fear of what I am about to find in print. The beauty of this book is the connection that I felt with the author, who in spite of his passage many decades ago, echoed the very sentiments I felt during my own Hajj, and my own spiritual journey through life. His beautifully woven eloquence, thought, and understanding create a unique tapestry of visions in this wordsmith's hands. The book is in my opinion valid, touching, and opens a portal to the Hajj for those who are interested in the trip. As the author emphasizes, the Hajj is a microcosm in the journey of life, and reflective of his larger journey toward Islam, as a submission to the religion which he embraced. The book is a study in metaphysics, cultural anthropology, and is simultaneously a fascinating autobiographical reflection by a convert to Islam. Highly recommended.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2002
Muhammad Asad's "The Road to Mecca" is unanimously considered to be one of the most important works on contemporary Islam in the past century. It is an enlivening tale of a man's incredible journey for knowledge and serenity. When he converted to Islam from Judaism and adopted Muhammad Asad as his name in 1926, Leopold Weiss was already a respected journalist in Europe. His popular travelogues about his journeys in Arabia gained wide readership through the Franfurter Zeitung, one of the foremost newspapers in Europe at the time.

The book starts with the writer narrating his voyage in a Saudi Arabian desert, proceeds to his childhood in Vienna, his days of struggle in Frankfurt, to his eye opening experiences in Palestine, Iran, India, and finally coming full circle to Saudi Arabia. The Road to Mecca is commonly perceived as a tale that informs the reader about Asad's conversion to Islam. This is of course the most noticeable theme, but the story is also an important chronicle of the political, social and economic situations in Europe, Arabia and Asia at every stage of the book, which is itself spread on a canvas of about five decades. Some of the most insightful accounts of the leading figures of that time, like King Ibn Saud, Kemal Ataturk, Maxim Gorky and Riza Khan are presented with remarkable perceptiveness. The same acumen can be seen in Asad's understanding of the people he met and the lands he saw. Asad handles a wide variety of subjects with rare alacrity and clarity, with Islam--and his journey to it--being the underlying theme at all times.

The Road to Mecca is a travelogue, a lesson in history and politics, and a definitive presentation on Islam, all rolled into one. It is an extremely readable book not only for readers who are interested in knowing more about Islam at this important juncture, but also for those who want to read one of the most clear-sighted illustrations of the first half of the 20th century.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2002
Muhammed Assad was a gifted journalist. This gift makes the reading of his Near East adventures a highly entertaining experience. The son of wealthy Jewish parents, he came to Palestine in the early 1920's, became an Anti-Zionist and fell in love with the Arab world. He returned to Europe after many adventurous journeys, married a woman 14 years older then he was, became a Muslim, and went back East. The story is told through the memories entertained during a camel ride to Mecca in the early 1930's (although written about 20 years later).
Asad was a fearless man (he once walked from Haifa to Damscus without a passport, and later dodged bullets while trying to advise the Sanusi rebels in Libya against fascist Italy). He had an enormous talent for languages - he could speak fluent Arabic and Persian, in addition to the European languages and Hebrew.
He was immediately attracted to Islam. Even before becoming a Muslim he had nothing but praise for it. According to him, Islam is completely class -less, accommodating spiritual and physical needs perfectly.
Asad's criticism of the Western value system seems relevant today at least as it was then. We might not share his conclusion and choose Islam, but we cant deny that there is something wrong in the Western way of life.
The book DOES NOT include Asad's Indian and Pakistanian years. I do not know what book this information is from, and I would really want to get it, as I heard Asad WAS one of the people behind the estblishment of Pakistan.
I recommand this truly extraordinary and enlightening book to everyone interested in what is really going on in the world.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2000
This book is a must for anyone seeking an objective understanding, not only of the Middle East and Islam, but also of Western Civilisation. Though chronicled at the turn of the 20th Century, his experiences and views are as valid and alive today, as they were then. Asad (born Leopold Weiss, an Austrian Jew) not only describes a personal journey of spiritual discovery, but at the same time, raises serious concerns about the destructive rush of western civilisation towards a dehumanising materialiasm, and; the Muslim world of forsaking the proven, eternal and rational values of the Divine Islamic truths for a servile and decadent aping of the West.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2004
I had The Road to Mecca in my bookcase for more than a year before I finally opened it; and I have never stopped reading and rereading since.
It's not a usual theoretical book on religion; instead it is a travelogue, a journey of a mind, a cultural awareness of a people and a nation, and a rare insight and understanding into faith, psychology, development sociology, and world affairs.
Muhammad Asad starts off with a journey towards Makkah, spiritual home of Muslims, and through the trip we travel back and forth in his mind and through his conversations and communications with people, about his past; his journey from a young Austrian journalist into a Muslim. We move through Arab lands, meet people, explore ways of life and philosophies, understand history, and most of all, gain a rare insight into Islam and what it means. Asad shows us all aspects of life in those lands; through bazaars to palaces, along risky journeys and enthralling adventures, meeting Kings and bandits. His understanding is rare and gifted and the socio-political-religious world has not been explained better elsewhere.
For Muslims and non Muslims alike, it is a must read, capturing but not imposing, exploring and understanding.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2004
M. Asad has written a truly inspiring work with "The Road to Mecca". As a foreign journalist in the Middle East, he was in a unique position to truly experience the culture and religion of the area and express his experiences in a way in which only a journalist could. What caught my eye was what happened when he returned to Europe where he suddenly felt like an outsider who was surrounded by people simply sleepwalking through their lives. It was after this revelation that he truly grasped the draw that so many feel towards Islam awakening within himself. As a muslim convert myself, I felt that this was something that I could closely relate to. Nonetheless, I believe that M. Asad's novel was not only inspiring but also a useful, insightful resource into understanding the countries and cultures of the Middle East; something which is useful to muslims & non-muslims alike. I would highly recommend this book to all.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 1999
Muhammad Asad has lucidly detailed his travels in the heart of the muslim world where he discovers true happiness in reverting to Islam. A truly amazing book of someone who has been guided to the path of God and remanied loyal thereafter. Even his austrian wife was blessed with faith and performed the Haj with him. It is not easy to become a muslim, much more difficult to chronicle a journey of piety. Excellant prose. A must for everybody.
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