‘The Road to Mecca’ – Travelogue of a nomad in search of Islam

Traveling to the desert makes one closer to god,” said Leopold Weiss, who was born on July 2, 1900, in lvov, modern day Ukraine.Having descended from a line of rabbis in family tradition, Weiss was educated profusely in the study of Talmud, Hebrew and Jewish theology.The rich academia however left him with no serious religious inclinations. Weiss then embarked on an Arabian nights inspired sojourn that paved the way for his rise as a modern Islamist, commentator, diplomat and author.

Last week, Bridges, a book/culture café, held a documentary screening by director George Misch. Considering no biography has yet been written on the spectacular life journey of Weiss, the documentary borrows the title of his magnum opus, “The Road to Mecca” and is a humble attempt at retracing the steps of his travel expeditions in the search for an ideal Islamic society.

In 1920, against his father’s wishes, Weiss entered the world of journalism, a brief yet significant period in his life that led him to the threshold of Islam. An invitation to Jerusalem from his maternal uncle Dorian Feigenbaum exposed him to the immoral suffering endured by the rightful occupants of Palestine and the great injustices caused to them at the hands of the Zionist regime. The apathy of the Jews toward their victims propelled Weiss into the exploration of the Islamic religion.In September 1926 came his prompt conversion to Islam after a short period of self-study in Berlin. He then took the appellation Mohammad Asad. A greater reason for his conversion was to provide an escape from the European culture of materialism.

Later on, marriage to a woman previously widowed with a son and 15 years his senior brought them on a first pilgrimage to Makkah, with the uneventful death of his wife a week later.Having established contacts with Arab reformists and heads of state, he then traveled to explore other Muslim communities of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Iran and parts of Central Asia.He left Saudi Arabia in 1932, traveling to India, Turkistan, Indonesia and China, all in search of the impeccably perfectionist community of the Islamic order.In pre-independence India, his incarceration at camps as a potential foreign national enemy of British India helped him foresee a grand opportunity and potential to build a society on the framework of pure Islamic polity with the birth of a new Muslim-majority nation-Pakistan.

He later became a plenipotentiary of Pakistan to the United Nations and returned to New York in 1952, having failed in having his Islamically inclined political ideas enshrined in the operation of the Islamic government.Years later, he fell from Pakistan’s political block and upon persuasion from an American friend, began work on his autobiography, “A Road To Mecca.” It was a memoir that received wide recognition, crisscrossing both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.His attempts to bridge the gaps between Islam and the western world as journalist, author, commentator, activist, diplomat and translator of the Holy Qur’an earned him considerable global acclaim.His immigration to Spain in the later years of his life occurred due to mental exhaustion. Immersed in Andalusia’s rich Islamic heritage, he resumed work on the sequel of The Road to Mecca titled “Homecoming of the Heart.”

He turned down invitations both from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to return and died in 1990, where he was buried in a small Muslim cemetery in Spain.Much of his travels were attributed to the fact that he expounded the experience of foreignness, a necessity to discover one’s own reality.“Islam is not a religion that is self-aggrandizing, close-minded and narcissistic. It’s a religion that is cosmopolitan. That was what I was hoping the message from the documentary could disseminate subtly or directly and through a post-screening discussion like we just had,” said Salem Bajnaid, who was instrumental in having the documentary screened at Bridges.

“He was an Austrian who played a fundamental role in the establishment of the Pakistani state and the development of Muslim thought, trespassing the racial boundaries and languages. He was everybody’s man. A man of the people,” added Bajnaid.The post-screening discussion revolved much around the constructive criticism of Asad’s commentaries of the Holy Qur’an, leaving a huge dialogue trail necessitating further study and discourse of religious thought.Just like Mohammad Asad once said, “Disagreement deepens our understanding of the Qur’an”. – Arabnews