- A Road to Mecca
Attempts to describe Muhammad Asad, born Leopold Weiss, bring to mind the Indian folktale of the blind men and the elephant — it depends on who you ask. Some regard him as "Europe's gift to Islam," capable of bridging Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures; to others he was a radical Jewish apostate, anti-Zionist, dubious Muslim convert, or fundamentalist; still others view him as a luminary of forward-thinking, moderate Islamic political thought. While some snicker at his ideals of coexistence and collaboration between the West and Islam, many find him worthy of emulation for the same reason.
There are indeed as many sides to Asad [End Page 163] as ways of perceiving him, for over the course of 91 years he undertook a variety of careers, adventures, and endeavors. Descended from a line of rabbis, Asad was born to a secular Jewish family in Ukraine in 1900. Raised in cosmopolitan Vienna, he was already an accomplished journalist and world traveler before his conversion to Islam in his early twenties; he would later become a UN representative for Pakistan and one of the primary drafters of its constitution, as well as a British political detainee, anti-imperialist activist, courtier of King Ibn Saud, political theorist, translator and commentator of the Qur'an, and a best-selling author before his death in Spain in 1992.
For a man whose life and career moved in step with nearly every major development in Western-Muslim relations of the 20th century, Asad remains known to remarkably few. But to these he is a subject of great interest — inspiring a number of books, articles and theses profiling him and his accomplishments. Yet even the best of these works leave any description of the man colored by the writer's own agenda.
In A Road to Mecca, the only documentary film about Asad, filmmaker Georg Misch does much the same but achieves a more balanced portrayal than most previous profiles. The film takes a broad look at the evolution of Asad and his socio-political ambitions to urge the Muslim world onto the path of democracy and modernity without relinquishing the best aspects of Arab and Muslim culture, believing these could enrich not only Muslim society but also all of humanity. Misch's lens reveals the disillusionment of such dreams by examining the realities of current cultural and political conflicts in all the places Asad once lived.
The film's title is a nod to Asad's autobiography, The Road to Mecca, which recounts the spiritual and physical journeys that took him from Vienna to Arabia and brought him from secularism to Islam. The obvious choice to retrace Asad's peregrinations is freshened by a multitude of interviews with family, friends, admirers (notably "The Asadian Society," a sort of intellectual Pakistani fan club), and even random pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Each segment reveals but a small part of the whole that makes up the man.
Throughout the film, Misch counter-poses Asad's remarks on his views of Islam and the possibility of understanding and cooperation between peoples with a predominantly pessimistic depiction of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, Pakistan's struggle for democracy, and the status of Islam in Europe and America. Misch's editing and spare commentary project his opinion that though Asad is still admired around the world, the causes for which he fought have been betrayed by small minds, corruption, and fear.
The film's primary drawback is that it overlooks opportunities to deepen its portrayal of Asad as a free-thinker and social outsider by failing to contextualize many of the interviewees' more intriguing allusions to instances when he was criticized, censored or sidelined for his views. Most prominently among these is that "editorial changes" in later editions of The Road to Mecca sold in Saudi Arabia were in fact censored passages of criticism of Ibn Saud. The reasons for Asad's ousting by his Pakistani colleagues at the UN, supposedly because of his marriage to an American Muslim convert, are likewise unexplored. Another is the...