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A Road to Mecca

More than 80 years ago, one man crossed the frontline between the Muslim world and the West - we retrace his journey.
Last Modified: 18 Dec 2012 14:36
Leopold Weiss was a Jew who, as he discovered the Muslims of the Middle East, also discovered Islam during his exploration of the frontline between the Muslim world and the West [Al Jazeera]

Filmmaker: George Misch

In A Road to Mecca, filmmaker George Misch sets out to explore the frontline between the Muslim world and the West. His guide for this journey is a man from the past - somebody who, 80 years earlier, crossed all boundaries between countries, cultures and religions.

Leopold Weiss was born a Jew on the edge of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900. But his story would unfold far away in the deserts of Arabia.

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Feeling restless and unhappy in Europe, in 1922 Weiss accepted an uncle's invitation to join him in Jerusalem. But what began as a family visit soon turned into a life-changing journey.

Weiss enjoyed the hospitality of the Arabs he met in the Middle East and was enchanted by their lifestyle. With the passion of an explorer, he began to travel across the region.

His travels and encounters nurtured in him a sense that Zionism was causing a great injustice to the Palestinian Arabs. In Jerusalem, he got into heated arguments with the leaders of the Zionist movement and began to feel a greater distance from the religion of his ancestors than ever before.

As he discovered the Muslims of the Middle East, Weiss also discovered Islam - studying the Quran and finding not only the answer to the spiritual emptiness he had felt but also an alternative to the materialism of Europe's Roaring Twenties.

In Saudi Arabia, Weiss felt truly at home, writing: "I am no longer a stranger."

"Islam should be presented without any fanaticism. Without any stress on our having the only possible way and the others are lost. Moderation in all forms is a basic demand of Islam."

Muhammad Asad

In 1926, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Asad. Full of enthusiasm, he embarked upon his first pilgrimage to Mecca. Curious to get to know other Muslim communities, in 1932 Asad left Saudi Arabia - travelling to Turkistan, China and Indonesia.

In India, he met poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. Iqbal dreamed of creating a separate Islamic state as a solution to the bloodshed between Indian Muslims and Hindus. Iqbal's vision of Pakistan quickly became Asad's own dream.

Asad campaigned for the creation of Pakistan by writing books, giving public lectures and hosting radio programmes. He also drafted the outline for an Islamic constitution in which equal rights for women were secured.

In 1951, Asad became Pakistan's envoy to the United Nations. But to his dismay he was forced out of the position after just one year. Deeply disappointed, he turned his back on politics, deciding instead to write his autobiography in the hope that it would promote better understanding between Muslims and the West.

The Road to Mecca quickly became a bestseller.

By 1970, Asad had grown increasingly concerned that the Quran was being misinterpreted and misused for political goals. This motivated him to undertake his biggest challenge: a new translation of, and commentary on, the Quran. He settled in Morocco and estimated that it would take him four years to complete. Seventeen years later it was finished. He dedicated it to "people who think".

"Every age requires a new approach to the Quran for the simple reason that the Quran is made for all ages. It is our duty to look for deeper meanings in the Quran in order to increase our knowledge and experience. The Quran wants your intellect to be always active and trying to approach the message of God. God himself dedicated this book to people who think."

Muhammad Asad

Despite the fact that Asad today has a loyal following among those who share an interest in his writings and an intellectual affiliation with him, his translation was not embraced by all. Rumour has it that there were even book burnings of Asad's Quran.

Emotionally and financially exhausted, he withdrew to Europe - settling in Spain in 1987. He planned to revise his translation once more but old age and prolonged illness prevented him from completing it. On February 20, 1992, he died, alone and secluded.

 
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