Why Muhammad Asad Converted

I just finished Muhammad Asad’s book, The Road to Mecca. I think it really is one of the most fascinating books on Islam I have ever read.  Although he focuses more on Arab culture and the Arab people, his snapshots into Islam are simply mindblowing.  I think Islam needs more Asads.

Throughout the book I was wondering what exactly made him convert. At one point he wrote that the only thing stopping him was that he was not convinced that the Qur’an was from God, believing instead that a very wise person may have written it at some point.

Then one day he was on a train in Europe, in the first-class compartment, and as he looked around at all the passengers he realized they all looked unhappy, stressed, and dissatisfied.  And it hit him that a verse in the Qur’an had predicted the problems of materialism in the West:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more
Until you go down to your graves.
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty,
You would indeed see the hell you are in.
In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:
And on that Day you will be asked what you have done
with the boon of life.

After reading this passage, he showed it to his wife and asked: “Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?”

He writes,

It was an answer: an answer so decisive that all doubt was suddenly at an end. I knew now, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book I was holding in my hand: for although it had been placed before man over thirteen centuries ago, it clearly anticipated something that could have become true only in this complicated, mechanized, phantom-ridden age of ours.

What do you guys think of this?

He often worried that the Arabs would soon go the way of the West, and his fears proved right: today Arabia is almost as materialistic as the West.  Nevertheless, there is hope: history, tradition, and Islam are three ways that the Arabs can avoid becoming the people this verse talks about.  Adopting science and technology from the West is one thing, but there is no need to imitate their values, belief systems, etc and completely forgo our own.  How soon the Arabs will realize this is the key question now.

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25 thoughts on “Why Muhammad Asad Converted

  1. I think it’s interesting, but at the same time I think there have been religious leaders before our Prophet (pbuh) who said similar / same things – so it seems that Asad connected with Islam at this point, but he would have found the same sentiments in the Bible, in Judaism and indeed Buddhism that came even before those two. So…interesting to hear that that was the thing that took him, and that was his breakthrough.

  2. PS: I think even devout practicing Muslims full of the noor of Allah would be depressed on a long train ride as well

  3. Interesting…but for every ayat that seemingly “predicts”…there are those that are just too oppressive for words. How to balance the two in your mind is the question

  4. i read the book a few years ago. I can not remember the details of the book but i can remember clearly the impression it had on me. Though i don’t like re-read a book but this one seems to worth it.

  5. I think we are fighting a losing war..the only people trying to stop the western values, are religious people, and religous people seem to be anything but compassionate nowdays. I am pretty religious but i fear that most of the religious i have met are hypocrites.
    I know several muslims who say that islam stands in the way for modernization, which i find wrong. To modernize the muslim world (arab world) should be done without “modernizging” the valuesystem..

  6. I wanted to read that book. It sounds like he lived an incredible life. Maybe I will get round to reading it one day.

    I took that positive message from the Quran too, about avoiding materialism, but I think greed is as old as the human race 😀

  7. I read the Road to Mecca around a year ago. I think it is beautifully written, but frankly it is too emotional for me to be able to relate to it. I think that there must have been some hole in his heart, some search for something in order for him to be drawn to converting. After all, why would perfectly happy people convert? He took a long train, saw that people looked unhappy and decided Quran is the answer? And what if people on that train looked happy? What if they simply had a hard day? Like metro in Cairo is packed with cheers and giggles? It’s just a huge leap to see a few gloomy faces on the subway and decide that Islam is the answer. So to me his story is not convincing at all that Islam is the answer, but it is a convincing example that Muhammad Asad’s Islam was a convincing answer to Muhammad Asad’s personal state of mind.

    You make an intriguing point that Islam needs more Muhammad Asad. If you study the history of famous converts who fell in love with progressive side of Islam and embarked on a journey to change it with their own lives, you will see but one end. All of them ended up being rejected by the Muslim-majority countries to which they tried to dedicate their lives, and died mostly in the West – because they were never fully embraced by societies allegedly guided by religion they fell in love with. Muhammad Asad had to move back to New York at the end of his days, and most people in Pakistan today have no knowledge of the man who practically single-handedly wrote their constitution. No one in Saudi will know his name either. Gertrude Bell (although not a convert), an architect of present-day Iraq who was by all accounts deeply in love with the Middle East, died by her own hand. Abdullah Philby ended up a nobody in Beirut. If anything, Asad’s life is a precautionary story.

    P.S. And the Road to Mecca is so…girly!

    • that’s so true – Fazlur Rahman even couldn’t live in a Muslim country right?
      And Malcolm X….

      there should be a post on this Cairo

  8. I think that they are not welcome depends on the fact that muslims from muslim countries cant understand them. I am born in a muslim family but i think that the people who have most love for islam are those who convert, becasue they have seen both worlds, the muslim world and the “infidel” one. A convert doesnt really grasp the muslim world, they too often follow the persons who they meet at first (if they meet shias at first they usually become shias if they meet wahabis at first they become wahabis) a few of them look on and change their first view of islam.
    Cat stevens used to be pretty happy he was not in search but he found islam still. the Quran says that some ppl are blind and deaf and nothing will ever make them search for the truth. Why would they? This luxery life we live is awesome, we have everything, why should we start to think of a greater purpose with life? Why should we tihnk of a paradise/hell in the hereafter?
    In the past they used to say that the ottoman empire was the sick man of Europe, i think now that the muslim world is the sick man of the world..we have way too many retarded thinking and ideas that bring us down but i do think that we are more advanced when it comes to moral values, values that islam has given us, what we need are some few things
    1. Stop the wahabi spread
    2. spread knowledge as we used to
    3. establish modern muslim societies, where research does oppose religion (as we did in the past)
    4. reunite the muslims in greater states..
    5. remove the racism we still have, where a black muslim is worse then a white muslim, where a persian muslim is worse then an arab, this system was established by the Ommayyids and should be demolished.
    I am called iraqi by the swedes here and swedish by the iraqis lol..so its hard to be welcome as a born muslim, so no converts wont have it much easier..usually they get converted then the people around them ignore them and start to work on the next person to convert

  9. “I think that there must have been some hole in his heart, some search for something in order for him to be drawn to converting.”

    I’ve heard this often…people convert to fill up a hole in their heart etc, but it doesn’t seem enough for me.

    “It’s just a huge leap to see a few gloomy faces on the subway and decide that Islam is the answer.”

    Well you read the book so you know, of course, that he didn’t make that huge leap – it was a process that took years and years, and the subway thing was the tip of the iceberg.

    “If you study the history of famous converts who fell in love with progressive side of Islam and embarked on a journey to change it with their own lives, you will see but one end. All of them ended up being rejected by the Muslim-majority countries to which they tried to dedicate their lives, and died mostly in the West – because they were never fully embraced by societies allegedly guided by religion they fell in love with.”

    To be honest, this seems to be the story of many progressive Muslims, not just converts.

    “If anything, Asad’s life is a precautionary story.”

    I really don’t agree. I think it’s inspiring, and most Muslims I know really admire him and the work he did. So even if he’s not well-known in the Middle East, it doesn’t mean we should see his life story as a precaution.
    At the end of the day, this book was probably not written to convert people to convince them that Islam is real – in my experience people who don’t believe so won’t change their mind by reading books by Muslims/converts. He just wanted to share his life story and explain why he chose Islam.

    “And the Road to Mecca is so…girly!”

    Not sure whether you mean the title or the book, but either way…I don’t think so!

    • By the way have you read G Willow wilson’s the butterfly mosque – a convert to islam – just out
      She has interesting take on your city -cairo
      she is often a contributer on talkislam.info check out that too.

  10. Sarah,

    I agree that the subway story was a tip of the iceberg for Asad; I’m just pointing out that for me, it was an unconvincing development. I agree that the book is not the tool of conversion but a story of an individual who chose Islam for his reasons. I am only stating that in my eyes, the book relied more on emotion and sensation than explanation and logic. His book didn’t tell me about Islam. It told me about Muhammad Asad.

    Most Pakistanis I know have no idea who Asad was. I would accept that his story can be enlightening but I wouldn’t call it inspiring. Rejected by Saudi. Rejected by Pakistan. All after doing very good work for them. Ended up his days as a writer in New York. To me, there’s just no inspiration in this story. I mean, I might admire him, but I don’t want to be like him and I don’t want my child to be like him.

  11. It comes down to love of this world and fear of death. There was a hadith I read a while back but it basically states that towards the end of time there will be love of this world and dislike of death. If you read the Quran the dunya (material world) always has negative connotations. That is the problem today with Muslims. Love of this world causes theme to steal, usurp power, oppress people, surrender to the West, etc. Why would a leader steal, kill, and oppress his people? Well, he has love of this world (hoob al dunya). He wants to accumulate as much power and wealth as possible. Or a very wealthy person, what is his goal in life? More accumulation of wealth. It becomes a competition with others to show off there clothes, cars, villas, parties, etc. They have their own private club and societies. They love praise, titles, and entourages. In the Middle East many muslims are only concerned with mobile phones, facebook, cars, and the latest fashion in the West.

  12. I recently had the opportunity to meet Hamza Yusuf and listen to his lecture as well. One thing that struck me in his lecture (and which I have been thinking about ever since) was that he spent almost 40 minutes praising the pre-Islamic Arabs. You don’t hear that from Muslim scholars! It was so sincere, so genuine, I loved him for speaking the truth. Obviously it was well supported by references.

    He mentioned several times that the two biggest qualities of pre-Islamic Arabs (I’m cautious to call them Pagan since there is so much scholarly talk on that word!) were their generosity and honesty. Indeed there is much reference to both these qualities in hadith literature as well. Anyway, so it seems that these people were so generous that while they definitely needed physical luxuries, it would be wrong to call them greedy. I spent three days in a desert during the month of July last year and I can tell you I’ll never forget that vision of Hell! To assume that Arabs of the desert were wrong in wanting physical comforts is a bit harsh. But they had large hearts and they still do today. Arabs (and by Arab I meant people from KSA, UAE and Oman, and Yemen) are the most generous people I have ever met.

    But I can also say from experience that it would have shocked M. Asad to death if he say how materialistic Arabs have become today! They are still very generous.

    West is often condemned for its greed and materialism. But i have also met the most generous people who are Westerners. Look at Michael Schumacher; when the sheikh of Dubai was busy blowing all his oil money in fireworks and horse races, it was Schumacher who donated $10 million to the victims of Asian Tsunamis.

    Where there are idiots like Paris Hilton there are also people like Micheal Jackson who silently helped the poor and the needy. Strangely the greatest humanitarians have hardly ever been from Arabia.

  13. “it was Schumacher who donated $10 million to the victims of Asian Tsunamis….there are also people like Micheal Jackson who silently helped the poor and the needy. Strangely the greatest humanitarians have hardly ever been from Arabia.”

    I disagree with your final statement – because you base it on public knowledge: the knowledge that these celebrities donated their millions to charitable causes.

    How do you know that wealthy Muslim individuals – Arab or non-Arab – have not also donated millions to causes? In Islam, giving charity in secret is highly encouraged, right? It’s better to give in a way that others don’t see – don’t know about it – as this protects you from pride.

    So, it follows that wealthy Muslims – be they Arab oil billionaires or successful businessmen – may well have given in charity just as much, or more, than celebrities. Only they didn’t broadcast that to the world – because giving in secret is more virtuous than letting it be known.

    The above all applies to wealth – but it could also apply to actual humanitarian work in the field. Again, the difference is that celebrities attract media and public attention – whereas the non-celebrity does not attract that publicity.

    We can’t judge which society or group has made the biggest financial or humanitarian contribution to the world – because we can only go on what is known to the public.

    Only Allah knows the reality of who the biggest contributors are – because His knowledge is absolute.

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