By Shahid Ali Khan
Saudi Gazette | Riyadh
19 April 2011
A premiere of “A Road to Mecca” was the highlight of the two-day symposium on “Dr. Muhammad Asad — A life for Dialogue” that concluded in Riyadh, Tuesday.
It was a rare occasion when the documentary was screened in the presence of renowned national and international personalities.
‘A Road to Mecca’ is a documentary film produced by Austrian film-maker George Misch. It is based on the book by Dr. Asad, his writings, travel account to Makkah in 1927 and interviews with prominent personalities engaged in documenting the works of Dr. Asad.
Among the audience were Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Chairman of King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS); Dr. Johannes Wimmer, Austrian Ambassador; Dr. Salah Al-Wohaibi, Secretary General of World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY); the symposium speakers, film producer Misch and a large number of diplomats and Saudi dignitaries among others.
“It is an important day for me to be present at the premiere show of my film A Road to Mecca,” Misch said before screening.
Misch said when he first came up with the idea he thought there should have been at least 10 films made on Asad’s life. “I researched and found that there was none. I thought a film should be made on Asad, with the non-Muslim audience in the West in mind, through which they can understand and come closer to Islam and the Muslim world and overcome their prejudices and fears,” he said.
Secondly, the goal was also to make Asad accessible to Muslims. This was because so many Muslims did not know about him, Misch said, adding he thought by knowing Asad many Muslims could come closer to their own faith.
Mohammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss) (1900–1992), an Austrian Jew, who embraced Islam, was a 20th century journalist, traveler, writer, social critic, linguist, thinker, reformer, diplomat, political theorist, translator and scholar. Asad was one of the century’s most influential European Muslims.
In 1947, Asad was given Pakistani citizenship by the newly-established state and appointed Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, where he made recommendations on the drafting of Pakistan’s first Constitution. In 1949, Asad joined Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as head of the Middle East Division and, in 1952, was appointed Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations.
Misch said “A Road to Mecca” is not just the film about the past. “It is a story taken from the past that travels through seven different stations that Asad had gone through and helps us understand our present better against the backdrop of what happened on 9/11 that changed the world, creating a huge gulf between the sides,” said Misch.
Recalling an incident from one of the screenings of the film, Misch said: “During one of the shows a person came up to me and said the film was a blessing, since I (Misch) a non-Muslim made the film. Had a Muslim made it, everybody would have termed it propaganda,” Misch said.
The speakers at the symposium also called for documenting the works of Dr. Asad such as his journalistic and literary endeavors that could promote a better understanding between different cultures.
Among the speakers was Murad Hofmann, author of a number of books on Islam and articles published in English, Arabic, German, Turkish journals. He spoke on “Mohammad Asad — a gift of Europe to Islam’. Hofmann said: “It was astonishing to find that quite a number of extraordinary Europeans in the 20th century had discovered and embraced Islam. I am referring to Marmaduke Pickthal (1875-1936), a British novelist, whose succinct translation of the Qur’an into English, the Meaning of the Glorious Koran (1930), is still highly appreciated.” He went on to include Frenchman Rene Guenon, alias Abdel Wahid Yahia (1886-1951), and Frithof Schuon (1907-2005) in the list.
“While utterly skeptical of sufi aspirations, Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss) remains a towering figure among these and other early European converts (to Islam). Asad is a towering personality because of his lasting impact internationally,” Hofmann said. Dr. Gunther Windhager, an Austrian and author of Leopold Wiess alias Muhammad Asad delivered a speech focusing on his travel accounts and his writings during King Abdulaziz era.
Windhager said Asad while writing reports on Haj used to relate information on the historical background and meaning of Haj rituals “with lively narration of each ritual site.” He said Asad had arrived in Jeddah for Haj accompanied by his wife Elsa-Aziza Schiemann (1878-1927), and Heinrich-Ahmed (1916-2002), 11-year-old son from her first marriage. “Both had embraced Islam,” he said.
A renowned Saudi journalist spoke about Asad’s journalistic prowess while Dr. Boguslaw Ryszard, a Polish author underscored Asad’s deep association with Poland. Dr. Talal Asad, son of Dr. Muhammad Asad, could not attend the symposium but a paper was read on his behalf entitled ‘Muhammad Asad between Religion and Policy.’
Photo Credit: Saudi Gazette