An Ashkenazi Jew's transformation into one of the most influential thinkers of modern Islam is explored in Austrian helmer Georg Misch's provocative docu.

An Ashkenazi Jew’s transformation into one of the most influential thinkers of modern Islam is explored in Austrian helmer Georg Misch’s provocative docu “A Road to Mecca — The Journey of Muhammad Asad.” Placing its fascinating subject (born Leopold Weiss) and his ideas in the context of contemporary history, this well-judged combo of travelogue and biopic artfully blends candid interviews with archival footage, photos and apt quotations from Asad’s extensive writings. A natural for specialist fests, cable and the educational market, the lively, informative pic should enjoy a long life in ancillary. A 52-minute version exists for broadcast.

Weiss, a descendant of Orthodox rabbis, was born in 1900, in Lvov, Ukraine, then a distant outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His strict family fled to Vienna before World War I. He studied journalism in Berlin and traveled to Palestine in 1922, where he was fascinated by his first contacts with Arabs and Muslims, in particular the camel-riding Bedouins.

When Weiss converted to Islam in 1926, taking the name Muhammad Asad, his family disowned him. Attracted to Islam’s ideals of peace and brotherhood, he traveled widely throughout the Middle East, conferring with kings and political leaders as well as common people, and later joined philosopher-poet Muhammed Iqbal (his collaborator on the 1934 book “Islam at the Crossroads”) in planning the creation of Pakistan.

Asad went on to serve as Pakistan’s United Nations ambassador for a year, afterward penning his autobiography, “The Road to Mecca,” which became a bestseller. The chief work of his later years was an English translation of the Koran; Asad hoped it would inspire constructive discussion. However, by the time of his death in 1992, he was deeply disappointed by the state of the Islamic world, its intellectual isolation and the intolerance of extremists.

Helmer Misch’s v.o. narration allows these biographical details to emerge bit by bit during his own travels to Ukraine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the U.S., Morocco and Spain, tracing the trajectory of Asad’s influence. Structuring the film according to Asad’s principle that a dialogue should deepen human understanding, he allows contradictions while calling deeply rooted prejudices into question. His interviewees include pilgrims on their way to Mecca, a former adviser to Ariel Sharon, impassioned 9/11 commemorators on the streets of New York and Asad’s friends and colleagues.

The pic is not without humor, and some of its most amazing scenes take place at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Airport (a vision of modern Islamic architecture), where a man with a megaphone calls out to the white-clad pilgrims, “Anyone who knows about Muhammad Asad, come over and talk.”

Many of the interviewees bemoan the increasing rigidity of Koranic interpretation, the rise of fundamentalism and the growing gap between Orient and Occident. However, as Misch is scrupulous to show, fanaticism is by no means exclusive to Islam or the Middle East.

The pace slows a bit when Misch visits a group of “Asadians” in Lahore, Pakistan, but picks up again when he travels to New York and records the poignant memories of Asad’s son, Talal.

Written with anthropologist Miriam Ali de Unzaga, and more than four years in the making, DigiBeta-shot pic is itself a fine piece of anthropology, worthy of the dedication it copies from Asad’s translation of the Koran: “For people who think.”

Tech credits are pro.

A Road to Mecca –The Journey of Muhammad Asad

Austria

Production

An Icarus Films (in U.S.) release of a Mischief Film production, in cooperation with ORT, Arte, NMO, supported by Vienna Film Fund RTR -- Fernsehfond Austria. (International sales: Autlook, Vienna). Produced by Ralph Wieser, Georg Misch. Directed by Georg Misch. Written by Misch, Miriam Ali de Unzaga.

Crew

Camera (color, DigiBeta), Joerg Burger; editor, Marek Kralovsky; music, Jim Howard; sound (stereo) Hjalti Bager-Jonathansson. Reviewed at Sarajevo Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 19, 2008. (Also in Hot Docs, Toronto; Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Samuel Honigsman, Martin Goldenberg, Abu Moussa, Arnon Soffer, Ahmed Zaki Yumini, Ikram Chaghatai, Talal Asad, Malise Ruthven, Sonia Muyal, Ibrahim Blehi, Abduh Rahman Shubeili, Rachel Muyal. (English, German, Urdu, Ukrainian, Spanish, Arabic dialogue)

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