This paper studies the quest for self and identity in the works of Muhammad Asad and Kamala Das (known as Kamala Surayya after she embraced Islam) from a broadly comparative perspective. The first section discusses this theme in the context of Muhammad Asad’s epochal The Road to Mecca, and the second section focuses on the poems of Kamala Das. I explore how these two authors, belonging to two disparate geographical and cultural milieus, found refuge in Islamic monotheism from the existential crisis that haunts modern humanity. Questions concerning self and existence have baffled humanity ever since people became conscious that each one of them has a self. Does life make any sense in or beyond itself? Does it have any definable aim or goal? What differentiates human beings from other animals, apart from their status as a “talking biped”? These questions, which arise from issues lying at the core of this concern, are treated with the utmost negativity and skepticism in the works of existentialist authors, who attribute no inherent value or significance to human destiny.
In his “Waiting for Godot” (1952), for example, Samuel Beckett represents this dilemma in the form of two clowns who, trapped in the web of existence, find themselves unable even to commit suicide to break free of the chains of existence. For atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, the current human state was so disgusting that they awaited the arrival of a superman who, they assumed, would be free of all puerile human instincts. As Nietzsche himself put it in his famous statement:
What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And just so shall man be to the superman: a laughing stock or a painful embarrassment.1
More than a century after Nietzsche predicted the coming of a superman, his prophesied “super species” remains a chimera. As for the visionary himself, he died an inglorious death in a mental asylum. On the other hand, humanity seems busier than ever plumbing even further depths of spiritual and ethical degeneration, as epitomized by the self-indulgent, exploitative, and Epicurean person of modern capitalist societies. American poet Robert Lowell compares this greedy, gluttonous person to a pack of stinky skunks foraging for crumbs in a junkyard. For him, nothing exemplifies the modern human condition better than these slimy, despicable creatures.2
We have to place the works of Muhammad Asad and Kamala Das, both of whom address questions of self and existence from a radically different perspective, against this intellectual background. They are not willing to wait for the birth of a superman, nor are they driven by despondency to nihilism. For them, self-fulfillment lies in spiritual elevation – a continual process of redemption to be attained through divine guidance as established by the Qur’an. For them, this redemption is more fulfilling than being a superman.
The Road Taken
The New York Post described Muhammad Asad’s spiritual biography, The Road to Mecca, as “a very rare and powerful book raised completely above the ordinary by its candor and intelligence. … [that] should permanently affect our view of the world.”3
Being an autobiographical narrative resembling Henri Charrière’s Papillon (1969) andAxel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele (1929), The Road to Mecca deserves a unique place as a literary masterpiece, for it encompasses a whole range of issues related to philosophy, religion, psychology, geography, and history. It also has a multilayered structure, with an autobiographical narrative fitted into the frame of a travelogue. Nevertheless, the central thread running through it is the quest for self and identity. The following passage illustrates how this quest formed an obsession for Asad right from his childhood days:
Under the soles of my feet I can feel the thin trickle of water [Asad was taking a bath in a shallow desert well after a long journey] seep upward from the underground spring that feeds the well in a slow, unceasing stream of eternal renewal.
Above me the wind hums over the rim of the well and makes its interior sound faintly like the inside of a sea shell held against the ear – a big humming sea shell such as I loved to listen to in my father’s house many, many years ago, a child just big enough to look over the table top. I pressed the shell against my ear and wondered whether the sound was always there or only when I held it to my ear. Was it something independent of me or did only my listening call it forth? Many times did I try to outsmart the shell by holding it away from me, so that the humming ceased, and then suddenly clapping it back to my ear: but there it was again – and I never found out whether it was going on when I did not listen.
I did not know then, of course, that I was being puzzled by a question that had puzzled much wiser heads than mine for countless ages: the question whether there is such a thing as “reality” apart from our minds, or whether our perception creates it. I did not know it then; but, looking back, it seems to me that this great riddle haunted me not only in my childhood but also in later years – as it probably has haunted at one time or another, consciously or unconsciously, every thinking human being: for, whatever the objective truth, to every one of us the world manifests only in the shape, and to the extent, of its reflection in our minds: and so each of us can perceive of “reality” only in conjunction with our own existence.
Herein perhaps may be found a valid explanation for man’s persistent belief, since the earliest stirrings of consciousness, in individual survival after death – a belief too deep, too widely spread through all races and times to be easily dismissed off as “wishful thinking.” It would probably not be too much to say that it has been unavoidably necessitated by the very structure of the human mind. To think in abstract theoretical terms of one’s own death as ultimate extinction may not be difficult; but to visualize it, impossible: for this would mean no less than to be able to visualize the extinction of all reality as such – in other words to imagine nothingness: something that no man’s mind is able to do.4
As Asad puts it, questions concerning reality’s essential nature have exercised the minds of countless philosophers and intellectuals; their responses to it have often exhibited skepticism rather than certainty. For Plato, the physical world as we perceive it is merely the shadow/reflection of an ideal metaphysical world beyond. Secured and sealed off from each other, the shadow has no chance of becoming the ideal. For Hindu theologian Shankaracharya, Earth and the entire cosmos are mere delusion. Islam, on the other hand, as Asad saw it, recognizes the empirical world’s contingent reality while asserting a supreme metaphysical reality having an incontestable nature. This supreme reality represents infinite power and absolute authority. Unlike Aristotle’s passive “immovable mover,” the supreme power is always active and alert, accessible to all His servants, even to the humblest and the least tutored. He demands no corporal mortification or tortuous self-denial.