Writer, traveller and explorer, Muhammad
Asad had a truly chequered life spanning three continents and two cultures.
Born Leopold Weiss in the summer of 1900 in the Polish city of Lwow, then
under Austrian empire, he was 14 when he escaped school and joined the
Austrian army under a false name, only to be recovered by his father and
taken home, now in Vienna. But about four years later when he was drafted
in the army, he had ceased to have any longing for a military career. He
was lucky. The Austrian Empire collapsed a few weeks after and he went
on to study history of art and philosophy at the University of Vienna.
His father wanted him to get a Ph.
D. Leopold wanted to try his hand at journalism and one summer day in 1920
he boarded the train for Prague. In doing so, he had followed in the foot-steps
of his own father and a great-great-uncle. One of his great-great-uncles
had been a rabbi. One day, he left home, shaved off his beard and sidelocks
and after drifting for a while, he arrived at Oxford. He graduated as a
scholar, converted to Christianity, married a ‘gentile’ and sent a letter
of divorce to his Jewish wife. The uncle became a distinguished astronomer
and a university don and given British knighthood. In the family, however,
his name was never mentioned aloud. Nor does Asad himself record it.
Leopold’s grandfather, an orthodox
rabbi in Crzernowitz, Bukovina, had wanted his father to follow the family’s
rabbinical tradition, but he chose to be a barrister. For Leopold, however,
he made sure that by the age of 13, he not only read Hebrew with great
fluency, but also speak it freely and have a fair acquaintance with Aramaic.
The young boy studied the Old Testament in the original; the Mishna
and Gemara that is, the text and commentaries of the Talmud and
became immersed in the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, called ‘Targum’.
From Prague Leopold went to Berlin,
but there was no journalistic job for this total novice. His lucky break
came when the famous director, F.W. Murnau, took him as a temporary assistant
for two months. The experience gave him self-confidence as well as opportunity
to flirt with the leading lady of the film – a well-known and a very beautiful
actress. His next job was writing a film scenario along with a friend.
In order to celebrate their entry into the world of films, they threw a
party in a fashionable Berlin restaurant practically spending their entire
earning in lobster, caviar and French wines. After sometime Leopold succeeded
at last in breaking into the world of journalism. The United Telegraph
press agency started by a Catholic politician in co-operation with the
United Press of America took him as a telephonist – to relay the agency’s
news stories. He was promoted a journalist after he had made a first-class
scoop by snatching an interview with Madame Gorky.
Happy and vaguely alienated, one day
in the spring of 1922, the young journalist received a letter that was
to change the course of the following 70 years of his life. Uncle Dorian,
his mother’s youngest brother had invited him to Jerusalem, to live in
his delightful old Arab stone house. Dorian headed a mental hospital in
Jerusalem. He was not a Zionist himself… nor, for that matter attracted
to the Arabs.
Like the average European, Asad had
come to the Middle East with ‘some romantic and erroneous notions’ about
Arabs. He had never thought of Palestine as an Arab land, thought it did
not take him long to realize that the Jews were not coming to it as one
returns to one’s homeland; they were rather bent on making it into a homeland
conceived on European patterns and Europeans aims. He asked Chaim Weizmann,
the leader of the Zionist movement and the future president of Israel:
How can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the
vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority in
this country? ‘We accept that they won’t be in a majority after a few years’,
Weizmann ‘answered dryly’.
But neither Dorian nor Jerusalem could
stop Leopold from his wanderings. He became a correspondent for Frankfurter
Zeitung. Sometimes in Cairo, sometimes in Amman, back to Jerusalem;
and on road again to Syria (which then included Lebanon as well) and Turkey.
It was a moment at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that he became aware
how near their God and their faith were to these people.
End of 1923 saw him back in Vienna,
reconciling with his father and reporting to his editor-in-chief Dr Heinrich
Simon. Leopold Weiss had established himself as a writer on Arab and Middle
Eastern affair and Frankfurter Zeitung was now willing to remunerate
him properly and keen that he returned to the area as soon as he had finished
the book he had contracted to write.
He finished the book, Unromantisches
Morgenland, and in Spring 1924, he was off again to the Middle East.
The book did not sell well. It saw the Middle East in its day-by-day realities,
and not as an exotic or romantic Orient. It was also ‘anti-Zionist’. However,
crossing the Mediterranean, Leopold’s first stop was at Cairo where he
tried to learn Arabic and spend some time with Shaikh Mustafa Maraghi.
He wanted to gain a fuller picture of Islam. Mustafa Maraghi subsequently
became the Shaikh of Al-Azhar. Early summer 1924, the special correspondent
was on the move again. To Amman, to Damascus, Tripoli and Aleppo, to Baghdad
and to the Kurdish mountains, to that strangest of all lands, Iran, and
to the wild mountains and steppes of Afghanistan.
Islam had been revealing itself to
Leopold in bits and pieces, but it was on a winter day in Afghanistan that
a man, fixing an iron shoe to his horse, told him: ‘But thou art a Muslim,
only thou dost not know it thyself’. ‘Why don’t you say now and here: "There
is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet" and become a Muslim in fact,
as you already are in your heart’, said the horseshoe-smith. ‘I will go
with you tomorrow to Kabul and take you to the amin, and he will
receive you with open arms as one of us’, he asserted.
But Leopold travelled on: from Kabul
to Ghazni, Kandahar and Heart. Early 1926, he was homeward bound: via Marv,
Samarkand, Bokhara and Lashkent and thence across the Lurkoman steppes
to Urals and Moscow. Crossing the Polish frontier he arrived straight in
Frankfurt. His next engagement was to deliver a series of lectures at the
Academy of Geopolitics in Berlin. He also married Elsa, 41 a widow, whom
he had met in Berlin during his previous visit. She had a nine-year old
His editor wanted him to write another
book. He wanted to return to the Muslim world. Leopold felt that he was
being driven to Islam. He was surprised to discover that the very aspect
of Islam which had attracted him in the first instance – the absence of
a division of reality into physical and spiritual compartments and the
stress on reason as to why faith – appealed so little to intellectuals
who otherwise were wont to claim for reason a dominant role in life. Because
of Europe’s long, almost exclusive association with Christianity, even
the agnostic European had subconsciously learned to look upon all religious
experience thought the lens of Christian concepts, and would regard it
as ‘valid’ only if it was accompanied by a thrill of numinous awe before
things hidden and beyond intellectual comprehension. Islam did not fulfil
this requirement: it insisted on a co-ordination of the physical and spiritual
aspects of life on a perfectly natural plane.
Some time after September 1926, he
sought out a Muslim friend of his, an Indian who was at that time head
of the small Muslim community in Berlin, and told him that he wanted to
embrace Islam. Elsa followed a few weeks alter. Leopold had become Asad,
something which was strongly disapproved by his father and his sister.
The relationship resumed in 1935, after his father had at last come to
understand and appreciate the reasons for his conversion to Islam.
Having earlier resigned from Frankfurter
Zeitung and signed with Neune Zurcher Zeitung of Zurich, the
Telegraat of Amsterdam and the Kolnische Zeitung of Kologne,
Asad left Europe and Elsa accompanied him. The major part of the following
years, 1927-1932, was spent in Arabia with missions in between to Egypt
and Cyrenaica (Libya) in support of the Sanusi mujahidin who had
been fighting a desperate guerrilla battle against the Italians. For Asad,
however, the Arabian years were, home coming of the heart. Early in 1927,
he was received by King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. He was impressed by the King
and the King took a great liking for this new Muslim and he would send
for him almost daily. Elsa died and Asad, now a little over 32, acquired
an Arab wife, an infant son and a library full of books on early Islamic
history. But none of these prevented him either from wandering or marrying
over and over again.
Asad rode and rode and explored the
peninsula from the northern confines of Arabia towards the south until
1932 when the dust of India replaced the desert clear air of Arabia. He
had planned to move on, to Eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia, but
the Islamic poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal persuaded him to remain
in India to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic
state. Iqbal had presented the idea of Pakistan only two years earlier
in 1930 and it was not before 1940 that Iqbal’s idea was adopted as a political
goal by the All India Muslim League. But to Asad, Pakistan was a dream
that demanded to be fulfilled.
His first title on an Islamic theme,
Islam at the Crossroads, published in 1934, proved to be extremely
popular and was translated in several languages. The Crossroads was
a plea of Muslims to avoid a blind imitation of Western social forms and
values, and to try to preserve instead their Islamic heritage which once
upon a time had been responsible for the glorious, many-sided historical
phenomenon comprised in the term ‘Muslim civilization’.
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939
saw Asad interned as an enemy alien in the Punjab hill town of Dalhousie,
and thus there is scant record of his work from 1935 till 1945 when he
was freed from internment. He then started a periodical, Arafat, which
ceased after publishing about ten issues. Pakistan was achieved in 1947
and the Government of Punjab put Asad in charge of newly established Department
of Islamic Reconstruction in Lahore. He embarked on translating Bukhari¸
the famous Hadith collection and revived Arafat. Asad also
contributed eloquently to the debate about Pakistan having an Islamic constitution.
Two years later he was seconded to the Pakistan Foreign Service and made
director of the Middle East Division in the foreign ministry.
Early in 1952, Asad was sent to New
York as Pakistan’s minister plenipotentiary to the UN. But problems had
begun to develop between Asad and the foreign ministry bureaucracy. Some
people were perhaps jealous for their own petty reasons. Some were suspicious
because of his religious and adventurous background. Matters, however,
came to head when the ministry refused to give him permission to marry
Pola Hamida, an American convert to Islam. Asad resigned toward the end
of 1952 saying his private life was more important to him and started to
write the story of his wanderings and discovery of Islam. The story, The
Road of Mecaa (1954), covers the period before he had left Arabia for
India. There are gaps but the story is fascinating and the style inimitable.
Asad had promised to narrate, perhaps at other time, the story of the years
‘spent working for and in Pakistan’. It did not appear in his life-time,
but, it is reported, he had been working on the remaining part of his story.
Muhammad Asad had quit diplomacy but
his intellectual exertions did not come to and end. Encouraged by Pola
Hamida, supported morally and materially by the secretary general of the
Muslim World League, the late Shaikh Muhammad Sarur as-Sabban and the Shaya
family of Kuwait, he embarked on rendering the Qur’an into English.
The first volume of Asad’s English rendering, from Al-Baqarah to
Al-Tawbah, The Message of the Qur’an appeared in 1964. By
far the most elegant and lucid of the English translations, Asad’s rendering
would have had normal reception from critical to laudatory, but what made
it draw a little different attention was its sponsorship by the Muslim
The league had lent its name as a
sponsor and had bought several thousand copies for distribution all over
the world. Members of the League’s Constituent Council, which included
some very distinguished and independent Islamic scholars from the Muslim
world, came to know of it only when they presented their own copies. They
assumed that the League had satisfied itself that the rendering was faithful
and its explanations within the range of general consensus since it had
been sponsored by a responsible Islamic body and, therefore, could not
be seen as the work of an individual. ‘No they had not’, explained the
secretary general. A committee of scholars appointed to review the work
found it was too controversial to be distributed on behalf of the Muslim
Asad had been greatly influenced by
the liberal apologetics of the late 19th and early 20th century Muslim
scholars, specially Shaikh Muhammad Abduhu and his disciple, Rashid Rida,
who sought to find a version that they thought would be more easily acceptable
to the so called western mind. Asad was not just rendering the accepted
meaning of the Qur’an
into a really idiomatic English, he was, in
his view, trying ‘to reproduce, as closely as possible, the sense which
it had for the people who were as yet unburdened with the conceptual
images of later Islamic developments’. The previous renderings, he
thought, suffered in many cases from what he termed ‘institutionalization’
of Islam ‘into a definite set of laws, tenets and practices’.
‘The Qur’an cannot be correctly
understood’, he wrote, ‘if we read it merely in the light of later ideological
developments, losing sight of its original purport and meaning’. That in
fact was the whole stress in the vast body of existing Tafsir literature
(renderings and explanations of the Qur’an) that took great care
to reach and stick to the understanding of the original sources, the Messenger
himself (sws), his Companions (rta), and those after them in the natural
order of precedence. Such developments do not allow an easy comprehension
of, for example, miracles, the historicity of Abraham (sws) passing the
test of fire, the nightly journey and ascension of heaven by Muhammad (sws),
the recalling of Jesus (sws) alive into Heaven, or even the Heaven (Jannah)
itself etc. Asad is not alone in taking such a ‘rationalistic’ view while
reading the Qur’an. What he seems to have done is to put together
a number of individual ‘rationalizations’ under one cover.
Asad was dismayed but not discouraged.
With the support of his other Arab benefactors, he went ahead with his
work and in 1980 produced and published the complete edition of The
Message of the Qur’an. Finding him in difficulty in distributing his
work, the former Saudi oil minister, Shaikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani bought 20,000
copies of the book.
The great strength of Asad’s rendering,
however, lies in its elegant and powerful prose, fluent and highly enjoyable.
That is also its weakness, if and when, in the course of its long journey,
the language happens to take a swing, the enchanted reader is unlikely
to discern any gap between words and meaning.
Asad’s last book, This Law of Ours
and other Essays, was published in 1987 and he remained intellectually
active until the last days of his life. Nor did he give up his taste for
travel and migration, moving between East and West, North and South, yet
spending a record 19 years in Tangier, Morocco, before moving finally to
Mijas in the Andalusian province of Spain.
However as he travelled in time, his
ideas and constructions were overtaken by intellectual and political developments
in the Muslim world. Asad himself acknowledged the change in 1980 by adding
a new author’s note and 12 footnotes to Islam at the Crossroads, published
46 years ago in 1934, because, he thought that some Muslim readers and
leaders had failed to grasp the full implications of his call to cultural
creativeness. ‘Alas’, he said, ‘the present re-awakening to the true values
of the Qur’an
and Sunnah but rather a confusion resulting from the
readiness of so many Muslims to accept blindly the social forms and thought
processes evolved in the medieval Muslim world instead of boldly returning
to the ideology apparent in the only true sources of Islam: the Qur’an
and the Sunnah’.
The reference to the medieval Muslim
world seemed to hark back to the orientalist comparison of Islam’s prime
age, the Qarun al-‘ula with their own dark ages. But otherwise the
remarks appeared to be too sweeping and too imprecise for, in fact, the
present re-awakening was a call for return to the Qur’an and Sunnah
and that is what the Islamists the world over were accused of seeking
as their goal. It seems when Asad called for a return ‘to the ideology
apparent in … the
and Sunnah’, he wanted the whole
exercise to be undertaken virtually de novo, away from what he calls ‘institutionalization’
of Islam ‘into a definite set of laws, tenets and practice’. It is doubtful
if that course would take one to the Qur’an and Sunnah as
explained and exemplified by Muhammad (sws) and understood and practiced
by his Companions (rta).
There lay the gap between Asad’s understanding
of Islam and the popular Islam of an entirely new generation of young and
enthusiastic Muslims owing no apology to the liberals and rationalists
of the colonial era. Islam was challenging the rationality of the whole
liberal secular construction and was being challenged in turn by the total
might and power of its former colonial adversaries.
Leopold Weiss was born on 2 July 1900. Muhammad Asad
died on 20 February 1992. He was buried in the Muslim cemetery in Granada,
Courtesy: Impact International (10th April-7th