Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss) (1900–1992), an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam, was a 20th century journalist, traveler, writer, social critic, linguist, thinker, reformer, diplomat, political theorist, translator and scholar. Asad was one of the 20th century’s most influential European Muslims.
In 1947, Asad was given Pakistani citizenship by the newly established Muslim state of Pakistan and appointed the Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction by the Government of Pakistan, 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 in New York. Muhammad Asad is famously known for his two publications – “The Road to Mecca”, a biographical account of his life up to the age of 32, his conversion to Islam from Judaism and his journey to Mecca and his magnum opus, “The Message of the Qur’an”, a translation and commentary of the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an.
Muhammad Asad was born as “Leopold Weiss” on 2 July 1900 in a Jewish family in what was then Lemberg/Lwów in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv, Ukraine. Weiss was a descendant of a long line of Jewish rabbis. His father, Kiwa Weiss, however, broke from tradition and became a lawyer. Weiss received a religious education. He was proficient in Hebrew from an early age and was also familiar with Aramaic. He studied the Old Testament, as well as the text and commentaries of the Talmud, the Mishna and Gemara. Furthermore, he delved into the intricacies of Biblical exegesis and the Targum.
After abandoning university in Vienna, Weiss drifted aimlessly around 1920s Germany, even working briefly for the expressionist film director, Fritz Lang (actually F.W.Murnau, according to The Road to Mecca). By his own account after selling a jointly written film script, he blew the windfall on a wild party at an expensive Berlin restaurant, in the spirit of the times. He got his first journalism published through sheer chutzpah while working as a telephone operator for an American news agency in Berlin. Using the simple expedient of ringing up her Berlin hotel room, he obtained an exclusive interview with the visiting wife of the Russian author Maxim Gorky, and the story was taken up by his employers.
Weiss in Arabia
Weiss later moved to the British Mandate of Palestine, staying in Jerusalem at the house of an uncle (a disciple of Sigmund Freud who later founded the Psychoanalytic Quarterly in New York) psychoanalyst Dorian Feigenbaum, the son of a successful banker in Lviv, Menachem Mendel Feigenbaum. He picked up work as a stringer for the Frankfurter Zeitung, selling articles on a freelance basis. His pieces were noteworthy for their understanding of Arab fears and grievances against the Zionist project. Eventually contracted as a full-time foreign correspondent for the paper.
Conversion to Islam
Weiss’s assignments led him to an ever-deepening engagement with and understanding of Islam, which, after much thought and deliberation, led to his religious conversion in 1926 in Berlin and adopting the Muslim name, Muhammad Asad.
Asad spoke of Islam thus:
“Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking; and the result is a structure of absolute balance and solid composure.”
His travels and sojourns through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and the southern Soviet Republics, were viewed with great suspicion by the Colonial Powers. One English diplomat in Saudi Arabia described him in a report as a “Bolshevik”, and it is true that he took a close interest in the many liberation movements that were active at this time with the aim of freeing Muslim lands from colonial rule.
Asad in British India & Pakistan
Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss) (seated right) and Asad’s wife, Pola Hamida Asad (seated left) with Chaudhry Niaz Ali Khan, founder of the Dar ul Islam Trust, and his grandchildren at Chaudhry Niaz Ali Khan’s house in Jauharabad, Pakistan, circa 1957
Asad left Arabia and came to British India in 1932 where he met South Asia’s premier Muslim poet, philosopher and thinker, Muhammad Iqbal, who had proposed the idea of an independent Muslim state in India, which later became Pakistan. Iqbal persuaded Asad to stay on in British India and help the Muslims of India establish their separate Muslim state. Iqbal introduced Asad to Chaudhry Niaz Ali Khan, a philanthropist and agriculturalist, who, on the advice of Muhammad Iqbal, established the Dar-ul-Islam Trust Institutes in Pathankot, India and Jauharabad, Pakistan. Asad stayed on in British India and worked with both Muhammad Iqbal and Chaudhry Niaz Ali Khan.
When the Second War broke out in 1939, Asad’s parents were arrested and, subsequently, murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Asad himself was arrested in Lahore in 1939, a day after the war broke out, by the British on account of being an enemy alien. This was done despite the fact that Asad had refused German nationality after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and had insisted on retaining his Austrian citizenship. Asad spent three years incarcerated in a prison, while his family consisting of his wife, Munira, and son, Talal, after being released from detention earlier, lived under the protection of Chaudhry Niaz Ali Khan at the latter’s vast 1,000-acre (4.0 km2) estate in Jamalpur, 5 km west of Pathankot. Asad was finally released and reunited with his family in Jamalpur when the Second World War ended in 1945.
Asad supported the idea of a separate Muslim state in India and after the independence of Pakistan on 14 August 1947, in recognition for his support for Pakistan, Asad was conferred full citizenship by Pakistan and appointed the Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction by the Government of Pakistan, 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 made efforts to strengthen Pakistan’s ties with the Muslim states of the Middle East. In 1952, Asad was appointed as Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations in New York – a position that he relinquished in 1952 to write his autobiography (up to the age of 32), The Road to Mecca.
Towards the end of his life, Asad moved to Spain and lived there with his third wife, Pola Hamida Asad, an American national of Polish Catholic descent who had also converted to Islam, until his death on 23 February 1992 at the age of 92. He was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Granada in the former Moorish province of Andalusia, Spain.
Asad had two sons, Heinrich, from his first German wife, Elsa Schiemann, and Talal Asad from his second Saudi Arabian wife, Munira. Talal Asad is now an eminent anthropologist specializing in religious studies and postcolonialism.
Asad wrote several books. His autobiography, The Road to Mecca is an account of his Middle Eastern travels and his conversion, as well as his thoughts on the growing Zionist movement. He also wrote The Message of The Qur’an, a translation and commentary on the Muslim holy book based on his own knowledge of classical Arabic and on the authoritative classical commentaries. Considered one of the leading translations of the Qur’an, it has been criticised by some traditionalists for its Mutazilite leanings. He also wrote a translation and commentary on the Sahih Bukhari, one of the most authoritative collection of Hadith. In addition, he wrote This Law of Ours where he sums up his views on Islamic law and rejects decisively the notion of taqlid, or strict judicial precedent which has been accepted as doctrine by many Muslim sects, while being rejected by others such as the Salafis. He also makes a plea for rationalism and plurality in Islamic law, which he sees as the true legacy of the salaf or earliest generations of Muslims. In his book Islam at the Crossroads, he outlines his view that the Muslim world must make a choice between living by its own values and morality or accepting those of the West, in which case, they would always lag behind the West, which had had more time to adjust to those values and mores, and would end up compromising their own religion and culture. There are some playfully cryptic references to him in the recent bestseller The Orientalist by Tom Reiss (Random House 2005), and some slightly more sinister ones in the English translations of W.G. Sebald.
A documentary titled A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad, directed by Georg Misch, about the life of Muhammad Asad, was filmed in Austria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, USA, Morocco and Spain. The documentary, released in 2008, was selected by the following film festivals, picking up a few awards:
- 2009 Jerusalem Film Festival
- 2009 Dubai Film Festival
- 2008 FIDADOC Film Festival, Morocco (Jury Award)
- 2008 Diagonale Festival of Austrian Films (Best Cinematography Award)
- 2008 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
- 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival
Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss) Born 2 July 1900
Lemberg, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Lviv, Ukraine) Died 23 February 1992
Granada, Spain Residence Pakistan & Spain Nationality Pakistani (formerly Austrian) Occupation Journalist, traveler, writer, social critic, linguist, thinker, reformer, diplomat, political theorist, translator and scholar Religion Islam (previously Judaism) Spouse Elsa Schiemann, Munira Asad, Pola Hamida Asad Children Heinrich (son from Elsa), Talal (son from Munira)
For more information go to: http://www.icarusfilms.com/new2009/mecc.html