One day in September 1926, a young Jewish journalist boarded a Berlin train. His name was Leopold Weiss. All around him he saw faces that were unhappy and vacant. Europe’s high culture, the advancement of sciences and material progress weren’t enough to make its people happy. By the time Weiss stepped onto the platform again, he was convinced salvation lay somewhere else. He wanted to be a Muslim — or so the story goes.
Born in 1900 to Jewish parents whose forefathers were rabbinical clerics, he formally converted to Islam a few days after that Berlin trip. When he died almost a century later in 1992, he was an acclaimed intellectual known all over the Muslim world as Muhammad Asad.
The Road to Mecca, his famous memoir, has helped introduce Islam to countless people.
“Perhaps no other book except the Qur’an itself led to a greater number of conversion to Islam,”
wrote Murad Hofmann, a German diplomat, and himself a convert.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who lived a glamourous life as a cricketer, cites Asad as a motivation that set him on the religious path. Sayyid Qutb, a leading figure in the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, drew from Asad’s work to shape his own views on political Islam. Margaret Marcus, a young Jewish woman, left behind a life in New York to live in Lahore after reading The Road to Mecca. She adopted the name of Maryam Jameelah and became a well known Islamic scholar.
Asad’s English translation of the Quran is ranked alongside that of Marmuduke Pickthall and
Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
While his train experience has often been written about, his conversion was anything but the result of a sudden revelation. It was in part related to the turmoil that young Asad witnessed in Europe after the devastating World War I.
Searching for light in chaos
Asad grew up in Lwow, a city that in the early 20th century was part of Austria, in the affluent household of his father, a well-to-do lawyer.
His childhood was spent vacationing at the Alps and on a family farm where Asad enjoyed the company of Ruthenian peasant girls.
Even though his parents were not particularly religious, private tutors trained him in Jewish scriptures and in time he could confidently discuss Biblical exegesis - the complex set of religious commentaries. After his conversion to Islam, this would particularly help his understanding of the Quran.
“Thus, by the age of thirteen, I not only could read Hebrew with great fluency but also spoke it freely and had, in addition, a fair acquaintance with Aramiac,” he wrote.
Religion was the last thing on his mind when he entered the University of Vienna in 1920 to study history of art. Days were spent studying philosophy, evenings at the clubs.
He quickly entrenched himself in various literary circles, which would gather in Vienna cafes to discuss Sigmund Freud’s discoveries in the field of psychoanalysis. Like other young people, Asad was searching for answers in the aftermath of the bloody World War I, which ravaged Europe between 1914 and 1918.
“Europe was in a moral crisis. The western civilization almost destroyed itself in the course of the war. A whole generation of young men was wiped out. But it was also a dynamic period. People were not constrained by old dogmas and they were looking for new spiritual sources,” says Martin Kramer, an Israeli historian, who has written about Asad.
“That’s one way to understand Asad. He doesn’t emerge from a self-satisfied political and cultural order. He emerges from an order, which just had a brush with total collapse.”
European discipline, Victorian norms - all had gone to the dogs during the war as fellow Europeans bombed each other’s cities and towns into oblivion.
In its aftermath came suffering and soul-searching. Having lost the war, Germany’s economy was bearing the brunt of the reparations. Inflation was so high that middle-class people were selling family heirlooms and furniture to survive.
Restless and unable to focus, Asad dropped out of university to pursue a career as a writer. His father was dead set against such a decision and cut off his stipend as a punishment.
On his own, Asad traveled to Berlin where he flirted with the art scene for a while, writing a movie script and spending whatever he earned on all-night sprees involving booze and women. Most of the time, he remained strapped for cash.
He briefly worked for a news wire agency and scored a scoop when he interviewed Madame Gorky, the wife of the famous Russian writer, Maxim Gorky.
But Asad never really settled in. Europe was not to be his home for long. Something else was calling him - it was a call to Islam, and his path would wind through Jerusalem.
An Arabian love affair
“Asad fell in love with the Arabs, before he fell in love with Islam,” says Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion at the Duke Univeristy, who is wrting a book on promiment Jews who converted to Islam.
“Islam was a way of being an Arab. That’s why instead of going to a religious school, he went to live with the bedouins for six years in Saudi Arabia. For him that was the real authentic culture; not Egypt’s Al-Azhar University or studying in Pakistan (at the time the British colony of India).”
Asad first encountered the Muslim world in 1922 when he travelled to Palestine on the invitation of his uncle, Dorian, a psychiatrist and one of Freud’s disciples.
That was a time of political upheaval and strife in Palestine. Zionists were lobbying for a Jewish nation — sometimes violently. Tens of thousands of Jews were migrating to Palestine from Russia and elsewhere, altering the demography.
But to Asad it appeared that the local Muslim Arab bedouin with his honesty, simplicity and his camels and camps was closer to the Hebrew characters he had studied as a boy in the Old Testament than a modern European Jew.
On several occasions, Asad confronted Zionist leaders such as Dr Chaim Weizmann, pushing them to explain how Jews can claim to have more rights than Palestinian Arabs who had lived in the region for two thousands years.
“Asad’s anti-Zionism was deeply rooted. It wasn’t something he adopted to become more acceptable to Muslims,” says Kramer.
One of Asad’s closest friends in Palestine, Jacob de Haan, a Jewish Dutch journalist, was killed by Zionist extremists because of his persistent opposition to how the Arabs were being treated.
Years later when Israelis tried to lay claim to all of Jerusalem, Asad would continue to defend the rights of Palestinians.
The Zionists want to keep Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for forever, he wrote in an article The Vision of Jerusalem published in 1982. But “eternity is an attribute of God alone.”
He spoke and wrote about how Islam views Jerusalem as a “Holy City” for all the religions and not real-estate given in patrimony to the Jewish people alone.
“Asad was probably the first person to articulate the idea of Zionist colonialism before the Marxist thinkers made it vogue in the 1960s and 70s,” says Goldman.
It was during his stay in Palestine and subsequent trips to Jordan, Egypt and other Muslim regions over the next few years that Asad developed an infatuation for Arabs and their way of life.
His stories published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of Germany’s most respected journals, spoke about Arabs as “blessed” people who live “a wonderfully simple life that in a direct line leads from birth to death”. His articles were later compiled as his first book, The Unromantic Orient.
Years later when he was asked to speak on his Quran translation, Asad instead dedicated a great part of his speech on why he thought God chose to send His last messenger to the Arab lands. A tough life in the desert made a bedouin realise his own insignificance. A bedouin appreciated that beyond the many deities of the Arab tribes there has to be one Supreme Being sustaining life, he said.
After his Palestine experience, he travelled deeper into the Arabian peninsula - in what is today Saudi Arabia — immersing himself in desert life and became a virtual Arab as evident from his command over the Arabic language.
For six years, he lived among bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia, riding camels, wearing their clothes, and learning their dialect.
But how was it that a white European was able to travel so freely and live in a country, which was then rife with political intrigue, foreign interference and where a white man was viewed with suspicion?
Friends and foes
Saudi Arabia was in the midst of an uprising when Asad, newly converted to Islam, arrived there in 1927 to perfom Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is obliged to perform at least once in his or her lifetime.
Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, was struggling to exert control over rebellious tribes scattered around the desert.
At the same time, Saud distrusted the British who were using their military might as an influence over Arab leaders.
“Of course Asad’s journalistic work and his connections to the international press formed an important component of his relationship with the King,” says Gunther Windhager, a German researcher, who is writing a book on Asad’s time in Saudi Arabia.
Asad continued to write for European newspapers. Some of his stories were translated and reprinted in Dutch in Indonesia, which was then the Dutch East Indies. This gave the journalist considerable clout in the king’s court.
“Equipped with first-hand insider knowledge and a pen critical of imperialism he exposed the British policy in the Middle East - at the price of being under surveillance at every turn,” says Windhager.
With the king’s blessing, Asad took long trips into the Arabian lands at a time when most non-Muslims were barred from venturing beyond the port city of Jeddah.
How Asad was able to gain access to Ibn Saud’s court so quickly after his arrival has been a point of considerable debate. But Saudi Arabia was still a decade away from hitting its first oil well, which brought billions of petrodollars in subsequent years. The high walls and protocols weren’t erected around the palaces.
For his part, Asad writes that it was a matter of chance and despair. Before coming to perform his first Hajj, he had married Elsa, a painter who was 15 years his senior and whom he dearly loved. They had traveled to Mecca together.
She was inflicted by some tropical disease and died nine days after the pilgrimage. That experience left Asad devastated. Somehow the king got wind of it and invited him for a meeting. From then on the two got very close, Asad writes.
He eventually became a kind of king’s advisor - once even taking a dangerous journey across the desert with Kuwait to find out who was supplying arms and ammunition to the rebels fighting Saud’s rule.
While Asad had already read the Quran and converted to Islam, it was around this time that he began to explore the complex aspects of the religion - such as Islamic jurisdrudence and its role in politics.
Generally, Muslim students spend years studying Islamic texts under the tutelage of experienced scholars at some religious school. In Asad’s case, it remains unclear who he consulted for guidance. His detractors have often used this against him.
“We really don’t know anything about his connections in the religious circles during his stay there,” says Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal, founder of the Center for Islamic Sciences in Canada.
In any case, Asad had started meeting Muslim intellectuals who visited the holiest Islamic cities from India and Indonesia.
Asad’s son, Talal Asad, a distinguished Islamic scholar in his own right, is also unaware of the scholars his father was in touch with in those years.
“He studied hadith (Prophet’s sayings) briefly with a scholar in Medina who, so he told me when I was very young, was a learned ‘alim from Tumbucktoo’ (sic),” Talal tells
TRT World in an emailed response.
Talal, now 88 years old, is Asad’s only son. He was born in Saudi Arabia from Asad’s third marriage to Munira, a girl from the powerful Shammar tribe. A year after Elsa’s death, Asad was briefly married to another woman from Riyadh, and who he divorced.
“...marriage in Islam is not a sacrament but a civil contract - recourse to divorce is always open to either of the marriage partners…,” Asad writes in his memoir.
The stigma attached with divorce is absent in a Muslim society with the exception of Muslims in Pakistan and India who have been influenced by the Hindu religion, he said.
After six years in Saudi Arabia, Asad was looking to settle down there - he was also in touch with some publishers for a book he wanted to write on Arab tribes.
But he wasn’t able to get his name changed on his Austrian passport from Weiss to Asad and that kept coming in the way of his plan, says Windhager.
Another hurdle was Harry John Philby, a British influence peddler who coverted to Islam in 1930, and had ambitions to undertake his own expeditions inside Arabia just like Asad.
“It was precisely at this time that Asad’s relationship with Ibn Saud was weakened by intrigues, behind which Asad himself suspected Philby among others,” says Windhager.
Even though Asad’s relations with Ibn Saud cooled a bit, he continued to remain close to the royal family. Ahmad Zaki Yamani, the kingdom’s former oil czar, was a life-long friend and backed Asad financially when he stayed in Spain and Morocco.
In 2011, Riyadh arranged an international conference in Asad’s honour.
Asad’s stay in Mecca and Medina had a deep impact on his understanding of Islam. It was then that he began ascribing to the Ahle-Hadith school of thought, which calls for a fresh interpretation of the Quranic verses and Prophet’s sayings.
“It was the period and space in which the transformation from Weiss to Asad took place to a large extent and his relations increasingly shifted from a European to an Islamic network,” said Windhager.
But perhaps his greatest contribution of helping turn Islam into a politcal force came in a country that was not even on the map then.
The first Pakistani
That Asad’s embrace of Islam was beyond some spiritual experience on a train was manifested in the Indian subcontinent where he arrived in 1932 along with Munira and son Talal.
His second book, Islam at the Cross Roads, was published two years later.
“The book made waves as soon as it hit the shelves. It was remarkable to see a European citizen criticise the western society, defend Islam and Sunnah and say that only Islam can guide the world out of darkness,” says Muhammad Arshad, a historian at the Univeristy of Punjab in Lahore.
Until Islam at the Crossroads, hardly anyone had attempted to contextualise Europe’s eternal dislike of Islam. Here was a white European writing in English that Muslims shouldn’t be awestruck by west’s material progress. Take in their sciences as much as you want. But leave out the philosophy.
That was a time when most of the world’s Muslims still lived under some type of colonial rule. Don’t be disheartened by the destitution, Asad told his fellow Muslims, for it took a thousand years for the Caliphate to crumble, whereas the Roman empire vanished within a hundred years.
“If we had always followed that principle of Islam which imposes the duty of learning and knowledge on every Muslim man and woman, we would not have to look today towards the Occident for an acquisition of modern sciences,” he wrote.
Asad immediately won admirers among leading Muslim figures such as the poet and philospher Allama Iqbal, scholar Abul Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, who named a chapter in his famous book The Social Justice in Islam as At the Crossroads.
By the mid-1930s, Asad was actively taking part in different projects aimed at improving the way religious education was imparted and finding ways to introduce science subjects alongside classical topics in Islamic institutions.
Around this time, he took on the monumental task of translating Sahih Bukhari - the collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s an arduous job, which involved careful reading and sifting through thousands of historical notes.
“No one up till then had attempted to translate them into English. It was a massive undertaking,” says Arshad.
However, he wasn’t able to complete that translation and much of the manuscript was lost during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Asad was continuously on the radar of the British intelligence. He was seen suspiciously even before his arrival in the Indian subcontinent.
“Is there some connection between von Weiss and the Bolshevik consulate in Jeddah? These are mysteries about which it is difficult to know the truth,” a British informer
wrote while Asad was still in Saudi Arabia.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 gave the British a reason to go after Asad, who was still an Austrian citizen on paper. The German occupation of Austria made him an enemy of the state in India.
For the next six years, Asad lived in internment camps where barbed wires seperated abusive Nazi supporters from other prisoners like Asad.
While he was moved from one detention center to another in India, the Nazis sent his father and sister to the concentration camps in Germany. He had desperately tried to arrange travel documents for his family to get out.
That was a period of tribulation for him. Talal, his son,
said that it was the only time he saw Asad cry.
Upon his release in 1946, Asad dedicated his time to work on the contours of a future Islamic state and its constitution.
“Up till then, Muslims didn’t have any model of an Islamic state. Most of the books published before the 1940s focused on the caliphate. It was Asad who started the debate on what a governing system in a Muslim state should be like in a modern age,” says Arshad.
Asad vehemently supported democracy and the election of lawmakers by a vote. He used Islamic texts to back his view, refuting those who wrongly claim that democracy is not compatible with Islam.
After Pakistan’s independence in 1947, he briefly headed the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, which aimed to ensure that government policies adhered to religious principles.
But Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan saw Asad’s use in the foriegn ministry that was trying to establish contacts with other Muslim countries. And so he was assigned to its Middle East desk.
When it came time for Asad to travel, he demanded a Pakistani passport. A citizenship law was still in the works and officials continued to travel abroad as British subjects even after independence.
Asad would have none of it - he wasn’t a British subject and he didn’t want his Austrian nationality to be mentioned either. Officers responsible for issuing the documents were perplexed. But Liaquat Ali Khan issued the order. And so Asad flew on what became the first Pakistani passport assigned to anyone.
After resigning from the Pakistani UN mission in the mid-1950s, Asad moved on to live in different countries, spending time in Tangiers in Morocco, Spain and other places.
He continued to write and give speeches at universities and conferences. Along the way he researched and worked on his most ambitious and important contribution to Islam - the English translation of the Quran.
After 17 years of labour The Message of the Quran was published in 1980. It didn’t receive the approval of the orthodox clergy, which took issue with Asad’s ‘modernist’ interpretation.
“I don’t know of a single scholar who has approved of his translation,” says Muzaffar Iqbal. “The problem is of a European mind trying to come to terms with the message of the Quran and unable to grasp the supranatural aspects of the Quran and ending up rationalising them.”
Asad has dealt with some of the topics suchs Jinn and Prophet Muhammad’s night journey of the Miraj in allegorical terms.
Another thing that has rubbed traditional scholars the wrong way is Asad’s position on women: in his interpretation of the Quran, women are not obliged to cover their heads.
Muzaffar Iqbal says Asad has backed his exegesis with references to traditional scholars such as Al-Zamakhshari but he cherry-picked one of the many explanations of a given Quranic verse to suit his own understanding.
Despite the controversies, Asad’s translation is widely read especially among English-speaking Muslims.
And there are many who forcefully defend Asad and his legacy.
“The issue with Asad is that he’s not associated with any traditional religious school or a university - like other scholars who are presented by their followers as great teachers. Asad just didn’t have a good marketing department,” says Shaykh Jahangir Mahmud, who runs a religious think-tank in Pakistan.
Asad is not the only Quran translator who took a lenient approach on the question of women covering their heads or if Muslims can enjoy music. But he has been singled out by his critics.
“He’s often attacked because of his European background even though he learned Arabic from the Bedouins by living among them in their tents. He has probably lived in the desert for more years than any other scholar,” says Mahmud.
Like in South Asia where Asad is still seen by many as an outsider, he’s not fully accepted in the Arab world, which is sceptical about a non-native who translated the Quran.
“Be that as it may, Asad’s prestige continues to grow among present-day Muslims especially in Europe and the United States,” wrote Murad Hoffman, arguing that Islamic rejuvenation is likely to come from London or New York instead of Cairo or Islamabad. “If this assumption is correct, the hour may come soon when appreciation of Muhammad Asad’s thought will become a truely global phenomenon.”
It was not just the Quran translation for which he faced scrutiny. Even his decisions in personal life have put him in the line of fire.
While Asad was in New York working for the Pakistan’s UN mission in 1952, he married Pola Hamida, a Polish-Catholic girl who converted to Islam.
Talal, at the time, was staying in London along with his mother Munira, Asad’s third wife.
The news of his marriage stirred controversy in Pakistan and scandalous articles in the local press alleged that he might have reverted to Judaism. Munira created quite a ruckus and wrote to Pakistani government officials, complaining that her husband was abandoning her.
Asad tendered his resignation. Hard pressed for funds, it was then that he decided to write The Road to Mecca.
Even his brief tenure in the foreign ministry was helpful for his adopted country. It was because of his personal relation with Ibn Saud that Pakistan was able to set up a diplomatic office in Jeddah.
“He was the person who laid the foundation of our friendship with Saudi Arabia from which Pakistan is still benefiting . It’s sad that we have forgotten him,” says Ikram Chughtai, a Pakistani historian who has published multiple books on Asad.
Years before the Organisation of Islamic Conference was created in the 1969, Asad wrote an entire proposal to create a League of Muslim Nations. But the file carrying his recommendations gathered dust on the desk of Pakistan’s then foriegn minister Zafarullah Khan, who didn’t like Asad.
In the 1940s, “there were many on the streets marching for the new country, but there were only a few like Asad who worked on the ideological front of Pakistan,” says Chughtai.
Despite all that had happened, Asad was once again invited by the Pakistan government to organise a large academic seminar on Islam in late 1957.
Asad used his command over Arabic, politics, history and personal connections to invite dozens of scholars from around the Muslim world. When the proceedings of the conference were published, his name was not even mentioned.
There was friction within his family with Asad trying to support his ex-wife Munira when his own financial circumstances were strained.
Talal and Pola never got along. Their relations soured to the point that when Asad was on his deathbed in February 1992, Pola didn’t even bother informing Talal.
“The fact that my father’s wife did not contact me well in advance to tell me how ill he was (I rang him often but found his voice sounding rather constrained on the phone) has been a matter of considerable bitterness for me,” Talal wrote in his emailed reply.
Some researchers have argued that later in life Asad became disenchanted with Islam. Talal says nothing can be farther from truth. Certainly, Asad was unhappy with how certain Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, had developed. But his devotion to Islam remained unflinching.
Talal’s last memory of his father is when he visited him unannounced at a Boston hospital.
“As I entered the room I found him praying Salat al-maghrib on his sajjada unaware of my presence.”
This article has been adapted from its original source.