Legendary Leopolitans No. 7: Islamic thinker from Europe’s religious crossroads
Muhammad Asad’s name figures prominently on the roll of 20th century English-language Muslim thinkers. He is a remarkable and unlikely figure whose association with Lviv reflects the city’s heritage as one of the world’s great crossroads of cultures and religions.
Muhammad Asad was born as Leopold Weiss in July 1900 in the city of Lemberg(today’s Lviv), then part of the Habsburg Empire. He was the descendant of a long line of rabbis, a line broken by his father who instead chose to become a barrister. Asad himself received a thorough religious education that would qualify him to keep alive the family’s rabbinical tradition. He had become proficient in Hebrew at an early age and was also familiar with Aramaic. He had studied the Old Testament in the original as well as the text and commentaries of the Talmud, the Mishna and Gemara, and he had delved into the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, the Targum.
This budding your theology student left Lviv on the eve of WWI when his family moved to Vienna, where 14-year-old Weiss ran away from school and tried unsuccessfully to join the Austrian army to fight in what would quickly become known as ‘the war to end all wars.’ However, it took years before the young Asad could get accepted by the Austrian army and no sooner had he finally been officially drafted than the Austrian Empire collapsed, along with his dreams of military glory. After the war, he pursued philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna, but these academic studies apparently failed to satisfy him and he abandoned them to seek fulfilment elsewhere. Vienna at that time was one of the most intellectually and culturally stimulating cities in Europe, a hothouse of burgeoning new perspectives on psychology, language and philosophy. Not just its academic institutions, but even its famous cafes reverberated with lively debate centred on psychoanalysis, logical positivism, linguistic analysis and semantics. This was the period when the distinctive voices of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Ludwig Wittgenstein filled the air and echoed round the world. Weiss had a ringside seat for these exciting discussions, and though he was impressed by the originality of those pioneering spirits, their major conclusions left him still unsatisfied. Weiss eventually left Vienna in 1920 and travelled throughout Central Europe, where he did “all manner of short-lived jobs” before arriving in Berlin. Here, luck and pluck led to a scoop that elevated him from a mere telephonist working for a wire service into a journalist: Among other scoops he reported the presence in Berlin of Maxim Gorky’s wife, who was on a secret mission to solicit aid from the West for Soviet Russia.
At this stage, Weiss, like many of his generation, counted himself an agnostic, having drifted away from his Jewish moorings despite his significant religious studies. He left Europe for the Middle East in 1922 for what was supposed to be a short visit to an uncle in Jerusalem. There he came to know and like the Arabs and was struck by how Islam infused their everyday lives with existential meaning, spiritual strength and inner peace. It was the start of a powerful
spiritual journey. Soon Weiss became, at the quite remarkably young age of 22, a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most prestigious newspapers of Germany and Europe at the time. As a journalist he travelled extensively, mingled with ordinary people, held discussions with Muslim intellectuals and met heads of state in Palestine, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. During his travels and through his readings, Weiss’s interest in Islam increased as his understanding of its scripture, history and peoples grew. In part, curiosity propelled his explorations, but he also felt something darker—in his words, “a spiritual emptiness, a vague, cynical relativism born out of increasing hopelessness” from which he needed to escape. He remained agnostic, unable to accept the religious tenet that God spoke to and guided humankind by revelation. Back in Berlin from the Middle East a few years later, Weiss underwent an electrifying spiritual epiphany which he claimed was reminiscent of the experience of some of the earliest Muslims. Whatever it was, it changed his mind and his life. Asad next spent some six years in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where he studied Arabic, the Qur’an, the hadith (the traditions of Muslim Prophet Mohammed) and Islamic history. Those studies led him to what he described as: “the firm conviction that Islam, as a spiritual and social phenomenon, is still, in spite of all the drawbacks caused by the deficiencies of the Muslims, by far the greatest driving force mankind has ever experienced.”
From that time and until the end of his life, his interest was centred around the problem of Islam’s regeneration. His academic knowledge of classical Arabic —made easier by familiarity with Hebrew and Aramaic, sister Semitic languages — was further enhanced by his wide travels and his contacts in Arabia with Bedouins. To study Muslim communities and cultures further east, Asad left Arabia for India in 1932. There he met the celebrated Muslim poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, a man widely regarded as the spiritual progenitor of Pakistan. Iqbal persuaded Asad to stay on, “to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state.” Asad soon won Iqbal’s admiration and public acclaim with the publication of a perceptive monograph on the challenges facing modern Muslims. But his freedom was curtailed when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Ironically, though he had refused a German passport after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and insisted on retaining his Austrian citizenship, the British imprisoned him on the second day of the war as an “enemy alien,” and did not release him till 1945. Asad was the only Muslim among the 3000-odd Europeans interned in India, the large majority of whom were Nazi sympathizers.
Asad moved to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 and was charged by its government with formulating the ideological foundations for the new state. Later he was transferred to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry to head its Middle East Division, where he endeavoured to strengthen Pakistan’s ties to other Muslim countries. He capped his diplomatic career by serving as Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations—a position he resigned in 1952 to write his autobiography: The Road to Mecca. After writing this book he left New York in 1955 and finally settled in Spain. He did not cease to write. At 80, after 17 years of effort, he completed the work that had been his life’s dream, and for which he felt all his life till then had been an apprenticeship: a translation and exegesis, of the Qur’an into English entitled: The Message of the Qur’an. The Message of the Qur’an is widely recognised as among the best English translations and commentaries of the Qur’an and comparable to the famous works of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali and Daryabadi. His rendering is simple and straightforward.
Although widely known as a proponent of conservative Islam, his translation departs from the traditional exegetic approaches and reflects his deep knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures. He presented the Muslim world as an unexpected tonic with all its complexities, temperament and sense of spiritual security. “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,” he once said. He remains remembered as one of the most articulate and passionate Muslim scholars and writers of the past century. He was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Granada following his death in 1992.