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From Leopold Weiss to Muhammad Asad
Sheharbano Ali

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 son.

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 Bukhārī¸ the famous Hadīth 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’ān into English. The first volume of Asad’s English rendering, from Al-Baqarah to Al-Tawbah, The Message of the Qur’ān 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 World League.

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 World League.

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’ān 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’ān 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 Tafsīr literature (renderings and explanations of the Qur’ān) 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’ān. 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’ān. 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’ān 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’ān and the Sunnah’.

The reference to the medieval Muslim world seemed to hark back to the orientalist comparison of Islam’s prime age, the Qarūn al-‘ulā 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’ān 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 Qur’ān 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’ān 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, Andalusia.


Courtesy: Impact International (10th April-7th  May 1992)



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