IN MEMORIAM:  Muhammad Asad - 1900-1992 – An Intellectual Giant **

By Yussuf Nazeer

Posted Mar 4, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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IN MEMORIAM:  Muhammad Asad - 1900-1992 – An Intellectual Giant

“I knew that all the answers were waiting for us while we poor fools ask questions, and wait for the seeds of God to open themselves up to us, when they are waiting for us to open ourselves to them.”

Muhammad Asad accepted the Kalimah 66 years ago in Europe at the age of 26 to become a staunch Muslim Da’ee and Mujahid for Islam. On February 23, 1992, he died, aged 92, in Malaga, Spain, forgotten, unannounced, and seemingly unappreciated for his more than half a century of courageous ad dedicated service to Islam.

He lies, alas, in a quiet Christian-controlled cemetery, reportedly the common resting ground of all religious groups, somewhere in Malaga, Spain, a land that had at one time been a cradle of Islam’s glorious civilization and the world’s “Makkah” of scientific learning.

He was born in July 1900 as Leopold Weiss, in Poland. His family came from an orthodox Austrian Jewish background. Thus he grew up thoroughly schooled in the Torah and the Talmud. His Vienna University education which soaked him in philosophy, literature and history groomed him for a career in journalism. Speaking fluent Arabic, he traveled widely through the Middle East.

In Jerusalem, Weiss developed a genuine fondness for the Palestinian Arabs and their culture, which built strong ties of friendship, leading him to study Islam seriously. He wrote in favor of the Palestinians, criticizing the Zionists and earning the latter’s wrath.

His growing love for the Muslim people drew him to all the Arab countries as well as Afghanistan. Now convinced that Islam had all the answers he was seeking, he accepted this faith and became a Muslim, changing his name to Muhammad Asad.

He went for Hajj and spent some time in Arabia where he befriended Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Ameer of the Hijaaz and guardian of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

At the time in the early 20s and 30s, the British, based in Kuwait, were fomenting intrigue amongst the desert tribes to destabilize the Hijaaz. The Ameer was concerned, and Muhammad Asad volunteered to slip across the border into Kuwait to find out what the conspirators were planning.

Asad was equipped for this work as adventurer, traveler, journalist and intellectual who also spoke the Arabic Dialect of the Bedouin desert tribes.

During the Islamic Senusiyah Jihaad in Cyrenaica (al-Baraquh), Libya, against Italian military fascists (1912-1932), Muhammad Asad went to Libya to assist the resistance.

In the role of Muslim secret agent for which he proved best suited, Asad carried messages between the Senusi grandmaster, Sayyd Ahmad, and the famous Muslim Mujahid, Umar al-Mukhtar, who was spearheading the guerilla struggle in the desert against the Italian army.

However, superior military technology in the hands of the Italian army eventually crushed the Muslim resistance. Mujahid Mukhtar was caught and hanged in 1932. It was one of the saddest moments in Muhammad Asad’s life ... AND the Muslim world at large!

Several thousand miles east of Libya, across the Arabian Sea in Lahore, India, another writer was sharing Dr Asad’s grief 60 years ago. It was the celebrated Quranic scholar, writer and philosopher-poet, Muhammad Iqbal.

Dr. Asad had always been a great admirer of Dr. Iqbal’s writings and poems. They had become good pen-pals, and in 1933 the poet invited his learned friend to come and live in India.

Germany and Britain were at war. Asad had no inclination to go back to Europe. His father, sister and other family relations had died in Nazi concentration camps. He had fled from Austria on a German passport.

So he accepted Allamah Iqbal’s invitation, and went to India, where the Allamah persuaded Asad to undertake the translation of Sahih Bukhari.

Asad’s commitment to Jihaad against the Kuffaar was again ignited. He began backing the Muslim stand against British imperialism in India. With his pen, he attacked the British Raj in no uncertain terms, accusing them of being like the Nazis.

Security police, enraged at Asad’s siding with the Muslims, raided his home. They found his German passport, and immediately branded the writer an “alien enemy” of the British Sovereign. He was arrested and spent six years in jail, being released when the war ended in 1945.

He left India and went to live in Tangier, Morocco, where he spent the latter years of his life translating the Quran, entitled “The Message of the Quran”.

Conservative ulama who uphold traditional beliefs rejected his Quran on the basis that certain of his tafseer conflicted with traditional Ahadith beliefs.

Asad defended his view with other Ahadith, and dismissed his critics as “narrow-minded obscurantists” who based all their knowledge and observation on “parochial, unquestioning, fallible, man-written jurisprudence (fiqh) books” which, he poin t ed out, had reduced Islam “to nothing more than traditional ritualism, and transformed the Ummah masses into passive sheep that never questioned irrational and illogical views which contradicted the Quran”.

And while the traditionalist school rejected his Quran translation, other scholars refused to sit in judgment of him. They regarded Dr. Asad as an “outstanding Muslim intellectual and Mujahid”, and praised his Quran translations as “the best” ever published in the English language. It was the magnus opus of his life’s work.

In his book, “Islam at the Crossroads” Dr. Asad strongly defends the Sunnah without compromise. He believed that it was “impossible” for Muslims to follow at one and the same time the Sunnah and the “western way of life”. He wrote: “Only a very superficial people can believe that it is possible to imitate a civilization in its external appearance without being at the same time affected by its spirit.”

Dr. Asad pointed out that many western practices and behavior patters such as the free intermingling of the sexes, seminude dressing, dancing, promiscuity, liquor drinking, drug abuse, interest charged on money transactions, and other barbaric or uncivilized behavior, were directly the opposite of what the Sunnah taught. Hence, the west was in fact NOT civilized?

Dr. Asad was also acclaimed for his now world famous spiritual autobiography, “The Road to Mecca” which was translated into 11 languages, and earned him accolades from enlightened readers world-wide.

He was one of the learned scholars who was asked to draw up an Islamic constitution for Pakistan. (In fact, he died a citizen of Pakistan) His other noted books are: The Early Years of Islam: Islam at the Crossroads: The Principles of State and Government in Islam, and This Law of Ours, and Other Essays. Condensed from al Balaagh, South Africa.

Editors note: Pola Hamida Asad is finishing the editing of Muhammad Asad’s last book “Meditations” as well as the second part of his memoirs “Home Coming of the Heart” both of which should be available in the coming year. “Road to Mecca” the first part of the memoirs was written in the 50’s and covered the first half of the century “Home Coming of the Heart” will bring us up to the 1990’s.

Muhammad Asad will be missed.

Originally published in the Winter 1993 print edition of

The American Muslim