Muhammad Asad Visionary Islamic Scholar
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
Muhammad Asad, writer, adventurer, diplomat, Muslim thinker par excellence, translator of the Qur’an, and author of one of the most remarkable spiritual autobiographies ever, The Road to Mecca, isn’t as well recognized, even among Muslims, as he ought to be. It’s a pity. Three years after his death in Spain in 1992, Asad remains virtually unknown in the West and an enigma to the average Muslim. Those who have followed his career through his books and writings, however, know that no one has contributed more in our times to the understanding of Islam and awakening of Muslims, or worked harder to build a bridge between the East and the West, than Muhammad Asad.
Asad was born Leopold Weiss on July 2, 1900 in Lwow, Galicia, now in Poland, and then part of the Austrian empire. In 1926, he converted to Islam and became Muhammad Asad. The story of the years before his conversion reflects the spiritual odyssey of a man in search of a home, a man struck by wanderlust, unable to quell his restless spirit until embracing Islam.
Asad ran away from home at 14 and joined the Austrian army to fight in the First World War. By 1922 he had become a foreign correspondent in the Near and Far East for the Frankfurter Zeitung, then one of the most outstanding newspapers in Europe. His career in journalism took him to Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and gave him a unique perspective on world affairs, particularly issues relating to Jews and Arabs.
While staying with his uncle in Jerusalem, he came into contact with the Zionist Committee of Action and was repelled by its contempt toward the Arabs. “Although of Jewish origin myself,” wrote Asad in The Road to Mecca, “I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism…I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a great foreign power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining a majority in Palestine and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been…This attitude of mine was beyond the comprehension of practically all the Jews whom I came in contact with during those months. They could not understand what I saw in the Arabs…They were not in the least interested in what the Arabs thought; almost none of them took the pains to learn Arabic; and everyone accepted without question the dictum that Palestine was the rightful heritage of the Jews.”
It was here that Asad encountered Chaim Weizmann, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement, and had a heated discussion with him regarding the Zionist philosophy. “‘What about the Arabs?” Asad asked as Dr. Weizmann was one day articulating his vision of a Jewish National Home.
“What about the Arabs?” echoed Dr. Weizmann.
“Well, 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?”
The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered dryly: “We expect they won’t be in a majority after a few years.”’
A Saddening Experience
Asad was overcome with sorrow as he reflected on this experience. “How was it possible, I wondered, for people endowed with so much creative intelligence as the Jews to think of the Zionist-Arab conflict in Jewish terms alone?...Were they so hopelessly blind to the painful future which their policy must bring to the struggles and the bitterness to which the Jewish island would forever remain exposed in the midst of a hostile Arab sea? And how strange, I thought, that a nation which had suffered so many wrongs in the course of its long and sorrowful Diaspora was now in single-minded pursuit of its own goal, ready to inflict a grievous wrong on another nation. Such a phenomenon, I knew, was not unknown to history, but it made me, nonetheless, very sad to see it enacted before my eyes.”
Traveling extensively throughout the Muslim world, Asad’s interest in Islam deepened. At the same time, he began to examine critically the decay he found among Muslims. Arabia was bogged down in tribal warfare; foreign powers were conquering Muslim lands with the help of Muslim puppets; most Muslims were mired in the lowlands of self-righteousness, wallowing in intellectual stagnation by blindly imitating the West.
To understand how Muslims could regenerate themselves, Asad took a characteristic approach: he immersed himself in understanding the source of Islam, the Qur’an. Embarking on an intensive study of classical Arabic, he began at the same time living among the bedouin of Central and Eastern Arabia whose speech and linguistic associations had essentially remained unchanged since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when the Qur’an was being revealed. It gave him insight into the semantics of the Qur’anic language unknown to any Westerner and enabled him later to translate the Qur’an into English as The Message of the Qur’an. Along with his commentary, The Message is without parallel in conveying the holy book’s meaning and spirit to non-Arab readers.
Muslim renaissance became Asad’s goal in life.
In his study of the Qur’an, Asad found that Islam gave “Yes to action, No to passivity. Yes to Life and No to asceticism.” In its pages, he found an intense God-consciousness that made no division between body and soul or faith and reason, but consisted of a harmonious interplay of spiritual need and social demand. “It was obvious to me that the decline of the Muslims was not due to any shortcomings in Islam but rather to their own failure to live up to it…It was not Muslims that had made Islam great: it was Islam that had made the Muslims great. But as soon as their faith became habit and ceased to be a program of life, to be consciously pursued, the creative impulse that underlay their civilization waned and gradually gave way to indolence, sterility and cultural decay.”
From that point on, Muslim renaissance became Asad’s goal in life. He traveled far and wide, conferred with kings, leaders and the common man “between the Libyan Desert and the Pamirs, between the Bosporus and the Arabian Sea,” and began putting his ideas on paper. Islam at the Crossroads, first published in 1934, still stuns the contemporary reader with its analysis of Muslim regression and its bold prescription for instilling self-assurance to an Islamic world suffering from lack of confidence under the onslaught of Western technology.
But dark clouds had been gathering over the horizon of Europe. (It was only in the late 1940s that Asad discovered his parents had died in a Nazi concentration camp.) When World War II broke out, Asad was in India where he befriended Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual father of the idea of a separate Pakistan. Iqbal persuaded Asad to abandon plans to travel to eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia and “to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state.”
Asad was interned in India at the end of the war. When Pakistan was born in 1947, Asad was appointed its undersecretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and became its permanent representative to the United Nations in 1952. Here he met his wife, Pola Hamida, a Bostonian, whom he married the same year. It was also here that he began writing his incomparable The Road to Mecca (1954), covering the first half of his life, including his conversion to Islam in 1926 and his “homecoming of the heart, as I began to understand it during those distant days in the late summer of 1932.”
After two years in New York, the Asads traveled extensively before returning to Pakistan in 1955. But the couple’s restless spirit spurred them on, first to Morocco, then to Tangiers, then to Portugal, and finally to Spain. In the Principles of State and Government in Islam, published in 1961, Asad laid down in unambiguous terms the foundation of an Islamic state on the basis of Qur’anic injunctions and the Prophet’s sayings. Briefly, the two defining limits are that in an Islamic state true sovereignty lies with God and that believers must conduct all businesses pertaining to the state and community through mutual consultation. Within this framework, Asad showed that an Islamic state had the flexibility to contain features of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, including the American institutions of presidency and the Supreme Court.
The author hoped with this book to contribute “toward a better understanding of Islamic ideology by the non-Muslim Westan understanding so vitally needed in our time.” Considering the dark and extreme pictures orientalists and “Islamic experts” like Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson and others paint about Islam and Islamic states, Asad’s book should be required reading for these “experts” from academe and the media.
The Message of the Qur’an was published in 1980. Asad meant to devote two years to completing the translation and the commentary but ended up spending 17. He dedicated the Message to “people who think.” The importance of using one’s own faculties to understand Divine text (ijtihad), a fact emphasized in the Qur’an itself, was a theme Asad returned to again and again.
Without ijtihad , Asad was convinced Muslims would find it difficult, if not impossible, to practice true Islam in their lives, and that they would become intellectual prisoners of others who were themselves prisoners of the past and had little to contribute to the resurgence of Islam in the modern world. It was only through ijtihad, he felt, that Muslims could grow, change and develop in accordance with the needs of the time and the growth of man’s experience, while always remaining true to the Qur’an and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This was not to deny the importance of religious scholars, only that Muslims were obligated to understand their faith as best as they could using their own God-given faculties, before seeking help to enlarge their understanding. “Every Muslim ought to be able to say ‘The Qur’an has been revealed for me,’” he said in an interview a few years before his death. He was fond of quoting the Prophet. “If you use your reason and turn out to be wrong, God will still reward you. And if you are right, you will be doubly rewarded.”
Timeliness and Timelessness
In 1987, Asad published This Law of Ours and Other Essays, a collection of articles on Muslim religious and political thought he had written over the years but had not published, including “Answers of Islam,” “Calling All Muslims,” and “A Vision of Jerusalem.” In fact, it was his wife, Pola Hamida, who recovered them after going through some of his old papers and, recognizing their importance, insisted that they be published. “I believe the reader will be struck, as I have been,” she wrote in the foreword to the book, “not only by the extraordinary timeliness and the timelessness of these thoughts and predictions, but also by their consistency.”
I had the good fortune of corresponding with Muhammad Asad. In 1986, I read The Road to Mecca and was so moved and persuaded by the author’s narrative that I resolved to somehow make contact. (The only other book to have similar impact on me, albeit from a different perspective, was the Autobiography of Malcolm X.) Soon I came across an interview with Asad in a magazine called Arabia, published out of England. I wrote a letter to the editor of Arabia to forward to Asad. To my amazement, Asad soon replied from Spain. “I was deeply touched by your letter,” he wrote, “which was forwarded to me by Dr. Fathi Osman. Thank you for your appreciation of my work; it is for people like you that I am writing.” In my letter I had expressed the hope that he would continue his life story from where he left off in The Road to Mecca. “I have promised my wife, who has been insisting for a long time,” he replied, “that I should continue and complete my memoirs. My next work will be just that and of course it will, of necessity, include my years in India and Pakistan…Please pray that God will allow me to accomplish this work.” Our correspondence continued for a while until Asad became too ill to reply.
After Asad died in Spain in 1992, I wrote to Pola Hamida Asad, who informed me that the sequel to The Road to Mecca was only partially completed by Asadחpart oneand that she herself would complete part two. It would be called Homecoming of the Heart, “a title which he himself suggested.” (The book is not yet available in the United States.)
Muhammad Asad stood alone among contemporary Muslims for his extraordinary perception of, and contributions to, Islam. With his command of the English language, his knowledge of the Bible and biblical sources, as well as Jewish history and civilization, Asad was more successful than most in communicating to Muslim and non-Muslim readers the essence of Islam in both its historical and timeless context.
But beyond words and books, Asad wanted to see the living body of Islam flourish in the modern world. Although distressed by the sad state of the Muslim world and its reactive agenda, he remained optimistic to the end that a new generation of Muslims eventually would rise to make his dream a reality.
It is easy to imagine Asad approving of the peaceful yet vigorous activism of American Muslims in defending the tenets of their faith and in striving to bring a balance to American society. He would, in particular, have invested high hopes on Muslim youth for their idealism and their ability and eagerness to think and reason. Asad abhorred extremism in all its forms. “And thus We have willed you to be a community of the Middle Way” was a Qur’anic verse he quoted often, explaining that in Islam, there was no room for revolution, only evolution.
Asad was the conscience of thinking Muslims. “The door of ijtihad will always remain open,” he used to say, “because no one has the authority to close it.” As Islam enters the most critical phase of its development in the West, Muhammad Asad’s legacy assumes an urgency no thinking Muslim can afford to ignore.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is editor of the quarterly magazine IQRA, published in San Jose, CA
Originally published in 1996 print edition of TAM. Reprinted from Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs September 1995 issue with permission of the author.