Muhammad Asad Born Leopold Weiss
Lviv, Ukraine (previously Lwów, Poland)
Residence Spain Occupation Writer Religious beliefs Islam (previously Judaism) Spouse Paola Hameeda Asad
Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss in July 1900 in what was then Polish Lwów in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Lviv in Ukraine; died 1992) was a Jew who converted to Islam and later served as one of the first Pakistani ambassadors to the United Nations.
Asad was a descendant of a long line of rabbis. However, his father was a barrister. He received a thorough religious education. He was proficient in Hebrew from an early age and was also familiar with Aramaic. He studied the Old Testament, as well as the text and commentaries of the Talmud, the Mishna and Gemara. Furthermore, he delved into the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, the Targum.
After abandoning university in Vienna, Asad (or Weiss, as he was then called) had drifted aimlessly around 1920s Germany, even working briefly for the expressionist film director Fritz Lang. By his own account after selling a jointly written film-script, he blew the windfall on a wild party at an expensive Berlin restaurant, in the spirit of the times. He got his first journalism published through sheer chutzpah while working as a telephone operator for an American news agency in Berlin. Using the simple expedient of ringing up her Berlin hotel room, he obtained an exclusive interview with the visiting wife of the Russian author Maxim Gorky, and the story was taken up by his employers.
Weiss later moved to the British Mandate of Palestine, staying in Jerusalem at the house of an uncle, the psychoanalyst Dorian Weiss. He picked up work as a stringer for the Frankfurter Zeitung, selling articles on a freelance basis. His pieces were noteworthy for their understanding of Arab fears and grievances against the Zionist project. Eventually contracted as a full-time foreign correspondent for the paper, his assignments led him to an ever deepening engagement with Islam, which after much thought led to his religious conversion in 1926. He spoke of Islam thus:
"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."
His travels and sojourns through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran (he wrote many insightful articles on Shiism), and also Afghanistan and the southern Soviet Republics, were viewed with great suspicion by the Colonial Powers. One English diplomat in Saudi Arabia described him in a report as a "Bolshevik", and it is true that he took a close interest in the many liberation movements that were active at this time with the aim of freeing Muslim lands from colonial rule. He ended up in India where he met and worked alongside Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, who had proposed the idea of an independent Muslim state in India, which later became Pakistan.
During WWII he was interned there by the British as an enemy alien. His parents meanwhile, were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Because of his out-spoken support for the Pakistan Movement, after Independence and the Partition of 1947, Asad was appointed Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, as well as working with the Pakistani Foreign Ministry from 1949 till the early 1950s. Towards the end of his life, he moved to Spain and lived there with his second wife, Paola Hameeda Asad, until his death.
Asad wrote several books, and a biography of his early life has been published in German, Leopold Weiss alias Muhammad Asad. Von Galizien nach Arabien 1900-1927 by Gunther Windhager (Bohlau Verlag 2002}. Weiss's own version of this period is Road to Mecca, an account of his Middle Eastern travels and his conversion, as well as his thoughts on the growing Zionist movement. He also wrote The Message of The Qur'an, a translation and brief commentary on the Muslim holy book based on his own knowledge of classical Arabic and on the authoritative classical commentaries. It has been acclaimed as one of the best, if not the best, translations of the Quran into English, although it has been criticised by some traditionalists for its Mutazilite leanings. He also wrote a translation and commentary on the Sahih Bukhari, the most authoritative collection of Hadith. In addition, he wrote This Law of Ours where he sums up his views on Islamic law and rejects decisively the notion of taqlid, or strict judicial precedent which has been accepted as doctrine by most Muslim sects except the Salafis. He also makes a plea for rationalism and plurality in Islamic law, which he sees as the true legacy of the salaf or earliest generations of Muslims. In his book Islam at the Crossroads, he outlines his view that the Muslim world must make a choice between living by its own values and morality or accepting those of the West, in which case, they would always lag behind the West, which had had more time to adjust to those values and mores, and would end up compromising their own religion and culture. There are some playfully cryptic references to him in the recent bestseller The Orientalist by Tom Reiss (Random House 2005), and some slightly more sinister ones in the English translations of W.G. Sebald.
He is father of Talal Asad, anthropologist specializing in religious studies and postcolonialism.
- Road to Mecca
- The Message of The Qur'an
- Translation and commentary on the Sahih Bukhari
- This Law of Ours
- Islam at the Crossroads
Writings of Muhammad Asad on Islam: Article by Dr. Aabroo Aman Andrabi
The writings of Muhammad Asad on Islam and the Muslims span almost a century, from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. These writings include: Unromantisches Morgenland (The Unromantic Orient), Frankfurter Zeitung, Palestine, 1924; Islam At the Cross Roads, New York, 1934; The Road To Mecca, New York, 1954; The Principles of State and Government In Islam, California Press, 1961; Sahih al –Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam, Arafat Publication, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1935; Translation of the Qur’an into the English language with explanatory notes. The Message of the Qur’an, Dublin, 1980 and This Law of Ours, Dacca, 1980. He also brought out a journal, Arafat. This journal, was published from Lahore before partition in the late forties. Muhammad Asad’s first book as a committed Muslim was Islam at the Cross Roads, published first in New York in 1934 and dedicated to the young Muslims. The text went through repeated printings and editions both in India and Pakistan. Muhammad Asaf translated it into Urdu in 1991 under the title Islam Do –Rahe Par. More importantly, however, it appeared in an Arabic translation in Beirut in 1946 under the title of al–Islam ‘ala muftaqir al–turuq. It went through numerous editions in the 1940’s and 50’s. Then in 2001, it was published in India by Goodword Books under the original title, ‘Islam at the Cross Roads’. The book consisting of 141 pages, is divided into 8 chapters, and has a preface. The chapters are as follows:
- The Open Road of Islam;
- The Sprit of the West;
- The Shadow of the Crusades;
- About Education;
- About Imitation;
- Hadith and Sunnah;
- The Spirit of Sunnah; and
This work can be described as a diatribe against the materialism of the west or, as Muhammad Asad put it, a case of “Islam Versus Western Civilization”. Towards the end of 1952, Muhammad Asad resigned from the Pakistan Foreign Service and started to write. He wrote extensively and in August 1954 there appeared in America a remarkable book of his entitled, "The Road to Mecca". The book immediately won critical acclaim. This third book of Muhammad Asad was also published in London in 1954 under the same title and was reprinted by the Islamic Book Trust, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, in 1996. This edition comprises 375 pages and is divided into twelve chapters:
- Beginning of the Road
- Spirit and Flesh
- Persian letter
- End of the Road.
This book is not biographical in nature, though in the opinion of some people, it is an autobiography of Muhammad Asad. There are many parts of this book which are concerned with his life and seem to be autobiographical.
On April 14, 2008 City Government of Vienna has named a sqaure near UNO offices after his name "Muhammad Asad Platz". Moreover, the first Islamic school in Austria is being established in Vienna and it also has been named after his name called "International School Center - Muhammad Asad (www.is-ma.at)"
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