The Life of Muhammad Asad

MV: Muhammad Asad? Who is he? is he important? These are the questions many of you would ask if you read the title of the article. He is not one of so much of importance nor is he of much significance. But none of the less he is an interesting man and to some of you who seek the true meaning of the Quran it will be helpful to look at his work. He was born in a Jewish family but converted to Islam and he wrote the most understandable translation of the Quran. He used many words to give the reader the full depth of the meaning of the Quran.  This information was obtained from

Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss in July 1900 in the city of Lvov (German Lemberg), now in Poland, then part of the Austrian Empire. He was the descendant of a long line of rabbis, a line broken by his father, who became 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.
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 the First World War. 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 those studies failed to satisfy him and he abandoned them to seek fulfillment 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 cafés reverberated with lively debate centered 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 left Vienna in 1920 and traveled in 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: He reported the presence in Berlin of Maksim 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 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.

Weiss now became—at the remarkably young age of 22—a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most prestigious newspapers of Germany and Europe. As a journalist, he traveled 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 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—reminiscent of the experience of some of the earliest Muslims—that changed his mind and his life. He described it in a striking passage that he wrote some 30 years later:
One day—it was in September 1926—Elsa and I found ourselves travelling in the Berlin subway. It was an upper-class compartment. My eye fell casually on a well-dressed man opposite me, apparently a well-to-do-businessman…. I thought idly how well the portly figure of this man fitted into the picture of prosperity which one encountered everywhere in Central Europe in those days: …Most of the people were now well dressed and well fed, and the man opposite me was therefore no exception. But when I looked at his face, I did not seem to be looking at a happy face. He appeared to be worried: and not merely worried but acutely unhappy, with eyes staring vacantly ahead and the corners of his mouth drawn in as if in pain—but not in bodily pain. Not wanting to be rude, I turned my eyes away and saw next to him a lady of some elegance. She also had a strangely unhappy expression on her face, as if contemplating or experiencing something that caused her pain…. And then I began to look around at all other faces in the compartment—faces belonging without exception to well-dressed, well-fed people: and in almost every one of them I could discern an expression of hidden suffering, so hidden that the owner of the face seemed to be quite unaware of it.

“…The impression was so strong that I mentioned it to Elsa; and she too began to look around with the careful eyes of a painter accustomed to study human features. Then she turned to me, astonished, and said: ‘You are right. They all look as though they were suffering torments of hell…. I wonder, do they know themselves what is going on in them?’

Muhammad Asad
His story

“I knew that they did not—for otherwise they could not go on wasting their lives as they did, without any faith in binding truths, without any goal beyond the desire to raise their own ‘standard of living,’ without any hopes other than having more material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power….

“When we returned home, I happened to glance at my desk on which lay open a copy of the Koran I had been reading earlier. Mechanically, I picked the book up to put it away, but just as I was about to close it, my eyes fell on the open page before me, and I read:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more
Until you go down to your graves.
Nay, but you will come to know!
And once again: Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty,
You would indeed see the hell you are in.
In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:
And on that Day you will be asked what you have done with the boon of life.

“For a moment I was speechless. I think that the book shook in my hands. Then I handed it to Elsa. ‘Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?’ “It was an answer so decisive that all doubt was suddenly at an end. I knew now, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book I was holding in my hand: for although it had been placed before man over thirteen centuries ago, it clearly anticipated something that could have become true only in this complicated, mechanized, phantom-ridden age of ours.

“At all times people had known greed: but at no time before had greed outgrown a mere eagerness to acquire things and become an obsession that blurred the sight of everything else: an irresistible craving to get, to do, to contrive more and more—more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today: …and that hunger, that insatiable hunger for ever new goals gnawing at man’s soul: Nay, if you but knew it you would see the hell you are in….
“This, I saw, was not the mere human wisdom of a man of a distant past in distant Arabia. However wise he may have been, such a man could not by himself have foreseen the torment so peculiar to this twentieth century. Out of the Koran spoke a voice greater than the voice of Muhammad….” Thus it was that Weiss became a muslim. He converted in Berlin before the head of the city’s small Muslim community and took the names Muhammad, to honor the Prophet, and Asad—meaning “lion”—as a reminder of his given name. He took other decisive steps: He broke with his father over his conversion, he married Elsa, who also converted, he abruptly left his newspaper job, and he set off on pilgrimage to Makkah.

The psychological and emotional dimensions of Asad’s migration were even more important than the physical ones. Asad regarded Islam not as a religion in the conventional, or western, sense but as a way of life for all times. In Islam he had found a religious system and a practical guide for everyday living that were harmoniously balanced. “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.”

Nine days after his first sight of Makkah, Asad’s life changed momentously yet again. Elsa died suddenly, and she was buried in a simple pilgrim’s cemetery. He stayed on in the holy city and, after a chance encounter with Prince Faysal in the Grand Mosque’s library, accepted an invitation to meet with his father, the legendary King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. This invitation soon led to almost daily audiences with the king, who quickly came to appreciate Asad’s knowledge, spiritual depth and keen mind.

Asad spent some six years in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, where he studied Arabic, the Qur’an, the hadith—the traditions of the Prophet—and Islamic history. Those studies led him to “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 “centered around the problem of its 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 poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, 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 ideological foundations for the new state. Later he was transferred to the Pakistan 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, or tafsir, of the Qur’an in English. He continued to serve Islam till his death in Spain on February 23, 1992.

With his death passed a journalist, traveler, social critic, linguist, thinker, reformer, diplomat, political theorist and translator, a scholar dedicated to the service of God and humankind, and to leading a righteous life.

But death will not be the final chapter in Asad’s close relationship with the Muslims: His luminous works remain a living testimony to his great, enduring love affair with Islam.

By Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab

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