The unusual journey of Muhammad Asad

Published: July 5, 2011
The author is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing in Islamabad and holds a degree in Economics and Literature from Bryn Mawr College, US

The author is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister practicing in Islamabad and holds a degree in Economics and Literature from Bryn Mawr College, US

On July 2, 1900, Kiwa Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish lawyer and a descendant of a long line of rabbis, became the proud father of a son. He named the boy Leopold, (an old Germanic name derived from the root Leo or lion) and hoped that unlike him, Leopold would become a rabbi. Unbeknownst to Kiva, however, destiny had other plans for Leopold: By the time he died in Granada, Spain in 1992, he was no longer Jewish but Muslim, no longer Austrian but Pakistani and no longer even Leopold but Asad and had, in fact, earned a considerable reputation as a writer, an Islamic scholar and, most significantly, a translator of the Holy Quran.

Asad’s near absolute break with his past (it was only in the choice of his Muslim name — which means lion in Arabic — that a faint echo of his former identity could still be heard) and the factors behind this diametric shift should perhaps have been a subject for intense study, exploration and for Muslims at least, even celebration. In Pakistan, however, even though it was Asad’s adopted country, he remains, for some mysterious reason (or perhaps only due to apathy), largely ignored, if not entirely forgotten: His books and his translation of the Quran are not readily available and even though he was a close associate of Muhammad Iqbal, a part of the Pakistan movement and had been appointed in 1952 as Pakistan’s first minister plenipotentiary to the UN, he is not referred to in any accounts of the country’s history.

My introduction to Asad was through The Road to Mecca, which I discovered by accident while browsing in a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur some years ago. Reading the book, I found myself transported to Asad’s world, joining him in and being touched and transformed by his physical and spiritual journey for an inner truth, which he found in the teachings of Islam and to which he remained faithful till the very end despite all personal and political disappointments. One of his observations that haunted me for a long time was that Islam, more than any other code of life, was closest to human nature. Although I had heard that said before, I only began exploring it when it reached me through Asad, and in so doing, understood some more about the religion I was born into.

For the next few years, I tried to learn as much as I could about Asad and particularly about Talal Asad, his only son — who though raised in Pakistan now lives and teaches in the United States — to understand from him his father’s unusual experience. Although there was little information on the latter, I gained some insight into, and even more respect for, Asad as I read more of his works and especially his translation of the Quran. In the last few years, as the tension between Islam and the rest of the world continued to mount, I increasingly noted that Asad’s observations of the divide between the East and the West and his attempt to build a bridge between the two are as relevant today as they had been in the 50s, more so because he approaches the issue proudly, without apology and with an eastern and Muslim perspective rather than as an outsider.

In April 2008, the city government of Vienna renamed the square in front of the UN headquarters as “Mohammad Asad Platz”, in recognition of Asad’s contribution to interfaith relations and his Austrian origin. A media release of the event reported that it was the first traffic area to be named after a Muslim not only in Austria but also in all of Western Europe. I had read the news with some regret and some amusement: Regret, because Pakistan, with its inclination for naming and renaming all things, does not, to the best of my knowledge, even have a cul-de-sac named in his memory, and amusement because so complete was Asad’s cultural-crossing that even in death and in the country of his origin, he could only be resurrected under his Muslim name.

Postscript: Kiva Weiss, his wife and daughter were killed at the hands of the Germans during the Second World War. It is not known whether Asad made peace with his father before he died.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • Shahid3
    Jul 5, 2011 - 9:08PM

    Talal Asad is a high quality scholar in his own right. Here is a thought provoking hour long interview of Dr. Asad from a few years ago.Recommend

  • Maria
    Jul 5, 2011 - 9:43PM

    Muhammad Asad was and is an inspiring Pakistani whose service to Islam in Pakistan is legendary and will not be forgotten.Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2011 - 12:35AM

    one of the best pieces Ive ever read on tribune!!!!!!
    I like ur style and structure but the content of ur piece is what makes it priceless!!
    I had no idea we had Muhammad Asad as part of our heritage.. thanks for bringing Asad to my knowledgeRecommend

  • Khaula Hadeed
    Jul 6, 2011 - 1:14AM

    Thank you Amber for writing about him. I truly appreciate it. I got introduced to Asad as a 15 year old and that too by Road to Makkah. He’s not only an inspiration but a constant [sad] reminder of what was lost on our fellow country men when the man was alive and what could have been. May my generation find their guiding light in him and themselves. Recommend

  • Rafi
    Jul 6, 2011 - 2:08AM

    A very impressive life.
    The inscription on his translated Quran says “For those who think.”
    Something us muslims need to be doing more of before acting in the name of Islam.
    Thanks for the reminder Ms Darr.Recommend

  • naeem khan
    Jul 6, 2011 - 2:48AM

    After reading this article I went on to listen to Talal Asad’s one hour interview at UC at Berkeley.Very interesting and mentally refreshing.Thank you Amber for writing this article.Recommend

  • Malay
    Jul 6, 2011 - 4:49AM

    The point is that what makes a man a man (or for that matter a woman) is not his religious identity, but his input to the society he lives in. Recommend

  • Nadeem Ahmed
    Jul 6, 2011 - 8:19AM

    Those Islamic scholars who did not get their qualification in Dars-e-Nizami Madrassahs are not accepted and revered by Pakistani Mullahs. This problem was faced by other Islamic scholars, e.g. Maulan Moudodi and Dr. Israr. If Maulan Moudodi had not founded a religious cum political party, few people would also know about him. Dars-e-Nizami qualified Mullahs control 90% percent mosques in Pakistan and in all these mosques names of these great scholars are forbidden. When no one at grass root level discuss these scholars, common people do not learn about their greatness.Recommend

  • pmbm
    Jul 6, 2011 - 9:36AM

    Besides his Quranic translation his essays in book “This Law of Ours” are thought provoking and useful read for young Muslims. It is unfortunate that rights to his publications have been purchased by an Arab government which is not letting them be published in original form.Recommend

  • Adnan
    Jul 6, 2011 - 10:02AM

    Mohammad Asad worte very well be it his translation of the Holy Quran or other publications like the Road to Mecca or Islam at the crossroads. God bless him. Recommend

  • Bilal
    Jul 6, 2011 - 10:52AM

    Indeed the guy is an inspiration. One of the best articles I came across was his concept/idea of Pakistan. He wrote that way back around partition of India. I suggest those who want to understand the spirit behind creating Pakistan read this article. It gives us a lot of clarity.Obviouslty for diversity of opinion one can always disgree but the idea remains convincingly comprehensive.Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2011 - 10:54AM

    A very touching article about a man whom I had a privilage of meeting in early sixties. It was in early sisties when I was in class fifth when day my father telephoned my mom from his office that he would be bringing a special guest for tea and she should make eloberate arrangements. Arround asar prayers my late father arrived with his guest whom I later learned that he was a great scholar of Islam. He led the Maghrib prayers and we all stood behind him. He presented us the signed copy of Holy Quran translated in enhlish by him. I dont know but the moment I saw Hazrat Asad I was in awe. It was much later when I was in tenth class that I read Hhis book Road to Mecca truly a master piece. Since then I only read excellent books if I read good books I wont have time to read excellent booksRecommend

  • omar yusaf
    Jul 6, 2011 - 11:08AM

    @Shahid3: Thank you so much for the link. I have been a great admirer of Mohd Assad for some time, and thought I knew a great deal about him, but it appears I was wrong. I was unaware of Talal’s existance. It is such a pleasure to know that he has such a fine man as his son. Talal is very much his Father’s son, and I am certain that he too will contribute to providing a better and truer understanding of Islam and Humanity, as did his Father. Mohd Assad is very well respected and fondly remembered in the Middle East for his efforts, and I have to say, his interpretation of the Quran is by far the truest I have read, with many footnotes and deeper explanations of Ayats as well as Suras. It is, as he writes on the Face Page “For People who Think”. Not many of us bother to excercise this capability, and I suspect that is why we are where we are today. Mohd Assad was also a Minister for Religious Affairs in Pakistan. He left Pakistan, a very disillusioned man because of the politics that were waged against him. A familiar story that still has its echoes today. He was about to complete a monumental compilation and study of the Hadith, which he spent many years working on, but tragically the manuscripts were destroyed by fire during partition. Thank you once again for the link. It made my day!Recommend

  • Amber Darr
    Jul 6, 2011 - 11:13AM

    Thank you Shahid for bringing Talal Asad’s interview to my attention. I have watched it with interest. And thank you everyone else for taking the time to read this.Recommend

  • zawaf
    Jul 6, 2011 - 11:22AM

    I read the book many years ago when i was in college. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, so readings Asad’s journey of Arabian desert; cleared a lot of dust from my understanding of Islam and in particular, Arabs.
    It was nice to recal Asad and his work by this article. Recommend

  • Salman
    Jul 6, 2011 - 12:29PM

    Amber, as scholarly a gentleman as Muhammad Asad was he was a specimen of human kindness, humility, and grace. I had the good fortune of visiting him in Spain where he lived in his retirement. Do not know if you came across, but another person who knew him extensively was Dr. Khwaja from Los Angeles, California, who interviewed him extensively for Islamic Broadcasting Network. During my travels I had the unusual but pleasant experience of meeting people from various Muslim countries who had moved to Pakistan shortly after its’ establishment but then left disillusioned. One of them was Shaikh Muhammad Amin Almasri, who later became Dean of Kulliya AlSharia in Saudi Arabia who had moved to Pakistan and lived in Nazimabad who knew Muhammad Asad from that time. Recommend

  • Mom
    Jul 6, 2011 - 1:20PM

    So, we can safely say, it was Jew who created Pakistan? If yes, the conspiracy theorists are right afterall ! Never underestimate the power of Jews :-)Recommend

  • asad haque
    Jul 6, 2011 - 1:34PM

    Ahh! You could have written some more about him, maybe even for the columnists space is jaundiced.Few Lines from Mohammad Asad’s book “What do we mean by Pakistan” written 63 years ago. A reflection for those who want to live in this land of the Purest on their own merits.

    “It should [therefore] be our leaders’ duty to tell their followers that they must become better Muslims today in order to be worthy of Pakistan tomorrow, instead of which they merely assure us that we shall become better Muslims’ as soon as Pakistan is achieved.There is an acute danger of the Pakistan movement being deflected from its ideological course by laying too much stress on a ‘cultural’ nationalism – on a community of interests arising not so much from a common ideology as from the desire to preserve certain cultural traits, social habits and customs and, last but not the least, to safeguard the economic development of a group of people who happen to be ‘Muslims’ only by virtue of their birth.”

    Let people know that he left Pakistan a grieving man.Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2011 - 1:52PM


    thanks for writing this. asad was perceptive.


    thanks for the linkRecommend

  • asad haque
    Jul 6, 2011 - 2:32PM

    Ah! My comments sent earlier are being moderated may be with the bleach Recommend

  • Zahid Qureshi
    Jul 6, 2011 - 3:08PM

    Thanks a lot for writing this column and introducing Muhammad Asad to those who do not know him.

    There is a brief interview of Muhammad Asad on youtube for the interest of readers : Recommend

  • Fawad
    Jul 6, 2011 - 3:35PM

    Many thanks Amber for writing this and Zahid for the Youtube link.Recommend

  • Amber Darr
    Jul 6, 2011 - 5:55PM

    I am touched and enriched by all your comments and new information and thank you from the bottom of my heart.Recommend

  • guest-worker
    Jul 6, 2011 - 6:59PM

    Wonder if His son is as good as him. ?Recommend

  • Comrade Ali Taqui
    Jul 6, 2011 - 8:50PM

    Informative one but you should have included some more information about Talal asad, which i think would clarify the current status of intellectuality,So for that purpose i as an graduate student of anthropology am leaving little about him that Mr Talal asad unlike his father, is not contributing to islam or muslim ummah, but he is an atheist Profesor of anthropology at new york university US. among the anthropology discipline he is best known as a Marxist anthropologist, having published enormous books in the academy on, religion, secularism, religious extremism and especialy interpreting Islam as a Tribal religion anthropologically. He is one of my favorite theorist indeed as a Marxist scholar. that Mr Talal asad unlike his father, is not contributing to islam or muslim ummah, but he is an atheist Profesor of anthropology at new york university US. among the anthropology discipline he is best known as a Marxist anthropologist, having published enormous books in the academy on, religion, secularism, religious extremism and especialy interpreting Islam as a Tribal religion anthropologically. He is one of my favorite theorist indeed as a Marxist scholar.Recommend

  • Syed Arshad Kamal
    Jul 7, 2011 - 9:35AM

    Glad Mohammad Asad remembered, Thanks AmberRecommend

  • Jul 7, 2011 - 11:46PM

    To be honest I have never heard his name. And if I have, I cannot recall. The style of this article is great and it very effortlessly brings in the joy of a man transformed from Judaism to Islam. Recommend

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