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.