Muhammad Asad — a Pak-Saudi envoy
In our conversation, he recalled fondly his time spent with the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia and his long years in Pakistan. I was an admirer of his writings and we talked about his books. He had absorbed the Muslim tradition of hospitality and magnanimity. I was pleasantly surprised when he returned the next day to present me signed copies of his books as a token of appreciation.
Few people know that apart from being an inspired writer, a distinguished scholar of Islam, an expert of Semitic languages and a perceptive traveler in the Islamic world, Asad also acted as an envoy for Saudi Arabia in 1920s and then went on to become a formal diplomat for Pakistan in its formative years.
Asad was born as Leopold Weiss to a Jewish family on July 12, 1900, in the town of Lvov (Lemberg), today in Ukraine, but then part of the Habsburg Empire. In 1922, he became a correspondent in the Middle East for the “Frankfurter Zeitung,” a prestigious German newspaper. Impressed with his writing, the paper soon commissioned him to travel more widely to collect information for a book. Asad traveled for two years through Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, getting closer to Islam in the process.
Upon concluding his travels, Asad returned to Germany to write his book but differences with the editor of the “Frankfurter Zeitung” led him to resign. He took up Islamic studies and wrote as a stringer for other newspapers. Ironically, it was here, in the heart of Europe, that he was inspired to convert. Asad writes that while traveling in the Berlin subway, noticed that the people around him on the train had no smiles on their faces despite their worldly attainments. Returning to his flat, a surah in the Quran he had been reading caught his eye: “You are obsessed by greed for more and more / Until you go down to your graves.” And then later, in the same verse: “Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty, / You would indeed see the hell you are in.” Asad wrote that any doubt he had that the Qur’an was a revealed book vanished. He went to the leader of the Berlin Islamic Society and converted to Islam, taking the name Muhammad Asad.
Thus began Asad’s love affair with Islam which would take him to the heart of Islam in Arabia. During his pilgrimage to Makkah, he had a chance to meet with Prince Faisal in the Grand Mosque’s library who invited him to meet with his father, the legendary King Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The king was a perceptive judge of character and soon Asad had almost daily audiences with the king and became part of his inner circle. During the next few years, the king employed Asad on certain foreign missions.
At this time in British-ruled South Asia, Muslims had begun to struggle for a separate homeland for themselves, which they would later name “Pakistan.” Asad arrived in Karachi in 1932 by ship and left for Lahore. In 1933, Asad landed in the capital of Kashmir where another freedom struggle had started. The pre-dominantly Muslim population of Kashmir had begun to revolt against the Hindu prince ruling the state. Asad’s activities in Kashmir alarmed the British intelligence. The prince’s government also wanted to expel him.
On return from Kashmir to Lahore, Asad met the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. It was Iqbal who had proposed for the first time the formation of a separate state for South Asian Muslims in 1930. Iqbal asked Asad to remain in India and work “to elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state.” Iqbal, 24 years senior to Asad, shared a German connection with Asad as he had obtained his Ph.D. from Germany. He must have inspired Asad with his towering intellect, political acumen and intimate knowledge of Islamic and Western philosophy and literature. For Iqbal’s fervent criticism of materialism, excessive individualism and Godless democracy would find echoes in the pamphlet “Islam at the Crossroads” written by Asad in 1934. This text resonated with Muslims everywhere, going through repeated printings and editions in India and Pakistan. It also appeared in an Arabic translation in Beirut in 1946 under the title “Al-Islam ‘ala muftariq al-turuq” which was published in numerous editions through the 1940s and 1950s.
The ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, had established a journal “Islamic Culture” which was edited by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), a British convert to Islam well known for his English translation of the Qur’an. When Pickthall died in 1936, the Nizam chose Asad for the editorship of the journal. In October 1938, Asad resigned from the editorship of Islamic Culture, and then left India. He returned to Europe in 1939 with the intention of saving his Jewish parents from Nazis. But his efforts ended fruitlessly as Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war against Germany in September 1939. Back in India, Asad was detained by the British rulers immediately as an enemy national and spent the next six years in internment camps with Germans, Austrians and Italians.
The scholar Martin Kramer writes that upon Asad’s release, he “wholly identified with the cause of Pakistan, which he saw not simply as a refuge, but as the framework for an ideal Islamic polity.” He understood that a new state for Muslims of India was “an historical necessity” to preserve their separate identity. After Pakistan came into being in 1947, Asad became director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction and began formulating proposals for its constitution.
Asad’s purpose was to portray an Islamic state as a liberal, multiparty parliamentary democracy. He cited evidence in the Islamic sources for elections, parliamentary legislation and political parties. His proposals, published in March 1948 as Islamic Constitution-Making, were reflected in the Preamble to the first Constitution of Pakistan, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. That year, Asad joined Pakistan’s foreign service, eventually rising to the position of head of the Middle East Division of the Foreign Ministry. According to Kramer, “his transformation was now complete, down to his Pakistani achkan (formal Pakistani dress) and black fur cap.” In 1952, he went to New York, as Pakistan’s minister plenipotentiary to the United Nations.
Like Kashmir, Asad was also drawn to the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Early in 1922, an uncle had invited Asad to visit Jerusalem where another uncle was an ardent Zionist. But Asad was anti-Zionist even before his conversion. He wrote, “I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism. I considered it immoral that immigrants should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining to majority in the country and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been since time immemorial.”
At the end of 1952, Asad resigned from Pakistan Foreign Service to focus attention on what would be his masterpiece, “The Road to Mecca” which won accolades in East and West alike. Asad also planned to write a new English translation of the Qur’an and began work on it in 1960. He was not satisfied with the existing English translations of Qur’an since he believed that “familiarity with the Bedouin speech of Central and Eastern Arabia—in addition to academic knowledge of classical Arabic” was the only way for a non-Arab of his time to achieve the required understanding of the diction of the Qur’an. He admired Prince Faisal immensely and had reestablished a link with him in 1951. In 1963, Prince Faisal financed the translation project through Muslim World League. Asad published a limited edition of the first nine surahs in 1964. In 1980, he published the full translation and commentary, called “The Message of the Qur’an.”
Asad died on Feb. 20, 1992. He was buried in the small Muslim cemetery in Granada, Spain. He was, like Iqbal, deeply aware of the issues of the 20th century Islamic world. He foresaw its problems and suggested solutions which can be found all over his writings. He wanted Muslims to be aware of the glorious standards of knowledge, morality and spiritual progress set by Islam. In the modern Muslim’s struggle to attain those standards, Asad’s writings will remain a bright beacon for generations.
The author is Ambassador of Pakistan to Saudi Arabia.
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