Muhammad Asad (1900-1992CE) مُحَمَّد أسد

Muhammad Asad (1900-1992CE) مُحَمَّد أسد

“Every born Muslim must be reconverted to Islam sometime during his life; Islam cannot be inherited. In view of this, it was alarming when a levelheaded and realistic man like Muhammad Asad, towards the end of his long life, revealed to me serious doubts as to whether as in 1926, he would again find his way to Islam, if he were again a young man in today’s Muslim world” – Dr. Murad W. Hofmann in his book, Journey to Makkah.

Asad was born to Jewish parents as Leopold Weiss in 1900 in Poland – which was then part of the Austrian empire. Asad’s grandfather, Benjamin Weiss, despite his love of mathematics, astronomy and chess, was yet an orthodox Rabbi of Czrenowitz. Although Asad’s father did not become a Rabbi, Benjamin Weiss’ second son, however, turned a full-time Rabbi at quite an early age, but emerged as a promising scholar only as a convert to the Christian faith.

Akiva Weiss, on the other hand, made sure that Leopold Weiss received a thorough religious education that would enable him to keep the rabbinical tradition of the family alive and well. Asad had his early education at a local school, and unlike his uncle and grandfather was least interested in astronomy and mathematics. He would record later:

“I was a very different student. Mathematics and natural sciences were particularly boring to me; I found infinitely greater pleasure in reading the stirring historical romances of Seinkiswicz, the fantasies of Jules Verne, Red Indian stories by James Fennimore Cooper and Karl May and later, the verses of Rilke and the sonorous cadences and also Thus Spake Zaruthustra.”

Proficient in Hebrew at an early age, thanks to the tutors appointed at home by his father, Asad was also not unfamiliar with Aramaic. Thus by thirteen, he could speak Hebrew fluently. Having studied the Old Testament as also the text and commentaries of the Talmud, the Mishna and Gemara, Asad delved further into the finer aspects of the Targum, or Biblical exegesis.

All this promise of his early childhood years notwithstanding, after the family moved to Vienna in 1920, he ran away from home when just fourteen years old, and tried, unsuccessfully, to join the Austrian army in the First World War under a false name. However, Akiva Weiss successfully traced his runaway son. Incidentally, and almost as soon as Asad was officially drafted, the Austrian Empire collapsed, and with it went all his aspirations for military glory. With the war coming to a close, he turned to the pursuit of philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna but which failed to satisfy him and he promptly left them in search of fulfillment elsewhere. Although Vienna was then among the intellectual and cultural centers of Europe, the major conclusions of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others in psychoanalysis, logical positivism, linguistic analysis and semantics, left Asad unsatisfied. His interests lay ‘more in the direction of things seen and felt: people, activities and relationships.’

Asad left Vienna in 1920. Travelling through Central Europe, he did ‘all manner of short-lived jobs,’ and tasted hunger and privation, before he finally arrived in Berlin drifting around Germany working at odd jobs. Asad’s first piece of journalistic work, however, was published while working, in 1921, for United Telegraph, an American news agency in Berlin, as a telephone operator. One day, he audaciously phoned up the visiting wife of the Russian author, Maxim Gorky, at her hotel room in Berlin to obtain an exclusive interview with her. As it turned out, Gorky’s wife was in Berlin on a covert mission to solicit Western aid for Russia. The story, thereafter, was taken up by his employers, who had by that time become aware of the persistent quality and resourcefulness of their young employee.

By 1922, he had become a foreign correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung in the Near and Far East. It was one of the foremost newspapers of the Europe of that time, and so Asad’s career with this paper soon landed him in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. It gave him an outlook on world affairs that was in many ways unique, particularly where it related to the Jews and the Arabs.

In what was originally meant to be a brief stay with an uncle – the psychoanalyst, Dorian Weiss, who was the younger brother of Asad’s mother – in Jerusalem, Asad had left Europe for the Middle East in 1922. But it was here that he came to know and admire the Arabs and how Islam gave their everyday lives real meaning, spiritual fulfillment and peace. Although his knowledge of Islam was still nominal at the time, he saw in Muslims a coherent symbiosis between mind and body, a characteristic so lacking in the Europeans he had known. Indeed, it were in the simple things – like the Bedouin who broke bread with him on the train to Jerusalem, and the congregational prayer lead by the Hajji who was his uncle’s neighbor – that Asad was first attracted to Islam. Indeed, recounting his experience with the Bedouin in the train, Asad would later write:

“When I now think of this little occurrence, it seems to me that all my later love for the Arab character must have been influenced by it. For in the gesture of this bedouin, who, over all barriers of strangeness, sensed a friend in an accidental traveling companion and broke bread with him, I must already have felt the breath and the step of humanity free of burden.”

Asad was on the Berlin subway, when watching the people on this train, well-fed and well-clothed, he could notice that every passenger – man or woman - had marks of unhappiness on his face.

If this train journey left a permanent mark on his mind, another train journey opened his eyes to another reality. He was on the Berlin subway, when watching the people on this train, well-fed and well-clothed, he could notice that every passenger – man or woman - had marks of unhappiness on his face. From face to face, it was the same worried expression that stood out. He pointed to his wife Elsa who had no difficulty in agreeing with him. He wrote: “...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?’ He could not help asking himself why it was so, despite the material progress? The answer came as he returned to his flat. He cast a glance on the copy of the Qur'an he was reading, and his eyes fell upon chapter al-Takathur (no.102). It said,

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.

In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:

And on that Day you will be asked what you did with the boon of life.

He wrote:

“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.”

And,

“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....”

To continue with his story, it was also during his stay in Jerusalem during the 20s, that Asad came into contact with the Zionist Committee of Action. Repelled by its contempt towards the Arabs, Asad would record thus in his semi-autobiographical The Road to Makkah:

“Although of Jewish origin myself, I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism... I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a great foreign power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining a majority in Palestine and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been... This attitude of mine was beyond the comprehension of practically all the Jews whom I came in contact with during those months. They could not understand what I saw in the Arabs... They were not in the least interested in what the Arabs thought; almost none of them took the pains to learn Arabic; and everyone accepted without question the dictum that Palestine was the rightful heritage of the Jews.”

His time in Palestine would bring him in close contact with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement, and with whom he had a heated discussion over Zionist philosophy.

“What about the Arabs?” Asad asked Dr. Weizmann one day while the latter was articulating his vision of a Jewish National Home. “What about the Arabs?” echoed Dr. Weizmann.

“Well, how can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority in this country?”

The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered dryly: “We expect they won’t be in a majority after a few years.”

Asad remained a fervent anti-Zionist to the end of his life. However, at the time the state of Israel was created, he was fully involved with the partition of India and offered no published comment on his thoughts on the catastrophe in the Middle East. It was only after the 1967 war that Asad spoke out more often on the subject. In one statement Asad is reported to have said:

“We cannot ever reconcile ourselves to the view, so complacently accepted in the West, that Jerusalem is to be the capital of the state of Israel. In a conceivably free Palestine – a state in which Jews, Christians and Muslims could live side by side in full political and cultural equality – the Muslim community should be especially entrusted with the custody of Jerusalem as a city open to all three communities.”

In tandem with his first jarring impressions of the nascent Zionist movement, as a full-time foreign correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Asad’s assignments also enabled his ever-deepening relationship with Islam, which after great deliberation led to his embracing the faith by 1926. It was just prior to this that Asad, who was back in Berlin after being in the Middle East for a few years, experienced a spiritual epiphany that eventually changed the course of his life and oriented it irreversibly towards Islam. He would write 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.” —Muhammed Asad

“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.” In later years, in a moving reply to the regular question as to why exactly he embraced Islam, Asad would say:

“You ask me: ‘what aspect of Islam attracted you the most?’ I cannot answer this question, for Islam in its entirety has invaded and penetrated my heart… What attracted me to the Islamic religion was the love I had for it. You know, love is composed of various things: desire, loneliness, ambition, elevation, zeal for progress and improvement, our weaknesses mixed with our strength and power, the need for someone to help and protect us, and the like. So I embraced Islam with all my heart and all my love, and it settled in my heart so as to never leave there again.”

It was thus in Berlin that Asad officially changed over to Islam at the hands of the Imam of the city’s tiny Muslim community. Thereafter, he took for himself the names, Muhammad – in honor of the Prophet – and Asad — meaning ‘lion’ — as a reminder of his original Jewish name. He also broke up with his father over the issue of his conversion, got married to Elsa who, at 40, was fifteen years his senior- but who also moved over to Islam- resigned his newspaper job of a sudden, and made off on a pilgrimage to Makkah. In 1927, a few days after he arrived in Makkah, however, his wife of a brief but intense two years, passed away, and was buried in a pilgrim’s cemetery there. Despite this personal tragedy, Asad remained in Makkah and a fortunate meeting with Prince Faysal in the library of the Grand Mosque, soon found Asad in audience with King ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa`ud, the architect of modern Saudi Arabia. That initial introduction was followed by almost daily meetings with the king which enabled the monarch to appreciate Asad’s breadth of knowledge, spiritual depth and astute mind. Asad made another pilgrimage in 1928, this time without Elsa, and yet another in 1930 with only his fondest memories of her in accompaniment. Another pilgrimage, before his last ever, was in 1931.

In all, Asad would spend some six years in Makkah and Madinah, studying Arabic, the Qur'an, the traditions of the Prophet and Islamic history. It was during this period that he married an Arab girl at Madinah in 1932. This girl was of the Shammar tribe, and by 1933, would bear Asad his only offspring, his son Talal. Asad’s last Hajj was performed in 1932 in the company of his Arab wife.

His years in Arabia convinced Asad 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.’ To the end of his life, Asad’s greatest aspiration was thenceforward the method of Islam’s regeneration or revival in the lives of people: a task for which he was eminently qualified through his academic knowledge of classical Arabic – made simpler due to his familiarity with other Semitic sister languages – and through his wide travels and contacts with Bedouins in Arabia.

Asad’s sojourns in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – which inspired many an insightful article on Shi’ism from his pen – and also Afghanistan and the southern Soviet Republics, were looked upon with great suspicion by the Colonial Powers. This was so much so that an English diplomat in Saudi Arabia referred to Asad as a ‘Bolshevik.’ Asad of course did take more than a casual interest in the many liberation movements that worked then for the Muslim independence from colonialist control. In fact, Ibn Sa`ud was able to discover the treacherous nature of the British, by asking Asad to gather information about his opponents. In 1929, Asad traced the source of guns and funds that made their way to Faysal ad-Dawish, a rebel leader who was against Ibn Sa`ud’s rule and policies, while, in the open, the British were aligned to Ibn Sa`ud. Asad’s secret information collection activity against ad-Dawish convinced him that Britain was behind the rebellion: a piece of news which he promptly reported to the international newspapers. Towards the end of 1928, Asad had occasion to meet with Amir Shakib Arsalan, the well-known leader of the independence movement in Syria, when the latter came to visit `Abdul Aziz b. Sa`ud. Asad was left with a very favorable impression of the Syrian leader.

Asad traced the source of guns and funds that made their way to Faysal ad-Dawish, a rebel leader who was against Ibn Sa`ud’s rule and policies to the British, while, in the open, the British were aligned to Ibn Sa`ud.

In 1930, impressed by the epic Sanusi resistance of the Libyans against Italy under Mussolini, and, of course, the legend of `Umar al-Mukhtar, who in his eightieth year, was still leading the resistance since two decades, Asad left on a daring journey into the heart of northern Libya. Overcoming great hardships through deserts, rivers and rough weather, he trekked through the deserts of Libya before finally meeting up under cover of darkness with the ‘Lion of Cyranecia’ as al-Mukthar was known. That short meeting with the wizened warrior was to leave a profound impact on Asad inasmuch as al-Mukthar articulated for him not just with words of deep feeling, but even with the very lines that crisscrossed his battle-worn face, what it meant to live a life of Jihad against oppression and injustice. The meeting was to be his first, and last, with `Umar al-Mukthar, for in the September of 1931 – a year later – he was captured in battle with the Italians and executed like a petty criminal in a local bazaar, thanks to the fascist brand of Mussolini’s Italian chivalry and sense of honor.

Asad’s restless travels would take him as far as India – for which destination he left the Middle East in 1932 – and where he began his stay with a lecture tour of the country. However, if British intelligence sources of the time are to be believed, Asad had in fact linked up with a freedom activist in Amritsar – a certain Ismail Ghaznavi – and his tour of India was meant to reach out to all those working for independence from British rule. Indeed, Asad had arrived by ship at Karachi in 1932, and had promptly left for Amritsar. It is also known that Asad was for a time in Kashmir where he delivered lectures at the Islamia High School in Srinagar. In 1931, Kashmiri Muslims in Punjab flagged off an agitation in support of the Muslims in Kashmir. Soon hundreds of Muslim volunteers from the Punjab crossed over to Kashmir, with thousands being arrested by the British in the process. Although the disturbances subsided by 1932, the government in Kashmir remained cautious. While the exact nature of Asad’s involvement here remains unclear, the British, on being informed of Asad’s presence in Kashmir, promptly wanted him ‘externed.’ This was even though there existed legal difficulties in ‘externing’ a European national. Irrespective of what Asad’s political function in Kashmir might have been, his literary talents continued to flourish in the valley where he composed the first part of his commentary on the traditions of the Prophet, which was entitled Sahih al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam.

In Lahore, Punjab, he was soon to meet and work with the poet-philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal , who had first proposed the idea of an autonomous Muslim state within India. It would again be Iqbal who would convince Asad to forego his plans to travel to eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia and, instead, to help clarify the intellectual premises of a future Islamic state. Thereafter, Asad shifted his focus to Islamic legal and political systems in the 1930’s when he and Iqbal commenced work on a state, where Muslims could lead their lives in accordance with the ideals and teachings of Islam. Asad decided to spend a few years in Dar-ul-Islam village situated away from human habitation in the forestlands of Pathankot. Dar-ul-Islam – as an experimental model for Muslims to implement the Islamic code of life in its totality – had been the brainchild of Iqbal. But soon Iqbal passed away and things did not advance any further.

A key contributor to the shaping of the intellectual and ideological framework for the new Muslim state of Pakistan, Asad later republished some of his earlier writings on this subject in The Principles of State and Government in Islam (1961) and This Law of Ours and Other Essays (1987). In The Principles of State and Government in Islam, he wrote perceptively:

“An Islamic state is not a goal or an end in itself but only a means: the goal being the growth of a community of people who stand up for equity and justice, for right and against wrong—or, to put it more precisely, a community of people who work for the creation and maintenance of such social conditions as would enable the greatest possible number of human beings to live, morally as well as physically, in accordance with the natural Law of God, Islam.”

While in India during the time of the Second World War, Asad was among some 3000 Europeans interned there by the British as ‘enemy aliens.’ Asad had refused a German passport after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, and had insisted then on continuing as an Austrian citizen. His imprisonment by the British in India – who, perhaps, saw in him visions of a second Jamaluddin Afghani – on the very second day of the war, in September 1939, had happened despite this pronounced anti-German stand on his part. Nor was he released from prison till 1945 during which time he remained in internment camps with Germans, Austrians and Italians who had been arrested from all over British-held Asia.

During these six years of incarceration, Asad remained in touch with his uncle, Aryeh Feigenbaum, in Jerusalem, who was generous enough to dispatch him food, clothes and even money. It was at this difficult period that matters were further compounded when, in 1942, he lost his father and sister in the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Nazis in Vienna, Austria, where they died in a concentration camp. His earlier efforts in 1938 presumably to help his immediate family escape from Austria had failed because of German invasion of Poland, and British declaration of war against Germany.

In 1947 Asad was appointed Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations. In 1948, he was made the Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction: during which time he wrote the essay, Islamic Constitution-Making, which was published both in Urdu and English by the Government of Punjab. He was subsequently appointed the head of the Middle East Division of the Foreign Ministry in 1949. Active within the foreign ministry of that country during the period that stretched from 1949 to the early 1950s, Asad’s role in the drafting of the Objectives Resolution – soon recognized as the Preamble to the Constitution of Pakistan – was, to say the least, instrumental.

Asad resigned from the Pakistan Foreign Service in late 1952, and commenced a period of vigorous writing. Unaccompanied by his Arab wife and son Talal, he came to New York alone and settled down in a penthouse in Manhattan. He would soon meet with Pola Hamida, an American woman of Polish descent who had herself converted to Islam, and eventually marry her at a civil function in New York in November 1952.

By August 1954, his remarkable The Road to Mecca came out to international acclaim. The Christian Science Monitor ran a review which noted:

“(This) book is one which has burst with strange and compelling authority upon the small fraternity of Westerners who know Arabia,...a book trenchant with adventure magnificently described, and a commentary upon the inner meaning of Arab and Moslem life, helpful to all who would achieve a more accurate understanding of the Arabs and their lands.” The Times Literary Supplement also reviewed the book and wrote, “History tells us of many European converts to Islam, some of whom have risen to high place and power.... But it is rare to find a convert setting out, step by step, the process of his conversion; and doing this, moreover, in a narrative of great power and beauty.”

Following this, Asad left New York in 1955, and moved with Pola Hamida to Geneva where he first began contemplation on his ultimate life-work: a translation and commentary of the Qur'an. Work on this translation commenced in 1960 but it was evident that a work of such ambition and magnitude could not survive without strong patronage. It was at this juncture that Asad’s long-standing friendship with Saudi Arabia’s King Faysal (reigned 1964-75 CE) came to his rescue. Indeed, through his first trip to Saudi Arabia in eighteen years, Asad had, in 1951, assiduously re-established the link with Faysal. By the time Faisal became king in 1964, Asad was championing his cause with no lesser enthusiasm than he did the cause of Faysal’s father, the late King `Abdul `Aziz b. Sa`ud, in his time.

As would have been expected, Faysal renewed Saudi patronage for Asad – earlier lost following his indictment of King `Abdul `Aziz b. Sa`ud in the older editions of The Road to Mecca – and soon had the Muslim World League, in Makkah, extending advance support for his dream project on the commentary of the Qur'an. The first preliminary part of his work (covering the first nine chapters of the Qur'an) was published in 1964, but which was banned entry into Saudi Arabia for his implied denial of angels, `Isa’s bodily ascension to heaven, and allegorical interpretation of some verses.

The financial backing gone, he moved to Tangier (Morocco), and continued to work on the same lines, financially supported by his friends, and possibly by Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia, until the completion of the work in 1980, when it was published by Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar. Towards the last years of his life, however, unable to reconcile himself with some of his fellow Muslims in Muslim lands, he shifted his residence to Spain, and remained there with his wife, Pola Hamida, until he passed away, in February 1992. In 1978, the Pakistani President, a man who knew who was who in the Islamic world, tried to persuade Asad to return to Pakistan, but failed. Asad was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Granada.

Asad had begun a sequel to his The Road to Mecca sometime before his death. Tentatively called Homecoming of the Heart, the title is said to have implied his proposed return to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Prince Salman, a son of Ibn Saud, who was also the governor of Riyadh. Whether the title really meant this or whether it alluded more to a spiritual homecoming, we will never know, for Asad neither finished this work nor did he return to Saudi Arabia before he passed away.

A biography of Asad’s early life has been published in German, Leopold Weiss alias Muhammad Asad: Von Galizien nach Arabien 1900-1927 by Gunther Windhager (Bohlau Verlag 2002). Asad’s own inspiring account of the same period came out as The Road to Mecca, a travelogue of astonishing power and beauty in which he recollects his Middle Eastern travels and the path to his conversion. His The Message of the Qur'an, a translation and brief commentary on the Qur'an was, of course, based on his own knowledge of Arabic and on some classical commentaries. In the foreword to The Message of the Qur'an, Asad wrote:

“...although it is impossible to ‘reproduce’ the Qur'an as such in any other language, it is none the less possible to render its message comprehensible to people who, like most Westerners, do not know Arabic...well enough to find their way through it unaided… And I am fully aware that my rendering does not and could not really ‘do justice’ to the Qur'an and the layers upon layers of its meaning: for, ‘if all the seas were ink for my Sustainer’s words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my Sustainer’s words are exhausted.’ (Qur’an 18:109).”

He was especially influenced by Zamakhshari, Razi, Muhammad `Abduh and Rasheed Rida Masri. The Message of the Qur'an is not without its critics for its Mu`tazilite tendencies. One may not look into it for the true reflection of how Muslim scholars have understood the Qur'an through the centuries. A pithy remark about it goes that what should be in the translation is there in the commentary below. The work has its first appeal on the educated Westerners. According to Gai Eaton, a leading British Muslim thinker, Asad’s work was ‘the most helpful and instructive version of the Qur'an that we have in English.’

In addition to his translation and commentary on the Sahih Bukhari, Asad also wrote This Law of Ours and Other Essays where he sums up his views on Islamic law and rejects decisively the notion of Taqlid, or strict judicial precedent. However, his rejection of Taqlid did not imply in any way, whatsoever, disrespect for past contributions. Indeed, on the contrary, while his was a profound respect of the achievements of the great scholars of the past, he was critical of blind obedience to individual opinions.

In his view, all qualified Muslims were eligible — indeed, required — to exercise their reasoning and judgment on the range of specific issues which crop up in every age and that were left undetermined by revelation or the traditions of Muhammad, on whom is peace. Much credit for Asad’s This Law of Ours and Other Essays must go to Pola Hamida, who compiled his various writings and radio talks and persuaded him to publish them in book form. Thus, this book is a true record of Asad’s thought from the mid-1940’s to 1987. As Pola Hamida so correctly points out, the reader will be struck ‘not only by the extraordinary timeliness and timelessness of these thoughts and predictions, but also by their great consistency.’ The book also contains Asad’s ideas on the ideological foundation of Pakistan as well as on Islam’s encounter with the West. In a remarkable passage from This Law of Ours and Other Essays, Asad wrote:

“Simply talking about the need for a ‘rebirth’ of faith is not much better than bragging about our glorious past and extolling the greatness of our predecessors. Our faith cannot be born unless we understand what it implies and to what practical goals it will lead us. It will not do us the least good if we are glibly assured that the socio-economic programme of Islam is better than that of socialism, communism, capitalism, fascism, and God knows what other ‘isms’.... We ought rather to be showing in unmistakable terms, what alternative proposals the Shari`ah regard to individual property and the communal good, labour and production, capital and profit, employer and employee, the state and the individual; what its practical measures are for the prevention of man’s exploitation by man; for an abolition of ignorance and poverty; for obtaining food, clothing and shelter for every man, woman and child....”

Eloquently arguing for rationalism and plurality in Islamic law, Asad saw these qualities as the real legacy of the Salaf or the earliest generations of Muslims. In his little masterpiece, Islam at the Crossroads, he makes the point 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.

His rejection of secularism and materialism was, doubtless, a direct consequence of his own personal experience of the West. In having to reject the Western way, Asad’s was also a deeply felt disappointment. However, his being dejected at the futility of the culture in which he was reared never influenced him away from what had to be done – and accepted – without prejudice. His scrutiny of the West’s malaise was, therefore, a thoroughly searching one. Having thus come to his conclusions, Asad carried out his investigations to their logical end inasmuch as he unabashedly expressed his findings and offered his devastating critique.

At no stage in his life was Asad affiliated to any organized movement: he remained an independent Muslim intellectual who left behind no disciple to carry on and further his thought. However, it is certain that succeeding generations of Muslims will continue to benefit from the brilliance of his thought which is his undisputed legacy in many crucial fields of study like Sunnah, Shari`ah, travel, autobiography, Islamic jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, political theory and constitutional ideas.

In the late forties, Asad also brought out a journal titled Arafat from Lahore in pre-partition India. However, Asad’s first book since his coming of age as a Muslim was Islam at the Crossroads, published first in New York in 1934 which has been most widely read and translated into several languages, including Arabic. In perhaps fitting summary of Asad’s contributions, and their value in history, one observer pointedly commented:

“…as is the case with most writings, Asad’s, too, will eventually become dated. His translations and interpretations of the Qur'an and Sahih al-Bukhari will, in time, be supplanted, his views on secularism and westernization will be re-examined and modified, his successful espousal of Ijtihad will become passe, and his proposals for political and constitutional reform will be enacted. But one work of Asad’s promises to escape the earthly oblivion that is the fate of almost all human endeavor: his unequaled, dazzling masterpiece, The Road to Mecca.”

On 14 April 2008, the Government of Vienna officially named a square after him - Muhammad Asad Platz. Moreover, the first Islamic school in Austria is being established in Vienna and it also has been named after him. Carrying on in his father’s tradition, Muhammad Asad’s son, Talal Asad, is today an eminent anthropologist who specializes in studies on religion and post-colonialism. (BAQ/SIZ)