From Jew to Athiest to Muslim, Muhammad Asad’s search for the truth
When it comes to the West meeting and embracing the East, no story truly personifies this other than that of Leipold Weiss, and when he decided to take his life-changing journey on the road to Mecca, he became Muhammad Asad.
Born to a long line of Jewish rabbis at the turn of the 20th century, Muhammad Asad spent his childhood joyfully and comfortably in the modern European city and countryside homes his wealthy family possessed. His father was the son of a strict Orthodox Jewish rabbi, however, his father wasn’t much religious himself as with a large portion of men who grew up around the turn of the century in Europe.
Muhammad’s father wanted him to study science, however, ‘Mathematics and natural sciences were particularly boring’ (Asad, 2005) to him. Instead, Weiss found reading literature and history to be infinitely more worthy of his time. In keeping with his family’s tradition, he received through the teachings of private teachers, ‘a thorough grounding in Hebrew religious lore.’ (Asad, 2005) Muhammad claimed that his parents weren’t that religious, to begin with as he mentions that his family ‘They belonged to a generation which, while paying lip service to one or another of the religious faiths that had shaped the lives of its ancestors, never made the slightest endeavour to conform its practical life or even its ethical thought to those who clung by habit -and only by habit- to their religious heritage,’ (Asad, 2005) By the age of thirteen, Weiss could read and speak Hebrew with ‘great fluency’ (Asad, 2005) as well as some Aramaic.
Although Weiss was well-read and knowledgeable of the Old Testament and the Talmud, he developed some ‘supercilious’ ’thoughts with that of his Jewish faith (Asad, 2005). ‘It seemed to me that the God of the Old Testament and the Talmud was unduly concerned with the ritual by means of which His worshippers were supposed to worship Him. It also occurred to me that this God was strangely preoccupied with the destinies of one particular nation, the Hebrews. He goes on to mention that the God of the Old Testament appears ‘not as the creator and sustainer of all mankind but, rather, as a tribal deity adjusting all creation to the requirements of a ‘chosen people’’. (Asad, 2005) This led Weiss to drift into agnosticism, rejecting all forms of institutional religion and regarding religion as nothing more than a series of restrictive regulations.
Muhammad Asad wasn’t the only one from his generation to experience a void of religious spirituality in his life. Like him, many young people during the first two decades stood in a sort of spiritual vacuum. After the first world war, Europe experienced a traumatic shock to the collective psyche which re-evaluated Europe’s ethics. ‘Everything seemed to be flowing in a formless flood, and the spiritual restlessness of youth could nowhere find a foothold. In the absence of any reliable standards of morality, nobody could give us young people satisfactory answers to the many questions that perplexed us.’ (Asad, 2005) In his youth, Weiss would look into different fields of knowledge to satisfy his intellectual thirst with no success, so he settled on journalism. However, this did not sit well with his father as he wanted Muhammad to pursue a scientific career. Muhammad and his father would fight over this issue until Muhammad couldn’t take it any longer so he moved away from his family in Vienna in 1920 and left for Prague. What followed was a bunch of highs and lows of financial stability but eventually, he found the break he was looking for. A journalist position at United Telegraph which afforded Muhammad a sense of success and accomplishment.
Despite this success, Asad felt there was still something lacking in his life in Europe. ‘No, I was certainly not unhappy – only deeply, dissatisfied, unsatisfied, not knowing what I was really after, and at the same time convinced, with the absurd arrogance of youth that one day I would know it.’ (Asad, 2005) In the spring of 1922, Muhammad Asad received a letter from his Psychiatrist uncle, Dorian. Being one of the earliest pupils of Sigmund Freud, he was the head of a psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem. Dorian felt lonely in his solitude so he asked his nephew to join him. This enticed Muhammad Asad, so the next morning he quit his job at the United Telegraph and decided to leave Europe for the East.
He landed in Alexandria, Egypt, and made his way to Palestine by train, marveling at the Arabian landscapes, cultures, smells, and sounds. ‘I felt enwrapped by the great landscape.’ (Asad, 2005) Asad felt an attraction to the Arabs and their culture, especially the Beduins. ‘ Perhaps it was a presentiment of coming upheavals in my own life that gripped me on that first day in an Arab country at the sight of the Beduins: the presentiment of a world which lacks all defining limits but is, nonetheless, never formless; which is fully rounded in itself – and nevertheless open on all sides: a world that was soon to become my own.’ (Asad, 2005)
It was here where Muhammad Asad was exposed to the religious customs of Muslims, specifically the prayers. Even as a young Jewish man, he was very familiar with Arab and Jewish coexistence in Jerusalem. He categorises the inhabitants into three categories; Arabs, Native Jews, and the European Jews. ‘But although the European Jews were so obviously out of all harmony with the picture that surrounded them, it was they who set the tone of Jewish life and politics and thus seemed to be responsible for the almost visible friction between Jews and Arabs.’ (Asad, 2005) Muhammad Asad notes that Europeans that came to the East had little or ‘no idea at all about the Arabs’. ‘I had of course, vaguely known that ‘some’ Arabs lived there, but I imagined them to be only nomads in desert tents and idyllic oasis dwellers. Because most of what I had read about Palestine in earlier days had been written by Zionists – who naturally had only their own problems in view – I had not realised that the towns also were full of Arabs – that, in fact, in 1922 there lived in Palestine nearly five Arabs to every Jew, and that, therefore, it was an Arab country to a far higher degree than a country of Jews.’ (Asad, 2005)
The injustice committed against the native Arabs by the European colonialist and Jewish settlements were apparent to Muhammad and was quite disturbed by this. ‘From the very beginning, I had a feeling that the whole idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine was artificial, and, what was worse, that it threatened to transfer all the complications and insoluble problems of European life into a country which might have been happier without them. The Jews were not really coming to it as one returns to one’s homeland; they were rather bent on making European aims. In short, they were strangers within the gates.’ Muhammad ‘realized that it was the Arabs who were being imposed upon and were rightly defending themselves against such an imposition.’ (Asad, 2005)
After a couple of months in Palestine, Muhammad Asad became a special correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung, then one of the most outstanding newspapers in Europe which allowed him to explore this newfound culture. He built a sense of deep sympathy/admiration for the Arab people and in that process, he would contrast with his own people. ‘In the Arabs, I began to find something I had always unwittingly been looking for: an emotional lightness of approach to all questions of life – a supreme common sense of feeling, if one might call it so.’ ‘because I recognized in them that organic coherence of the mind and the senses which we Europeans had lost.’ ‘I became increasingly aware of an absorbing desire to know what it was that lay at the root of this emotional security and made Arab life so different from the European: and that desire seemed to be mysteriously bound up with my own innermost problems… I began to read intensively about their history, culture, and religion. And in the urge I felt to discover what it was that moved their hearts and filled their minds and gave them direction, I seemed to sense an urge to discover some hidden forces that moved myself, and filled me, and promised to give me direction…’ (Asad, 2005).
In 1923, Muhammad Asad travelled from Palestine to Egypt, Cairo to extend the scope of his work for the Frankfurter Zeitung to other countries besides Palestine. There, Asad saw the oppressive colonial forces of the British work their tyranny on the Egyptian people. However, although the Egyptian people suffered this tyranny, Muhammad was amazed at how these same people retained a sense of internal happiness and joy that couldn’t be found elsewhere in Europe. For the first time he had come across a community in which kinship that was not a result of economic or racial interests, but a much deeper common outlook. In the summer of that year, Muhammad returned to Palestine with a new-found knowledge of Middle Eastern thought, culture, and politics. After which he was invited to ‘Transjordan’, Amman through an acquaintance, Amir Abdullah. ‘There I saw for the first time a true Beduin land… Its streets were filled with Beduins, the real Beduins of the steppe whom one rarely saw in Palestine, free warriors, and camel breeders. Wonderful horses galloped through the streets; every man was armed, carried a dagger in his sash, and a rifle on his back.’ (Asad, 2005) His interaction with the Beduins taught him the complex and rich history of the Arabs and their religious inclinations. During this time, the Middle East was going through massive socio-political changes. The Ottoman Empire had just collapsed and multiple nationalist and religious movements had sprung up in the aftermath of this event.
When Asad wanted to see the ancient city of Damascus, the French had just occupied Syria and since he was Austrian (enemy of the french during the first world war) plus he lost his passport so he couldn’t enter Syria. However, this didn’t stop him from sneaking his way into the country all with just a few silver coins in his pocket and the generosity of the Arabs. He spent a large portion of his time in Damascus reading all that he can about Islam. Although his studies were fractured, he felt that Islam as a religion was demystified and appreciated much of its core principles and teachings. ‘It’s approach to the problems of the spirit seemed to be deeper than that of the Old Testament and had, moreover, none of that later’s predilection for one particular nation; and its approach to the problems of the flesh was, unlike the New Testament, strongly affirmative. Spirit and flesh stood, each in its own right, as the twin aspects of man’s God-created life.’(Asad, 2005) After having spent 18 months in the Middle East, Muhammad Asad had returned back to Europe. As if he were a foreigner in a land that seemed dissimilar to the one he left 18 months ago, he observed the modern Western way of life and contrasted it to that of the East. ‘Obviously, my contact with the Arabs had utterly, irretrievably changed my approach to what I considered essential in life;’ (Asad, 2005)
In 1924, Frankfurter Zeitung sent him to the Middle East and returned to immersing himself in the Arabian culture and the Islamic religion. It was on this second trip that gave Muhammad introspection about the Muslim world even more so than the first trip. He realised that there was a cultural decay at the heart of the Muslim world, especially Islamic scholasticism. ‘Was not the scholastic petrification of this ancient university mirrored, in varying degrees, in the social sterility of the Muslim present? Was not the counterpart of this intellectual stagnation to be found in the passive, almost indolent, acceptance by so many Muslims of the unnecessary poverty in which they lived, of their mute toleration of the many social wrongs to which they were subjected?’ (Asad, 2005). Asad noticed this common thread amongst the Middle-Eastern countries that he visited such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran Afghanistan.
Throughout those years Asad remained a non-Muslim, however, it was in Afghanistan where he first felt that he accept Islam as the one true religion. When he was on his way from Herat to Kabul through the snowy mountain valleys, he passed through the Hindu-Kush, in central Afghanistan. When a district governor heard of his passing, he invited him over for two days to spend in his castle. On the second day, the governor was engaged in a conversation about David and Goliath. The governor was in a deep state of romanticism of the David and Goliath narrative, however, Muhammad Asad was having none of it as he has learned so much about Muslim history and their glorious past. ‘The Hakim remarked: ‘David was small, but his faith was great…’ I could not prevent myself from adding: ‘And you are many, but your faith is small.’ My host looked at me with astonishment, and, embarrassed by what I had almost involuntarily said, I rapidly began to explain myself. My explanation took shape of a torrent of questions: ‘How has it come about that you Muslims have lost your self-confidence – that self-confidence which once enabled you to spread your faith, in less than a hundred years, from Arabia westward as far as the Atlantic and eastward deep into China – and now surrender yourselves so easily, so weakly, to the thoughts and customs of the West? Why can’t you, whose forefathers illumined the world with science and art at a time when Europe lay in deep barbarism and ignorance, summon forth the courage to go back to your own progressive, radiant faith? How is it that Ataturk, that petty masquerader who denies all value to Islam, has become to you Muslims a symbol of “Muslim revival”?’ he continued: ‘Tell me – how has it come about that the faith of your Prophet and all its clearness and simplicity has been buried beneath a rubble of sterile speculation and the hair-splitting of your scholastics? How has it happened that your princes and great land-owners revel in wealth and luxury while so many of their Muslim brethren subsist in unspeakable poverty and squalor – although your Prophet taught that No one may call himself a Faithful who eats his fill while his neighbour remains hungry? Can you make me understand why you have brushed woman into the background of your lives – although the women around the Prophet and his Companions took part in so grand a manner in the life of their men? How has it come about that so many of you Muslims are ignorant and so few can even read and write – although your Prophet declared that striving after knowledge is a most sacred duty for every Muslim man and woman and that the superiority of the learned man over the mere pious is like the superiority of the moon when it is full over all other stars?’ (Asad, 2005).
Muhammad Asad looked at his hosts with a slight regret to see if he offended them. However, to the surprise of Muhammad, the governor whispered to him: ‘But- you are a Muslim…’. Muhammad laughed and replied: ‘No, I am not Muslim, but I have come to see so much beauty in Islam that it makes me sometimes angry to watch you people waste it… Forgive me if I have spoken harshly. I did not speak as an enemy.’ The governor shook his head. ‘No, it is as I have said: you are a Muslim, only you don’t know it yourself…’ (Asad, 2005). Although Asad didn’t convert that time, these words would never leave him in the months that followed. That year in 1926, Asad moved on to travel towards what was then the Soviet Union and saw the anti-religious sentiment that the authorities expressed towards the Muslim people of its nation. From there he returned to Berlin and married Elsa who also shared the same quest as Muhammad. ‘Often we would read the Koran together and discuss its ideas; and Elsa, like myself, became more and more impressed by the inner cohesion between its moral teaching and its practical guidance.
The Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper demanded another book from Asad, but couldn’t deliver it as he felt unduly imposed upon which led to a quarrel with one of the senior members. Asad quit the newspaper out of frustration. One day while on a subway with his wife, he noticed that the people around him were well dressed and well-fed, a privilege that was brought about by economic prosperity. However, in contrast to their privileged lives, their faces did not show the happiness that usually accompanies such prosperity. One specific gentleman on the subway ‘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… And then I began to look around at all the 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. 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 waving material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power…’ (Asad, 2005).
When he returned home, he happened to glance at his desk on which lay the Quran open. As he picked it up the book to put it away, his eye fell on one of the verses that read:
Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you
Until you visit the graveyards.
No! You are going to know.
Then no! You are going to know.
No! If you only knew with knowledge of certainty…
You will surely see the Hellfire.
Then you will surely see it with the eye of certainty.
Then you will surely be asked that Day about pleasure.
(Holy Quran: Surah Al-Takathur)
The Quran shook in his hands, he was speechless. ‘It was an answer: 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.’ Muhammad saw at this moment that the Quran had warned the people of the excess of the material in this life would not only lead you to Hellfire but also a life of torment as well. ‘This, I saw, was not the mere human wisdom 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 his twentieth century. Out of the Koran spoke a voice greater than the voice of Muhammad…’ (Asad, 2005). After that moment he made his way to an Indian Muslim friend living in Berlin and told him that he wanted to become a Muslim right then and there and a few weeks later his wife as well. When he told his father about his conversion to Islam, he didn’t answer back. His sister told him that his father considered him dead. ‘Thereupon I sent him another letter, assuring him that my acceptance of Islam did not change anything in my attitude toward him or my love for him; that on the contrary, Islam enjoined upon me to love and honour my parents above all other people… But this letter also remained unanswered.’ Muhammad Asad from that point, never saw his father again after this point as he and his wife had left Europe because they could not bear to remain in Europe any longer. What would further Asad’s pain is the eventual horrific fate that befell on many Jews during that time. In 1942, his father and his sister were deported from Vienna by the Nazis and subsequently died in a concentration camp.
He chose to change his name from Leipold Weiss to Muhammad Asad as Leipold was a direct translation to Asad, Lion. He would spend the remaining years as a Muslim in the pursuit of Islamic knowledge which took him all over Arabia. He studied in Madina for five years with knowledgeable scholars in various Islamic sciences. In 1927, Muhammad Asad made the Hajj pilgrimage and took up residence in the newly formed Kingdom of Saudia Arabia. It was there where he met King Abdul Aziz and would eventually become good friends. Also, on one occasion, Muhammad Asad would carry out a secret mission given to him by King Abdul Aziz. Through his travels and study, he met some of the most prominent Muslim figures of his day such as King Faysal, King Abdullah, King Saud, Muhammad Iqbal, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, and his successor Omar Mukhtar.
He would journey to the Libyan resistance front against fascist Italian based on requests of The Grand Sanusi, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, to deliver information to and from the leader of the rebellion at the time, Omar Mukhtar. After returning to Madina, he relayed the dire situation of the Mujahhidun to Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi. He was heartbroken to know that nothing could have been done about Omar Mukhtar’s condition. The following year (1933), The Grand Sanusi had passed away. Later on, Muhammad Assad would travel Easterly towards India and meet one of the most prominent intellectual figures at that time, Muhammad Iqbal. During this time the Muslims in India were suffering from growing tensions between them and the Hindus. Iqbal saw no other solution other than the formation of a Muslim state, the formation of the nation of Pakistan. Muhammad Iqbal persuaded Asad to remain in India and help the Muslims of India establish their separate Muslim state. After the formation of Pakistan, Asad was afforded citizenship and appointed the Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction. After transitioning between different diplomatic roles, he would eventually leave Pakistan to Switzerland then to Spain, Grenada, which would become his final home before passing away in 1992 at the age of 91.
Muhammad Asad’s legacy served as an inspiration to all Muslims from the West and the East. He’s story embodied virtuous qualities that every Muslim should strive for, no matter the cultural, national, social, or religious background. His search for the truth has transported him all around the world, it has put him in great danger and rewarded him with grandiose friends. Although Asad’s story served as a beautiful representation of Islam and its teachings, it also sheds light on the complicated modern history that plagued Muslims in the early twentieth century which ramifications continue to influence the declining condition of the Muslim Ummah. Asad experienced some frustration from the Muslims that have left the Sunnah of the Prophet and the teachings of Allah in the Quran. Indeed, Muhammad Asad’s story is astonishing, to say the least. An Austro-Hungarian-born Jew that went to Arabia and lived with Beduins, only to become a Muslim. This is all due to one simple desire, the search for truth.
Bibliography:Asad, M., 2005. The Road To Mecca. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae.