A Jewish Lawrence of Arabia

Born to a rabbi family in Habsburg Austria-Hungary, Muhammad Asad became an important twentieth-century Islamic thinker. Asad was a great traveller, a journalist, linguist, translator, social critic, reformist, diplomat, political scientist, and theologian. Today he is a landmark for a tolerant and contemporary interpretation of the faith. A portrait by Lewis Gropp

Von Lewis Gropp

Muhammad Asad's biography reads like a novel by Alexandre Dumas. It is an Oriental saga of sheer unbelievable adventures. Everything began in Lemberg, Galicia. Muhammad Asad was born on 2 July 1900 as Leopold Weiss. As a young man, however, he had little interest in theology and philosophy.

"Action and movement and adventure" were his driving forces in life. At the age of fourteen he ran away from home, signing up to the Austro-Hungarian army under a false name in Styria. His parents managed to save him from the battlefield just in time.

Sigmund Freud's "strong wine"

After completing school, Leopold Weiss went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis. "In actual fact Freud's ideas intoxicated my young mind like strong wine," wrote Weiss. He spent countless evenings in the city's cafés, listening with baited breath to the discussions of Alfred Adler and other intellectuals. Yet the "intellectual arrogance" of this young science, which presumed to plumb the depths of the human mind, eventually repelled the young Weiss.

Historical picture of Muhammad Asad on his journey through the Arabian Desert
"Quiet, proud affirmation of reality and one's own life": on his visit to Palestine, Leopold Weiss came to know and love the Arab and Bedouin culture

​​ He soon moved to Berlin, where he took on various jobs in the early 1920s, including as a scriptwriter and an assistant director to the master expressionist Friedrich Murnau. It was here too that he got his first scoop as a journalist. The young Leopold Weiss was a go-getter and a pleasure-seeking bohemian, who got through life with chutzpah and audacity. Under the veneer of this exciting life, however, he was accompanied by a constant "civilizational discontent".

His book The Road to Mecca was first published in English in 1954, followed a year later by his own German version, which has now been republished in Germany. Described by the author as "an autobiography of sorts", it describes a Europe between two world wars, suffering from "emptiness of the soul" and "moral instability". "Behind the Occident's façade of order and organisation, the dominant force is ethical chaos," is Weiss' verdict. As fate would have it, the young man's uncle, "a student of Dr. Freud" who ran an asylum in Jerusalem invited him to Palestine.

Here, Weiss came to know and love Arab and Bedouin culture. He describes its "free humanity" and its "quiet, proud affirmation of reality and one's own life". The Arabs, he enthuses, are "people who venerate one another and the simple things in life". His passion inflamed, Leopold Weiss converted to (Sunni) Islam in April 1927, calling himself Muhammad Asad from then on. He went on to travel the entire Arab world, exploring almost the whole of the Orient.

Close confidant to King Ibn Saud

Big in Pakistan: Muhammd Asad took part in drafting the constitution of the Islamic republic, later going to New York as Pakistan's first UN ambassador. Scene from Georg Misch's "The Road to Mecca – The Journey of Muhammad Asad"

​​ Alongside his travels, he became one of the most renowned Middle East correspondents in the German-speaking countries, writing for the prestigious Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung among other newspapers. Asad then settled in Saudi Arabia for several years, becoming a close confidant and personal friend to King Ibn Saud. His next stop was India, on the invitation of the philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. As an Austrian citizen, however, he was interned by the British for the length of World War II.

After his release Iqbal asked him to help found the state of Pakistan; and so he did. Asad took part in drafting the constitution of the Islamic republic, later going to New York as Pakistan's first UN ambassador. Asad devoted the second half of his life to writing and publishing. He became one of the most significant Islamic authors of his time, writing books and numerous essays on the Islamic worldview, its law and philosophy. His opus magnum is a commentated English translation of the Qur'an.

Rational path to faith

Leopold Weiss alias Muhammad Asad (photo: Mischief Films)
"A wonderful religion that does not deserve its followers": in the final years of his life, Muhammad Asad criticised the state of the Islamic world

​​ Towards the end of his life, however, Asad grew disillusioned by the state of the Islamic world, by its voluntary intellectual isolation and the intolerance of its extremists. He judged that "this wonderful religion" did not deserve its followers. His writing was burned in public during his time in Morocco – one reason for his return to Europe. Muhammad Asad died in Spain's Andalusia in 1992. Asad's remarkable descriptions of how he found faith via critical, rational thinking make his autobiography fascinating reading.

His plea that every religion can only remain alive if it finds its own place freely in its time makes him a hermeneuticist of Islam. Asad takes a controversial stance against centuries of tradition within the Islamic schools of law, instead drawing on the more rationalist tradition of the Mu'tazilis. He sets an example of how to bring to life a freely lived faith in the present day by looking back at its original sources. A lesson not only for Muslims.

A work of high literary value

Asad´s book: The Road to Mecca (source: publisher)
A work of high literary value": Assad's "biography of sorts", The Road to Mecca</i>

​​ Alongside these theological and cultural issues, The Road to Mecca has a great deal more to offer. Although the material only extends to immediately before Asad left for India, even the events described up to that point are enough for a handful of adventure novels. The book also provides a wealth of insights into 20th-century history: 1920s Berlin, Zionism in Palestine, the British in Saudi Arabia, the Italians in Libya, the Persian struggle for independence. And always in the midst of action: the "Jewish Lawrence of Arabia", by turns a poverty-stricken bon vivant searching for the meaning of life, a roving reporter, a negotiator between powerful forces in the Middle East, an agent in the field as the bullets fly over his head. The Road to Mecca is a work of high literary value, still waiting to be discovered.


Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de