Muhammad Asad: The Polish Jewish Muslim Intellectual
#language & literature
default, Muhammad Asad, photo: wikipedia.org, center, muhammad_asad_portret_wikpiedia.jpg
As a Polish Jew in the early 20th century, Muhammad Asad’s choice of converting to Islam was an unusual one. But this prominent journalist and intellectual gave a compelling explanation in ‘The Road to Mecca’, his celebrated autobiography recounting his travels in the Middle East and subsequent spiritual search. Culture.pl recalls the life path of this remarkable author, highlighting his championing of women’s rights, religious reflections, adventures and translation of the Quran into English.
A surprising choice
The relations between the West and Islam are in many cases laden with controversy and misunderstanding. That’s why the example of Muhammad Asad, a 20th-century Polish Jew and intellectual who converted to Islam may seem a striking one. Why would a learned European do a thing like that? Why ‘join the other side’? The answer to this question was given by Asad himself in his autobiography The Road to Mecca, published in 1954. As the author put it, he could ‘speak the intellectual languages of both Islam and the West’, and his story resonates with power and hope. The book explains Asad’s choice in a way that’s accessible to the Western reader and provides plenty of unbiased information on Islam. Thanks to his literary talent, it’s also a fantastic read. But before we get into the details of his seminal book, let’s delve into some background on the author himself.
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The gayest of cities
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Lviv, Sykstuska and Lemberg streets, 1904, photo: National Digital Library Polona
Muhammad Asad was born in 1900 in Lviv into a Jewish family. His original name before his later conversion was Leopold Weiss. Back then, this city in today’s Ukraine was predominantly Polish and part of the Austrian partition of Poland. His father Akiva was a lawyer and the son of a Rabbi, while his mother Malka was the daughter of a wealthy banker. The young Leopold had two siblings: a sister and brother. The well-off family lived in a house in Lviv and summered at a countryside estate that belonged to his maternal grandfather. Here’s how Asad remembered Lviv in his autobiography:
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There were those early childhood years in the Polish city of Lwów – then in Austrian possession – in a house that was quiet and dignified as the street on which it stood […] I loved that lovely street with a consciousness far beyond my childish years, and not merely because it was the street of my home: I loved it, I think, because of the air of noble self-possession with which it flowed from the gay centre of that gayest of cities toward the stillness of the woods on the city’s margin […]
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The train station in Lviv, 1914, photo: National Digital Library Polona
He grew up speaking Polish and German, as well as Hebrew which he learned thanks to studying the Torah and Judaist theology. As for what else he was reading as an adolescent, Asad said he had a liking for the ‘stirring historical romances’ of the eminent Polish writer and Nobel prize in literature winner Henryk Sienkiewicz.
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Freedom & ease
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Muhammad Asad alongside Bedouins, still from the film ‘Muhammad Asad’, photo: www.youtube.com
Before World War I, the family relocated to Vienna where Asad ended up studying history of art and philosophy at the local university and acquainted himself with the teachings of psychoanalysis. In 1920, he decided to discontinue his education and left for Berlin to pursue his dream of becoming a journalist. For a while, he lived a bohemian life which eventually led to him working short-term as assistant to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the noted film director who made the classic Nosferatu. Afterwards, Asad managed to get a job at the United Press of America news agency, first as a telephonist and later as a writer.
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In 1922, something happened that was to influence Asad profoundly. His uncle Dorian Feigenbaum, one of Freud’s early pupils and head of a mental hospital in Jerusalem, invited Asad to visit him. The nephew took up the offer and, via Egypt, arrived in the Holy City. He stayed at his uncle’s house and eventually became a Middle East correspondent for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper. That’s when he developed a fascination with the region and its Arabic inhabitants, a fascination that was to stick with him for years to come.
Asad grew weary and disheartened with the European lifestyle characterised by a striving for money and the abandoning of various ideals. This must have caused him to instinctively search in the new culture for what he couldn’t find in his own. In the Arabs he saw freedom and ease which his European friends concentrating on materialistic ambitions and entertainment were missing.
Karolina Rak, 2010, trans. MK
Through the desert on camelback
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The Dome of the Rock mosque is seen during the sunset at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City on 12.01.2019. Photo: Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Asad’s celebrated autobiography The Road to Mecca focusses on the ten-year period that elapsed from his trip to Jerusalem to the year 1932 when he moved to India and Pakistan. During this time as a writer for European newspapers (also Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Kölnische Zeitung), he travelled through many countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, getting to know the Muslim world first-hand and learning Arabic and Persian. His book is filled with marvellous descriptions of deserts, oases, villages and bazaars but is more than just a log of Asad’s extensive travels – it also relates a spiritual journey leading to the author’s discovery of a religion. However, the framework of an adventure-filled travel story creates a curious setting for the various reflections on Islam included in the book.
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Among the adventures narrated by Asad in his autobiography you find, for example, the swashbuckling tale of a secret mission he had been sent out on by King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (whom he had befriended in the course of his journeys). Asad’s aim was to find out whether, in an attempt to destabilise the area, the British Empire was financing a rebellion in the northern fringes of the king’s realm. To carry out his task, Asad clandestinely travels through the desert on camelback and infiltrates the city of Kuwait. In another adventure, the narrator manages to escape a gunfight with highwaymen in Iran. On one occasion, stranded in an Arabian desert, Asad almost dies of thirst and can’t help but think of his Polish summer home where there was plenty of water:
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Jan Ciągliński, ‘The Dead Sea. From a Journey to Palestine’, 1901, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Everything is hot and dark; but out of the hot darkness I sense a cooling breath of wind and hear it rustle softly – wind rustling, as if in trees – over water – and the water is the sluggish little stream between grassy banks, near the home of my childhood. I am lying on the bank, a little boy of nine or ten years, chewing a grass stalk and gazing at the white cows […].Willow trees stand on the bank of the stream, and over its surface glides a white duck, making the water glitter in its wake.
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However, some critics point out that there is no way of verifying if all of Asad’s amazing adventures did actually take place and if some of them aren’t simply literary devices. That’s because, as Martin Kramer puts it in a 1999 study, ‘the principal source for Asad’s life remains Asad’ – there are simply no sources for comparative analysis.
Champion of women's rights
Among the many noted Muslims that Asad writes about encountering, apart from the aforementioned king, you also find other rulers, like Iran’s Reza Shah. The author also gets in touch with important Islamist scholars and theologians, like Mustafa al-Maraghi whom he meets in Cairo. The dialogues he has with these Muslim thinkers include an abundance of interesting information on Islam. His conversion, which occurred in Berlin in 1926 as a result of his fascination with the Middle East and its predominant religion, is also described in the book.
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From what Asad writes about Islam in The Road to Mecca, it’s apparent that he saw a split between the religion’s letter and actual practice. And that he was far from any fundamentalism, seeing Islam firstly as a religion of peace. He also stressed its rationality, which he derived from a quote from the Prophet: ‘striving for knowledge is a most sacred duty for every Muslim man and woman.’ The lack of condemnation of carnality, widespread in Christianity, was also important to him. Karolina Rak writes that Islam to Asad was ‘an ideal synthesis of bodily and spiritual needs.’ Its universalism held more appeal to him than the exclusiveness of Judaism’s concept of the chosen people. Also, in his study Martin Kramer says that Asad ‘championed the rights of women’, as can be seen in several places in his autobiography:
It is true that, in the centuries of Muslim decline, social custom has often made it difficult for a woman to exercise her prerogative of divorce as freely as the Law-Giver had intended: for this, however, not Islam but custom is to blame – just as custom, and not Islamic Law, is to be blamed for the seclusion in which woman has been kept for so long in so many Muslim countries: for neither in the Koran nor in the life-example of the Prophet do we find any warrant for this practice […]
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A new world
In The Road from Mecca: Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss), Martin Kramer writes about the reception of Asad’s autobiography:
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The book immediately won critical acclaim, most notably in the prestige press of New York, where Simon and Schuster had published it. One reviewer, writing in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, called it an ‘intensely interesting and moving book.’ Another reviewer, on the pages of The New York Times, placed the book in the pantheon of Arabian travel literature: ‘Not since Freya Stark,’ he wrote, ‘has anyone written so happily about Arabia as the Galician now known as Muhammad Asad.’
But surprisingly, the book was only completed in 1954, long after Asad had left the Middle East for British India in 1932. A lot had happened in his life between those years.
In the subcontinent, he stayed in Karachi and Lahore and encountered the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, often considered the ‘spiritual founding father of Pakistan.’ Iqbal is said to have prompted Asad to write Islam at the Crossroads, his 1934 book dealing with the role of Islam in modern societies and criticising Western materialism. In 1939, Asad travelled to Europe looking to save his relatives from the ongoing oppression of Jews, but sadly didn’t succeed. Back in India – as he was legally an Austrian national – he was detained by the British authorities when World War II broke out and was held in custody until 1945. By then, his father and sister had died in a Nazi German extermination camp (his brother survived the war, whereas his mother had passed away earlier).
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After the war, Asad was involved with the creation of the Pakistani state and drafted ideas for its constitution. But eventually his vision of establishing a liberal democracy wasn’t brought to life. Nevertheless, in 1949 he took up a job with the Pakistani foreign service and in 1952 became Pakistan’s minister plenipotentiary to the United Nations. As minister, he was based in New York.
Translator of the Quran
In New York, Muhammad Asad married Pola Hamida Kazimirska, a Polish-American and Muslim convert with whom he would spend the rest of his life (he was married twice before, to Elsa Schiemann who died of malaria in 1927 when the pair travelled to Mecca, and to Munîra bint Husayn ash-Shammarî, mother of his son Talal, whom he divorced). Soon after the wedding, he resigned from the foreign service and began writing The Road to Mecca which he dedicated to her. Later the couple moved to Geneva where Asad created the socially-engaged Principles of State and Government in Islam in 1961 and started work on an English translation of the Quran. This work would only be ready in 1980 and was given the title The Message of the Quran. To focus on its creation, Asad moved to Tangiers in Morocco in 1964.
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In the foreword to his translation, Asad explains why he chose to put Islam’s holy book into English. He says that earlier adaptations of the Quran into European languages ‘have remained but distant, and faulty, echoes of its meaning and spirit.’ He adds that:
The work which I am now placing before the public is based on a lifetime of study and of many years spent in Arabia. It is an attempt – perhaps the first attempt – at a really idiomatic, explanatory rendition of the Qur'anic message into a European language.
One should probably mention here that not everybody shared his enthusiasm. Some Muslims found the unorthodox vision of Islam presented in the translation unacceptable. It was even banned altogether in Saudi Arabia.
But The Message of the Quran also received many praises.
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The translation of the Quran into English is seen as the greatest work of this eminent Pole. To this day, it is considered the most remarkable translation of the Quran into this language.
Rafał Berger, 2009, trans. MK
In 1983, Asad and his wife relocated to Portugal and later to Mijas in Spain. He passed away in 1992 and is buried in a Muslim cemetery in Granada. He’s remembered as one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals.
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Author: Marek Kępa, Mar 2019
Sources: ‘The Road to Mecca’ by Muhammad Asad, 1954; ‘The Road from Mecca: Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss)’ by Martin Kramer, The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 1999; ‘Droga z Ukrainy do Mekki’ by Rafał Berger, the Akant monthly, 2009; ‘Droga do Mekki: Wschód Widziany Oczami Muhammada Asada’ by Karolina Rak, Studia Bliskowschodnie scientific journal, 2010