Berlin to Makkah
Muhammad Asad’s Journey into Islam
Written by Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab
Photographed by Muhammad Asad
Additional reporting by Louis Werner
Additional photographs courtesy of Asad, Pola Hamida
Two roads diverged in Berlin in the 1920’s: a well-worn one to the West, the other, rarely traveled, to the East. Leopold Weiss, a gifted young writer, traveler and linguist with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the Talmud and with deep roots in European culture, took the road eastward to Makkah.
He traveled that road as Muhammad Asad, and his name now figures prominently on the roll of 20th-century English-language Muslim scholars and thinkers.
The story of how Asad walked out of Berlin, away from the West and into a new spiritual life is best told in his own words and an Old Testament simile: “After all, it was a matter of love,” he wrote, “and love is composed of many things; of our desires and our loneliness, of our high aims and our shortcomings, of our strengths and our weaknesses. So it was in my case. Islam came over me like a robber who enters a house by night; but, unlike a robber, it entered to remain for good.”
Muhammad Asad was born Leopold Weiss in July 1900 in the city of Lvov (German Lemberg), now in Poland, then part of the Austrian Empire. He was the descendant of a long line of rabbis, a line broken by his father, who became a barrister. Asad himself received a thorough religious education that would qualify him to keep alive the family’s rabbinical tradition. He had become proficient in Hebrew at an early age and was also familiar with Aramaic. He had studied the Old Testament in the original as well as the text and commentaries of the Talmud, the Mishna and Gemara, and he had delved into the intricacies of Biblical exegesis, the Targum.
His family moved to Vienna, where 14-year-old Weiss ran away from school and tried unsuccessfully to join the Austrian army to fight in the First World War. No sooner had he finally been officially drafted than the Austrian Empire collapsed, along with his dreams of military glory.
After the war, he pursued philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna, but those studies failed to satisfy him and he abandoned them to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Vienna at that time was one of the most intellectually and culturally stimulating cities in Europe, a hothouse of burgeoning new perspectives on psychology, language and philosophy. Not just its academic institutions, but even its famous cafés reverberated with lively debate centered on psychoanalysis, logical positivism, linguistic analysis and semantics. This was the period when the distinctive voices of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Ludwig Wittgenstein filled the air and echoed round the world. Weiss had a ringside seat for these exciting discussions, and though he was impressed by the originality of those pioneering spirits, their major conclusions left him still unsatisfied.
Weiss left Vienna in 1920 and traveled in Central Europe, where he did “all manner of short-lived jobs” before arriving in Berlin. Here, luck and pluck led to a scoop that elevated him from a mere telephonist working for a wire service into a journalist: He reported the presence in Berlin of Maksim Gorky’s wife, who was on a secret mission to solicit aid from the West for Soviet Russia.
At this stage, Weiss, like many of his generation, counted himself an agnostic, having drifted away from his Jewish moorings despite his religious studies. He left Europe for the Middle East in 1922 for what was supposed to be a short visit to an uncle in Jerusalem. There he came to know and like the Arabs and was struck by how Islam infused their everyday lives with existential meaning, spiritual strength and inner peace.
Weiss now became—at the remarkably young age of 22—a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most prestigious newspapers of Germany and Europe. As a journalist, he traveled extensively, mingled with ordinary people, held discussions with Muslim intellectuals, and met heads of state in Palestine, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
During his travels and through his readings, Weiss’s interest in Islam increased as his understanding of its scripture, history and peoples grew. In part, curiosity propelled his explorations, but he also felt something darker—in his words, “a spiritual emptiness, a vague, cynical relativism born out of increasing hopelessness”—from which he needed to escape. He remained agnostic, unable to accept that God spoke to and guided humankind by revelation.
Back in Berlin from the Middle East a few years later, Weiss underwent an electrifying spiritual epiphany—reminiscent of the experience of some of the earliest Muslims—that changed his mind and his life. He described it in a striking passage that he wrote some 30 years later:
One day—it was in September 1926—Elsa and I found ourselves travelling in the Berlin subway. It was an upper-class compartment. My eye fell casually on a well-dressed man opposite me, apparently a well-to-do-businessman…. I thought idly how well the portly figure of this man fitted into the picture of prosperity which one encountered everywhere in Central Europe in those days: …Most of the people were now well dressed and well fed, and the man opposite me was therefore no exception. But when I looked at his face, I did not seem to be looking at a happy face. 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. Not wanting to be rude, I turned my eyes away and saw next to him a lady of some elegance. She also had a strangely unhappy expression on her face, as if contemplating or experiencing something that caused her pain…. And then I began to look around at all 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.
“…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?’
“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 having more material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power….
“When we returned home, I happened to glance at my desk on which lay open a copy of the Koran I had been reading earlier. Mechanically, I picked the book up to put it away, but just as I was about to close it, my eyes fell on the open page before me, and I read:
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 you are in.
In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:
And on that Day you will be asked what you have done with the boon of life.
“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.
“At all times people had known greed: but at no time before had greed outgrown a mere eagerness to acquire things and become an obsession that blurred the sight of everything else: an irresistible craving to get, to do, to contrive more and more—more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today: …and that hunger, that insatiable hunger for ever new goals gnawing at man’s soul: Nay, if you but knew it you would see the hell you are in….
“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….”
Thus it was that Weiss became a muslim. He converted in Berlin before the head of the city’s small Muslim community and took the names Muhammad, to honor the Prophet, and Asad—meaning “lion”—as a reminder of his given name. He took other decisive steps: He broke with his father over his conversion, he married Elsa, who also converted, he abruptly left his newspaper job, and he set off on pilgrimage to Makkah.
The psychological and emotional dimensions of Asad’s migration were even more important than the physical ones. Asad regarded Islam not as a religion in the conventional, or western, sense but as a way of life for all times. In Islam he had found a religious system and a practical guide for everyday living that were harmoniously balanced. “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.”
Nine days after his first sight of Makkah, Asad’s life changed momentously yet again. Elsa died suddenly, and she was buried in a simple pilgrim’s cemetery. He stayed on in the holy city and, after a chance encounter with Prince Faysal in the Grand Mosque’s library, accepted an invitation to meet with his father, the legendary King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. This invitation soon led to almost daily audiences with the king, who quickly came to appreciate Asad’s knowledge, spiritual depth and keen mind.
Asad spent some six years in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, where he studied Arabic, the Qur’an, the hadith—the traditions of the Prophet—and Islamic history. Those studies led him to “the firm conviction 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.” From that time and until the end of his life, his interest was “centered around the problem of its regeneration.” His academic knowledge of classical Arabic—made easier by familiarity with Hebrew and Aramaic, sister Semitic languages—was further enhanced by his wide travels and his contacts in Arabia with Bedouins.
To study Muslim communities and cultures further east, Asad left Arabia for India in 1932. There he met the celebrated poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual progenitor of Pakistan. Iqbal persuaded Asad to stay on “to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state….” Asad soon won Iqbal’s admiration, and public acclaim, with the publication of a perceptive monograph on the challenges facing modern Muslims. But his freedom was curtailed when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Ironically, though he had refused a German passport after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and insisted on retaining his Austrian citizenship, the British imprisoned him on the second day of the war as an “enemy alien,” and did not release him till 1945. Asad was the only Muslim among the 3000-odd Europeans interned in India, the large majority of whom were Nazi sympathizers.
Asad moved to Pakistan after its creation in 1947 and was charged by its government with formulating ideological foundations for the new state. Later he was transferred to the Pakistan Foreign Ministry to head its Middle East Division, where he endeavored to strengthen Pakistan’s ties to other Muslim countries. He capped his diplomatic career by serving as Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations—a position he resigned in 1952 to write his autobiography, The Road to Mecca.
After writing this book, he left New York in 1955 and finally settled in Spain. He did not cease to write. At 80, after 17 years of effort, he completed the work that had been his life’s dream, and for which he felt all his life till then had been an apprenticeship: a translation and exegesis, or tafsir, of the Qur’an in English. He continued to serve Islam till his death in Spain on February 23, 1992.
With his death passed a journalist, traveler, social critic, linguist, thinker, reformer, diplomat, political theorist and translator, a scholar dedicated to the service of God and humankind, and to leading a righteous life.
But death will not be the final chapter in Asad’s close relationship with the Muslims: His luminous works remain a living testimony to his great, enduring love affair with Islam.
Asad, in fact, represents an outstanding example of a phenomenon of modern times: the conversion, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a number of western writers and intellectuals to Islam, and their passionate commitment to its vision and way of life. The circumstances and particulars of their entering the fold vary, but there are usually three overarching reasons common to them: belief in the divine origin of the Qur’an, in the prophethood of Muhammad and in Islam’s message to lead a righteous life.
Their acts of faith have shown a wider western public that Islam is not a quaint, fanatical religion followed by wild natives in remote regions, that, on the contrary, Islam’s message and teachings are relevant to, and appropriate for, reasonable and thoughtful people in the most advanced areas of the world. Equally significant, they have also demonstrated that, at least among some fair-minded westerners, the centuries-old false images of Islam are fading.
Even more remarkably, these converts have often found their way to the Muslim faith by the unlikely medium of literature on Islam and the Muslims produced in European languages, mostly by orientalists not friendly to Islam—indeed, some of these converts are orientalists themselves. To mention just a few names: From Great Britain have come, among others, Lord Stanley of Alderley, an uncle of Bertrand Russell; the 11th Baron Headley (Umar al-Farooq), a member of the House of Lords and an activist believer; Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a superb novelist and, later, a translator of the Qur’an; Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din), a perceptive scholar of mysticism; and Charles Le Gai Eaton, a talented expositor of Islam. French converts have included René Guénon (‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya), an expert in metaphysics, comparative religion and esotericism; Vincent Mansour Monteil, an orientalist; and Maurice Bucaille, an author. From Germany we can count Murad Wilfried Hofmann, a diplomat and writer; from Austria, Baron Umar von Ehrenfels, an anthropologist; from Hungary, Abdul Karim Germanus, an orientalist; and from Switzerland, Frithjof Schuon, described by T. S. Eliot as the most impressive writer in the field of comparative religion he had ever encountered. From North America, there are Thomas Irving (al-Hajj Ta’lim ‘Ali), an Islamic scholar and translator of the Qur’an; Margaret Marcus (Maryam Jameelah), a writer; Cyril Glassé, author of The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam and other Islamic works; Jeffrey Lang, a mathematician and writer on Islam; and Michael Wolfe, a poet, novelist and writer of travel books.
It would seem that these western Muslims have been just as earnest in their devotion to Islam as Muhammad Asad. So why does Asad stand head and shoulders above all other western converts who wrote in English? Because none of them—not even Pickthall—has contributed more than he to elucidating Islam as an ideology and conveying its quintessential spirit in contemporary terms to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Asad’s contributions resist easy summary, but we can look at his work against the backdrop of his first encounter with the Muslim world and pick out some salient features of his intellectual landscape.
Asad’s introduction to the Muslim world took place when he visited a turbulent, fearful Middle East in the wake of the First World War. The power and breadth of the threat that many Muslims perceived as coming from the West at that time can today hardly be remembered or conceived of, and they are difficult to encapsulate in a few sentences.
For the previous two centuries, an ascendant Europe had remade the entire map of the Muslim world. Its military, political, cultural and economic onslaught on the area had extinguished the glory of the Mughals of India and the Safavids of Persia, broken the back of the once-formidable Ottoman state, and abolished the caliphate. The Muslims lagged far behind the West in educational, industrial and technological and scientific fields. As the first decades of the 20th century wore on, they were at bay, deeply divided, disheartened and humiliated.
By the time Asad came to the Middle East in 1922, these momentous changes had loosed on the Muslim world new values, concepts and social stresses of such violence and scope that they threatened to sweep away the very foundations of Muslim society. Many Muslims still cherished traditional Islamic values, yet a broad spectrum of competing, confusing trends appeared in the Islamic world in response to the influence of the West. There were movements in support of religious reform, which had their roots in Muslim tradition. Iqbal and Muhammad ‘Abduh of Egypt represented this trend. But there were also advocates of westernization, nationalism and secularism who looked to the West for inspiration, such as Kemal Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah of Iran. It was not possible to square the ideas of the traditional Islamic reformers with those of the advocates of westernization and secularism.
Asad saw it as his duty to critically examine the causes of the decline of the Muslims as well as the forces and the problems pressing them, and to wake them from their slumber. Driven by a reformer’s zeal, he tried to reconcile religion and modernization, and to produce a wide-ranging synthesis of Islam, modernity and the needs of the society of the day. To this effort he brought depth of knowledge, clarity of reasoning and a gift for the meticulous exposition and dissection of arguments, even when he accepted their conclusions. It is his peculiar achievement that, with high virtuosity and great passion, he contrived to make a coherent whole of his concerns, which were as diverse as the western challenges that gave rise to them.
The primary sources of Asad’s inspiration were the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet. But he could not fail to be impressed by ‘Abduh and Iqbal and other thinkers who had earlier diagnosed the ills of Muslim society. A vigorous promoter of Muslim ideology and values and a precursor of those Muslims who were proud of their identity and wanted to preserve it in a changing, tumultuous world, Asad instilled in his public new confidence in the power and future of Islam. To do all this, he used a powerful tool: his pen.
The reach, range, depth and relevance of what he penned were immense. Asad’s writings on Islam and the Muslims extend over half a century, from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. His writings include: Unromantisches Morgenland (The Unromantic East); Islam at the Crossroads; The Road to Mecca; The Principles of State and Government in Islam; Sahih al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam, an annotated translation; The Message of the Qur’an, an interpretation of, and commentary on, the Muslim Holy Book; and This Law of Ours and Other Essays. In 1946 and 1947 he also brought out a journal, Arafat: A Monthly Critique of Muslim Thought. Asad’s first book, Unromantisches Morgenland, was based on his travels and observations as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. It was published in the mid-1920’s and showed an unusual insight into the Middle East. His first book as a committed Muslim was Islam at the Crossroads, published in 1934. That work did not claim to give a comprehensive answer to the many ailments that had weakened and destabilized the Muslim world, but it warned the Muslims against blindly imitating western values and mores, which Asad thought posed a mortal danger to Islam. It was an incisive, sweeping—and often startling and refreshing—response to the tide of western cultural and political hegemony, and vivified the debate on two concerns which greatly exercised Muslim reformers: the perplexing problems of westernization and Muslim revival, and the extent to which it might be necessary for Muslims to follow the West’s ways in order to achieve progress.
Asad espoused adherence to the teachings of the Qur’an and the sunnah; the latter he defined broadly as “the example the Prophet has set before us in his attitudes, actions and sayings” and “the only binding explanation of the Qur’anic teachings.” He says in Islam at the Crossroads: “Many… spiritual doctors have tried to devise a patent medicine for the sick body of [the Islamic world]. But, until now, all has been in vain, because all those clever doctors—at least those who get a hearing today—have invariably forgotten to prescribe, along with their medicines, tonics, and elixirs, the natural diet on which the early development of the patient had been based. This diet, the one which the body of Islam, sound or sick, can positively accept and assimilate, is the Sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad.” “The Sunnah,” he emphasizes, “is the key to the understanding of the Islamic rise more than thirteen centuries ago; and why should it not be a key to the understanding of our present degeneration?”
But, he wrote, “this does not mean that Muslims should seclude themselves from the voices coming from without. One may at all times receive new, positive influences from a foreign civilization without necessarily abandoning his own. An example of this kind was the European Renaissance. There we have seen how readily Europe accepted Arab influences in the matter and method of learning. But it never imitated the outward appearance and the spirit of Arabian culture, and never sacrificed its own intellectual and aesthetic independence. It used Arab influences only as a fertilizer upon its own soil, just as the Arabs had used Hellenistic influences in their time. In both cases, the result was a spiritual enrichment, a strong, new growth of an indigenous civilization, full of self-confidence and pride in itself. No civilization can prosper, or even exist, after having lost this pride and the connection with its own past.” Islam at the Crossroads received great critical acclaim and was a commercial success, and it is certainly one of the works on which Asad’s fame will rest. But other themes and achievements beckoned the young man.
After Islam at the crossroads, Asad focused his attention on one of the earliest and most enduring of his concerns as a reformer: “to make real the voice of the Prophet of Islam—real, as if he were speaking directly to us and for us: and it is in the hadith that his voice can be most clearly heard.” Like other Islamic reformers, Asad thought that knowledge of the traditions—the carefully collected and recorded sayings of the Prophet, which complement and amplify the Qur’an—was necessary for “a new understanding and a direct appreciation of the true teachings of Islam.
Toward this end, and with the encouragement of Iqbal, he attempted a task that had never been undertaken in English: the translation of, and commentary on, the Prophet’s authentic traditions as they had been carefully and critically compiled in the ninth century by the great traditionalist al-Bukhari. Between 1935 and 1938, Asad published the first five of 40 projected installments of Bukhari’s celebrated work under the title Sahih al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam. Though he was unable to complete the publication of this work because of his internment and the loss of his manuscript in the chaos of Partition, the 10 years he spent on this undertaking were not in vain; on the contrary, they were, as Asad himself recognized, a preparation for a greater task that was awaiting him.
In The Road to Mecca, published in 1954, Asad offers us nearly 380 enthralling pages which revolve around the only love that captivated him for life: Islam. His story is “simply,” he says, “the story of a European’s discovery of Islam and of his integration within the Muslim community.” He wrote it in response to those of his western colleagues in New York who had been baffled by his conversion and his identification with the Muslims. A rich story and marvelously told, it covers Asad’s life from his beginnings in Lvov in 1900 to his last desert journey in Arabia in 1932. It treats of vast themes: a journey in space and in spirit, an exploration of vast geographical distances and of the deep interior recesses of a man’s psyche.
The Road to Mecca gives us a rounded portrait of a man in search of adventure and truth. It is part spiritual autobiography, part summary of the author’s intuitive insights into Islam and the Arabs, part an impressive travelogue. Punctuated with abundant adventure, moments of contemplation, colorful narrative, brilliant description and lively anecdote, The Road to Mecca tells above all a human story, a story of a modern man’s restlessness and loneliness, passions and ambitions, joys and sorrows, anxiety and commitment, vision and humaneness. Its author comes out as brilliant, exciting, lively and full of penetrating observation, immense charm, tremendous zest for life and deeply held religious beliefs. Significantly, he triumphantly achieves his purpose in writing the book: No one can read it without gaining a better appreciation of Islam. Resigning as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations in order to devote himself to writing The Road to Mecca, he became with its publication an ambassador of Islam both to the West and to alienated intellectuals and young people in Muslim lands.
Like any classic, The Road to Mecca has passages which never lose their flavor, despite repeated reading. Here is a breathtaking display of Asad’s religious feeling and narrative skill. It is also an unsurpassed nostalgic description of the pilgrimage of a bygone era:
“Not far from here, hidden from my eyes in the midst of this lifeless wilderness of valleys and hills, lies the plain of Arafat, on which all pilgrims who come to Mecca assemble on one day of the year as a reminder of that Last Assembly, when man will have to answer to his Creator for all he has done in life. How often have I stood there myself, bareheaded, in the white pilgrim garb, among a multitude of white-garbed, bareheaded pilgrims from three continents, our faces turned toward the Jabal ar-Rahma—the ‘Mount of Mercy’—which arises out of the vast plain: standing and waiting through the noon, through the afternoon, reflecting upon that inescapable Day, ‘when you will be exposed to view, not one secret of yours will remain concealed’….
“And as I stand on the hillcrest and gaze down toward the invisible Plain of Arafat, the moonlit blueness of the landscape before me, so dead a moment ago, suddenly comes to life with the currents of all the human lives that have passed through it and is filled with the eerie voices of the millions of men and women who have walked or ridden between Mecca and Arafat in over thirteen hundred pilgrimages for over thirteen hundred years. Their voices and their steps and the voices and the steps of their animals reawaken and resound anew; I see them walking and riding and assembling—all those myriads of white-garbed pilgrims of thirteen hundred years; I hear the sounds of their passed-away days; the wings of the faith which has drawn them together to this land of rocks and sand and seeming deadness beat again with the warmth of life over the arc of centuries, and the mighty wingbeat draws me into its orbit and draws my own passed-away days into the present, and once again I am riding over the plain—riding in a thundering gallop over the plain, amidst thousands and thousands of ihram-clad beduins, returning from Arafat to Mecca—a tiny particle of that roaring, earth-shaking, irresistible wave of countless galloping dromedaries and men, with the tribal banners on their high poles beating like drums in the wind and their tribal war cries tearing through the air: ‘Ya Rawga, ya Rawga!’ by which the Atayba tribesmen evoke their ancestor’s name, answered by the ‘Ya Awf, ya Awf!’ of the Harb and echoed by the almost defiant, ‘Shammar, ya Shammar!’ from the farthest right wing of the column.
“We ride on, rushing, flying over the plain, and to me it seems that we are flying with the wind, abandoned to a happiness that knows neither end nor limit…and the wind shouts a wild paean of joy into my ears: ‘Never again, never again, never again will you be a stranger!’
“…Someone in the surging host abandons his tribal cry for a cry of faith: ‘We are the brethren of him who gives himself up to God!’—and another joins in: ‘Allahu Akbar!’—’God is the Greatest!—God alone is Great!’
“And all the tribal detachments take up this one cry. They are no longer Najdi beduins revelling in their tribal pride: they are men who know that the secrets of God are but waiting for them…for us…. Amidst the din of thousands of rushing camels’ feet and the flapping of a hundred banners, their cry grows into a roar of triumph: ‘Allahu Akbar!’
“It flows in mighty waves over the heads of the thousands of galloping men, over the wide plain, to all the ends of the earth: ‘Allahu Akbar!’ These men have grown beyond their own little lives, and now their faith sweeps them forward, in oneness, toward some uncharted horizon….
“The smell of the dromedaries’ bodies, their panting and snorting, the thundering of their innumerable feet; the shouting of the men, the clanking of the rifles slung on saddle-pegs, the dust and the sweat and the wildly excited faces around me; and a sudden, glad stillness within me.
“I turn around in my saddle and see behind me the waving, weaving mass of thousands of white-clad riders and, beyond them, the bridge over which I have come: its end is just behind me while its beginning is already lost in the mists of distance.”
In another arresting passage, Asad reveals his intense devotion to the Prophet and his awareness of the Prophet’s wondrous spiritual presence permeating Madinah:
“I enter the city and cross the huge, open square of Al-Manakha to the inner city wall; beneath the heavy arch of the Egyptian Gate, under which the money-changers sit clinking their gold and silver coins, I step into the main bazaar—a street hardly twelve feet across, tightly packed with shops around which a small but eager life pulsates.
“The vendors praise their goods with cheerful songs. Gay headcloths, silken shawls and robes of figured Kashmir wool attract the eye of the passerby. Silversmiths crouch behind small glass cases containing beduin jewellery—arm-rings and ankle-rings, necklaces and earrings. Perfume vendors display basins filled with henna…. Floods of people in both directions, people from Medina and the rest of Arabia and—as the time of the pilgrimage has ended only a short while ago—from all the countries between the East Indies and the Atlantic Ocean, between Astrakhan and Zanzibar: but in spite of the multitude of people and narrowness of the street, there is no hurried frenzy here, no pushing and jostling: for in Medina time does not ride on the wings of pursuit.
“But what might appear even more strange is that despite the great variety of human types and costumes that fills them, there is nothing of an ‘exotic’ medley in the streets of Medina: the variety of appearances reveals itself only to the eye that is determined to analyze. It seems to me that all the people who live in this city, or even sojourn in it temporarily, very soon fall into what one might call a community of mood and thus also of behaviour, and, almost, even of facial expression: for all of them have fallen under the spell of the Prophet, whose city it once was and whose guests they now are….
“Even after thirteen centuries his spiritual presence is almost as alive here as it was then. It was only because of him that the scattered group of villages once called Yathrib became a city and has been loved by all Muslims down to this day as no city anywhere else in the world has ever been loved. It has not even a name of its own: for more than thirteen hundred years it has been called Madinat an-Nabi, ‘the City of the Prophet.’ For more than thirteen hundred years, so much love has converged here that all shapes and movements have acquired a kind of family resemblance, and all differences of appearance find a tonal transition into a common harmony.
“This is the happiness one always feels here—this unifying harmony…. Never has any city been so loved for the sake of one single personality; never has any man, dead for over thirteen hundred years, been loved so personally, and by so many, as he who lies buried beneath the great green dome.
“It was precisely because he was only human, because he lived like other men, enjoying the pleasures and suffering the ills of human existence, that those around him could so encompass him with their love.
“This love has outlasted his death and lives on in the hearts of his followers like the leitmotif of a melody built up of many tones. It lives on in Medina. It speaks to you out of every stone of the ancient city. You can almost touch it with your hands: but you cannot capture it in words….”
And there is this inimitable jewel: “We had stopped for our noon prayer. As I washed my hands, face and feet from a water-skin, a few drops spilled over a dried-up tuft of grass at my feet, a miserable little plant, yellow and withered and lifeless under the harsh rays of the sun. But as the water trickled over it, a shiver went through the shrivelled blades, and I saw how they slowly, tremblingly, unfolded. A few more drops, and the little blades moved and curled and then straightened themselves slowly, hesitatingly, trembling…. I held my breath as I poured more water over the grass tuft. It moved more quickly, more violently, as if some hidden force were pushing it out of its dream of death. Its blades—what a delight to behold!—contracted and expanded like the arms of a starfish, seemingly overwhelmed by a shy but irrepressible delirium, a real little orgy of sensual joy: and thus life reentered victoriously what a moment ago had been as dead, entered it visibly, passionately, overpowering and beyond in its majesty.
“Life in its majesty…you always feel it in the desert. Because it is so difficult to keep and so hard, it is always like a gift, a treasure, and a surprise. For the desert is always surprising, even though you may have known it for years. Sometimes, when you think you can see it in all its rigidity and emptiness, it awakens from its dream, sends forth its breath—and tender, pale-green grass stands suddenly where only yesterday there was nothing but sand and splintery pebbles. It sends forth its breath again—and a flock of small birds flutters through the air—from where? where to?—slim-bodied, long-winged, emerald-green; or a swarm of locusts rises up above the earth with a rush and a zoom, grey and grim and endless like a horde of hungry warriors….
“Life in its majesty: majesty of sparseness, always surprising: herein lies the whole nameless scent of Arabia, of sand deserts like this one, and of the many other changing landscapes.”
The merits of The Road to Mecca were widely recognized when it appeared. The Times Literary Supplement said, “History tells us of many European converts to Islam, some of whom have risen to high place and power in the lands of their adoption…. 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. His knowledge of Middle Eastern peoples and of their problems is profound; indeed in some respects his narrative is at once more intimate and more penetrating than that of Doughty.” The reviewer of the Christian Science Monitor wrote: “[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.”
Asad’s versatile talents and thought also flowered finely in other directions, including Islamic law—shari’ah—and Islamic political theory. Both fields were of importance to him, as he felt that the spiritual and temporal success of the Muslim community depended largely on a correct understanding and application of Islamic law and on a sound political system.
His attention turned to Islamic legal and political systems in the 1930’s when he, along with Iqbal, began to work for the creation of Pakistan, where the Indian Muslims could lead their lives in accordance with the ideals and teachings of Islam. Asad was one of the distinguished English-language thinkers who contributed to building the intellectual and ideological framework for the new Islamic state. Later he republished and developed 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).
“[A]n Islamic state,” Asad posits in The Principles of State and Government in Islam, “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.”
Asad further believed that modern and future Muslims had considerable flexibility to deal creatively—through ijtihad, independent thinking—with an ever-changing world and its attendant challenges. But he believed that they must, when carrying out ijtihad, be bound by the Qur’an and the sunnah. He believed that in all matters which were clearly enjoined by the shari’ah, sovereignty belonged to God alone, but in most other areas, such as the form of the political system to be adopted, God in His wisdom had given the believers the right, and imposed on them the duty, to exercise their reason and to arrive at the appropriate decision for their time by mutual consultation. Asad laid great emphasis on the Qur’anic principle of consultation; he gave no quarter to totalitarian systems of government, which he thought were pernicious and anti-Islamic.
The emphasis that Asad and other reformers placed on ijtihad bore fruit within his lifetime: Several Muslim countries and international organizations have formed juristic bodies to exercise independent thinking on such issues as organ transplantation, genetic engineering, interest-free banking and insurance.
It was Asad’s wife Pola Hamida Asad who gathered together various writings and radio talks of his and persuaded him to publish them as This Law of Ours and Other Essays. This book represents Asad’s work and thought from the mid-1940’s to 1987. In her foreword, she points out that the reader will be struck “not only by the extraordinary timeliness and timelessness of these thoughts and predictions, but also by their great consistency.”
This Law of Ours and Other Essays deals with Islamic and western civilizations and Muslim law. In particular, it dwells on the role of ijtihad and the creative outlook of the Companions of the Prophet and the great jurists of the past regarding the necessity for independent thinking based on the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet. It also contains Asad’s perspective on the ideological basis of Pakistan as well as on Islam’s encounter with the West.
“Simply talking about the need for a ‘re-birth’ of faith is not much better than bragging about our glorious past and extolling the greatness of our predecessors,” he says in This Law of Ours and Other Essays. “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 shown in unmistakable terms, what alternative proposals the shari’ah makes for our social life, what its true concept of society is, what views it puts forward with 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….”
He demonstrates a similar consistent practicality about religion in another place in the book: “Specious sermonising about ‘faith’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘surrender to God’s Will’ cannot lead to the establishment of true Islam on earth unless we are shown how to gain faith through a better insight into God’s plan, how to elevate our spirit by living a righteous life, and how to surrender ourselves to God by doing His Will as individuals and as a community, so that we might really become ‘the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind’ (surah 3:110).”
Many years of Asad’s life were spent contemplating the Qur’an’s meaning and dreaming of producing a new rendering of the Holy Book, with a commentary in the tradition of the great commentators whose scholarship has enriched Qur’anic studies through the centuries. In The Message of the Qur’an (1980), at the age of 80, Asad realized that lifelong dream. Following a limited edition of the first nine surahs, or chapters, of the Qur’an in 1964, the complete edition, a volume of 1000 pages, was the creative eruption that capped his scholarly contributions and long service to Islam.
What kind of book is the Qur’an, and—since there were already some 30 renderings of it in English—why did Asad undertake yet another? Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the Word of God revealed in Arabic and untranslatable into any other tongue. What challenges therefore face its interpreter, and how can his success be measured? Furthermore, Asad not only rendered the Qur’an into English, he also wrote a tafsir, or commentary, on it. Can any time-bound, mortal commentary do justice to God’s eternal Word?
The translator of any literary text is faced with two immediate problems: rendering the meaning of the original faithfully in language that is idiomatic and in a style that resonates with the unique linguistic traits and flavor of the target language. In the case of translation of Arabic into English, the problems are greater because of the vast gap between the different syntactical, rhetorical and linguistic worlds of a Semitic language and an Indo-European tongue. And for translation of the Qur’an, the challenge grows exponentially for a variety of reasons. First, the beauty and power of its language, rhythm and cadences are inimitable. Second, Qur’anic diction is highly elliptical and condensed, and expresses a world of meaning with pungent brevity. But the translator of such elliptical constructions is forced to add linking phrases to clarify his rendering, preferably without unwelcome interpolations into the Qur’anic text. Third, Arabic has preserved a lot of the hard-to-translate everyday imagery of an ancient world. Fourth, and not least important, the Qur’an coined numerous usages and terms to express religious and moral concepts; it thus gave novel meanings to old words.
The first English interpretation of the Qur’an by a European convert appeared only in 1930. In his justly celebrated translation, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall expresses some of the difficulties inherent in any effort to translate the Qur’an: “The Koran cannot be translated. That is the belief of old-fashioned Sheykhs and the view of the present writer. The Book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Koran, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Koran—and peradventure something of the charm—in English. It can never take the place of the Koran in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so.”
A commentator on the Qur’an faces still more difficulties. First, his qualifications must exceed those of a translator in a variety of Islamic fields, ranging from Arabic linguistics to lexicography, hadith to hermeneutics, history to heresiology, grammar to jurisprudence, rhetoric to dogmatics and phonetics to biography. Second, he must decide which line of interpretation he wants to follow, for the science of Qur’anic exegesis is a rich one and has engendered many, at times differing, schools of interpretation. However deep and however illuminating, those interpretations remain personal, human, partial perspectives on the Word of God and have not been considered binding on other scholars or on the community of believers.
Even in view of these daunting requirements, Asad was eminently qualified for his task. He had spent over three decades studying the Qur’an, the hadith and other allied Islamic disciplines. He had lived in Arabia and, through daily contact with its people, had gained greater familiarity with Arabic than any other western translator of the Qur’an. He had been in contact with some of the most perceptive Muslims of his times. As an earnest convert, he treated the Qur’an with both the veneration of a believer and the passion of an intellectual on a mission.
Asad says in the foreword to The Message of the Qur’an, “…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.” With the humility of a confessing scholar, he adds: “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 sea were ink for my Sustainer’s words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my Sustainer’s words are exhausted.’ (Qur’an 18:109).”
In his exegesis, Asad was eclectic. The wealth of material he quotes from classical authorities—starting with the Companion and cousin of the Prophet, the father of Qur’anic exegesis, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas—is one of the fortes of his rendering: In no other version of the Holy Book in English is there as much comment and interpretation from the giants of exegesis, whose original work is normally accessible only to scholars of Arabic.
Asad’s own bias is shown by the authority he most often quotes, the Mufti of Egypt Muhammad ‘Abduh. What perhaps impressed Asad most about ‘Abduh was that he viewed the Qur’an primarily as a book of divine guidance for Muslims in matters concerning their life in this world and in the hereafter, whereas many had long regarded it merely as a source of theology or a model of Arabic. “The reader will find in my explanatory notes frequent references to views held by Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905),” Asad writes. “His importance in the modern context of the world of Islam can never be sufficiently stressed. It may be stated without exaggeration that every single trend in contemporary Islamic thought can be traced back to the most outstanding of all modern Islamic thinkers.”
So, how well did Asad succeed in attaining the unattainable or translating the untranslatable? The Message of the Qur’an received favorable reviews from discriminating scholars. Gai Eaton, a leading British Muslim thinker, after pointing out the limitations of Asad’s rationalist approach, called it “the most helpful and instructive version of the Qur’an that we have in English. This remarkable man has done what he set out to do, and it may be doubted whether his achievement will ever be surpassed.”
Asad himself, while pleased with this judgment, would not have accepted it in its entirety, for he believed that the Word of God could never be entirely encompassed by a translator or commentator. In fact, had he lived longer, it is certain that he would have kept on improving his rendering, as we can see he did when we compare the verses he translated in The Road to Mecca with the same verses rendered in The Message of the Qur’an. Asad’s translation, like all other Muslim translations of the Qur’an in any language, is sincere and heartfelt—yet it, like the others, is only an attempt, transient and in no way completely satisfactory, to interpret what is essentially uninterpretable: the Word of God revealed in Arabic.
What, and how lasting, is Muhammad Asad’s legacy? Asad was a man who received his chief nourishment from the Qur’an and sunnah of the Prophet, and spent his energy on the preservation of the ideals of Islam and the identity of the Muslim community. He was the foremost champion of the shari’ah among western converts. He held that Islam’s spiritual and cultural achievements across the centuries remain a brilliant and moving spectacle, but he was interested in Muslims’ continuing greatness and their serving as a model for all nations.
Often he seemed to be ahead of his contemporaries in advocating the use of ijtihad, arguing passionately that this rugged path was the only way to ensure a successful revival in the Muslim world. He was deeply respectful of the achievements of the great scholars of the past, but critical of blind deference to individual opinions. He believed that all qualified Muslims were entitled—indeed, enjoined—to exercise their judgment on the range of societal issues that arise in every age and that have not been determined by divine revelation or authentic Prophetic traditions.
Asad’s disenchantment with secularism and materialism was the child of his very intimate, personal experience of the West. This disappointment was deeply felt, searchingly scrutinized and trenchantly expressed, and his devastating critique of these trends reoriented many Muslims toward pride in their identity and heritage.
Asad almost always worked on his own and never belonged to any organized movement. Because he was, and remained, an intellectual and never became an activist or the founder of a party, he did not leave any disciples who could carry on and develop his thought. But posterity will continue to benefit from the radiance of his thought through the written legacy he left in many fields: travel and autobiography, sunnah and shari’ah, jurisprudence and Qur’anic exegesis, secularism and westernization, political theory and constitutional ideas.
Nonetheless, 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 reexamined 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.
But only God knows the future. Meanwhile, the passionate love affair of a great and splendid European with Islam is indelibly inscribed in the past. For, once upon a time, two roads diverged in Berlin, and Muhammad Asad took the one less traveled by. He took the road to Makkah, and that has made all the difference.
Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab, formerly a university professor and a general manager at Saudi Aramco, is co-editor of the forthcoming The Foundations of Islam. His latest publication is a paper on “Muslims and the West in History.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on pages 6-32 of the January/February 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.