A Jewish Convert to Islam in the South-Asian Subcontinent
By Dominic Schlosser
Not surprisingly, the aspects of the Muslim-Jewish relationship in West Asia have attracted the interest of many scholars. However, the issue of interactions between Muslims and Jews in the South Asian subcontinent undoubtedly received relatively little attention by academic research thus far. By analysing the intriguing post-conversion life of the formerly Jewish, Muslim Muhammad Asad, one can contribute to the latter field of research. As an ardent opponent to political Zionism, foreign correspondent for both the renowned Frankfurter Zeitung and the Kölnische Zeitung and some lesser newspapers, semi-official apologete of the third Saudi state and its legendary ruler, editor of the Hyderabad based journal, Islamic Culture, translator of al-Bukhari’s canonical hadith collection, staunch supporter of the Pakistan movement, member of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Minister Plenipotentiary of the newly-founded state to the United Nations in New York, Chairman of the Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories and translator of the most central text of Islam, Asad led a somewhat adventurous and eventful life, attempted to affect the course of his acquired religion, and has nowadays become some kind of an icon for European converts to Islam. The life of this rather colourful and slightly eccentric figure can be situated as a specific example of a German-speaking Jewish intellectual in interwar Europe whose attempts of self-positioning did not lead him to acculturation to his non-Jewish surrounding society or to the decision for Zionism, but rather culminated in abandoning his original faith and turning to Islam.
The year 1932 witnessed the arrival of Muhammad Asad by ship in late colonial India. When he entered the harbour of Karachi, nobody could have foretold that the more than thirty years old grandson of an Orthodox rabbi would play an active role in the foreign policy of the young Pakistan two decades later. Born under the name of Leopold Weiss in the former Austrian, now Ukrainian town of Lviv to an acculturated, liberal Jewish family in 1900, the son of a lawyer received, according to his own account, a traditional instruction in Judaism. Yet his consequent thorough knowledge of the Jewish religion did not prevent him from drifting away from it at an early age without searching then for any spiritual alternatives. From 1918 onwards, “Poldi”, as he was nicknamed, studied philosophy, art history, physics as well as chemistry at the University of Vienna, but quit his studies two years later to start a career in journalism. Thereafter, he settled in vibrant and flourishing Weimar Berlin, where he soon frequented the bohemian circles of artists and intellectuals until he finally commenced working for a news agency as assistant editor.
Leopold Weiss’ first extended contacts with Arabs, respectively Muslims, came when he visited Mandatory Palestine in 1922. During this first stay in the Middle East, he was not only exposed to political Zionism, to which he quickly showed staunch opposition, but was also led to a romantic infatuation with the Arabs. Later on, he presented them in a positive cultural shock-like manner as the ultimate other compared to the way of life he had experienced in Post-World War I Vienna and Berlin, and which he criticised – following a then prevalent cultural pessimistic pattern – as being totally determined by expediency, mindless materialism and ethical lability. Being accepted by the German daily Frankfurter Zeitung as a stringer, he travelled again through the Middle East, and in 1926, he eventually embraced Islam in the German capital on the hand of the Indian Abd al-Jabbar Khairi (1880–1958), then leader of the 1922-founded Berlin Islamic Society e.V. The young convert assumed the name Muhammad Asad. In the following year, he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and, instead of returning to his home continent after its completion, decided to establish himself permanently in the territory of the future kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There he reportedly succeeded in establishing a relationship with the later King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (1876–1935) on whom he initially pinned high hopes in the launching of a renewal of Islam.
After his almost six-year period of stay on the Arabian Peninsula, Asad remained on the South Asian subcontinent for nearly fifteen years. The causes for his heading to new shores are as yet unclear. However, he himself later claimed that he had befriended several adherents of the Ahl-i Hadith movement in Mecca who had urged him to visit their native country. His contacts with more or less prominent members of this Islamic reformist group and his deep commitment to the Ahl-i Hadith’s esteem of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad as the primary source of Islam next to the Qur’an were reflected in Islam at the Crossroads, Asad’s first Islamic book. In this small tractate, which was published in 1934, Asad not only condemned Western civilisation for its alleged materialistic inclinations and broached the subject of an ongoing Western crusade against Islam, but also strongly defended the reliability of the canonical hadith collections against Orientalist criticisms. In the same year, he started to work on the translation of al-Bukhari’s al-Jami al-Sahih into English. Supported by the rulers of the Indian Muslim principalities of Bhopal and Hyderabad, he issued some parts of this arguably most prestigious hadith compendium up to 1938, but he never completed his heavily annotated translation. Between 1937 and 1938, Asad also held the editorship of the renowned Hyderabad-based journal, Islamic Culture, thus following in the footsteps of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), the famed British convert to Islam and translator of the Qur’an, who had just deceased.
Upon World War II, during which Asad was detained in British internment camps as an enemy alien, he launched in Dalhousie in the Punjab a privately funded ephemeral periodical entitled Arafat: A Monthly Critique of Muslim Thought, comprising only articles written by himself. In this one man’s journal, the former fervent admirer of Ibn Saud dedicated a considerable amount of attention to the idea of a Muslim Zion which should come into being by the creation of the state of Pakistan. If one gives credit to Asad’s own retrospective statements, it was a result of his exchange of ideas with none other than the Punjab-born poet-philosopher-politician Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) that he had grown into a keen advocate of the demand for an independent separate Muslim state on the South Asian subcontinent. Asad put a lot of emphasis on maintaining that the alleged spiritual father of Pakistan had convinced him to remain in British India “to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state”.
In Asad’s writings on the cause of Pakistan, he speculated that its establishment was a unique historical chance to build a thorough Islamic state which would become the prelude to a general Islamic reorientation. The vision of the imminent nation he propagated included the firm conviction that the Muslims were set apart from other communities by virtue of their adherence to Islam and had therefore the undeniable right to autonomous political existence. Decidedly insisting that Islam was the only raison d’être of Pakistan, Asad neither supported the idea of it as a refuge for the subcontinent’s Muslim population nor did he oppose the residence of large Muslim minorities on what would become the territory of the Indian Union after the end of the British Raj in the subcontinent and its partition.
Asad also dealt extensively with the subject of the shape of Pakistan’s future constitution. Thereby, he distanced from notions according to which the Muslim successor state of Colonial India had to be modelled to the forms of the rightly-guided Caliphate to be truly Islamic as well as from the idea of its development towards a Western parliamentary democracy. According to his own testimony, Asad tried to bridge the gap between such positions and therefore worked out some concrete propositions for Pakistan’s constitution by making use of the alleged political injunctions forthcoming from both the Qur’an and the hadith. He had to realize, though, that the suggestions he had brought forward in the late 1940s were not utilized in the soon abrogated 1956 constitution of the Republic of Pakistan.
Following the creation of Pakistan, Asad moved to the newly-formed state, joined its foreign service and was appointed as director of the Middle East Division of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry. In 1952, he eventually rose to the position of Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations in New York and became Chairman of the Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories as well. However, his tenure was short-lived as he resigned from Pakistani diplomatic service in the same year. Instead of pursuing a political career, he then became a private scholar and, henceforth, led a migratory life with stations in Hamburg, Damascus, Beirut, Lahore, Geneva and Tangier. Seemingly disillusioned with the developments in his former adopted country Pakistan, which did not come up to his high-wrought expectations, Asad died in the Spanish village Mijas near Malaga on 20 February 1992 and was buried in Granada.
Dominik Schlosser received his doctorate in Religious Studies from the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt for his study on Muhammad Asad’s understanding of Islam.
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