Muhammad Asad

Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) was born in 1900, into a family of Jewish scholars in Poland. It was the tradition of his family that the son would become a rabbi, and therefore he received a strict religious education. He was so well instructed in the Jewish religion that he knew Aramaic and Hebrew very well. He studied the Torah in original.

From his teenager years, Asad/Weiss made many unsuccessful attempts to pursue a career other than that of being a rabbi. When he was fourteen he ran away from home to Austria to join the army, but at this time the Austrian Empire collapsed. Later on, he tried to attend University in Vienna to pursue studies in art history and the philosophy of education, but soon  realized that these were not right for him. Vienna was very famous for its philosophical, linguistic and psychological innovations at this time. Freud, Alfred Adler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were well known at this time, but unfortunately they were not enough to satisfy Weiss's intellectual world.  

When he was 20, Weiss left Vienna and came to Berlin. Here, while working as a telephonist, he reported an important event and subsequently started to work as a journalist. He left Europe for the Middle East in 1922 and went to Jerusalem to visit one of his relatives - this was the start of his journey from one religion to another. In Jerusalem, Weiss changed his opinions about Arabs and Muslims and was attracted by how Islam spiritually changed the everyday life of Muslim people.

When he returned to Berlin, Weiss started to work for the Frankfurter Zeitung. As a journalist, he spoke with the heads of state of many countries, such as Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc., and these visits made him feel closer to Islam. When he was 26, he became Muslim in front of the head of a small Muslim community in Berlin. He chose the name "Muhammad" to honor the prophet and "Asad" which means lion. He married a girl named Elsa, gave up his job and went to Mecca on pilgrimage. 30 years after his conversion, Asad tells about why he had made such an important spiritual change in his life:

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 the 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."

When Asad was in Mecca his wife died. On the invitation of Prince Faysal's father, Asad stayed in Mecca. He spent six years there and educated himself spiritually. He studied Arabic, the Quran, hadith and Islamic History. To study Muslim communities, he went to India and met with Mohammed Iqbal. He was admired by Iqbal, but could not stay there long due to the outbreak of World War II. In 1947, Asad moved to Pakistan and was assigned to the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, the Middle East Division. Here, he tried to develop relationships between Pakistan and other Muslim communities. In 1952, he left his job to write "The Road to Mecca" and died in Spain in 1992. 

"The Road to Mecca" was published in 1954 and is basically an answer to those who are not familiar with Islam or who are opposed to Islamic belief. It is also an answer, as Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab comments, to those who criticized Asad for becoming Muslim and identifying himself with the Muslims. Nawwab examines the book in depth and comments on it:

"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."


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