Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) was born in a family of Jewish scholars in Poland, and died in Spain. He converted to Islam in 1926. Two of his books are landmarks in Twentieth Century Muslim literature: 'Islam at the crossroads' (1934), and 'The Road to Mecca' (1954). Both parents died in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.
Muhammad Iqbal held him in the highest regard, and sought his services as a lecturer in theology at Islamia College, Lahore in 1934. However Asad was unable to take up the appointment. Asad was sincere to Iqbal's vision of the need for the emergence of an Islamic polity for the welfare of the Muslims of India. He devoted his talents to Pakistan in its early years, serving as Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, West Punjab and later in the Foreign Service as undersecretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. His broadcasts on Radio Pakistan in 1948 on the vision of an Islamic state are of historical significance.
He became Pakistan's permanent representative to the United Nations in 1952. He was later embittered by the treatment he received, in no small measure because of the hostility of the Foreign Minister, Sir Zafrullah Khan. In the same year Asad, a widower, married Pola Hamida, a Bostonian, amongst rumours that Zafrullah Khan too was a rival suitor. A son of an earlier marriage, Talal Asad, is a distinguished anthropologist.
Asad's translation and commentary of the Qur'an was surrounded by controversy when the first volume was published by Rabita al-alam al-Islamia in the early 60s. The complete work is now available.Not surprisingly from someone emerging from a tradition of logical positivism and contact with the Vienna Circle, Asad tends to prefer a rationalistic interpretation of phenomena such as the 'jinn'. Notwithstanding this predisposition, the commentary contains excellent expositions of the socio-political dimension of Islam.
An important biographical study on Asad by Gunther Windhager - 'Leopold Weiss alias Muhammad Asad: Von Galizien nach Arabien 1900-1927', Bohlau Verlag, 2002 - provides details of his early encounter with Zionism. It notes that Theodor Herzl (the father of modern Zionism) and Asad were both Austrian, assimilated Jews, and journalists. But while Herzl immersed himself in the Zionist cause, Asad rejected it as a racist abberation. He knew, first-hand, that the propaganda describing Palestine as 'a land without a people' was untrue. Asad rejected Zionism and rediscovered his Abrahamic roots in Islam. This new biography also reveals that Asad not only studied history of art and philosophy at Vienna University, but also chemistry and physics under Erwin Schrodinger, the quantum physicist.
Compiled by:M A Sherif