Remembering Muhammad Asad

On Dec 13, renowned Swiss-born Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan will be in Kuala Lumpur to deliver a lecture in tribute to the late Muhammad Asad, whose translation and commentary of the Quran, ‘The Message of the Quran’, departs from the usual methodology of Quranic exegesis to become one of only few highly scholarly works on the Quran in the English language.

While Asad’s works, including his countless writings on Islam and Muslims, have huge ramifications to the debates surrounding contemporary Islam, including those presently taking centre stage in Malaysia such as the Islamic state issue and the problem of ‘blind following’ in matters of religion, it is important that we are introduced to Asad, his adventurous life and his thoughts in order to understand this intellectual giant who has been considered as Europe’s gift to Islamic scholarship.

Muhammad Asad was arguably one of the 20th century’s greatest Muslim thinkers from the West. Only recently, a public place called the Muhammad Asad Square was launched in his honour by the mayor of Vienna, his place of birth, making it probably the first traffic area to be named after a Muslim in Western Europe.

Earlier this year, a documentary film based on his widely acclaimed autobiography, ‘The Road to Mecca’, was produced by the Austrian director George Misch, placing his travels and thoughts in the context of contemporary debates surrounding Islam. It subsequently won many awards at international film fests this year, including for best cinematography.

Writer, adventurer, thinker, diplomat, commentator of the Quran – these words may best describe Muhammad Asad, Those who have followed his career through his books and writings, however, know that no one has contributed more in our times to the understanding of Islam and awakening of Muslims, or worked harder to build a bridge between the East and the West, than Asad.

But who was Muhammad Asad, the Jewish convert to Islam, whose transformation into one of the most influential modern thinkers of Islam was not before embarking on an adventurous journey throughout the Middle East at a time when the West’s cultural, political and military grip on the Muslim world was at its peak?

Asad was born Leopold Weiss on July 2, 1900 in Galicia, now in Poland, and part of the Austrian empire then. In 1926, he converted to Islam. The story of the years before his conversion, immortalised in ‘The Road To Mecca,’ reflects the spiritual odyssey of a man in search of a home, a man struck by wanderlust, unable to quell his restless spirit until embracing Islam.

In 1922 he became a Near East correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, then one of the most outstanding newspapers in Europe. His career in journalism took him to Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and gave him a unique perspective on world affairs, particularly issues relating to Jews and Arabs.