Uploaded on June 17, 2022
Muhammad Asad: An Exceptional Muslim Intellectual of the 20th Century
Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, recently organised a two-day International Conference on ‘Personality and Contribution of Muhammad Asad’ to facilitate and celebrate the Austro-Hungarian-born intellectual Muhammad Asad (formerly known as Leopold Weiss).
Muhammad Asad’s journey to the path of Islam was not a smooth sailing; he fought all the hurdles that came his way to reach the zenith he achieved. In his autobiography, “The Road to Mecca,” he beautifully articulated how he renounced the religion (Jew) he was born into to embrace Islam. He had many roles—that of a political theorist, diplomat, journalist, etc.,—but the most highlighted was his contribution to the Muslim community as a Muslim thinker and intellectual.
Spent a considerable time travelling across the world to search for the truth, Muhammad Asad mainly worked on the discourse of Islamic history and Islamic sciences entwined with modern perspective and extensively translated the Holy Quran and hadith. His life before he accepted Islam was comfortable and full of luxury, but the true calling made him question the principles and beliefs he inherited from his forefathers. The inner tranquility he felt on his trip to Jerusalem ignited the spark to learn more about the culture, religion, and beliefs that was at a stark difference from that of the European lifestyle he grew up with. As Muhammad Asad rightly pointed out “…I seemed to sense an urge to discover some hidden forces that moved myself and filled me and promised to give me direction…” He was vocal about colonization propagated by the West, and in one of his interviews, Muhammad Asad said that he felt that the Jewish colonization of Palestine was “immoral” and unfair to the world of Middle East.
The journey to the path of truth made him aware of the tyrannical colonial forces around the world. And consequently, he committed his life redefining the modern history that demonized Islam and its followers, mostly from the Westerner gaze. Muhammad Asad was visionary; during one of his stays in Afghanistan, he pointed out how Islam was losing its sheen with its people abandoning the precepts of the Quran and the guide of Prophet Muhammad. He was a pioneer in indicating to the intellectual stagnation and culture decay Muslims were going through at that point of time and called for the revival of Islam. He reminded people of the rich history of Islam and the effort people put in the early days of Islam.
Once, the philosopher in him gauged how people, even during the great prosperity in Central Europe in 1926, were unhappy. He along with his first wife, who was also interested in Islam, saw that people did not look content and at peace. It was enough for him to purse where his heart was inclining towards, and it led them to read the Shahada. Events like these made him one of the great scholars and intellectuals of the 20th century.
From the time of Prophet Muhammad till today, each development has taken place according to seven pillars—justice, equality (on the basis of race, color, class, caste, gender, etc.), liberty, fraternity, brotherhood, transparency, and accountability—which are the main principles of a nation and governance that help make a democracy dynamic and resilient. If these pillars are not functional, then there will be chaos and inequality in society. These are important aspects of Islam, which are a gift to humankind from Islam. The basic theory of Islamic philosophy for state and governance comes under these pillars. Inspired by the precepts of the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad Asad proposed the idea of an Islamic state based on the interpretations of the Holy Quran. He, too, emphasized these principles for the development of an Islamic state; he envisioned the Islamic state to have democratic principles, where the interest of each person is protected and guaranteed by the laws.
However, unfortunately, Muhammad Asad did not receive the spotlight he deserved. His life was nothing short of an inspiration for Muslims across the world, and still, Asad’s life is relevant in contemporary times. Many believe Muhammad Asad’s conversion was a result of his critique of Zionist philosophy, dissatisfaction with the political, social and religious beliefs of Europe, and romanticisation of the Arab world. However, Asad’s visionary dedication toward transforming how the European viewed Islam could not be reduced to just these factors. It is his effort to comprehend the Quran, hadith and Islamic sciences for easy access and unbiased interpretation of the Quran that makes him great.
The act of criticizing Muhammad Asad for not belonging to any particular group due to the multiplicity of his personality and ideologies raised pertinent questions about binaries and the limitations of reducing someone’s unique identity into a homogenized group. The lack of acceptance among Muslim scholars and intellectuals who questioned Asad’s intentions and his credibility has somewhat placed him on the edge of the purview of Muslim icons. Muhammad Asad, in all his glory, is worthy of more attention and appreciation. The hesitancy among Muslims in accepting a convert wholeheartedly needs to be challenged, and we need a strategy to celebrate and acknowledge Asad’s contribution to the Ummah. The legacy of Muhammad Asad can only be justified when we open our hearts to learn and explore his works and discuss his life experiences to understand what goes behind the making of a competent thinker like him.
We can consider Muhammad Asad as Mujtahid because he used the tools of Ijtihad. Islam has given special emphasis on Ijtihad; it is the only way to resolve issues pertaining to Islamic society. His books should be acquired for the greater good of humanity. Muhammad Asad’s background in the socio-psychological aspect helped play a major role in the translations of the Quran and Hadith. His translation of “The Message of the Quran” is meticulous and very close to the original meaning of the verses of the Quran. We have to always remember that no one can reproduce the words of Allah but can merely attempt to unearth the meanings and implications of the verses of the Quran. Intellectuals, especially Muslim intellectuals, must adapt to contemporary milieu for the greater good of humanity.
Muhammad Asad highlighted safeguarding the consciousness of the Muslim community—unity among Muslims—and called for adopting the teachings of the Quran without getting influenced by the culture and rituals. The takeaway lesson for all of us should be what Muhammad Asad pointed out—“we must go back to Islam.” The time we are living in, no doubt, is cruel for the Muslim community; therefore, the differences amongst the Muslim community should be abandoned, and together, with our focus on the verses of the Holy Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad, we need to find an ideological centre that Islam has to offer.
(The writer is Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi)