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Muhammad Asad (1900-1992): The Pakistani Connection

Posted on April 16, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Books, History, People, Religion
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Adil Najam

Muhammad Asad: Road to MeccaI am most pleasantly surprised that readers have so quickly figured out the mystery man in our latest ATP Quiz. Since they have, let me add a little more information and let the discussion continue.

I am not sure, however, how many readers know of Muhammad Asad or of his connection to Pakistan. Let me confess that until fairly recently I did not; at least not of the Pakistan connection. As I have gotten to know more about this connection, I have gotten more and more intrigued – all the more so because there is relatively little in his own writings or that of others about this.

But lets start from the beginning.



Asad was born in 1900 as Leopold Weiss to Jewish parents in Lvov (then part of the Habsburg Empire, now in Ukraine). He moved to Berlin in 1920 to become a journalist and traveled to Palestine in 1922. It was there that he first came into contact with Arabs and Muslims and began a long journey into Muslim lands and minds that eventually led to his embracing Islam in 1926. His bestselling autobiography Road to Mecca (published 1954) recounts these years in vivid and captivating detail., including his adventures in Arabia and in working with King Ibn Saud and the Grand Sanusi, amongst others.

The Message of the Quran; Translation by Muhammad Asad

Later in his life, after retiring in Spain, he spent 17 years working on an English translation of the Quran which was first published in 1980. Many consider this to be one of the finest English translation of the Quran – some argue this is because he himself was fluent in bedouin Arabic which is closest to the Arabic in the Quran, others suggest that since he was himself a European and wrote in more understandable idiomatic English his translation is most accessible to non-Arabic speakers.

As a lay-reader who ver the years has read a number of English translations, including his, I do find Asad’s translation – The Message of the Quran – to be easier to read than those by Abdullah Yusuf Ali or Marmaduke Pickthall which are amore formal and literal translations. Unlike the translations by Prof. Ahmed Ali (my particular favorite) and by Thomas Cleary which are also in contemporary idiom and very readable, the Mohammad Asad translation has the added virtue of also having commentary and explanations, and the new edition is wonderfully presented, printed in the highest quality, and with tasteful calligraphy. All in all, Mohammad Asad’s The Message of the Quran is the translation that I now recommend to friends, Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

But I digress. Much as I like Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Quran and especially in its new printing, that is not the subject of this post. The subject of the post is his ‘Pakistani connection’ and also why we do not find much about that connection in his writings. Here is what we know.

By the early 1930s Asad had gotten rather disenchanted by King Ibn Saud and his religious advisors (see Road to Mecca) and had begun travelling Eastwards into other Muslim lands. This brought him to British India and there he met and became a good friend of Dr. Mohammad Iqbal. Indeed, Iqbal encouraged him to write his book Islam at the Crossroads (published 1934); whose cover has the following testimonial from Iqbal:

“I have no doubt that coming as it does from a highly cultured European convert to Islam, it will prove an eye-opener to our younger generation.” Muhammad Iqbal.

Asad: This Law of OursAsad: Islam at CrossroadsAsad: State and Government in IslamAsad: Sahi Al Bukhari

During World War II imprisoned him in a camp for enemy aliens (because of his Austrian nationality) while his father was interned by the Nazis because he was Jewish. After the War he fervently threw his all behind the demand for Pakistan. Upon the creation of Pakistan, he saw himself very much a ‘Pakistani’ as did those he worked with (reportedly even took to wearing the achkan). In 1947 he became the director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction in West Pakistan and worked on a treatise with ideas for the Constitution of Pakistan. Many of these ideas (which were mostly related to creating a multi-party parliamentary democracy) were reproduced in his later books but he was not very successful in getting them implemented.

In 1949 Asad joined the Pakistan Foreign Ministry as head of the Middle East Division and eventually in 1952 came to New York as Pakistan’s representative to the United Nations. Here he met the woman who would become the last of his wifes (Pola Hamida). Whether it was the fact that he married her and divorced his earlier wife or the messiness of Pakistani politics, it was in this period that he fell out with the powers in Pakistan and resigned from the Foreign Ministry. He decided to stay on in New York to write Road to Mecca, which became a major success. He never really returned to Pakistan (although, supposedly, Gen. Zia ul Haq tried to get him back) and died in Europe in 1992.

It was his estrangement with the Pakistan government that pushed him back into writing and produced two amazing works – Road to Mecca and The Message of the Quran. However, here once again is a story of one who wished to give his all to Pakistan and we did not let him.

66 comments posted

Comment Pages: [9] 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 » Show All

  1. Mukhtar in Chicago says:
    October 26th, 2013 9:03 am

    AGAR QABOOL KARAY DEEN-E-MUSTAFA ANGRAIZ,
    SIA ROOZ MUSALMAN RAHAY GAHNPHIR BHI GHULAM.

    MUHAMMAD ASAD MOVED BY THE DYNAMICS OF ISLAMIC PRINCIPLES JOINED THE MILLAT IN 1926 AND WORKED WITH THE SAUDI KING. HE WATCHED THE HYPOCRACY OF SAYING SOMETHING AND DOING THE OPPOSIT. SOON GOT DISENFRANCHISED AND MOVED TO INDIA. MET PROMINANT MUSLIM LEADERS AND FOUND THE ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO WORK FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF HIS IDEALS. HE VISITED DARUL SALAM OF MAULANA MADOODI AND WAS THE GUEST OF CHAUDHRY NIAZ ALI. SOON THE RUMOR SPREAD THAT A GORA SAHIB HAS COME TO THIS REMOTE PART OF THE WORLD AND WE AS KIDS ALWAYS EAGER TO SEE HIM TRIED TO TALK TO HIM. HIS URDU WAS MUCH BETTER THAN OUR ENGLISH. AND SOON HE WAS INTERNED WITH ABOUT 500 FOREIGN INTERNEES AT JHOL INTERMENT CAMP NEAR PATHANKOT DURING WW II. HE WAS THE ONLY MUSLIM AMONG THE INTERNEES. THIS GAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO STUDY ISLAM MORE DEEPLY. AFTER THE PARTITION HE MOVED TO KARACHI AND WAS SWORN AS A FIRST PAKISTANI CITIZEN. HE STARTED WORKING ON THE ISLAMIC CONSTITUTION OF NEW REPUBLIC WITHOUT KNOWING THE PSYCHE OF MUSLIMS. HE WAS SURROUNDED BY A DOZEN DIFFERENT IDEOLOGICAL CULTS IN THE SOCIETY AND ONCE AGAIN WAS REMINDED THE EXPERIENCE HE GOT FROM SAUDI PUBLIC. WORSEN WAS THAT THE SIR ZAFARULLAH KHAN WAS THE FOREIGN MINISTER AND HAD HIS STRONG VIEWS OF AHMADI CULT.AND HERE LIAQAT ALI WITH FEUDAL BACKGROUND WAS NOT INTERESTED ANY CHANGE ON THE STATUS QUO. SOON HE WAS POLITELY ASKED TO ASSUME PAKISTAN’S AMBASSADOR IN UNITED NATION IN NEW YORK. AND MIND YOU WORKING WITH A EGO MANIAC ZAFARULLAH KHAN WAS NOT EASY. IN FRUSTRATRATION, ASAD RESIGNED AND MOVED TO GIBRALTER AND BUSIED HIMSELF ON WRITING BOOKS.

    HE FAILED TO REALIZE THAT WHAT MUSLIM LEADERS SAY IS NOT WHAT THEY PRACTICE. I PERSONALLY KNOW A NUMBER LEADERS HABITUALLY REQUEST GAINFULLY EMPLOYED EX-PATRIOTS AND WERE OFFERED TO HEAD CERTAIN PAKISTANI INSTITUTES. THOSE WHO BELIEVED AND RESIGNED FROM THEIR JOBS AND MOVED TO PAKISTAN WERE SYSTEMATICALLY DISGRACED AND HUMILIATED BY THE SOCIETY AS WELL AS THE ENVIRONMENT. ASAD EXPERIENCED THIS HUMILIATION AND NEVER RECOVERED FROM THIS SHOCK. “QAIS PAIDA HOUN TEERI MEHFIL MAIN YEI MUMKIN NAHIN,
    TUNG HAI SEHRA TEERA, MEHMAL HAI BEY LAILA TEERI.

    AS ALLAMA IQBAL APPROPRIATELY SAID;
    UMEED KIA HAI SIASAT KEY PESH WAON SEY,
    YEI KHAKBAZ HAIN, RAKHTAY HAIN KHAK SEY PAIWAND.

    HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE LURED TO HEAD INSTITUTES OF HIGHER LEARNING AND THEN ASKED TO LEAVE. THERE IS NO DELEGATION OF POWER IN ISLAM AND THAT’S WHERE PROBLEM LIES.

  2. Mohammad Asim says:
    April 30th, 2013 9:17 am

    Muhammad Asad is the greatest unsung hero of Pakistan. I have read his book and his last book ” Home coming of the Heart”. He was FIRST citizen of Pakistan and rightly called as Intellectual co-founder of Pakistan. He was the most versatile Muslim of 20th century. He is called as European gift to Islam. I call him Islam gift to Pakistan. He died and was buried in Spain. The Pakistani Government and people must bring his bones back to Pakistan to be buried here in the country he loved most.

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