Monday, November 17, 2008

Muhammad Asad: the road beyond Mecca (Formerly Leopold Weiss)

by Khaled Ahmed

Muhammad Asad (1900-1992) is known in Pakistan for writing his inspirational autobiography The Road to Mecca in 1954 that told he story about how a Jew converted to Islam and found peace in it. In the fifties, Islam had not yet turned hard and Asad’s story did not raise any hackles. But by the time he completed his English translation of the Quran, the yardsticks had changed and it was difficult to find any defenders of his interpretive method. Because he had been a friend of King Saud, the Saudi government continued to help him. When no one bought his Quran (because it did not meet the current scholarly ‘consensus’) the Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani bought 20,000 copies of it. Asad’s Quran had been sponsored by Muslim World League headed by Sheikh Muhammad Sarur, member of a leading family of Kuwait, but when the League distributed its copies to its scholar members, a furore of disagreement arose about its deviation from the ‘consensus’.A meeting in Lisbon: I met Muhammad Asad in 1987 through the courtesy of our ambassador to Portugal, Birjis Hasan Khan, in Lisbon, where Asad was living with his Bostonian wife, Pola Hamida. I asked him about General Zia’s enforcement of the shariah in Pakistan. He was clearly in disagreement over the orthodox ‘extrapolation’ from the Quran of half a witness for the woman in the law of evidence promulgated by Zia. He was appalled by the Zina Ordinance and thought that no Muslim in his right mind could equate rape with fornication, as done by the Muslim jurists. He clearly did not accept the taqleedi jurisprudence of Islam and insisted that the Quran should be understood as it was before it was overtaken by the laws and tenets of later ages. He was a purist who disliked the political accretions of later times and did not take easily to hadith. His was an austere vision, much like the Saudi version of Islam.He told me that when he converted to Islam he simply translated his name Leopold into Arabic. Leo became Asad, but what inspired him with awe was what happened after he was guided by his mentors to go and learn the Quran in Lahore after the Second World War. (He had been interned during the war in Dalhousie). He joined the Ahle Hadith seminary at Sheranwala Gate. He was struck by the fact that the locality was named after ‘lions’ that decorated the Gate under which the seminary was located. I asked him about Saint-John Philby (famous spy Kim Philby’s father), the other friend of Ibn Saud, who in many ways was a precursor of Asad himself: an expert in Arabic and a relentless explorer of the Arabian desert. His _expression of dislike was immediate. Philby’s knowledge of Arabic was such that he often contested the meaning of some words with the Arabs. Asad’s own grasp was tremendous, which enabled him to challenge some of the meanings accepted by Imam Bukhari in his collection of hadith. But Asad did not think that Philby was a believer, nor did he trust the loyalty he showed to Ibn Saud. Asad’s travels took him to all parts of the Islamic world before he settled down to his job in new-born Pakistan.At a Lahore seminary: At the Sheranwala Gate mosque, he learned the Quran from Maulana Ahmad Ali (d.1962), the greatest Ahle Hadith scholar of the city, with strong ties to the anti-British luminaries of Deoband, including Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi who, like Ahmad Ali’s father, had converted from Sikhism. Muhammad Asad also mentioned with extreme reverence the name of Maulana Abdul Qadir Kasuri (d.1942) whom he met frequently while he was in Lahore. Abdullah Malik, in his book on the family of Maulana Abdul Qadir Kasuri, explains the spiritual connection the Kasuris had with the Ahle Hadith, the ‘non-imitative’ school of thought closest to the Wahhabi version of Saudi Arabia. He also reports on the offer Ibn Saud had made to Maulana Abdul Qadir of a ministership or advisoryship in Hejaz, which the maulana had declined. The Kasuris became well-known lawyers in undivided India, based on the remarkable success of Maulana Abdul Qadir in the legal profession. His son, Mian Mahmood Ali Kasuri became an internationally known defender of human rights and was a member of the PPP government in 1971 before falling out with prime minister Bhutto. His son, Mian Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a lawyer, was an MNA of the Muslim League before the parliament was dissolved in 1999.Allama Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s journal Renaissance in its May 2002 issue has reproduced an article on Muhammad Asad from The Impact International which tells the story of this extraordinary man who served Islam in general and served Pakistan in particular in its early days. Leopold Weiss was born in a Polish town called Lwow (lion, again?) from where he escaped when 14 and joined Austrian army under a false name. He was recovered by his father and brought to Vienna where he finally went to the university to study art and philosophy. But his dabbling mind was attracted to journalism, which he wanted to pursue in Prague. He was trained in the Jewish lore and knew his Mishna and Talmud in the footsteps of his grandfather who had been a rabbi in Chernovic. A natural polyglot, Leopold could read and speak Hebrew and was acquainted with Aramaic too. Shifting to Berlin, Leopold entered the cinema for a time before landing a job as a journalist with a news agency. It was in Berlin in 1922 that he was invited by his maternal uncle to visit him in Jerusalem where he was in charge of a mental asylum.An eccentric beginning: While in Jerusalem he was able to land the job of a reporter for the German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. He travelled frequently to Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Istanbul and Lebanon, seeing how the Arab world lived. When he returned in 1924, his paper employed him on a regular basis and got him to write a book on his experiences in the Middle East. The book did not sell because it was not sufficiently romanticised and because it was anti-Zionist. Leopold simply did not accept that the ‘Jewish homeland’ was justified after driving the majority population of the Arabs from Palestine. The newspaper sent him back to the Middle East. On the way he stopped in Cairo to learn Arabic, in the process getting to know Sheikh Mustafa Maraghi, a renowned scholar of Islam who later arose to become the rector of Al-Azhar University. He embarked on his wanderings soon after that, going to Iraq and Iran, and finally to Afghanistan, where a Pushtun told him that he was already a Muslim because of his knowledge of Islam. After two years of wandering and writing for Frankfurter Zeitung, he returned to Berlin via Central Asia and Moscow.By this time he was feeling attracted to Islam because of its lack of dichotomy between the physical and spiritual worlds. He married Elsa in 1926 and embraced Islam together with her in the tutelage of an Indian Muslim in Berlin, renaming himself Muhammad Asad. He was contracted by a number of German Dutch papers before he left again for the Middle East. This time he stationed himself in Saudi Arabia, meeting King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in 1927. At the age of 32, after Elsa died, he took an Arab wife and immersed himself in a library of early Islamic sources while also taking time out to ride through the length and breadth of the great Saudi desert, somewhat like Saint-John Philby. He travelled eastwards to Indonesia and India where he soon met Allama Iqbal who persuaded him in 1932 to ‘elucidate the intellectual premise of the future Islamic state’. While in India, he was trapped by the outbreak of the Second World War. The Raj government interned him in Dalhousie for the duration of the war. After 1947, Asad started working as head of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction in Lahore under the Punjab government, translating the hadith collection of Imam Bukhari and publishing his journal, Arafat.In the service of Pakistan: Irshad Haqqani wrote in Jang (6 April 2005) that Allama Muhammad Asad was a great Islamic scholar who was made director of Department of Islamic Reconstruction (1947-49) in Karachi to formulate laws about the new Pakistani society. But the archives of this department were no longer available. General Zia invited the great scholar in 1983 to show him the Islamic way together with Maulana Zafar Ansari and Dr Hamidullah, but when Asad disagreed with his idea of the shura he was displeased with him, which forced Asad to cut short his visit to Pakistan. However, back in 1952, he was chosen to represent Pakistan at the United Nations as minister plenipotentiary, but while in New York he soon developed differences with the Foreign Office back in Pakistan. When he applied to marry an American convert to Islam, Pola Hamida, permission was refused, compelling him to resign. Somehow he put Pakistan behind him forever, never writing the sequel to his famous The Road to Mecca which told the story of his life up to his stay in Saudi Arabia. His translation of the Quran was typically based on early sources and not on the tafseer literature which had proliferated in the medieval centuries. Although he had fled Western rationalism to become a Muslim, he could not avoid applying rationality to the understanding of the Scripture. He was influenced by the Egyptian Muslim reformers, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, whose rational presentation of Islam was later dubbed apologetics by the rising tide of taqleedi thinking. He wrote: ‘ The Quran cannot be understood if we read it merely in the light of later ideological developments, losing sight of its original purport and meaning’. Asad remained ever a restless soul, travelling and staying in different parts of the world, in all spending about 19 years in Morocco alone, before finally settling in Spain, where he died on 20 February 1992, and was buried in Granada, Andalusia. His book Islam at the crossroads (1934) advising Muslims to stay away from blind Westernisation was translated into many languages, and his This Law and other Essays (1987) explained his approach to the shariah and bemoaned the tendency of the Muslims to accept local accretions to the purity of Islamic law. If the early 20th century reformers thought that Islam would move towards rationality and modernity, they were proved wrong towards the end of the century. Intellectual activity, which could have shown the way forward, has been suppressed by a rising tide of violence. As he sat before me in Lisbon, he clearly understood that he had been rendered irrelevant by the march of events. Today, the extremism embraced by the ulema threatens to destabilise the Islamic state, and the moderate view of scholars like Allama Javed Ahmad Ghamidi is easily set aside by the more powerful but less learned religious leaders of Pakistan.

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