Ahmad Farouk Musa || 20th December 2023
For those familiar with The Message of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad is a figure that requires no introduction. Born as Leopold Weiss, this Austrian Jew, after reverting to Islam, spent his younger days defending Islam against the Zionists by ardently supporting the Palestinian liberation cause in Jerusalem. He travelled extensively across the Arabian desert, serving as an advisor in the Royal Court of King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. He later travelled across Iran and Afghanistan, eventually ending up in India where he befriended Muhammad Iqbal, the architect of Pakistan; the latter persuaded Asad to abandon his plan to travel east towards Indonesia and help him instead to intellectually elucidate the premise of the future Islamic republic of Pakistan. As a draftsman of the constitution of Pakistan, Asad became the first naturalised citizen of the state and spent almost two decades there. It is no wonder then that the bulk of his letters in this book were addressed to his friends in Pakistan, a country he loved most.
The Unpublished Letters of Muhammad Asad examines Muhammad Asad’s life and intellectual influence through his correspondence with Islamic scholars in India such as Chaudhri Niyaz Ali Khan (1880-1976), Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi (1884-1953), Abu’l-A’la al-Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). His meeting with Muhammad Iqbal, the founding father of Pakistan, convinced him of the urgent need to translate into English Sahih al-Bukhari, the most authentic compendium of hadith. In 1932, less than two years after his arrival on the Indian subcontinent, Asad embarked on the ambitious project of producing an Arabic-English edition of Sahīh al-Bukhāri.
With the funding he had received for his Sahīh project, Asad commissioned a set of Arabic and Roman typefaces that could be used on small compression plates to compose the text. He moved away from the warmth of Lahore to Srinagar, Kashmir to focus on his work. Shortly after arriving in Srinagar, he hired a small plate printing machine together with a controller, but he still needed a compiler. It was then that he turned to Muhammad Husain Babri (d. 1984), an “independent typewriter mechanic” he previously met in Lahore. At Asad’s request, the latter got in touch with Abdul Haqq, a compiler who had just quit his job at a printing press and was willing to move to Kashmir. Thus began the work of printing the first part of the English translation of Sahīh al-Bukhāri. It is then not a coincidence that most of his unpublished letters were with Husain Babri, even after relocating to New York and from there to Europe. Asad describes Muhammad Husain Babri as the best—and certainly the most faithful—of all the friends he ever had.
It is worth mentioning that the idea of translating Sahīh al-Bukhāri was born during his five-year stay in the city of Medina studying ‘ulūm al-hadīth (science of hadith) at the Prophet’s Mosque. Asad wanted to revive the true understanding of hadīth to restore the original spirit of Islam as preached by Prophet Muhammad more than a thousand years earlier. This impression is formulated in his introduction to Sahīh al-Bukhāri—The Early Years of Islam (1938):
“The idea of rendering the Sahīh into English – a task never before attempted -occurred to me during my five years’ sojourn at Medina, when I was studying the science of hadith in the Prophet’s Mosque. In that serene atmosphere, the necessity of finding once again a more direct contact with the original spirit of Islam presented itself to me with overwhelming force. It is not enough, I realized, to know what this or that great man of the past thought about matters Islamic; it is not enough to live in the shadow of thoughts that have been thought at a period so remote from us that they can hardly have any immediate bearing on the exigencies of our present-day life. What we most urgently need today is a new understanding and a directappreciation of the true teachings of Islam. In order to achieve this, we must once again make real the voice of the Prophet of Islam – real, as if he were speaking directly to us and for us: and it is in the hadith that his voice can be clearly heard.”
Sahīh al-Bukhāri—the Early Years of Islam was first printed in Srinagar, Kashmir (two chapters) and Lahore (three chapters) between 1935—1938. Asad developed the classic discussion of authentic hadiths alongside modern critical perspectives. This pioneering effort was a significant contribution to the growth and development of schools of thought and study of hadith in the twentieth century. As mentioned earlier, its first publication began in 1935 with the release of the first volume comprising five chapters. Just as the remaining 92 chapters were ready for printing, the Second World war broke out. Asad was detained by the British regime in India in the aftermath of the war. The Islamic government in India that financed him since the beginning of the Sahīh project in 1936 continued their support while Asad was in prison in Nizam, Hyderabad; Asad was allocated a monthly salary of Rs. 200 to continue his work on Sahīh al-Bukhāri. As soon as the war ended, Asad settled in the Punjab region and was eager to continue his publishing efforts since all translations and commentaries of Sahīh al-Bukhārī had been completed and were ready to be published.
However, religious riots erupted in most cities in India, culminating in the formation of the republic of Pakistan. The rioters broke into Asad’s home and looted everything that they could find—including his library and pages of his Sahīh al-Bukhāri texts which were thrown into the river nearby. Asad recounted that he saw with his own eyes the scattered leaves of his manuscripts floating in the Ravi River along with torn Arabic books as they drifted with the current. Thus vanished the fruit of more than ten years of tedious work spent in compiling and translating the manuscript. However, Asad did not lose hope. He reckoned that all these efforts were in fact a preparation for a greater mission, namely the translation and explanation of the Qur’ān in English. He took comfort in the principle that the door of ijtihad (independent reasoning) will not and will never be closed to the pursuit of human intellect. This impression is documented in his introduction to the second edition of Sahīh al-Bukhāri—the Early Years of Islam printed by Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar, 1981:
“Issued in five instalments by Arafat Publications in Lahore between December 1935 and May 1938, it was to represent the beginning of a gradual publication of my complete work on Sahih al-Bukhāri projected for the following five or six years. But man proposes and God disposes. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted the publication. Just as it was about to be resumed, in the summer of 1947, the chaos and the inter-religious holocaust which followed upon the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the establishment of Pakistan (for which I myself had worked and striven since 1933) resulted in a great personal loss—to me as to so many others. Since the end of the war I have been living in the eastern (now Indian) part of the Punjab, and at the outbreak of when the partition troubles the manuscripts of nearly three-quarters of my annotated translation of the Sahīh were barbarically destroyed. With my own eyes I saw a few scattered leaves of those manuscripts floating down the river Ravi in the midst of torn Arabic books—the remnants of my library—and all manner of debris; and with those poor, floating pieces of paper vanished beyond recall more than ten years of intensive labour.”
Through his unpublished letters, we also learnt many things about this extraordinary man. A journalist, traveller, writer, linguist, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic thinker, he is no doubt one of the most influential European Muslims of the twentieth century. We also learnt how his Islamic ideas were shaped and influenced by a few prominent scholars, among them Muhammad Abduh, Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taimiyya. In his own words of reverence for Imam Muhammad Abduh, he said:
“His importance in the context of the modern world of Islam – can never be sufficiently stressed. It may be stated without exaggeration that every single trend in contemporary Islamic thought can be traced back to the influence, direct or indirect, of this most outstanding of all modern Islamic thinkers.”
Similarly we learnt from these unpublished letters how the medieval Spanish theologian Imam Abu Muhammad Ibn Hazm had a monumental influence on Asad’s thoughts; he referred to Ibn Hazm as our “Imām al-A’zam” (the greatest leader) in one of his letters. Not only did he use the methodology of Ibn Hazm in his own life’s work, he also quoted the great Imam in his Message of the Qur’an. And again, despite strong disagreement on various points of substance, he followed in the steps of the fourteenth-century Syrian theologian Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya as he attempted to integrate reason (‘aql), tradition (naql) and freewill (irada) – the epitome of Imam Ibn Taimiyya’s synthesis – to come up with a coherent and distinctive vision of Islam.
Besides his trials and tribulations, perhaps the most heart-breaking chapter of Asad’s life were his letters of exasperation to his friends, particularly Muhammad Husain Babri, during his stay in the United States. It all started when he ended his short-lived career as a diplomat with the Pakistan Foreign Office in October 1952 after he was denied permission to marry Pola Hamida, a young, beautiful, intelligent, and intellectually stimulating American Muslim convert of Polish origin. He had no choice but to resign since the Foreign Office had a rule that he needed prior permission to marry a non-Pakistani national. Although he applied through the proper channel, his application was rejected. This left him with no recourse except to submit his resignation and divorce his existing Arabian wife, Munira (d.1978). At that time, Asad’s son Talal was staying in London alongside his mother Munira, whom Talal described as a lady from the Arabian tribe of Shammar in northern Najd with no formal schooling, and to whom Islam was an “embodied, unreflective way of living.” Perhaps hard pressed for funds, this was the moment when Asad started to write his famous autobiographical travelogue The Road to Mecca.
Despite the changes in his lifestyle, Asad wrote to Muhammad Husain Babri to describe his happiness with the new marriage. In a letter dated February 22, 1953 he said:
“I was very happy to get your letter of the 3rd February. All this time I wanted to write to you, for your friendship is and will always remain an important thing to me: but every time something came in-between, and I had to postpone my letter. As you have heard from Ahmad, there have been some very far-reaching changes in my life, and for the better, too. Financially I am at the moment naturally not so well off as during my “diplomatic career”, but even this will, Insha-Allāh, change in course of time. At any rate, I am happy for at least two reasons: my new marriage has given me a companion better than I could have ever dreamt of, and my return to writing has removed that frustration from which I had been suffering for many years, as you well know. I am now deep in work on my autobiography, which is to be finished before the end of the year (and will be published, I expect, during the early spring in 1954), and am already planning my next book. In all this, my wife is of so great a help to me that I can truthfully say that without her I would never have been able to regain that purpose and meaning of my life which I had been missing for so long a time.”
However, Munira was very bitter and created quite a ruckus. The news of Asad’s marriage sparked much controversy in Pakistan and scandalous articles in the Pakistani press alleged that he might have reverted to Judaism. This was probably the most painful episode of his life. As expected, Asad relied on Babri for information and news from Pakistan. Following his resignation from the Pakistan Foreign Service, he wrote to Muhammad Husain Babri:
“These malicious lies damage my reputation and I would like to answer them in the press, if possible. But in order to do so, I must see what has actually been written about me and who are the people responsible for this libel. I shall therefore be most grateful to you if you will immediately collect all the material you can find in this connection in the Pakistani press and send it to me at once; the Urdu cuttings should be accompanied by a translation. If necessary, I will appoint a lawyer in Lahore or Karachi to file in my name libel suits against the newspapers responsible. I am counting on you to supply me the material as soon as possible and also to let me know what you have heard about me and from whom.”
Nonetheless, nothing was ever documented about any court cases regarding the matter. However, one prominent figure came to the defence of Muhammad Asad at that time. It was none other than the Jama’at Islami ideologue, Maulana Sayyid Abul A’la al-Mawdudi. In order to clear his name against the malicious slander, Asad wrote a long letter to Altaf Hussain who was the Editor of Dawn newspaper in Karachi on June 16, 1953. This letter expressed his mental state of anguish at the malicious slanders against him and his defence against the unfounded allegations:
“My dear Altaf Hussain,
A few days ago, I was informed by friends that certain rumours about me were being deliberately circulated in Pakistan. Both by word of mouth and in the press, with the obvious intent to damage my reputation. I do not know in detail what is being said about me, but the main line of the attacks seems to be that
(1) I have changed my attitude in matters Islamic from what it has been during the last quarter of a century;
(2) I am supposed to be sympathetic to political movements to which the whole Muslim world, and especially the middle East, is fundamentally opposed; and
(3) I am supposed to have decided to become permanently domiciled in America and abandon the homeland of my choice, Pakistan.
These allegations are so atrocious and so far from truth that I would not have bothered to contradict them were it not for the fact that what I have heard about them from several sources seems to point to a deliberate campaign against me. To let such attacks pass without contradiction is more than can be expected of me. I shall be, therefore, most grateful if you will see your way to publishing this letter in its entirety in the columns of the “Dawn” and thus afford me an opportunity to defend myself against slander and libel. The attacks against me seem to be connected with my resignation from the Pakistan Foreign Service in autumn 1952, and so it has become necessary from me to make public the reason for that resignation. In the early summer of 1952, I applied to the Government of Pakistan for permission to be allowed to marry a foreigner (under the rules of the Pakistan Foreign Service no PFS officer is allowed to marry the national of another country without the express consent of the Government). The lady whom I intended to marry was an American citizen of Polish descent, Roman Catholic by birth and Muslim by conversion.
I should like to point out that her conversion to Islam took place before I met her; it was indeed this community of experience and belief, which brought us together in the first instance. This fact was known to the Government; nevertheless, the permission to marry was refused and the resignation which, according to the rules, I had to submit together with my application to marry was accepted. I married the lady in question on November 1, 1952. At about the same time an American publishing firm approached me with the suggestion that I write my autobiography: for, to many Americans and Europeans the life-story of a European who embraced Islam in his youth and has ever since identified himself with the outlook and the interests of the Muslim world appeared to be very unusual. I accepted the suggestion not only as a literary proposition but also because it seemed to me that, by describing my own story the understanding of Western readers and thus contribute to a better appreciation, in the West, of our glorious religion which ever since my conversion in 1926 has been the central factor of my life and my work. The writing of this book has made it necessary for me to remain in America until the manuscript is completed and published. Not for a single moment have I intended to take up my domicile here permanently. Pakistan has always been and will always remain the country to which all my loyalties are due; not only because I have been a firm and out spoken believer in the idea of Pakistan since 1934 (as many of my friends will be able to testify), but also because I have always been convinced that the establishment of a state based on the ideology of Islam is of paramount importance to the revival of a truly Islamic spirit all over the Muslim world. Ever since I embraced Islam in 1926, I have devoted all my energies to the propagation of its ideology. The views expressed in my book Islam at the Crossroads, which was published in 1934 and reprinted several times in Pakistan (and also published in Arabic, at Beirut, in several editions since 1945), as well as the views […](undecipherable)
The Official Secrets Act unfortunately does not allow me to describe in detail my activities and endeavours in the cause of Islam and Muslim unity, during the time that I was Head of Middle East Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I may only mention that if the Government were ever to see fit to disclose the pertinent records, the many memoranda which I wrote on major problems of Pakistan’s policy in the Middle East, the reports on my official tour of the Middle East in 1951 and another tour in 1952 (undertaken in the company of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister), as well as the recommendations I submitted in the context of these tours to our Government, would bear out my contention that whatever influence I may have possessed was always directed at the strengthening of the bonds of unity between the various components of the Muslim world and at the combating of all trends that might be inimical to the interests of the entire Muslim world and especially of the Muslim middle East.
I understand that some malicious persons have spread the false rumours that because of my origin I am in favour of a rapprochement between the Arabs and the so-called State of Israel and have surreptitiously “visited the State of Israel”. Nothing is farther from truth and in this respect, also, the Government of Pakistan could, if necessary, bear out my contention. Not only have I never visited or intended to visit Jewish-held territory in Palestine but have, also always regarded the Arab struggle against Jewish encroachment as a cause with which Pakistan must unreservedly identify herself if she is to fulfil her historical role as a champion not only of Islam but also of right and justice.
As a matter of fact, my opposition to Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine was made clear even before I became a Muslim: for in my first German book, Unromantisches Morgenland, published in 1924 – of which copies are still extant – I strongly advocated the Arab cause and combated Zionist aims on moral grounds. Indeed, it was this realization of the injustice that was being done to the Arabs, which drew me to them in those early years and thus became, indirectly, the initial cause of my interest in Islam and my final conversion in 1926.
Those who have known me throughout all these many years before and after the establishment of Pakistan are fully aware that my conversion to Islam did not bring, nor was it expected to bring, any material benefits to me. That I, on the basis of my public record in the Muslim world extending over more than twenty-five years, should now be forced to defend myself publicly against unjustified and groundless accusations is a poor testimony of the value which some Muslims attach to a lifetime spent in the service of Islam. It goes without saying, however, that such a malicious attitude on the part of individuals will not in the least affect my loyalty to the cause of Islam which I have adopted of my own free will simply because I regarded and do regard it as a cause of truth. My life is an open book and everyone who has had personal contact with me over the past twenty-five years will be able to bear witness to what I have aimed at. And God is the best of all witnesses.”
Muhammad Asad remained intellectually active throughout the rest of his life. This is manifested in his magnum opus, The Message of the Qur’ān, published in 1980, which is considered the best English translation of the Qur’an and the foremost in conveying the meaning and sensibility of the original Arabic text. His devotion to Islam remained unscathed and unflinching till the end. Indeed, Talal recorded the last memory of his father when he visited him surreptitiously at Boston Hospital in these words:
“As I entered the room, I found him praying Salat al-Maghrib on his sajjada unaware of my presence.”
Leopold Weiss was born on the 2nd July 1900. Muhammad Asad died on 20th February 1992. May Allāh forgive him for any shortcomings and reward his gallant effort with Jannah.
Dato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa MD, MMed (Surgery), PhD (Surgery) is a Founder & Director at the Islamic Renaissance Front. This book, The Unpublished Letters of Muhammad Asad, will be jointly published by the Islamic Renaissance Front and the Islamic Book Trust in March 2024, InsyaALlāh.