Leopold Weiss (1900-1992)
|"It was not any particular teaching that attracted me [to Islam], but the whole wonderful, inexplicably coherent structure of moral teaching and practical life program. I could not say, even now, which aspect of it appeals to me more than any other. Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other; nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking, with the result of an absolute balance and solid composure."|
Europe's Real Deity Was Comfort
"You choose to lead me around in a circle"
"They won't be in a majority after a few years"
A Community Without Walls
An Intellectual "Boy"
Why Institutional Religion?
"You are a Muslim – only you do not know it"
"You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves"
Umar Mukhtar - The Lion of the Desert
Water Becomes Foul If It Stands Motionless
Read 'Road to Mecca' (also available in German, German Video, French, French Video, English Video, Spanish Video & Arabic Video)
Leopold Weiss, who later became famous in the Muslim world as Muhammad Asad, was born in a Jewish family in 1900 in what is now part of Germany. He was the grandson of a Jewish rabbi. His father, however, was not as enthusiastic about a religious career and instead became a lawyer. After the First World War, Leopold came to Jerusalem at the age of twenty and soon started his career in journalism as a special correspondent in the Middle East for German and Swiss newspapers. That is when he came into contact with the Arabs whom he liked and became very interested about their approach to life. This made him embark on a serious study about Muslims and their religious teachings. The more he studied Islam, the more he realized how concrete and practical the Islamic teachings were and how largely Muslims had abandoned those teachings. This question of why Muslims had forsaken their religious teachings eventually overshadowed all of his intellectual quest in Islam and, although a non-Muslim who was still in his early twenties, he felt as if he needed to defend Islam from the "negligence and indolence" of the Muslims.
Europe's Real Deity Was Comfort
As was the family tradition, he learned Jewish history and religion through private tutor at home. By the age of thirteen, he could fluently speak and write Hebrew, studied the Old Testament, and the text and the commentaries of the Talmud. Although he did not disagree with the moral teachings of the Jewish religion, he developed certain antagonism against the concept of God pictured in the Old Testament. "It … occurred to me that this God was strangely preoccupied with the destinies of one particular nation, the Hebrews. The very build up of the Old Testament as a history of the descendents of Abraham tended to make God appear not as the creator and sustainer of all mankind but, rather, as a tribal deity adjusting all creation to the requirements of a 'chosen people': rewarding them with a conquest if they were righteous, and making them suffer at the hands of nonbelievers whenever they strayed from the prescribed path."
So his family's tradition of Jewish education at an early age failed the intended purpose in his case. Yet, that failure did not lead him to search for the truth in other religions. As was the case for many in the post-war Europe, religion simply lost appeal to him. "Under the influence of an agnostic environment, I drifted, like so many boys of my age, into a matter-of-fact rejection of all institutional religions … My vagueness, to be fair to myself, was not of my own making. It was the vagueness of an entire generation."
He was soon able to read and write German, French, and Polish. After his school years, he went to University of Vienna and studied history of art and philosophy for two years. However, his mind was not set on those studies. So he aborted his studies and left Vienna in 1920 and went to Prague.
Although he was only in his early twenties, his sharp observation did not fail to notice the real condition of the post-war Europe -
Its real deity, I saw, was no longer of a spiritual kind: it was Comfort … The average European – whether democrat or communist, manual worker or intellectual – seemed to know only one positive faith: the worship of material progress, the belief that there could be no other goal in life than to make that very life continually easier or, as the expression went, 'independent of nature'. The temples of that faith were the gigantic factories, cinemas, chemical laboratories, dance-halls, hydroelectric works; and its priests were the bankers, engineers, politicians, film starts, statisticians, captains of industry, record airmen, and commissars. Ethical frustration was evident in the all-round lack of agreement about the meaning of Good and Evil and in the submission of all social and economic issues to the rule of 'expediency' – that painted lady of streets, willing to give herself to anybody, at any time, whenever she is invoked … The insatiable craving after power and pleasure had, of necessity, led to the break-up Western society into hostile groups armed to the teeth and determined to destroy each other whenever and wherever their respective interests clashed. And on the cultural side, the outcome was the creation of a human type whose morality appeared to be confined to the question of practical utility alone, and whose highest criterion or right and wrong was material success.
I saw how confused and unhappy our life had become; how little there was of real communion between man and man despite all the strident, almost hysterical, insistence on 'community' and 'nation'; how far we had strayed from our instincts; and how narrow, how musty our souls had become. I saw all this: but somehow it never seriously occurred to me – as it never seems to have occurred to any of the people around me – that an answer, or at least partial answers, to these perplexities might perhaps be gained from other than Europe's own cultural experience. Europe was the beginning and the end of all our thinking.
He was not against material progress, however. But is material end the end of everything? "Not that material improvement seemed to be wrong or even unnecessary to me: on the contrary, I continued to regard it as good and necessary: but at the same time I was convinced that it could never achieve its end – to increase the sum total of human happiness – unless it were accompanied by a reorientation of our spiritual attitude and a new faith in absolute values."
It was through these observations and contemplations that he was passing his youthful life. "I was certainly not unhappy – only deeply disturbed, unsatisfied, not knowing what I was really after … my inability to share the diverse social, economic and political hopes of those around me – of any group among them – grew in time into a vague sense of not quite belonging to them, accompanied, vaguely again, by a desire to belong – to whom? – to be a part of something – of what?"
Then the letter came in the spring of 1922. It was his uncle Dorian writing from Jerusalem: "Why don't you come and stay some months with me here?"
He resigned from his work at the United Telegraph newspaper the next day and was soon on his way to Near East. In Islam, however, he had no particular interest. "If anyone had told me at that time that my first acquaintance with the world of Islam would go far beyond a holiday experience and indeed become a turning point in my life, I would have laughed off at the idea as utterly preposterous".
"You choose to lead me around in a circle"
On his way to the Near East, he got acquainted with a Christian scholar and priest, Father Felix, who was with him in the same ship. Weiss often spent time with him on the deck discussing and arguing faith-related issues while enjoying the beauty of the ocean. One day, he asked Father Felix,
"I feel – and this is the feeling of many people of my generation – I feel that there is something wrong in making a distinction between the "essential" and the "non-essential" in the structure of man, and in separating spirit and flesh .. in short, I cannot agree with your denying all righteousness to physical urges, to the flesh, to earthbound destiny. My desire goes elsewhere: I dream of a form of life – though I must confess I do not see it clearly yet – in which the entire man, spirit and flesh, would strive after a deeper and deeper fulfillment of his Self – in which the spirit and the senses would not be enemies to one another, and in which man could achieve unity within himself and with the meaning of his destiny, so that on the summit of his days he could say, 'I am my destiny.'"
"That was the Hellenic dream," replied Father Felix, "and where did it lead? First to the Orphic and Dionysian mysteries, then to Plato and Plotinus, and so, again, to the inevitable realization that spirit and flesh are opposed to one another ... To make the spirit free from the domination of the flesh: this is the meaning of Christian salvation, the meaning of our belief in the Lord's self-sacrifice on the Cross ..."
Here he interrupted himself and turned to me with a twinkle: "Oh, I am not always a missionary … pardon me if I speak to you of my faith, which is not yours ..."
"But I have none," I assured him.
"Yes," said Father Felix, "I know; the lack of faith, or rather the inability to believe, is the central illness of our time. You, like so many others, are living in an illusion which is thousands of years old: the illusion that intellect alone can give a direction to man's striving. But the intellect cannot reach spiritual knowledge by itself because it is too much absorbed in the achievement of material goals; it is faith, and faith alone, that can release us from such an absorption."
"Faith …?" I asked. "You again bring in this word. There is one thing I can't understand: you say it is impossible to attain through intellect alone knowledge and to a righteous life; faith is needed, you say. I agree with you entirely. But how does one achieve faith if one has none? Is there a way to it – I mean, a way open to our will?"
"My dear friend – will alone is not enough. The way is only opened by God's grace. But it is always opened to him who prays from the innermost of his heart for enlightenment."
"To pray! But when one is able to do this, Father Felix, one already has faith. You choose to lead me around in a circle – for if a man prays, he must already be convinced of the existence of Him to whom he prays. How did he come to this conviction? Through his intellect? Would not this amount to admitting that faith can be found through the intellect? And apart from that, can "grace" mean anything to somebody who has never had an experience of this kind?"
"They won't be in a majority after a few years"
In Jerusalem, he saw how systematically a land was being stolen from its native people who had lived there for thousands of years – the Palestinians.
Although a Jew – and he did not have the slightest idea then that one day he would become a Muslim – he had a strong objection to Zionism from the very outset. He thought that it was immoral that immigrants, assisted by a Great Power, would come from other parts of the world and settle in Palestine with the intention of attaining the majority and disposing its native people who had been living there for thousands of years. "In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, I saw a cruel political maneuver designed to foster the old principle, common to all colonial powers, of 'divide and rule'".
Being a Jew, he came in close contact with some of the Zionist leaders. One of them was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement. He met him in the house of one of his Jewish friends and had the following conversation with him:
He was talking of the financial difficulties which were besetting the dream of a Jewish National Home, and the insufficient response to this dream among people abroad; and I had the disturbing impression that even he, like most of the other Zionists, was inclined to transfer the moral responsibility for all that was happening in Palestine to the 'outside world.' This impelled me to break through the deferential hush with which all the other people present were listening to him, and to ask:
"What about the Arabs?"
I must have committed a faux pas by thus bringing a jarring note into the conversation, for Dr. Weizmann turned his face slowly toward me, put down the cup he had been holding in his hand, and repeated my question:
"What about the Arabs ...?"
"Well – how can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority of the country?"
The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered drily: "We expect they won't be in a majority after a few years."
"Perhaps so. You have been dealing with this problem for years and must know the situation better than I do. But quite apart from the political difficulties which Arab opposition may or may not put in your way – does not moral aspect of the question ever bother you? Don't you think that is wrong on your part to displace the people who have always lived in this country?"
"But it is our country," replied Dr. Weizmann, raising his eyebrows. "We are doing no more than taking back what we have wrongly been deprived of."
"But you have been away from Palestine for nearly two thousand years! Before that you had ruled this country, and hardly ever the whole of it, for less than five hundred years. Don't you think that the Arabs could, with equal justification, demand Spain for themselves – for, after all, they held sway in Spain for nearly seven hundred years and lost it entirely only five hundred years ago?"
Dr. Weizmann had visibly become impatient: "Nonsense. The Arabs had only conquered Spain; it had never been their original homeland, and so it was only right that in the end they were driven out by the Spaniards."
"Forgive me," I retorted, "but it seems to me that there is some historical oversight here. After all, the Hebrews also came as conquerors to Palestine. Long before them were many other Semitic and non-Semitic tribes settled here – the Amorites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Hitties. Those tribes continued living here even in the days of kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They continued living here after the Romans drove our ancestors away. They are living here today. The Arabs who settled in Syria and Palestine after their conquest in seventh century were always only a small minority of the population; the rest of what we describe today as Palestinians or Syrian "Arabs" are in reality only the Arabianized, original inhabitants of the country. Some of them became Muslims in the course of centuries, others remained Christians; the Muslims naturally inter-married with their co-religionists from Arabia. But can you deny that the bulk of those people in Palestine, who speak Arabic, whether Muslims or Christians, are direct-line descendents of the original inhabitants; original in the sense of having lived in this country centuries before the Hebrews came to it?"
Dr. Weizmann smiled politely at my outburst and turned the conversation to other topics.
Thus Weiss became deeply absorbed in the political scene of Palestine. "How is it possible, I wondered, for people endowed with so much creative intelligence as the Jews to think of the Zionist-Arab conflict in Jewish terms alone? … And how strange, I thought, that a nation which had suffered so many wrongs in the course of its long and sorrowful diaspora was now, in single-minded pursuit of its own goal, ready to inflict a grievous wrong on another nation – and a nation, too, that was innocent of all that past Jewish suffering. Such a phenomenon, I knew, was not unknown to history; but it made me, none the less, very sad to see it enacted before my eyes."
It was at that time, in 1922, that he became a special correspondent of the Berlin based Frankfurter Zeitung, one of the most outstanding and widely circulated newspaper of Europe. Later on, his articles were to be syndicated by three other prominent newspapers of Europe: the Neue Zurcher Zeitung of Zurich, the Telegraph of Amsterdam, and the Kolnische Zeitung of Cologne.
Not all Jews were Zionists, for he met some who were opposed to Zionism. One of those was Dr. Jacob de Haan, who later became his friend. Dr. de Haan told him once -
It was not without a purpose that God made us lose our land and dispersed us; but the Zionists do not want to admit this to themselves. They suffer from the same spiritual blindness that caused our downfall. The two thousand years of Jewish exile and unhappiness have taught them nothing. Instead of making an attempt to understand the innermost causes of our unhappiness, they now try to circumvent it, as it were, by building a "national home" on foundations provided by Western power politics; and in the process of building a national home, they are committing the crime of depriving another people of its home.
It was not long before Dr. de Haan, in the darkness of the night, was shot to death.
His second experience in Jerusalem was his coming in contact with the life style of the Arabs, a way of life that was simple and full of inner peace.
While coming to Jerusalem, he traveled by train from Egypt across the Sinai desert. There was an Arab Bedouin sharing his compartment who sat on the opposite row of seats. The train stopped at a certain station. There were boys running across the station platform offering food, eggs, breads, etc for sale. The Bedouin bought a piece of cake through the window. As he turned around to sit down, his eyes fell on Weiss who was sitting on the opposite row. Immediately, he broke the cake in half and offered one to Weiss. And as he extended his hand, he said tafaddal – "grant me the favour".
Weiss did not know at that time what the word tafaddal meant, but this small incident was his first experience of Arab hospitality. But it was more than that – it was a realization of a people whose approach to life was very different than he was accustomed with as a European. He soon recognized in them the "organic coherence of the mind and the senses" that was lost forever in Europe. "In the Arabs I began to find something I had always unwittingly been looking for: an emotional lightness of approach to all questions of life – a supreme common sense of feeling, if one might call it so."
A Community Without Walls
At Damascus, he saw how Fridays – "the Muslim Sabbath" – bring new life and excitement, and yet solemnity, into the street. It was not a day of rest or retreat, but a day of full activities like other days. He saw an inner contact between working-man and his work. So, rest was needed when one was tired. He compared Fridays with the Sundays of Europe: "Because to most people in the West their everyday life is a heavy load from which only Sundays can release them, Sunday is no longer a day of rest but has become an escape into the unreal, a deceptive forgetfulness behind which, doubly heavy and threatening, the 'weekday' lurks."
He once visited a mosque with a Muslim friend, and saw Muslims praying behind an old imam, in even rows, well-disciplined like soldiers. He saw how quite it was, and how the entire congregation bowed and prostrated, like one man, before God as if He was present there. "It was at this moment that I became aware how near their God and their faith were to these people. Their prayer did not seem to be divorced from their working day; it was part of it – not meant to help them forget life, but to remember it better by remembering God." As he was leaving the mosque, he asked his friend –
"How strange and wonderful that you people feel God to be so close to you. I wish I could feel so myself."
"How else could it be, O my brother? Is not God, as our Holy Book says, 'nearer to thee than the vein in thy neck'"?
It was only then that Weiss undertook a serious study of the religion of these people. He was soon to discover a world of ideas, like the "lifting of curtain". He saw that Islam was not really a religion, but "rather, a way of life; not so much a system of theology as a program of personal and social behaviour based on the consciousness of God." What he discovered was far more respectable than what he heard and read about Islam. Rather than eternal enmity between the spirit and flesh, he saw that in Islam they are complementary in man's life. "[Islam's] approach to the problems of the spirit seemed to be deeper than that of the Old Testament and had, moreover, none of the later's predilection for one particular nation; and its approach to the problems of the flesh was, unlike the New Testament, strongly affirmative. Spirit and flesh stood, each in its own right, as the twin aspects of man's God-created life."
Some years later, he was traveling in a ship, which was tightly packed with pilgrims who were going to Mecca. Below the deck were the lower class passengers. One day, he went to visit a friend below deck, and found a man on an iron bunk with fever. He was told that the ship's doctor would not come down to help at that lower level. It appeared to him that the man was suffering from Malaria, and so he gave him some quinine. While he was attending the sick man, he saw, through the corner of his eye, that the man's fellow pilgrims, who were from Yemen, took a whispering council among themselves. At the end, one of them came forward and gave him a few crumpled notes and said,
"We have collected this ourselves. Unfortunately it is not much; grant us the favour and accept it."
I stepped back, startled, and explained that it was not for money that I had given medicine to their friend.
"No, no, we know it; but do nevertheless accept this money. It is not a payment but a gift – a gift from thy brethren. We are happy about thee, and therefore we give thee money … accept the money, brother, for the sake of the Prophet of God."
But I, still bound by my European conventions, defended myself. "I could not possibly accept a gift in return for a service to a sick friend … Besides, I have money enough; you surely need it more than I. However, if you insist on giving it away, give it to the poor at Port Said."
"No," repeated the Yemeni, "thou accept it from us – and if thou dost not wish to keep it, give it in thine own name to the poor."
And as they pressed me, and, shaken by my refusal, became sad and silent, as if I had refused not their money but their hearts, I suddenly comprehended: where I had come from people were accustomed to build walls between I and You: this, however, was a community without walls ...
An Intellectual "Boy"
Soon after his Syrian journey, Weiss returned to Berlin. There he went to the office of Frankfurter Zeitung, the newspaper to which he had been writing for the past one year, in order to meet with its editor-in-chief, Dr. Heinrich Simon, a man of international reputation. When Dr. Simon saw him, he was startled –
When I came in, he looked at me for a moment in speechless astonishment, almost forgetting to get up from his chair; but soon he regained his composure, rose and shook hands with me: "Sit down, sit down. I have been expecting you."
But he continued to stare at me in silence until I began to feel uncomfortable.
"Is there anything wrong, Dr. Simon?"
"No, no, nothing is wrong – or, rather, everything is wrong …" And then he laughed and went on: "I somehow had expected to meet a man of middle age with gold-rimmed spectacles – and now I find a boy … oh, I beg your pardon; how old are you, anyway?"
I suddenly recalled the jovial Dutch merchant in Cairo who had asked me the same question the year before; and I burst out laughing:
"I am over twenty-three, sir – nearly twenty-four." And then I added: "Do you find it too young for the Frankfurter Zeitung?"
"No …" replied Simon slowly, "not for the Frankfurter Zeitung, but for your articles."
Indeed Weiss' articles detailing his experiences in the Near East were so mature and thoughtful that they received wide recognitions in the European press. Soon after that, he published his first book, Unromantisches Mögenland, that caused a little flutter for its anti-Zionist attitude. No one – neither the intelligentsia, nor his old friends - showed any sympathy or understanding for him for his anti-Zionist tone or his appreciation for Arab life, except one individual. Her name was Elsa. Fifteen years older than Weiss, she understood and appreciated the inner thoughts of that 24-year old intellectual "boy". Weiss married her soon, and she became his source for peace, comfort and sympathy much like Khadija, also fifteen year older, was for Prophet Muhammad.
After staying in Berlin for some months, Weiss left again for the Near East. By then his interest to learn about Islam grew, and so he went to Egypt and met Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi, one of the prominent scholars of that time who later became the rector of Al-Azher University.
Why Institutional Religion?
In Egypt, he started learning about Islam by discussing various issues with Shaikh Mustafa al Maraghi, while at the same time learning Arabic with the help of a student of Al-Azher University. The more he studied Islam and appreciated its teachings and program of life, the more he realized how much Muslims had deviated from their religion. He, however, did not consider accepting Islam. "I did not consider it desirable for an intelligent man to conform all his thinking and his entire view of life to a system not devised by himself." He wondered whether it is necessary for one to belong to one particular faith –
"Tell me, Shaykh Mustafa," I asked my erudite friend Al-Maraghi on one occasion, "why should it be necessary to confine oneself to one particular teaching and one particular set of injunctions? Mightn't it be better to leave all ethical inspiration to one's inner voice?"
"What thou art really asking, my young brother, is why should there be any institutional religion. The answer is simple. Only very few people – only prophets – are really able to understand the inner voice that speaks in them. Most of us are trammelled by our personal interests and desires – and if everyone were to follow only what his own heart dictated, we would have complete moral chaos and could never agree on any mode of behaviour. Thou couldst ask, of course, whether there are no exceptions to the general rule – enlightened people who feel they have no need to be "guided" in what they consider to be right or wrong; but then, I ask thee, would not many, very many people claim that exceptional right for themselves? And what would be the result?"
After staying in Egypt for sometime he set out again for another long journey – this time traversing Syria, Transjordan, Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asian states, visiting their streets and bazaars as he moved on. It is in this second journey through Muslims lands that he started thinking about Islam more and more. "Every day new impressions broke over me; every day new questions arose from within and new answers came from without. They awakened an echo of something that had been hidden somewhere in the background of my mind; and as I progressed in my knowledge of Islam, I felt, time and time again, that a truth I had always known, without being aware of it, was gradually being uncovered and, as it were, confirmed."
In Islam, he saw the true meaning of life. It was not a religion but a way of life, a program of life, the parts of which were so harmoniously built to complement each other. But a question still remained in his mind: "Was Islam truly a message from God or merely the wisdom of a great, but fallible, man ...?"
"You are a Muslim – only you do not know it"
After traveling much of Central Asia, he was now in Afghanistan. He was once traveling from Kabul to Herat on horseback through the snow-covered valleys of Hindu-Kush when his horse lost an iron shoe. So he had to stop the trip for a few days and go to a village to have the shoe repaired. A hakim (district governor) in Afghanistan came to know about a "foreigner" visiting his area. He invited Weiss to spend an evening and a night with him. Weiss, who spoke Persian fluently by that time, accepted the invitation. After the dinner, a villager entertained them with a song and his three-stringed lute. The room was carpeted and warm and it was snowing outside, which could be glimpsed through the window. The song was about David's fight with Goliath ...
When it ended, the hakim remarked: "David was small, but his faith was great."
I could not prevent myself from adding: "And you are many, but your faith is small."
My host looked at me with astonishment, and, embarrassed by what I had almost involuntarily said, I rapidly began to exam myself. My explanation took the shape of a torrent of questions:
"How has it come about that you Muslims have lost your self-confidence — that self-confidence which once enabled you to spread your faith, in less than a hundred years, from Arabia westward as far as the Atlantic and eastward deep into China —and now surrender yourselves so easily, so weakly, to the thoughts and customs of the West? Why can't you, whose forefathers illumined the world with science and art at a time when Europe lay in deep barbarism and ignorance, summon forth the courage to go back to your own progressive, radiant faith? How is it that Ataturk, that petty masquerader who denies all value to Islam, has become to you Muslims a symbol of 'Muslim revival'?"
The hakim remained speechless. It was now snowing again outside, and Weiss continued –
"Tell me — how has it come about that the faith of your Prophet and all its clearness and simplicity has been buried beneath a rubble of sterile speculation and the hair-splitting of your scholastics? How has it happened that your princes and great land-owners revel in wealth and luxury while so many of their Muslim brethren subsist in unspeakable poverty and squalor — although your Prophet taught that 'No one may call himself a Faithful who eats his fill while his neighbor remains hungry?' ... How has it come about that so many of you Muslims are ignorant and so few can even read and write — although your Prophet declared that 'Striving after knowledge is a most sacred duty for every Muslim man and woman and that the superiority of the learned man over the mere pious is like the superiority of the moon when it is full over all other stars'"?
The hakim was startled. But at the end, he said,
"But – you are a Muslim ..."
I laughed, and replied: "No, I am not a Muslim, but I have come to see so much beauty in Islam that it makes me sometimes angry to watch you people waste it ... Forgive me if I have spoken harshly ..."
But my host shook his head. "No, it is as I have said: you are a Muslim, only you don't know it yourself ..."
"You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves"
It was 1926, and Weiss was back to Berlin after his second long journey in the Muslim lands. After years of inflation, there was now prosperity everywhere in central Europe. At home after long travels, he started studying the Qur'an in translation because his Arabic at that time was still not good enough. He and Elsa would often read the Qur'an together and discuss its ideas, and Elsa also began to be impressed by the inner cohesion between the Qur'an's moral teachings and practical life program. Then an extra ordinary incident happened.
One day he and his wife Elsa were traveling by underground train in Berlin when he saw a strange phenomenon –
It was an upper-class compartment. My eye fell casually on a well-dressed man opposite me, apparently a well-to-do businessman, with a beautiful case on his knees and a large diamond ring on his hand. I thought idly how well the portly figure of this man fitted into picture of prosperity which one encountered everywhere in central Europe in those days: a prosperity the more prominent as it had come after years of inflation, when all economic life had been topsy-turvy and shabbiness of appearance the rule. Most of the people were now well dressed and well fed, and the man opposite me was therefore no exception. But when I looked at his face, I did not seem to be looking at a happy face. He appeared to be worried: and not merely worried but acutely unhappy, with eyes staring vacantly ahead and the corners of his mouth drawn in as if in pain — but not in bodily pain. Not wanting to be rude, I turned my eyes away and saw next to him a lady of some elegance. She also had a strangely unhappy expression on her face, as if contemplating or experiencing something that caused her pain; nevertheless, her mouth was fixed in the stiff semblance of a smile which, I was certain, must have been habitual. And then I began to look around at all the other faces in the compartment — faces belonging without exception to well-dressed, well-fed people: and in almost every one of them I could discern an expression of hidden suffering, so hidden that the owner of the face seemed to be quite unaware of it.
This was indeed strange. I had never before seen so many unhappy faces around me: or was it perhaps that I had never before looked for what was now so loudly speaking in them? The impression was so strong that I mentioned it to Elsa; and she too began to look around her with the careful eyes of a painter accustomed to study human features. Then she turned to me, astonished, and said: "You are right. They all look as though they were suffering torments of hell... I wonder, do they know themselves what is going on in them?"
I knew that they did not — for otherwise they could not go on wasting their lives as they did, without any faith in binding truths, without any goal beyond the desire to raise their own "standard of living", without any hopes other than having more material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power.
When we returned home, I happened to glance at my desk on which lay open a copy of the Koran I had been reading earlier. Mechanically, I picked the book up to put it away, but just as I was about to close it, my eye fell on the open page before me, and I read:
You are obsessed by greed for more and more
Until you go down to your graves.
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, but you will come to know!
Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty,
You would indeed see the hell you are in.
In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:
And on that Day you will be asked
What you have done with the boon of life. [Qur'an: 102]
For a moment I was speechless. I think the book shook in my hands. Then I handed it to Elsa. "Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?"
It was an answer: an answer so decisive that all doubt was suddenly at an end. I knew now, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book I was holding in my hand: for although it had been placed before man over thirteen centuries ago, it clearly anticipated something that could have become true only in this complicated, mechanized, phantom-ridden age of ours.
At all times people had known greed: but at no time before this had greed outgrown a mere eagerness to acquire things and become an obsession that blurred the sight of everything else: an irresistible craving to get, to do, to contrive more and more - more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow than today: a demon riding on the necks of men and whipping their hearts forward toward goals that tauntingly glitter in the distance but dissolve into contemptible nothingness as soon as they are reached, always holding out the promise of new goals ahead — goals still more brilliant, more tempting as long as they lie on the horizon, and bound to wither into further nothingness as soon as they come within grasp: and that hunger, that insatiable hunger for ever new goals gnawing at man's soul: Nay, if you but knew it you would see the hell you are in ...
This, I saw, was not the mere human wisdom of a man of a distant past in distant Arabia. However wise he may have been, such a man could not by himself have foreseen the torment so peculiar to this twentieth century. Out of the Koran spoke a voice greater than the voice of Muhammad ...
The next day he went to the head of a local Muslim community in Berlin whom he had known superficially before, and declared, "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah". It was September, 1926.
Thus Leopold Weiss became a Muslim at the age of mere twenty-six. Once convinced of the Truth, he did not hesitate but accepted it the very next day. This is a significant step, especially when one keeps in mind the fact that there are many who, although convinced that Islam is the religion of Truth, choose not to leave the faith of their forefathers or their current ways of life.
Elsa, Weiss' first wife, became Muslim a few weeks later. Shortly afterwards, Weiss, now known as Muhammad Asad, left Europe for the third time. This time Elsa was with him and they went to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca. She fell ill before the Hajj, and after performing the Hajj she died. Unlike her husband, she is virtually unknown to the Muslims and passed away before she could have been known in the intellectual world. A silent figure she may be, but light always exposes objects even if they are in the dark. What, therefore, becomes apparent to a student of history is that she was a seeker of Truth; that together with her husband she spent days and nights studying the Qur'an; that she humbled herself in front of God Almighty as soon as His message became apparent to her; that soon afterwards she rushed to the 'House of God' and circumvented it saying "My Lord! I am present to your service!"; and finally and most importantly, she met her Lord in the state of submission to Him. That is the ultimate success a human being can have.
Asad had now left Europe for the third time. But now he was a Muslim, and this time was leaving not just a geographical Europe but also its intellectual and cultural heritage in which he grew up as an European. He was never to return to reclaim his European identity.
Could he ever, when he grew up in his father's house in Vienna, anticipate that one day he was to leave his Western heritage for good?
The answer is obviously no. But sometimes glimmers of truth and future events are shown in dreams that materialize afterwards – sometimes years later. Long before he ever thought of becoming a journalist and visiting Muslims lands, Weiss saw a dream -
I must have been nineteen years old or so at the time, and lived in my father's house in Vienna. I was deeply interested in the science of man's inner life, and was in the practice of keeping by my bedside paper and pencil in order to jot down my dreams at the moment of awakening. By doing so, I found, I was able to remember those dreams indefinitely, even if I did not keep them constantly in mind. In that particular dream, I found myself in Berlin, traveling in that underground railway they have there — with the train going sometimes through a tunnel below ground and sometimes bridges high above the streets. The compartment was filled with great throng of people — so many that there was no room to sit down and all stood tightly packed without being able to move; and there was only a dim light from a single electric bulb. After a while the train came out of the tunnel; it did not come on to one of those high bridges, but emerged instead on to a wide, desolate plain of clay, and the wheels of the train got stuck in the clay and the train stopped, unable to move forward or backward.
All the travelers, and I among them, left the carriages and started looking about. The plain around us was endless and empty and barren — there was no bush on it, no house, not even a stone — and a great perplexity fell over the people's hearts: Now that we have been stranded here, how shall we find our way back to where other humans live? A grey twilight lay over the immense plain, as at the time of early dawn.
But somehow I did not quite share the perplexity of the others. I made my way out of the throng and beheld, at a distance of perhaps ten paces, a dromedary crouched on the ground. It was fully saddled — in exactly the way I later saw camels saddled … and in the saddle sat a man dressed in a white-and-brown-striped abaya with short sleeves. His kufiyya was drawn over his face so that I could not discern his features. In my heart I knew at once that the dromedary was waiting for me and that the motionless rider was to be my guide; and so, without a word, I swung myself on to the camel's back behind saddle in the way a radif, a pillion rider, rides in Arab lands. In the next instant, the dromedary rose and started forward in a long-drawn, easy gait, and I felt a nameless happiness rise within me. In that fast, smooth gait we traveled for what at first seemed to be hours, and then days, and then months, until I lost count of time; and with every step of the dromedary my happiness rose higher, until I felt as if I were swimming through air. In the end, the horizon to our right began to redden under the rays of the sun that was about to rise. But on the horizon far ahead of us I saw another light: it came from behind a huge, open gateway resting on two pillars — a blinding-white light, not like the light of the rising sun to our right — a cool light that steadily grew in brightness as we approached and made the happiness within me grow beyond anything that words could describe. And as we came nearer and nearer to the gateway and its light, I heard a voice from somewhere announce, "This is the westernmost city!" — and I awoke.
Seven years later Weiss converted to Islam and became Muhammad Asad. A few years after he became a Muslim he came across the note where he had written down the above dream many years before. By then, he was living in Saudi Arabia and became a close friend of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. The King was in the habit of listening to Qur'anic commentary after the daily Isha prayer in the palace mosque. One night after the commentary session finished, he took Asad into his inner chamber for casual talk as he did many times before. This time the discussion turned into about true dreams and their manifestations in reality. When Asad narrated to the King the above dream, which he remembered just a few days ago as he discovered his note but still did not know what its meaning was, the King exclaimed,
"Glory be unto God! And did not this dream tell thee that thou wert destined for Islam?"
I shook my head: "No, O Long-of-Age, how could I have known it? I had never thought of Islam and had never even known a Muslim … It was seven years later, long after I had forgotten that dream, that I embraced Islam. I recalled it only recently when I found it among my papers, exactly as I had jotted it down that night upon awaking."
"But it was truly thy fortune which God showed thee in that dream, O my son! Dost thou not recognize it clearly? The coming of the crowd of people, and thou with them, into a pathless waste, and their perplexity: is not that the condition of those whom the opening sura of the Koran describes as "those who have gone astray"? And the dromedary which, with its rider, was waiting for thee: was not this the "right guidance" of which Koran speaks so often? And the rider who did not speak to thee and whose face thou couldst not see: who else could he have been but the Holy Prophet, upon whom be God's blessing and peace? He loved to wear a cloak with short sleeves ... and do not many of our books tell us whenever he appears in dreams to non-Muslims or to those who are not yet Muslims, his face is always covered? And that white, cool light on the horizon ahead: what else could it have been but a promise of the light of faith which lights without burning? Thou didst not reach it in dream because, as thou hast told us, it was only years later that thou camest to know Islam for the truth itself ..."
"Thou mayest be right, O Long-of-Age ... But what about that "westernmost city" to which the gateway on the horizon was to lead me? — for, after all, my acceptance of Islam did not lead me to the West: it led me, rather, away from the West."
Ibn Saud was silent and thoughtful for a moment; then he raised his head and, with that sweet smile which I had come to love, said: "Could it not have meant, O Muhammad, that thy reaching Islam would be the "westernmost" point in thy life— and that after that, the life of the West would cease to be thine ...?"
True dreams are one-fortieth part of prophetic vision as we know from a tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). All dreams are not products of our imaginations or suppressed feelings, as many psychoanalysts say. People are often shown true dreams – directly or indirectly – about future events, as is clearly evident in the above story. Another example in support of this is the dream of Dr. Jeffrey Lang. Ten years before he converted to Islam, he used to see himself in dream performing the Muslim prayer. He was an atheist then and did not know that the act he was doing in those dreams – it was repeated several times - had any connection whatsoever with Muslims or Islamic rituals.
Asad's father, with whom he always remained in contact through letters, stopped communicating with him after he accepted Islam. Neither could his sister accept his becoming a Muslim. It was many years later that his father accepted him as a Muslim and their communication resumed. Unfortunately, Weiss never saw them again. The Nazis expelled his father and his sister from Germany and they both died in Nazi concentration camp in 1942.
Umar Mukhtar - The Lion of the Desert
During his six years of stay in Saudi Arabia, Asad enjoyed close friendship of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and many years later of King Faisal. King Abdul Aziz at that time was still building his territories, fighting rivals, and trying to unite many Bedouin factions under his Kingdom. In Abdul Aziz, he saw signs of a promising leader who could stimulate an Islamic renaissance and unite the Muslim world under the true teachings of Islam. Though he highly admired the King who was a very pious Muslim (the King was so humble to his parents that he would not step in a room if his father was in the room below. "How can I allow myself to walk over my father's head?", he said), his expectation did not materialize. He, however, assisted the King sometimes. Once, he secretly visited Kuwait, which was then under the British influence and was the main base of Ad-Dawish, the chief rival of Abdul Aziz. Taking a risk on his life and traveling only by night through the desert, never lighting a fire, he reached Kuwait after many days and nights. There he collected first-hand evidence of what he was suspecting long before anyone did: that the British was providing both arms and money to Ad-Dawish to sustain the rivalry between him and Abdul Aziz in order to weaken both, and then exert pressure on a weak Abdul Aziz to cut the Arabian peninsula by building a railroad that was to go all the way to India and solidify the strength of the British empire. Asad's article on this secret plan was published with sufficient evidence simultaneously in both Arab and European newspapers and caused a sensation. The British plan died before it could bud, for Abdul Aziz immediately took a harder stand on the British and forced them to stop aiding Ad-Dawish, who soon afterwards was totally defeated.
Asad had deep sympathy for the struggle that was going on in North Africa for liberation from the colonial yoke. He became a close friend and admirer of Sayyid Ahmad, the great Sanusi leader. He was living in Saudi Arabia while his people, under the leadership of Umar Mukhtar – the Lion of the Desert – was desperately fighting against the Italian army which was equipped with modern weapons and an air force. Italians often led their convoy of armored carriers and tanks through Muslim villages, tearing apart tents and huts, crushing men, women, and children as punishment for "helping" the guerrilla fighters of Umar Mukhtar. One eyewitness who survived the fall of his village said,
They came upon us in three columns, from three sides, with many armored cars and heavy cannons. Their aeroplanes came down low and bombed houses and mosques and palm groves … Our rifles were useless against their armoured cars … I hid myself in the palm orchards waiting for a chance to make my way through the Italian lines .. the next day .. the Italian general … ordered the palm trees of the oasis to be cut down and the wells destroyed and all the books of Sayid Ahmad's library burned. And on the next day he commanded that some of our elders and ulama be taken up in an aeroplane – and they were hurled out of the plane high above the ground to be smashed to death … And all through the second night I heard from my hiding place the cries of our women and the laughter of the soldiers ...
Although outnumbered and outgunned, Umar Mukhtar successfully fought the Italian army for many years until dictator Mussolini sent one of his ruthless generals, General Graziani, to contain Mukhtar's guerrilla forces. General Graziani soon brought tanks and other superior weapons from Italy and erected barbed-wire fences along the Egyptian border, cutting off all supplies to Mukhtar. Without supplies, Mukhtar's forces faced heavy casualty against the Italian army, and started dwindling until only a few hundred of his men remained and he lost control of all areas except his own base.
It was at that time that Sayyid Ahmad asked Asad if he could visit Mukhtar, analyze the situation, and advise him on what could be done to improve the situation. Asad readily agreed. "To me Islam was a way and not an end – and the desperate guerrillas of Umar al-Mukhtar were fighting with their lifeblood for the freedom to tread that way, just as the companions of the Prophet had done thirteen centuries ago. To be of help to them in their hard and bitter struggle, however uncertain the outcome, was as personally necessary to me as to pray ..."
And once again, as before, Asad took a risk on his life and started his secret long journey to meet Mukhtar in the Libyan desert. He nearly lost his life when he and his companions were spotted by an Italian reconnaissance plane. The plane circled and closed in - and below stood Asad and his companions on the empty desert totaly devoid of any cover - and started firing at them. They all lied on the ground and played dead, but the pilot apparently knew it well. He fled only when one of Asad's companions – a guerrilla himself - took careful aim and started firing at the plane. After evading the Italians, he eventually reached his destination and met Mukhtar. The Lion was then 70 years old.
Seeing that continuing the struggle at that precarious situation will only bring loss of life and a total defeat, Asad suggested to Umar Mukhtar that he flee to Egypt so that he may gain some strength there and later come back. The old lion was not willing for that. "No, my son ... Should I and my followers go now to Egypt, we would never be able to return. And how could we abandon our people and leave them leaderless, to be devoured by the enemies of God?"
Asad knew that Umar Mukhtar was well aware that death awaited him there, but death held no terror for him. "We fight", Umar Mukhtar told him, "because we have to fight for our faith and our freedom until we drive the invaders out or die ourselves. We have no other choice. To God we belong and unto Him do we return."
And so Asad left after the meeting, and started on his way back. Once more, he nearly escaped death when he and his companions faced machine gun fire as they hurriedly cut barbed-wire fence to make an opening and flee to the other side. Asad and some of his companions escaped, while a few others lay dead behind.
A few months later, Italians captured Umar Mukhtar as he was visiting the grave of one of the companions of the Prophet in an Italian-controlled territory. When he was brought in front of General Graziani, he asked Umar Mukhar whether he would give up fighting if released. The Lion replied,
I shall not cease to fight against thee and thy people until either you leave my country or I leave my life. And I swear to thee by Him who knows what is in men's heart that if my hands were not bound this very moment, I would fight thee with my bare hands, old and broken as I am ...
Soon afterwards, Umar Mukhtar was hanged in front of his own people, who were forcefully herded by General Graziani from the prison camp where they were kept, in order to witness the hanging of their leader. The day was September 16, 1931.
Water Becomes Foul If It Stands Motionless
Asad once asked an old Bedouin about why he moved from one place to another and not settle in one area, firm some land, and rest in peace. To this the Bedouin replied, "If water stands motionless in pools, it becomes stale, muddy and foul; only when it moves and flows does it remain clear ..."
Asad's own life became a reflection of those few words of the old Bedouin. At a young age, he left Vienna for Berlin. Leaving his degree incomplete, he left for Jerusalem. From then on, he started his long journey in North Africa, Near East and Central Asia, never staying at one place for long. As he traveled through the Muslims lands, both before and after his becoming a Muslim, he met and made friendship with many prominent leaders, such as King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and later King Faisal, his wise son, King Abdullah of Jordan, Reza Khan, who later became Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Sayyid Ahmad, the great leader of the north African Sanusi movement, Umar Mukhtar who was fighting till his last breath to expel the ruthless colonial rulers out of his country, Sayyid Maududi, the chief architect of Islamic renaissance of the 20th century, and Allama Iqbal, the great poet-philosopher and spiritual founder of Pakistan.
After becoming a Muslim, he lived in Saudi Arabia for six years – but often moving from one place to another making friendships with prominent figures and enjoying their hospitalities. Then he left Saudi Arabia and came to the Indian Subcontinent in 1939. There Allama Iqbal persuaded him to cancel his further travel plans in Far East and to work on constructing the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state. After Pakistan was created in 1947, he was appointed to organize and direct a Department of Islamic Reconstruction. In 1952, after twenty six years of absence from the West, he came to New York and became Pakistan's Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Nations.
Asad later married Pola whom he met in New York. She was working in the State Department and was part of the US Delegation to the United Nations in New York. Unsatisfied with her Catholic background, she had her own independent journey to Islam. After years of studying, she became a Muslim just a few months before she met Asad. And within days of her marriage, she discovered the primary fault of her husband.
It was November 1952 and she just moved to her husband's New York apartment when Asad was invited by Dr. Schuler Walace, Director of The School of Oriental Affairs, to give a lecture on Islam and the current problems of the Muslim world. The audience was to be mostly comprised of post-graduate students of international affairs. After the lecture, he was to answer questions from the audience. Asad accepted the invitation. Although Pola Asad was anxious to see her husband speak in front of such a group of intelligentsia, it appeared that her husband was not much concerned about it. A day before the meeting she asked him whether he prepared the manuscript for the speech. "It is almost ready", said Asad. She waited the whole day for some news about the speech being ready. Finally, when the day came, Asad sat down five minutes before leaving the apartment and jotted down a few notes on a small piece of paper and told her that was it. At the podium, Dr. Wallace introduced Asad to the crowed, and Asad started talking enthusiastically, so much so that he even forgot to consult his "notes". He spoke for long time and received much ovation from the crowed after the speech ended, which was then followed by questions and answers. The whole session lasted several hours. This was how Pola Asad pointed out her husband's primary fault: a lack of vanity, nay a total lack of vanity. Asad gave many formal speeches and interviews in both Muslims countries as well as in western cities in front of educated gatherings, but he did not keep records of those and thus many of those valuable speeches were lost, said Pola Asad.
Asad spoke highly of her and said that even though she would deny it due to her modesty, but she had always inspired him and he could not possibly have produced a quarter of what he had done had he not have her moral support. Asad's works include, "The Message of the Qur'an" (a translation and commentary on the Qur'an), "The Road to Mecca", "Islam at the Crossroads", "Sahih al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam", "This Law of Ours", and "The Principles of State and Government in Islam".
From Pakistan, Asad later moved to Morocco and there he completed his masterpiece, "The Message of the Qur'an", which took seventeen years to complete. He later settled in Lisbon. There this giant Muslim intellectual breathed his last in 1992.
And so he finally settled in peace, from which he was never to move again. Never again was he to mount on his dromedary and let it resume its stride on the desert sand. Never again was he to look at the distant sand dunes, and cherish a desire to visit the land that lay beyond the horizon and to know the life style of its people ...
Water becomes foul if it stays motionless. So it must move on, and journey across many lands, passing through valleys, and plains, and crevices, and deltas; picking up gems from one place and dropping at another. But one day it has to come to the end of its journey, and leave its legacy, and drop to the ocean.
For that is where it came from, and that is where it must return ...
Muhammad Asad, "The Road to Mecca", London, 1998
Muhammad Asad, "Islam at the Crossroads", Delhi, 1991
Muhammad Asad, "This Law of Ours", Kuala Lumpur, 2000
"A Tribute to Muhammad Asad", a video presentation by IIS